Saturday, November 27, 2010

11/28/2010 STAR tests

I'm SOOO behind in scrapbooking. So behind that I have to pare it down to something that will mean something to them someday: So, a school book for each kid. Two pages summing up their school experience for each grade, school and class photos, projects, notable moments, outside activities, report cards and awards.

So, while tackling this project, I came across Gabriel's STAR Student Report. Starting in the 2nd grade, all schools in California spend two weeks performing standardized tests on 2nd - 8th graders, for which the scores get summed up into the ever-important "API" for the school. Scoff not! Your local school's API score has a lot to do with your real estate's value.

Then there's a Web site that shows how all California schools did on average (STAR Test Results 2010). Naturally, I had to compare.

I learned a few things. First, while our school isn't the highest-scoring in the district, it's up there. Really, no need to worry about a kid who goes to Collins. (Do worry about the parents of the kids who go to Collins, because in this demographic, the higher scores reflect a hyper-paranoid parent population, and the schools that did better have even more paranoid parents.)

Next, for some reason at our school, and comparably-scored ones (Stocklmeir, Garden Gate, Stevens Creek Elementary), the 3rd-grade mean math scores are higher than any other grade. Maybe that's because the difficulty takes a leap in 4th grade, doesn't take a big leap from 2nd to 3rd.

Then I learned that my son is in 3rd grade now and that I should be looking at the 2nd grade scores, which is what he was in when he took the test. Hel-LO! OK, so I wrote this whole thing and now have to start over.

Seems our school's 3rd-graders are among the best in Language Arts, but not the 2nd-graders, where its average of 409 out of 600 for 2nd-graders is well below those of the top schools. The big surprise here is that Gabriel's score of 491 out of 600 is above the best averages I could find at any school (460 at Garden Gate but I didn't look at all of them).

Math...well, not so much. His score was 488 out of 600 -- in the Advanced level as pretty much all kids at his school are -- but below average for many of the schools in the district. Just above average at his school, where Collins' 2nd-graders averaged 466.

Still, overall math averages were higher than Language Arts at all schools (that's with selecting for English proficiency). So what's with our digital kid doing better in the analog world? Gabriel resists writing, expresses his creativity in very digital mathematical terms (like all his electronics circuits), claims to hate language arts, and doesn't challenge himself much with reading. Yet he did better in the language than the math, and not great on either compared to what he could do.

And why with all his early promise in math isn't be blowing the math scores away, especially with all his arrogant claims of the tests being so easy?

I'm not super big on standardized tests, but it does give you a calibration point about parent demographics at the schools. I firmly believe the scores reflect the parent population far moreso than the kids or teachers. Faria parents REALLY REALLY want the high scores, they're going to push their kids to get them. McAuliffe parents embrace a "whole learning" philosophy, and many opt out of the testing. Collins parents like me are sheep and just go with it -- though if Gabriel had done very very poorly, it'd have been a flag for action, given the highly privileged circumstances he comes from.

Still, it is interesting that a toddler who had a serious language delay, hadn't said a word by age 2, and needed speech therapy, but who could calculate clock time before he was 4, would do better in language arts than math at age 8. And interesting that a kid who shows such ability in certain things tests pretty average.

I'm OK with "average," and I'm OK with "I really don't get this," but I'm not OK with not doing your best.

Now, back to scrapping the good stuff!


11/27/2010 Rainy Day Bowling

I've had this in my back pocket for months now: what to do on a rainy day when the kids really need to get out? Bowling!

Strike (now named Bowlmor) is closeby and perfect for kids, since you can program gutter bumpers up or down on a per-player basis. The boys have been there before on CDC field trips, and of course we had Gabriel's 6th birthday party there, so they were thrilled at this idea. And, I like to bowl.

This helped them get over the fact that they were not going to breakfast with Dad -- a coveted weekend morning affair. He's fed up with their constant messing around, making noise, shoving each other and arguing, and is still ticked off about their horrible behavior at the car show yesterday. Taking just Katrina, on the other hand, is a pleasant, relaxing cutefest.

So, boys had a quick breakfast at home, and off we went.

Both boys opted for bumpers, and Julian started off using the ramp, but gave it up to throw the ball like a man. Neither can be persuaded that a bowling ball is not meant to be thrown like a football and that it can be better handled with fingers in the holes.

Not easy to take photos in a dimly lit bowling alley.

I was typically inconsistent, and though I threw a double strike once, that game had my lowest score of the three games we did.

A couple of sliders (hamburgers), fries, lemonade, some classic rock music in the background...all we needed was a few beers!


Friday, November 26, 2010

11/26/2010 Car show

It wasn't a bad idea, but the execution? Ugh.

We drove to San Francisco today to see the International Car Show. The idea was to peruse through the options in one place and decide which dealerships to actually spend time in. Who knows, maybe there's a type of car that could work for us that we hadn't thought of before?

The kids "helped" us look at cars by climbing in the back seats and putting on seatbelts. In every car we tried, the boys would still need boosters to position the shoulder belt properly. Julian clearly needs some additional help with this concept.

Mostly, we were just trying to keep them busy as their enthusiasm for our research venture started to fade about 5 minutes into it.

There are times I wish we had a car with a 3rd row, for when we have adult visitors. Most 7-seater non-minivans (and even some minivans) can only fit kids in the 3rd row, but guess what -- we have those. It's highly likely that if we needed to transport 7 people, at least two of them would fit in the back.

This back 3rd row was especially spacious. (My picture-taking was very random and I'm not sure what car this was, but this 3rd row was one of the better ones -- the Hyundai Veracruz maybe.)

But guess what else we learned about 3rd-row SUVs: you sacrifice a real middle seat in the 2nd row. Look to the left of the measuring tape in the photo. See that small gap between the two seats? That's the remnant of the 2nd-row middle seat, and only if you lift the dividing console up. It's just not a real seat. (That's Katrina modelling the 3rd-row seat.)

One of our 3 kids really is going to spend time in the middle seat -- it's not just to squeeze another grownup in for a quick lunch run at work. I can't remember which car this was, but was either a Hyundai Veracruz, a Mazda CX-9 or a Toyota Highlander, all of which suffered this absurd tradeoff.

All those cars were too big anyway, which is why we didn't even test-sit a Honda Pilot (would even Honda make that blunder too?!).

But by the time we got to this level of realization, the kids were running out of steam fast. Julian was non-stop hyper-pestering, running into people, hands all over Katrina, throwing himself on the floor of the cars and refusing to get out. Katrina overall was OK, but Gabriel was the worst, and not in a way he's known for: he whined. Whined! Complained! Vociferously objected to how BOOOORING this was! Actually, even his whining is intense whining, not the draggy sort of whining. It was directed, stinging, "See how unhappy you make everyone by taking us to this STUPID thing?!" Cripes! Before long, we were more anxious to leave than they were.

Truth is, I'm not crazy about convention centers and crowds either, but an hour there could save many hours later driving around to dealerships just to rule out things like big SUVs with bogus middle seats. Still, it was a big disappointment to Dave -- a car show! The motherlode! This should be fun! Instead, we could barely exchange a few words together.

We did learn a few things however (other than leaving kids at home next time). I was delightfully very surprised when I sat in a Hyundai Tucson, then a Hyundai Santa Fe. Incredibly, I could reach the foot pedals without having intimate relations with the steering wheel! Most cars are just not made for shorter drivers. Only in my beloved old Honda Accord was I able to sit comfortably with the steering wheel at arm's length. In my Subaru, the steering wheel is just a teensy bit too close for comfort. I never understood this -- putting the steering wheel and pedals closer together and giving more arm-room is more comfortable for shorter and taller drivers, why don't more cars do that?

Another major annoyance was that most cars now have electronic hatch-opening and electric driver-seat adjustments -- and many many cars have dead batteries at a car show. So I couldn't adjust many driver's seats to see how I'd fit, and some rear hatches we couldn't open to peek in.

Fortunately the Hyundais all had working batteries. Overall I thought the Hyundai SUVs were really nice, well-priced, decent gas mileage, and they come in a manual transmission if we still insist on one. Hmm! This is exactly the surprise we were looking for.

The Ford Edge was another "crossover" we went to look at. Blah. Overpriced, cheesy fit & finish, some afterthought sorts of things (like an intrusive bar on the rear gate that is probably for auto-open/lift). That was a fast no.

Dave ruled out the Honda CRV because it doesn't have a manu-matic. I LOVE the CRV's driver's armrest, but otherwise the CRV didn't do that much for me, to my dismay. Still, it is a Honda and other than the restrictive transmission there was nothing to rule it out. After 16-1/2 happy years with my 1983 Accord, I am forever a Honda person.

Neither of us liked the Toyota Rav4, and Dave pointed out that the side-opening rear hatch could be a real problem if the car is parked on a slope. A Kia crossover also didn't thrill, nor did the Nissan Murano and Rogue. Dave didn't even want to consider a Volkswagen given the problems the company has had. Then again, kid-meltdowns were well on their way and we were having a harder and harder time looking at the cars.

We didn't go near any of the higher-end brands: Lexus, Acura, Volvo, Audi, Mercedes, BMW. Just no need for that.

Our real objective was to sit in the newer Subaru Outbacks, still the top candidate. After all that SUV-sitting, the Outback felt so .... well, familiar. And carlike. I only had a few minutes in the new Outback before I had to start hiding from our children and pretending we weren't the ones responsible for these ill-mannered, out-of-control brats, but after all the SUVs I'd sat in, it felt very much like my own car (even if it is 9 years newer).

And can I let go of the idea that an Outback fits our lifestyle? I chatted briefly with a very nice woman who has dogs, camps a lot, and does triathlons -- this is the demographic Subaru is after! She seemed so cool, I wish I could have sat and dished at a Starbucks with her for a while. But she certainly isn't us -- though we'd like to think of ourselves as the cool hip adventurous Outback types, our driving reality is that of minivan-life. My Outback is little more than a mommymobile. But I intend to cling to denial as long as possible.

That said, there is one last development in our lives that could actually justify the Outback or some 4WD SUV. Remember we did our first snow trip last March, and my enthusiasm and excitement about snow and skiing hasn't waned one bit. And I'm also newly wild about camping with kids. And these really are good reasons to pick a car that is well-suited to outdoor activities. Not that an Accord sedan would stop us, but loading up for a weekend away is a whole lot easier in my Outback. And Outbacks look cool with dirt on them. Other cars just look dirty. 'Cause you know, cars are all about image, right? You are what you drive, right? Seems I'm just as prone to the vehicular ego trip as a tricked-out low-profiled bass-booming Civic driven by a short Asian guy!

So in the end, my short list is: the Subaru Outback and the Hyundai Santa Fe. Second tier is the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-7 and Toyota Venza (didn't get a chance to see it, thanks kids, but my Outback friend suggested it).

No actual car purchases will occur until our mortgage refinance is complete -- this is not the time for new credit inquiries -- but that gives us plenty of time to do some test-driving and soul-searching (and, apparently, image-preening). Without our bratty little brood.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

11/25/10 Jedi Battles on Thanksgiving Day

What an AWESOME Thanksgiving Day!

OK, it didn't start out so well. Sometime after midnight, Gabriel threw up all over his bed, bedding, animals and everything on the bed, starting a multi-hour "hurlfest." (He pointed out that since it was after midnight, it was "definitely Thursday.") I scrambled to clean it up and set up a new bed for him on the floor while he was in the bath. He threw up twice more, once while he was up already (no cleanup) and once again in his makeshift bed on the floor (complete bedding/pajama replacement again). I didn't get to sleep until 3:15.

But, thanks to my recently acquired cooking experience and my favorite celebrity chef, I'd done most of the prep Wednesday (with lots of help), and didn't have all that much to do Thursday. Oh, cornbread here, mashed potatoes there, but these aren't big deals. Baking takes a lot longer.

So before the big feast we all walked to the small park near our house. Ryan and the boys have invented a pretty elaborate "Jedi Battle" game, and the boys were anxious to play it. Katrina joined us, and she was bursting with joy at running around outside, playing on the slides, and being tossed in the air.

The Jedi Battles are fun. It's a lot like fencing, but there are rules: A set of Jedi Judges say "charge!" when the battle starts, and watch to see if one Jedi scores a sufficient hit on the other to win. If you get your leg "cut off" then you have to hop; if both are "cut off" you have to stay in one place. Both Jedis can use The Force three times, which is thrusting their hand out and the other Jedi is forced back.

Gabriel and Julian had some epic battles, Julian with Ryan's light saber (this Uncle comes with his own light saber!) and Gabriel with his double-saber, courtesy of duct tape. So interesting watching my sons be boys together. Julian had an advantage since his single light-saber was easier to handle, but still, he has more finesse and accuracy, while Gabriel is more aggressive.

Katrina had to get into the action too.

The Jedi Judges.

Jedi Laura took Jedi Julian on while Gabriel and Katrina judged.

Then an epic battle between Jedi Ryan and Jedi Katrina!

Use The Force!

Katrina and I left the fun a little early to go home and check on the turkey. Before long, a complete dinner spread was ready to go!

OK, OK, we didn't really need this much food, but it sure was fun and we weren't lacking for variety. Turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, two kinds of stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, cornbread, dinner rolls, pumpkin pie, apple galette, pecan butter tarts, and several kinds of wine, including mulled. Oh yeah, and a chocolate turkey!

Then we had a wonderful family Thanksgiving dinner together. We ate a ton (except Katrina who ate only broccoli and cornbread), drank a lot of wine, traded stories. Gabriel seemed OK, a little lower-key than usual but he wanted to eat despite his tummy troubles last night.

The most popular dish was -- get this -- the brussel sprouts! They were made from a nice simple Jacques Pepin recipe in a book that Mom gave me, and made by Ryan, who is very knowledgeable about cooking brussel sprouts. Ryan definitely has a touch when it comes to cooking.

We wrapped it up with a movie (Toy Story), dessert, more wine, more family time. This is what Thanksgiving is about!


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

11/24/2010 Yoga

The boys spent pretty much all day with Uncle Ryan. Jeid light-saber battles raged outside for much of the day, but Uncle Ryan is also quite the yoga yogi, and got the boys to do some yoga with him!

OK, so how cool is that!! This goes way beyond the usual armpit-fart Uncle teaching!! These boys have some seriously awesome cool uncles.


11/24/2010 "In advance"

Making things "in advance" -- that's what my idol, Ina Garten, emphasizes. Many years of my poor mother dashing in and out of the family action to go tend to something in the kitchen underscores that.

Lucky me! I took the day off work yesterday to grocery-shop and prepare for Thanksgiving cooking, and I got to hear Ina interviewed on NPR's "Talk of the Nation"! So now I know how I'm going to do the turkey: super-easy and pretty much nothing. Butter, salt, roast, done.

'Cause, you all know how I'm about simplicity when it comes to cooking. Uh-huh. Well, I am basically practical, but that doesn't mean I can't apply my very own brand of insanity to to it. With Laura and Ryan here as willing guinea pigs, I'm going all-out. Turkey, 2 kinds of stuffing, 3 vegetables, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cornbread, an oddball chestnut dish, cranberry sauce (from fresh cranberries of course, mulled wine and 3 desserts. And a roasted butternut-squash-pumpkin soup today just...well, just because I had the squash and needed to use it.

Good thing I watch so much Food Network: do the desserts first, they take the longest. My experience with baking now also tells me that anything that involves fruit preparation (e.g. peeling and slicing apples) is very time-consuming. Pumpkin pies are really easy by comparison.

I made a pumpkin pie, an apple galette and Canadian butter tarts with pecans today for Dave.

Ina highly recommends making things in advance so you can be part of the party. I agree. She also strongly suggests not making too many things -- there's no need to, and unless you're feeding a frat house, guests really appreciate quality, not quantity. This latter I have trouble heeding, and it encroaches upon the former. Which is why at 11:30pm I'm on my way to the kitchen to work on another stuffing!! Ina, save me from myself!


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

11/23/2010 The Eat Party

Laura and Ryan arrived tonight! It starts now!


Monday, November 22, 2010

11/22/2010 Car Talk

Last week I was chatting with a friend who's in need of a new car (and you know who you are -- we'll all be overjoyed on your behalf when that happens!).

Well, turns out I might be in need myself. My car is in decent shape, but it's never been the best example of a Subaru, and it's always burned more oil than it should. Now it's burning more, and we've had to do a few extra unusual/extra repairs on it in my ownership, more than a tried-and-true Honda lover like me should ever have to put up with. That'd all be OK if I really liked driving it, but I really never have..

There are things I really like about it, and the main reasons I chose it remain: it has the biggest wagon space for the price, really comfortable seats (heated too!), and great visibility and mirrors. It'd be hard to go to a car with less cargo area, which rules out most small and mid-sized SUVs, which I'm not sure I want anyway. People like SUVs because of the higher viewing perspective, but I'm not crazy about the tipsy high center-of-gravity feeling I get while driving them.

Anyway, seems we're unofficially in the market for another car. Now how do I break it to my checkbook?


Sunday, November 21, 2010

11/21/2010 Trial classes

Saturday I took Julian and Katrina to trial classes, finally!

Katrina's was a dance class, and Julian's was, believe it or not, a Kung Fu class.

I wasn't planning on a Kung Fu trial for Julian that day, but he was being a serious pain at home, so I brought him with me to Katrina's dance class. On the way back home, I noticed a Kung Fu place right near our house, and it was open. We stopped and watched, and saw that there was a beginner class in about 2 hours, and they said we could take a free trial class. So, Kung Fu.

First, Katrina. She had been all excited about "twirling" in her dance class, so she was seriously nonplussed when it started out with tap shoes. I agree, I've never been a fan of tap. (That's Katrina in the purple leotard and her head against the barre. Sigh.)

She pretty much refused to do anything in most of the class.

A few props came out in the end: teddy bears and skirts, enough to elicit a smile or two, but not exactly raging enthusiasm.

She liked the skirt but mostly just stared at herself while the other girls danced and twirled.

One little friend tried to take Katrina under her wing, to little avail.

Not a follower, this one!

I don't think we're going to pursue this. The school is structured with an inflexible "tuition" policy, and I think we need to start more flexibly, and lower-key. I know Katrina wants to dance, but I also know from much experience myself that it takes a few times to find the right place.

So as we were almost home, we cut into the parking lot with the Kung Fu place. I'd seen kids at Trader Joe's with the T-shirts for this place (good advertising!). I was really impressed with what I saw -- it looked so much more interesting and active than Tae Kwon Do. Julian resisted even watching at first, but as soon as he saw there were weapons involved, he was all over it.

So I brought Julian back for a trial lesson at 1pm, and he took right to it. My ears thought they'd gone to heaven when I heard these boys say "YES SIR!!" Yes sir?! I'm sold!

Julian's in the dark green sweatshirt.

I liked the physical exercises, and I liked the no-excuses aggression, and the keeping kids in line (literally, they have to stay in a line). This is no warm-n-fuzzy namby-pamby "we let the kids guide us" sort of thing. No, the kids bow going in and out, and a kid out of line is quickly corrected back, and they all say smartly, "Yes SIR!" Things move fast and there is NO opportunity for messing around. And I like the precise physical positions they students go in -- it really appeals to the dance side in me. Cool!

The class chasse's across the floor. Julian is wearing a green sweatshirt (trial class), but it's his voice you hear right away: "yes SIR!"

A teacher (Sifu) took the rank beginners to the back to practice some moves. Julian loved kicking the big cylinder. It wasn't random kicking, it was part of a sequence.

I signed him up right after the trial class, swallowing the $100/month cost (thats $25/lesson), plus the initiation fee and the uniform.

I brought him back today, Sunday, for his first real class, wearing his black baggy uniform pants and the right kind of sneakers. I just love seeing how attentive he is, how respectful he is of the authority. He is the first and loudest to say "Yes SIR! and obeys immediately. Ahhh, this is what I like to see in a rebel boy!

Today in his first "real" class, he was challenged to jump and twist quickly. In the video, Julian is closest to the camera in the back row and being corrected by the teacher, which sort of works.

This Kung Fu place is hard to beat for convenience. There are 3 beginner classes a week, two on weekends and one Thursdays at 6, but we can attend whichever works for us any week. I bought a once-a-week package for 3 months, which was expensive -- that's a big downside. But I really liked the class, I think it's much more interesting, active and engaging of what we'd seen of Tae Kwon Do. This doesn't happen often in Sunnyvale, but we can walk to it (though it's in Cupertino).

Ironically, there is also a dance place in the same strip mall -- also walkable -- but no weekend classes. Dance classes are more rigid in how they let you take them. The school where Katrina took her trial class today is planning a show, and I was pressured into attending the meeting for the show -- a show, already? The director said something about a Parks & Rec class if we were looking for just exposure; this school is a little more serious. You can see from the videos just how serious Katrina was about it. I know there are better-suited classes out there for her.

I was seriouly impressed at the little girls in the Shaolin Kung Fu classes though -- would this be more my hesitant nonathlete's style? But first, she'd have to learn to say "Yes, SIR!"