Sunday, September 6, 2009


      So I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and get certified to teach, and I’ve already encountered my first hurdle. The program I’m looking into requires taking the MAT (Miller Analogies Test) for admittance. I’m told by an admissions counselor that it is a broad-based test and almost impossible to study for. She directs me to the website where I can view sample questions.

      I decide not to listen to her and purchase a thick, purple study-guide for twenty dollars. For the next few weeks me and the 342-page book are inseparable. I crack it open first thing in the morning, and thumb through it throughout the day. I take it with me in the car, and on a weekend trip to Chattanooga. I even sleep with it much to my husband Rick’s annoyance as he rolls over on it a lot.

      The book is chock-full of practice tests on the content areas of vocabulary, art and literature, history and social sciences and science and math.

      I read up on everything from Norse Mythology to Taxonomy (the classification of living things). Thor is associated with thunder and the day of the week, Thursday. Things whose cells do not have distinct nuclei, like bacteria, belong in the kingdom Moneran. This seems scholastically palatable, but I may also need to know Avogadro’s number which is “A unit of relative quantity equal to the number of atoms or molecules per mole of a substance. The currently accepted value is 6.022 141 99 x 1023 per mole,” according to my study guide.

      Before studying I never knew that “avoirdupois” is a “fancy name for the weight scale based on a pound containing 16 ounces or that it was Sir Edmund Percival Hillary “whose expedition was the first to reach the top of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953.”

      Okay, maybe it’s not as bad as I’m making it out to be. I’ve always been an avid learner and on the bright side I should be able to breeze through literary figures. However I learn on a practice test that this is not so.

      Here’s an example of one I missed:

“CLEMENS: DODGSON:: TWAIN: (a. Charles, b. Eliot, c. Carroll, d. Sinclair).”

The answer is c: Carroll, because Twain was the nom de plume of Clemens and Charles Dodgson’s was Lewis Carroll.

      Before the test I had not even heard of the term nom de plume.

      This particular question is in the middle of the test where the moderately difficult questions are located. Supposedly the exam progresses from easier to most difficult.

      There are 120 questions on the MAT. In this same practice test question number 114 reads, “WHALE: CROW:: POD: (a. fleet, b. murder, c. jury, d. cabal).

      The answer is b. “A group of whales is called a pod, and a group of crows is called a murder. Somehow I missed that tidbit of information in my study guide and guessed “fleet” instead.

      Our kids are fascinated by the MAT. I read the questions aloud to my family while taking a practice test in the car.

      “Abstract Expressionism, Mom,” says Yakob when I get to a question about various artists and the movement with which they are associated. I select “surrealism” instead and later when I check my answers it turns out Yakob, who is only eleven, was right.

      “How long until you take the test?” implores Ayalkbet.

      “Three more days,” I say glumly as I tally my score. It ends up being 53/120.

      I’m beside myself with worry on the day of the test. I have to eat a TUMS en route to the exam because I’m so nauseated. Rick drives and I do some last minute studying in the car. I still haven’t gotten the numerical value of all the Roman numerals committed to memory.

      Even though I arrive at the testing site on the university campus fifteen minutes early I’m still the last one to enter the room. There is a line of people waiting to sign in and pay the $55 fee. It takes twenty minutes to go through the preliminary instructions and fill in the bubbles with our contact information. My anxiety mounts with each passing moment. We are told we have an hour to complete the test and we’ll be notified only when there are five minutes left.

      As I take the exam I spend a lot of time filling in my bubbles darkly and completely. I can’t detect any progression of difficulty in the questions—they’re all hard!

      There are a scant few analogies I answer with confidence, knowing for example that if I hadn’t studied I wouldn’t know that “cuneiform” refers to an ancient Chinese writing form or that “vena cava” is part of the heart.

      I skip several questions intending to go back to them at the end, but when I’m just at question 108 the proctor gives us the five-minute warning. I fill in “bs” for my skipped questions because a glance at my answer sheet tells me that I hardly ever selected “b” as an answer, and surely there must be some “b”s for answers.

      We’re told to put down our pencils when I’m on question 114. I kick myself for being so anal about filling in the bubbles with perfection, which took precious time.

      On the way out of the building a fellow test-taker says, “That’s the weirdest test ever.”

      I shake my head in agreement, and look down in defeat.

      Outside I take a seat on a bench while waiting for Rick and stare at a squirrel setting in the opening of a trash can by the building. (A squirrel is granivorous, meaning it is an animal that eats mostly grains or nuts.) I fish some twizzlers from my purse, attempting to comfort myself by eating the candy. The squirrel is gnawing on a nut. While he seems to be enjoying the snack, I’m still feeling “dyspeptic” and “benighted” after taking the test. You can look those words up. They’re both in the vocabulary section of Kaplan’s 2009-2010 edition of the MAT study guide.

       I think to myself that perhaps the worst part of the MAT is knowing that I won’t get my results for 2-3 weeks, and that if I don’t get at least a 363 (however that is calculated), I’ll be taking the damn thing again.

Writing Tips

      An acquaintance recently asked me how to go about writing. “I’m thinking about writing a book,” she says. “What should I do?”

      “What kind of book do you want to write?” I ask.

      “I’m not sure.”

      “There are some books you should read,” I suggest. “Stephen King’s On Writing is my favorite and there’s another one by Carolyn See about living a literary life.”

      The wannabe writer jots the information down. “I can’t get the books tonight,” she replies wistfully. “I have to study for a history exam.”

      Later I realize that what I should have said is, “The best way to be a writer is to sit down and write.” Really, there is no other way. There are no short-cuts, no magic potions. If you want to be a writer you have to sit down and write every day. For me, mornings are best. I grab a notebook and a steaming mug of coffee and have at it. I don’t hit pay dirt every time, perhaps not even half of the time. But I always write for a few hours and hopefully get to the place where I forget everything else and I’m in a zone much like a runner’s high.

      It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending more time wondering how to write than just doing it. No matter what genre you are interested in, writing requires perseverance and discipline. Carolyn See says to write 1,000 words a day, or four pages. When I’m in my stride I can do five to seven pages in one sitting.

      Try not to get caught up in finding the perfect place to write either. I write in my kitchen, on the back deck, and in my garage sometimes. You don’t have to go to a coffee shop or a library. Doing so requires getting out of your pajamas anyway.

      I do recommend writing at the same time every day if possible, and dedicating a good two to three hours to it. If you can’t meet that commitment you’ll never be a writer.

You have to want it as bad as Michael Jordan wanted to be a basketball star. As a child he wasn’t the best in his neighborhood and he wasn’t the tallest child, but he got out there every day and practiced with the big kids until he surpassed them in skill.

      It’s this same kind of gritty determination that will make a successful writer. 

A Few Writing Tips: 

  1. Carry a small notebook or tape recorder to capture ideas that come up in the grocery store, at the soccer fields, or while you are driving.
  2. Keep a folder for newspaper and magazine articles that pique your interest. You never know, that travel piece you read on Katmandu may inspire the setting for your next novel.
  3. Join a writer’s group or get a writing buddy to swap manuscript critiques with. Writing is a lonely vocation and you will need the support of other writers.
  4. Read, read, and read some more. Read not just for pleasure, but as a writer, studying the techniques of those you admire.
  5. Get involved in another art form. It’ll keep the creative juices flowing and give you something to write about.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas Lists

We’re sitting at P.F. Chang’s Chinese restaurant studying our menus. Rick and I have a new rule that we order for the boys with their input, but they have to split their entrée.

“How about fried rice and chicken?” suggests Rick.

“Can’t I get my own?” pleads Ayalkbet.

“No,” says his Dad.

We’ve started this rule because typically the boys don’t finish their meals and it is a waste of food and money.

I decide I like the atmosphere at P.F. Chang’s. We’re sitting on a cozy bench and the walls are painted a warm, reddish-orange color. The restaurant is situated in a bustling shopping area and I’m inspired to talk about a Christmas wish list.

“Here’s some Christmas ideas for Mom,” I announce.

“I better get a pen,” says Rick, smiling.

“I’d really like a cappuccino machine or a cheese fondue maker. But what I really want the most is some ghost-busting equipment.”

“How do you know there are really ghosts?” asks my husband.

“Pop, there are!” blurts Yakob.

“I just think it would be fun to look for ghosts at some of the haunted Civil War sites. And I’ve always wanted to spend the night in a haunted bed and breakfast.”

“You’re not scared of ghosts?” asks Ayalkbet.

“No, they just want to be understood. We can help them communicate their needs,” I say.

“Yeah, they’ll let us know by throwing things at us,” says Rick.

“Well, I want a Ping-Pong table and another guitar for Rock Band and some games for the play-station, and…” explains Ayalkbet.

Yakob interrupts his brother with his own wish list.

While listening to his litany of requests, I take note of the woman eating alone next to us. She’s dressed slovenly in sweats and her hair is messy. I know that she can hear our conversation and I feel ashamed. Nothing on our wish lists is inexpensive.

“We need to get involved in some community service,” I say. “When I was in high school we delivered food for Christmas dinners and gifts to families who didn’t have anything. Sometimes they didn’t have glass in their windows and used plastic. Maybe we can get involved through a church.”

“That would be good,” says Rick, eyeballing the mounds of food being delivered. Steam rises from the boys’ fried rice as the waiter sets it on the table. My vegetable lo mein appears to be short on vegetables until I place some noodles on my plate and see that they are mostly at the bottom.

Toward the end of our meal, Yakob leans back in his chair and pats his full belly.

“Yakob is full,” he announces.

The lady next to us is slowly savoring her soup.

Before we leave Rick asks our server for two to-go boxes as there is, despite our entrée-splitting tactic, still lots of left-over food. I wince at his request. I hate using Styrofoam, yet wasting food is bad, too.

Traffic is heavy as I navigate our car away from the shopping district. It seems that despite the recession people are determined to shop. I recall the recent story of the Wal-Mart worker being trampled to death by overzealous shoppers looking for deals. I think about saying something about this, but then Rick asks if we have the to-go boxes.

“I didn’t pick them up,” I say.

“I think we left them on the table,” adds Ayalkbet.

I slow down, but decide it is too late to turn around.

That night we make simple and inexpensive bean burritos for dinner and watch a movie with a sweet message. In the film, “Orange County,” the protagonist thinks he needs to go to Stanford University to become a great writer, but realizes in the end the best stories are found at home with his loved ones.

I decide what I really want for Christmas is more evenings like this, evenings spent at home, making meals together and just being.