"When you change the way you see things, the things you see change." - Author Unknown


The Best of 2015

The Last Lesson

A story I read when I was in high school many years ago. It depicts the days of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, when the French districts of Alsace and Lorraine were captured by Germans. The new teacher was to come the next day in a school in Alsace to teach German in place of French.

The story is short and simple but powerful and unforgettable. Somehow it resounded in my mind during the holidays.

(Above, Alsace in France from Google Maps)

The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897)

I was very late for school that morning, and I was terribly afraid of being scolded, especially as Monsieur Hamel had told us that he should examine us on participles, and I did not know the first thing about them. For a moment I thought of staying away from school and wandering about the fields. It was such a warm, lovely day. I could hear the blackbirds whistling on the edge of the wood, and in the Rippert field, behind the sawmill, the Prussians going through their drill. All that was much more tempting to me than the rules concerning participles; but I had the strength to resist, and I ran as fast as I could to school.

As I passed the mayor's office, I saw that there were people gathered about the little board on which notices were posted. For two years all our bad news had come from that board-battles lost, conscriptions, orders from headquarters; and I thought without stopping:

"What can it be now?"

Then, as I ran across the square, Wachter the blacksmith, who stood there with his apprentice, reading the placard, called out to me:

"Don't hurry so, my boy; you'll get to your school soon enough!"

I thought that he was making fun of me, and I ran into Monsieur Hamel's little yard all out of breath.

Usually, at the beginning of school, there was a great uproar which could be heard in the street, desks opening and closing, lessons repeated aloud in unison, with our ears stuffed in order to learn quicker, and the teacher's stout ruler beating on the desk:

"A little more quiet!"

I counted on all this noise to reach my bench unnoticed; but as it happened, that day everything was quiet, like a Sunday morning. Through the open window I saw my comrades already in their places, and Monsieur Hamel walking back and forth with the terrible iron ruler under his arm. I had no open the door and enter, in the midst of that perfect silence. You can imagine whether I blushed and whether I was afraid!

But no! Monsieur Hamel looked at me with no sign of anger and said very gently:

"Go at once to your seat, my little Frantz; we were going to begin without you."

I stepped over the bench and sat down at once at my desk. Not until then, when I had partly recovered from my fright, did I notice that our teacher had on his handsome blue coat, his plaited ruff, and the black silk embroidered breeches, which he wore only on days of inspection or of distribution of prizes. Moreover, there was something extraordinary, something solemn about the whole class. But what surprised me most was to see at the back of the room, on the benches which were usually empty, some people from the village sitting, as silent as we were: old Hauser with his three-cornered hat, the ex-mayor, the ex-postman, and others besides. They all seemed depressed; and Hauser had brought an old spelling-book with gnawed edges, which he held wide-open on his knee, with his great spectacles askew.

While I was wondering at all this, Monsieur Hamel had mounted his platform, and in the same gentle and serious voice with which he had welcomed me, he said to us:

"My children, this is the last time that I shall teach you. Orders have come from Berlin to teach nothing but German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. The new teacher arrives to-morrow. This is the last class in French, so I beg you to be very attentive."

Those few words overwhelmed me. Ah! the villains! that was what they had posted at the mayor's office.

My last class in French!

And I barely knew how to write! So I should never learn! I must stop short where I was! How angry I was with myself because of the time I had wasted, the lessons I had missed, running about after nests, or sliding on the Saar! My books, which only a moment before I thought so tiresome, so heavy to carry-my grammar, my sacred history-seemed to me now like old friends, from whom I should be terribly grieved to part. And it was the same about Monsieur Hamel. The thought that he was going away, that I should never see him again, made me forget the punishments, the blows with the ruler.

Poor man! It was in honor of that last lesson that he had put on his fine Sunday clothes; and I understood now why those old fellows from the village were sitting at the end of the room. It seemed to mean that they regretted not having come oftener to the school. It was also a way of thanking our teacher for his forty years of faithful service, and of paying their respects to the fatherland which was vanishing.

I was at that point in my reflections, when I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be able to say from beginning to end that famous rule about participles, in a loud, distinct voice, without a slip! But I got mixed up at the first words, and I stood there swaying against my bench, with a full heart, afraid to raise my head. I heard Monsieur Hamel speaking to me:

"I will not scold you, my little Frantz; you must be punished enough; that is the way it goes; every day we say to ourselves: 'Pshaw! I have time enough. I will learn to-morrow.' And then you see what happens. Ah! it has been the great misfortune of our Alsace always to postpone its lessons until to-morrow. Now those people are entitled to say to us: 'What! you claim to be French, and you can neither speak nor write your language!' In all this, my poor Frantz, you are not the guiltiest one. We all have our fair share of reproaches to address to ourselves.

"Your parents have not been careful enough to see that you were educated. They preferred to send you to work in the fields or in the factories, in order to have a few more money. And have I nothing to reproach myself for? Have I not often made you water my garden instead of studying? And when I wanted to go fishing for trout, have I ever hesitated to dismiss you?"

Then, passing from one thing to another, Monsieur Hamel began to talk to us about the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world, the most clear, the most substantial; that we must always retain it among ourselves, and never forget it, because when a people falls into servitude, "so long as it clings to its language, it is as if it held the key to its prison." Then he took the grammar and read us our lesson. I was amazed to see how readily I understood. Everything that he said seemed so easy to me, so easy. I believed, too, that I had never listened so closely, and that he, for his part, had never been so patient with his explanations. One would have said that, before going away, the poor man desired to give us all his knowledge, to force it all into our heads at a single blow.

When the lesson was at an end, we passed to writing. For that day Monsieur Hamel had prepared some entirely new examples, on which was written in a fine, round hand: "France, Alsace, France, Alsace." They were like little flags, waving all about the class, hanging from the rods of our desks. You should have seen how hard we all worked and how silent it was! Nothing could be heard save the grinding of the pens over the paper. At one time some cock-chafers flew in; but no one paid any attention to them, not even the little fellows who were struggling with their straight lines, with a will and conscientious application, as if even the lines were French. On the roof of the schoolhouse, pigeons cooed in low tones, and I said to myself as I listened to them:

"I wonder if they are going to compel them to sing in German too!"

From time to time, when I raised my eyes from my paper. I saw Monsieur Hamel sitting motionless in his chair and staring at the objects about him as if he wished to carry away in his glance the whole of his little schoolhouse. Think of it! For forty years he had been there in the same place, with his yard in front of him and his class just as it was! But the benches and desks were polished and rubbed by use; the walnuts in the yard had grown, and the hop-vine which he himself had planted now festooned the windows even to the roof. What a heart-rending thing it must have been for that poor man to leave all those things, and to hear his sister walking back and forth in the room overhead, packing their trunks! For they were to go away the next day-to leave the province forever.

However, he had the courage to keep the class to the end. After the writing, we had the lesson in history; then the little ones sang all together the ba, be, bi, bo, bu. Yonder, at the back of the room, old Hauser had put on his spectacles, and, holding his spelling-book in both hands, he spelled out the letters with them. I could see that he too was applying himself. His voice shook with emotion, and it was so funny to hear him, that we all longed to laugh and to cry. Ah! I shall remember that last class.

Suddenly the church clock struck twelve, then the Angelus rang. At the same moment, the bugles of the Prussians returning from drill blared under our windows. Monsieur Hamel rose, pale as death, from his chair. Never had he seemed to me so tall.

"My friends," he said, "my friends, I-I-"

But something suffocated him. He could not finish the sentence.

Thereupon he turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk, and, bearing on with all his might, he wrote in the largest letters he could:


Then he stood there, with his head resting against the wall, and without speaking, he motioned to us with his hand:

"That is all; go."

The Relaxed Violinist

No Mammal

It's been more than one year since BT issued the order of "no mammals on plates" in our kitchen. At first there were complaints heard and exasperation perceived among the trio. Gradually everyone got used to the tradition and gastronomical desires still satisfied :)

What do you want for Christmas?

Happy Holidays!

Check Your Cholesterol!

BT had her first time blood test for lipid profile (It's a group of blood tests that serves as an initial broad medical screening for abnormalities in lipids, such as cholesterol and triglycerides) at Children's Hospital on Wednesday. Thank goodness the result was normal.

According to cholesterolmenu.com, here's the chart:
Optimal Borderline Risky
Total Cholesterol Less than 200mg/dL 200-239 mg/dL 240mg/dL and above
HDL(Good) Cholesterol 60 mg/dL and higher 40-59 mg/dL Less than 40 mg/dL
LDL(Bad) Cholesterol Less than 100mg/dL 130-159 mg/dL 160 mg/dL and above

Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5 by Luke Hsu

The best video for this piece BT and I found online weeks ago. The player was awarded 1st Prize at Korea's Isangyun International Violin Competition. He looks quite ordinary to me, but his playing - the sound from his violin, his expressive bow strokes, posture, and movement are surely extraordinary! Most interesting part, 2:24 to 2:30 :)

Scioly Northview Tournament

Fun and Not-So-Fun Facts:
1) It was the first Science Olympiad invitational tournament this year on December 5th at Northview High School, which is located at a city 190 miles north from where we live.

2) Parents were not invited for this overnight trip. In high school, all overnight trips for Scioly are PARENT-FREE (wow I sound like such a mom).

3) BT was one of the three freshmen who were on the roster.

4) Friday after school, MT was watching BT and her team boarding the bus from her car 30 feet away (which is not creepy at all because no other parent did that! The MOST-ANNOYING M-O-M!). The bus left at 3:16pm.

5) Comparing to her last S&D trip, this time BT did a good job in communicating with MT by texting.

6) This was what BT got that day: 2nd place in Protein Modeling, 4th place in Disease Detectives, and 4th place in Cell Biology.

7) MHS coach congratulated BT for her accomplishment as she was the only freshman from Mason who placed that day.

8) On the Monday Scioly meeting when the tests and answer sheets were passed back, BT and her partner realized that the tournament results were not correct: The proctors at Northview High School had miscalculated her scores for Anatomy - they forgot to add 73 points from the first two parts of the test to her total score!!! That was the most unbelievably appalling fact to MT, who always strives for fairness-and-justice-for-all. BT prohibited MT from contacting her coach on this issue because she is a high schooler now. But the disobedient MT wrote to her coach one week later for the truth and was told that BT's score should have made her and her partner 1st place in Anatomy, and that the email on this issue has been sent to the tournament supervisor but no reply has been received (which is unbelievably appalling again).

Life lesson: Medals are just for fun. Always focus on your study - that's the thing that matters. (Sounds very very cheesy *throws hands up*)


Speech of Angels

Someone said "Music is well said to be the speech of angels". I found I need such speech to wash away from my mind the stress and anger from the unbelievably ridiculous but true story at Northview High School last Saturday.

This album, "Violin Voice of the Chinese Classics", is what I got online today. The violinist, Dong Kun, is the teacher of BT's stand partner, Catherine (whose mom gave me a proud and delightful smile when she was telling me about this album), at CSYOCO.

It is a wonderful collection of traditional Chinese pieces - every one sounds so BEAUTIFUL! I especially like the "Serenade from a Fishing Boat", which was one of the pieces BT learned years ago.

My extra happiness...

We were invited to a Thanksgiving gathering at the house of one of BT's friends Thursday. There were about 15 families there; we were sharing food, life stories and giving our thanks to the people and everything in our lives.

There were two little friends I met who were special and most unforgettable to me. One was Leone - 15 years old, fluffy and frisky. The other was Mason - 2 months old, cute and cuddly. I was so thankful to the mom who generously gave me the permit to enjoy holding him and have him sleeping in my arms! Wowwwwww!! My heart melted... That warm and sweet moment brought me back to the time more than 14 years ago...


Disclaimer: I'm gonna try to make this experience as tissue-free as possible but read at your own discretion. [cue card: gawk at text wall but decide to keep reading anyway]

Oh look it's Thanksgiving which means I have a legit reason to gush about how much I appreciate all of you, because if I did that at any other time of year you people would think I am a lunatic (as if you don't already huehuehue). *clears throat * ~~~IT'S ALL GOOD~~~ [cue card: nod and smile]

Thank you to all of you for just being your own idiosyncratic selves and making each day crazy and special. Thank you for supporting me and disobeying when I say not to worry about me.

Special thanks to my friends who remembered my birthday and presented [cue card: look at pictures] this little cornucopia of goodness to me! You guys spoil me too much T___T I will keep them forever and ever :) Except maybe not the chocolates (more like definitely not. sorry, Jennifer).

Thank you to our teachers obviously even though they're not here and if they are that's kind of bad I guess. [cue card: look around cautiously]

Thank you to Science Olympiad and Speech & Debate captains and event leaders, for tolerating our wild antics up to this point and not getting mad at an innocent freshman for loving both of you at the same time.

Now go eat turkey. Or not. Actually go eat pie. Yeah, pie.


Alligator Pear

Look at how I deal with this fat, pudgy and bumpy guy I met in North America! BT and her daddy grin when I put this on the table.. :)

According to research, 70% of the oil in an avocado is made up of healthy fats, the kind best suited for reducing cholesterol buildup in arterial walls. Avocados are high in antioxidants, are rich in B vitamins and some C, E, and K, and contain 60% more potassium than bananas. They are also loaded with fiber which can contribute to weight loss, reduce blood sugar, and are strongly linked to a lower risk of many diseases.

The Journey

Friday, November 6, 2015

It was the first Speech and Debate varsity overnight tournament this year at Maumee High School, which is located in a city 180 miles (3 hours driving) north of where we live. Weeks ago the team captain had sent emails to all members pleading for judges - 1 judge covers 5 students, which means if the team has 4 judges on board the team is able to bring 20 students to compete. So there we went, BT's dad and I were surely among the eight judges on the roster. BT was proudly telling her friends, "One fourth of the judges we have for Maumee are my parents! :)"

At 3 o'clock Friday afternoon, off we went heading north on I-75. As the odd protocol for road safety during long-distance driving defined by you-know-who, I was asked to sit at the back, where I had no way to block our diligent driver's view of the side mirror. So I sat in the back, enjoyed the picturesque clouds and the passing countryside view from the window, and conversed with my driver once in a while.

We arrived at the Hampton Inn Toledo-South/Maumee, the hotel booked for our team, at 6 o'clock, and reunited with the school bus with a full load of speakers, debaters, and the other judges who trickled in a little later. Two judge dads, whose children were BT's friends, joined us for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. We were like having a small party. I enjoyed the dainty food and sharing stories, life experiences, and ideas of some topics with the dads.

I thought I was having a great trip. I was smiling all the way back to hotel, until I finished my shower... Oh my gosh!! Guess what? I couldn't believe what was happening when I stepped out of the bathroom! My roommate (a polite and slightly pudgy mom who let me use the shower while she went to bed directly without brushing or washing or anything which made me feel so moved and thankful) started to do THAT very very loudly!! Even with lights still on in the room and the noise of Jenny and her friends talking and laughing from the next room... Her SOUND was even stronger than that of a man!
What could I do???!!! Could I shout??? Or somehow wake her up??? But how???

Poor me, sitting in the darkness with my phone...

Saturday, November 7, 2015

I tried many measures to wake her up, all methods I could think of, hoping she would turn on her side and eventually stop that penetrating sound from her nose. But all my attempts failed miserably. I ended up laying in my bed consciously for the whole night, thinking about things that had happened during the week...

I got up early that day, 'cause I wasn't asleep anyway. After finishing breakfast in the hall downstairs, where some students were eating and some were practicing their passionate monologues, we packed the other two dads in our car and arrived at Maumee High School at about 8:30.

The judges' lounge was a big room at the end of the maze of a school building. It was facilitated with chairs, papers, water and a potpourri of food. We had a short meeting and discussion on the basic guidelines of judging, then at about 9:30, an organizer of the host came in the room, calling our names from the papers he was holding.

My first round was Declamation, formerly called Oratorical Interpretation. In this event the contestant makes a memorized speech within 10 minutes with a 30 second grace period that was written by someone else. Judging is based on delivery, which includes volume, rate, articulation, pause, emphasis, posture, expression, eye contact, gesture, movement, and overall performance.

The table for the judge was at the center of the classroom close to the back. There were 6 contestants sitting in the room when I walked in. My responsibilities included greeting them, starting the round by calling their numbers in sequence, recording their speaking times, writing comments on the critique papers while they spoke, giving them time signals to indicate when time was up, dismissing them when they were all done, and filling the ranks on the ballot sheets.

The most difficult part, I found, was to finish all writing within their speaking time, especially when the speaker wasn't delivering an exactly good speech and you also want to fill the critique sheet with encouraging and positive feedbacks. Or when multiple speakers were doing similarly great jobs and you have to differentiate them with different comments and giving them different ranks.

There was a girl among the contestants in my first round, whom I will never forget.

When I called out her number, there was another girl holding her hands and walking her to the front of the room. Now I started to observe her closely. She was not very tall, wearing a black suit with black skirt, short hair, dark skin. And I realized that her eyes were not normal -- she couldn't see, she was a blind person. My heart skipped a beat at that moment and I felt a lump in my throat. I was utterly amazed and touched by her courage, fortitude, and determination, and I don't know why, but an overwhelming sadness swept over me.

She started her speech. Her topic was The Power of the Pause, which was about understanding the profound value of slowing down in our daily lives and taking time for the truly important things. Her speech was well written with great diction, her delivery fluent with varying rate and tones. But her speech unavoidably lacked some elements specified on the paper which could be done easily by others but impossible to her. My heart was aching and struggling with how to rank her. I wanted so much to give her more points and higher rank, but I knew I must follow the guidelines and treat everyone equally. It was so difficult. I ended up walking out of the room with a heavy and guilty mind - I didn't do what I wanted; I didn't give her higher rank because the paper didn't allow me. But I felt I had done something wrong because the competition is NOT fair to the girl!

During the rest of the day, the image of her figure, her eyes, her face, and her speech kept flashing and resounding in my brain.

The other two rounds I had that day were POI (formerly called Prose & Poetry) and DUO (Duo Interpretation). I will talk about them another day.

By the way, BT placed 4th in Original Oratory (Applaud!!! She was competing with junior and senior varsity students who were 2 or 3 years older than her!!) and Mason High School placed 1st in team sweepstakes. Yayyyyy!!!!

Maumee Tournament Schedule

The Bow

It turned out that I couldn't stop running around the violin (which I never thought I would) - doing the research online and learning to change the strings, upgrading the pegs and tailpiece, getting a good spare rental violin for school, learning to polish the varnish, and taking notes from the recordings... How dizzy that made me! And now it's about the bow.

Finding the right violin bow is really a confusing, daunting task, if not an impossible mission. It seems that there are always mysterious shrouds are covering violin and its adjuncts, along with preferences, myths, and facts.

Look what I was gawking at on the day of Halloween, when BT was counting her candies to give out to the trick-or-treaters. Since the probability of BT's majoring in music is close to zero and she doesn't care about the price tag of the bow, I thought it would be logical to choose them in the range of 1/3 to 1/4 of the value of her violin. Nevertheless, they look so beaming and handsome!

They were made in Germany, France, China, and the US, and weigh 60 to 62 grams (I was weighing them in a fit of curiosity). Three of them have their sticks made of pernambuco wood - a dense, heavy wood that comes from areas in Brazil and is said to possess just the right combination of strength, elasticity, and responsiveness. Due to environmental degradation, pernambuco tree is now endangered specie and scarce, and the government of Brazil has put severe restrictions on the export of this wood. One of them was made from carbon fiber; I know some professional violinists would frown vehemently at using this material for the bow but I'm so curious about it. I learned that carbon fiber bows are very strong, durable, and lightweight, and you don't have to worry about the bow losing its warping, as they are not affected by moisture or dryness. I didn't choose Brazilwood (a generic name for several kinds of tropical hardwoods) since they were usually made for beginners.

It has been said that a bow is like a personal key to unlock the beautiful sound of your violin. So the most important part is for the player to try its stiffness, overall balance, and playability by her/himself. BT was having so much fun testing them in parallel by playing various bow strokes especially spicatto and long notes, and it took her quite a while (more than an hour) to decide the one she really likes. I'm excited that she has enough sensitivity and did it all by herself. We'll see if her teacher will gladly approve her choice.

By the way, the grip and its winding just make the holding easier and provide a decoration to the bow while protecting the wood from wear. The materials for the grip include plastic, nickel, silver or gold, and they have no relation to the sound produced or playability of the bow, but they do reflect the craftsmanship of the bow according to bow experts online. Now I'm thinking of how to protect the so-called silver-mounted winding from oxidation over time on the bow BT has chosen. Hmmmm...

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