Saturday, August 30, 2008

Grumpy at Charlottesville High

Do these jeans make my ass look forty?
I'm 40 today. Just the other day, I read in a magazine that 50 is the new 30, so I guess that means I'm 20. I've been dreading this day for the past year, but now I've been 40 for a whole thirteen hours and I can say it's not too bad. I know several women in the forties who are fabulous and youthful and attractive, so maybe my life isn't over yet. It hasn't been a birthday sort of day, which is fine.. I went running and visited the recycling center and the library. I cleaned a wad of gum out of the dryer, I treated my living room for fleas and Mad Scientist and I have just finished putting the first coat of paint on my dining room. I could have done without the gum or the fleas, but overall it hasn't been a terrible day. Jon is working all weekend which sucks, but what can you do?

But I'm not writing today to talk about my birthday. I thought I'd describe the meeting I went to at Charlottesville High School. There's a new principal this year, so this was a sort of meet and greet, question and answer type thing. I had been having a terrible, horrible, very bad day and I arrived at the meeting in no mood for dealing with anybody. The meeting was in the library, or “media center” as they call it these days and soon after I settled into a seat, two women sat next to me. They noticed the powerpoint set up and groaned. “Are you the parent of a 9th grader?” the one next to me asked. I told her no, I had a 10th grader, and they told me how they'd already seen this powerpoint at the 9th grade orientation. I gathered they didn't want to see it again. One woman approached the principal to ask if he could talk first and then give the powerpoint, since they'd already heard it and the other said to me, “I'm sorry you got stuck sitting next to the grumpy troublemakers.” Are you kidding me? Considering the mood I was in, the only person I didn't actively want to punch in the face was a grumpy troublemaker. At last, a group I can identify with.

Alas, it was necessary to begin with the powerpoint, and the grumpy troublemakers were right: it was pretty lame. It started with a list of random facts such as “In China, their students at the top 25% in IQ number more than all American students together. China has more honors students than we have students.” More facts followed, mainly about China I wondered how all these facts related to students at Charlottesville High School specifically, but no explanation was forthcoming. The focus changed to rapidly changing technology, we need to prepare kids for jobs that don't even exist yet, yada yada. “Our kids are content creators!” thundered the principal, at which point a parent sitting behind me burst into a frenzied outbreak of applause.

Next came the question and answer portion of the meeting. A parent sitting behind me—I suspect she was the applauder—spoke very earnestly about something. She was so afraid of using language that might offend that she couched her remarks in a way that made it very hard to understand what she was saying, although I think the gist was, “We need to get the poor parents more involved in their kids' education.” Finally, frustrated at the limits that middle class guilt put on her ability to express herself, she burst out, “I'm passionate about caring.” The principal looked relieved and everybody in the room assumed grave expressions of acquiescence. It appeared we were all on board with caring about Caring.

Other parents asked questions. I asked about the overcrowded honors classes. Apparently, some kids will drop honors and go down to advanced, and the classes will be less crowded. (Later, I passed this fact on the Drama Queen and she said, “Are you kidding me? There are more kids coming into the classes every day.”)

The principal spoke enthusiastically about differentiation—grouping kids of different levels in classes together with the teacher meeting the needs of all the students simultaneously—and a few parents spoke up and described a mixed level Chemistry class from last year as a disaster. I think Mad Scientist was in that class.

One parent wondered if all children should be in honors classes. Her remarks were complex, but I think her point was that all children would benefit from honors-type instruction, and I think she's probably right, although if you started an initiative like that in high school, it would be much too late. The “Quest” program pulls gifted and “high potential” children out of the classroom for special enrichment activities, but, even though all four of my children have participated in Quest, I think it's ridiculous—borderline criminal—that these activities are withheld from the other students. If anything, a child functioning at a lower level might benefit more from the enrichment activities than a gifted child who probably has parents who are enriching his life at home on a daily basis.

Another parent said that it was unnecessary to worry about changing technology. Give our kids a strong foundation in math, science, and literature, and they will adapt to new technology as it develops, he said. I wanted to burst into a frenzied outbreak of applause, but I didn't. The principal agreed and then said fatuously that he would include “critical thinking” and “team building” right along with math, science and literature as fundamentals that must be taught.

Team building? Are you effing kidding me? And why does everybody want to teach critical thinking? Doesn't every single person of average intelligence use critical thinking every day? Am I crazy for thinking this? I can't think of a moment when I'm not using critical thinking. And I was taught by nuns. They didn't hold with any new-fangled notions. The nuns' message was “You will learn this, or you will die.” These nuns could teach a stick to read. With a stick. So, we thought critically and realized that if we didn't want to die, we'd better learn what we were taught, and that was that. Being taught how to think was like being taught how to eat.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What I did on my summer vacation

Ithaca, Day 2

The “free breakfast” provided by our hotel was inedible. The coffee, undrinkable. But why would I expect better from the Discomfort Inn?

I needed an excuse to visit Wegmans anyway. We bought enough food to carry us through until dinner, and coffee besides. Wegmans is awesome. While standing at the deli, I controlled a desire to take a picture of the display of fine meats. Here's what the Wegmans deli does that is awesome: they preslice their cold cuts ahead of time. You go to order, say, a pound of turkey, and there is all the meat, nicely fluffed and ready for you. Unlike every freaking store in Charlottesville, where all the meat is displayed as scary solid pink lumps wrapped tightly in plastic, and if you order some, you have to wait twenty minutes for the deli person to unwrap it and heave it onto the slicer and then slice it too thick.

I didn't take a picture of the deli, but I couldn't resist asking Drama Queen to take a few discrete photos of Wegmans' fabulousness. In this photo, I am speaking to Drama Queen through my clenched teeth. I am saying, “Don't take my picture in Wegmans. Don't take my picture in Wegmans.” Because I couldn't imagine anything more hokey than posing oneself in a supermarket.

Here's a mile long display of yogurt. That's ALL yogurt, folks.

Our first event of the day was a hike to Taughannock Falls, the tallest free-falling waterfall in the eastern US. The guidebooks say it's disappointing in the summer because the creek sometimes dries up, but NY is having a rainy summer this year. It was an easy, level hike along the bottom of a gorge. As we progressed, the gorge walls rose higher and higher above us until we reached the falls.

Miss G, Drama Queen, Jon and Mad Scientist by Taughannock Falls.

Jon and me.

The water was low, so we hiked back in the creek bed and stopped to rest, enjoying a rare moment of family harmony. The kids discovered skipping stones. Mad Scientist was able to skip a stone five or six times, sometimes skipping a stone all the way across the creek, where it would shatter on the opposite bank. The rocks were shale and you could break them with your hands.

Miss G found a fossil.

Later, we went to Buttermilk Falls. You drive to the top of its gorge. The road up was incredibly steep and twisty. Living in Charlottesville, I'm used to hills, but this hill was scary. We hiked our way down the gorge along a series of waterfalls. It was a stunning hike and my pictures don't do it justice. It must be a sight to see in the spring.

As we descended, the water descended faster, and was ever farther below the trail, which was stone, and soaking wet. Sometimes there was a low rail to keep you from falling over the edge into the falls, and sometimes there wasn't. The wetness of the trail worried me. It hadn't been raining and I imagined the creek suddenly roaring to life and filling the entire gorge. Then I realized that water was dripping from between the layers of rock in the gorge walls as if squeezed from a sponge.

Buttermilk Creek. I love the erosion patterns.

Cool rock chimney.

I worried we would slip on the wet rocks and die. Water was dripping out between layers of rock all along the trail.

At the bottom of the long hike, the falls end in a natural pool where you can swim. The water was what my German grandfather would have called “refreshing,” i.e. ice cold. The pool was crowded with what I instantly recognized as New York City people. Long forgotten memories of my childhood in upstate New York came to the surface: You'd get home from a day in some attraction or other and say with irritation, “It was full of New York City people.” They are unmistakable. Eventually, they got on their tour bus and returned to NYC, while we rested and I tried not to think about the long hike back up to the car and the drive down the scary, twisty road.

Jon and Drama Queen.

Hiking back up to the car

We went to downtown Ithaca for dinner. Jon spotted a place called the Lost Dog Cafe. It looked like a dive to me, and the map of the world tablecloths on the patio said “vegetarian.” The girls and I wanted to try a place called “Mustard” which was painted a cheery yellow and advertised comfort food, which I felt I deserved, but Jon was not at all impressed with Mustard, so we settled the question by stocking up on New York State wine and asking the wine store guy what he thought and he recommended Lost Dog, and we were not disappointed. My martini came in a Charlottesville sized glass, there was a kid's menu that had options other than “pasta with butter” and “natural peanut butter on bread” and the food was excellent. It was cheaper than Moosewood too. We ordered dessert and still the total was a lot less than what we paid at Moosewood.

Getting ready for dinner.

And that was it. We drove back to C'ville the next day. It was a long drive; scarcely shorter than the drive from C'ville to Buffalo, even though Ithaca is significantly further south.

The kids found ways to amuse themselves.

Edited to wonder why this piece didn't show up on Charlottesville Blogs. Trying again. I had a terrible time with blogger today, getting my pictures to upload and then the whole piece refused to publish due to some sort of HTML error. Blogger sucks, btw. If you're shopping for a blog hosting site, choose something else.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What I did on my summer vacation

Ithaca, Day 1

After Buffalo, we still had a week of vacation left. Usually we spend our vacation time visiting friends and family, which is fun, but we felt it was high time we had a trip that was just for us. The difficulty was picking a location that was somewhere between Buffalo and Charlottesville and we eventually settled on Ithaca, NY, the city where Cornell is. I'd been there a few times in college, but just for regattas. We'd drive down in the afternoon, sleep in the dorms at Ithaca college, not go out at night due to having to get up early in the morning, row for most of the next day and drive home immediately. I never felt I'd gotten the true Ithaca experience.

It's a short and pretty drive from Buffalo to Ithaca. Actually, the NYS thruway between Buffalo and Rochester is pretty ugly, with its snowplow garages and non-descript fields. There is no attempt to beautify the highway here. It's like, “You're in New York. What more do you want?” Still, it was a pretty day and Meatloaf was playing on the radio and we were content.

We'd booked two rooms in the Comfort Inn, Ithaca and they have to be the worst hotel rooms I've ever seen. And my standards aren't all that high. But there we were, and it seemed there was nothing to do but make the best of it and head out to explore the town.

We headed for Cornell, and after getting lost and having to ask for directions, finally pulled into a parking space in front of the Herbert F. Johnson museum of art, which was, unfortunately, closed. From here we hiked down to Ithaca Falls and over a suspension bridge high above the water. After descending a long staircase on the far side of the creek, we rested on little ledges of shale alongside the rapids. I suddenly felt very afraid that one of us was going to slip off the edge and get sucked into the current. I generally don't mind small thrills, but in this case I felt almost wild to get away from the falls and nagged the kids ceaselessly about not going too close to the edge. When we finally turned to hike back up to the top of the gorge, I spotted a wooden cross partially hidden by a bush. It was a memorial to someone who had died on that spot.

Us on the bridge.

View from bridge.

Stairs down to the creek.

Jon by the falls.

Drama Queen and Miss G


We recrossed the suspension bridge and hiked a bit further downstream to a second waterfall. Close to the water's edge were two more memorials to people who had drowned in that spot, and I remembered that there was a bridge near the Cornell campus that students sometimes jumped from during exam week. Surely the bridge we were on was the one. Now it was raining lightly and once again I felt extremely anxious that one of us would fall into the water. I know I was being ridiculous, but I swear I felt a bad vibe in that place. I'm not a suspicious person, but I do believe that sometimes a place will be infused with energy left behind by previous people who have been there. An article I read later in the Ithaca Journal, talks about the dozens of drownings that have occurred in that spot. The top current is moving away from the falls, but underwater are different currents that will suck a swimmer under rock ledges and not let him up. Horrible to contemplate, even from the safety of my computer chair.

We left the falls and headed downtown for dinner. Ithaca has a downtown pedestrian mall similar to Charlottesville's, but C'ville's is more happening. Ithaca's mall was practically deserted. Granted, it was a Monday, and the students were gone, but when, in the summer would you ever see C'ville's downtown mall deserted at 6:00pm?

Ithaca's downtown mall, aka "Ithaca Commons." See? Just like C'ville.

Is going to Ithaca and eating at the Moosewood Restaurant an awfully touristy thing to do? Who cares, I was a vegetarian for ten years and the Moosewood is my mecca.

It turns out, Moosewood is pretty expensive, even by Charlottesville standards. I started with a chai martini, which was tasty, but came in a stingy-sized glass. We had to pay extra for bread for our table, and had to get a double order so that there'd be enough for the six of us.

Me and my martini.

We thought the salads were high quality.

Moosewood's menu changes daily, and between the six of us, I think we ordered one of every entree. All the food was very good, including the “Lentil Sambar” I ordered, although later I realized that I'd just paid $15 for a plate of lentils and rice. Their children's menu wasn't very appealing, so Mr. McP had to order an adult entree, adding considerably to the Moosewood's coffers. Overall, I would recommend the Moosewood as long as you are prepared to pay through the nose.

Drama Queen's Moosewood lasagna

Gratuitous shot of Mr. McP

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What I did on my summer vacation

The continuing story. We went to Niagara Falls. When you grow up near one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, you tend to take it for granted. "Niagara Falls again!" I used to grumble, as did just about every kid in Buffalo who was dragged there with out-of-town guests umpteen times. To me, Niagara Falls meant crowds of Asian tourists and taking forever to find a parking space. Mr. McP, however, had never been there, so here was my opportunity to introduce one of my children to something that is very cool despite my childish boredom with it.

We went with my mother-in-law and Jon's brother, his wife and their four kids. It seems that at any gathering with Jon's family, there are never fewer than eight children in the group, but that is how we like it.

Picnicking in the rain. Niagara Falls, NY is one of the dumpiest cities in the US. I don't know why, although the collection of chemical plants and the evil reputation of Love Canal probably have something to do with it. It's too bad, because it could be lovely. The park, even though it is on the American side, felt very cosmopolitan, with all the foreign languages spoken all around us and the obviously foreign tourists. On the Maid of the Mist, the verbal information went out over the loudspeaker in English, French, and German, but curiously, not Spanish.

The Maid of the Mist was something I hadn't done since I was about eight years old. It was actually kind of thrilling, and almost scary, which surprised me because I have no memory of being frightened on my previous trip. Still, you get into the Horseshoe falls, and the boat is pitching under you, and the wind is whipping, and the deck is soaking wet, and suddenly the rail seems very flimsy indeed. A long way above you can see the water pouring over the falls, but there is such an explosion of spray at the bottom of the falls that you can not see a thing at eye level, or for a significant space above it. Once in a while you'd see rock the size of a one-car garage looming out of the mist but it would quickly disappear into the spray. Somewhat disconcerting, and there are no buoys or markers of any kind and while I appreciated the Awesome Power of Nature, I also wondered how the captain knew how to avoid the rocks. And maybe I said a "Hail Mary" or two. And gripped Mr. McP tightly by the arm. And reminded myself that the Maid of the Mist has never lost a passenger.

So you toss about like a toy for a long time, and suddenly the ship makes a neat turn to port and the falls swiftly recede into the distance. I stole a look at the captain in his little spray-free booth and I don't think I've ever seen a look of more utter boredom on anybody anywhere. Still, I suppose if I piloted a ship straight into the most dangerous waterfall on earth 8,000 times a day, I'd be bored too.

Once off the boat, we climbed a little wooden walkway up the side of the American falls. This seemed tame, but then as I contemplated the wet mossy rocks over which we stood, I realized that if much of the water wasn't diverted upstream by the power authority, we'd be standing directly in the path of the falls. I pointed this out to Jon and he said, "Wow, I think you're right. Well, I think I'll go down now." And it was a creepy feeling to imagine a malfunction at the power plant allowing all the water to suddenly rush over us.

Later we went to Goat Island, which separates the American falls from the Horseshoe falls. You get a great view from there.

Here we are ready to embark on the Maid of the Mist. All of these pictures look a lot better if you click on them to enlarge.

Passing in front of the American Falls. Rock falls have considerably shortened the distance that the water falls here, as you can see. Obviously, rock slides are an issue here, and later, when I told my brother about the scare factor of the Maid of the Mist, he pointed out that a major rock slide in the enclosed space in front of the Horseshoe falls would create something like a tidal wave and obliterate the ship altogether. I guess something similar happened to a ship in a Norwegian fjord.

Approaching the Horseshoe falls.

This is the last picture I could take. You really need an underwater camera to take good pictures here.
Return trip, with the next boat on its way out. There are several Maids of the Mist: three on the American side, and two or three on the Canadian side.

On the walkway up the American Falls.

Here is where I realized that only the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation stood between me and death.

Maid of the Mist, seen from Goat Island.

Horseshoe falls. It's difficult to get a good picture from the American side. I remember a few years ago, hearing about a German tourist who leaned too far over the rail to get a picture and falling in. Plus, there was so much spray that even up here my camera was getting wet.
One of Drama Queen's shots looking down at the walkway. You probably need to click to enlarge it enough to see the line of people in blue raincoats at the mercy of the water diversion system. Hah.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

C'ville city schools: bite me

The first day of school was a rousing success, I must say. A success at getting me worked up into a tower of rage. Miss G, who is starting 7th grade at Buford came home crying about the mean kids in her health class. What is up with the way Buford groups kids for health and gym? But I won't go there. And her math teacher starts the year off by saying, "Tomorrow you have a test, and if you don't do well on it, you'll be taken out of pre-algebra and put in a lower math group." Nice. Is that what you learn in education classes? To scare the crap out of your kids? How about saying, "Tomorrow you have a test so I can assess where you all are at this moment."

Drama Queen came home annoyed about the problem I already heard parents grumbling about at the open house: they reduced the number of honors classes at CHS so that the honors classes are ridiculously crowded. Whose decision was that? But I don't want to risk angering the middle class guilt crowd. God forbid.

I am so happy that at least Mad Scientist is no longer in the city schools.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A tourist in one'shome town

Part three: Buffalo

As long as we were in Buffalo, I decided to pop into City Hall and get a copy of Mad Scientist's birth certificate, since I ruined his original one by spilling sun screen all over it. Buffalo's City Hall is a notable building in architecture circles. It's a 1929 Art Deco building, and although it's only 28 stories high, it dominates the skyline and is one of the biggest city halls in the country. Its location close to the waterfront keeps it apart from the clutter of the other downtown buildings.
The vital records office was on the 13th floor, and getting the birth certificate turned out to be not nearly as much hassle as I anticipated. Back in the lobby, I noticed a sign:
Was it possible for us to go up? Used to Washington, DC, I expected to be challenged, or searched by a bored-yet-hostile security guard, but no one seemed concerned by the sight of me, Mr. McP and Mad Scientist waiting for the elevator on the opposite side of the lobby from where there elevators were for citizens with legitimate business in City Hall. “What the hell,” I thought. I knew that if it turned out strangers weren't allowed unlimited access to the tower, I could just say, “I'm from Virginia and I'm lost.” Because one thing you can absolutely count on in Buffalonians is that they are friendly to out-of-town visitors. (Except those from NYC or Long Island.) So up we went on the express elevator to the 25th floor. From there we had to climb the last three floors on foot and came out into a bare, circular room with doors leading out to a tiny parapet that goes all the way around the outside of the tower. The zig-zag yellow and orange bakelite decorations at the top of the building form the railing around the parapet. Only now, there's a tall piece of plexiglass atop the railing. Some time in the 1950s or '60s, a man committed suicide by jumping off the railing of the balcony and somehow impaling himself on the flag pole, many stories below. You can see the flag pole in the pictures, only I'm sure it's a different flag pole.

We weren't alone up there either. A group of German and Japanese tourists were also enjoying the view from the top of the tower. Like most people from Buffalo, I was almost pathetically pleased that people from somewhere else (foreign countries, even) had come to appreciate the beauty of my city.
You can see the infamous flag pole in this picture.


Views from top of tower. Some of the water is Lake Erie, some is the Niagara River, dotted with islands.

Back in the lobby. (Ceiling.)
Then we hopped on the street car and went to the Erie Canal terminus, which is being restored. There wasn't much to see, really, but I remember rowing past these grain elevators when I did crew.

Street car station

We walked past the Guarantee building, designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and built in 1896.