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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Learning Spanish

 

I have been trying to teach myself Spanish. As an aspiring social worker on Long Island, I have belatedly come to realize that knowing some Spanish would be a good idea. Of course, I have unreasonable expectations of myself. I expect to be fluent (by, say, next Fall), to the point where I won’t need a translator to help me understand a client who speaks no English, and I will be able to catch every nuance of the different variations of Spanish spoken by Mexicans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, and maybe I’ll pick up some Portuguese while I’m at it. The fact that I can barely say Hello and How are you, at this point, is irrelevant.

I’ve been using a basic Spanish language learning program through my local library, online, and I learn a few new words each day. Ayuda (Help!) looks like it will come in handy. The thing is, I love languages. I’m still trying to work on my French and Hebrew (since childhood) without much success, but with endless effort and enthusiasm. I am currently reading the Harry Potter books in French, and have a Hebrew copy en route.

There’s something wonderful about learning a new language. It gives you an automatic sympathy for the people who speak it that you may not have had any other way. There’s been great joy in discovering that I can pronounce a lot of Spanish words exactly as they are spelled (as opposed to French, where letters drop out without warning). I was thrilled, until Y’s and double L’s started to sound like G’s out of nowhere.

I have tried to practice my Spanish on the dogs, but they are not interested in learning a new language at this point. Cricket is used to some French (un, deux, trois, Jump!) and Butterfly doesn’t mind a few questions in broken Hebrew (Aypho ha kibble? Where is the kibble?) But there’s a limit to their tolerance for my insistence on learning every language but theirs. How have I not learned to woof, bark, arf, yip correctly after all this time? It’s obscene!

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Un, deux, trois…

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“Yum!”

Certain words seem to impress them more than others, though, like empanada, tres leches, and el queso. I think I must say the food words with a particular tone to my voice that marks them out as special. We are a family that is very food motivated.

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“Mmm, stairs taste good!”

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“Is it worth it?”

As I try to build my Spanish vocabulary, some phrases seem especially important, like: No Hablo Espanol (I do not speak Spanish), and No Comprendo (I don’t understand); and Lo siento (I am sorry) will also come in handy.

I was interested to see that To Write, in Spanish, is escribir. I guess it’s the same root as Scribe, but it makes me think of scribble. I love the idea of being a scribbler. It makes being a writer seem less stuffy and more playful. Then there’s una pregunta (a question), which makes me think of a pregnant woman, as if every question is filled with a sense of possibility and new birth, which it is, isn’t it?

Eventually, I will have to learn more grammar and sentence structure, but for now I’m satisfied with certain phrases that I can make use of right away: Como esta usted? (How are you?), Me llamo Rachel (My name is Rachel), tengo dos perros (I have two dogs), and Gracias (Thank you).

         

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“A bientot! Oops, wait that’s French.”

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Understanding Statistics

 

In my Research 2 class (in graduate school for social work) we have reached the dreaded world of statistics. There’s a lot of math involved in this process, and even more incomprehensible data-to-Math-to-Greek-to-Computational-Tables-to-English translations. And what I’m realizing is that a lot gets lost in the translation from reality to statistics.

It’s not that I think research is a waste of time. It matters. But not enough time is spent on elucidating the data, and remembering the anecdotal evidence that makes up the data. Anecdotal evidence (or individual stories told to the researcher) is often considered unreliable, but masses of data, detached from its origins as anecdotal evidence, is considered reliable. We end up taking a lot of valuable information, and turning it into numbers and graphs, and forgetting where the data came from in the first place. People.

As we have discovered over the past year in the United States, polling is only as valuable and legitimate as the questions asked and the answers recorded. If people are asked the wrong questions, or distrust the person asking them, then the data that results will be incomplete, if not completely wrong.

If we looked at certain data about Butterfly, like: heart disease, diabetes, aged twelve out of a 13-14 year expected lifespan, few teeth and those that are left are not good, persistent cough – you’d think she was at death’s door, and miserable. But she has the biggest smile in the world, runs like the wind, comforts her sister, loves to be petted, loves food, licks me to death, and I could go on and on. You wouldn’t know any of that if all you asked was “What’s wrong with Butterfly?” or “Describe Butterfly’s health.”

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“What’s wrong?”

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“Absolutely nothing!”

The reliance on big data, and mass polling, has developed (as far as I can see) as a good faith effort to get a sense of what’s going on with everyone, instead of just with the easiest people to access. A doctor who sees a hundred patients on a regular basis may have a very good sense of the health issues of those hundred patients, and no clue whatsoever about how her patients fit into the patterns of the population at large. They may be anomalies – because they can afford her fees, live in a certain geographical area, and have certain specific symptoms – or they may be average, she can’t know. That doctor needs access to a wider swath of the population, in order to put her patients into better perspective. But what is the quality of that data? Who chose the questions to ask? What biases were at work? Which questions, that she would have known to ask based on her experience, were left out of the questionnaires filled out by all of those anonymous people that she cannot call and follow up with?

Recently, I heard about research done on the question of abortion. It’s a thorny area to begin with, but the way the polling is done can make it even more confusing. If the question is, do you support abortion? Or, would you have an abortion yourself? A lot of people will easily, and quickly, say no. But if the question asked is, do you think abortion should be legal? Many of those same people will say yes. It turns out that, on this specific question, people have different opinions about what they themselves would do, than on what they think others should be able to do in their own lives. The people setting up the poll would need to understand that gap in order to ask the right questions and really understand the data they are receiving.

This kind of gap can exist on any subject, and it requires open-minded researchers with a willingness to question the data and look deeply at their questioning process. Without those extra steps, the data can profess things that are not actually true, or that are, at best, incomplete.

If I asked Cricket if she prefers peanut butter or chicken, chicken would win every time. And if that were the only question asked, you might come to the conclusion that she doesn’t like peanut butter at all – especially if you could see the way she sneered at the peanut butter on her way to ripping the chicken from my hand. But the fact is, she loves peanut butter. She will take any medication offered, as long as it is covered in peanut butter. But we didn’t ask her the right questions, so we never found that out.

When we hear about study results in the news, especially on TV or from the mouths of politicians, we rarely hear about the context of the study, or the methods used. We are given simple numbers, or better yet, bar graphs and pie charts, to make the point very clear. But once a study’s results have been translated into numbers and graphs, our ability to determine for ourselves the validity of the study’s methods, questions, and analysis, disappears. In fact, people rarely take the time – or even get the chance – to read through a full study report, even though researchers put a lot of effort into examining and going into detail about the choices they made, why they made them, and where they may have gone wrong.

What if, after hearing the results of all of these polls and studies, and staring at bar graphs and pie charts and news anchors for hours and hours, we come away believing that we know each other perfectly, and can therefore dismiss each other? And what if we’re wrong?

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“We’re never wrong. Right?”

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“What a relief.”

My Snow Day

 

Up until the middle of this week, I was working on a post about how little snow we’ve gotten on Long Island this winter. It is therefore possible that Thursday’s massive Thunder-snow-bomb-aggedon was my fault.

The thing is, I like snow. Even more than that, I like snow days, when the whole world seems to be at home watching the same news shows, and not a word of politics is spoken. Theoretically. I love zipping up my tall boots and taking the dogs out for picture time. I love watching Cricket hop through the snow searching for treasures (a leaf!!!!!). And I even like trying to console Butterfly about the weird texture of the ground under her paws.

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“I see something!!!!!!!”

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“Now I see it over there!”

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“Mommy, why can’t I feel my toes?”

We were having all of the negatives of winter: the severe cold, the biting wind, the gloomy lighting, and every kind of cold and flu imaginable, without the benefit of snowball fights and hot cocoa to lighten the load. Even Cricket and Butterfly had to suffer through the short daylight hours, and even shorter walks, and the plinking rain on their heads, with no reward.

We had one day, recently, when the air was full of snowflakes that blurred the world, but added up to almost nothing on the ground. I had to drive carefully, and wear a warm jacket, scarf, and gloves, but I still had to go to work. I felt cheated.

Summer will come along too soon, and it will be relentlessly hot and humid and full of smog and sweat and swarms of bugs. I just wanted a few snow days in my memory bank, to shore me up for those long months of heat, when I would barely be able to go outside and would have to sit with my head right up against the air conditioner just to be able to think.

It’s not that I’m thrilled with having to shovel my car out of the deep snow. I would actually like to have a magical shovel that removes the snow without any help from me. And I could do without the black ice on the roads, and the slippery walkways, and the bad headache that inevitably comes with extreme changes in air pressure. But the snowstorm was a relief just the same. I could turn on the TV and watch weather for as long as I wanted to, with only short breaks to hear about the national political dramas. Every local newsperson was out in the snow, wearing silly hats, and asking random snow-covered strangers some very silly questions. My local government officials were all too busy keeping people safe, and making sure the snow was getting removed from the roads, to cause trouble. One mayor was even driving the snow plow himself, with a reporter along for the ride to make sure the event was recorded for posterity.

I need days like that. I need a few days each year when all of the pain and disorder are muted under Mother Nature’s snowy blanket. Now if only we could convince her to lift up the blanket of snow again once we’ve rested, and not leave it to me to remove pounds of wet snow with my non-magical shovel, then I wouldn’t need three days in bed to recover from my beautiful snow day.

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“We’re going back inside now, Cricket.”

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“I can’t go inside yet, Butterfly. There’s still a leaf under here. I’m sure of it!”

Stay Cool, Cricket

 

We are still working on keeping Cricket calm and quiet, while she’s getting her leash on to go outside. My latest attempt is to sing to her. The song that keeps coming to mind is “Cool” from West Side Story. Of course, I had to switch boy to girl, “Girl, Girl, crazy girl, get cool, girl!” The next line in the lyric is, “Got a rocket in your pocket,” and that made me think about the whole question of dogs having pockets. If Cricket has hidden pockets, and she keeps rockets in them on occasion, that would make the amount of time she spends writhing on the floor, scratching her back, seem much more dangerous.

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“I can scratch my back if I want to!”

“Keep coolly cool girl?” The lyrics seem a little sillier than I remembered.

“Girl, girl, crazy girl. Stay loose girl!” I can picture Cricket doing the dance moves at this point in the song. She’s outside in the dark, wearing her denim jacket and canvas sneakers (just go with me on this), and she’s getting really low and jazzy and snapping her fingers (side point, what made God decide that dogs shouldn’t have fingers? Do dogs have no need to snap?).

“Breeze it buzz it, easy does it. Turn off the juice girl,” except, given that the goal is to get Cricket outside to pee, I’m not sure this line in the song is very helpful.

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“You’re not funny, Mommy.”

“Go, girl go, but not like a Yo Yo school girl,” this reminds me that Cricket is not allowed to go to public school, which still bothers me, because she would love to learn French, and math, and a little bit of social studies, and she would especially love running laps in the gym.

“Just play it cool girl, real cool.”

Cricket responds well to music, actually. She especially prefers it to when I say words like no, stop, sit, and other cruelties of that kind. She watches my face very closely when I’m singing, just like my oldest nephew did when he was a baby, as if he was trying to figure out where the sounds came from.

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Music soothes the savage Cricket.

It takes at least the length of the song to get Cricket quiet enough to be leashed and allowed out the door. Once she’s outside, though, all bets are off. She’ll bark at just about anything.

But that’s a challenge for another time, and a longer song.

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“I don’t think I can take anymore, Cricket.”

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“Wake me when the training is over.”