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In Memoriam: BK (1992-2011)

Bronco Kitty (known to all by BK, and, in his later years, by our medievalist friends as the Venerable Beek) went to his rest this evening after finally losing the battle with a number of age-related ailments.  He was nineteen.   Successful surgery several weeks ago to remove a dental abcess left him weak, but we were hopeful for a recovery.  A reaction to post-op antibiotics, however, left him dehydrated and battling anemia.  Although he had gone out for a walk around the yard yesterday, it would be his final patrol.   This morning found him groggy and too weak to stand   He refused food.   We knew it was time, although it was one of the hardest decisions we have ever made regarding our pets.  So after lettng him lay in the sun one last afternoon, we brought him to the vet this evening.   He died in Cynthia's arms while I scratched his ears.   He was laid to rest in a private ceremony.

BK came to Cynthia as a stowaway in the engine compartment of a Ford Bronco. A feral kitten only a few weeks old, he'd climbed up into the wheel well for the warmth and clung there when the car started moving.  The driver noticed his distessed wails at a stop sign and found him after much bemused searching.   Cynthia took him in with the expectation of fostering him for adoption, but he stayed with her - and eventually me - for almost two decades.   BK came to Cynthia an unwashed, flea-ridden, feral, frightened creature.  Bat-eared and mal-nourished, he was that rarity - an ugly kitten.   But as those who knew him will recall, he grew into a truly handsome adult, with a glossy coat, attractive features, and an impressive physique.  He defended his yard with stalwart vigor - I never knew him to lose a fight to any interloper. Before meeting BK, I was a dog person, and I will admit to having been somewhat dubious of cats.   But BK won me over  In many ways, he was the ideal cat.   Dignified wthout being aloof, friendly without being importunate, gentle with his friends and fierce with his enemies, brooking no guff from younger cats, but never a bully.  He had none of the bad haibits by which many cats exasperate their owners.  Even his one tic - an uncontrolled lapping of hs tongue that he'd demonstrate whenver he was scratched at the base of his tail, was endearnig and sweet.

BK lived a long, full life, and we will cherish the many loving memories we have of him.  He will live on in our fond reminiscences.  We take comfort in knowing he was rescued from a cold, uncomfortable, and likely short life to live out almost two decades in love, warmth, and well-fed comfort.   

But for now, we will mourn the loss of a dear companon. Be at rest now, beloved friend.

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On Summer Resolutions

If you're a teacher, summer is a great time - better than the new year, really, to make and implement a few resolutions.  The daily grind of coure prep, grading, etc. is over and you've got more time to establish some new habits in a lower-stress environment that you can hopefully carry over into the new school year.

I've been inspired (again) by the Ted-esque Talks organized by notjenschiz  at the latest Maxicon, hosted with the usual panache and incredible goodwill and generosity by popepat .  Indeed, considering our host was performing in a local theatrical production that very weekend, and so had to miss some of his own big party, it was an especially impressive display of hospitality. 

My weekend started off with the second of what may soon become a series of Jonathan Coulton-inspired D&D games.  Last year was "Rescue from Skullcrusher Mountain" (the mountain was covered in wolves!) featuring a homemade half-pony half-monkey monster, for which I many indeed have used too many monkeys.  This year was "Adventure to Chiron Beta Prime", featuring a climactic final battle with a giant metal Santa Claus with glowing red eyes. Many thanks to bewcastle for her invaluable help with sewing  the little Santa hat that made all the difference.  After chortling our way through the adventure, I headed over to a play-test of a new game by a successful board game designer.  It was a cooperative game based on the Robin Hood legend, in which the players took the part of the local oppresive nobility trying to suppress those terrible bandits from Sherwood Forest, all while amassing sufficient gold from the locality to provide bribe money to swing the barons of England into revolt against Richard the Lionhearted and in favor of his brother Prince John.  We kibbitzed and offered our feedback as the game progressed, which made the pacing a little uneven, but the game was more than robust enough in design to manage those rough seas and the game sailed very successfully into port after a couple hours' rousing play.  I wrapped up Saturday reprising my role as Beowulf in graydons 's and notjenschiz 's Harry Dresden LARP, where I had great fun stomping around and being belligerant. 

 Returning on Sunday, I finally  got to play in the justly famous Burgermeister LARP run by karteblanche  with able assistance from ian_tiberius .  It was great and wacky fun, and Melvin the impoverished science whiz managed to get his science experiment into the deep fat fryer for enough cycles to complete itt, bringing him that much closer to winning the local science fair and getting a scholarship to CalTech - hooray!   After that, I played in a lightly plotted Goth LARP that afforded some nice opportunities for free-form roleplaying to amusing efffect.   The game wrapped early, which was actually nice, since I got to get in some rock band vocalizing and general socializaing before the TedTalks, which were amazing,, all concluded most aplty by  rizwank 's heartfelt call to pursue those things we find difficult was doubly powerful in that he walked the walk by facing his own nervousness about public speaking, for which I applaud him.  There was lots of courage demonstrated as folks opened up their own lives as examples and anecdotes for their talks, which ranged from exhortations to entrepreneurship to some good informaiton about diet choices to courageous musings on the power of fandom to help ease tough life transitions.  All in all, an inspiring lineup!

So what does this all have to do with summer resolutions?  Well, as I observed, summer's a great time for me, in particular, to program in some new habits.  And making those things public can, I think, help steel the will a bit.  So, without further ado - some summer plans.

I'm changing up my weightlifitng regimen.  I did a strict New Rules of Weightlifting program for about 18 months starting in January of 2010.  The first year was *great* - I got a lot stronger and improved my technique on some exercises that had always given me trouble.  But staring in January of 2011, I discovered I was losing energy and motivation.  I wasn't getting into a rut - I'd changed up the workouts at the new year.  But, i was playing rugby and - duh! - the added physical load was making the demands of the weight lifting regimen just too much to handle.  So I've decided to cut back a bit, add in some explosive lifts, and built in a seasonal approach built around next year's upcoming rugby seasons.  I also want to get in more flexibility and core work, and so the time I cut out from the weights will be spent there, on more yoga-like exercises.

i'm cutting back on my sugar.  This is a direct result of keltraine 's talk about the most recent work on how the body processes sugar.  I'm not going to become some sort of fanatical teetotaler - I've got too much of a sweet tooth for that - but since the body processes fructose like it processes alcohol (in the liver) regarding sugary treats like I regard alcoholic treats seems like a good idea.  My hope is to lean out a bit through the summer.

Of course, there will be some trips (back east and up north to the Bay Area), the usual summer curriculum revamping, and prepping for a new football season all to fit in, but I'm hopeful that with a more flexible schedule, I'll build in some good habits that can carry over into the new school year.

popepat , I think that's a karma tontine call right there.... Wish me luck!
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In Which I Achieve Some Perspective

I am, dear reader, a 255-pound person. 

Over the past several months  I've been down as low as 248, and I've been up as high as 262, but I've really been sitting in that range for a couple years now.  Last January I thought I should drop my weight down to about 240, which is what I weighed in college.  But try as I might, I couldn't get down below 248 ,and even then I'd bounce back up to the low 250s after a day or two.  I started obsessing about what I ate, worrying about missing a workout, trying to get cardio work in every day just so that scale number would stay where it was, or dip a couple pounds.

But I had a realization a few days ago.  It's not working.  And really, why shoudl I care?  I wear the same size pants as I wore in college, when I was 15 pounds lighter.  I lift weights regularly, I run regularly, and I would venture to say that I'm in better shape than most guys in their early 40s.  And my wife thinks I look great.

So rather than make myself unhappy trying to become something I'm not, I'm going to take pride in what I am - somebody who still fits into the same sized pants he wore in college, who is in good shape, and who has actaully gotten stronger over the past year while staying at about the same body weight. 

I think that sounds pretty darn good if you ask me.  So when I get on the scale and it give me a number somewhere in the mid-250s, I'm not going to cringe anymore and lament that I can't get down to some ideal weight.  I"m gonig to just nod a bit and be happy.

And oh yeah, I think I"m going to play in a handful of rugby games this year.  The bug has bitten me again.  So I'm an 18-stone prop, give or take a couple pounds.  That's what I am.
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A Eulogy

This past Saturday, the headmaster at the school where I teach, who is also an Episcopal priest, took several hours out of his very busy schedule to come over to the house to officiate at a very small memorial service for [info]bewcastle 's mother, who as many of you know passed away last month. The fact that my school's headmaster would come over after a morning-long admissions event to tend to the spiritual needs of one of the school's faculty and his wife is, I think, a great comment on why I so much enjoy and cherish the place where I work.

 It was just the two of us (my sister and brother in law being kept away by the detail of being in a maternity ward with their newborn son...), and him.  We chatted amiably about this and that for about an hour, sipping tea and nibbling on ginger snaps, and then when the timing felt right he led us through the traditional service for the dead in the Book of Common Prayer.  In lieu of a sermon, he offered
[info]bewcastle the time to say a few words about her mother.  She demurred initially, protesting that she wasn't really good at those sorts of public speeches.  But she did give some remembrances of her mother, and despite my wife's modest protestations, I found her words beautiful and evocative - a fitting tribute to a fine woman.  I thought her words deserved some more permanent record, and so, with her permission, I submit an admittedly Thucydidean reproduction of her words from memory - any infelicities of prhasing or organiation, or any appearance of a too pat construction are the fault of the transcriber, not the speaker, whose efforts are worthy of great praise. 

Here it is, as best my memory can recall:
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In Which I Become an Uncle

This is just a quick update to complement tne news posted on my Facebook page, for those of my friends who either are not on Facebook, or tend to find themselves here more frequently.

My sister gave birth this morning!  She and her husband had been trying for quite some time, and had actually pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that kids were not in the cards for them when they learned she was pregnant.  Needless to say we were all thrilled when we learned the news back in the spring, and we're even more thrilled now that the baby has arrived.

The delivery was very quick and easy, as these things generally go.  Surprisingly so, really.  Sis called last night to tell me she wouldn't be coming out for a visit this weekend, as we'd tentatively planned, because she'd been put on bed-rest by her doctor.   Contractions started a few hours after she called me, around midnight.  They headed to the hospital, her water broke around 3am, and the baby arrived at 6:20.  Seven pounds even, nineteen inches, and, apparenlty, huge feet.  The whole process was so quick that the doctor almost missed the delivery - he arrived at the hospital just in time to say "push!"

bewcastle and I have been asked to be the godparents - we're thrilled!  He's my first and only nephew, so I'm eager to develop a close relationship with him.  In most northern European cultures, the mother's brother is considered a particularly special relative and so I'm looking forward to living up the tradition of my Germanic ancestors in this regard.

More details as the situation develops!  In the meanwhile, I"ll just be giddy for a while!
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AP Euro Journal 5 - Coaching the AP

There are a number of different ways by which you can divide AP teachers.  One particular question, the one I want to talk about today, is "To what extent to you prepare the kids for the test itself, as opposed to the material that's on the test?"  On the one hand, the idea of 'teaching to the test' is odious to most teachers I know.  On the other hand, you've got these smart motivated kids, and they could test out of some GE classes, or even get college credit, if they do well on the exam, so don't you owe it to them to ensure they're as well-prepared as possible?

If you'd asked me this question several years ago, I'd have told you that I fell strongly into the first camp - and then I'd have probably segued into a rant about standardized testing, the tyranny of the APs, etc.  But as I've become more familiar with the AP test itslf, and the many very talented and hard-working teachers who strive to make it the best curriculum it can be, I've come to appreciate how the test encourages students to acquire mastery of a number of skills and habits of mind that are crucial to the effective study of history - critical analysis of sources, familiarity with a wide range of historical knowledge and the abilty to deploy that knowledge to construct an argument, etc.  The one thing you don't get in great detail is research work - but that's a posting for another time.

Once I came to realize that the students would benefit from a greater familiarity with and confidence about the actual test - that I was actually giving them the best opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, not trying to help them game the system, it surprised me how much my coaching background jumped up and took a key role in my teaching.

You see, the AP Test has a very specific set of physical demands and requirements, and if you aren't comfortable with those, then you won't be able to show all that you know as well as you know it.  Specifically, the AP exam asks students to:

Answer 80 multiple choice questions in 55 minutes
Assess a dozen documents for a document based question (DBQ) as well as select prompts from two groups of three to write two 'thematic essays - all in 15 minutes.
Write the actual DBQ in about 45 minutes
Write the two thematic essays - each in about 35 minutes

All this by hand - no keyboards.

So I decided that all the tests in my class would be taken under "game conditions" .   I don't have 3+ hours for each test, but I can break up the sections to mirror the pacing of the AP.  So students start out getting a minute per multiple choice question - they'll work their way down to the 40 seconds per question demanded by the exam as the year goes on - and they get 35 minutes to write an essay.  Later I'll give them an hour to do a DBQ.   Also, all essays are written by hand - whether it's an in-class essay or one written at home.  Sure, it would be easier for me to have they type their essays, but they need to get comfortable with writitng for long periods of time.  I know when I did a practice essay when I was at my own AP training over the summer, it felt like my hand was going to fall off after one essay - I'd have had two more to write on an actual test!  Sheesh!

This seems very famliar to me from my coaching background - establishing benchmarks, tapering down the pace as we move on, similating conditions they'll see in the game, er, I mean test.  It's probably not terribly earth-shattering - I'm sure most good AP teachers do something similar. 

But I'm surpised at how much my thinking has changed about this facet of the AP  - and changed for the better, I'd say.

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A question for knowledgeable atheists - and others interested in history

So, I was asked an interesting question by a student the other day and I'm not entirely satisfied with my answer.  That being the case, I did what any self-respecting 21st-century person does when faced with a knowledge deficit - I have headed to the internet!

A bit of background first.  We've been studying the Renaissance, and this question arose as we discussed Renaissance humanism, especially the more secular orientation of humanism in contrast to the very religious world view of the Middle Ages.  I pointed out that even the most secular of humanists during the Renaissance were still believers, and this student asked, quite astutely "So when do we start getting actual atheists?"

It's an interesting question, if you unpack it.  At what point does it become possible for someone to actively espouse the stance that there is no God?

My first impulse was to turn ot the ancient Greek philosophers.  Plato and Aristotle both so depersonalize the transcendent as to create essentially atheistic world views, and the main Hellenistic world views - those of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics - were equally, if not more devoid of a personal transcendent deity.  But I have a hard time imagining that any of those fellows (with the possible exception of Diogenes) could have really functioned in classical society without at least going through the motions of the  traditional religious practice demanded by their society.  So, do they get credit for being atheists if they're still willing to kill a calf on Athena's altar on the proper day?

You can turn to some of the Chinese ethical systems, but there seems to me to be a similar overlay of traditional polytheisitic belief  - followed even if not believed - there as well.  And in the west things are pretty consistently theistic from the Romans through the Middle Ages.

The first actual philosopher who gets mentioned as a sort of atheist that I could think of is Spinoza - althogh he may be more of a deist.

So, I turn to you, learned denizens of the interactive Internet version 2.0, for your insights, and perhaps to spark a conversation.  What's an atheist and when do they start cropping up?  Or, perhaps to be more precise, when do we start seeing evidence of expressions of atheism, which is really all we can say.  For all I know there were villages full of atheists in the medieval Pyranees, evidence of whom was so completely erased by the Inquisition that we will never know of them.  But I'll leave that sort of speculation to the Dan Browns of the world.
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AP Euro Journal 3 - Considerations on Summer Reading

Class continues to go well.  The first two days were pretty much drinking from a firehose for everyone, but I feel like I'm hitting my stride a bit better now in terms of coverage.  Today I did a bit of thinking on my feet - I'd planned to have the kids to an essay prep exercise, but we were running short on time.  So instead I just wrote the prompt on the board and walked with them through the steps - first figure out what the question is asking, then think about some information you'd want to include, then categorize it, then figure out  a thesis, then outline your essay, etc.  We brainstormed and discussed - I prompted them with questions, shared my own observations, and at the end I just sent them all home with their notes.  Several kids came up to me unprompted and told me what a useful exercise it was!  So I'll be using this strategy again, that's for sure!
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In Which I Undertake a Project

I have a new resolution to put out there, dear reader.  After making the decision to step away temporarily from coaching football, and hoping that some time might be freed up by that decision to do some "creative stuff", the last part of the summer and the first few days of school have provided some revelations.

Revelation the first:  I'm not blessed with a terribly active or vigorous muse.  I enjoy reading more than writng, I enjoy the company of friends more than the company of fictional characters, and despite having dug my penny whistle out of a drawer in the hopes that I might be inspired to give learning to play it a second try, I prefer listening to music and singing along to actually playing it.

Revelation the second : I'm okay with that first revelation.  I do many things well (he says self-effacingly).  I'm a pretty good teachers - or so my evaluations say.  I enjoy that.   I'm a reasonably engaging party guest.  I'm rather athletic for a fellow in his early 40s.  I can put together an amusing RPG scenario.  When inspired, I can indeed put together an amusing little vignette or even a scrap of doggrel verse.  But I"m not inspired very frequently.  So rather than chase something that isn't really me, I think I might be better served by taking the inspiration when it comes, and not worrying about it when it doesn't . 

Revelation the third: Teaching AP European History may not leave me with quite as much free time as I'd hoped.  Getting this course off the ground the way I want it could consume a good deal of time.  And it's not like there aren't other projects at school that will also need my attention...

So, having mulled over these revelations over the past few days, I've come to a a few conclusions. 

Conclusing the first: You can't force "creative things".  Oh don't get me wrong, I don't imagine that there are Gifted Artists out there who effortlessly put forth Great Creations - I know even great art takes hard work.  I also know that the application of sufficient effort can produce excellent results blah-blah-Carol Dweck-blah-blah-growth mindset-blah-blah.  But a fellow can't do everything and if he wants to churn out well-crafted 'creative stuff' while also keeping his bench press max up there against advancing age while also doing a good job at work while also maintaining an active social life while also being a good husband well, something's going to give.  So you may see the odd fictional effort here from time to time.  But not on a monthly basis.

Conclusion the second: Write what you know, if you want ot write. Or maybe know what you write is better.   How many times have I heard that?  Probably too many to count, really.  More experienced writers, feel free to correct me, but it seems a fair cop.

So, conclusion the third: If I want to do something with this LJ other than feel guilty as the little highlighted 'last entry' number climbs further and further away from the current date on that little calendar, I need to change my perspetive.  So that's what I've done.

So, to make a long story short (I know, too late!) here's my resolution, dear reader.  I'm going to treat this journal like an actual journal.  About an actual topic, about which I actually know.  Oh, I may intersperse it with entries about other stuff I find engaging or amusing, but for the next academic year, this journal will have a purpose.  Which is, for me to chronicle my experiences in my first year teaching AP European History.

This is the place where you can politely slip out of the room.  Still here?  Okay, good.

The entries may sometimes be long, they may sometimes be short.  They may sometimes be polished, they may sometimes be mere jottings, bullet points for (perhaps) later expansion.  I intend to think out loud here quite a bit, and I will be friend-locking this journal to afford myself the freedom to rant a bit.

It is my hope that at the end of the year I'll have a tool that I can use to reflect upon and improve upon my teaching, and also might get some useful feedback, while also producing something worthwhile in the process.

First entry on Thursday - stay tuned!
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In Which Bewcastle Returns

I welcomed bewcastle back home yesterday evening.  After spending a delightful and diverting afternoon at jsadler 's birthday bash, complete with mountain of skulls cake, I returned to the old homestead to await her arrival.  Bad traffic in Santa Barbara delayed her return, but she's home now safe and sound, which is the important thing.

The other important thing is that her mom continues to improve . Pending the results of one last battery of tests, she'll move from the hospital to a residential rehab facility sometime this week to continue her recovery with some more focused and intense physical therapy. This is the same place that she stayed at three years ago after suffering a similar serious infection, and they did a very good job then.  We're cautiously hopeful that she will be able to return to her own home and contnue to be able to live mostly independently.

Thanks to everybody for the good wishes, prayers, positive thoughts, solicitious inquiries, and general support through this tough fortnight!

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