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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Slightly Creepy Poem

One of my coworkers found a little ziplock bag. Inside was an oval, metal disc about the size of a quarter only thicker, imprinted with an angel. There was also little piece of paper folded up to fit in the bag, and printed on the paper was a poem. And before I copy the poem here, I would like to say a few things:

1. I Googled the first line, and found it in a few sites dedicated to "inspirational" writings. None of them suggested an author, so I am unable to offer you one here. But rest assured that I did not write it!

2. I'm not posting it because I think it's cool. This will become more clear as you read my follow-up comments after the poem itself.

That said, here it is:

I am a tiny angel...
I'm smaller than your thumb;
I live in people's pockets,
That's where I have my fun.
I don't suppose you've seen me,
I'm too tiny to detect;
Though I'm with you all the time,
I doubt we've ever met.
Before I was an Angel...
I was a fairy in a flower,
God, Himself, hand-picked me,
And gave me Angel power.

Now God has many Angels
That He trains in Angel pools,
We become His eyes, and ears, and
hands...We become His special tools.
And because God is so busy,
With way too much to do;
He said that my assignment
Was to keep close watch on you.
Then He tucked me in your pocket,
Blessing you with Angel care;
Saying I must never leave you,
And I vowed to stay right there!

First off, the person who gave it to me said that it was creepy, and I had to agree, for the following reasons:

1. The list of those who are allowed to have fun in my pocket is extremely short. Strange angels are not on that list.

2. The flower fairy to angel metamorphosis doesn't set well with me, nor does the conferring of Angel power to a former flower-frequenting fairy.

3. This angel is both "Smaller than your thumb," and "too tiny to detect." I don't mean to brag, but I have personally detected many, many objects which were smaller than my thumb. At work I sometimes use screws which are two orders of magnitude smaller than my thumb. This suggests that "thumb" was chosen just to have a word that rhymed with "fun." See my first point.

4. The training of Angels in pools strikes me as odd, whether pool is used in the sense of a group of members to be drawn upon at need (e.g. a secretarial pool) or a largish, artificial body of water.  In the human resources case, it sounds like perhaps there are angels with some spare time on their hands.  Maybe they only work with Christians, allowing them to ignore a large portion of the world's population.  Maybe there are just too many angels, and they have difficulty getting enough hours to earn benefits.  Odd.  And the swimming sense is just plain silly, though it opens up the floor for questions about where an angel would wear water wings.

5. God has way too much to do?  As God himself put it when talking to Job, "Yeah, I did have kind of a busy week once.  The FIRST WEEK EVER, WHEN I WAS BUSY CREATING EVERYTHING!"  (from The Message Bible).

6. A vow to stay in my pocket... just plain creepy.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Working the Mines

You know, walking out of the word mine with a few words in your pocket sounds like a good way to make a little extra verbage on the side, and what the hell? Who is it hurting? The company? They got plenty, hauling it out in big dictionaryloads. Would they really miss that participle that was already dangling off the cart?

But if you read your contract carefully, you will see that their wordsmiths really know their craft. They can redact your paycheck, censor your wages. They can even come into your home and take the adjectives right out of your children's mouths.

I walked out of a word mine I worked at once with a
pocketful of word ore--about 3 (idiotic...didn't have
time to pick and choose the words) sentences worth.
Commas, are import,ant it,'s amazing.

[It's obvious why I didn't post this one.  Solid idea at the start, then I didn't go anywhere with it.  Still kind of fun.  I had to make up a title today, Nov. 28th, 2010, before publishing it back in 2007.]

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Maxine Update

Maxine is becoming more entertaining every day, and I am not doing a very good job of documenting it. And so here is a typical Roblog attempt to put way too much information into way too small a space at the last minute:

Potty Time! A few nights ago I came home from work, and Horyon told me that Maxine had left a present for me in the bathroom. I could smell it as soon as I walked in. She had urinated and defecated in her little potty! I was very proud, though I'm not sure if I would have been proud enough to preserve that particular trophy.

Horyon has been spending a lot of time with Maxine in the bathroom, reading books with her and encouraging her to sit on her little potty. Today she actually asked to use her potty for the first time! Always before it was at our suggestion. Stephanie, Maxine's daycare provider, has told us that Maxine is good with the potty while there, but it's not the same has having success here at home.

In general, Maxine is becoming more coordinated. She is less likely to drop things, and is better able to handle them. She still has a problem eating eggs on toast, though. She still tries to eat the egg off the top by tilting the toast up, so half the time the egg falls into her big [sorry! I meant bib!] pouch. She would probably be better off with a fork, but she wants to eat it like Daddy does, so we're stuck. Because I'm not going to change my egg-eating style just to keep her eggs from taking a detour through her bib.

The biggest improvements we've seen are in her language skills. She is talking more all the time, and constantly adding words and phrases to her vocabulary, as well as polishing up her pronunciation. She still sings the Barney song "Clean Up" as "Cleamup," but it's pretty cute, so we let it go. "Thanks" has been added to "Thank you," as has "You're welcome." She likes to use "Please" as well, and we encourage her to use all three. Being polite is an essential skill that seems to be somewhat out of vogue these days.

She's enjoyed phone conversations for some time now, though she hasn't quite worked on the same level as the rest of us. I think she still doesn't realize that she is actually talking to another person when she talks on the phone--she just doesn't interact the same way she does face-to-face. But it's getting there. And she can do a pretend phone conversation really well. Her favorites to talk to are Grandma and Grandpa. She nods a lot, says, "Uh-huh", "Yes" and "No", and tells the pretend person what she is doing.

In fact, she doesn't need a phone to tell people what she is doing. Sometimes it's like there's a constant running commentary, keeping us up to date on what Maxine is doing. She hasn't got the grammar down exactly right yet, so it comes out "I running" or "My go," but the idea is there.

She is going to daycare three days a week with Stephanie, a wonderful woman who does it out of her home. Her rates are very low, only $18/day, but she lives about 16 miles from our home. She recently moved, because she wanted to give her kids (both her offspring and her charges) a more accurate taste of nature. She's planning some nature trails, and just going outside there is a noticeable lack of traffic noise and city smells. She plans age-appropriate activities, prepares healthy meals, teaches social skills, and doesn't let the kids watch more than half an hour of t.v. per day. We've been told that Stephanie's husband makes enough money for them to live off of, and that she does this because she loves doing it. We think it's worth the one-hour round trip drive, especially since we carpool with Sofia from down the block. And most especially since Sofia's mother picks up Maxine in the morning so neither of us has to do the morning drive thing.

Maxine is starting to solidify the concept of different activities for different days of the week. She knows that Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays she goes to Stephanie's, Tuesdays and Thursdays she goes to Small World (though not while KU is on vacation), and Sundays she goes to Church. I don't think she has an ordered concept of which day comes after which, but she's getting there.

There are doubtless many details I am leaving out, but I need to get this post up so that I can work on a Christmas post. So I'll leave you with one last picture to embarrass Maxine when she is older. Peace!!!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fourth Sub--High School Spanish

Thursday I got not calls to sub. Didn't bug me much. I could feel some sort of virus testing my defenses, trying to get in. It eventually succeeded, and is now waging a minor war in my sinuses. Not serious enough to lay me out, but it is distracting much needed resources from my brain. It didn't really settle in until Friday evening, so Friday's subbing went okay.

I got the call around 6:15 a.m.: Lawrence High School, 9 a.m. until 3:05 p.m. (The regular teacher a had planning period for the first hour, and no duties during the zero hour, so I got to show an hour and a half later than usual.) Of course, I couldn't get back to sleep after waking up, taking down that information, going to the bathroom, going on the internet to find the exact location of the school, and verifying the work info online. So I had a leisurely breakfast, shower, and plenty of time to get my car de-iced before leaving. Which was good, because I had to circle the school to figure out where to park.

I had my doubts as to whether or not I should have taken this call, because the subject was Spanish, and I probably couldn't come up with a dozen words in Spanish, much less a conversation.

I had nothing to worry about. The Spanish II classes were working at a pretty lame level. They had quite a few vocab words under their belts, and they could read a passage and answer questions, but they weren't sitting around just talking with each other in Spanish. And I made it clear from the get-go that I would be unable to assist with Spanish related questions.

The Spanish V class was a different matter. Some of them actually talked with each other in Spanish when it wasn't part of the assignment. I was impressed. Not so much with their ability, but with their dedication, that they would maintain that level of practice even with a sub who didn't know any better.

My trouble situation on Friday involved a teacher's aid. She was an upperclassman with an attitude. When she came in I asked her what she usually did in class, and she told me she just "kicks." I take it that this is the latest version of "hang out". She also said that she usually just talks to a couple of students who sit near to her. The warning bells should have been going off at this point, but I am still learning. I asked her to go make some copies of an activity, as the teacher had instructed me to do. After she had come back, I was trying to interpret the lesson plan, and asked her opinion of the paper. Her response was to tell me, in front of all the students there, that the teacher never planned very well. The other students backed her up, and they all agreed that the teacher was usually just winging it.

So I made the judgment on the lesson plan on my own, which perhaps I should have done from the start. The students got to work, and I asked the aid to step out into the hall with me for a word. We had a bizarre little conversation that went something like this:

R: I don't appreciate you disrespecting the teacher in front of the class like that.

A: What do you mean?

R: Saying that she is disorganized, and that her plans are not very good.

A: I was just saying the truth. All the other students said so, too.

R: Yes, but you are the aid in this class. I expect you to be supportive.

A: I don't understand why I'm out here and no one else is.

R: Because you are the aid. You are not the same as the others.

A: Everyone knows that she's disorganized, so why are you picking on me?

The conversation kind of spiraled inward like that. She either wouldn't admit or couldn't see that she had disrespected her teacher, making my job more difficult. Eventually she just turned away from me and walked back into the room.

I have to admit, I was a bit upset at this. I decided that she was on her final warning, and that if she tested me again she was going to be sent to the office. Fortunately, she must have sensed this, because she sulked for the rest of the class. Perhaps she thought that her uncooperative silence would annoy me. Far from it. It freed me up to deal with the rest of the class, and there were no more problems.

I was kind of sad that she didn't say goodbye when she left the classroom, but I got over it.

In my last class I had to deal with a jock, one of the wrestling team. Big guy, and very cheerful. Liked to play dumb, but I think he may have been pretty smart. He demonstrated for me at one point that he could conjugate verbs on the computers well. He just wouldn't do his work unless I was nearby watching. The rest of the time he focused on entertaining himself and the people around him. Not in a bad enough way that disciplining him would have been worth the trouble, just enough to be annoying. I let him go to the restroom (probably a mistake) without paying attention to when exactly he came back (definitely a mistake). I'm not sure if he was gone just a few minutes or 10, which gave me nothing to work with. And of course, at the end of the class he was perched on a desk by the door, even though his desk was on the other side of the room. I tried to convince him to return to his desk, and he out-talked me. When the bell rang he was the first one out of the room.

Perhaps I am becoming a control freak, but the behavior of the aid and the jock very much offended my sensibilities. I feel that as a good teacher, I need to be in control of situations like that. Though they cause no serious harm in a one-shot substituting situation (at least no harm so far), I can see these behaviors dominoing in a regular, full-time class room. This time for me is like a laboratory, where I can experiment with discipline methods. As a sub, I often have little power or influence, so I have to leverage it to the maximum. Friday's experiences with the aid and the jock felt like minor failures to me. Dragged my grade for the day down to a B-. In both situations the solutions seemed clearer to me by the following day:

I should have told the aid that I was unhappy because she did not help me to understand the instructions, but rather added to the chaos in the room. Her attitude towards the teacher was secondary. Maybe she would have understood that. I'm not convinced that this would have worked. She felt to me like the kind of person who just never admits to making mistakes, so maybe I was doomed from the time I asked her to step outside.

On the other hand, she stayed out of my way for the rest of the class, so maybe I passed that little test after all.

With the jock, letting him go to the bathroom was the trigger. I should have reminded him that we are no longer in elementary school, and that he had only 50 minutes to go. Perhaps offering to let him go later in the hour if he seemed to be working well.

Oh, I almost forgot. One of my Friday classes was an ESL class. There were only four students, from [in the interests of privacy, I'm omitting their countries of origin]. We ended up just chatting the whole time. They were very curious about me, and asked a lot of questions. Except for the guy who didn't speak English. At all. He has been in the U.S. for a year. Told us (through the other [blank]-ish speaker) that he had worked at McDonald's. There was something very odd about that. A year of working at McDonald's should have at least taught him how to ask and answer the basic introduction questions.

The guy from [redacted] spent most of the class time working on an assignment for another class. I later saw him walking the halls. Apparently he has managed to wrap most of the teachers around his finger.

The guy from [Nunuvyabizness] stayed for my next class, Spanish V. Seems like he was a very good influence on the other students. They used him as a resource from time to time, without swamping him. Seemed like a good way to help him build a peer group, which can be difficult for an outsider who doesn't speak the language.

It was cool being back in an ESL setting. I didn't really teach anything, but I slipped back into the conversation-leader role quite easily. And I found that I can still speak "Special English." It sounds easy to most people: you speak slowly, with very clear enunciation, simple vocabulary, and minimize the idioms you use. Very vanilla. Almost everyone can slow down, but clear enunciation takes some work and focus. Most people can do it for a short time, but they start slurring and speeding up after only a few minutes. The vocabulary and idiom issues also take practice to eliminate, or "weed out". You are probably unaware of how many idioms you use in daily conversation until you have a classroom full of students who are puzzled every time you use one that they have not previously encountered. When my parents came to visit, my mother slipped more easily into this kind of language than my father. I was a bit surprised; my father taught high school shop for many years, and I had assumed that it would help him. The lesson I learned is this: talking to second language learners is not really the same as talking to people who aren't that smart. Not that all students who take shop aren't smart, but a lot of them are there to avoid more academic subjects.

It made me a bit homesick for Korea, actually. Puzzling out what someone is trying to communicate and teaching them the language skills to do it. It was fun stuff.

This may be my last post for a while. I work again tomorrow, then Chaeryon will arrive on Wednesday. That will take up the whole day for us, I'm pretty sure. Once she is here it will be the countdown to Christmas, which will definitely keep me busy on the work front.

Still, I will definitely get on the Roblog one more time before Christmas. Hopefully.



Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Special Piercing

Warning. This post contains subject material suitable only for mature audiences. If you are under 18, please stop reading.


I mean it.

One class of items we sell in the Wal-Mart jewelry department is body jewelry: the bits of metal people put through the holes in their eyebrows, belly-buttons, noses, and other places. As you can imagine, this occasionally leads to some interesting conversations. In my first month, a pretty young lady asked me for a belly button ring recommendation. We picked out a cute little skull and crossbones piece, and I never really thought anything more about it. Then a few days later she showed up with her boyfriend. I asked how the belly-button ring was working out, and she pulled up her shirt and said, "See!" It was really cute. Since then I've been thinking about how I can suggest that Horyon get her belly-button pierced. I finally came to the conclusion that the best way was by posting it on Roblog and letting her read it at the same time as, if not later than, my hundreds of loyal readers.

OK. Last Warning. It gets nasty from here on out. Even if you normally like my stuff, you might not like this.

That made for a nice little working-at-Wal-Mart story. Then the other day a young lady told me that her friend was too embarrassed to ask about this, but could I recommend a particular piece to use as a c**t-ring. Perhaps it was a good thing that I had been sort of broken in by the belly button ring customer. I think I managed to not blush as I told her that I didn't have much experience with that sort of thing, but let's see what we could find. She then told me that it wasn't a vertical piercing, it was horizontal, except that she didn't use those words; she waved her hands and said, "Like this." Right. She must have been in her early 20s. She showed absolutely no sign of embarrassment. Of course, she wasn't the one with a piercing normally concealed by underwear, either.

We picked something out, then she told me she'd be back with her friend. When she did come back, her friend never looked me in the face while she bought her jewelry. I found myself thinking how bizarre it is to know something so extremely intimate about someone that you otherwise don't know at all. This wouldn't be entirely unexpected if I were working in the medical industry, but I work at Wal-Mart for crying out loud!

Friday, December 07, 2007

3rd Sub

I was at Sunset Hill Elementary from 7:30 this morning until about 3:15. I taught a 3rd grade class. Easier than first, but not easy. I think it would have been easier if it hadn't started snowing around nine o'clock. Someone said, "Hey, it's snowing!" and the next thing I knew they were all gathered around the windows giving commentary on the weather. (e.g. "Wow, it's really coming down!" and "Look at how it's snowing!" and "Cool!")

The principal commented at the end of the day that you could feel the "Snow Energy" as you walked down the halls. The kids were abuzz with excitement, and everyone had to deal with it. Of course, dealing with it as a sub makes it that much more of a challenge, but I think I did okay. At least no one came to tell me that the class had been very loud.

It was fun to watch them at recess, goofing around in the snow, throwing it at each other, making tracks, and being silly. One kid was picking it up and dropping it on his own head. After all, it had stopped snowing, so he had to do something to bring back that loving feeling.

I spent the entire day five or ten minutes behind the schedule left for me. I felt kind of bad about it, but catching up just seemed impossible. Every time I figured we were going to catch up, the kids took five minutes longer than I expected.

They were reading (and studying) "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", one of my favorite books from back in the day. It was a bit difficult to do a discussion, because some of them had seen the movie, running some serious interference with the book. You don't have to think to make predictions about what might happen if you've already seen a version of what happened.

I learned one important lesson today: during silent reading time, I was struggling to deal with a full bladder. I told the class that I would be stepping out of the room for a minute or two, and that when I came back I would listen from outside the door. If it was quiet, every table would get a point, and if not, the tables I could identify would not. The principal was in the resource room outside the teachers' restroom, and I told him that I had stepped out briefly. He told me that he would go cover the class, which I thought was nice. When I got back he told me that it was school policy to not leave classes unattended for any length of time. A sensible rule for many reasons. If I had given it any serious thought, I might have called for help instead of just leaving, but for the last ten years I've been teaching people who can take care of themselves. Time for a paradigm shift.

After school I apologized, but the prinipal, Mr. Bay, told me not to worry about it, and that it was as much for my own legal protection as for the kids' safety. And he assured me that when he got to the class room you could have heard a pin drop. I will confess to a bit of pride at hearing that. Mr. Bay asked if I could give my contact information so that they could request me in the future, and once again I felt pretty good about the day.

I found Mr. Bay to be a very dynamic principal. He starts every day with a short assembly, which I saw today. A student read the announcements, and another student read the cafeteria menu for the day. (Breakfast burrito or french toast strips with a sausage patty, I had both. Not bad for caf food.) They introduced the school Watch Dog for the day, the father of one of the kids. I talked with the Watch Dog a bit during recess. It was his first time, and he enjoyed it. They basically have a parent around to walk the halls, provide a bit of additional security, as well as an occasional extra pair of hands. Good program. Mr. Bay knew lots of kids' names, and had a good rapport with the students. I'm guessing that my Uncle Tom Sack runs a similar ship up there in Effingham. (Curse the ham, we hates it! we hates it!)

The teacher had assigned a helper, Vivian (once again, I'm not using the kids' real names in these write-ups). Vivian is a nice girl, but a little high strung. I feel bad, because I may have piled that on her by telling her at the beginning of the day that I could really use her help to get through the day. I had to tell her a couple of times during the day that the best way she could help me was by not getting up without permission. So one more lesson there: don't depend too much on the helper.

The other kid that sticks out in my mind, besides little Anna with her twisted ankle, hobbling around on crutches in the snow!, was Steven. This boy had an attitude. He talked back to me in little, not-quite-over-the-line ways. If I were going to be back in that classroom tomorrow, I would start the day by having a little talk with Steven about respecting others. At one point a girl had accidentally bumped into him. Well, she said it was accidental. He argued repeatedly that she did it on purpose because she didn't like him. He then went on to show why she might not have liked him. I asked her what we say if we hit someone accidentally, and so she said she was sorry. Steven said he couldn't hear her. Fine. So she repeated it. Then he said he couldn't hear her again. I was starting to get a bit pissed at this point, but didn't say anything. He accepted the next apology, though with unsurprisingly little grace.

Here's my moment of regret: next time I will talk with "Steven" (in whatever class I come across him or her) about being kind and forgiving, and how other people see you. Of course, it would depend on having the proper time and place to do so. This kind of behavior is becoming too widely accepted in the world, and it is up to teachers to HELP with a more positive shift. I say 'help' because I'm sure that Steven has inherited his attitude from the people he lives with. I am also sure that his teachers have done what they could to improve that attitude, but no one has the effect of a parent.

Well lookie. It's 1:15 a.m. I'm not sure if I can keep up blogging about every classroom I spend time in, but I want to. I'm so tired that some of these lessons may not sink in if I don't reinforce them, so here I am. I hope it's also good reading for you.



Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Substitute Teaching--Days 1 and 2

Last Friday I had my first subbing gig. Half a day (11:30-3:30) with 19 first graders at Deerfield Elementary School.

Needless to say, it kicked my butt from here to New Jersey and back.

The problem was this: I like kids that age. I love the way they completely accept you the moment their regular teacher says, "Mr. Sack is your teacher this afternoon. Be good for him!" I love the way many of them will come up and hug your leg within the first few minutes of being in the classroom. I love the way they talk, completely guileless, eager to speak their minds, and ready to please. I love watching them interact with each other, and I love trying to figure out what's on their minds. And all of that kind of gets in the way of being The Enforcer.

For the first hour or so, things quickly spiraled out of control. They started popping up out of their desks to go do stuff or talk to me, they started talking as they raised their hands (if they raised their hands at all), and I felt like I was herding 19 kittens. Then I took them to art class, which is in a different room with a different teacher. I had a chance to talk to another teacher in the same team, and she gave me some good advice.

When the kids came back from art, we went directly to recess. (Remember recess? That's like a coffee break, except you spend the entire time running, climbing or kicking a ball around, BY CHOICE. And you don't get coffee, thank God.) After recess, I asked them to sit down, and we had a little conversation about classroom rules and etiquette. I then told them that they had a choice about what kind of letter I would write to their teacher: a good letter, or a bad one.

I'm pleased to say that they chose a good letter. Unfortunately, they had already misbehaved, so they had to pay the consequence: Fun Friday was cut from 45 minutes down to less than 10. They didn't complain much, not after I got them to admit that they had been pretty rowdy.

I felt a little bad about letting them run amok. If I had cracked down from the first minute, they never would have gotten out of hand, and wouldn't have gotten in trouble. I made that clear in the note I left for the teacher. It was my first time to substitute in a long time: twelve or thirteen years. On top of that, they had just had a sub the previous day, so things were already a bit out of control.

However, it was a good return to subbing. Not too long for first graders, a well-organized teacher, and students that were ready to behave when handled correctly.

This morning (Tuesday) I got a call at 6:10 a.m. asking if I wanted to take an "Inter-Related Resource" position at West Jr. High. (The name is now a bit ironic, as it appears on a map to be almost in the exact center of Lawrence. Reflects how much the city has grown, I guess.) It turns out that Inter-Related Resource means Special-Ed, so I had a good day. There were paras (para-professional, a person trained to work with special needs students) for each kid there, and they kind of traded off jobs. I spent some time reading with Peter, and went to a regular photography class and a math class with John. I also spent a fair amount of time just having conversation with Peter, John and Chris. (I am just making up names for these kids, even though I can remember them right now. It just doesn't seem like a good idea to name names on a blog like this.)

Three or four of them were not capable of conversation per se. They had serious behavior issues, or just sat staring at nothing if not given instructions. James kept slapping his own legs, grinding his teeth, and making funny noises. He had an electronic device with USB ports that he could use to communicate. It was set up as a sort of hi-tech See and Say; he touches the picture(s) and it says what he wants to say. A speech therapist came in and worked with some of the kids, though I didn't see her work with James. She was working with Suzie, who had a tendency to just sit and do nothing until instructed by someone else. The therapist played a card game with her; she picked up the cards one at a time, and Suzie had to say what the card was. It was a pretty big deal for her. I never heard her make any other sounds the rest of the day. The other girl, Deana, was also very quiet. I found it interesting that the two girls were content to just sit in their chairs and watch videos (as we did through the afternoon, watching "Home Alone", "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and most of "Stuart Little"), but the boys wanted to be up and moving around, getting into stuff, talking with someone, or causing trouble.

Horyon commented that this is a good chance for me to try some different classroom styles on, and remind myself of how American schools are run. I am enjoying it so far. When I went to class with John, I was impressed by both the photography and math teachers. In the photography class she was juggling what seemed like half a dozen different tasks, and students at different stages in their projects, including some in the dark room and some outside writing up paragraphs about their photos. Once she had taken roll and reminded them of their tasks, she put some classic rock n roll on her computer speakers. It made the time pass quickly for me.

The math teacher was working on ratios and percentages with the class. Apparently she had driven the point home in an earlier class by dividing the class into different sized groups, and then passing out apparently random numbers of Skittles to each group to share. She had them report how many Skittles they had in their group, and wrote the numbers on the overhead so that they all knew what each other had. Then she made them come up with a solution to the fairness problem.

It struck me as a fantastic way to connect gut feelings to math. I imagined the students saying, "It's not fair that their group has four people and 90 Skittles, but my group has ten people and 27 Skittles!" Suddenly the words "ratio", "average" and "cross-product" have very practical meaning: they help make sure you don't get shafted on the Skittle count!

She also had them spend some time in the journal section of their notebook, writing a reaction to that Skittle activity from a previous day. I'm guessing that it was a review of what they had talked about in class, though I didn't find out for sure.

I ate lunch at the school cafeteria. I was starving, so I had some ravioli, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, beef stew and salad (all in small bowls), an orange, and a chocolate milk. Cost me three and a half bucks. Not a bad deal. It tasted exactly like I remember school cafeteria food tasting: boring. Not bad, just boring.

I ate my lunch in the classroom. While I was eating, John came up to me and started talking as he stood over me. I was listening, but I didn't stop eating. He told me a couple of things that I can't remember now, then he told me that there was someone he knew named ____ ______ , but she died, and she was his grandmother. Then he put his hands over his face and started sobbing very loudly. No transition at all. For a second or two I thought that he was pretending, forgetting that I was dealing with someone much simpler than your average 13-year-old. Before I could decide how to react, one of the paras came over and held him in her arms, a woman old enough to be his mother. She told him it was okay, and tried to distract him a bit. When he had calmed down some, I gave him a hug, too, and told him that my Grandfather had recently died. I then reminded him that we are still here, and we have each other.

John, Peter and Chris seemed to have a lot of the same educational skills as other kids their ages, but were socially and emotionally quite a bit behind. They actually reminded me of the first graders I had just taught the previous Friday in that respect; John came up to me when he first walked into the room and introduced himself. Chris told one of the paras that my name was just the same as a grocery bag. All three of them were my buddies from the get-go.

It was a good day. It's not what I want to do for a career, but it was good for me to be there. I think it would do many people good to spend some time in an environment like that once in a while. I was glad that I didn't have to work at Wal-Mart today, though. (I will resist the temptation to make comparisons, trusting that you, my faithful readers, will manage just fine on your own.)

Working two jobs isn't going to kill me, but it is going to make me tired. And I still haven't written about our new (to us) car. It will have to wait, as well as catching you up on Maxine. I am working on a Maxine update post, I promise. Please be patient with me, and try to be content with a picture of Maxine eating (a popular pose):
and a picture of her with her friends dressed up for Halloween:
Is she not adorable? And it's okay to say it, she's more adorable than her friends! I only wish that I could have dressed up as a clown, too.

I must especially beg Aunt Becky for forgiveness! I know I said I would do the Maxine pics tonight, but I just had to get this post written while it was fresh in my mind.



A Wal-Mart Surprise

Tonight, as usual, I was by myself in jewelry from the time Julianna left at 8 until closing at 10. Around nine o'clock I got a phone call. The woman on the other end of the line asked if I was the guy who had been working there earlier. I answered "yes" somewhat hesitantly, as I wasn't sure where she was going with this. She told me that I had sold her some earrings, and did I remember her?

Well, that didn't narrow it down a lot, but when she said, "The titanium ones with the long posts," it connected. I had spent a few minutes with her, helping her to pick out something that would hopefully not irritate her ears. "Yeah, yeah, I remember. Is everything OK?" I asked.

She was so happy that she just had to call. The earrings were perfect, a very comfortable fit, not irritating at all.

That was it. She just called to say thank you. Totally made my day, and I wanted to share it with you. Because as Christmas approaches, Wal-Mart, as well as every other retailer in the U.S.A., is starting to get busy, and it won't back down until after new-year's day.

And as the semester has just ended, a few of my coworkers have unceremoniously quit, leaving the store short-handed. Lines are starting to get long, and tempers are starting to get short. I have been told that the week before Christmas will be hellish, at best. Everyone will expect VIP treatment, and no one will settle for being last in line. The words "We don't have that" will take on the same connotations as "Your mother is the paragon of promiscuity". Meal breaks will be rushed, and other breaks will be crushed. We will actually have another person temporarily in the jewelry department working on the register, just checking people out so that the jewelry staff can help customers find the jewelry that they want without dealing with all that nasty money. Our usual closing time of 10 p.m. will get pushed back a bit further every night, until we are forced to just call out "HELP!!" and run away.

And before it's gotten totally nutsy, I've had a customer call to say "Thanks." What a blessing.

Oh, and I've had my first overlap of teaching and Wal-Marting. Last Friday I subbed for half a day in a 1st grade classroom (which by itself deserves a whole write-up). Today one of the kids from that class recognized me as I was ringing up his mother's purchases. I felt good about that, though I'm not sure how well it's going to go when I get the same recognition from teenagers. Not so bad in Wal-Mart I expect, but in the classroom it may cause me some difficulty. Ah well, that's a bridge not worth crossing until I come to it.



Sunday, December 02, 2007


So we're short handed at the jewelry counter, and it started when one of my fellow associates died. Okay, that's not completely accurate. It started when she got sick. Until then there had been five of us, four full-time associates and myself working part-time. I have been made to understand that they were understaffed for a long time before I arrived, but I had not really witnessed it until Karin (the one who's dead now) started having hernia problems. She called in sick the day after Thanksgiving. At Wal-Mart we call it "Blitz Day". Yeah. They named it after the Blitzkrieg. How special is that? The busiest day of the year, and we were short-staffed at jewelry.

Karin came back some before and after Christmas, but in January she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. By the time they figured this out, the tumor was larger than a softball. She could barely eat any food (as there was no room in her gut), and she found it painful to move around. She was in for a few days, then out for the long haul. She spent some time in hospitals, and some time at home. By the time the doctors had figured out what was going on, she was in no shape for an operation. She had infections, lung problems, and very little strength. Then one day at work I got a call that she had died early that morning.

Karin wasn't my friend. I knew very little about her outside of her work habits. She wasn't great with customers (I thought she always sounded a bit artificial, which was probably suitable for Wal-Mart), but she was really good at the merchandising side of the job. She was one of those people who could remember UPC numbers. Not just the last few digits, but entire numbers. I also found out that she liked to gamble. No doubt there was some connection there. And she had at least one brother and sister, but wasn't in close contact with them. Her brother came into the store once, and our coworker, Julianna, picked him out of the crowd. Julianna made Karin go over and talk to him. This was before she got sick. I hope that they stayed in better touch after that.

I never really found out much about her from sitting down and talking with her, as we never sat down and talked. I learned a fair amount about my job from her, as she was always willing to lecture. She wasn't a particularly good teacher, as she tended to throw out too much information too quickly. But she was always willing to answer questions. And if she sometimes came across as condescending, she had some cause to be proud of how she did her job.

But as I said, she wasn't my friend.

So when I got the call that she had died, I called management and passed the news on. A short while later they called a meeting in the back for all associates. I went back, even though I knew what the meeting was for. It just seemed like I should be there. They made the announcement, told us that it was okay if any of us needed to step into the back during the day. They offered to let me go home if I wanted. They wrote the number for the free grief counseling on the board, and encouraged us to call if we needed it. They thanked me for letting them know. Then management left the room.

I decided that perhaps it would be good if I sat for a few minutes. I was a bit surprised to find that tears were running down my face. As I've said, Karin wasn't my friend. We had disagreements on how to organize things, and we simply did not find each others' jokes to be amusing. Come to think of it, I'm not sure if she actually told stories that were supposed to be funny. She rarely laughed (that I heard), though she chuckled over a few of her own stories, and had an awkward chuckle that reminded me of how Koreans laugh when they are embarrassed.

So I sat there just crying in front of everybody. A few people came over and hugged me. One woman said something to me along the lines of, "She was a pretty special person." I couldn't help it. I laughed just a bit. Not an out-loud, sarcastic, nasty laugh. Just a small laugh that I quickly got under control. She didn't mean it to be the slightest bit funny or ironic. She meant it, the way people who use the word "special" a lot mean it.

It's just kind of funny how completely removing one person from your picture of the world can have a deeper effect than you expected.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Math Class

This semester I'm taking Math 290: Elementary Linear Algebra. It started back in August, but somehow I neglected to mention it.

This time I managed to save a lot of money on the textbook. I bought it online at Abe Books. I had been warned to double check that I got the right edition, including number and country. The Chinese editions are dirt cheap, but somewhat different from the U.S. versions. I ended up paying less than $50 for a new book, while the K.U. Bookstore (I'm sure they'll be happy I linked to them) was charging $96 for a used copy.

And on Abe Books, if you go for an edition only 2 or 3 years old, the price drops drastically, on some textbooks down to just a dollar (plus shipping, of course).

There is definitely a problem with textbook pricing at the University level. I have no problem with the authors making money on textbooks that they have written, but too often students are forced to spend hundreds of dollars for books that they only open to get the homework problems. In my summer class, that was definitely the case. On the few occasions that I attempted to learn something from the book, I found that I was better off with my class notes. For this class, I've only looked a couple of times to clarify some word usage. It seems to be a little better written than my last book. At least it didn't leave me dazed and confused. And it has one thing I like: each chapter starts with a brief essay (3-4 paragraphs) about a notable mathematician who has contributed in some way to the material at hand. It's a nice reminder that we haven't always just known this math, and a lot of it is less than 200 years old.

This suggests a goal for math teachers: to find the next Fourier, or Laplace, or Gauss, or Kepler. Someone to seriously stretch the concept of mathematics. Maybe your heart doesn't skip a beat when you hear those names. Mine doesn't, exactly. But when I think about how they pioneered the concepts that I struggle to follow, I can't help but be impressed. As difficult as it is to follow the book or lecture, at least my answers are checked by the grader. Those guys had no one to tell them they were right, though I doubt it was hard to find naysayers.

And while some of these famous mathematicians did nothing but math, many of them were working on applying math to the real world. In other words, science. When men stood on the moon, it was math that took them there. When you turn the key in your car and the engine starts, it is math that designs the parts the move so smoothly and determines how much gasoline to explode with each cycle. When drugs are developed to fight chronic diseases, it is math that tells us how the population as a whole may be effected. And if you are reading this, it was composed on a computer. Scads of math tied up there.

America has been raising its children to automatically think math is hard, boring, and pointless. This will cause serious problems not too far down the line. It is true: people no longer need to crunch numbers by hand. The digital watch we sell at Wal-Mart for $5.87 can do more computations in a day than a human can in a week. The newest computer you buy today is roughly twice as fast, with twice as much memory as the newest computer you could have bought a year ago. To heck with slide rules and abacus... Abacuses. Abaci. Abracadabra. Most people don't need to be able to do math in their heads any more, which is fine.

But without an understanding of what is happening inside your calculator or computer, there is absolutely no way that you can hope to expand on it.

I just finished my third test in Math 290 yesterday. I had to use my calculator on about half of the problems, and I finished in about 30 minutes. The teacher (Jeff Lang) commented that not so long ago, this would have been a two hour test, because of the matrix crunching. And the grading would have been tedious, too, following minor errors to award partial credit.

[Incidentally, Prof. Lang is a Muslim, which I didn't find out until I Googled him for the above link. There's an interesting interview with Jeff Lang on YouTube which gives some feeling for his lecture style. Don't click that link unless you have a good enough internet connection to watch a 10 minute video, and maybe the other three parts as well. There are also links to some fragments of lectures he has given on Islam. He's much more serious about that than he is about matrices. The other big difference is that in class he frequently raises his chalk to his mouth and takes a drag.]

This is good. (The test thing, not the extra bits about my prof.) I can demonstrate a wider range of skills by virtue of being able to complete tasks more quickly. And hopefully I demonstrated them well. If I get an A on this test, I won't have to take the final exam. I'll still go to class and do homework, but I won't have to sweat another test. Good deal. I'll find out Monday.

Getting back to the idea of learning math: I rarely meet a kid who likes math anymore. And I have met many, many adults who say they never liked it. While I know that part of the problem is that they are not "naturally" good at it, I believe that the biggest problem is that they haven't been taught well. They've had homework piled on, they've sat through boring lectures, they've felt nitpicked, and they've seen no connection between math and life. Why bother?

I hope that I can make some of them see that there is a connection. I want them to understand why the details are important, and why it's worth practicing to become better. I want them to come out of class excited, feeling that they have conquered math, and are ready to take on next year's math. I want them to believe that if they can play video games well, they can do math. If they can keep track of who likes who and what couples are together, they can do math. If they can throw, catch and run without falling down all the time, they can do math. Because all of those things have math underneath, whether just below the surface, or so deep that we haven't found it yet.

In short: Love doesn't make the world go round. Math does.

The End.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Match Made in...

I had some interesting experiences while working in Wal-Mart a few years ago.  One of them was so bizarre that I simply had to write about it.  Once I was finished,

A Match Made in the S-Mart Parking Lot

The story you are about to read is true. Only the name of the retailer has been changed to protect my ass from getting fired.

At seven minutes after nine p.m. the couple strutted up to the S-Mart jewelry counter. He was middle-aged, as white as they come, getting a little shiny on top, and didn't really strut very well. It was more like he was being dragged in her wake. But she had the strut, no doubt. A walk that said, "I may not own this place, but that's only because I don't want it." She was black and thin, with long, teased-out hair and matching fire-engine red nails and lipstick. His slightly worn sports coat clearly announced, "I'm with The University," as did his patient, diplomatic speaking style. Her baggy sweatshirt, tiny short-shorts and scruffy tennis shoes made a different announcement: "I'm on break right now, honey, but I'll be with you in 10 minutes. As long as you ain't no police officer. You ain't, right? Cause if you is, you gotta tell the truth you know."

"What can I do for you?" offered the jewelry associate, ignoring the announcements made by the clothing of the customers in front of him. Obviously he had taken well to the training he had received at the feet of an ancient, venerable computer in the back room.

"We's gettin' married next week!" she announced with a childlike glee that momentarily overpowered the deep lines on her face.

"And we're looking for wedding rings," he added.

"Thas right," she chirped, clinging to his arm like a decaying vine and pushing her hair back with her free hand. Her focus suddenly jumped to the rings in the display case, dragging the gentleman and the jewelry associate along for the ride. "Lemme see that one," she demanded, her fingertip nailed to the counter as her hand did a shaky little dance around it. When the jewelry associate finally homed in on the correct ring, she pounced on it, and somehow squeezed it over her callused, parched, prodigious knuckle.

"I don' like this one. The diamond's too small." Apparently the fun was over. "Here. Take it off." She held her hand out to the jewelry associate, who reluctantly tried to remove the ring. "Don' worry about hurtin' me, jess pull on it," she instructed him. The associate, who was rarely eager to pull on anyone's finger, even in the best of circumstances, looked at the customer's scrawny hand as she continued talking. "I done give bigger diamonds to my kids." No, scrawny was too generous. This hand could have been used as a prop in a zombie movie. "If I give a ring like this to my kids they cuss me out." Scars, scabs and calluses were the landmarks on this desert map, and the knuckle a rough, rocky outcrop. The light rain of spittle as she talked brought no relief to this land. "You ain't givin' me this ring." The associate considered going to get a set of latex gloves, but couldn't think of a tactful way to do so, and was reluctant to turn his back on a flighty customer with a $150 ring on her finger. "I need a diamond I can see." So he swallowed, held his breath, and grabbed hold of the ring. "Go on now, don' be shy. You ain't gonna hurt me none." He pulled, twisted and wriggled the ring, wondering if there were some trick to removing a ring without touching the hand it was on.

Eventually the ring obtained freedom. The jewelry associate shuddered, and breathed a small sigh of relief as he replaced the ring in the display case.

Her fiance then pointed out another ring in the case and suggested that it might be suitable.

"Don't try it on, don't try it on, don't try it on," was the silent mantra of the jewelry associate.

"Uh-uh. That one small, too," was her criticism. The jewelry associate breathed another sigh of relief, this one perhaps a bit more noticeable.

The man was prepared for her remark: "It only looks small because it's in the case. It will look much bigger on your finger."

She glared at him as though he had just made a puddle on the floor. "It ain't gonna get bigger." She continued, "You cain't water it like no plant." She elucidated, "Diamonds don't grow." And just in case he hadn't quite understood, she added, "It ain't no damn plant you water an it get bigger." She added two or three more variations on this theme, rolling her eyes as though she were dealing with a slow, uncooperative child. In the brief silences between her attacks, he attempted to explain that it was a matter of distance, perspective, and the glass in between, but all he managed to do was supply a fantastic little illustration for the word 'henpecked.' When he finally figured out that the best reply was to stand quietly, she phasered him one last time with her eyes and moved on.

She looked at and handed half a dozen choices from the bridal sets without putting any of them on past her ring-trap knuckle.  The jewelry associate silently lifted a prayer of thanksgiving to Jehovah, Shiva, Allah, the blue genie from "Alladin" and any other deity who happened to be listening in. The customer moved on to the "Right Hand Rings." Apparently, "Right Hand" is S-Mart shorthand for "big and tacky," and these rings called to her like a kegger flagging a passing frat boy. Unfortunately, the jewelry associate had to explain to her, they were single rings, not sets. She had her heart set on a set, though her reasoning was never made clear. Perhaps something to do with two rings being more than one ring.

At this point, the professor makes another suggestion: "I could get you one of those single rings and a simple gold band to go with it. Then it would be a set. Look, there's a gold band here for $20."

This time she turned on him as though he had thrown his own feces at her.

"You ain't buyin' me no $20 ring."

"Well not by itself, no..."

"You ain't tellin' me you buyin' me no $20 ring."

"It would go with the..."

"I ain't hearin' this. Ain't no way you buyin' me no $20 ring."

"Listen, if we get..."

"If you mention some damn $20 ring again I am gonna embarrass you right here in S-Mart."

He could tell that she meant it, or perhaps love overcame reason. Either way, he stopped advocating for the $20 ring.

The jewelry associate, being a fan of irony, thought to himself, "If the avoidance of embarrassment were truly a priority, none of us would be here right now."

They moved back to the bridal set case, but clearly the romance had been liposuction right out of the evening. And she was getting pretty jittery, as though perhaps she needed something. Suddenly, without warning, she turned around and left. He stayed long enough to say that they would be back Monday, and was gone before the jewelry associate could suggest that they come before three o'clock if possible, three o'clock being his starting time the following Monday.

As the jewelry associate was getting paper towels and the glass cleaner, both of which were sorely needed by the glass counter top and his hands at this point, the undercover security agent came over and asked what the couple wanted. "They're getting married next week, and they were shopping for rings."

"That's interesting," he smirked. "Just a couple of weeks ago she was arrested in the parking lot outside for prostitution."

"Well well well. How about that? I guess she has turned over a new leaf, just like Julia Roberts in that 'Pretty Woman' movie."

"Yeah. Whatever." The security guard was clearly unconvinced, but the jewelry associate knew that he had seen something pretty special that night. And even if it turned out to be not all that special, at the very least it would make a good story.

The End.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Grandpa's Funeral

I just finished re-reading my post Merle Roger Euler, 1916-2007. Made me cry. Again. As if I hadn't cried enough writing it, and just living through the following days. I also wanted to go back and polish it up. It really shows that I finished after 2 a.m. There are parts that feel incomplete to me, and a few problems with flow. Hardly surprising for stream-of-consciousness writing, but somewhat annoying to me. I have a fairly strict, self-enforced policy of not changing my writing after it's been posted, aside from correcting errors. If not for this policy, I would very likely spend a fair amount of time going back and 'fixing' my previous entries, which could be disastrous with the wrong changes.

As I discussed in this post, my own point of view is constantly changing. Sometimes swiftly, but usually at a glacial pace. Or so it seems, until I actually go back and read what I've written.

Anyway, back to the present. Well, the recent past.

This past Sunday was one of my rare Sundays off. We had already planned to go to church back in Leavenworth and spend some time with my parents. As it happens it was the first day on the job for their new minister, and the church was having a welcome dinner. It was a good chance to talk to many old friends. I grew up in First Christian Church Leavenworth (be sure to check their fantastic website, including pictures of Maxine at the aforementioned dinner!), which makes it feel very much like family. I found that with new churches (well, new to me) it was harder to foster those family feelings.

It was good to be in a church where everyone knew that Grandpa had died. I called a friend at our church in Lawrence and told him the news. They prayed for us in the service, and later many friends asked if we were okay. But if we had gone to church in Lawrence, I don't think I could have handled explaining it over and over, and accepting the surprised looks of sympathy from people who hadn't already known. The only other choice would have been to not bring it up, and just mope around mumbling whenever anyone asked what was wrong.

Wal-Mart was very cool about giving me time off. They allow up to three paid bereavement days. I took off Monday and Tuesday, and Wednesday was already scheduled off. Tomorrow (Thursday) I have to go to work from 1 to 10. Long shift. Not looking forward to it. But one of my coworkers is on vacation. I hope she didn't have to come back because of me. [Update: she didn't, which left the other three jewelry associates a bit crunched. Sorry ladies!]

Monday I went to class, and talked to my prof about coming to his Thursday section instead of the Wednesday. He was very cool about it, so I will be going to class tomorrow from 12 to 12:50. Leaving me 10 minutes to get to work. Great. I already let my manager know I might be late. After class I came home and relaxed. Maxine was at her day care, and Horyon sewed. I went to pick up Maxine around 5, and got there just in time to keep her from breaking down. Instead she took a nap as I went to Papa Murphy's for a pizza, then home. Good stuff, Papa Murphy's. You order a pizza, they put it together, then you take it home and bake it in your own oven. Brilliant idea. Makes for the freshest pizza you could hope for, short of scraping together the ingredients and making it yourself.

Tuesday we drove to Leavenworth and had dinner at Grandma's house. She is still being flooded with food. Even with all of the family there, we barely made a dent in the piles of cold-cuts, ham, chili, chicken noodle soup, fruit, cake, brownies, chips, cheeses, and other stuff. (The next day we stopped by on our way home and picked up food to take with us. Enough ham to keep me in sandwiches for a week, and cheese, too.)

After dinner we went to the visitation. Usually these are done at Davis Chapel Funeral Home, right across the street from the church. This time it was decided to have it at the church instead. Which was a wise decision, because Davis Chapel would simply not have been big enough to handle the volume of people that came through. They were lined up down the aisle from the front of the sanctuary, through the narthex, down the stairs, and out the door. Letha and Myrna at some point herded everyone inside, so the new line went through the narthex, into the education building, and all the way down the hall. People waited for 40+ minutes to talk to Grandma. I never heard an exact count, but more than 300 people signed the guest book, not including family.

[This is where my original post left off.  It's three years later, and I still mourn from time to time.]

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Merle Roger Euler,1916-2007

Today, Saturday, I had to work from 1:00 until 10:00, a bit longer than my usual 3:00-10:00. As I was getting ready to leave my Dad called to tell me that they were were stopping the pure oxygen feed on Grandpa, and they didn't expect him to survive the night.

Last Sunday he fell outside his home and hit his head pretty badly on the pavement. He never regained consciousness after that. He spent his last week in an ICU in Kansas city, the first three days on a respirator to help him breath. We went to see him Thursday, but it was like he was already gone. He groaned, and occasionally flailed his arms weakly. His arms were horribly bruised from the repeated blood tests, and he kept trying to remove the oxygen tube from his nose, and the support collar from around his neck. I think that finally his family decided that he knew what he was doing, even if he never opened his eyes or spoke a word.

Merle Euler was a strong, proud man. He wouldn't have wanted to continue like that. During the last few years as it became harder for him to hear and move around, I imagine that he thought often about the day when he would finally be released And I imagine him now, reunited with his first wife, our Maxine's namesake.

I got the call shortly after I got to work. Grandpa died just about the time I was crossing the street in front of Wal-Mart. My coworker, Julianna, told me that I should go home, but that didn't seem like the right option to me. "What would I do at home?" I asked her. "If I'm going to be miserable, I might as well be paid for it." It wouldn't be me if I didn't come up with some lame joke in the midst of tragedy. "And besides, working will make this day pass faster." Which was true, but not the whole truth.

Grandpa was all about helping people. He must have driven back and forth to the airport hundreds of times after he retired, giving rides to friends and family who needed them. One thing that annoyed him about getting old was that other people had to help him more and more, and he was physically incapable of returning the favor. My job at Wal-Mart is a service job. It's all about helping people. OK, it's partly about helping them to spend their money, but I help a lot of people to find what they are looking for, even if they're not sure of what that might be.

Today I showed some wedding rings to a young couple, and talked with them about our sizing options, how we keep them in stock, and how far ahead they should be purchasing them. It was a joyful experience to play even a small role in such an important part of their lives. While I was helping them a grumpy old woman came in asking for help with watches. She was a serious test of my patience, but I believe that I passed. By the time she left, she surprised me by saying, "Thank you."

I helped a couple in their 40's as he bought a birthday present ring for her. I didn't have a lot of input on the choice, but I clarified some information about the rings and (again) how we do sizing. They had only been married for nine years, but they already had that comfortable feel of a couple that has been together forever. She even said to me that it seemed like they had been together forever, "but in a good way!"

Today was also the day with the mother who was getting her five and two year old daughters' ears pierced. That was a bit of an ugly story, which ended with five-year-old Freedom on the floor throwing a tantrum as we tiptoed around ringing up the rest of the purchases. Associates from other departments were asking us about that one for the next hour.

Julianna explained my situation to the people who needed to know, sparing me from doing it again. I broke down a bit when I told her, though I managed to regain my composure before it got out of hand. It still pushed me to the edge whenever those people brought it up. They were just expressing sympathy, and reminding me that if I needed to go home it was okay.

But the whole truth is this: in my mind today was a sort of memorial to Grandpa, who loved to serve others. And I found joy in the offering of it, even though the tears and difficult customers.

When I got home Maxine was asleep. Horyon shared with me that Maxine had said a couple of strange things through the evening. One was "Great-Grandpa nay-nay." 'Nay-nay' is Korean baby-talk for sleeping. That's what we told her when we went to visit on Thursday. In the last few weeks she has become a sort of random-delay echo, with things she has heard resurfacing at the oddest times. And I suppose it was also the case when she said to Horyon, "Great-Grandpa bye-bye," which means exactly what it sounds like.

Before we left the hospital on Thursday, I had a few moments alone with Grandpa, and I told him that I was so glad he had a chance to meet our Maxine. And I told him that I would miss him.

He was the man who taught me respect for my elders. To hear that he was proud of me was the biggest compliment I could ask for. He had a bit of a corny sense of humor, but anyone who knows me wouldn't be surprised by that. He will always be my role model for the ideal grandfather, and I hope that someday I will live up to that standard.

I will leave you with the note he wrote in the Bible which he gave to me as a Christmas present in 1986:

"I was very proud when you were born and I have been proud of you every minute since. You are everything anyone could want in a Grand-son. All of our Love, Euler grandparents."

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Match Made (or Broken) in Wal-Mart

You know what? There are times when I like working at Wal-Mart.

For example, this happened well before the annoying events of last week: it's 9:15 on a Saturday night, the jewelry counter closes at 10:00, and I'm starting to get antsy to go home, when a customer comes up. He asks to see an engagement ring, and wants my opinion of it. I ask some of the usual questions; What kind of jewelry does she usually wear? Does she wear rings? Have you bought other jewelry for her?

He tells me that he was planning to propose the next day. This is a common level of detail for a customer to share with a sales associate.

He then tells me that he has just gotten off the phone with her, and now he isn't so sure that he wants to go through with it. You see, she was calling to check on where he was, and what he was doing, because she didn't trust him to behave himself.

This is not, in my limited experience, a common level of detail for a customer to share with a sales associate. However, I don't mind. I like listening to people sometimes, and I'm not really that busy.

I won't share with you the details of his story. It's not really my story to tell. But I will share with you the advice that I shared with him. Let me know if you think I've gotten anything wrong here:

1. Proposing to someone is not something that should necessarily come when the mood is just right. That very premise suggests that the response depends on the mood of the moment. While this makes for good t.v., especially in sitcoms (Cheers comes to mind), it is not a good way to decide your future. Because marriage (a good marriage, anyway) is not a mood thing; once you get married, you are married all the time, whether happy or sad, sick or healthy, rich or poor, etc. A marriage has to weather some rough emotions. It seems to me that if the proposal of marriage is easily tossed by these emotions, the marriage is also likely to be tossed.

2. Pray about it. All night if need be. Don't listen to music, turn on the t.v., read, or do anything else that will draw your attention. Just pray about it, and ask God for peace once you have reached the best decision. Because for many of us, that feeling of peace is the clearest way to hear God's voice.

3. Imagine your life with her. Don't imagine her changing, because you have no right to expect the person you marry to just become better because they are married to you. Is it easy (and realistic) to imagine that you are both happy? If yes, refer back to number 2. If not, another year or two of dating (on top of the three years so far) is unlikely to change that. (As a side note, you should also not expect your marriage to follow this imagined path, but I didn't go into that with him.)

4. Don't just do what other people want or expect you to do. Though your family may still be your family for the rest of your life, you have to actually live with your wife for the rest of your life. And if that relationship is solid, you can survive without the immediate approval of either family, yours or hers.

5. God is in control. There is a reason that I am closing tonight and you are here to buy a ring. God is sending you a message, though even I don't know the details of that message. And as cool as it would have been for God to have sent me a dream saying "Tell the guy yes," or "Tell the guy no," sometimes God wants us to work for the right answers.

There were other details. I shared a few relevant anecdotes from my marriage, and some methods we use to get along. He went more into depth as to his misgivings.

I joked with him at one point that I felt more like a bartender than a jewelry sales person. We were both a bit sorry that there were no alcoholic beverages to be found behind my bar.

He didn't buy a ring that night, and I'm not entirely sure what role I played in that decision. I told him that we open at seven a.m., and that if he felt right about it, he could come in and buy a ring before meeting his girlfriend. I ended up cleaning the counters as I talked with him, so I didn't leave more than five minutes past my usual time. I prayed for him as I rode home, and asked our Sunday school class the next day to pray for him, too.

I hope that he tracks me down some time to tell me how things are going. And I really hope that when he does track me down it isn't through the telescopic sight of a high-power sniper rifle. Giving advice can sometimes cause trouble, though I still feel good about what I told him.

This is a different job than anything I've done before, that's for sure. My expectations were actually quite low, and there have been times when they were met. But the times like this definitely balance them out.



Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Demolition and Grace

There was one more stressor in the week after my in-laws left. It was...

It was this story:

It was our third week of meeting as a small group in this six week program, and our group quickly became comfortable with each other. This is due in no small part to the hostess/group leader, Anna.

Anna is one of the first friends we made at First Christian Church here in Lawrence. While many members of the church took a few Sundays to warm up to us, Anna sat down and talked with us right from the start. We didn't completely understand her from the start, but she had enthusiasm. Like Horyon, she is an immigrant to the U.S. She left Poland as a political refugee during the years of the Iron Curtain. They had two children, Monica and Alex. Her husband died shortly after Alex was born, and she has raised them on her own since then.

On second thought, she would probably say that she didn't raise them on her own; she has neighbors who have treated them as family. The Church has treated them as family. They haven't been alone. And now that we are here, she has pulled us into this family without reservation, including asking us to join her small group. And now I understand her 99% of the time, and consider her a friend, moving quickly toward family.

Last Thursday we were standing around in the kitchen eating some snacks before the actual study commenced. I was about to tell about my two flat tires (this is a day before the 3rd flat) when I leaned against a hutch cabinet that wasn't.

It wasn't a hutch cabinet because the shelf sitting on top of the counter wasn't attached to it. It was just sitting there. The shelf has a solid back, so it's footprint looked like a wide, shallow 'U'. When I leaned against the side, the opposite leg of the U slid off the counter, making it extremely unstable. It fell forward, slowly at first. Someone noticed and stopped the shelf from falling, but it was too late: All of the glass and ceramic objects that had been sitting on it crashed to the floor. It was more noisy than you would expect, millions of tiny shards of glass and ceramic scattered all over the floor. Fortunately no one was hurt, though we were all shocked. For a moment the silence was deafening, then Anna said, "Well, that was only 150 year old dish."

I felt as though I had broken her life.

I stood there in shock until Horyon told me that I should help clean up. Then her kids came storming down the stairs. Monica is 13, and Alex is 9, and they wanted satisfaction: "What happened?" "Who did it?"

I lifted my hand a bit and said, "I did," but they didn't hear me, because Anna said, at the same time only louder, "The cat did it."

"I knew that cat was trouble, but you never listen to me, and now look what happened!" Monica yelled in that 13-year-old I-told-you-so tone as she headed back upstairs. Alex wanted to hunt down the cat, and proceeded to tear through the house, then the yard, perhaps planning to punish the poor, innocent cat for my crime.

Needless to say, I felt even worse. I pushed the broom in my own silence, not really noticing the conversations going on around me about how lucky we were that no one got hurt, and that it was such a good thing that there didn't seem to be much broken glass in the snacks, but it would be a good idea to chew slowly just in case.

At the end of the evening I told Anna again that I was very sorry, and she told me this:

When she was a young girl, the Soviets came, and her family was evicted from their fine, large home, only allowed to take the poorest of the furnishings. This was a huge drop in status for them, but they learned to let go of their possessions. Then when she moved to the States to be with her husband, who had left earlier, the only way to get out was by applying for political asylum. The result of that move was leaving everything that she couldn't carry with her in her suitcases. Not just her stuff, but her friends, family and culture, were left behind. "And," she told me, "God taught me to get along without these things. Now perhaps God is telling me that I am becoming too attached to my things again."

She didn't just forgive me, she told me that the precious things on her shelf were not as important as friends and family. It would be wrong to let their destruction get in the way of our relationship.

And she hugged me, and told me it was OK, and that she was only grateful that no one was hurt.

I can't tell this story of grace without getting a bit teary-eyed. I know in my mind that God has forgiven me, and forgives me, for much worse, more deliberate sins. Sometimes I feel that forgiveness, and sometimes I just have to believe that it's there. But it is rare to find that Christ-like attitude here, even among other Christians. Anna didn't even think about it, she just forgave me. She lied to her own children because she knew that they wouldn't be able to forgive as easily as she had. She demonstrated how we Christians are supposed to act. Honestly, I can't remember a thing from that Bible study, and it's been only six days. But I will never forget what Anna taught me:



Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gettting Rid of the Third Wheel

In my previous post, I mentioned getting two flat tires. By the end of the week it was three. Fortunately, the third only set me back $10 and a bit of inconvenience.

I ride my bicycle to work whenever I can. It's a nice ride, just short of four and a half miles, with just a few mild hills to keep me from relaxing too much. The ride home finishes uphill, no matter what route I take short of adding an additional couple of miles, which just isn't going to happen after 10:30 at night. It usually takes me about 25 minutes to get to work, and 35 or 40 to get home. On the way home, I sometimes ride and think about what's happened at work. Other times I ride and pray. And sometimes I just ride. When the moon is new, there are long stretches where my headlamp is the only illumination. No sound but the wind in the trees and the soft hum of the bike gears. It's kind of disappointing to get out into the stretches that follow streets, even though the street lights allow me to see more of the road ahead. All but the last few blocks of my ride are on a six foot wide sidewalk that is well maintained. Aside from the cobwebs and bugs I end up plowing through (and occasionally eating), there are no obstructions.

But Friday, on my way to work, my rear tire seemed a bit low, so after work I added a bit of air. But it didn't stay in. It seemed to be hissing out through the pump, so I pumped more. More hissed out, and when I took away the pump, the tire went flat. I didn't have a spare tube or patch kit, much less the desire to take off the rear wheel and deal with it. So I went inside and called Horyon.

She came and got me, with Maxine sleeping in her car seat, and we stopped for groceries. I sat in the car with Maxine, because I have trouble sticking to the list. Whatever. So it was a late night.

The next day I spent the morning at our church's work day painting a hallway, then getting my bicycle tire fixed. I thought about just buying the tube and changing it myself to save $5, but had the mechanic do it. I figured she could get it in correctly the first time, and faster than I could to boot. Turned out to be a good choice. She found that the wheel had a rough patch that had rubbed through the tube, necessitating the repair. She filed and sanded down the rough patch, so hopefully I won't have to go through this again soon.

There are two more stories I need to tell in my attempt to communicate how this past week has gone, but I just don't have the energy to tackle it right now. And I have a test on Wednesday. So I'm leaving you with two titles for now:

Demolition and Grace
A Match Made in Wal-Mart

Stay tuned.



A Good, but Long Month

As you know, Horyon's parents have been living with us for about a month now. A little under two weeks into their stay with us I moved my computer out into the living room so that I could get my homework done late at night without bothering them, as well as sorting through photos, and playing an occasional game or two of spider solitaire. Unfortunately, there is no internet connection where I've set up the computer, so I've had to make do with occasional visits to Horyon's laptop in our bedroom to check email, and I haven't really looked at Roblog in quite some time. So this entry will just have to do to make up for the past month.

It's been a fun month, especially for Maxine, but a bit hard on us. We gave up our bedroom and bed so that Horyon's parents could sleep comfortably. It's hard enough being in a foreign country even if you can get a good night's sleep, but when your bed is uncomfortable, and in a room with too much light, and out in the open where anyone walking through in the morning will keep you from continuing to sleep, you start to feel pretty frayed around the edges. So they seem to be doing all right.

Horyon and I have been sleeping on our sofa bed in the living room. We are fortunate to have it, as Mom and Dad offered it to us when we moved in. When we accepted, I laughingly pointed out that any guests we planned to host overnight would find it to be an uncomfortable bed, in a room with too much light, and out in the open where anyone walking through in the morning would keep them from continuing to sleep, making them that much less likely to stay one more night. Ha ha.

So we have been spending every night in an uncomfortable bed, in... you get the idea.

And I was right. I'm ready to leave.

It's not as bad as I expected, but this is a long time to have four adults and a little girl under one roof with only two bedrooms. (Our house was constructed with three bedrooms, but one has become Horyon's sewing room.)

What makes it even more annoying is that I have lived in more crowded conditions, in smaller spaces, on less comfortable beds, and I was OK with it. I did a training in far Eastern Nepal for a month, during which I slept on a bed made of planks with nothing but rolled up towel for a pillow and my mosquito net for a combination blanket and mattress. My regular bed back in those days was about four inches of foam pad over boards. And mostly I did OK with that. I'm not sure if I wake up more sore now than I ever did then, or if I just don't remember how miserable I was. I'm sure it has nothing to do with getting older.

Last Sunday when we got out of church, we found a special surprise waiting for us: flat tire, front wheel, passenger side. I suggested that perhaps this would be a good time for Horyon to practice changing a tire, and she agreed. A couple of church families stayed around while we did this. The spare was running a bit low on air, but it took us to the nearest gas station. I took it in to Wal-Mart, where I work, to be patched. They couldn't, because it had been punctured on the sidewall. What the heck. I didn't really need to spend that $75 on other stuff anyway. And I went ahead and got my oil changed while I was at it.

It had just been mentioned in church that morning that tires were being slashed in the church parking lot. Looks like we had become the latest victims.

The next day we took Horyon's parents to the airport to say goodbye. It was a very emotional time. I found it very moving that Maxine didn't really understand what was happening. It's been a few days now, and she is still pretty pissed at us for getting rid of Grandpa and Grandma, but at that time she didn't get it.

When we got back from the airport it was about 11:30. Horyon wanted to go shopping with our Korean neighbor, so they were going to take me to work then go shopping. At 2:30, when we went to get in the car, guess what I found? The rear tire on the driver's side was flat. For those of you keeping score, that's two tires in as many days.

I was not happy at first. Then it occurred to me that the second tire had probably been holed at the same time as the first. I had done some serious highway driving on a tire that was going flat. When we stopped at the filling station for air, I had added some to that tire. Maybe that's what kept it going. Because when I had it changed, they told me that it also had a puncture in the sidewall, a lot like the first one. I can only speculate that God assigned some poor angel to stick his finger in that second hole for the 24 hours it took to deflate.

So we spent an unplanned $150 this week on tires. And the tires on the van were pretty new to start with, too. Makes it all the more annoying.

So one spiritual exercise I'm working on this week is forgiving the person who did this to our car. They are undoubtedly suffering from worse things than an extra $150 out of their budget for the month. Maybe they've been stepped on by a church, which they see as The Church. Maybe someone from this church was unkind to them at some point. Or maybe their idea of fun is to destroy things. Whatever the case may be, I know that they need my forgiveness more than my spite.

The rest of this week has also been somewhat crazy, but I'm afraid that if I start getting into it here I'll never get this posted.



Tuesday, September 25, 2007

That's My Girl

Maxine has been attending Small World, a volunteer daycare for about a week. Today was her third time, and Horyon was very proud when she got home. She told me, "Maxine made another girl cry today!"

I did one of those cartoonish double-takes, as making other kids cry is not usually considered a good thing. But in this case, the care-givers all agreed that Maxine was in the right.

First a little background: Small World is an organization sponsored by one of the Presbyterian churches here in town. The workers are mostly women, and many of the children have one or both parents from a foreign country. One of their goals is to give low-cost language and cultural training to women who don't speak English very well. They have classes and child care on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and today was the third day for Horyon and Maxine. Men are not allowed in the classrooms, as many of the women involved are Muslims. I visited last week and was gently, but sternly informed of this.

There is another little girl named Lason at Small World. She is around three years old, has dark skin, and is very big for her age. Everyone says she looks like a boxer, and she has a tendency to bully other children a bit. Today Lason's mother brought in her car seat and left it in the classroom. Maxine and Lason were playing, with Maxine sitting in the car seat. When Maxine tried to stand up, Lason pushed her back down. Maxine got that focused, slightly red look that shows that her pressure cooker is on, but she didn't cry, or scream, or anything else to show that she was upset.

But when Lason wanted Maxine to get out of the seat, Maxine refused. Lason pulled on her arm, her clothes, even her head, but Maxine just went all Rosa Parks on her, sitting and refusing to move. Until Lason cried. The other caregivers said that in her two years at Small World, Lason had never cried: this was a first.

In closing, we have a camera now. Two, actually. Horyon's parents gave us a new one, and the old one was repaired for about $50. Here are a couple of recent pics:

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Customer Interactions

I am new to retail sales. I've never done anything quite like this before, and I'm kind of enjoying it. Especially dealing with the customers. I'm not sure whether I've just had good luck, or whether I have a soporific quality about me, but I haven't really had to deal with any customers that I would call "belligerent" or "trouble-makers". Even when I've been stuck at the register, unable to get it to do what I need it to do, they have been patient with me. I'm still working on balancing priorities, but the pace has mostly been reasonable.

Mostly. Two days ago my coworker Julianna went on her lunch break around 5:00. (They call it lunch no matter what time you take it. One more bit of Wal-Mart culture that I will probably never understand.) For the first 30 minutes, I walked around straightening items on the shelves, picking up the random bits of jetsam that Wal-Mart shoppers tend to leave willy-nilly as they wander through the store. Then a customer came. And another. And another. At one point I was helping one while three others were waiting. Fortunately none of them asked me to do things that I don't know how to do, like putting something on layaway or doing a back-flip, but they kept me hopping. Of course Julianna came back from her break as I was finishing up with the last customer.

They were all very nice about waiting to be helped. One of them even told me to go take care of another customer while I was in the middle of helping her.

This lady was something else. I had seen her earlier in the store, riding one of the little vehicles Wal-Mart has for customers who have trouble getting around. She had a tattoo that I found to be almost offensive. It made a political statement that I disagreed with, and I found myself thinking that she was probably a very simple person, and that maybe I was lucky I didn't have to deal with her.

Still, I don't let that kind of thought affect how I deal with people, so I offered to help her just like any other customer. She wanted to return a watch that she didn't like (though she used more colorful than that to say so) and get a new band for her old watch, which her husband had given to her before he died, and which she knew how to operate. She spoke in an accent that I couldn't quite place, Eastern European somewhere. It reminded me of our church friend who immigrated from Poland. And she talked a lot.

She was quite patient with me, and let me help stop to help other customers. And those customers were also patient as I dealt with this woman. I understand that as we approach Christmas the level of politeness drops considerably, but so far I can't complain.

(Speaking of holidays, we've already got our Halloween stuff out. Can you believe it?)

In the course of getting a watch band that she was happy with, I learned that she had married a G.I. to come to America. I asked if this was the same husband who had died a year ago, and she told me this:

"No. The G.I. was a mistake. He was my ticket out of Russia, but it was a mistake to marry him. My husband who died last year was my true love. My destiny. And I didn't think I could go on without him, but here I am."

I'm trying to fit a pin for a watch band, and I feel like I should be having a beer with this woman. I felt bad for judging her based on her tattoo, and was genuinely happy that she had come to the jewelry section while I was on duty.

By this point, Julianna had returned, and all of the other customers had been dealt with one way or another (none of them lethally). When I wrapped up my sale with the Russian woman, she shook my hand and thanked me. I sincerely told her that I hoped to see her again, and she promised to say hi if she did. And so I was once again reminded that people with whom I disagree are still very much people, and that I should not judge a book by its cover.

I think the best thing about this job is that every day it gives me many opportunities to practice loving my neighbors. In some ways they are ideal opportunities, because they don't last long. I get a fresh start with each new customer.

On a slightly different note, Wal-Mart encourages us to interact in a friendly manner with customers, and if there is only one customer, there's no reason not to have an extended conversation. However, problems arise when one customer is ignored over another. People have actually been fired over this. It puts me in the uncomfortable position of telling someone, "I'm sorry, but I need to help another customer." I hate having to do that.

In closing, I'm learning my way around the cash register. The problems of three days ago are history, and I have only my future problems to deal with. Yesterday I was on my own from 6 p.m. until closing at 10 p.m. No problems. I am supposed to take a 15 minute break sometime in the evening, so I called in a manager to take care of jewelry stuff while I was gone. Things were slow until then, and when I got back she was helping someone, a customer was waiting, and one more customer came before she left. I also had a small register problem, which she quickly resolved.

I swear, once I figure out everything on the register, I will have achieved some sort of god-like status, and I will be ready to take over the universe.

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.