Dec 31, 2010

Home for the Holidays

Christmas #1: Celebrated with the Leens and Berglunds, December 18, 2010 at the Leen's home in Dayton. From L to R: Dad Leen, Shiloh Berglund the cocker spaniel, Jenny Berglund (Barbara's sister), The Feller, Me, Babs, Mom Leen, Matt Berglund (our brother-in-law), and Bailey Berglund.

This year we had Cristmas three times between December 18 and December 25, 2010, and all three were celebrated in one sense or another, at home.

The first Christmas was at the home of Barbara’s youth in Dayton with her parents, sister and brother-in-law. Since we would be flying to Florida on the 24th to see my family we celebraterd with the Leens and Berglunds a week early.

Gathered around the tree, Saturday evening, December 18.

Opening gifts with an assist from the Feller and Shiloh

Jenny sporting one of her gifts, a Snuggie!

The Feller and Uncle Matt clowning around.

Jenny with her babies.

Dad and Daughter

Mom Leen and Babs


The first week of Christmas vacation was remarkably busy. Monday was devoted to cookie making. Traditionally, my gift to the Paez kids has been cookies or other desserts, and I wanted to continue the tradition, delivering them via U.S. mail instead of in person. I had the ambitious plan of making six different kinds of cookies, one for each member of the Paez family in Oregon. Right about the time that the egg whites failed to stiffen for my coconut macaroons, I was forced to admit that devoting a full day to making cookies and watching an energetic two year old were simply not compatible. I settled for three types of cookies—chocolate chip, white chocolate chip and macadamia, and giant ginger cookies.

Tuesday and Wednesday I had planned to go in to the school to do some work but Babs was out shopping longer than I anticipated so ended up doing some work from home, cooking, and doing some house cleaning while watching the Feller at home. Wednesday night I finished my Christmas shopping.

Christmas #2 was just the three of us on Thursday, December 23, 2010 (this photo was actually taken at the Leens the previous weekend. Babs took all the photos of Christmas #2 so she's not in any of them).

Our tree.

Thursday evening, after the Feller awakened from his nap we celebrated our second Christmas right here at the little home that the three of us have made for ourselves in Columbus. Barbara’s family had done the draw-names-one-gift-per-person thing and there were no plans for a major gift exchange with my family in Florida, so we decided to do our stockings and exchange gifts between ourselves. Of course, the Feller made out like a bandit, with lots of gifts from Mommy and Daddy, as well as more presents from Go-gah and Pop-pa (they’d bought him so much that we spread out their gifts between the first and second Christmas so as not to overwhelm him), a gift from Uncle JJ, Auntie Evelyn, and Benjamin and presents from Auntie Rose, his daycare provider.

It's funny, we had thought we should put a second Christmas tree out on the balcony to dress it up for the holiday. We ended up not doing it, but if you look carefully, you'll notice that the reflection of the tree in the living room makes it look as if there's one out there anyway.

The Feller's ready for those stockings!

Checking out my DVD of the lastest U2 tour and a DVD, both gifts from Babs.

The Feller plays with his Thomas the train set, a gift from the Carlos family.

On Christmas Eve we flew down to Florida to spend a week with my family in Orlando, the town I called home as child. We stayed with my sister, her husband, and son and celebrated our third Christmas on Christmas Day itself. Like the other two Christmases, the main celebration was in the evening. We gathered at my uncle Robert and Aunt Diana’s home Christmas night for dinner and a white elephant gift exchange. It was nice to see familiar faces once again—Uncle Roland and Aunt Colleen, my cousin Nicole and her family, Grandma, my brother Vince.

The Feller with his Nona for Christmas #3, December 25, 2010.

The Feller plays with his gift from Nonna, a Bible felt book, while Nonna and her other grandchild, my sister's son look on.

On Christmas Eve at Dawn's house we made cookies to share. I'd actually finished my contribution, Danish pastries, the day before in Ohio and brought them down with me. But everyone else finished theirs over the weekend.

My brother Vince works on his caramel blondies.

Here's my danishes (bottom) and Vince's blondies (top). Mom made her cream-filled pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and Jim made his rice krispie Christmas wreaths later in the weekend.

Dawn's apple blinkies with vanilla cream

The rest of the week was spent staying up and sleeping in late. While I wouldn’t describe the week as exactly restful, it was nice not to be working! On Wednesday, I got together with my high school pals Greg and J for a while. (It just so happened that the Carlos family was in Florida at the same time as us. J and his family were staying with his sister who lives in Orlando). But beyond that, we spent a lot of time at Dawn’s house talking for hours and watching a lot of TV (the Cooking Channel was a favorite) and movies on Netflix. We finished Season 6 of Grey’s Anatomy, I watched most of season 1 of Mad Men, a little bit of season 1 of Friday Night Lights. But my favorite movies that we watched were the movies we made ourselves. For a number of years when I was a kid my extended family made a tradition of making a movie together at Christmas time. While the budget was shoestring and the production values decidedly low-end, we had a lot fun and a lot of laughs, and to this day many of us can quote lines verbatim from the films we made.

This Christmas marked the 25th anniversary of the first of our family films, a Trinidadian version of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol called A Christmas Creole. In our version it’s not the ghosts of Christmas past, present, or future that finally soften Scrooge’s heart, but instead a strong lecture from “Tanti Merle”, a heavily bosomed, large bottomed Trinidadian woman ably played by my Uncle Slimen. Grandpa starred as Ebeneezer Scrooge, grandma as the much-put-upon Mrs. Scrooge, my mom played Scrooge’s secretary Mrs. Scrooge, Aunt Patsy and Uncle Robert made dramatic entrances as the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Past respectively. With Aunt Patsy her son Nabih stopped the camera, then put his mom in place so that in the final product she appeared to flash suddenly into the room, accompanied by spooky organ music. Uncle Robert roared in from the future, white robes flying, on his motorcycle. And somehow at just 12 years old I also got a big role in the film as well, as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Though we did several films in the years that followed, this one was always my favorite. It was funny, full of life, and suffused with love.

On Wednesday evening Uncle Roland and Aunt Colleen invited us over for supper and afterwards we watched our 1985 home video classic in the original VHS format (though rumor has it that a commemorative 25th anniversary edition will be coming out on Blu-Ray soon!). We also watched our spoof of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous filmed two years later in 1987. It was strange to realize that me, my siblings, cousins, and their spouses were now the same age as our parents, aunts and uncles in the film. It was sad to think that two central figures in the films, grandpa and Aunt Patsy were no longer with us. Watching the films together was a bittersweet moment, warmed by fond memories but saddened by the innocence that has since passed, and the empty spots once filled by loved ones.

Pictures from Christmas Night. I wish I had screen shots from the Christmas Creole. In their absence these few photos from Christmas night will have to suffice. The Elder Thomson Family: From left to right, Landon, Uncle Roland (my mom's brother), Aunt Colleen and Nicole.

The Younger Thomson family: From left to right: Aunt Diana, my youngest cousin "T", and Uncle Robert.

The white elephant gift exchange. My cousin Nicole's son, center, was the youngest participant. He got a $20 gift card to Best Buy, which is parents quietly appropriated.

Nicole attempts to get rid of her less desirable gift--a black light bulb.

What does it mean to be home for the holidays? It means laughter and warmth, but also tears and sorrow. It means sharing joy, but also pain. It means being with family and missing family we can no longer be with. They say that friends come and go, but you’ll always have your family. But of course that’s not true. Families are as fragile and impermanent as anything else in this temporal world. So we go home while we still can; we cherish the love we find; endure the occasional stress, because we know that someday the homes of our childhood will be gone.

The next generation will need homes to return to for the holidays too though. So those of us in my generation must work to build strong, loving homes of our own because eventually ours will be the home where our children and theirs will return. And so it will continue until that day when we all go Home for good, Home for the holidays forever and always.

Check out the Feller’s blog in the next week or so. I’ll be posting a lot of photos there of all three Christmases. There’s some absolutely adorable photos especially from our time in Florida that you just have to see. Also, Dawn and Jim took a lot of photos that I wanted to use in this blog. If I can get those photos from them, I’ll add them here.

Dec 14, 2010

The Best Job in the World: "Teacher Appreciaton Should Be More Than a Day"

Part 3 of a four part series

“Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” Ever heard that snide little one-liner? It pretty well exemplifies the opinion of far too many of us here in America when it comes to teaching. What other profession can you think of that regularly receives that kind of scorn? Look at how teachers are often portrayed in movies:

I mentioned in the first blog in this series an Oprah Winfrey show focusing on the education crisis in America’s school. The other night outspoken school reformer and former chancellor of Washington D.C.’s public schools Michelle Rhee was on Oprah again. Her take-no-prisoners approach to school reform had won her national acclaim but made her deeply unpopular in her district. She’s recently resigned her post at with the D.C. schools and has formed a new organization called Students First to clean up America’s schools. It’s an ambitious and laudable goal, but as I watched Michelle and Oprah talk, it became clear that the consensus once again seemed to be that the key culprits in our failing schools are the poor quality teachers. As difficult as it might have been to swallow, I wasn’t necessarily going to argue that point. However, I worried that behind this enthusiasm to hold teachers accountable is a profound disrespect not so much for individual low-quality teachers, but for the profession itself. The unfortunate truth is that most poor teachers either don’t know their deficits or are angrily defensive about them. The ironic thing is that good teachers are often the ones most aware of where they are still failing. I can’t picture a single one of the outstanding teachers I’ve known celebrating the persecution of bad teachers—they’d be too busy worrying over whether they’re one of them. And while, I’m not here to make any claims to greatness, I can say that as I’ve improved as a teacher I’ve become more and more aware of how much more improvement I still need to make to truly teach every student.

More and more I’m finding this “blame the teachers” mentality stinks of laziness. It’s a cop-out. Teachers are an easy target. If I’m a busy parent, an administrator burdened with state and federal demands, an unmotivated student, blaming the teacher is an easy out. Check out this NPR report on a school district in Rhode Island that fired (and then later rehired) all their teachers, and tell me if you don’t sense the same thing. Note in the piece how the school superintendent did nothing about the student who walked by him screaming. And yet he’s ready to blame the teachers. There's no question that there are issues with teacher quality in this district, but I'm not convinced that district officials are without culpability as well.

I have no issue with holding teachers accountable as long as there is:

A) a clear understanding of the serious challenges a teacher must deal with every day.
B) a practical plan for addressing those challenges.
C) and a basic respect for the work of an educator.

There must be a candid discussion of these three issues in any conversation about quality teachers. Unfortunately, all three are in short supply in this country today, and without them it will be extraordinarily to difficult to keep the best teachers in the profession and help struggling teachers either improve or find a better line of work.

So why do we hold teachers in such low regard?

Well, for one thing there is the popular misconception that teaching, especially at the elementary level, is “easy.” After all, look at the material they work with, right? But here’s the thing: teachers aren’t asked to read “See Spot Run” or add “2 + 2”, they are required to teach these skills to little people who have never read or added a sum in their lives, and for whom the task may be anything but easy. Trust me there’s nothing harder than trying to teach someone something that seems “easy” and “obvious” to you. It takes creativity, insight, and a deep understanding of both the content and the strengths and weaknesses of the child you are working with. Then keep in mind that every classroom contains students with a broad range of abilities, learning challenges, personal and family issues, behavioral problems, and even health problems! All of these factors impact how a child learns as well as how he or she should be taught for maximum benefit. In the classroom, you've got an hour at most to teach a subject and one size most definitely does not fit all.

Furthermore, before you can even begin to consider teaching you must first manage your classroom. Any parent will tell you that raising a kid is one demanding job. Now imagine you have anywhere from 15 to 30 kids who are forced to be in your house, required to learn certain things, and who may or may not love you and feel they need you the way your own kids do—that’s a teacher’s job. Management is one of the most demanding and stressful aspects of teaching.

Looks easy enough right? Looks can be deceiving. The best teachers like the best in any field make it look much easier than it is.

Secondly, our culture has a unique distaste for authority, and teachers more than perhaps any other profession represents the exact type of authority we dislike the most— lots of little rules (don’t chew gum, walk in line, raise your hand to speak) and an insistence on punishing and rewarding us for knowing information that we view as boring and pointless. As Americans, we deeply value our right and freedom to do what we want to do. We don’t like rules, we don’t like lectures, we don’t want anything infringing on our all-important fun (after all, in our increasingly entertainment-oriented society, whether a thing is “fun” or “interesting” has become one of our highest measures of its value). In light these cultural values, how can teachers, with their insistence that we read, read, read, and write, write, write have anything of interest or value to contribute to our lives? Of course we want our children to read and write, but we scorn the very people who insist that our children do these things and do them well—whether our children “feel like it” or not.

An image of teachers that is all too prevelant in our cultural consciousness.

Finally, if teachers need to be respected, then that respect must, in fairness, be earned. We all know that it it’s an extraordinary accomplishment to become a doctor or a lawyer, and because of the difficulty in achieving the goal, we respect those professions. As much as I hate to admit it there is an element of truth in that stinging refrain about what those who can do. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but one of the easiest to get into. If you can’t hack it in one of the tougher professions, you can usually still at least make it through teacher training. Think about it: how often do you hear about someone who dropped out of medical school or flunked the bar exam three times? Now think about how often you hear about someone who couldn’t hack it in teacher training and got cut from the program? Virtually never, right? That is a problem. Bottom line: if we want respect, we’re going to have to simply make it tougher to be a teacher. The top-ranked nations in education are pulling the top 3 to 5% of their graduating classes into education. Sadly, while there are many talented, top-flight teachers in our schools today, there are also more than a few that probably wouldn’t have been able to get into many other fields.

For teaching to be the best job in the world, the profession needs to be appreciated. I’m not really that excited about Teacher Appreciation Days—we have Appreciation Days for those that we ignore, take for granted, or disrespect the rest of the year. Let’s forgo the once-a-year tip of the hat, and seek to truly appreciate what teachers do every day all year long. If we can respect the work of a teacher, respect the extraordinary demands of the profession, and create a similarly extraordinarily demanding system for training teachers, then individual teachers will be more respected as well. Achieve that change in attitude, and heck, we might even decide to pay them a little more.

But that’s another blog. . . .

Coming Up Next: “Nobody Goes into This Job for the Money”

This video posted on Youtube by Michellle Rhee's Students First organization gives glimpes of teachers who deserve our respect. I agree with all they have to say and I try to represent these same attitudes and values in my own classroom. However, I couldn't help noting that one teacher mentions that our students are our future "doctors, lawyers, and politicians." Even among ourselves, when we think shorthand about what success means for our students, we tend not to think of our own profession. Here's to hoping that we can reach a point where for our students to choose education as a profession represents the highest kind of success.

Dec 3, 2010

Thanksgiving with Family

The Paez's and Maycocks: Friends Like Family, Thanksgiving 2010. From left to right, back: Wylie, Carol, "Cool Guy", Audrey, Me. Front: "Big Sister", Fredo, the Feller, Babs, Keisha. Only Tito, the oldest of the children, is missing. He's still living in Saipan.

Last year our gathering at Carol's house was a carryover of our traditional Saipan Thanksgiving. This year it was less about holding on to treasured memories of the past, and more about strengthening a bond that will last for years to come. After all, friendships come and go, often ebbing with passage of time and distance, but your family is your family, no matter how rarely or briefly you see eachother.

It's nice to spend Thanksgiving with family. Granted Carol and her kids are not flesh and blood relatives. We've only known them for about 12 years, but in that time they've grown to become like family. Indeed, for the youngest members of the Paez family, we have been a part of their lives as long as they can remember. Going out to Oregon for the Thanksgiving holiday reminds me of our trips back to the states to see our families when we lived in Saipan--precious time we never took for granted because it was so short. And it was a short trip: We arrived in Portland on Thanksgiving Day, in the early afternoon, and departed a mere three days later, early Sunday morning. But it was worth the time and expense to spend some quality time with our dear friends. There was an agenda of fun things to do during our short stay, but we ended up skipping most of it. And that was more than okay. It was such a joy to simply relax in Carol's cozy little apartment, cooking food together, staying up late sharing funny stories and memories of Saipan, just simply being together basking in the warmth of shared love. The Feller ran around the house as perfectly at ease as if. . .well, as if he were home. And in a way, he was.

The Gathering

It was mostly Paezes and Maycocks this year, but there were a few others that joined the gathering for this year's Thanksgiving feast.

Carol and Wylie. Wylie, the second oldest of the Paez clan, is working in Portland and living at home.

The Feller and "Big Sister"

"Big Sister" was formerly known on this blog as "Little Sister." Her old nickname was based on her relationship to older sister Keisha, when they were both apart of REAL Christian Theater. Now she is defined by her relationship to our Little Feller. She really is a like a big sister to him--she looks out for him, teaches him new things (like the "peace sign" in the picture above), and loves him with all her heart. "Big Sister" is one of the Feller's favorite people in the world and he'd been talking about this trip to see her for months. Hopefully we'll be able to swing another visit to our house from her this summer.

Fredo, on right with his boyfriend, Tommy.

It was nice getting to know Tommy. He was in and out of the house all weekend long and seemed like one of the family.

Me n' Babs. I love this picture of us.

Audrey and "Little Sister"

Audrey is both one of the oldest and newest members of the Paez Tribe. She was adopted by her parents not long after she was born in Saipan and reconnected with Carol, her birth mom, more than twenty years later, not long before we all moved to the States. Now she's a regular visitor, and very much a part of the family. She's in college in New York and since her parents are missionaries in the Ukraine, Thanksgiving with the Paezes worked out best for such a short vacation.

Though we didn't know Audrey well, having only met her once briefly on Saipan, we got to know her a lot better this past weekend, particularly on Friday morning when she went out with Babs and me to brave the Black Friday crowds. All of us were jet lagged, so that 5:00 in the morning felt like 8:00, so we decided to go bargain hunting. We were especially appreciative of Audrey's generosity in driving us over to Best Buy (where I bought the new laptop I'm typing this blog on), Target, and a few other stores. We were touched by her willingness to take the time to help us out, at the risk of losing some of the best of the early morning bargains at the mall. Audrey, you're an angel. Thank you! We look forward to getting to know you better in the years to come.

"Cool Guy" and Keisha

Judith and Mai.

Mai arrived Friday night just before dinner and spent the weekend with us. It was so great to get caught up with her again. Judith stopped by for lunch on Sabbath and visited with us for the afternoon. It was so nice to be with our Saipan people again.

The Feast

We may have moved the feast to Friday rather than Thanksgiving day itself, but the food was still central. It was a classic Thanksgiving menu--turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, apple and pumpkin pie; some of our unique traditions--corn casserole and Special K Loaf; and a few new twists on old favorites--a new, fake bacon, dried apple, chestnut, and cornbread stuffing and a new forest fruit pie.

Rolling out the crust for the forest fruit pie.

Audrey and I in the kitchen.

The tables. The one above was the "kids" table, the one below was for the "adults".

Space was a a premium in the Paezes small apartment. Next year we'll likely be able to all sit at one table again. Carol bought a new house a few days after we left.

Tommy and the Turkey.

Fredo carving the turkey with frightening zeal.

Ready to eat!

At the table. Eating is serious business as far as the Feller is concerned.

The Tribe: Family Photos 2010.

The Honorary Paez. He even looks like them!

"Cool Guy" with his video games.

The Sisters

The Siblings


The Paez Women

Friends Like Family

Sunday morning came all too soon, and before we knew it we were winging our way back East. It will be at most another year before we see the Paez Tribe again, but in the meantime we'll stay in touch by phone, Facebook, and maybe even Skype until next Thanksgiving when the family gathers once again.

We all carry Saipan in our hearts; Keisha carries Saipan on her back as well. Look closely at her tattoo and see if you can find our island home.

Click on the following links to see entries of Thanksgiving with the Maycocks and Paezes from the past four years:

An Old Fashioned Saipan Thanksgiving (2009)

Thanksgiving in Saipan: Dinner at the Maycocks (2008)

Thanksgiving at the Maycocks 2007

The Annual Thanksgiving Feast (2006)

Also, there are more pictures from the weekend in Oregon at Elijah's blog.

I've also posted photos from our early Thanksgiving at the Leens at his blog as well.

A little home video from Thanksgiving 2010