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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Behind Closed Doors: Linguistic Reclamation

Warning: This post includes some highly offensive words.

If you walked into any of my classes over the past week, you would have been confronted by these words on the markerboard:

Yes, faces (mostly mine) were red in my class, and both students and I struggled to speak some of these words aloud. But eventually, the most offensive of these (the “n-word” and the “c-word”) are uttered, tentatively, as if we are waiting for some powerful hand of retribution to reach out with a bar of soap and apply it to our mouths or whack us across our faces. But no hand strikes us, no soap is applied, and no one tells us to stop (of course, we have shut the door to the classroom) and the air as well as the marker board fills with all of these words – and students grapple with meaning, context, connation, and the political, individual, communal power which lies hidden in the wavering strokes of pen that place these words on a page, and in the soft though sometimes stern lips that speak these words, letting them loose to float or fly or crash into our sensibilities.

Although we've done some reading, examining the words nigger and bitch, students are still uncomfortable with this brainstorm activity. And so am I.
Although I've taught this unit before, I've never quite taught it this way - throwing words on the board. But my students are strangely reassured by my discomfort; it eases their own.

Before we began our brainstorm of words, I had shut the classroom door. I don’t need these words floating out of context into the hallway. We talk about how we can say these words because we are not using them against any one; rather we are delving into these words as intellectual inquiry. I stress this point over and over again.

We have a purpose. Students will pick one of these words, used oppressively by an out-group (a dominant culture) to manipulate and control an in-group (a target group), and argue whether or not the word should be reclaimed by the in-group. The question is: Should this word be reclaimed?

It’s not so simple. Linguistic reclamation is a political act and not every one in a particular in-group agrees over such reclamation. And even when they do, they don’t always agree on the goal of that reclamation.

We walk through a difficult, scholarly journal article entitled, A Queer Revolution: Reconceptulaizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation. At first, students look like deers, caught in the headlights. The article, a hard read, explores three different perspectives of linguistic reclamation, and discusses the goals of reclamation. The abstract alone contains words and phrases my students are unsure of: pejorative epithet, appropriation, binary debate of support and opposition, inseparable and separable pejoration.

But they are game. They rise to this challenge and we sort through strategies to help them negotiate this scholarly article. Although the writer speaks in terms of theory and in essence, political action, she provides specific examples of how words shift in meaning through reclamation, the pros and cons of each perspective, and a solid discussion of the goals of reclamation. Students are fascinated – and, once we’ve worked through the reading strategies, walked through and gained an understanding of the text structure, and later, discussed the concepts presented in the article, they are pumped that they have dissected a read they thought was far above them.

Later, when I read their free-writes assessing the week’s work, I see one student writes, “I’m excited about this new essay assignment – this is really interesting stuff. Why didn’t we do this first? I never thought of those words being political. But it’s also really weird. I’m glad the door’s shut all week.”

We'll keep the door shut for a bit longer.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Good to the Last Drop - Guest Post

My friends in Thailand have been growing coffee and have harvested, roasted, brewed and drank their first crop. What follows is the story of that process (as told by my friends via an email) and accompanying pictures (cropped to protect both the innocent and guilty):

We really didn't know how to get the hard part off the outside of the coffee. We started shucking them by hand, and then found that a mortar and pestle works great! In the tray, you see the beans after they are taken out of the cherry and dried. They are like rice, with a hard outside shell that needs to be removed.

We thought of just giving up and drinking the Maxwell House if it was going to be this slow and difficult. But it's quite fast with the mortar and pestle once you get the hang of it. This picture still shows the beans before shucking, and you can see we are trying to open them by hand. Yeah, by next Christmas!

OK, so we finally got some shucked - abo
ut one cup full. What you see in the bowl is the green beans, with the hard part removed and as much of the silverskin removed as we could figure out how. We did a much better job removing the silverskin on the second batch. The wok is hot and ready for roasting!

Anyone for a little stir fried coffee? I think we're going to sell our coffee as "Organic, Shade Grown, Wok-Roasted Coffee."

The beans are starting to brown.
They go through two phases. At first, they just sit there and you wonder why you are even standing there. Will it ever start? Your arm gets tired from keeping them moving. Then, they start to crackle and you think, AHA! But now, the crackle and the steam first time around is just the last of the water coming out of the bean. The crackling and the steam stops, and they just sit there again.... Eventually, they start to brown, and then they crackle a little before they start billowing great clouds of coffee-smelling smoke. Aaaaaaaah... cook until desired color. I like Dark French or Italian...

And, there they are! One cup of green beans makes about 2 cups of cooked beans. They're a bit like popcorn.

Here's the first brewed pot.

And the satisfied drinker.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

News Bits

I've been on a bit of a news moratorium of late - but broke that fast this morning with a quick flight through a few online news sources. Here are three stories that caught my eye this morning:

Sesame Street is going global – taking its mission around the world. But just what is th
at mission?

Originally, Sesame Street’s goal was to prepare young children for school. Poor young children, though children from all socio-economic classes in the US were glued to the TV during Sesame Street. Along with numbers, letters, colors, these kids also learned, as Robert Lloyd of the LA Times points out, a world view of tolerance and peace.

They learned something else too: that learning occurs in short segments and must be entertaining. Sesame Street inadvertently has trained at least two generations now to be consumers of TV and entertainment, not necessarily of learning.

Now Kosovo, Bangladesh, and South Africa have experienced the Sesame Street phenomenon, and that experience has been recorded in a documentary airing this fall on PBS stations.

Revamped to suit the cultural and political issues of those areas, Sesame Street may indeed bring tolerance and learning to children in these poverty-, war-, and disease-stricken nations, but it will also capture and prime a new audience to become the chattel of entertainment and consumerism.

But maybe the ethics and mores of Sesame Street will shine through the glitz and entertainment, and youngsters will at least learn to do unto others as you would have others do unto you, something that, apparently, Jeff Skilling never learned and may now have a chance to reflect on (sans any TV, one would hope).

Yes, Jeff Skilling, former CE of Enron, has just received a 24-year sentence in a federal penitentiary (I love that word – will he actually be penitent whilst he is incarcerated?).

He’ll have a roof over his head, three meals a day, and healthcare (granted, rudimentary healthcare, but healthcare nonetheless.)

And his victims? Those working stiffs from Enron - not the investors but those folks who did their 40 hours a week, took care of their families, and were saving via Enron’s retirement plan for their dotage – they were sentenced to, as the U.S. District Judge who imposed the 24-years on Skilling noted , a ”lifetime of poverty."

Meanwhile, the global ecosystem continues to go to hell in a hand basket
. Can you guess which nations on the planet have the three largest eco footprints? Of course, you immediately name the US, but you might be surprised to learn that according to the Living Planet report, Finland and theUnited Arab Emirates also have mighty big feet.

And did you know that by 2050 we’ll need the resources of two planet earths to sustain the bio demands of the world’s population? Let’s see, will I be dead by then?

So while it may be hypocritical for the US to ask developing nations to curb their use of resources when we’ve already got ours, it makes sense. Unfortunately, those coming up behind us in development need to take a cautionary lesson from our story. But are they? Of course not. We are all greedy and want ours no matter what (even Sesame Street can't change that basic characteristic of humankind). No surprise there.

Well, what a lovely, cynical, and jaded way to start the day.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Time for More Thai Pics

A few more photos from my summer trip:

No, this is not the French countryside, but my friends' farm outside the village Fong in northern Thailand. Their house is in the background. According to my Thai host, the French copied the Thai style haystack.

The neighbor's rice paddy.

A ferris wheel - as seen through the window of my hotel room in Bangkok. I so wanted to ride on that ferris wheel! My hosts declined to ride - citing safety issues. I confess I turned chicken-shit as well. Heck - my friends are not curmudgeons or fuss-budgets; they know how to play. I figured it was probably better to take a picture of the wheel than ride it.

While visiting the major temple in Bangkok, the band of the school associated with the temple was practicing on temple grounds. Strange as it sounds, this young woman was marching up and down in the walkway, between the gate and the steps of a chedi, practicing her flute. The song she was playing: Battle Hymm of the Republic.

The reclining Buddha - at the same temple (nope - that isn't anyone I know standing near the Buddha).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Reactionary Response to North Korea

I just caught the tail end of North Korea's response to the recent vote by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on NK.

Essentially, I understood the NK rep as saying that NK would consider such sanctions as a declaration of war and would take whatever "physical" actions were necessary.

An explosive "FUCK YOU!" spewed forth of its own accord from my mouth.

Am I turning into a Republicant? A conservative? A reactionary? Or just a potty-mouth? (Oh, wait, I was already a potty-mouth.)

No time to ponder such questions, nor to fully explore the UN Security Council vote and NK's response. I am in paper-grading mode this weekend.

Let's hope rational thought returns and I can make a solid, articulate, well-thought out case for my "fuck you" response.

In the meantime - what are YOUR responses?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Species Pride!

Folks on a research expedition from the Natural History Museum of London have found a new bird – hitherto unknown to modern civilization. And isn’t he a beauty?

This relative of mine hangs out high in the eastern Andeans of Columbia.

According to Thomas Donegan (who along with Blanca Huertas found this beautiful finch) “about two to three new birds are found every year.” Donegan states that finding a new bird is a “rare event.”

I think he’s missing the big picture. Two to three times a year? How come new birds keep popping up with such frequency? What’s going on? Have those “new” birds always been there – hanging out in isolated regions of the world (perhaps trying to hide from humans?) or are birds evolutionary creatures with great longevity as a species, and they are not only hiding out from humans, but continually evolving, adapting?

Scientific evidence suggests birds are either descended from dinosaurs or from reptiles that hung out here on earth long before dinosaurs made the scene. Either way, we birds have been on this planet almost as long as dirt and we continue to survive and evolve – we are the kings and queens of the evolutionary process, survivors with unparalleled skills and ability. Just think how much natural history is encoded in our DNA, how much collective knowledge is stored in our brains.

And some folks have the audacity to use "bird brain" as a derogative. Hah!

Friday, October 06, 2006


One of my students is missing.

He has missed 8 of the 12 class meetings we've had so far this semester and 5 of the 6 homework assignments which were carefully designed to help students write the essay that was due yesterday (you can guess, dear readers, if my missing student showed up to class and turned that essay in).

He is a young man from out-of-state, a freshman living in the dorms. At first, I thought he was stoned, but later I began to wonder if he had some sort of learning disability, some sort of processing problem, or if perhaps he was on (or not on?) some sort of psychotropic medication.

He arrived to class on Tuesday (after missing three classes in a row) ten minutes before the end of the class period (class meets twice a week for two hours and 20 minutes). Our class had worked hard that day and I had let everyone out early (a rarity). I was packing up my bag when he came in.

We talked.

"Where were you?" I asked.

He took a brief moment to ponder my question. Then responded slowly, "Eating."

I did not care to pursue that any further with such questions as:
  • It took you two hours and ten minutes to eat lunch?
  • You chose to eat instead of come to class?
  • Did you fly home to eat and come back?
  • What you been smokin' man?
I explained to him somewhat sternly that at this point, he has failed the class.

"How can that be?" he asked incredulously.

I explained how that can be.

"But it's only the 6th week of school. There's time."

I explained how it was highly doubtful he could pass the class.

"You're very pessimistic." he said. "You don't understand, this class is a priority for me."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Normally, I volunteer to register voters at the university where I teach. This year, I am not. I cannot seem to muster up the dedication, the idealistic verve needed for such a task.

Register these kids to vote? Register these ignorant, un-educated, ill-informed students so they can vote without considering the issues, without doing their research? So they can vote based purely on the tv and radio commericals they hear? So they can vote based on what their political science prof told them in class one day instead of researching the issues and the politicians and arriving at their own decision? So they can vote in opposition to how their parents vote (only considering that they want to oppose, never considering the real issues)? So they can vote like one of their friends (Tulare's really smart - and he supports so-and-so, so I 'll vote for that guy too)?

I think not.

Let someone else register these kids. Let someone else who still believes in master narrative of our country: every vote counts; voting is a not just a right, but a responsibility; democracy requires your participation.

I still believe democracy requires your participation. But this mindless voting ain't participation.

Takes more than bellying up to the voting booth to participate in democracy.