Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Slice of Life: Polishing Rocks and Finding a Passion for Learning

     Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

Rocks rock!  I remember when I was younger there was a time that I went through a super geology geek phase.  I believe it all started with a field trip to the local geological nirvana.

Cave of the Mounds is a National Natural Landmark and an awesome place to explore as a young nerd.  We spent a lot of time before the trip learning about stalactites (hold on tight to the ceiling) and stalagmites (might reach the top at some point) and other important cave information.  Then, we set off to the caves and took tours and stared in awe at the way nature creates these amazing spaces.

Although I enjoyed the tour and the awesome picnic lunch at Bluemound State Park (complete with the can of soda wrapped in tin foil to keep it cold--a rare treat), my favorite time of the day was the small amount of time we had to explore the gift shop.  This place was FULL of amazing rocks.  They were shiny, polished little pieces of heaven.  I remember buying some Pyrite (Fool's Gold) because I thought it was hilarious that there was a rock that looked so much like gold but had no value.  I also bought an assortment of polished stones.  How could normal, everyday rocks look so beautiful?  How did they do that? Oh, and geodes were so COOL!  

I went home and probably annoyed the heck out of my parents geeking out about rocks and minerals.  I was so excited about how there were such gorgeous rocks out there.  I started watching everywhere I went and picking up rocks that I thought were pretty.  Of course, most rocks were not very different, but I was putting together quite a collection.

Then my parents got me this:

This was one of those presents that you immediately get out of the box to use it.  I think it came with a small bag of rocks to polish.  My parents were excited about the rock tumbler too.  Until we turned it on.  That machine was SOOO LOUD!!!  The rock tumbler was banished to the garage.  No matter, I still could polish the heck out of all the rocks I wanted to shine.  I was over the moon about it.

Once I ran out of my own rocks to polish, my mother took me to visit the coolest store on the planet.  It is a rock store in Madison that still exists today.

This place is the most amazing place.  There are crystals and geodes and agate slices for home decoration.  There are pebbles and stones that have been polished.  There are other rocks waiting to be polished.  And there is apparently a jewelry section.  This makes sense, but I did not notice that as a kid.  I was able to buy rough looking rocks there and take them home to polish in the tumbler.  

The best part of the whole thing was being able to take something that was rough and bring out its potential.  I delighted every time I opened up the tumbler to see a new set of shiny rocks to display.  

As I think back to this phase of my childhood, it is apparent to me how very lucky I was to have teachers who inspired this passion for geology with a field trip and parents who encouraged it.  How much did I learn about rocks and minerals during this time of my life?  Well, being the absolute nerd that I was, I read all about everything that I came across.  I learned about crystal formation and made rock candy, I learned about how different types of rocks form, I learned about fossils, and I learned about caves.  Sure I learned some of it in school, but the depth of my knowledge reached far beyond the scope of what was being taught to my classmates.  This was my very own passion.  The light was lit under me and I was motivated to know everything there was to know about rocks.  

This makes me pause and think about the opportunities I provide my students.  Do they have the opportunity to discover a passion for something and learn about it?  Do my students have families that would support this type of learning? Would they even know how?  

As I think about how to structure my classroom for the fall, I certainly will be thinking about rocks.  How I fell in love with them in elementary school.  How they surprised me with their beauty.  How my passion drove my learning.  If this is not a reason to try to ignite passion and encourage individual inquiry, I don't know what is.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Slice of Life: Living in Wisconsin

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

Last Thursday, my husband and I dropped the dog off at a doggy spa and took off to Madison.  My mother and stepfather live in Madison, so we go quite often.  Thursday seemed like the perfect day for a little spontaneity and so I suggested that we take a different route to get to Madison.  We enjoy craft beer and there are a number of small breweries in Wisconsin.  This seemed like a fun time to try one out.  So we took off with the idea of going to visit the New Glarus brewery.

Thursday was a spectacularly sunny day and the scenery was absolutely gorgeous.  Since we were taking a highway that was south of the one we usually take, we were treated to different landscapes.  Wisconsin is beautiful in the summertime and we enjoyed seeing the farm animals.  As we drove, it made me think back to the book I was reading at the time American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.  There is a passage in the beginning of that book that perfectly described how I was feeling at the time:

Then we were back in Wisconsin, a place that in late summer is thrillingly beautiful...to think of Wisconsin specifically or the Midwest as a whole as anything other than beautiful is to ignore the extraordinary power of the land.  The lushness of the grass and trees in August, the roll of the hills (far less of the Midwest is flat than outsiders seem to imagine), that rich smell of soil, the evening sunlight over a field of wheat, or the crickets chirping at dusk on a residential street: All of it, it has always made me feel at peace.  There is room to breathe, there is a realness to the place.  The seasons are extreme, but they pass and return, pass and return, and the world seems far steadier than it does from the vantage of a coastal city...But the Midwest: It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on.  It is the place I am calmest and most myself.

The drive was peaceful and relaxing and I loved seeing the amazing countryside and the farms.  My husband and I rode in companionable silence, listening to the music he enjoys, and commenting once in awhile on something we saw out the window.

Then, after about the third time the GPS told us "drive 15 miles..." to the next turn, I started to feel a shift in mood in the car.  My husband started looking at the clock and muttering and the enjoyment started to falter.  You see, my husband is not cut out for road trips.  For him, the idea of being stuck in a car driving for hours is a form of torture.  My assurances that this trip would not be longer than the trip to Madison had been adamant and now I was being proven wrong.  Whoops!

About thirty minutes after I thought we would arrive, we had reached our destination.  New Glarus brewery makes a number of beers that are distributed around the Midwest, among them is the most popular of their brews, Spotted Cow.

They are also known for making fruit beers, such as Raspberry Tart, which is a lambic-style beer.  The brewery is really pretty and built into a hillside in a very rural part of Wisconsin.  It is south of Madison and has a nice setting.

The place was really beautiful and it was kind of nice to be able to go on a self-guided tour.  They offered 3 beer samples for $3.50 and you then keep the tasting glass.  We enjoyed a cold beer on a super hot day and had a good time stretching our legs and walking through the brewery.  I wish they would have had some small museum-like plaques at certain points along the way to explain what we were seeing.  Having been on multiple tours of breweries, we were pretty knowledgable but it would have been nice to have some unique information from this one.  

After having our samples, we were ready to set out on the road again.  There were a few grumbles from my husband about the fact that it was later than he had anticipated, but nothing too difficult to deal with. After all, I was having a lovely road trip.  

When we got to Madison, we met my mother and stepfather at their condo and then went to have dinner.  After eating, we headed to the Memorial Union terrace.  The terrace is one of the things I miss most now that we don't live in Madison.  Ask any Badger and you will know, this is one special place. There is even a construction sign that agrees with me!

My husband Ramon and my stepfather Jim decided to jump into my photo.  

Putting our heads together to plan.  

After enjoying some beer together on the terrace, it was time to head back.  Before leaving the union, I had to make one last pit stop: the ice cream counter.  If you have never tried Babcock hall ice cream, you are missing out.  The dairy is actually part of the School of Agriculture at UW-Madison, and they make phenomenal stuff!

The best flavor ever! Chocolate Peanut Butter ice cream.  It is never the same anywhere else.
On Friday, we got to the real reason we had come to Madison.  Maxwell Street Days on State Street.

This is an annual sidewalk sale event on the best shopping street in Madison.  This is a pedestrian street in Madison which is lined with shops and restaurants.  For the last few years, my mother and I have gone to this massive sidewalk sale each year.  We have it down to a science.  There are a few stores that we know will have good deals on things that we want to buy.  We always get really good deals on things that we might not usually buy.  There is one particular boutique that carries things like Lug bags and Espe wallets in which we always spend some money.  We had a blast this time as well and got some great deals.

The crowded street leading up to the Capital square.  

After shopping in the morning, we decided to do something different in the afternoon.  We found ourselves heading to the Capital brewery...might as well make it a beer weekend, right?  So we went out to Middleton.  They have a great biergarten and a fun little tour.  So much fun!  

We ended our stay in Madison with a trip to the Madison Farmer's Market on Saturday morning.  This is an amazing market and so much fun to go to, if you get there early.  Later in the morning it can get quite crowded.  

Lately, my husband and I have been going back and forth with the idea of possibly moving somewhere.  After returning home from visiting my sister, I kind of had an epiphany about choosing to be happy wherever I am.  This trip to Madison certainly had me remembering many good times in my life as well as enjoying new fun times.  

Wisconsin is not too shabby and I am glad I had a chance to remind myself of that. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Slice of Life: That is NOT a Reuben

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

I love Reuben sandwiches.  I always have loved this perfect creation ever since I was a little kid.  Now, as an adult, I have become quite picky about my Reuben sandwiches.  A Reuben must be on toast that is not too dry, with just the right combination of dressing, sauerkraut, cheese and corned beef.  The corned beef must be tender and melt in your mouth.

I have learned to keep a careful record (at least mentally and to my husband's credit, mostly in his mind) of whether I enjoy this sandwich at each establishment I have tried it in.  There is nothing worse to me than ordering and anticipating a good Reuben sandwich and ending up with a soggy, ridiculous mess.

According to Wikipedia, which is most definitely a dubious source but one that most people turn to for everyday things,  "The Reuben sandwich is a hot sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, with Russian or Thousand Island dressing, and sauerkraut. These are grilled between slices of rye bread."
A Reuben sandwich on Marble Rye. YUM!
So, last week when my brother-in-law took me to a restaurant in the LA area to try their burger, I found myself swayed by the pull of my love for Reubens.  This restaurant, according to my brother-in-law and UrbanSpoon, was quite famous for their pastrami.  Any restaurant that makes good pastrami is sure to also make good corned beef, so I was eager to try a Reuben sandwich there.

I should have had the burger.

Um, people of LA, if it is made with pastrami, IT ISN'T A REUBEN SANDWICH!!!  After I already had my order, my brother-in-law proceeded to tell me that this is common in LA.  He has actually had arguments with other people about it.  WHAT?  Why didn't he tell me?!

Now, to the credit of the establishment we were in, it was a very good pastrami sandwich.  But it was not a Reuben sandwich.  It wasn't even toasted.  It was cold.  I know I should have read the menu better, but really they should not call it what it isn't.  

This was a small lesson about a few things.  

First, it made me think about all of the little regional things that we all take for granted every day.  Would someone from LA come here to Wisconsin and be disappointed that their Reuben sandwich was not made with pastrami?  This reminds me of having a Bloody Mary at brunch last year in LA.  Another regional expectation in Milwaukee? A beer chaser for the Bloody Mary. Out in LA there was not a chaser in sight.  These little things that are so dependent on your region amaze me.   I remember talking to my college roommate about having frozen custard and seeing the absolute look of disgust on her face.  No, I didn't take custard and put it in the freezer...it is a kind of ice cream that we thoroughly enjoy in Wisconsin.  Our country is such a vast place with all kinds of little idiosyncrasies.  So cool.  

Mmm...frozen custard.

Second, it made me think about the power of expectations.  I was vastly disappointed in a very good sandwich because I was expecting something else.  How often does that happen to us?  Think of the last time you went to a movie that people were raving about only to be let down when it didn't meet your expectations.  How often do we expect something different from what we get? And how often does that negatively affect our experience?  I am going to try to be less worried about what I expected and more focused on the good experience.  

So, thank you to that restaurant in LA for the outstanding pastrami sandwich.  It was delicious and the pastrami is certainly something for you to brag about.  But it was NOT a Reuben sandwich.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Slice of Life: Fourth of July

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.
     I used to love the 4th of July.

     When I was a kid we had this Independence Day parade in my neighborhood.  It was not the kind of parade that they close streets for and make floats for.  It was a cheap, noisy, exuberant celebration of the holiday and our neighbors.  We decorated bikes, tricycles, and wagons, and then the whole group of people proceeded to march through the neighborhood throwing confetti, ringing bells, and singing or yelling.  It was a celebration of where we lived as much as the holiday.  We enjoyed being around the other families in the neighborhood and had a free and fun time.
     After the parade, we often loaded up the car and drove off to my grandparents' house.  Each year our extended family could depend on two gatherings, one at Christmas and one on July 4th.  My grandparents lived in a nice neighborhood which was walking distance from one of the bigger parks in Madison where they set off fireworks.  Every year my family had excellent seats for the fireworks in the front yard of my grandparents' house or the balcony.  Kids would be running around and we would pig out on the amazing potluck of treats that had been made for that day.  Some years a group of us kids would walk with a few of the moms to the park, where they had a carnival.  I remember coming back from the carnival with all kinds of junk, which at the time was treasure.  I mean, who wouldn't want a big pair of clown sunglasses with flag designs?  The best part of these days was just the time spent with family.
     As a child, there is nothing better than a free parade followed by a family picnic.  
     Then, in the summer of 1991, when I was 13, this holiday changed forever.  On July 2nd, 1991, my father died.  He was at home when he suffered a second heart attack that his pacemaker just couldn't stop.  I was the one who called 9-1-1 and watched my mother lose her mind with grief.  He was rushed to the hospital but no one could do anything for him at that point.  That summer, the 4th of July celebrations did not exist for us.  The only thing I remember about the week that this happened is that I went out with some friends to get out of the house for a few hours.  We went to a small firework display in a town nearby and all I wanted to do was go home.  I think this is why I think of my dad whenever I see fireworks.  Independence Day is a lot less fun nowadays.

   Today is the 22nd anniversary of my father's death.  I cannot believe it has been so long since I last saw him.  This week I will celebrate the 4th of July with my sister, her husband, and their baby.  I am so excited to share this holiday with them.  With a new baby in the family, maybe it is time to start a new tradition.  So on Thursday we will cookout, have some beer, and enjoy our time together.  Perhaps we will even find some fireworks to watch.

Happy 4th of July Everyone!