Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Being old-school about words and language sometimes puts me in an uncomfortable place.  Nothing makes me more aware of this discomfort than working and living with people of adolescent ages.  To them, language is an art form to be played with, bent, folded, erased and redrawn on a daily, even hourly basis.  To me, their oralgami feels like quicksand, an unsteady landscape with fewer and fewer solid places on which to stand.  The act of communicating is a constant challenge when the tools we use keep changing form.  You'll never get your IKEA shelves put together with a screw driver that's a different size every time you pick it up.

Now, I'm aware this is nothing new, and I'm aware this is one of the defining characteristics of adolescence.  That age group (which amorphously ranges from 11 to 25+ years, depending on how long a person's brain remains in flux) traditionally has no real power within society's institutions, and spends a great deal of time under the influence of some adult's rules.  That age group, therefore, seeks ways of expressing itself, ways of leaking out between the rules, ways of claiming pieces of society for themselves despite the best efforts of parents, teachers, police, and all the other gate keepers of the adult world.  As far back as the 1940's, collective teenage rebellion existed in subtle forms:  my mother still delights in pointing to a lavender sweater she wears in a high school photo and repeating (every time she sees the picture) that she is in fact wearing the sweater backwards.  Yes, my goodytwoshoes mother pissed off my grandmother by buttoning her cardigan up the back.  But as we all know, technology is the gasoline put to the fire of adolescent rebellion.  When it was my turn to go bonkers, TV was in its earliest days of co-opting concepts like "cool," using the hippie culture to sell everything from Coke to pantyhose.  Today, the speed with which technology enables change is literally as fast as kids can think.  And we all know who are the masters of today's new technology.  So, welcome to my box of quicksand.

This is why I like and occasionally use websites like Urban Dictionary.  Before composing this post, I knew I'd better look up the word "noob" if I wanted to use it in a title.  Sure enough, the sand shifted under my feet as soon as I read the UD definition:

II. Defining 'Noob' 
Contrary to the belief of many, a noob/n00b and a newbie/newb are not the same thing. Newbs are those who are new to some task* and are very beginner at it, possibly a little overconfident about it, but they are willing to learn and fix their errors to move out of that stage. n00bs, on the other hand, know little and have no will to learn any more. They expect people to do the work for them and then expect to get praised about it, and make up a unique species of their own. It is the latter we will study in this guide so that the reader is prepared to encounter them in the wil...

See, I'm a "newb"--not a "noob."  I'm willing to investigate modern word usage and at least attempt to abide by any standards I can get my hands on.  I'm even willing to risk the embarrassment and discomfort of newb-ness for the eventual rewards derived from mastery.  And I have to say I'm pleased to discover that the modern lexicon is flexible enough to consider nuances that give me a face-saving escape from total dorkdom.

Believe it or not, I set out on this post to compare and contrast some newb experiences I've had recently, but as usual got sidetracked.  So what do choreography, Scrabble, wine, and my parents have in common?  I'm a newb at all of it.  Not an up-from-the-dirt, never-done-this-before level, but from the when-will-I-be-good-at-this level.  My dance resume is way deeper than my engineering resume, yet I'm so newb to musical theater that I'm sweating an audition to choreograph a local summer production of Hairspray.  I've played Scrabble for years, but the online version intimidates me.  I've got a notebook thick with wine labels and notes I've taken for three years trying to identify what I like, yet the wall of French offerings at Total Beverage renders me immobile.  And my parents...NOT new to them, am I?  Well, even though we've stayed close my whole life, we're on completely new and unsettling ground.  Without elaborating, I'll just say they're reaching ages characterized by increasing neediness, and increasing fear of losing their independence.  Remember, these are the same people who wore their clothes backwards in their youth (and did I tell you about Dad's driving a homemade car from Alabama to Florida--when he was 14?).  Their adolescent spirits remain whole.  What's new is my role:  I'm the one holding the rule book, pointing to the societal standards that say if your hearing and memory are fading, you should NOT drive a car.  If you get dizzy when you stand up, you should NOT live with stairs.  But I'm as impotent and shaky in this role as I was in my student teaching days.  I know it all comes down to good communication and persistence.  But where is the Urban Dictionary for talking to elders who are scared, pissed, depressed and hurting?  How long will it take me to shed this newest newbness?


Tuesday, February 1, 2011


If this is in fact an experiment, it requires a hypothesis.  The most elementary format for a hypothesis is an "if...then" statement, such as "If I drink three glasses of wine, then I will get a raging headache."  Or "If my daughter is still sleeping, then she stayed out later than she promised."  As you (and my eighth grade students) can clearly see, imbedded in these statements are the independent and dependent variables that define the structure for experimental design.  Whether I suffer another raging headache depends on my independent choice of how much wine I consume.  Whether my daughter lied again depends on her independent choice to sleep in...again.  We test the truth of the hypothesis by playing with the independent variable (let's call that the IV) to see what happens to the dependent variable (DV, see?).  Thus, tonight I might swill two glasses of a 2008 Gnarled Vine Chardonnay (grade B) with no observed change in the DV (my throbbing temples), and tomorrow night I'll down three glasses and spend the day after tomorrow hugging pillows and popping Imitrex.  A good experiment would test at least three levels of the IV, but my prescription is running low, and I'd hate to waste a decent Chard on anything other than cooking.

As I continue to chase this particular rabbit, I see a problem (a.k.a., another rabbit hole) that I've encountered before:  My second example hypothesis is, well, a mess.  This is when I give my students a patient look and say "Not all if-then statements are hypotheses, and vice versa."  Observe:  While I might be able to design an experiment to test the relationship between my daughter's somnolence and her nocturnal behavior, it would require me to record both her sleep habits and her nighttime prowling, and THAT would require a level of truthiness and/or direct interference that would simultaneously destroy both the experiment and the carefully negotiated peace that currently prevails in our house.  In other words, dear students, some hypotheses are NOT worth the funding offered to pursue them.

Let me climb out of that last hole by saying that a hypothesis is much easier to test if it's focused on measurable (preferably numeric) phenomena or entities.  Behavior is measurable, but so flaky, IMHO.  Oh, and guess what.  Here's another hole.  If this blog is an experiment, it's focused on MY behavior.  What now?

  • Quantitative:  "If I post to this blog once per week, then my writing skills will improve by 74%."
  • Qualitative:  "If I post to this blog once per week, then I'll develop followers who will give me constructive feedback and help me improve my writing skills."
  • Human:  "If I publicly explore mental rabbit holes in writing on a regular basis, then my fragile ego will be ripped to shreds by a hundred faceless voices."
Maybe I'll save that last one for the null-hypothesis test.