Thursday, February 23, 2006

Boston = Minnesota? To me...perhaps...

Do you have a view, a scene, something that you could sit and literally watch for hours? Something, perhaps, that most people walk by without really noticing? Or, perhaps they notice it but don't see it the same way you do?

Bet you can guess that I have one of these scenes. Bet you already guessed that that's what I'm blogging about today. Bet, if you've read my blog before, that you could probably even guess what that scene is.

Only my favorite view of Boston's skyline, as seen from the Longfellow Bridge. Over-looking the water, the silent giants towering above the lines of old buildings and steeples from old churches. It's got such a layered effect...I always see something new every time I look at it.

But I've talked on and on about how much I like looking at this view of Boston. Check out my archives to hear more about what I have to say about this scene. No, the real reason that I'm writing today is because I find it curious how those scenes become favorites. What makes a thing, a scene, an action so intriguing to a person that he/she could literally sit and watch it for hours? Obviously it has a whole lot to do with the person and his/her unique personality and preferences. But, what I think is cool, is that everyone has something that they can say this about...that they will never tire of watching.

For me, it's peaceful, calming. It helps me unwind from the stress of work, or helps me let go of the muddle of too many thoughts racing through my head. It's become my own little ritual to watch that scene as I pass by it on the T to and from work. And I find myself feeling a little off if I miss a day. I peek through people when the train is crowded, just to catch a glimpse of "my skyline." Because that's how I think of it. It's my Boston skyline, because it's become such a personal scene.
Something about this view of Boston speaks to me...clears my head. The gentle, unassuming way that the two towers of Boston mingle with the lesser buildings surrounding them. The quietness that seems to pour out of this scene. The familiarity of certain buildings that I've come across on my walks through the city. The casual beauty of the mix of tall buildings and water of the Charles in the full view of this scene.

I don't know why it continues to throw me into a state of wonder everytime I look at this skyline. But, I always feel a bit like a child looking at snow for the first time, or peering through the windows of a candy store. Filled with awe and wonder and excitement, humbled by the great size of what I see before me, rendered a bit speechless because of the magic of what I see.

In an odd way, it reminds me of Minnesota...looking at a scene of the woods near a lake, or looking out over a field of wheat or corn, or watching wild grass blowing in the wind. Two very different a developed, fast-paced city, the other a vast amount of wild, undeveloped land. But somehow, both put me in such a serene and contented mood. Somehow, they're so very simiilar. Somehow, this view of Boston always reminds me of home.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My absence from my blog of late...

Part 1
I haven't been blogging a lot in recent weeks. The gap between my last posts and the ones before is almost a month, I think. I've told myself it's because I'm busy...I'm always on the go. And, while that's true, it's not the full reason.

The truth is that I've become shy of the "audience factor" that comes with a blog. Not shy of the anonymous people that may read this or that on my blog, or even the people who find my blog and read the whole thing. I don't know them. I won't know them. The whole reason I like blogging so much is because I've always written in journals as if I'm speaking to someone...and a blog just makes that "someone" real.

No, I've become shy of my known audience. That is, either the people I know who read my blog on a regular basis (friends, family, etc.) or the people I perceive as possible readers.

But getting back to the main subject: this shyness has gradually made me think twice before posting something, in case I say something that someone I know might read in the future and judge me for. Ridiculous? That's what I said to myself as I came to realize that I've been doing this. And it's been a gradual thing over the past couple of months. Stepping carefully around subjects that are important to me but more neutral and less personal.

But, really, I started this blog because I wanted a place to write myself into. If I wanted a political commentary or a discussion forum, this blog would be named something else or I would have used a different medium to put forth my ideas. No, this blog is for me. Regardless of who reads it. Because, in the end, if they don't like what they read, then we probably won't get along all that well. This is me.

Part 2
So, why the "Part 1" piece of this post? And now what's the subject of Part 2? Read on, my friend, and all will become clear...

Why is it that girls define their worth based on what guys think of them? Or how many dates they've had in a given length of time? Or how many boyfriends they've had (or serious relationships, flings, etc.)? I mean, think about it. So many girls (and women, too...I use "girls" in the generic sense meaning all females, for future reference) worry over why a guy hasn't called, or what a guy may be thinking, or what not to say to make sure a guy will like them. Girls stay in a relationship that's unhealthy because they figure it's better than being alone, right? Having a guy is almost like a status simple among the female side of the species. Oh sure, we all say that single is the way to go, but you'll hear us later lament about all the girls who have a guy and how much we'd like to get one ourselves. One of our own, that wants to be with only us. [Okay, that last sentence could be mistaken as meaning he's into multiple girls...but you know what I'm saying, right? It's just the stupidity of the English language and needing to match the number I was writing in. I'm too tired to go back and figure out how to make it less awkward. So we move on...]

An example:
You meet a guy. He's nice, he seems funny, he's got a smile that would melt any heart, and gorgeous brown eyes (or blue or gray or green...pick a color, pick a feature). You hang out with him, say on a Thursday evening, for a few hours. Great conversation, lots of fun. You go home walking on clouds. That excitement is pouring out of you. And he's so hot!

Fast forward through the weekend (you were pretty busy that weekend). It's Monday. No contact from him. You begin to wonder--not a lot, of course, but just a tad--is he really into you as much as you he was last Thursday (or Wed or whatever day you hung out with him)? But whatever, you've got Mon night plans, so you put it out of your head. Tuesday comes. You've got a semi-formed plan in your head about how long to wait before giving him a call. But it'd be sooo great if he called you. You freak out to all of your friends: when should I call him? why hasn't he called? is this normal? what if I wait too long before calling back? what is too long?

Suddenly, this is all you think about. You reanalyze every piece of your time together and highlight parts that could have made him like you less. That must be it, you start telling yourself. Like the saying goes: he's just not that into you. That's why (only 4-5 days after you saw him last) he hasn't called.

What does this illustrate? A dependency on what he thinks of you. If he doesn't like you, if he never calls, if he seems aloof and uninterested when you call him back eventually, it'll be awful! You'd conclude that there must be something wrong with you. And then you'd brood over how to make whatever's (supposedly )wrong with you somehow different so it's no longer wrong. ...whatever that undefined "something wrong" is...

But, this is all wrong! It's not what he thinks. It's what you think. Because, in the end, there's no guarantee that he (or some other guy, or some other guy after that) will always be around to reassure you that you matter. But you will always be around yourself. And you have the power to tell yourself that you're worth it.

Turns out, it's quite possible that I'm speaking from personal experience. I do feel like I forget what I think of myself because I get preoccupied with what other people think of me. And I hate that. It's a horrible feeling. Fear of what others think...probably one of the worst fears you can have. And probably also one of the hardest habits to break: to just stop worrying what others think and do what you do because you want to do it, not because someone else thinks you should.

And really, this goes beyond my little scenario with the's at the base of peer pressure, at the base of insecurity of self, at the base of so many people's lives. So many people in today's world act on what others tell them to do, just so that they'll be liked, or fit in. And I know what I describe sounds like childhood peer pressure. But, it happens to adults, too. Often in much more subtle, but powerful ways. We just know how to hide it better so it's not as obvious that we're acting under peer pressure.

If society today tells us anything, it's to conform. Don't break out of the norm. Don't cause a scene. Keep things smooth. Keep them simple. Tension and disagreement is a hassle. Children learn this on the playground, in their social circles at school, on their favorite TV program. Teenagers succumb to this...drugs and alcohol and sex enter the picture. Or bad grades to keep up an image. Or harsh words to a former childhood friend because they run in a different social circle. Adults then continue this in the workplace, at the grocery store, with friends at a movie or while they're out shopping. Our world has become one great big blob of conformity.

Thus, we have to worry about what others think of us, because if 'they' disapprove, we've broken out of the norm and into a realm of unconformity...and become *gasp* a rebel. Such awful connotations surround this word...because it's equated with dropping out of the norm, out of the conformist world that we live in.

Taking this back a step to my earlier example with guys. Girls feel the need to be a cookie-cutter "perfect" girl. Beautiful, proper, right height, right weight, right age, right breast-size, right thoughts and actions and interests.

And, thinking back about all that I've written, it all just seems to silly to me. Utterly ridiculous when it's all spelled out in front of me.

And yet, I'm just as much a victim of this need to conform as the next person. I like to tell myself that I'm not, and it's certainly true that I run my own way for certain things. But, let's face it, I do worry about what others think of me, and I do still feel the need to fit into the mold that our conformist society has created for us all.

So I'm left wondering: is there a way to break free from that completely? Or will I always feel the need to conform to something?

[It's been awhile since I didn't edit a post before I put it up on my blog. This is the raw, uncut, and unedited version. (Okay, except for spell-checker. Biggest pet peeve of mine is misspelled words...) No holds barred, no thoughts censored to sugar-coated. Just the real deal as I see it, in my classic, rambling, stream-of-thought style. I look back at my intro beneath the name of my blog, and feel like I have once again returned to the feeling I want my blog to give off to whomever chooses to read it. Random thoughts flowing from my brain into my keyboard as I type. Just the way I like it.]

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The joy of competition

I went to a Blues Party at a friend's house down in Providence last night. We all made our way over after the big Providence Swings dance (an excellent time, to be sure). This is the second time there's been a Blues Party at this friend's house...she's got a sweet space for blues dancing.

At the first Blues Party she threw, we broke out the Jenga, and about 8 of us played. Another friend of mine (one of the 8 playing) is a pretty competitive player, as am I. It happened to work out so I was in front of him in the rotation for pulling Jenga pieces out of the tower. And so, of course, my entire goal was to make him lose. [I love that Jenga doesn't have a only has a loser. It just seems so weird since most every other game has a distinct winner.]

And the 2 of us just ripped into each other during that game. You never thought Jenga could be so cutthroat competitive, huh? Never heard trash talk over the table due to a Jenga game? Well, you've obviously never played with us. It makes the game that much more interesting. And Jenga is a favorite of mine. My brother and I grew up playing the game and practicing taking out the impossible pieces. So my Jenga hands are steady as they come. My friend is the same way...makes bold moves, takes pieces that are difficult to get out with the intention of making the tower more difficult for the next person to manipulate without toppling it. I didn't end up making him lose, but it was fun to make the tower precarious enough to almost make him lose every time the rotation came around to us. Everyone else in the circle kept getting more and more agitated because of the insanity that my friend and I were pulling to try and make each other lose. It was an intense game.

So, the point of this background story:
At the Blues Party last night, my friend and I broke out the Jenga again. And everyone else declined to play. (Well, the first time we played, one girl, who hadn't been at the first Blues Party, joined us and lost almost immediately...) So we went head-to-head. Just the two of us, playing a very intense game of Jenga. Trash talk reached a new level between us. And the gasps and tension from the audience around us made everything even more fun! And, guess who won? Oh, that'd be me. It was awesome! And, if you'll permit me a few bragging rights: I made a great that shot him the losing blow. I kept getting lucky and grabbing the side pieces that came out smoothly and easily. But I eventually picked one that just wasn't having it, and did not want to come out. Now, we'd been playing for awhile, so the bottom was four levels of single middle pieces stacked up, followed by a lot of other holes toward the bottom. [He and I very rarely, if ever, take middle pieces. Makes the game more interesting, and more challenging.]

I honestly thought I might lose for a second, as I began trying to get the piece out of the tower. The piece I chose was high up on the tower, so I didn't have the leverage of the tower's weight to counteract the pressure I had to use to get the piece out. Everyone around us was sure I was going to lose also. And the tower shifted a lot! But, as I jimmied the piece out, I could feel the shifts of the tower, and knew I could get the tower to stay up. [That's really what Jenga's all about: feeling the nuances of change in the weight placement and balance of the tower. If you pay attention to those nuances, you can be sure that 9 times out of 10 you can keep the tower up just by making sure you shift the tower into a balanced position again.] So, I copped a smug look mixed with the concentration face, and slowly took the piece out, slightly moved the tower to make sure it'd stay up, and plunked the piece on top of the tower. [Wild applause and gasps of surprise from a crowd that seconds before had been so pessimistic about my chances of winning the game.] The tower had shifted enough from my jimmying and wiggling to get that piece out, so that one more touch would make it topple. And sure enough, my friend went for a piece, and the tower came tumbling down. It was awesome.

Now, like I said before, I'm a very competitive person. So, winning (which is only possible in Jenga when you play with just 2 people, like the game I just talked about) always comes with gloating rights. And I really enjoy being in company of people who are as insanely competitive as I am, because then I can cash in on the gloating rights. It was awesome, as I said before. Later on, when I saw my friend again, I apologized for my somewhat excessive gloating display over the Jenga game, because to most people, that can be over-the-top and offensive even. But he just smiled and said, "No you're not." "You're right, I'm really not," said I. And then he chuckled and said, "Besides, I'd have done the same thing if I won..."

And that's what I love. I love people who are as into the competition as I am. People that will trash talk over a board or card game and then shrug it all off after the game is over. And it's hard to find people like that. I've realized that as I've gotten older. Many people can't take the heat. [Not that there's anything wrong with that necessarily, the intense heat of competition isn't for everyone.]

My friend and I are hard-core board game competitors. Most of our other friends decline to play one-on-one games with us because we get so into it, and we get into the strategy behind the game. Othello is another game at which he and I face off. Some people may say that that's a fault, something bad about both of us...evidenced by the fact that people don't want to play with us. And, I guess you could see it that way. But, the way I see it, everyone has to be able to have fun while they're playing a game. And I have more fun with a little trash talk during a game. He and I grew up in hard-core competitive game-playing families. So, true fun in a board game, for both of us, comes from the competitive nature of the game. Now, obviously, I'm not always that intense. You have to tone in down for others that aren't as into the competition. And I can still have fun at a more relaxed game. But my energy and excitement in any game is always more charged and fueled much more by that spark of competitive spirit from the other players against me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Legalized CHEATING?!?!?!

With a title like that, you have no choice but to read on...

Let me set the stage:
Students using their cell phones to text each other answers during their history test.
Other students looking up scholars' opinions on the book about which they're writing their English essay tests.
Students googling the meaning of words for their vocab tests on their PDAs.

A teacher's worst nightmare? Hardly. Actually, the teacher approves, and *gasp* even encourages this behavior!!! says an article in the Wall Street Journal last month. Schools today are having increasing problems with the issue of cheating. We live in a world where students have cell phones that connect to the internet and have text capabilities with QWERTY keyboards on them. They have PDAs that Google as fast as the laptop from which I write this. The technological age puts a huge amount of information right our fingertips, and today's youth have become exceptionally adept at accessing and using this information in ways that schools are having a hard time keeping up with.

The obvious reaction (at least, the way I see it): don't let them bring these technological devices to class. The problem, if not totally solved, is significantly reduced. There will always be those students who try to pull stuff, and then there are consequences. But, for the most part, this would cease to be an issue.

This Wall Street Journal article, Legalized 'Cheating', dated January 21, 2006, speaks to a very different approach that some schools are taking on this issue. Instead of cracking down on the cheating, they are changing the definition of cheating in their classrooms. Teachers allow students to collaborate via text messaging while taking a test, or Google information during an exam. According to this article, the most important thing today is to teach students how to access information and use it properly, not merely memorize and regurgitate the subject matter being tested. The article goes on to claim that this issue mirrors the "upheaval caused when calculators became available in the early 1970s." Teachers and schools had to change with the times, rethink how they defined education, and eventually calculators were allowed in classrooms, on tests, and became an accepted part of our society.

But see, here's the thing...using a calculator on the math test is NOT the same thing as using a cell phone to text messages answers on a test to your friend. Calculators aren't giving you the answer. You have to understand the math concept at least a little bit in order to use the calculator to produce the correct answer. Texting your friends for answers on a test involves no thinking whatsoever. Looking up scholarly articles on the Internet to aid you in writing your essay exam is merely allowing you to parade around opinions without really doing any thinking on your own.

My opinion? [As if you had a choice other than to hear what I think about this...] This is only going to make our country stupider. These schools, these teachers, these classrooms are teaching their students that they don't need their own store of knowledge, so long as they know how to use the resources around them to find the information they need. Hey, great! No more thinking! Kids'll love coming to school now! No challenge for their brains. No work to do because it's already been done for them by someone else! All they have to do is find it.

Geez! No wonder education in the United States is getting worse. This is yet another agregious case of lowered expectations. If we can't expect kids to think on their own, to take a little responsibility for their education and, I don't know, study a little for that test, then we shouldn't expect to keep our role as a superpower in the global community. I know that's a huge jump to take, but think about can we expect to continue to be a role model for other countries if we breed children that we then bring up to be idiots? Freedom of thought--one of the fundamental rights I enjoy, as do all my fellow citizens, as an American--is a powerful thing, perhaps even one of the most powerful options available to us in America. It sets us up to be individuals, to act and react on our own merits, to see the world around us and interpret it openly. It takes away the cage of ignorance. But, I couldn't even have the option of enjoying this freedom if I was brought up learning to use others' ideas as my own.

And I think that's where my utter disgust with this article and the idea it holds truly lies. It's not the principle of the issue of cheating. It's not a sense of traditionalism over what we consitute as "cheating." It's the fact that this concept (of letting kids collaborate or look up info on the web during a test) is killing their right to freedom of individual thought. It's killing their option to even know what freedom of thought is. They may grow up never even knowing what it's like to have their own opinion. They'll be dependent on what others say in order to know what they think about something. And what kind of place would America be with a bunch of blind sheep walking around thinking things that others have thought up for them? Not my America. Not yours either.

I know I took this to the extreme. I know I'm over-exaggerating the ramifications of this 'redefining cheating' thing. But, I did it for a reason. The people quoted in the article that are defending their new system have no idea what they are doing to these children. It's not enough to just get the kids through school and have them know the very minimum of an American education. If we want to raise the quality of our educational system, we have to push kids much harder and much further than they think they can go. Isolated actions like allowing kids to 'cheat' and redefining it as 'not cheating,' when taken separately, are not that big of a deal, sure. But when put together with all of the other crap happening in our country's educational system, all of those isolated actions suddenly meld to become a huge tidal wave of lowered standards and lowered expectations. It's bringing down our country, it's unfair to these kids, and really, it's just plain wrong.

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