Class Personalities

Every teacher knows that different classes have different personalities.  When I was in school, I thought that the personality of the class was set by the teacher.  But now that I am teaching, I think that it is really the students who determine how the class runs.  This seems more pronounced the smaller the class is.  And it seems that a single person with a strong personality can really influence the tone.

Strategies is my smallest class — 4-6 students — and this is where I have seen the most variability in class personality.  My first Strategies class had 2 men and 2 women.  One of the guys was very open and willing to share his thoughts and feelings about coming back to school and the choices he had made in his life.  Because he was a very open, friendly guy, that class became good friends.  They teased each other a lot, and had a good time in class.  I had the timing of my lessons down perfectly, and I could count on a lot of conversation when I threw some discussion questions at them.

My second Strategies class had 2 men and 3 women.  One of the men was a jokester, and I thought he would set the tone for the class, but one of the women was very reserved.  She tended to stay disengaged from class, and would give short answers when asked to participate in a discussion.  She and the jokester would bicker good-naturedly in class, but she had the ability to shut him down.  With this class, getting a discussion going was like pulling teeth, I think because of her reserve.  I often found myself with extra time at the end of class, and had to have exercises on hand to fill in.

My third Strategies class has 4 women in it.  They are much more comfortable putting their thoughts onto paper than speaking out loud.  I have a hard time hearing many of them when I ask questions, because they are uncomfortable raising their voices.  Once again, I think I will need to have additional exercises on hand, because discussion will not fill up our time like it did with my first class.  I have been a little worried about how I will get this class to engage with me, since their class personality is so subdued.

But on Thursday, we had a student appreciation barbecue during class, complete with a DJ, out in the school parking lot.  Most of the students went through the food line, and then sat on the curb in the shade along the building.  Several staff members got up and started dancing to the music, in a little clump, but despite a lot of encouragement, most of the students wouldn’t get up to dance.  A line-dancing song I didn’t know came on, and the quietest of my students got up.  She got the group of staff members and a few more students to start doing this line dance.  During the remainder of the barbecue, she got all of my students to get up, dance, and have a great time.  I was so proud of her for inspiring her classmates, including one woman who said she hadn’t danced this much in her life, ever!  Other students were dragged onto the dance floor by staff, only to go sit back down as soon as they had a chance.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t brave enough to shake it in front of my students and coworkers.  But I hope she becomes the inspiration for the rest of the class to follow.  And that she learns to raise her voice.  *smile*


Grilled Chicken Pasta Salad

I like to make pasta salads in the summer, but it’s hard finding the right balance of ingredients.  This time though, I think I really hit the nail on the head.  So I figured I’d pass along the “recipe” in case anyone else needed a little dinner inspiration!

I started by thawing some boneless chicken thighs and marinating them in some cheap Italian salad dressing, with garlic powder, onion powder, lemon pepper, some salt (because I knew the dressing I was using was on the sweet side) and pepper.  While that was marinating, I cooked up some tricolor bowtie pasta.

For veggies, I chopped one medium zucchini, some broccoli, and some cauliflower.  To keep them from being too crunchy, I steamed them for a few minutes.  Then I de-seeded and chopped two tomatoes, and for a little extra protein I chopped a few string cheese sticks into rounds.

When the pasta was done, I threw several ice cubes on top and ran it under cold water to cool it down.  I tossed it with more Italian dressing, added some garlic rice wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper and parsley flakes.  Then I threw in the veggies, tomatoes and cheese to soak up some of the dressing.

I then heated up the grill, grilled the chicken thighs on medium for a few minutes on either side to get some nice grill marks on them, and finished them with indirect heat on low for a few more minutes.  I put the chicken in the fridge for to cool, then cut it into bite-sized pieces.

Everything got tossed together — pasta, veggies, tomato, cheese, and chicken.  The veggies were tender-crisp, the cheese softened a little from the residual heat in the pasta, and the char on the chicken complemented the zing of the dressing.  Yum!

The Itsy Bitsy Spider

I saved a spider today.

My relationship with spiders is complicated.  I usually go with the standard line about them scaring me, but there’s a lot more to it than that.  Because, in a lot of circumstances, I can tolerate them, and in some circumstances, I am quite fond of them, and in other circumstances, I ask my husband to kill them for me.

My thoughts about my relationship with spiders started on Tuesday, when one of my coworkers brought a small black widow spider into the herp society as a gift for our boss’s kids.  (I assume there had been some previous discussion that I was not a party to, because it seems to be it would be a pretty odd gift without one.)  It was in a small jelly jar with holes poked into the canning lid.  The boss didn’t seem the least surprised, the kids seemed pretty delighted, and since it was in glass I was totally cool with a venemous spider in the same room with me, but I sure didn’t go and take a close look.

Now, working at a herpetological society means that you are likely to be working with people whose ideas about the organisms around us do not sync with the average person’s.  I had noticed a number of small spiders lurking in odd nooks and corners in both the office and the warehouse.  In particular, there was one spider with a web that ran all the way along the wall of the bathroom, right next to the toilet but down at ankle-level.  The proximity to my vulnerable, peeing ankle might have made this spider a threat, but it always sat, motionless, in its web, which was underlined by a neat line of discarded gnat carcasses on the floor, all approximately 1/2 an inch from the wall.  I assumed that no one disturbed this spider and the others  due to their important role in the local ecosystem.  And, honestly, I respect the work that spiders do for us, getting rid of all kinds of irritating, flying bugs.  That’s part of this complicated attitude of mine, which I’ll get into a little more.

But on Thursday, a different coworker of mine, H, had accidentally scattered bits of paper from the shredder all over the floor of the main office.  And so the ancient canister vacuum was broken out for cleaning.  And she went on a spider hunt.

Spider in the bathroom?  Sucked up and gone.  Three more in the main office?  Also gone.  Spiders, webs, dust, paper bits, and dead gnats were all sucked up and disposed of.  And H and I had quite a long conversation about our mutual dislike of spiders (although we both agreed that, for some reason, tarantulas weren’t nearly as scary as house spiders *shrug*).

Now, here’s the thing.  I actually had become somewhat fond of the bathroom spider.  I felt a little bad that she had gotten sucked up and was gone.  Not bad enough to stop the arachnicide, but there was a twinge.

And here is where my complicated relationship with spiders comes in.  When I am outdoors, spiders in their webs fascinate me.  Even the ones that are 2″ across.  If one crawls on me, I will flick it off, and that is that.  No screaming, no disgust.  And I have observed some fascinating spider behavior in those settings.

I once watched a small spider building her web in a corner next to a larger spider’s web.  She was trying to make room for herself, and one of the lines of his web was in her way.  I watched her pluck at the offending strand three times in succession, each time making the larger spider shake his web, while she stayed motionless until he was done.  After the third pluck, she quickly and cleanly snapped the strand without disturbing him in the least, and then continued making her web.

I once saw what I thought was a yellow jacket wasp struggling in a spider’s web, and went over to watch the process.  The spider was smaller than the wasp, and I was wondering how he would wrap the larger wasp up.  Turns out, the spider was actually the one fighting for his life.  The wasp grabbed the spider out of his web, flew to a nearby branch, and ate him, head first.  Talk about a surprise!

The summer I lived in Portland, OR, we lived on a hill and didn’t have a driveway, but we did have a steep flight of stairs and a walkway from the sidewalk to the front door, surrounded by ivy, bushes and trees.  When we first moved in, I hated being the first person leaving the house in the morning, and the first returning in the evening, because spiders would make their webs across the path during the early mornings and evenings.  You would catch a dozen or more webs across the face as you entered or left the house.  But after a few months, I was coming up the steps one evening when I realized that it had been quite a while since I had been hit by a web across the face.  I turned and looked behind me, where the evening light was turning all the webs gold.  I realized that there were still dozens of webs going from one side of the path to the other, but they canted at different angles, creating a tunnel that we walked through.  By taking out all of the webs that were within our walkway, we had “trained” our spiders where to make their webs!

When I worked for a planning firm in Redding, CA, there was no break room to eat lunch in.  As a way of getting a mental break, I would sneak out into a pass-through in the building that went behind our offices, and eat lunch in the shade on the concrete steps.  The pass-through was rarely used, and there were a lot of spiders back there.  Once day, I realized that there was a small black widow on the ground, curled up and dying.  I didn’t see any others around — most of the other spiders were daddy longlegs, another species of spider that I am not afraid of — but I reminded myself to keep an eye out when I was back there.  The next day, I noticed one of the daddy longlegs hauling the dead black widow up into her web.  She fed off it for the next three days, and when I came back on Monday, the empty black widow had been discarded on the floor.

So that’s rule #1 for me: outdoor spiders are okay.  I think the rationale is, I am in their space, therefore I should respect them.  Or something.  All I know is, when they are outdoors, they are much less likely to freak me out.

Rule #2: hard-shelled spiders are much less gross than soft-bodied ones.  I don’t know why, maybe because they tend to have better markings, maybe because they seem more mechanical and less squishy, they usually don’t creep me out as badly as the meaty-looking ones.  Hairy is better than naked, too.

Rule #3: a spider that keeps to itself is okay.  A spider that’s hanging out in a web, in a corner, not moving, just doing it’s own thing, is fine by me.  I mentally declare a truce, tell it to mind its own business, I will mind mine, and everything will be okay.

Rule #4: a moving spider is a threat.  While just looking at some spiders grosses me out, what gets to me the most about them is the way their legs move.  That is why I do not watch movies like “Arachnophobia,” or “Eight-Legged Freaks.”  In fact, just thinking about it gives me the heebie-jeebies.  *shudder*

Rule #5: most of the time, I cannot get close enough to a spider to kill it on my own.  If a spider is not following rules 1-3, then I will ask someone else to do something about it.  My grad school roommate was the type who would lovingly scoop it up and take it outside.  My husband squashes them with a tissue.  I don’t really care either way, as long as there isn’t a looming spider, running around over my head anymore.

Rule #6: when attacked directly, I will take a spider out.  Usually, this happens when I am wearing shoes and a spider runs straight at me.  They simply get stepped on.  Occasionally, this happens in the shower, and I flush that itsy bitsy spider right down the water spout, and keep running water hard into the drain until I am SURE it is gone.  In fact, about a month ago, I woke up in the early morning hours to pee and get a drink.  I filled the cup that sits in the bathroom for that purpose, and just as I got it up to my lips, there was just enough light for me to see that there was a spider floating at the top of the water.  I dumped it and ran that water for a good 5 minutes, on hot.  And I now make sure to fill, swish, dump, and then refill my cup before taking a middle-of-the-night drink.

Rule #7: if a spider obeys rules 1-3, I can actually begin thinking of it as a pet.  The first time this happened was when I was living in Portland.  We had a little daddy longlegs living in our bathroom, tucked into a corner by the back edge of the sink.  He was a plain, gray daddy longlegs, and at first I kept a close eye on him to be sure he wasn’t going to make a move while I was brushing my teeth.  But after a while, I got used to him.  The one day, I realized that his abdomen seemed to be shrinking, and he was turning a paler and paler gray.  I didn’t realize that I was actually getting attached to him until I walked in a few weeks later to find him fat and dark-colored, with a bug wrapped up in his web, and realized that I was relieved the little guy had gotten himself a meal.

In the Pacific Northwest, we get spiders with large, orange abdomens and black legs, that are known as pumpkin spiders.  During my second year of grad school, we had one of these spiders living in the rafters just above our front door, on the underside of the upstairs tenants’ stairs and entrance.  It was an ideal spot, right next to the front light, which attracted a lot of bugs.  During the day, she would tuck herself back into a corner, but in the evening, she would come out and gorge on gnats and midges.  She was quite big, but hard-shelled, and her colors were lovely.  My roommate and I found ourselves keeping an eye on her, and making sure she was still there when we got home in the evenings.  Well, Halloween rolled around, and we had a handful of trick-or-treaters.  One of the last groups of the night was a rowdy, noisy bunch of teenagers, who we gave candy to.  We could hear them fooling around outside our door and making a lot of noise for several minutes, and then one of the girls started shrieking, the boys were laughing, and there were several loud thumps up high on the wall.  Our spider!, I thought.  I was furoious, and literally ran to the front door.  I was fully prepared to yell at the kids if they had done anything to hurt our spider, but they were long gone.  Her web was torn up, but after a few anxious minutes I found that she was still there, tucked back into her corner.  I was surprised at the ferocity with which I was willing to defend her!

So now to get back to the start of this story.  After Tuesday’s spider gift at work, and yesterday’s spider massacre, I had to deposit my paycheck on the way into work this morning.  I walked into the vestibule to use the ATM, since the bank wasn’t open yet, and sitting on the counter with the chained pen and the deposit slips, was a clear plastic drinking cup with a spider in it.  He was a meaty, brown one, the kind that look like they’re wearing boxing gloves on their front legs, the worst kind.  And he was running around the bottom of the cup.  It seemed pretty odd to intentionally place a captured spider in the vestibule of a bank, so I assume the cup was left there and he fell in, and then wasn’t able to escape.  I thought about what I should do as I completed my transaction.  And then I picked up the cup, carried it outside, and laid it on its side in the planting bed right next to the door.  I left the cup there, so in one way, I was littering.  But in another, I was helping return an important critter to its alloted place in the local environment.  It made me feel pretty good.

But if he’d climbed up the side of the cup at me?  I totally would have taken him out.


Whatcha doin', Ma?

Our German shepherd, Diezel, is a bit of a nut job.  Due to overruse of a laser pointer when he was young, he is completely obsessed with the movement of shadows and “flashies.”  There are several things that he immediately comes running for, because he associates them with flashies that he can chase: opening a CD case, pulling out the tin foil, doing dishes in front of the kitchen window, opening the back door (since light from the window runs across the wall as you open and close it), and picking up a camera will all result in a big dog standing at attention on your feet, ears up, tail wagging, with a big doggie grin on his face.  And shadows are fair game too — you can spend hours waving your arms around like a flight controller and wiggling your fingers to keep him entertained.  And even when the flashy or the shadow is gone, he will still spend an hour or more at attention, waiting for it to come back.

Cara isn’t the least bit obsessive about that kind of thing, but she will get in on the act for a real laser pointer, or a flashy, if it is bright enough and persistent enough.  The thing that drives her crazy is flies.  We’ve had several in the house recently, and she will stand or sit on alert, totally still, ears cocked, waiting until the fly gets close enough for her to hear it again before she lunges towards the sound in an attack.  She can barely get her back legs off the ground when she jumps, but there are lots of jaws snapping shut on empty air during the assault.  And the funniest part of this is, for some unknown reason she is very concerned about the flies landing on her butt.  She keeps her tail clamped down, and sits down hard, tucking her butt up against the furniture or one of us, to make sure that it is protected, and she constantly looks back at her butt to make sure everything is okay.  Diezel also trys to snap up flies, but he’s not as determined or energetic as Cara is, and he doesn’t worry at all about butt defense.

One of the reasons for all the flies is the fact that I have been grilling a lot lately, and so there’s a lot of trips from the kitchen out the back door, which sometimes gets left open when my hands are full of cutting boards, tongs and plates.  And a fair amount of time has also been spent recently just hanging around next to the grill.  And I have noticed that, for some reason, we have a ton of dragonflies in our yard.  They zoom all around the yard to Diezel’s delight, but he doesn’t actually chase the dragonflies — instead, he chases their shadows flying over the grass.  We only have three saplings in our yard, and one of them was dead when we moved in, so there is plenty of sun to cast dragonfly shadows.

As I was waiting on my steaks to grill a few nights ago, and watching Diezel run hither and thither, I realized that our dead tree had become the perfect dragonfly perch.  It was like a little candelabra of dragonflies!  So I snapped a whole bunch of pictures.

And when a dragonfly zooms past Cara?  Well, she comes and sits down hard, right next to me, making very sure to protect her butt.

The Beauty of Silence

Part of the Strategies class I teach is identifying each student’s ideal study habits.  And I often tell them that I am, apparently, the last person on earth who doesn’t mind silence.  In fact, I need silence to concentrate.  Everyone else, including my students, former coworkers, and even T, all want some kind of sound in the background at all times, be that TV, music, or just people.  I’m just not like that.  And I always blame my need for silence on my parents.

I was brought up in a household where you were expected to turn off anything that you weren’t actively listening to.  So the TV never stayed on in the background, and the TV and the radio were never on at the same time.  My parents would have the radio on in the background from time to time, but it wasn’t a constant presence by any means.  So I tend to not turn anything on if I am not paying attention to it.  I have recently gotten into the habit of leaving the TV on while I check my email and goof off on my computer, but as soon as I need to focus on something, like lesson planning, the TV turns off so that I can concentrate.  I know, I’m old.

Well, after spending a few weeks taking over 1,500 photos of the books in the collection I will be selling for the herp society, I have been mostly engaged for the last week or so in editing those very same photographs in Photoshop.  All I have to do is crop, remove the background, rotate, and save.  My boss tends to listen to Pandora when he is in the office, but since all four of us who work in the office are part-time, I often find myself working alone.  When I was photographing books, it was boring, but not a big deal to spend 8 hours alone in a quiet office.  But since I have started spending that time just sitting at a desk, I realize that, when my boss is out of the office, I miss the music.

I have been telling myself for years now that music has simply never been that important to me.  I have never had much of a music collection, and never needed music on when I was at home.  Most of my exposure to music was during road trips, or just listening to the radio in the car.  It was my time to sing along at the top of my lungs, and I could make a 12-hour trip fly by just by singing along to my CDs.  And then I discovered NPR.  And books on CD.  Now, I listen to public radio most of the time that I am in the car, and books for long trips.  And I really never listen to music anymore.

But my boss’s music tastes mirror mine pretty darned closely.  It was nice hearing a lot of my old favorites while I worked, and singing along softly to them while I cropped, removed the background, rotated and saved.  I realized that I did kinda miss music.  Maybe I was wrong, maybe I had been lying to myself about not being a music person.  So I started thinking about how I could listen to my music even when the boss wasn’t around.

It took me forever to fully transition from cassettes to CDs, and I have never made the switch to MP3s.  I don’t have an MP3 player, the only music I ever had on my computer was put there so that I could burn CDs, and I don’t have any music on my phone.  I don’t have iTunes or Pandora or any other music services.  It occurred to me that I could bring T’s old Ipod to work with me, but the effort involved in getting my old music off CDs and onto it just didn’t seem worth the effort.

And then I remembered podcasts can be streamed from your computer for free.  So now I am catching up on This American Life, and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, and Radiolab when I am working alone.  And when the boss is there, I like to listen in on his music.  And sometimes I sing along, softly, so he won’t hear me.  But when I need to start posting these books to the website and writing descriptions for them, I’m pretty sure silence will descend again.  And I’m ok with that.

Corn on the Cob on the Grill!

I have been cooking everything I possibly can on the grill recently, including veggies.  So I decided to check around online for a way to cook corn on the grill.  I found a recipe at Whats Cooking America, tried it out, and it’s a new favorite!

Boiling corn on the cob always seems to take forever, and microwaving it always overcooks it.  I had almost given up on it before I tried this recipe out.

I had heard of grilling corn in the husk, but that you had to soak the corn in water for 15-20 minutes in advance.  Too much prep time for my average dinner.  But with this version, no soaking is necessary.

Shuck the corn, and lay each ear on a square of tinfoil.  I brush the corn with oil, then sprinkle it with powdered garlic, onion powder, salt and pepper (or you could go with whatever seasonings you like).  Roll up the corn in the foil, twisting the ends shut.  Preheat the grill on high.  Put the corn on while the grill is still on high, turning 1/4 turn every minute or so, until you have grilled all sides.  Then turn the grill down to low, and move the corn to cook with indirect heat for another 15 minutes.  When it’s done, unwrap the corn, slather it with butter or margarine, and serve.  Not only does it make perfectly-cooked corn, but it comes pre-seasoned!  And it won’t heat up your kitchen.  *smile*

How I Stay Amused At Work

Here are a few things I have come across at my herp society job in the past week that make me giggle.  Hopefully, you will enjoy them, too!

There's nothing worse than low class frogs moving into the neighborhood and bringing property values down...


the front of this book is adorable....


....but the back cover is even better!


that's "gerpetology" instead of "herpetology" -- my Peace Corps friends will get the joke here


and finally, who better to get frog raising advice from, than the originator of canned frog legs!