May 2011

Between “The Hangover”, “Waking up in Vegas,” and the array of suggestive commercials that the Nevada’s tourism board puts on your television, people no longer come to Vegas expecting to get rich – they come almost hoping to lose all their money so they can go home and tell their friends about how they had to bail themselves out of jail for jumping in the Bellagio fountains with a gang of European soccer players in celebration of a spur-of-the-moment marriage to the bathroom attendant at Tao.

Or whatever.

Every weekend flocks of people head to Sin City for what will surely be “the craziest weekend of my life!” Sorry bachelors: It won’t be. You will NEVER wake up sans front tooth in the same room as Mike Tyson’s tiger, no matter how many drugs you “accidently” take. The more you hope for a crazy weekend, the less crazy it will be. It is impossible for Las Vegas to be as exciting as you think it is.

Not to say that things don’t get crazy sometimes. I’ve definitely had those nights when I couldn’t reach my friend who’d left with a…um…dancer…and I’d thrown my cell phone in a toilet and a guy in a wheelchair had to change our newly-flattened tires because we didn’t want to scratch our corsets. But I’m just as likely to spend all evening curling my hair only to end up at the McDonalds in Luxor, eating fries and laughing with my friends until two in the morning. Not that I’m knocking it – last night was really fun. But it’s not the story blockbuster movies and songs go to for inspiration.

So while planning your next trip to Las Vegas (or Thailand), get The Hangover out of your head, resign yourself to the fact that you probably won’t get trick rolled or married, and try to have a good time anyways.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing the “go local” movement. I’m all for regionalism ninety percent of the time. But when road tripping across America, I do tend to rely on a couple of franchises.

A 24hour Fitness membership is a road trip essential, if only for the free showers. I’ve often checked out of a hotel and then gone somewhere to hike up a mountain or run a race. It’s nice to be able to pull into the next town, find the local 24hour Fitness, and take a shower before moving on to the final destination of the day. Especially if I’m crashing at a friend’s house for the night, I don’t want to be rocking the I-ran-a-10K-and-then-sat-in-a-car-for-five-hours look when I arrive.

Fitness club memberships are also nice for long road trips if you don’t want to lose your toned abs or triceps while on an extended vacation. I can find the inspiration to run while on the road, but squats and sit-ups require external motivation. Before hitting a new town I check the 24class schedule online and plan on attending a group workout, wherein I can count on an instructor to make me do my lunges and leg lifts.

Any national fitness chain will keep you clean and fit on the road. I just like 24hour fitness because most clubs have pools. Double check your gym membership before leaving town, as some are only good at your “home” gym. An upgrade is not too costly though. Another reason I like 24hour is they allow me to freeze my membership for months when I’ll be out of the county or am just planning on being lazy.

Another essential chain is Starbucks. Not for the coffee, but for the WiFi. Of course you can get free WiFi at several establishments, but Starbucks is a sure thing. I would love to say that I pop into Starbucks in order to studiously work on writing or other scholastic enterprises, but my latest emergency need for WiFi was of a different nature.

I was driving from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas last month when I got a text informing me that my Mariners were tied in an exciting game with the Oakland A’s. (Mom or Policemen: If you are reading this, please know that I definitely pulled off the road to check the text. I swear.) Not getting the game on any radio stations, I pulled into the nearest town (St. George), found a Starbucks, and listened to the rest of the game on my laptop. The Mariners lost.     

So whether you need to workout, take a quick shower, or listen to your team lose an extra innings game, there are franchises across America ready for you.

A new middle school student enjoys his or her own locker, an in-depth exploration of subjects, and the freedom that comes with switching classes every hour. But one vestige of elementary school should never be abandoned – the picture book read aloud. The best children’s literature not only teaches, but captivates audiences of every age. When I read aloud, my 8th grade students edge close, even wanting to be on the floor. The guys rest their chins on their tattooed forearms and stare up at the pictures, not even bothering to feign disinterest.  

As a World Geography teacher, one of my obvious favorites is Uri Shulevitz’s “How I Learned Geography.” In this biographical tale, Uri recounts (in less then 20 words) how his family fled Poland during WWII. Then the story starts. Instead of buying the expected bread, Uri’s dad buys a map. Initial anger brought on by an empty stomach relaxes into wonder as the map floods the room with color and Uri’s mind with possibilities. The rest of the book is filled with Shulevitz’s illustrations of the snowy mountaintops and teeming cities he imagined as a child.

After I read this to my students, I reinforce the lesson by asking them to brainstorm examples of the deserts, beaches, mountains, jungles, and cities that Uri fantasized about in his book. Then each group designs a customized trip around the world that Uri might have enjoyed. A biographical map of Shulevitz’s own life also provides fodder for discussions, as he fled Poland in 1939 to live in modern day Kazakhstan, Paris, Israel and then the USA.

Another favorite is Carmen Agra Deedy’s “14 Cows for America,” gorgeously illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. It’s a story about the Maasai people of Kenya. My students, like most of us, are used to hearing negative stories about Africa. They see poverty stricken children on TV. They hear about wars and genocide and AIDS.  My African-American students want nothing to do with Africa, viewing it as a continent of mud huts and shame.      

Then we read “14 Cows for America.”

In this true story Kimeli returns to Kenya and tells his people about his time in America. He tells them about New York, he tells them about that one September day. The Maasai people are horrified into silence when they hear Kimeli’s tale. Then they spring into action, determined to help right the injustice, determined to ease the suffering of these poor people who live in America. The Maasai give up what is most precious to them – the cow. The Maasai donate fourteen cows to the USA, “because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

I love that Ms. Agra Deedy automatically knew that my kids were brilliant readers!

For further suggestions on great books and ways to use them in the classroom, check out “Every Book is a Social Studies Book,” by Andrea Libresco. This one is a true gem, complete with lesson plans and ready-to-use handouts for students.


Headed to Las Vegas? Don’t even think about heading to the buffet, blackjack table or bar before getting yourself a player’s card. Player’s cards allow you to get all those Vegas comps and freebies that you always hear people bragging about. Every casino or casino family dispenses (free) cards akin to the kind of cards you get at grocery stores to get the advertised sale prices.

Cards are inserted into slot machines, recorded at tables, swiped at buffets, and noted at check-in. Once you rack up enough points, the casino in question will start sending you free passes to restaurants and money for slot play. For big spenders,  rooms and poolside cabanas are offered.

Cards are important for the non-gamblers (an ever-increasing group of Vegas tourists) as well. When you first sign up for the card it often comes pre-loaded with $10 of free slot play. I always head to a penny machine, place a bet and cash out my $9.99. Signing up for a card also ensures a place on the casino’s emailing list so all the best deals on rooms and restaurants will be sent your way.

The card to have nowadays is the Identity player’s card from the new Cosmopolitan hotel. Without gambling a dime on the casino floor, I received an email shortly after signing up for the card advertising free wine tastings on Thursdays and free Around-the-World menu tastings every other Tuesday in May. The tastings are excellent, and I’ve always gone home full. Yesterday’s free meal consisted of Chinese style couscous, a sausage encased in a flaky strudel-like shell, sweet-potato mini cakes, fried trout, and a strawberry-topped cheesecake square. Or in my case, three strawberry-topped cheesecake squares. And three drinks. The green tea-lavender-gin concoction wasn’t really my thing, but who’s complaining when it’s free?

So whether you’ve come to Vegas to eat, play, drink, or gamble, leave that credit card at home and replace the empty slot in your wallet with a new player’s card.

Norway isn’t as cold as you think it is. Despite high latitudes and proximity to the Arctic Circle, the Gulf Stream current warms things up a bit. But this is of little consolation when you’re in a bikini about to dive into a fjord. In February.

Our fjord-swimming plan was developed in a warm kitchen while enjoying a dessert of waffles, brown cheese and beer. “It’s pretty good idea,” said Christian. “Wear wool socks and a wool hat. Maybe you won’t get frostbite.” We made a drunken pact and miraculously stuck to it.

A few days later ten of us ventured out to Lade (in northern Trondheim) and ran down the hill to the edge of the fjord. Figuring that we needed to get warm first, we started doing jumping jacks, screaming, and running around in circles. When I say “we,” I mean we females. The menfolk rolled there eyes, stripped off their sweatshirts and waded right in.

The actual swimming was a little anti-climatic. Still screaming we ran in, completed our pre-mandated three underwater strokes, and ran out. I don’t think we received any of the supposed cold water swimming benefits espoused by Tim Moss. It was all over in twenty seconds. After a quick change of socks we jumped on a bus and headed to Pirbadet.   

Pirbadet is Norway’s largest indoor water park, featuring several lap pools, saunas, a lazy river, a wave pool, climbing rocks, very high scary diving boards and a waterslide. Located on the waterfront, the glassed in water park offers a penguins-eye view of the Trondheim fjord and the tiny island of Munkholmen. From the confines of the heated pool, you feel as if you can swim right out into the ocean. Pirbadet also hosts movies and performances within the water park – just in case you want to authenticate your movie experience. There’s nothing like watching Jaws while swimming. The saunas and slides warmed us right up and within the hour we were ready to head back outside, having decided that our three-stroke minimum was too wimpy. Next time there would be a twenty stroke minimum. And no wool socks.   

If you go:

Pirbadet (Havnegata 12, 7010 Trondheim – right downtown on the waterfront) is open until seven on the weekends and nine on weekdays. A complicated pricing system is in place, and how much you pay depends on your age, membership status, ownership of a punch card, etc. Students get substantial discounts. If you are a non-student there for a one-time visit the cost is kr145 ($27) for a weekend visit or kr125 ($23) on weekdays. Swimming on any beach is Lade is free and pleasantly un-crowded in the winter time. It’s definitely the more economical option.

My watch died my last day in Norway. This watch was also my only alarm and I had to wake up at four in the morning to board a plane back to the US. I was staying in an alarm-clock-free hostel and unwilling to spend my last few kroner to fix a watch. The solution was simple. I’d have to stay up all night.

It was a good decision. No part of me wanted to leave Norway. I welcomed the excuse to make the most out of my last few hours in the country I’d fallen in love with, where I’d lived and taught for a few way-too-short months.

Normally I love coming home. When the passport crew stamps my little blue book and utters the mandated “Welcome home to America,” my eyes literally fill with nationalistic pride. (And no, I’m not a Republican.) But Norway was different. I was desperate to stay, but a million things (a lack of a visa, a boyfriend, a college degree to finish) were pulling me back home. The last thing I wanted to do was catch that flight. At least that watch battery was on my side.

I headed out around nine. Being wintertime, the sun had set hours ago but the snow and moonlight brightened up the sky. I stopped at a convenience store to buy one last block of brown cheese. Then I took a tram down to the fjord so I could stare out at the cold gray water and enjoy the strangely sweet cheese.

I meandered back into town, wandering through side streets and past apartments and stores, closed for the night. It was snowing lightly, but not cold. White candles dotted darkened windows and laughter spilled out of cozy pubs.

My aimless wandering brought me to an open air ice rink in front of the Royal Palace where the last of the skaters were turning in their rentals. I offered the man a little extra and he said I could stay on the ice all night and leave the skates next to the rink – they’d be okay until the morning.

So I skated. I circled that rink a million times as I replayed every moment in those Trondheim bars and homes and schools and ski trails. I traced thousands of figure eights trying to convince myself that it was okay to leave my new favorite place in the world and head home. I skated as restaurants and bars closed and turned out their lights, leaving me alone in the middle of that ice rink on Karl Johans Gate. I’d never felt so safe and content. With every twirl and t-stop on the ice, I promised myself that I would come back. Soon.

I always tell my students to surround themselves with positive people. “Sit next to studious peers. Hang out with people who don’t do drugs on weekends,” I sagely advise. I encourage students to make friends with classmates that will help them memorize the elements on the periodic table, the causes of the French Revolution, and the fact that the correct answer is usually b. I fully believe that you pick up on the habits of those around you.

And then I realize that I’ve surrounded myself with middle-schoolers. Not good.

I’m turning into them! I’m suddenly listening to hip-hop stations, wherein the singers are half my age. (Do you know that Will Smith’s DAUGHTER has an album out?!? Isn’t she, like, three?) Why did I just write “like” into that sentence? Oh yeah, the 180 bad influences I interact with each day.

I am seriously appalled by my behavior at staff meetings. I whip out my phone to change my Facebook status when the principal isn’t watching. I roll my eyes and dramatically mime slitting my throat when a co-teacher glances my way. I stare at the clock longingly and wonder if a well-timed “bathroom” break will help me get through the next hour. I embody everything I despise in my student’s behavior.

It’s not my fault. I’m delimited by negative influences.

I repeat everything three times now, even when talking to my friends. It’s a vestige of saying “turn to page 421…yes, 421…that’s page 421…it’s on the board, page 421…go get a book and open to 421…” every hour on the hour. Non-phrases like omg, lol, and even lmao are appearing in my own spoken and texted vernacular.

But of course there are good things about being influenced by middle school children. I’ve rediscovered the seriously underrated world of young adult literature. I watch my students drop everything for a friend who’s in need. Say what you want about ‘mean girls,’ but bonds of middle-school friendship can cut pretty deep as well. I look at my students and see myself in them. I remember the insecurity. I remember being positive that I would never get a boyfriend, or travel, or see anything pretty in the mirror. And just as life opened up for me after fifteen, it will for them too.

Maybe being influenced by my middle schoolers isn’t so bad after all. Even so, I’d better take a year off and travel – just to make sure.

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