Friday, October 31, 2014

She scores!

I've taken the GRE - it's a done deal.

It was quite an experience. The testing center is in a business park in the southern part of Culver City - just about to Inglewood. You go into what looks like a typical office suite, check in with a smiling receptionist. Today, it being Halloween, she was dressed in costume.

Then it gets a little weird. First, she asked if I'd left my cell phone in my vehicle. When I said "no," she told me to go back out into the parking lot and do so. When I returned, she took my driver's license and inspected it.

I completed a document where I acknowledged I was myself, swore to uphold confidentiality, and signed my name. Then I had to put all personal belongings except my ID in a locker, and was directed to speak with a proctor.

The proctor had me sign in,  compared my signature to that on my ID and took my photo. Then she asked me to turn out my pockets, raise my pants cuffs so my ankles were visible, and she scanned me with a wand. Then she gave me a booklet of scratch paper and three sharpened number 2 pencils, and escorted me to my computer terminal.

Each test section lasted 1/2 hour. First came the two writing tasks. I think I did pretty well with them. Next came a math section with 20 questions, and my brain froze. But I completed it, guessing and fumbling, and then on to a verbal section, also with 20 questions.

A ten minute break and then another math section, following by a verbal section. The test gauges your responses to the first section and adjusts the difficulty to your ability. I noticed the second math section was easier, and the second verbal section was a lot harder.

Finally, you draw a wild card - one more section, randomly. I'd hoped it would be verbal but it was math. Oh well.

I'm a disgrace with math, especially on tests. Even though I studied, I felt like I was back in seventh grade. My brain turned to mush. I forgot the Pythagorean Theorem.

When you finish, the computer gives you the score for verbal and math immediately - the writing section takes humans to score - they should come in five to ten days.

My verbal was 167 out of 170 - not bad at all!! My math was 147 out of 170 - a bit below average. But who cares? I'm applying for Creative Writing programs!! Bitchez!!

We'll wait and see how it all turns out. But the best thing? It's DONE!!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Test Preparation

I prepared for tomorrow's GRE test by going to Lares on Pico Boulevard after work. I sat at the bar drinking a margarita on the rocks with salt. Then I ordered a take-out platter of chile rellenos, and got in my car and went home.

Lares is an old-school Santa Monica Mexican restaurant, been there for years - since 1968, according to their website. It's decorated in a kind of 1970s version of Spanish colonial baroque - all ersatz weighty dark wooden ceiling beams, crusty paintings and a backbar that looks like a Churrigueresque altarpiece.

The waiters at Lares are courtly, dignified, and also somewhat indifferent. They wear maroon-colored guayaberas. There was an older bartender who served me.

On one side of me at the bar was a young couple, casually dressed, an array of heavily laden platters before them. The young man had a hoodie pulled over his head, even inside the restaurant. On the other side of me was a courtly-looking older man who spoke in very correct Spanish to the bartenders. He finished a huge dinner platter slowly and meticulously, pronounced it "muy delicioso" and downed the last of his Pacifico beer before paying.

There was a younger, handsome bartender who spent his time ferrying to-go orders to the valets stationed out on the streets. It probably meant nothing, but the ominous sky overhead made this furtive effort seem portentous.

The sky was wild and unsettled, even before I left the office. There's a storm coming in, they say. I welcome it, because it would relieve the drought, but it still feels ominous.

Outside of Lares tonight, just around dusk, with the sun down but still coloring the tossed clouds, it was beautiful.

My chiles rellenos were delicious and warm, even reheated at home in the microwave. A good night's sleep and I'm ready for the test.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Poem in October

Click to "embiggen"

Today is the centenary of the birth of the poet Dylan Thomas, born October 27, 1914.

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

You can read the rest of this poem HERE.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Sandwich shop

My Dung Sandwich Shop in Los Angeles's Chinatown is a hole-in-the-wall on Ord Street just off North Broadway. And please, don't laugh at its name.

The first thing I saw when I approached were displays of tropical fruit outside, rambutans and kiwi, cases of jujubes and bunches of small, curved ripe bananas.

Step inside and it doesn't look like a deli, it looks like a storage room. There are shelves stacked high with cases of  canned goods, packaged noodles, bottled condiments and Asian candy.

There's not a counter, exactly, but there is a deli case, blocked by more crates and shelves - an array of Maggi bottles, canned Vietnamese ham, and canned sardines are at eye level. On the side wall is an electric clock with a gaudy pastel image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. On top of the deli case is a little fan against the stuffy early autumn heat and, curiously, two water bottles labeled "holy water" in red Sharpie.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Readin' & Writin'

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.

Friday, October 17, 2014


Today I drove 27 miles, paid $4 to park, just to buy a $2.50 sandwich, of which I only ate half.

That's not what I set out to do, but that's how it ended up.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Morning Drive

"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:


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
I've been following the Ebola crisis in the news, and the typical on-line article includes a comments section at the end.  If you want a window on the depravity of the human soul, just read one of these comment sections. The ignorance, fear, virulence and hatred will astound  and sadden you.

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

Getting the brunt of it

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

Testing, testing

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!