Thursday, October 23, 2014
My appointment to take the GRE, or Graduate Record Exam, is on Halloween Day! It's a week from tomorrow.
I've checked out some test preparation books from the library, and I've also signed up to take some practice tests. The GRE has three sections, given over the course of a three-and-a-half-hour testing period.
There is Quantitative Reasoning - or math; Verbal Reasoning, and Analytical Writing.
In practice tests, I've done pretty well in Verbal Reasoning. There are questions that ask you to fill in the blank for the correct word; questions that ask you to read a passage and answer questions about it; questions that ask you to complete a sentence. My weak point is - hah! - failing to read the directions correctly. But as long as I'm careful, I feel pretty confident in this area.
For the math section - I'm willing to cut my losses. I'm no good at math. The GRE provides a calculator to use during the test, so my plan is to study up on common formulas (percentage, geometry, square roots) and then just do my best and not worry about it.
The Analytical Writing is a challenge. There are two questions. The "issue" question gives you a statement on some broad theory or idea - "I think modern technology has made people less smart" - and you are supposed to write an essay stating whether you agree or disagree, support your reasons, and refute any possible arguments against your position. In thirty minutes.
The second question is the "argument" question. Whenever I read that, I think about Monty Python, "I'd like to have an argument, please."
For the "argument" question, you're presented with an passage advocating something and offering evidence in support of it. The task is to assess the soundness of the argument.
The scoring for the essay questions is based on how well you make your point, how organized your essay is, how well you follow the precise directions, and your use of language, grammar and spelling.
I took one practice test and got a score of 4 out of 6 - good but not great. So I've been practicing - the GRE provides sample questions - I've been writing at least one practice essay a day, timed. I have no way to score myself, though, so I don't know if I've improved the quality of my writing, or just my ability to write bullshit.
This weekend I'll try another scored practice test, then spend next week learning math.
Monday, October 20, 2014
Friday, October 17, 2014
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
|"Rock of Topanga" in 2005|
Oh, the wonders of modern technology! Before setting off on the morning commute, you can check traffic on your route with Google Maps!
This morning, our two-lane mountain road was solid red.
So I visited the California Highway Patrol traffic site, and sure enough there was an accident down near Pacific Coast Highway.
The CHP site is useful because it publishes a time log of actual communications between officers and other agencies. So I was able to see when it occurred, when it was called in, what kind of vehicle, when the towing company was called - everything.
Here's what you don't like to see in your traffic report:
7:21AM PER UNIT DOES NOT APPR RELATED TO ROCK SLIDE
Just another Topanga morning commute.
Saturday, October 11, 2014
|Curtained bed for patients, Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a medieval hospital for the poor, France|
Inflamed by irresponsible radio talk shows or sensational TV coverage, there are conspiracy theories ranging from "Obama's trying to kill white people" to "the CIA created Ebola to kill black people." There are accusations, including the laughable notion that refugee children from countries where no recorded cases of Ebola exist are mass carriers of the disease into the United States. There are people who seem to think this is a sci-fi movie or a Stephen King novel, panicking that the disease will suddenly mutate and become as easy to catch as a summer cold.
There are xenophobic comments from people who can barely find Africa on a map, stating that the people of West Africa are "uncivilized" and "unclean" and who caught this disease from eating "apes." Some of these are well-meaning, though still racist, deploring the supposed squalor in these countries we enlightened Westerners should correct.
Some people question why any American aid worker would go to West Africa to help fight the disease. There are hateful accusations against the man from Liberia who died in Texas, accusing him of deliberately bringing the disease to the US. Some want to prevent everyday commerce and travel from occurring between these countries and ours. Yet others say we should nuke the whole region.
In fact, the way Ebola spreads is very well known to health professionals. It's spread by human contact. People who come into contact with a sick person's bodily fluids contract the disease if these fluids enter the system through broken skin or mucus membranes. It is only contagious when a person is suffering from the pain, fever, and racking sickness of the disease. Those at highest risk of infection are caregivers like health care workers, family members, mourners and people who handle the dead.
In short, this is a disease that spreads through human compassion.
And that's what's so heartbreaking about it. I heard an interview on NPR with some workers from Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders. They told a story about a woman who died in a hospital, leaving behind her infant child. The orphaned baby was kept isolated in a cardboard box, but the nurses could not keep themselves from comforting it. Seven of the ten nurses who cared for the child contracted the disease and died of it.
Mothers contract it from their sick children, wives from the husbands they care for. Daughters from the sick parents they clean up for. Sisters from brothers whose bodies they tend, grandmothers from wiping the fevered brow of a stricken grandchild. The man who died in Texas helped a family take a sick daughter to the hospital. The family died and later he too fell ill.
It's hard to imagine the choices people are forced to make. If a spouse breaks a fever, do you turn away from him? If a child spits up, do you dare to wipe it away? If your brother soils himself, do you let him lie in his own mess, or do you give him the dignity of being washed clean? If your sister is racked with pain, do you turn her out of your house instead of comforting her?
We should understand how profound a challenge this disease is to our humanity.
Professionals who care for the sick and those who clean up after the dead are making a terrible but courageous choice. They put themselves in danger in the hopes of gaining control over this terrible scourge. Those of us who can't or won't, for whatever reason, should at least honor their sacrifices and bravery instead of condemning them for it.
The people making hateful comments on message boards and the cynical media figures encouraging the hatred should feel perfectly safe. They are in no danger. They will not contract Ebola from Central American refugee children, do-gooder missionaries, or immigrants from West Africa.
They will not put themselves in a situation where they will care for the sick, clean a soiled body, or comfort bereaved relatives.
You have to have compassion to catch this disease.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Over the weekend, something overseen by my office went horribly wrong, and dozens of phone calls and emails have come in to complain about it.
It wasn't our fault - in fact, a third party violated the terms of their permit. And the people who were supposed to enforce the permit didn't do so. But it's my office who is responsible in the long run.
I have spent hours on the phone, listening to people rant and rave, and murmuring my sympathies to them. It's mainly a complaint about noise, and people have a lot of opinions about that!
The powers-that-be are also going to make adjustments to the rules, so that this can't happen again. In theory. Unfortunately the way they tend to adjust the rules make them more complicated, which means that getting people to follow them is even more difficult.
One day I'll write a comic novel about stuff like this!
Friday, October 3, 2014
Yesterday I signed up to take the GRE exam. This exam is required by three of the schools I am applying to, and a fourth school's website says, in effect, "We don't require it, but if your other qualifications are weak and your scores are good, send them."
The GRE measures verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking skills, and analytical writing. It was re-jiggered in 2011. It's now given - in most cases - on a computer, and it is adaptive, meaning that your performance on the early questions affect the difficulty of the questions on questions that follow.
How that works I don't know - does it mean if you're lousy, they make it easier? Or harder?
It's a timed test; 3 hours and 45 minutes. Each section is independently timed - you get 30 minutes to complete the section, and once that 30 minutes is up you can't go back. You can skip and go back within a section, but once you've completed that section, you're done.
I'm not that worried about the verbal reasoning section or the reading comprehension section. But I'm quaking in my boots about the math (quantitative reasoning) section and the analytical writing section - for two very different reasons.
I'm just plain math-o-phobic, so that's why I fear the math section. Math tests make me freeze up, make my mind go blank. I was able to overcome this when I took a civil service test for a financial analyst job, but it took a lot of studying and agonizing on my part.
I fear the writing section more, though. Because I want to ACE it, and I fear that I just don't have the analytical skills to do so. The way it works, you are presented with two statements. One you have to write about whether you agree or disagree with it and why; the other you have to write about whether the statement adequately makes the case for its argument. You have thirty minutes to do each one.
You're scored on the form and organization of your writing, your skill and accuracy in use of the English language, and - most importantly - whether you follow the instructions, meeting the task laid before you completely.
I've taken two testing guide books out from the library. One of them gives me access to an online practice test module, where I can take the test three times. I've also signed up to an online tutor for the writing section, where they score your attempts.
So far - I'm scoring fair-to-middling. I've got to bring it up a notch, especially in the writing. Practice, practice, practice.
I will be taking the test on Halloween. So wish me some treats instead of tricks!
Sunday, September 28, 2014
Saturday, September 27, 2014
|Kid in a candy shop - click to "embiggen"|
Making a decision to go to graduate school for a Creative Writing MFA isn't a trivial one, I've learned. There's a lot of planning to do, and a lot of work. Now that the idea is more concrete than is was a month ago, I've made some progress. I feel like I'm committed to this.
I've short-listed ten schools. Five of them are "for sure" choices; the other five are likely choices that I need to learn more about. I might narrow down the list.
I've selected only schools that offer a concentration in non-fiction or allow students to work in multiple genres. I don't rule out working on fiction, or even poetry, but my strength is in non-fiction right now. It's my interest and my strongest work is non-fiction.
I've chosen three schools in Southern California. The other schools are out of state. When I first got the notion to do this, I limited myself to Southern California schools, but [The Man I Love] urged me to explore other places. "If you're going to do it, why not look at all the possibilities?" he said, and he's right.
An MFA degree in Creative Writing is usually a two, sometimes a three year program. Living somewhere else for two or three years is not a hardship - in fact, I'm kind of excited by the idea.
Expanding my horizon also lead me to thinking about the financial side of it. Many MFA programs provide full funding for the students they admit. Students work as teaching assistants or as editors for departmental journals, but tuition is covered and often there's a living stipend. Why shouldn't I compete for these positions?
If I am offered a funded position at a distant school, naturally I will have to quit my job - which means I will take my retirement. That gives me a modest income, something that will supplement a graduate student stipend.
If I take an offer in Southern California, I can decide whether to quit my job or not; whether to drop to part-time, or even whether to go to school only part time and keep working. That's a bridge to cross in March, when the acceptance or rejection letters come in.
But before I can made any decisions, I have to complete the applications, and right now this makes me feel like a juggler spinning a dozen plates in the air.
All the schools I'm applying to have an online application process. But they're all different, and complicated, so I've created a spreadsheet to keep track of them. I need to coordinate letters of recommendation, and delivery of transcripts, and upload my CV and statements of purpose, and writing samples.
Another big deal is the GRE, or Graduate Record Exam. Not all schools require it for the MFA degree, but two of the schools I'm very interested in do. So I have to take it. I took the GRE about 15 years ago, and did pretty well, but I need current scores. I'm reading study guides and taking practice tests, and hope to take the exam in mid-October.
It also costs money - each application fee is about $50. The GRE is $195. I'm trying to budget and plan out each fee.
The deadlines for application range from December 10 to January 15, and I feel I'm on track to meet that.
This has given me quite a sense of purpose in my life, which feels really good, but I'm also scared and worried I'll blow it. I could use any advice or encouragement you all could give me.