an elephant with balloons

One of my goals for this year is to finish projects that I had started but had to put aside for one reason or another (usually health related). This cross-stitch of an elephant holding a bunch of balloons is the first that I completed this year, with a little help from the recipient’s mother.

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Photo taken by Megan Berryman.

When my friend Megan announced that she was going to decorate her baby daughter’s room with the theme of balloons, I immediately thought of the idea of using buttons for balloons.

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Photo taken by Megan Berryman.

The buttons I sourced from a local ‘scraps’ craft store, which literally sells scraps of fabric, ends of paint, bits and bobs, and an assortment of random things. Inside it’s like wandering around an old attic, happening upon just that unusual item you can use for a crafting project. I wanted a variety of buttons and I got a paper bag full for 25 cents. The remaining supplies I got from Hobby Lobby. Another friend of mine helped refresh my memory for how to sew on a button and do a simple stitch to use for the strings and elephant. (I am not confident with needle and thread by any means, but such are the things I do for friends.)

I added the elephant for a touch of whimsy. I like for the gifts I give to children to encourage a creative imagination. Because the buttons already created a 3D element, I let the ends of the strings hang loose. Megan put on the finishing touches by filling in the elephant with fabric paint and using her sewing machine to hem the edges of the fabric.

Despite being more than a year ‘late’, I’m pleased that both Megan and little A. like the elephant holding balloons.

what causes academic dishonesty?

This week I have had to investigate and speak with several students about academic dishonesty issues in their most recent assignment.

The majority of the problems are lack of appropriate citations, ‘patchwriting’ (or incomplete paraphrasing), including direct quotations without indicating that they are quotations, and similar infractions. As a teacher/librarian, I am frustrated because I thought I covered how to cite and how to use sources earlier in the semester. How is it that nearly a third of the class made these mistakes?

It’s easy to think that these students are willfully stealing others’ work and hoping that they won’t get caught. From my experience, however, many students don’t seem to understand fully that what they are doing is theft. So what’s going on here?

There are several contributing factors: for one, the assignment was due shortly after midterms, so many of the students confessed that they were sloppy with their sources out of a combination of haste and laziness. The issue here is time management and organization. Another factor is that this particular class has been a challenge to keep engaged in the classroom, and it is very likely that my lessons on using sources simply didn’t sink in or the students weren’t paying attention.

A third contributing factor is, perhaps, the influence that sharing on social media is having on our society. Not only is it easy to do an image search or find something written on almost anything on the Internet, it is now extremely easy to ‘share’ what we find with our various online networks. All you have to do is click one of the various ‘share’ buttons on nearly any website or on any post on the different social media platforms. We share and share and share and never once think about amending our ‘shared’ posts with a citation indicating the source of the image or article it is that we are sharing. (Well, I do. But even I don’t always present my ‘citation’ in strict MLA or APA style.)

One of the implications of this feature of our online lives is the blurring of our understanding of intellectual property.

Anything we see or hear we can share with others. We expect information of all kinds, from music to articles to pictures to videos, to be easily accessible and free (or cheap). Because most of it is accessed through a screen that we own (a smartphone, tablet, or computer), whenever we want it, it’s possible that we feel like the material we are consuming is already ‘ours’. It’s just there, floating in the ether, waiting for us to consume it. As a result, it’s easy to forget that someone else made that material, and, as such, that someone should benefit from our consumption of their work. At the very least, that person should receive credit for what they have created.

So that is an added challenge to teaching information literacy and academic integrity: teaching also the relevance and importance of intellectual property.

Another contributing factor to the problem of academic dishonesty is that students misunderstand the purpose of assignments and assessment.

Too often students are focused on getting the ‘right’ answers to get ‘good grades’ rather than mastering concepts.

When writing an essay, students get distracted by wanting to appear like they know the content of their essay topic, whereas I am more interested in their methodology and whether they have understood the strategies we discussed about crafting an argument. A student writing about suicide prevention will copy and paste from a Psychology Today article to make it look like she knows the subject; I want to know if she knows how to appropriately and effectively use sources and is capable of critical thinking. What the student thinks is important is often at cross purposes with the purpose of the assignment.

So the issues here are not just underdeveloped information literacy skills, but also:

  • Underdeveloped time management and organization skills;
  • A lack of understanding of the concept of intellectual property;
  • A misunderstanding of the purpose of the assignments, and, perhaps, of (higher) education in general.

Realizing this will help me to better prepare for next semester as I know I will need to adjust and create lesson plans to address these issues. The responsibilities of a college writing instructor are much more than simply teaching how to write an essay; or rather, writing an essay involves much more than simply putting words on paper — but that’s another post entirely.

D&D 5e: Maya d’Lyrandar

As mentioned in a previous post, my monthly gaming group has started a campaign in the D&D setting Eberron.

Maya Zandos d’Lyrandar
Bard Class (airship captain extraordinaire!)

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Maya’s mini, painted by our other GM (who also painted Tess), and her dragonmark-themed dice.*

Maya is the daughter of Admiral Valanthe d’Lyrandar and heir to the dragonmarked House Lyrandar. Despite her early years and training in Stormhome, she calls the Lhazaar Principalities her home: Admiral Valanthe established a significant Lyrandar enclave in the pirate confederation due to the growing tension between herself and her twin, the House Baron Esravash.

She is captain of the airship Falling Skies, which was taken during the Last War. Maya was promoted from Midshipman Zandos to Captain Zandos a decade before her time by seizing, as she calls it, an opportunity. Airships are powered by bound elementals and when a ship is taken as a prize in battle and the crew subdued, the new presumptive captain must obtain the cooperation of the elemental in order to take control of the ship. Standard procedure allows the first lieutenant priority, and thus win a promotion and his first ship. But the elemental of Falling Skies wouldn’t talk to the first lieutenant, nor to the second lieutenant. As the captain and lieutenants discussed what to do next — they were considering towing the ship back to the closest Lyrandar enclave to let other high ranking lieutenants have a go — one of the midshipmen slipped over to the dragonshard at the helm, placed her hand on it, and asked the elemental its name. ‘Aeris,’ it answered with surprise. ‘Excellent,’ said the midshipman, ‘My name is Maya. What was your last captain like?’ Before the officers could intervene, Maya had established a rapport with the elemental and it would talk to no other. While some in the House were disgruntled at this turn of events, others noted the daring that is admired in House Lyrandar leaders.

One of Maya’s philosophies is: Good things come to those who seize opportunities.

Eberron - Rinmaru Mega Fantasy - Maya 3bAfter the cataclysm of the Mourning ended the War, Maya transported cargo and engaged in privateering — seizing opportunities — as well as attending society functions whenever she was in port. For both her status and her winning personality, Maya always gets invited to the best parties. It was at these parties that Maya came to know Lady Ceana d’Cannith, heir to House Cannith; Claire Loreden, the famous fencer-at-law; and Jett Keshi, an enigmatic Brelander spy. These four, along with Maya’s ship engineer, Jerrick Torrn of House Tharashk, and the gnomes Gnor and Rong, agreed to open their own inquisitive firm in Sharn. After a mishap with the Prime Minister’s cousin, however, they relocated to Stormreach in Xen’drik and took the name Skyfall Inquiries, Ltd.

Another of her philosophies is:  It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.**

mehndi dragonmark

Her mark looks like blue mehndi.

The dragonmarked House Lyrandar bears the Mark of Storm and Maya’s dragonmark covers the right side of her face, neck, and the entirety of her right arm. With this mark she can fly or pilot an airship or elemental galleon, and (through further training?) some weather working abilities. The Eberron setting was created for the earlier editions of D&D, but hasn’t been released for 5e, the system we are using. Thus, we are translating the Eberron setting into the new system, which means we’re still figuring out how the dragonmarks function practically. I plan to focus on weather-related spells when leveling up.

Eberron partyFor this campaign, our group held a pre-session party-making party to introduce our characters to each other and establish how they know each other and came to be working together for Skyfall Inquiries. We used the Fate Core system to create the character connections: using index cards, we wrote our characters’ names, tag lines, and the beginning of our characters’ first post-war adventure. Then we passed the cards around and added how our characters had supporting roles in those adventures. In this way we determined how Jerrick became engineer on Maya’s ship; that Maya, Jett, Ceana, and Claire frequented many of the same dinner parties; how Claire and Jerrick came to be mixed up with Gnor the Gnome (and his psychic friend, Rong); and so on. Then the GM led us in a pure role-playing session (no dice or character sheets) that served as the prologue to our first session.

These activities, combined with the group email in which we tossed the incident with the Prime Minister’s cousin back and forth round-robin style and the emails I’ve exchanged with the GM establishing the changes to House Lyrandar, have resulted in me as a player feeling more confident about both this new setting and my character. I’m also proud that I successfully built my character sheet on my own and needed only minor corrections. Needless to say, I’m excited to play my super charismatic half-elf bard airship captain who has a weakness for exotic jewelry, especially if it already belongs to someone else…


* Isn’t she marvellous? She even has a dragonmark. He also replaced the gun in her right hand with a sword. All of the minis he’s painted for this campaign are fantastic.

** I love that this quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Female admirals FTW.

Time travel in fiction

I recently finished another novel that, unexpectedly, used a form of time travel to change an event in the past with the intent of ‘fixing’ the future. I won’t say which novel — to avoid spoilers, as it’s the last in a series — but its use of the plot device of altering the past neatly serves as a counterpoint to how Eleanor does so (see my review), and yet I was still left unsatisfied.

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This novel did address the consequences of the changed event: when the perspective character returns to her body, her entire world was different. The people she knew and loved in her old life are strangers to her, if they indeed exist in the new world. Interestingly, the character maintained her previous life’s memories alongside the memories of her new life. Normally I would have been skeptical about anyone remembering a life that no longer existed, but the means by which she changed the past provided an explanation for how this would be the case. She had known that there would be a ‘cost’ to her meddling with time, and here we actually see it. By retaining her memories, she bears the weight of knowing what has been lost for the sake of this new world.*

Part of me remains skeptical that she would still exist in this new timeline: the circumstances that had brought her parents together had not happened. Indeed, the change was so drastic, and so long ago (three centuries!), that rather than present an ‘alternate universe’ in which many of the same characters exist in a different setting, no one from the previous timeline would exist in the new one, not after the first generation or two anyway. From there the timelines would diverge too much. Even if the genealogies remained mostly similar, the vastly different culture alone would have resulted in different personalities.

Rather, a more satisfying ending would have had the magic she had used to change the past to allow her to see the unfolding of the new timeline, without also trying to shoehorn her into it; the magic had allowed her to exist outside of time to speak to her ancestors, and so she could have stayed there. Or, as a compromise, the magic she used and that is in her bloodline could have accounted for her continued existence, but not that of anyone else she knew. The poignancy of her grief at having lost her friends could have been intensified by having no one in the new world be familiar to her, even if only by outward appearance or disposition. That would pose a fascinating moral question: by having ‘saved’ thousands of lives by preventing wholesale war and slaughter, she also prevented thousands of lives that had existed from even existing.

But part of me would still be dissatisfied with even that. The other issue I have with this plot device is how it cheats the reader in a way. In this case, the reader has invested an entire series’ worth of emotional energy and time into these characters and the world that they are in. Then, a deus ex machina ending erases everything the reader has invested in. How do you justify to the reader that everything they just read and cared about never happened? There is an element of futility here that, as a reader, I don’t like to experience.

Therein lies part of the problem with the ‘alternate universe’ style ending that the novel has: because the readers, and the author, have invested in these characters, we want a happy ending for them. We don’t want them to cease existing; we want them to benefit from the new, better world (assuming it is a better world). A plausible ending wipes them from existence; but an ending that keeps the cast of characters and places them happy and content in their new lives fails to account for the sheer thorny complexity that comes from changing the course of history so completely.

Yes, part of me is relieved that the devastation that came from centuries of corruption and war was prevented, but it feels hollow. One of the things that interests me as a reader is how characters respond to and live with tragedies, even unspeakable ones. There was a minor character in this series who experienced terrible things as a child, and yet she was growing into a confident and strong young adult. She was just starting to learn that she did not have to be defined by her past — and then she is erased entirely. This question of how an individual lives with the brokenness of the world can be applied also to how communities, even nations, do the same. It is those stories of rising from the ashes of tragedy that I find most compelling.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like time travel books as a whole. I find time travel fascinating, but I also want it to be plausible. The time travel dilemma explored in these novels is the ‘Grandfather paradox’, also called the ‘Hitler paradox’. But we can contrast these novels with Connie Willis’s Oxford historian time travel books, which instead rely on the Novikov self-consistency principle in time travel. The way Willis treats the various paradoxes of time travel is equal parts artful, poignant, and hilarious.

Ultimately, however tempting, the ‘what if?’ game is a dangerous one to play and impossible to predict the outcomes of. Changing one event does not affect that immediate event only, but all other events following it. As such, this plot device is very difficult to use well; and the extent of the moral dilemmas posed only increase the further back in time one goes to change events.

What do you think about time travel in fiction? Do you have a favorite time travel book?

Photo: Clock Tower in the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.


* I see and understand that this is the case for the main character, and wish that the author had explored how the character lives with this price further. But, I also acknowledge that to have done so more than she already had would have diverged from the tone of the book and wouldn’t fit. A short story, perhaps? How does the character reconcile herself to this new world? (Because she is bookish, and works in a library, part of me suspects that she would eventually write novels about her other life. She has no one to talk to about it and has to process what has happened somehow.**)

** Now I see the appeal fanfic has for some readers.

Teach your cat to walk on a leash

When I adopted Willow, I had already decided that she would be an indoor-only cat. I had no yard or garden of my own to be Willow’s territory and my apartment complex is on a busy road near an even busier interstate highway. An indoor cat is a healthy cat, and cheaper with fewer vet bills to consider.

But my flat is also very small, and I knew that my indoor/outdoor cats of the past loved the fresh air, smells, bugs, and birds that they could watch while outside. I knew that if I started early enough (and Willow seemed both brave and clever enough for me to try) I could train her to walk on a leash.

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Benefits of teaching your cat to walk on a leash:

  • Your cat gets the mental stimulation that comes from being outside.
  • Because the outside time is supervised, you know what your cat is or is not getting into; also, your cat won’t be able to kill songbirds in your area.
  • Your cat will know the smells and surroundings around your home. If she ever gets outside on her own, she will know where Home is.
  • Your neighbors will see you and your cat together. Again, if your cat gets outside on her own, your neighbors will know she belongs to you.
  • Vet visits are easier because you can let your cat out of the carrier and still have control of your pet.
  • Same thing when travelling: When making a pit stop, you can let the cat out of the carrier to stretch her legs without worrying about her escaping — just keep hold of that leash!
  • Your cat will enjoy herself and you will be happy knowing that she is happy!

Like any type of training you do with cats, or other animals, you need patience. Willow was about six months’ old when I trained her to wear a harness, and though she took to it quickly, I didn’t begin by wrestling her into the thing and dumping her outside. (Hint: That is NOT the way to teach your cat to walk on a lead.)

Here’s how I trained Willow to walk on a leash in six steps: Continue reading