I Know What I Know

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January 2017

Shark’s Fin Soup and Sichuan Pepper

Shark's Fin And Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in ChinaShark’s Fin And Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, let’s address the elephant in the room first — white people traveling to “distant lands” to write about the people, culture, and food of people of color. There’s a long and messy history here that readers need to be aware of before they read any book that tackles this subject. It’s fraught. There are critical issues to consider. But I do believe that Dunlop tries to write ethically about Chinese people, food, government, and culture, though it is important to make sure the reader is aware of the lens through which she views the world (that of a privileged British citizen).

That being said, I really enjoyed this book. I loved the writing style. It was a voice that came through strongly and was a fast-paced and pleasurable read. I adore how Dunlop describes food. Obviously she’s a food writer, so she’s very skilled at describing tastes and textures. I just tried dan dan noodles for the first time at our local Szechuan restaurant, and they were just how she described them. The way she says the pepper flavor numbs in a savory way is dead on. I think it really encourages you to try some new types of food and appreciate what other cultures have to offer in the culinary arts.

I was definitely set on edge when Dunlop describes the severe contamination and pollution problems that plague China and the ingredients in their food. It makes me worried about the food I’m eating here in America too. I learned so very much about China that I didn’t know, and most importantly to me anyway that Sichuan and Szechuan are the same province, it just depends on American/British spelling. Which means that the Szechuan House in town has so many of the dishes she describes that I can’t wait to try.

Be careful… this book will make you hungry!

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Dystopian Futures: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

It was an electric teaching day for me. My English II kids are reading Animal Farm, and while admittedly it’s not as good of an example as 1984, today we talked about utopias, dystopias, and whether or not too much dystopia in speculative fiction is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

See, these kids have been reared on a steady diet of Hunger Games, Divergent, The Walking Dead, The 5th Wave, etc. etc. etc. Kids these days! Well, to be fair, my generation had Terminator and read Orwell and Bradbury in school. But the dystopia phenomenon has glutted the media to the point where literary agents are specifically saying “NOT INTERESTED in dystopian YA.”

Let’s face it: dystopia is a nice warm Petri dish for breeding drama. It’s compelling to watch characters struggle through a ruined world trying to bring light and hope to a desolate society, to break free and let the sun shine again. Also, a student had a great point during our discussion where she described a feeling of schadenfreude indulging in dystopian spec fic — watching the characters struggle through such a harsh or totalitarian environment makes one feel better about one’s own world, no matter how flawed.

But a question I’ve been ruminating on, and that I posed to my class today is “Is there some kind of consequences for a society glutting themselves on dystopian spec fic, drowning in stories of a dark future?” A student commented, “Well, my coach says that if you think you won’t do well in a game, then you won’t do well, but if you believe you’ll do a good job, you will.” So, is dystopian spec fic a self-fulfilling prophecy?

So many things — vital inventions and ideas — were born of science and speculative fiction. Without War of the Worlds there would be no lasers, and hell, Star Trek had tablets. We’re creating the most human like robots possible which just begs for Blade Runner to become real. Without Jurassic Park would scientists have gotten the idea to clone a wooly mammoth?

So if we seek to become our speculative fiction, to in some ways model our world after it, what happens when all we consume is dystopian? You can definitely argue that books like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 serve as cautionary tales. Certainly Animal Farm with allegories traditionally serving a corrective purpose. But what about Hunger Games that revels in the fucked-up-edness of the future and glorifies the heroes that bring back the light?

I would argue that we need more Star Trek futures, more hopeful spec fic. I’m not saying that all futures need to be plastic and pretty. I want spec fic that’s realistic but not so entirely and unendingly dreary. That’s why I’m so excited to be part of an upcoming science fiction anthology called Humans Wanted where humans are for once not portrayed as the negative destroyers of the world and ruiners of the universe.


I think YA writers owe it to our young people to present a future that isn’t completely bad. There’s still plenty of ways to create conflict and drama in a future that has some good points instead of being nothing but a totalitarian brainwashing wasteland. We become what we see. Art imitates life imitates art, and I don’t want my kid growing up in Panem!

A Jock/Nerd’s Philosophy of Sport

A few years ago, I came across this tank top in a facebook advertisement. The instant I saw it, I burst out laughing and just about hugged the phone. Finally, someone had encapsulated my feelings about sports in a beautifully pithy piece of clothing.

If you don’t feel like clicking the link, it reads “Hooray sports! Do the thing! Win the points!” The description reads as such:

Go sports! Beat the other team! Do the goals… and basket them all the way to the endzone! Sports may not be your bag, but that’s no reason not to show pride and team spirit! This makes for a great nerdy gift idea. Whether you’re on the couch or in the bleachers, grab this ironic design and show your sports pride. Especially if, ah… you don’t know anything about sports.

If you know much about me, you’re probably not surprised that I’d find a shirt like that amusing. Obviously I’m super in to writing and weird shit like wax museums. The other day, two of my colleagues were discussing the Alabama vs. Clemson game in the hallway and I was like, “Well, my halfling bard had not one but TWO critical hits last game session, and one of them was max damage, soooo.” The only reason I knew which teams were playing and that it was some kind of college football championship is because a kid wrote about it for an essay I had to grade. Actually, the reason I know anything at all about sports is because of grading essays like “Kobe Bryant is better than LaBron James.”

Yes, I’m being cheeky. But I promise, I’m not just some unapologetic nerd who poops on all sports just because I personally don’t enjoy doing it. I’ve honestly TRIED to like sports a few times just to fit in, or because I really felt like I HAD to be missing SOMETHING. I mean, if so many people all over the world are obsessed with athletic contest, then there must be something good going on, right? I swear I’ve given it a try. I’ve tried to memorize the Cubs’ lineup, know the names of the basketball players on the Iowa team for a season, and even joined in a fantasy football league at work (partially because I heard it was Dungeons and Dragons for jocks). But I just… can’t do it, guys.

I come from an athletic family. My mom participated in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” in the history of six-on-six women’s basketball. My dad played a lot of basketball even after college, and my brother played for Loras and ran track as well. I was one of the top volleyball players on my high school team and almost always started. Sure, I was crap at basketball (much to the chagrin of my family) but I always enjoyed weight lifting and such. Yes, I’m totally out of shape now, but I have pretty good eye-hand coordination (hence being a kick-ass shot with a .20 gauge or a muzzleloader) and when I really try, I can get pretty jacked.

I grew up in a Cubs and Hawkeye household, and have been to games and tailgates out the wazoo. I actually really enjoy sports movies and books. I adore the Rocky series and Friday Night Lights. So why didn’t I get into real-life sports as a kid or an adult?

  1. Sports went against the identity I formed in childhood and adolescence. I was not a “popular” kid in elementary and middle school. I definitely had friends, but those who shared the same interests as me (reading, writing, music, art) were not into sports as a personal interest all the time (though Jenna from Orchestra was a huge Kansas City baseball fan). The kids we didn’t get along with, the “preps” or the “popular” kids tended to be interested in and skilled at sports. I developed an “us vs. them” mentality in response to some incidents of bullying. Being very immature, loud, and opinionated, I drew thick lines between my friends and myself, and other groups of kids that were into sports. In high school, I almost quit the volleyball team because “none of my friends are doing it.” My mom made me stick it out, and one night during a team meeting I actually apologized for being on the team to the rest of the girls because I thought I was disrupting their good time. One of the players jumped up and hugged me. “We want you here, Amelia!” So yeah. We had grown and matured from middle school, and it was time to let some things go. There’s a perfect example of why sports are not the devil, people.
  2. The Fan Factor. Sure, being a fan of the same sports team can probably connect you to people you wouldn’t otherwise associate with, and maybe that brings about cultural understanding. I feel like most of the time, though, rabid fans can be pretty dickish. Sports fandom can bring out the worst in people. We’ve seen this in riots at soccer matches and drunken altercations in downtown Iowa City. Just the image of thousands of Iowa fans, all dressed in the same outfits and colors, walking in a huge tidal wave toward the stadium on game day asking for beer-fuled high fives just turns my stomach. I have no desire to put on the uniform and jump into that column of sheeple. Fandom comes all too often with alcohol abuse. At least, that’s been my experience living in Iowa City, #2 party school in the nation. It all goes back to what’s known as “escape-valve theory” which states that societies need festivals and holidays that turn normal operating procedure topsy-turvy and let people blow off steam so they don’t try and overthrow those in charge. So I get it, philosophically and psychologically. I just don’t like it.
  3. Hyper-masculinity. Sports players don’t “ask” to be role models. I know there’s a lot going on there with race and class, etc. etc. But kids look up to them regardless. If we hold teachers to an excruciatingly high standard of conduct in their personal and professional lives, we should hold athletes to the same. Because I can tell you that professional athletes and athletics in general have an unbelievable amount of influence on school aged kids, especially males. I know this because I’ve seen it for eleven years. So yes, sports teams should get rid of athletes who beat their wives, do drugs, and set a bad example of misogyny or discrimination. And coaches too! Especially at younger levels. There should be a far more rigorous training process for coaches. Guess what? I coach volleyball, and I’m certified, so I know how stupidly easy it is and how little accountability. We shouldn’t just be forced to renew our concussion training each year. We need training for how to teach our athletes real values, not just “try your hardest, push through the pain, support your team, get good grades or you won’t play.” I want to see athletes who translate what they’ve learned in sports into cooperative classroom leadership (not just “I’m the loudest so I’m the leader”), protecting students from bullying and harassment, and treating female students as equals. This leads me into…
  4. Sports play too large a role in school experience in America. Most of you aren’t going to like this, but here it is. Academics should come first, but they don’t. Students should not miss one minute of class time to play a sport. If a kid is getting a C- or lower they should not play AS OF THAT VERY DAY THEY EARNED THE D+, not at the end of the semester. Parents need to chill out with how much they care about their students’ athletics. I had a kid write an essay about how many hours his dad pushed him to practice baseball and how grateful the kid was for all the help. What if that father had put that amount of energy into his child’s learning? He’d be getting better than a B- in English, I can tell you that much. SO MUCH special treatment for athletes. SO MUCH of their egos revolve around it. And look, I told you I myself am an athlete and coach, and I know my players get good things out of participation. But this overwhelming cloud of sports and sports related hype is too much in your average public school. I know because I’ve worked in 4 of them.
  5. More emphasis on female athletes. Oh, men’s sports are “more fun to watch.” I get it. We will never be as physically capable or whatever. Recently I attended an Iowa volleyball game and a basketball game, and I really got into it as a fan, which surprised me a great deal considering I’m a Dungeons and Dragons nerd. It was a great experience and fun to watch. Because girls are not decorations you put on the sidelines to “pump up the crowd.” I know cheerleaders are athletes too, and very capable ones at that, but the whole philosophy behind cheerleading is not feminist positive. I enjoyed those matches because I felt like it lacked the rabid fans and the hyper-masculinity that bother me.


I started out this post on one side, and now I’m back on the other… Okay, sports have their good sides, and they could be a powerful tool for our young people. You can’t fault people for liking the things they are interested in. But sports can also be an extremely toxic environment, and I believe they deserve more accountability and scrutiny overall due to the tremendous influence they have in our country.

My mom and my daughter at a Hawkeye women’s basketball game. It’s hard to get mad at sports with this cuteness!

So go enjoy your sportsball responsibly, folks. You don’t even like feetball, I’m the number one super fan!




You Will Be Visited by Three Spirits (Part III)

(Note: Sorry for the previous post and then removal. I also run the school blog for one of my classes, and we use WordPress. I was signed in under this blog and posted her article on the tragic plane crash that killed most of a soccer team. Great article! On the wrong blog.)

Well, holiday mateys, we’ve come to the end of the holiday season. Now begins my LEAST favorite time of year that was once made sweet by coaching speech contest, but alas, that is no more. We leave the holidays over-partied, overfed, and maybe a smidge hungover, some of us with renewed spirits and resolutions, others of us jaded from resolutions past and determined to just get through to summer.

Whatever your mood today, there’s still time for one last little ghost story.

San Diego Spirit

In 2011, I was hired by the Muscatine Community School District as part of a new project-based learning initiative called G-Squared. The idea was to create a project-based school-within-a-school to give students the option of a different style of learning.

My team and I had the opportunity to fly out to San Diego and visit High Tech High, a project-based magnet school, and participate in in a jam-packed weekend of project-based development. For those of you who aren’t in the education field, the idea behind project-based is that the students and teacher use long-term, multi-step projects to learn concepts instead of worksheets, tests, and homework. The idea is that students create real-world things that are actually useful outside of the school (a website, a video, a database, a performance, an art piece, etc). It really is a remarkable place.

As part of our training, we got to visit the school on “Exhibition Night” where all the students displayed their projects in each classroom. In a science room, the students had built a model town and run a lighting and electricity system through it. There were hand-made books of poetry and lots of artwork.

However, this first incident happened that afternoon on the day of the Exhibition. We were given carte-blanche to wander the school and observe classes, and the building itself was very warehouse-like. There were big spaces for performing and gathering, and smaller ones blocked off for displays and more traditional classrooms. In the more industrial-feeling part, there was a small hallway off of a bigger room that turned at a weird angle. My colleagues and I were walking through and stopping to admire some art installations on the walls.

I was staring fixedly at a painting when I felt a hand on my elbow. It was without a doubt a hand. It had individual fingers. Just a gentle touch.

I turned and started speaking, thinking it was Amy, my coworker, because she had a habit of putting her hand on people’s arms as a talking point or a reassuring gesture (even though I had just met her).

But there was nobody there. My group had moved far down the next hallway and nobody was close to me whatsoever.

I tried to shake it off, but it was pretty weird. So that night, we came back for the Exhibition. We wandered around all of the displays until we came to a classroom where students were showing a documentary. “Oh, you have to see this, Amelia, it’s right up your alley,” Laurie said. So I went in for the next showing.

It was a documentary about a student team of ghost hunters! Apparently the building had a haunted reputation. They didn’t uncover much in their nighttime investigation, but there you go. I had no idea whatsoever the building was known for the paranormal, and the paranormal tried to make contact with me. I excitedly told the students after the video, but they kind of blew me off weirdly. Disaffected teenagers, or jealous that I was the one the ghost wanted to talk to ? 🙂

Well, thanks for coming on this journey with me through Christmas, the New Year, and the paranormal. I would love to hear any personal stories out there, so feel free to leave a comment or contact me via Facebook or Twitter. Also, if you love ghost stories, check out Jim Harold’s Campfire wherever you find your podcasts. As Jim would say,  “stay spooky!”

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