Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Falling in love with Lisbon:The Portugal Diaries, Part Two

My husband had been in Lisbon before (almost 40 years ago), but it was my first time and I sure hope not my last. I was astonished by how much of old Lisbon has been preserved; it’s an open air architectural museum—the upside of Lisbon’s relative poverty. If Lisbon had become an economic powerhouse, much of this would probably have fallen victim to urban renewal.

True, some parts of Old Lisbon are kind of down at heel, but the beauty remains. Just about every building in Old Lisbon is covered with gorgeous tiles and since we had the good fortune to have perfect weather—-temperatures in the mid 60’s, bright blue skies--we saw the tiles glistening in sunlight.

We had expected a break from the ice and snow of Philly but didn’t expect almost 2 weeks of sunshine and springtime temperatures and we certainly didn’t expect so many flowers in February. I thought we would see some early Spring flowers –camellia, bergenia, magnolia and plum trees-- but I sure didn’t expect to see flowers which bloom for us in May blooming in Portugal in early February.
Iris blooming in Lisbon in early February

The Portuguese lived up to their reputation as friendly, hospitable people and the food was wonderful. Some restaurant recommendations for anyone planning a trip to Lisbon: A Travessa, a beautiful restaurant located in a former monastery with amazing food--expensive but worth every penny; Tasca da Esquina, an incredible bargain with seriously good food at affordable prices.

We also recommend our hotel, the York House, for anyone in good physical shape. It is perched on a hill and you have to walk up 4 flights of outdoor stairs to get to the hotel, located in a former Carmelite convent. It was a challenge but we (more or less)got used to the steps and most days we could sit outside and have a drink in the lovely hotel courtyard. The hotel staff were very helpful and the breakfast fantastic. We’d like to go back but as we get older, given all those steps, it just may not be an option.

We decided that no trip to Portugal would be complete without at least one night of listening to the melancholy strands of Fado music. Most of the Fado cafes charge for dinner and music, so if you want to hear fado, you’re stuck with combining it with a not so good and very expensive dinner.

We searched for a Fado cafe that had a reputation for reasonably priced food and that was frequented by locals. We had stumbled upon a tango place like that in Buenos Aires—Omeros cafe. We were the only tourists in the place. Most of the people appeared to know each other and were real tango aficionados. We felt like we had crashed a private party.

We wanted to reproduce that experience in Lisbon and we came close with Sr. Vinho. I don’t think I'll become a Fado aficionado but I really enjoyed that evening, and the best way to hear Fado is with an audience that is clearly in love with the music.

Apparently Fado had fallen into disrepute because of its association with Salazar’s dictatorial regime, but four decades later that connection has been forgotten and Fado is once again hugely popular.

There was something about Fado that reminded me of the music of Chilean folksinger Violetta Parra. Links to her music can be found at my post on our trip to Chile, Be careful what places you revisit; sometimes it’s best to keep the memories intact.

Since Parra lived in Europe for some time it’s likely she encountered Fado and there could be some influence. Rick, who is real Edith Piaf fan, said he heard echoes of Fado in Piaf. Again, it’s highly likely that Piaf would have heard Fado, and the possibility of influence is at least plausible. Maybe at some point I’ll try to do some research about both the Parra and the Piaf Fado connection, but my musical knowledge is probably not up to the task.

Bottom line: a trip to Lisbon has got to include an opportunity to hear Fado. (The TimeOut Guide to Lisbon has an excellent section on Fado and is by far the best English language guide to Lisbon.)

Lisbon is very much a "be there" city; there aren’t that many "must see" monuments. The joy of Lisbon is mainly hanging out in a really beautiful place, taking in the vibrant street scene. No need to rush about ticking off 50 major tourist sights. Lisbon street near our hotel

The "must sees" are the Monastery of San Jeronimo in Belem (a Lisbon suburb) and two amazing museums. Don’t miss the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian , containing the astonishing collection of an Armenian immigrant to Portugal who donated his entire collection to the Portuguese government.

Another must see is Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. The Portuguese definition of “ancient art” includes masterpieces up to the early 19th century, including some astonishing Portuguese painters, such as Nuno Gonçalves whom we had never heard of. If you go to the museum on a sunny day, make sure you make time for the outdoor cafe with its wonderful view of the Tagus River opening out into the Atlantic. In our usual slow tourist (and getting slower) style we spent a couple of hours hanging out at the cafe, sampling some first rate Portuguese wine and enjoying the spectacular views.

Lisbon is definitely on our long list places we want to revisit. Unfortunately, at this stage in life hard choices have to be made.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Back to the Pleasures of Individual Travel: The Portugal Diaries, Part One

Church in Alfama District Lisbon

My husband and I just returned from Portugal—one of our best trips ever. When I was younger, back in the halcyon pre-9/11 days, I was so eager to jump on a plane. Unfortunately, I’ve found gearing up for a trip gets harder each year.

Now, I usually have that "I think I would rather just stay home" feeling before a trip. It's a good thing there are such things as non-refundable tickets or I would probably have tried to convince my husband to cancel the trip—those long lines at security, delayed flights, always some snafu. This time it was getting home from Newark airport: the trip from Philly to Newark took almost as long as getting from Lisbon to Philly, thanks to the limousine company from hell.

When we actually got to Lisbon, I was so happy to be there. Our enjoyment was largely due to once again traveling as individual travelers. Our one experience of group travel-- last year's trip to Peru-- convinced us that tour groups are not for us. After the regimentation of group travel, we reveled in the freedom of doing what we wanted, when we wanted, rather than rushing through museums at break neck speed desperately trying to pack in the maximum number of attractions per day.

Our first half day in Lisbon we spent the entire afternoon at one place, the Monastery of San Jeronimo. We could really look at the amazing architectural detail, savor the serenity and beauty of the cloisters. No group tour would ever allot that much time to one site. And we decided when and where we would stop for a drink and how much time to linger at a cafe.

The pleasures of individual travel were especially sweet, not only because were we doing it at our own slow pace, but because we were so happy to be back in Europe. For many years, we went to Europe twice a year. The dollar was strong and we were very good at finding small charming inexpensive hotels and restaurants. For some reason, we never got around to Portugal.

Thanks to the rise of the Euro, we started traveling to Latin America. Our last trip to Europe was to St. Petersburg in 2003. The plunging dollar had its upside--an opportunity to discover Mexico and South America. (After all those trips to Latin America, my Spanish should be a whole lot better.)

It was especially sweet to be back in Southern Europe. I love the churches, the medieval old towns of European cities, especially of Latin Europe with its piazzas, café culture, wonderful food and wine. It’s no accident that our phrases for enjoying life—joie de vivre, dolce far niente—come from Latin Europe.

Our last trip to Southern Europe was to Seville over the Christmas holidays in 2001. There were so many travel bargains then thanks to 9/11. My husband convinced me the chances were small that we would die in a terrorist attack. As a former Math professor, he really does understand the laws of probability. We continued going to Europe in the early 2000’s. The terrorists didn’t stop us, but the strong Euro did.

We’ve decided we’re too old to forego travel to the places we really want to see. There are places I feel we should see and wish I had traveled to when I was younger, but at this stage I’m really getting beyond those “should do’s". (Rick never had this problem.)

More later on the delights of Portugal.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


A newly organized bookcase (note my silver baby cup and teething ring).

In our exchange of emails, Karen sometimes suggests that I expand on one of my ideas for a post to her blog. Here is one such post.

I retired in 2008 and am just now getting around to one of the many projects that have been languishing at the top of my to-do list: making room for my books. Mark Twain was once asked why there were so many books piled on his floor. He replied that it was easier to borrow books than to borrow bookcases. My problem is not borrowed books; rather it is that I have no more room for bookcases⎯even if I could borrow some!

Now that my project is underway, it is clear that room is being taken up by books that I seem to saving for no apparent reason other than my hating to get rid of any book. Steeling myself, I have been undertaking the painful job of culling. Some books will be donated, but others belong in the trash. Do I really need textbooks written in 1985, especially those that I never used, didn’t like in the first place, and came unsolicited from publishers? I want to keep Broom and Selznick’s Sociology, 2nd edition, since it was used in the first sociology course I ever took, but I don’t think I need all the future editions. And do I really need TWO copies of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Wives and Daughters? Since the books I’ve read are alphabetized, I will no longer feel that I can only read books whose authors’ names are in the part of the alphabet where there is still room on a shelf.

I have to admit that I am enjoying the project (except for working on the top shelves, which requires that I stand on the highest step of the ladder. I do wish I were taller!) One bookcase is for unread books and, in culling some books and reorganizing those that have survived the cut, I have discovered some very interesting ones that I had forgotten about and will read soon: an assortment of sociology (Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy, Stanford Lyman’ The Seven Deadly Sins), anthropology (Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature), philosophy (Michel Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge), biographies (Barbara Goldsmith’s of Marie Curie, Marina Warner’s of Joan of Arc), and the occasional novel (Sarah Grand, The Beth Book).

I know if I only had e-books then I wouldn’t have this project to undertake. How much I would miss! I love remembering the books I’ve read, holding them in my hands, leafing through them, at times even calling up when I read them: this one on our vacation by the lake, this one that helped me through the flu, these that were presents. Scrolling through a Kindle doesn’t have the same appeal at all.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reflections on retirement and aging from Mary Kay Burke

Although retirement is a distant concept for me despite my recent leap into my sixties, I have been immersed in retirement and aging for most of my career. My profession, healthcare with as specialty in aging and aging services, has revealed challenges to me largely unknown when I started in this field—and most of them weigh most heavily on women. As we ourselves look to retire or have already done so, we are faced with the task of going again where few generations of women have gone.

My current position as the CEO at a retirement community has opened my eyes. Though we are all living longer (and women outpace men again here) thanks to advances in medicine and the ability to manage some of the multiple chronicities of aging, the social issues remain. As we live longer, but not necessarily better, it is not unusual to witness four and sometimes five generations of families still alive.

Many women in their mid- to late seventies, retired themselves, sometimes have full caretaking responsibilities for a parent and sometimes two. Although there are some support services emerging for in-home care, none are flawless; they can be prohibitively expensive, sometimes unreliable and access is problematic, especially in areas not clustered around cities. While I have experienced that there are many sons and grandsons out there who dutifully and lovingly care for their aging parents, it is overwhelmingly the women who are the primary caretakers. Even daughters-in-law are more apt to step up when the care of an in-law is necessary.

Once again, as women, we are experiencing the same kinds of infrastructure issues that faced so many of us a generation ago with quality childcare. The pace of aging and its associated needs has galloped far ahead of the infrastructure available to meet the challenges.

I believe that change will be incremental—not great news for us boomers. However, each of us has a responsibility to be vigilant about the care of the elderly, not the least because that will be (or is) us. Get involved, read, lobby, learn, ask questions about your own care, and make sure your wishes are communicated to your daughter, son, spouse, partner, friend, lawyer and physician. Don’t sit still for threatened changes in Medicare and Social Security. Do they need a good hard look and maybe some re-tooling? Of course, but the needs of the elderly will only grow, not diminish.

Many years ago, Bertrand Russell commented that “old age is always ten years older than I am.” There will come a point where old age is now; we need to be ready

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Plagiarism Epidemic

A group of teachers-- some still working, some retired--were venting at my New Year’s party about the plagiarism epidemic. They mentioned a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students' papers tells his story” an article which got a lot of attention and wound up on the agenda of a few department meetings.

When I started teaching at Community College of Philadelphia, I loved the job, but as the years wore on it became more and more emotionally draining. So many of my students were victims of an educational system that had failed them miserably. There was no way I could make up for years of miseducation.

I know all old teachers are constantly complaining about the younger generation of students—but there really is something different. And the plagiarism epidemic which some of my colleagues say gets worse each year was driving me crazy. I didn’t go into teaching to be a cop.

When I retired, I let my subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education lapse, so I had missed this latest brouhaha. A friend sent me the link and if I had ever had any reservations about retiring, this would have put an end to them.

Anyone who is teaching or contemplating a career in teaching should read this article and take in the hair-raising details. The editors of the Chronicle preface the article with a statement indicating they had investigated the author’s claims. From Ed Dante( pseudonym):
I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology. ...I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

You've never heard of me, but there's a good chance that you've read some of my work. I'm a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can't detect, that you can't defend against, that you may not even know exists.

I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students.

Of course students have been cheating since time immemorial, but the internet has made it so much easier. Granted, online courses have brought access to college programs for students who might otherwise be shut out of higher education, but they have also been a major contributor to the plagiarism epidemic. From one of the numerous comments (and the comments are definitely worth a read) complaining about cheating in online courses :
Why doesn't anyone blame the administrators who don't back the professors when the professor says "I'm pretty sure the guy getting the A in my online class is the husband of the woman who's actually signed up for the class. When I called her up to discuss her midterm, she PUT HER HUSBAND ON THE PHONE."

I thought I had some insulation form the cheating/ plagiarism epidemic because I never taught online courses. I had some sense of my students’ verbal ability—a huge disparity between verbal communication and the written word would be a red flag. And then I had the option of the in-class assignment, so again a great disparity between in-class and out-of class work would be a tipoff.

But as many of the commenters on this article noted, administrators are often loathe to back a professor’s charge of plagiarism absent proof beyond the shadow of a doubt—not so easy to come by.

For so many teachers the real problem is that we didn’t go into teaching to be cops. Most of us do not get any pleasure out of catching plagiarists and bringing them to academic justice, but then if we don’t confront the cheaters we’re undermining the academic enterprise.

And it’s not just essays bought from paper mills that are making a mockery of a college education. It’s also the dreadful cut and paste jobs that students are cobbling together. Many of my students thought it was really okay to lift something from the internet without attribution or, if they were aware it was unacceptable, viewed it as a minor peccadillo.

One of the teachers at my New Year’s party had an interesting take on this. She said that in schools like hers (an elite secondary school) which emphasizes collaborative learning and focuses on the achievement of the group rather than the insights of a particular individual, students began to develop a more fluid notion of what counts as intellectual property.

I’m just too old-fashioned for this redefinition of intellectual property. How hard is it to cite the authors who have influenced us and if we are using their exact words to put those words in quotation marks?

For Community College teachers, this issue is particularly painful. Many of my students were poorly served by the Philadelphia public schools and often struggle to juggle college courses with job and family responsibilities. I wanted to be as supportive as possible, but the harsh reality was that although the College was paying me to teach and mentor, it was also paying me to evaluate and uphold something remotely resembling academic standards. It was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile these two roles, and I was so happy I could retire.

This problem has been many years in the making and pre-dates the explosion of internet resources. When I began teaching, I thought of education as a process of reading, discussing, and writing about books. I’m not sure when I realized that most of my students were not reading and that the discussion questions I intended as an entrée into the text were functioning as a kind of Cliff’s notes.

I resisted one solution to this—-showing films. Many literature classes are apparently beginning to morph into film classes. Sandy Hingston in Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid? asks her son what he is reading in AP English:
“The Great Gatsby,” he said.
“Do you … like it?” I asked delicately, thrilled to be having what was almost a conversation with my teenage son.
“I don’t really like the actor who plays Gatsby,” he said. “He’s got these weird bumps on his face that keep distracting me.”
“The actor?”
“We’re not actually reading the book,” Jake informed me. “We haven’t read a book all semester. We watch the movies instead.”
......for his senior year, Jake proposed taking an English course at the local community college. ... where they never once read a book. They watched movies instead.
Jake got an A- in the course.

Hingston’s thoughtful article is not just a lament for what has been lost. Searching for some insight into her son and his age cohort, she interviews several professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education:
ELLIOT WEINBAUM, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, thinks I’m worrying unnecessarily...And as far as [Weinbaum and his colleagues are] concerned, the kids are all right. They acknowledge that there are differences in how kids learn these days, but … well, let professor Janine Remillard explain. “Take literacy,” she says. “There’s not really less reading. Kids are just reading in smaller chunks. They’re not digging deeply into texts, but they’re reading from a lot of different sources.”

But does this count as “reading” in any meaningful sense? Most of my students were not reading—unless you count skimming headlines as reading. Writing a decent academic paper requires both extensive and in-depth reading. The reluctance or inability to read certainly drives the business Ed Dante describes.

My pedagogical philosophy has always been: teachers need to understand their students’ world, start with their students’ own experience, and build from there. I still believe this but it’s a struggle I no longer want to wage. And I sure don’t want to be a member of the plagiarism police corps.

I know all old folks complain that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but the skills decline is real. I believe passionately in the mission of community colleges and I had some wonderful students. But I couldn’t deal with flunking 50% of my students, which I would have had to do if I were maintaining anything approaching reasonable standards. My standards got lower and lower with each passing year. I started to wonder how low can I go? I decided I didn’t want to find out.