Month: December 2014

Exit 35. It’s been nice knowing you, 2014.

It’s that time of the year when everyone is compiling the events of the year.  Everyone seems inundated with lists of the top songs of the year, the top movies of the year, and those questionable automatically generated Facebook year in review posts.  And for as much as that stuff gets kind of old sometimes, I think there can be a lot of value in reflecting on the year, or on any time period for that matter.

However, it seems like these days, reflecting on the end of the year is just depressing for me.  That is why I haven’t really written much on the end-of-year reflection topic at the end of the last few years.  I’ve felt like I don’t have much to reflect on.  Had I taken the time to reflect on 2012 or 2013, it would have sounded something like this:  I’m still living in the same place.  Still not married, still no kids.  Still at the same job that barely pays enough to pay the bills with no room for advancement.  That’s why I’ve just kept all this to myself.  This may also be part of the reason I haven’t done Christmas card letters in recent years.

I’m going to try to be more positive this year.  And what I just said isn’t all true this year.  I’m still living in the same place, I’m still not married, and I still don’t have kids.  But I have a new job.  It was a positive career move for me, and I’m making more money than I’ve ever made before.  I’m not trying to suggest that these two statements necessarily go together, of course.  Money was not the only motivator in this career change.  But I was no longer happy where I was, and it seemed like the right time to return to public school.  So far it has been a positive change.

Something else significant that happened in 2014 was that I drank Pepsi a couple times, and I ate at Jack in the Box a couple times.  This seems frivolous, not to mention unrelated since JITB restaurants serve Coca-Cola products.  But those of you who know me well may know that I have carried out rather ridiculous boycotts of these two organizations for decades, all based on ridiculous reasons.  I’ve been anti-Pepsi since around 1989 (I should add that I didn’t discover that I liked cola-flavored drinks at all until a year or two later), when I noticed that they always seemed to have the most obnoxious celebrities and athletes in their commercials.  And while I grew up in a family that spent a lot of time eating fast food, Jack in the Box was never one of our regular choices.  I did eat Jack in the Box a few times as a young adult while with friends who wanted to go there, and Jack in the Box always seemed to get my order wrong, and that annoyed me.  (These were isolated incidents, not necessarily the same restaurant.)  But really, it’s time to grow up.  I still prefer Coca-Cola to Pepsi, and Jack in the Box still isn’t my favorite fast food.  But if someone brings a 2-liter of Pepsi to a party at my house, it’s okay to drink it instead of letting it go to waste, and if I’m out with someone and she offers me a sip of her Pepsi, it’s okay to drink it instead of making a big fuss about it.  And if I’m hungry, and there’s a Jack in the Box nearby, and I have a coupon (all people in attendance get 2 free tacos from JITB when the Sacramento Kings win), it’s okay to eat there.  I actually quite enjoyed my Sourdough Jack burger last week.  And if any of you are going to reply with some wisecrack about whether Coca-Cola or Pepsi makes a better toilet bowl cleaner, shut it.  I get it, but I’m not sharing my big moments in personal growth just so you can criticize my unhealthy life choices.

I went on an adventure in 2014, the likes of which I hadn’t been on since my four months of traveling in 2005.  This adventure was very much scaled down compared to 2005, and I was with family part of the time and staying in hotels most of the time, but it was still the biggest adventure I’ve had in a while.  I saw friends and relatives that I don’t get to see often, and I saw parts of California I’d never seen before, including a large chunk of the coast, and the Owens Valley and Mono Basin in far eastern California.  I’ve been wanting to do both of those drives for a long time, and it was good to finally take the leap and go for it.

A lot of other important things happened to me in 2014.  I started this blog.  I saw the Kings play the Lakers for the first time.  And the second time.  And the Kings won both of those games.  The San Francisco Giants won the World Series again, their third in the last five years.  I made new friends.  I reconnected with old friends.  And I made a serious attempt to reconnect with a friend from my early college years, whom I had not heard from since early 1996, only to find that she didn’t remember me; that was not the ending I was hoping for, but at least I don’t have to wonder anymore.

I’m considering making a list of goals for 2015… kind of like New Year’s resolutions, but I don’t like calling them resolutions.  If I have a list, it’ll be easier to talk myself into actually doing some of these things.  I remember posting something at the beginning of 2009 (those of you who are my friends on Facebook can probably go back and find it) where I made a list of goals for 2009.  One of them I chose not to say explicitly, but at the end of the year I said that it was accomplished.  I’ve only told a few people about this, but the goal in question was to ask a complete stranger on a date.  That is something totally out of my comfort zone, and even though it goes completely against the “lessons” I learned about dating from church groups in my early 20s, it’s not something I think is inherently wrong or a bad idea per se.  The opportunity presented itself out of nowhere later that year, one summer day, when I was on a bike ride, and I passed, and said hi to, the same girl on a walk three times.  I took her to dinner a few days later; we saw some friends of mine there who were all excited for me the next time I saw them that I had been on a date.  It didn’t go anywhere in the end, she told me on the second date that she wasn’t really feeling that way, but everything was handled well and we’re still on Facebooking terms five and a half years later.  The important part, though, is that I really do believe that having written that goal helped me make up my mind to take action, rather than just saying hi again and riding off.

I tried making the same goal for 2010, and even though that was the year of Mimosa and two other dates, none of those experiences fit into that description of asking a complete stranger on a date.  I attempted to ask a stranger on a date the last week of the year, so I wouldn’t feel like I left a goal unaccomplished, but that was a disaster.  But I at least made an attempt.  I need to take some time to figure out what I would like to accomplish in 2015.  It doesn’t make logical sense, but it does seem that I’m more motivated to do something if it gives me something to check off on a list of some sort.  I haven’t made my list yet, but that can be something to work on in the upcoming week.

I hope that all of you find some meaningful time to reflect on this last year.  It’s been nice knowing you, 2014.

Exit 34. I have mixed feelings about Christmas.

I have mixed feelings about Christmas.  I tell people it is both my favorite holiday and my least favorite holiday.

I love Christmas because of the reminders of, and opportunities to reflect on, how the Word of God became flesh and lived among us to show us the way to eternal life.  I hate Christmas because of the hectic rush to buy gifts and all the extra responsibilities that come up this time of year that keep me away from buying gifts.  I love the idea of giving.  I hate the way parents try to buy their children’s love through gifts.  I love the inviting celebration of O Come All Ye Faithful, I love the solemn reflection of Silent Night, I love the lighthearted fun and childhood memories of Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, and I love the second verse of What Child Is This because you get to say “ass” in church.  I hate the sultry creepiness of Santa Baby, the repetitive irritation of Last Christmas, and the date rape of Baby It’s Cold Outside.

It seems that as the years have gone on, I have found myself more and more in a rush to do things at the last minute.  The last time I wrote Christmas cards was 2008.  In 2009, the school where I worked at the time moved their schedule three weeks back, starting earlier and ending earlier, so that first semester finals would happen just before winter break instead of mid-January.  While this makes sense from the perspective of having a break between the semesters rather than having a break just before the end of the semester, it meant that I had to prepare and grade finals at the same time that I would be making all my holiday plans, and the annual routine of writing Christmas cards fell by the wayside at that point.  I have not written Christmas cards since.  It was around that same time that I started having more of a social life, and getting invited to more holiday-related social events, which took up many weekends and some weeknights during December, leaving me with no time to shop until around December 23, when I’d finally be off work.  And as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, there is an annual conference for math teachers that I often attend the weekend after Thanksgiving, which cuts even more into what little time I have for holiday shopping and card writing.

The result this year was a perfect storm of circumstances that made me more out of touch with the holidays than ever.  I didn’t have finals to prepare, since I’m now teaching younger students and we don’t have finals per se, but I’m learning a new curriculum this year, and that always makes things more time consuming.  I had some home maintenance issues to deal with that took up several hours, and I haven’t dealt with all of them yet.  Not only was I spending every spare moment working, but when I did have a couple hours to unwind, I was so tired that I didn’t feel like doing anything.

To make things worse, I’m horrible at giving gifts.  I’m just not good at picking out things that people would like.  Gift giving in my family was always like grocery shopping.  You make a list, and people buy stuff off the list.  In the past, when I’ve tried getting something for someone that they didn’t ask for, it ends up unused collecting dust on a shelf.  This has happened multiple times with my family and gifts I’ve given.

I don’t like feeling this way.  Christmas should be a time of joy and celebration, not a time of stress and exasperation.  And I’m not sure what I can do about it.  I can’t change the fact that December is a very busy time for me.  I suppose in the future, I can make a conscious effort to be more organized and get shopping done before Thanksgiving.  And I’m thinking of changing my Christmas card list to, say, a Flag Day card list, just because in June I actually have time to write people about what I’ve been doing for the last year.

For this year, though, I’m going to do the best I can.  I’m still going to Christmas parties.  I’m going to do the best I can with buying gifts for my family, even though they might end up being gift cards and IOUs.  And I’m going to try not to be stressed.

Merry Christmas, friends.

Exit 33. The epitome of everything that is wrong.

This week, I’m going to write about something controversial.  I tend to stay away from the controversial topics on this blog, mostly because I don’t want to alienate anyone.  But this is something that has been on my mind lately.  This is an issue on which people tend to have strong opinions one way or the other, and I always thought I knew where I stood, but I’m beginning to realize the issue may be more complicated than I thought.  What am I talking about that causes such strong opinions and arguments?  Gay rights?  Abortion?  Gun control?  Immigration?  The environment?  Education?  Creation vs. evolution?  A military conflict happening somewhere in the world?

No.  Today’s topic is Taylor Swift.

For those of you who live in a bubble and ignore everything coming out of Hollywood: Taylor Swift is a popular singer.  She began her career as a country singer, but later discovered she could make even more money and be even more popular by ditching country music and singing the kind of auto-tuned mass produced pop drivel that teenage girls love.  She is well known for dating flashy hotshot celebrities, dumping them after about 10 days, and writing man-hating songs about them.  It’s probably clear from this paragraph which side I take regarding being a fan of hers or not.

Anyway, I have two reasons why I chose to write about Ms. Swift.  The first is because she turns 25 today*.  And I’m going to point out that she shares a birthday with Amy Lee of the band Evanescence, actor Steve Buscemi, and actor Jamie Foxx, and I’m going to make each one of those names a link just so I’ll give you something else to click on other than Taylor Swift.  In fact, there will be a lot of links to click in this weeks’ post.  (*”Today” is December 13, 2014 as I write this, but it’s almost midnight so this won’t get published until the 14th.)  She also shares a birthday with my cousin, and I would have linked to a picture of my cousin and her hilarious kids except that I prefer to remain somewhat anonymous on this site.

The other reason to write about Taylor Swift is because she has a new song out right now (“Blank Space”) that I’ve been hearing a lot on the radio, and seeing a lot on my Facebook news feed.  The song, if you don’t feel like clicking, is about a woman who leads guys on with the sole purpose of using them and dumping them as if it were all a big game to her.  And to me, this song is the epitome of everything that is wrong with the way dating and relationships are done today.  Consider these actual quotes from the song:

  • “Love’s a game, want to play?”
  • “You know I love the players, and you love the game”
  • “[I’ll] Find out what you want, be that girl for a month”
  • “I get drunk on jealousy, but you’ll come back each time you leave”
  • “Boys only want love if it’s torture”

In the style of Inigo Montoya: Ms. Swift keeps using that word “love.”  I do not think it means what Ms. Swift thinks it means.

Love is a supreme act of selflessness, to put someone else completely before yourself and to choose to place the other life above yours forever.  Love is not a game, love is not torture, and love certainly is not about manipulating someone for some cheap thrill and tossing them in the trash when you’re done.  And yet there are so many out there who seem to treat it like that.  I’m not good at dating and things like that, and when I’ve tried to have conversations with others about this, I’ve been told that it is a game, particularly by people who don’t share my Christian viewpoint.  When you go on a first date, keep her guessing, hide some of yourself back so you look more intriguing, they say.  You have to wait the right amount of time before you call her, they say.   You play all these mind games, pretend to be what they want, you go to bed on the third date, then after you’ve been sleeping together for a while you talk about your future and it’s no big deal if there isn’t one because there are plenty of others out there, they say.

Bullsh*t, I say.

For as much as I’ve disagreed with the Josh Harris school of thought over the years, there are some things with which I agree with them.  The end goal of dating should always be marriage.  Unlike the Josh Harris types, I need to spend a lot of one-on-one time with someone before I know if marriage is a possible direction we’re heading, and I believe that it may take me months or even longer to know this.  However, relationships, dating, love, all that stuff isn’t all about me, and during this process of discovering whether or not someone is a potential marriage partner, clothes should stay on.  And the people involved should be themselves and communicate openly and clearly about their intentions.

So I don’t like Taylor Swift; why is it more complicated than I thought?  Because Blank Space is really catchy.  I first listened to it because a friend who is in the process of making some positive changes in her life told me to, saying that it reminded her of some of the suboptimal decisions she’d made in the past.  It’s got a beat I can dance to.  When Blank Space comes on the radio while I’m driving, occasionally I don’t even change the channel.  And it’s hilarious.  Taylor certainly has a sense of humor about herself and her reputation and all the rumors to actually record a song like this.  I think, at least I hope, it’s meant to be a little exaggerated.  The song is a bit thought-provoking for me also, as I try to figure out how to meet The Right One in a world with way too much of the love-is-a-game mentality.  And the question of whether or not the high is worth the pain is one that I’ve pondered often, in the context of whether a relationship or near-dating experience that ended badly had enough good memories previously so as to not feel like a waste of time.

But seriously, though, I think now I need to take Swiftamine.  Do you need a prescription for that?  Somewhere Dr. Doctor has a prescription form with a blank space.  And he’ll write my name.

Exit 32. Welcome to Warp Zone.

I recently returned from attending the California Mathematics Council North conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.  This really is an amazing place: a conference grounds built right next to the beach, in a forested area where deer occasionally are spotted running around, in a town full of big trees and old houses that is one of the best places I know of to take a walk.  But as much as I love talking about different parts of northern and central California, that’s not where I’m going with this today.

A few days before the conference, I asked the principal and the other math teachers I work with if there was anything specific they wanted me to look for.  No one said anything in particular, although one coworker asked if Dan Meyer was speaking, since he is one of her favorite speakers at events like this.  (I have not had time to properly vet Mr. Meyer’s blog, so if you click the link, be aware that the content belongs entirely to Mr. Meyer, and Highway Pi does necessarily endorse any of the opinions or writings shared my Mr. Meyer.)  I was planning out my weekend, and I saw that the title of Mr. Meyer’s talk was “Video Games and Making Math More Like Things Students Like.”  With a title like that, how could I not attend this talk?

Dan Meyer is an alumnus of UC Davis, my alma mater, and he is currently working on his Ph.D. at a major private university in Northern California which (no disrespect to Mr. Meyer) I dislike so strongly that it shall not be named in this blog.  He is a young guy, probably younger than me, considering that he received his B.S. from UC Davis a full five years after I did.  He does a lot of these talks, apparently.  I went into the talk willing to put aside my bias against his affiliation with Voldemort University (I did not know at the time that he also had a UC Davis connection).  I was expecting something that looked a bit like what I already do in the classroom, where I’ll make up word problems on quizzes about Mario and Link to get the students more engaged in what they are doing.

That is not what the talk was about at all.

At one point, Mr. Meyer was talking about real-world relevance of mathematics tasks.  This is a big thing with textbook writers.  The example he gave (probably from a high school pre-calculus textbook, although considering he’s from Voldemort University and the Silicon Valley, where so many people are so well educated, his classes probably do this in Algebra II) involved graphing fourth-degree polynomials.  This is normally a pretty dry topic, so the textbook he was citing from as an example had a picture of a snowboarder and made the graph be the number of Americans who participated in snowboarding.  Now, all of a sudden, according to textbook author logic, fourth-degree polynomials are cool… but that doesn’t really help students who don’t get it in the first place.

This was humbling to me, because what the textbook author did here is pretty much the same thing I do when I retype quizzes and make them about Mario and Link.  I’m still going to keep doing that, because the students seem to enjoy it, and those problems are still less dry than the ones that come with the textbook.  I still believe that these make my class more enjoyable for students.  But the point that Mr. Meyer was making was that this is not the kind of fundamental change that brings student success.  And those are not the connections with video games that he was there to talk about.

The talk was not just about connecting video games to the classroom; the point Mr. Meyer was making was about how video games engage students, and how we can engage them in math the same way.  For example, real world relevance the way textbooks do it is not what determines students’ engagement, because video games are much more engaging, and they do not take place in the real world.  Video games capture students’ attention despite the fact that none of these students have ever seen a portal gun, a Goomba, or an angry bird with a slingshot in real life, so contriving real world situations like the snowboard example above doesn’t help students.  Video games (at least most of them less than 30 years old) leave the path to the goal open-ended, so we should construct math problems that give students multiple options for how to reach understanding of the topic.  Video games deal with failure by giving you another chance, so we should give students multiple chances to demonstrate their learning rather than base their entire success or failure on one test.

This talk, as well as many other things I heard this weekend, drove home the point that I really have a lot of room for improvement in my teaching.  With the new curriculum standards, the focus is turning from students’ ability to get the right answer to students’ ability to reason and understand concepts.  I’ve always treated reasoning and understanding as an ideal goal in my teaching, but in the past, students have still been able to get by in my class by memorizing and getting the right answer.  The new standards and the new curriculum are forcing me to bring my actual teaching in line with those ideals.  It’s difficult, and I’m having to do a lot of things differently from what I’ve done before, but it’s exciting too.

One of my favorite books is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.  This 2011 novel is set in a dystopian 2040s, in which society is falling apart, and everyone escapes from their reality in a giant virtual-reality video game called OASIS that had grown over the decades into a social network, an operating system, and so much more.  (Imagine if World of Warcraft and Facebook had a baby.)  The OASIS’ late creator, who was born in 1972, was obsessed with the popular culture of his childhood, and he hid a series of very difficult puzzles in the OASIS, essentially a treasure hunt, that will lead to fame and fortune for whomever solves them first.  Wade, the protagonist who tells the story in first person, is trying outwit a bunch of shady corporate bigwigs, who form the villains of the story.  The puzzles make reference to early video games and 1970s and ’80s music and movies, which is what made it such a fun book to read.  I’m glossing over a lot of the back story; you’ll just have to read it yourself.

At one point, everything looks hopeless, and the corporate bigwigs appear to be winning.  It is in this hour of darkness that Wade says my favorite quote from the entire book: “Like any classic video game, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level.  A new level often required an entirely new strategy.”

Sometimes, playing video games as a kid, I would get to a level that was really hard, and I would find some way to skip it.  Super Mario Bros. 3 comes to mind, with the cloud, or the warp zone whistle, or the P-Wing that would give me the power to just fly over all the enemies.  My career is at a new level.  The last level got really hard, so I got a new job; this is analogous to using the warp whistle, to escape to a different level.  And this new level is harder.  Welcome to Warp Zone.  There are a lot of new challenges before, and what I did before may not get me through them.  But I’m working on a new strategy.  And every day, I have another chance to try new strategies for the challenges I face in life.  It’s like getting an extra life.

(P.S.  Because I know some of you are curious, here is a link to the same talk that he previously gave at a different conference:

Exit 31. One of the most torturous experiences.

This is officially the most sleepless night I’ve ever had.

I have been awake right now for between 20 and 21 hours.  That isn’t unusual.  But what is unusual about all this is that I work tomorrow.  My alarm for work is going to go off in less than an hour, and I don’t feel myself getting any more tired.  Usually when I have nights like this, I toss and turn for a few hours, but I end up still getting around three hours of good sleep.  Not tonight.  I went to bed a little late, but still early enough to get a solid five hours of sleep.  After that, I proceeded to toss and turn for three and a half hours, then I gave up on trying to sleep and eventually, after going to the bathroom and fiddling with the laptop, which isn’t connecting to the wifi for some reason, started writing this.  It was a rather arbitrary decision to choose 90 minutes before the time my alarm was set for as the cutoff for when to give up, mostly because of one particularly memorable sleepless night a few years ago in which I got approximately 90 minutes of sleep.  But even before then, with about two hours left to go before the alarm would go off, I knew I wasn’t going to be getting any sleep, because I could feel myself getting more awake, my mind feeling more anxious and restless.

To me, being unable to sleep feels like one of the most torturous experiences.  I feel so helpless.  There is nothing I can do about it.  I can’t command my body to be more tired.  All I can do is ride it out, lie there in bed as I toss and turn trying in vain to get comfortable, while my mind races with thoughts of the day that just happened and the same two songs run through my head, playing over and over again but never finishing, yet switching abruptly from one song to the other.  In case you were curious, this time it was Voices Carry by Til Tuesday, and The Longest Time by Billy Joel.  And in between all of that, I am haunted by thoughts of the decisions I made during the day that might have somehow caused me to be unable to fall asleep.  Tonight, the issues in question are how I’ve been eating like crap for the last several days, and that I had a rather large quantity of Dr Pepper about 10 hours ago.  Caffeine seems to have an unpredictable effect on my body.  When I drink Dr Pepper or Coca-Cola with the hope that the caffeine will keep me awake, it doesn’t, but it has been known to keep me awake on nights when I don’t want to stay awake.  Go figure.

Right now, in general, it feels like my life has been spiraling out of control, and this goes back a lot farther than having had Dr Pepper earlier, or last night, or whatever you call it in this situation.  My house still needs cleaning after having hosted a friend’s birthday party Saturday night.  I had a really fun weekend and time off, but I haven’t had enough me time lately.  I’ve been spending very little time reading the Bible and in prayer, and this has been a general trend for several months now.  I haven’t been eating well, as I pointed out earlier.  I really need to take time to get those things under control.  And with a busy week ahead, and a conference I’m going to this coming weekend, all weekend, the only way I’m going to get any of that time is to remove all distractions and everything unnecessary from my schedule this week.  But I’m going to have to do all that while getting all my work done this week, and I won’t get home from work until 3:30pm at the earliest, at which time I will have been awake for over 31 hours.  (This will approximately tie my personal record for hours without sleep, set on the day of the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

But I have no choice but to go through with it.  I’m going to feel awful today.  But sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.  Hopefully this will motivate me to eat better and not waste so much time.