Monday, December 31, 2012

Clean Slate

We spent today doing chores and running errands, but I couldn't be happier with the end results:

Clean house
Clean fridge
Clean car
Clean clothes

What a terrific way to ring in the new year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012


The other day I was cooking with Heidi's mom, Louise, in her kitchen, and I asked her if she had any Italian seasoning. She proudly pulled out her built-in spice rack. "They are alphabetized," she told me, and in no time handed me a jar of McCormick's.

Let me say first, that I do not have Italian seasoning in my own spice cupboard, but I often buy it on vacation for cooking in rental houses, because it nicely takes the place of several herbs in many dishes. It is an excellent all-round go-to herb mix, which is why I requested it in an unfamiliar kitchen.

When Louise handed me the bottle, my eyes widened. The label design transported me back at least 30 years, and when I flipped it over the price stamped on the bottom was 33¢. I held it silently in my hand for a few moments. "How long have you had this?" I asked her.

She could not say, and seeing as there was less than a pinch left in the bottom, I suggested an alternative, but I made a request. "Can I have this container?" and when she looked at me funny, I blurted, "It's vintage!"

We laughed, but the truth is, I know how that happens. They have lived in that house for almost 35 years, and the longer you live, the older your stuff gets.

To be honest? I like my old things a lot. Why just this evening, when we finally made it home after nine days away, 2 eight hour drives, and 2 seven-hundred mile flights, after lugging in all our stuff, I opened a bottle of wine with my favorite cork screw.

That efficient little gadget has been with me since the restaurant I waited tables for when I was in college forced me to buy it. The beach-front seafood establishment docked my first paycheck $2.50 so that I would always be properly equipped in the event that any customer might order some wine.

I can't say that I used it much that summer, but it sure has come in handy over the last thirty years.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Our Best with Thee Do Go

Sad news today when we heard that Heidi's aunt died this morning. She was 78 and in hospice, so it was not unexpected, but it is a loss to the family, Heidi's dad especially. This evening as we sat around their kitchen table in Buffalo, I looked up her memorial notice on the funeral home website. It was nice enough, but as one who hardly knew her, I was struck that there was no mention of the life she led other than listing those she left behind.

"Tell me about Marilyn," I said. "What was the best thing about her?"

"She loved to laugh," Heidi started, and they spent the next little while recalling her quirks and foibles as well as her merits. As I said, I didn't know her, but it seemed like a good way to be remembered.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Grammar Saves Lives

A few days ago, my brother, Bill, googled us all. One of my hits is always the Rate Your Teachers website. "I'm a little disturbed your class isn't considered harder," Bill joked, "especially considering my sons both took it." We also laughed at the grammar and spelling mistakes of those students who praised me as an excellent teacher.

It's true that grammar for grammar's sake is not my focus, but I do love those cases where conventions make a big difference, and they are the texts I use as my lessons. Fortunately, I had an example at hand.

Consider the difference between the following sentences:

Let's eat Grandma.

Let's eat, Grandma.

Since Grandma was sitting right there, we got a good laugh out of that one. Today, Annabelle and Richard supplied a good exercise in pronoun reference. They were playing with their kitten when Annabelle raised her voice to complain. "Mom! Richard stuck his butt in my face!"

We were shocked. It seemed very out of character. How did he do that? we asked.

"Not Richard's butt," Annabelle told us, "the kitten's, and it was really stinky!"

Lesson learned.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chef Cuckoo

One of my stocking stuffers this year was a simple little game in a small tin can. Consisting of 12 challenge cards and 48 ingredient cards the object is to choose three of the six ingredients in your hand to create a dish that fits the challenge. One player is the judge and evaluates each offering without knowing which player's it is.

With challenges such as best and worst pizza, sandwich, pasta, salad, soup, and omelet, all of us, including my five year old niece and seven year old nephew were able to play the game. The trick is knowing not only your ingredients, but also the judge' s tastes. It's also tough sometimes to maintain anonymity-- it's really tempting to explain how you might prepare a peanut butter, onion, and avocado sandwich so it's not quite as gross as it sounds.

By last night, my brother had played enough and with such success that in addition to the title of Iron Chef Cuckoo, he declared himself permanent judge and did away with the standard task cards. Instead we concocted the perfect amuse bouche, martini, and cookie.

The ridiculous combinations were hilarious and we all laughed a lot, but the sting of losing was still a little hard to shake sometimes. "I can't believe Annabelle didn't pick my pasta yesterday," Richard said this morning. "I put all her favorite things in it!"

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Body Art

I don't know what it is about me, but I kind of abhor a tattoo. Maybe it's because when I was a child, tattoos were mostly faded blue hearts and anchors on the sagging biceps of men in graying t-shirts sucking on unfiltered cigarettes at the church carnival.

Over the years of course, tats have become quite main stream, and yet, I remain a little repulsed. To be honest, though, I was never a kid who liked to write on myself, not even to remember or to be zapped, and so the thought of a permanent mark on my skin is out of the question.

Imagine my surprise then, when my mother produced a package of glitter tattoos for the family at Christmas. Oh, the peer pressure was intense, and Treat proved to be a gifted artist in that particular medium, but even the sparkle of peace signs, dragon flies, suns and stars adorning the limbs of those I love could not convince me to be so marked.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

God Bless Us, Every One

Traveling on Christmas Day is always an interesting experience. Many people are wearing new clothes with fresh creases straight from the gift box, like the gent in the orange jeans or the kid in the spotless Air Jordans. Some are dressed especially for this day with holiday sweaters and antlers and Santa caps and even one guy in red and green footie pajamas. "Do you think he had shoes to wear outside?" I asked Heidi. "It is raining."

Most travelers seem happy--perhaps  looking forward to reunions with family or vacations in the islands or on the slopes-- and so do most of the folks working, hopefully for holiday pay. Sometimes it seems odd to spend Christmas, a day usually so focused on family, with strangers, but other times it seems like that might be just the point.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Twelve Drummers Drumming

The other day in the car we heard someone reading O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi on the radio. Even though the prose is very purple and the outcome well-known, I listened with a sort of morbid fascination all the way up to the part where Jim leans back on the couch, puts his hands behind his head, and says, "Dell, let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs."

In our family, we have our own Christmas legend with an ironic twist. It involves my grandfather, a shotgun, and a tuxedo. One year the only gift my grandfather wanted was a shotgun. His older brother, Herb, wanted a tuxedo to wear to the cotillion he was attending with his girl, Elsie.

Both boys got their wishes, and Herb hung his tux on the door to keep it wrinkle free until the party. My great-grandfather sat down with his younger son and told him that the shotgun was not toy. It was never to be loaded or aimed in the house, and if that rule should ever be broken, my grandfather would lose it forever.

What boy could resist lifting such a weapon to his shoulder and squinting down the barrel in firing position? Not my grandfather. When his father was out of the room, he did just that, and unaware that it was loaded, he was stunned when he pulled the trigger and unloaded two shells of shot right into Herb's tuxedo, cutting the pants off at the knees.

Yet another foolish child who most unwisely sacrificed the greatest treasures of the house.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Eleven Pipers Piping

When we were very young my father's office was in Philadelphia and one evening in December was always set aside for us to drive into the city from our suburban south Jersey home to meet him after work and tour the department store windows on Market Street. Gimbels, Wannamakers, Strawbridge and Clothier, and Lits filled their windows with amazing holiday scenes populated by animated dolls who skated and caroled and danced and wrote letters to Santa and opened their tiny packages under their miniature trees.

Afterward, we would go into Lits and ride the escalator upstairs to the Christmas section where they had an entire colonial village with even more spectacle and animation, and the red velvet ropes lining the way led right to the main event, a visit with Santa. A shy child, I never really liked having to talk to such an intimidating soul, but an obedient child as well, I always did it anyway. I felt better with my brother and sister by my side-- I don't think they really liked it either and so feeling protective of them gave me something to focus on other than my own discomfort.

One year, just beyond Santa, they had a shopping area for kids only. The idea was that we could buy gifts to surprise our parents. The place was stocked with inexpensive little things that any generic mom or dad might like. To my memory, this was my first independent shopping experience and I remember struggling with wanting to get things that I liked rather than things I thought my dad might like. I ended up buying him a cool yellow mini-flashlight that I really, really liked.

I don't remember what I bought my mom, but I do know what my little sister chose. It was an upright black and white vinyl fish stuffed with sawdust. About 8 inches tall, it had big red lips and was a dead ringer for Charlie Tuna without the beret and glasses. The minute she saw it, my sister was sure that our mom would love it, and nothing my brother or I could say would convince her otherwise. At four, she already had a shopping mind of her own.

Maybe she was right. That fish sat on my mom's dresser, right next to the Infant of Prague, for years. I wonder what those two talked about, anyway.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ten Lords a-Leaping

Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat.

Once when I asked my nephew if he wanted some cool new t-shirts and nice soft pants for Christmas, he shook his head firmly. "No thanks," he said, "We do fine." He was only six at the time, but I knew just what he meant. There are two kinds of people in the world-- those who like getting clothes as gifts and the rest of us. This year, my youngest nephew, Richard, is in the no thank you club, too, although his sister joins Heidi and most of the other adults in the whoopee! I got clothes faction.

Please to put a penny in the old man's hat.

Along with the inevitable clothes, books and music have always been popular gifts in our family. Although it is nearly impossible to disguise those packages, ( I still love holding them up and loudly proclaiming the contents, "Book!" or "CD!" or years ago, "Record!" To which the proper reply is always, "Maybe... but you don't know which one!") they are always among my favorites.

If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do.

The first record I ever got for Christmas was By the Time I Get to Phoenix by Glen Campbell, when I was six. Although I liked the title track, it was his version of Homeward Bound that captured my imagination; I played the grooves off of that thing and learned the word "mediocrity" to boot.

If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!

And it was at Christmas that I learned from one of my high school roommates that one should always pay a penny for any gift that cuts, because giving or receiving something sharp may sever your friendship. It might be a silly superstition, but who wants to take such a chance? A penny seems a small price to pay to keep those you love close.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Nine Ladies Dancing

Of my fifty Christmases so far, not many of them have been white. Oh sure, the numbers have gone up since I've been celebrating the season in Buffalo, but even that doesn't make snow a sure thing. In fact, my most recent white Christmas was in Atlanta. A couple of years ago we were all there for that once in a hundred year event. Of course, Heidi and I almost didn't make it, but when we did it was merry indeed. The next day I even went out to play in the snow in my pajamas with Richard and Annabelle.

This year is looking pretty good, too, if tonight's weather is any indication. We've been driving through exquisite squalls of swirling fat flakes for the last three hours. It slows us down, but the temperature has cooperated by holding above thirty-two so the roads are merely wet, and the Christmas lights look especially beautiful in the storm.

O, we'll get there, and when we do there will be hugs and Friday fish fry, but until then the journey is just fine.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Eight Maids a-Milking

How can we talk about Christmas and not talk about food? Our traditional meal is roast beef, served with mashed potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, but over time we've mixed up the other sides with what I'd say were mixed results, although I don't miss the peas at all. One year we all agreed to prepare a single course. After the crab stuffed avocados, we were stuffed, too. Fortunately our meal is just as delicious when served as leftovers.

Growing up we had our big meal on Christmas Eve, but the family switched over when Heidi and I started going to her parents that night. It was an emotional change, but I think my people made out pretty well. I was always really jealous of their tales of Judy's Italian seafood feast.

The past few years we have had the main event on Boxing Day, the 26th. After several happy experiences with Chinese take out, we reserve Christmas as a no cooking day-- one of the very few on my annual calendar.

And I'm not a huge dessert fan, so another thing about this holiday that I particularly love is the tradition of putting a variety of small sweets on the table after your meal. In our family we always have clementines, good chocolates, and a mix of homemade cookies, and I always feel like I can have a perfect bite of some delicious something and be satisfied without being over-full.

Of course the opposite is true about wine. In that category, I'm of the philosophy to keep it coming until the last person switches to water or toddles off to bed.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Seven Swans a-Swimmin'

During the years my family lived in Saudi Arabia, the days following Christmas were often spent on the beach. Despite the desert climate it was far from hot at that time of year, but the weather was mild enough that we could drive our Chevy Impala off the road and across crunchy sand flats to a stretch of coastline so deserted we might call it all our own for the afternoon.

The first order of business was to collect driftwood to fuel a bonfire, and then we would roll up our jeans and wade into the shallow water of the Arabian Gulf. The bottom was smooth sand so fine that you could feel the shellfish that had dug in there with your toes, making it possible to fill a bucket with perfect little clams in no time. A few minutes on the fire and a dip in melted butter bestowed a feast festooned with salt and smoke and fine enough for any holiday celebration.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Six Geese a-Layin'

When I was a senior in college I lived in a brand-new three-bedroom campus apartment with five other women. Now I think of them as girls, but that's what we called ourselves then. When December rolled around that year, we were all as busy as ever with exams, but we were all also aware that the end of our college time was near.

Life in that apartment was not always copacetic, but the six of us agreed to get together for a holiday meal the last Saturday before we left for break. To this day, I have no idea where the goose came from, although I do remember that, to a girl, we thought it was an excellent menu idea. I was in a Dickens seminar at the time, and the thought of roast goose for Christmas stirred my heart.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), I had the GREs that day, and so the task of cooking our ever-so-traditional entree fell upon a roommate. In those days before the internet, trapped in a tiny rural town as we were, her research was impressive. She found a recipe that looked very promising despite all of the footnoted warnings.

As it turns out, a goose is quite a fatty bird, which makes a lot of sense. Fat floats and it keeps one warm in harsh northern winters such as ours was. Too bad fat also burns. As I walked into the courtyard on my way home from my exam, I saw all of our neighbors shivering in the cold.

Who knew a teeny little kitchen fire might upset so many?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Five Golden Rings

Ba dump bump bumb...

In addition to Christmas music, I am also a fan of Christmas TV. As a child, I loved Rudolph, the Grinch, and Charlie Brown, and watching them was an annual treat. I have to confess that I could never really get into Frosty. That one came out when I was six, and has always seemed a little come lately to me.

Years later, with the advent of the VCR, the novelty of seeing those shows only once a year was replaced with the novelty of being able to see them whenever we wanted. We still only watched them around Christmas, though. We also had to sacrifice quality for convenience. Who can forget the time we popped that homemade VHS in and settled back with my 3-year-old nephew to enjoy some holiday specials. "Oh my, Dod!" he exclaimed, hands covering his mouth in horror. "The no is pink!" And it was, too.

Even today, watching recordings of my old favorites (and yes, I have sprung for professional quality DVDs), I kind of miss the commercials from when I was a kid. Remember Santa sledding down the hill on an electric razor to the tune of Jingle Bells? I do. Even more unforgettable was the slogan: Merry Christmas from Noelco. And of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas was always brought to you by Dolly Madison Cakes and Pies.

This year I tuned into the network broadcast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer just the other night. With the older nephews grown, and the younger niece and nephew in Atlanta, it's been a few years since I've seen it. I had it on in the kitchen as I cooked, and despite knowing all the songs and dialog by heart, I just wasn't enjoying it. The pressure for Herbie and Rudolph to conform was really making me uncomfortable, even though I knew how it ended.

At one point Heidi came in. "Why are you watching that?" she asked.

"I like it," I said. "But I don't like it right now. I just don't understand why--"

"Why Santa is such an asshole?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said. "I think that's it."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Four Calling Birds

Let it never be said that I do not like Christmas music. Six solid weeks of seasonal songs cannot harden my heart toward the holiday hits. In fact, I possess quite an extensive collection of carols myself, and I'm not afraid to use it.

Today I amused myself by sorting my holiday playlist by title. It turns out my number one Christmas song (at least in respect to versions owned) is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I have 14 different recordings of that particular tune. Is it any surprise then, that I judge all new holiday albums by that song? Rod Stewart? Sorry. She and Him? Yes.

Of course, this morning I promptly played all 14 in alphabetical order by artist and made Heidi choose her favorite. Andy Williams was up first, and he was her strong preference from the start. Linda Ronstadt and Diana Krall were contenders, but for Heidi, Andy hung on to the last, even beating out her childhood favorites, Steve and Edie.

My favorite though was Judy Garland, no contest. Her version was also the shortest, and I'm with her-- there is absolutely no need to draw that song out. Once you hit ...if the fates allow, you have sung it all. Coincidentally, my number two was also the second shortest; John Denver and the Muppets do a terrific rendition of that old chestnut.

Surprisingly? My number one Christmas artists weren't in the running at all. When we were growing up, our go to Christmas album was Christmas with Conniff, which for me will always be the quintessential sound of the season. Somehow, Have Yourself did not make it onto the album.

It must have been bumped for Christmas Bride... as it should have been.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Three French Hens

Growing up there were three of us kids in our family-- me, my brother, and my sister. Over the years, we received many kind gifts from friends and family at the holidays. I'm sure there were lots of other nice things, too, but in my memory, it seems like we always got Christmas ornaments.

I didn't mind the ornaments, though; it was kind of neat to hang them on our beloved tree, and then always nice to remember the person who gave them to us year by year. What I did mind was that each of us always got the same thing-- I got an angel, my brother got a Santa, and my little sister got a miscellaneous holiday something, either a star, or a drum, or a jack-in-the-box, or a reindeer, or a teddy bear.

For some reason all those angels bothered me. In my mind they were far less fun and exciting than Santa and all his cute accessories. Yet still they came-- ceramic, yarn, tin, and glass-- a host of angels adorned our tree, most of them mine.

Years later,  after all our family Christmas decorations were lost in a generous gesture by my father and we were adults, I began to assemble my own collection of ornaments. Childhood bruises may be invisible, but they last-- today the only angel on my tree is at the top.

When I think about it, I wonder, though. What's my problem? Seriously, who could possibly object to angels?

These days when I hang the ornaments on my own Christmas tree, each one of them sparks in me appreciation of the things I love. Among them there is a skillet, a fountain pen, a school house, garlic, snowshoes, several dogs, a basketball, a Navajo polar bear kachina, and a suit case labeled with destinations all over the world. Are these not all angels in some form? Do they not represent a bit of the divinity that inhabits our every day lives?

I'm going to go with yes.

P.S. I also have a ton of Santas. I LOVE the Santas. I guess sibling rivalry may just be formative after all. Who knew?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Two Turtle Doves

In our family we open our presents on Christmas day. When we were growing up, the rule was always that we had to wait for Mom and Dad to get up before going downstairs to the tree. I can still remember craning my whole body as far as it would go without leaving the landing to catch a peek at what lay below.

One year we all woke up around 4 am and somehow convinced my parents to let us get started. By 5 it was all over, and as I sat in front of the Light Bright, I felt as hollow as the holes I was punching in the black paper with those bright plastic pegs. For the first time in my life, I was disappointed by Christmas.

I also realized that for me, Christmas is all about the anticipation. That's one reason why it can be so galling these days to try to wedge the holidays into an already over-crowded schedule. It seems like the season comes and goes too quickly; there's no cha

Heidi's family opens their gifts at midnight on Christmas Eve. The only way that works for me is being able to look forward to more celebration when we get to my family later in the day. Of course, it's a long way from Buffalo to Virginia, and farther still to Atlanta-- we're lucky to make it there by mid-afternoon, if the weather cooperates.

Several years ago we spent Christmas in a snow storm at the airport in Buffalo, watching them plow the runways and de-ice the planes. We finally caught one of the first and last flights of the day, and made it home a little before midnight. Everyone was here waiting for us; there was a fire in the fireplace and Chinese takeout to eat, and Christmas stretched long into the next morning.

That was a good one.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

As hectic as the holidays can be with the merry chores of shopping and baking and decorating, I always kind of like it all, but I especially enjoy wrapping presents. We usually clear the dining room for a day or two to set up the paper bin and ribbon boxes, and then as long as there’s plenty of tape and sharp scissors, I can wrap for hours. Of course a little Ray Conniff never hurts.

It was my grandmother who taught me the art of gift wrapping when I was nine. She came up to our house in New Jersey from her home in Maryland a week or so before Christmas to spend some time with our family before heading back home for the holiday. One afternoon after school I sat at the kitchen table eating cookies and watching her cut and fold and tape her way through a stack of boxes.

“That looks pretty, Grandma,” I said. “Who is it for?”

“This one is for Billy Shep,” she told me.

“What about that one?” I asked a few minutes later.

“This one is for your mother, and the next one’s for your daddy,” she answered.

“You’re really good at that,” I told her.

Would you like to learn how to do this?” she asked. I nodded and she reached for a small package in the pile.

“This one is for your sister. It’s a little box because she’s a little girl. Let me show you what to do.”

She pulled a length of bright paper from a roll beside her and set the box on it. Then she took the shiny silver shears and rather than snipping as we had been taught in school, she made a tiny cut and then pushed them forward. It sounded like a zipper as the paper separated neatly from the roll. She sliced off another section from the end of the sheet. “We can use that for something else later,” she told me as she set it aside. “Come on over here and I’ll show you how to do this.”

I stood next to her. “First let’s get our tape ready,” she said and handed me the green plaid dispenser. “Cut off four pieces about this long.” The red polished nails of her thumb and forefinger were about an inch and a half apart. As I tore the tape, she placed each piece carefully on the edge of the table.

“Next pull these two ends together so they meet in the middle of the box.” I did as I was told, and she handed me a piece of tape. “See how nice that’s going to look?” she said once it was secure. “The next part is tricky, though, so I’ll show you one side and then you can do the other.”

I know now that there are two ways to wrap the end of a package. Most people push the sides in and crease them to form a top and a bottom flap which they fold over and tape together at the end of the parcel. My grandmother’s method was different, and to this day I find it more elegant. With the box on its back, she pushed the paper that hung over the end straight down and then folded the sides over and pulled up from the underneath to secure the single flap neatly to the bottom.

When my end was done, too, she flipped the present over, pulled a bow from a bag and stuck it down with a ring of tape made from the final piece at edge of the table. “That’s very nice,” she declared and hugged me. “I bet you wrap a lot more gifts in your life,” she said, “but I’m glad I was here for the first one.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Most Wonderful Time of the Years

I really like Billy Collin's poem On Turning Ten. Funny and poignant, it also lampoons the angst so many of us feel about growing older.

For such a short poem, it has a lot of great lines, but one that struck me only after re-reading several times is I can lie on my bed and remember every digit. Once when I couldn't sleep I did lay on my bed and try to recollect one thing from each year of my life. I think I fell asleep in my twenties.

With the holidays coming and Christmas music piped in pretty much everywhere I go, my thoughts naturally turn to scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago (and those not so long ago, too).

So, as kind of a mash up of Collin's poem, that carol of counting, and Dickens' famous tale, I present to you, On Turning Fifty: Twelve Days of Christmas Past.

Tune in tomorrow for day one.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Just as I Expected

Today I gave my students this writing prompt:  

Write about something that didn't go the way you expected.

It was less than a minute before I heard my least favorite question as a teacher of writing. "What if this never happened to you?"

"Really?" I asked the culprit. "Everything in your life has always gone as you thought it would? Every. Single. Thing?"

He nodded optimistically, hopeful that this response might get him off the hook for the assignment.

"Well," I said, "What did you think would happen when you asked that question just now?"

His expression changed. Now he was looking a little worried. He shrugged.

I raised my eyebrows. "Is this conversation what you expected?"

"Not really," he said.

I clapped and gave him a cheery smile. "Well there you go-- instant writing topic!"

Believe it or not, he wrote about something completely different, and it was pretty darn good.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Stressed is Desserts Spelled Backwards

Last Friday, in an attempt to build morale at our school, the administration offered a nice assortment of desserts at the end of our required professional development meeting. It was a kind gesture made in good faith, but I'm not sure if it made a difference to very many. Platitudes don't really pacify us; they just seem patronizing.

Looking at the table loaded with sweets, one of my colleagues shrugged. "Just another thing to put on my plate," she said.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rust Never Sleeps

We walked past a colleague's home tonight as we strolled the neighborhood admiring all the holiday lights. Rumor has it he's retiring in February... not the usual date for a teacher, right?

"Six years ago we were wishing for him to go out," Heidi remarked, "but now? It seems a little sad."

I nodded. She had a good point. The guy was famous for his cantankerous attitude. He had a reputation for unceremoniously blasting anyone-- coworker, administrator, parent, student-- anywhere, if he believed they were in the wrong. His irascible voice has boomed through the hallways of our school for over 18 years, and teaching was his second career! It seemed like anyone who had ever a run in with him just wished he would retire already.

I shrugged. "He's really toned it down a lot recently," I pointed out.

As we walked on in our silence, I considered his. "I guess that's what happens when you're really done," I said. "You stop fighting. Being burnt out is not being upset or angry at the direction things are going. Burnt out? That's when you don't care."

Saturday, December 8, 2012

'Tis the Season

The tree is up and the branches are falling; I got my Christmas mug and pajamas down from the attic, and the wreathe is on the door.


Friday, December 7, 2012


Standardization v. Innovation?


Thursday, December 6, 2012

I'm Number One!

And speaking of ghosts...

Do you know what khaghouls are?

Google it, baby!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


"What are you doing here so late?" a colleague poked her head in the door and asked.

I looked at the clock. It was 5:15. "I'm always here at this time," I told her.

We laughed a little ruefully, and she shrugged. Although we have worked together for 15 years or more very, closely at times, her job is Latino community outreach, and so her hours are not the same as mine-- early morning conferences, evening parenting classes, truth be told, we're actually a tag team of sorts.

"I don't want to go back to my office," she confided.

I nodded, sure of where this conversation was going. It seems like everyone in our building feels overworked. Nobody wants to go back to their desk.

"The last time I was there so late I saw a ghost," she finished.

Now she had my attention.

"What happened?" I asked.

"It was after a meeting, around 9 o'clock," she said. "I went to the office and it was dark."

Her space is in the main office complex, and it's usually closed down after 4 pm.

"I didn't bother to turn on the lights," she continued. "I just unlocked my door and put my papers down on my desk, but when I looked up I saw a ghost!"

She told me she backed out of the room and headed to the main hallway where she found a custodian who asked her what was wrong. When she told her tale, the custodian was not surprised. "I always turn on all the lights and open the doors when I clean in there," she said. "It's like someone's with me."

And then the custodian told of a time when she was working in that area and felt a light tap on her shoulder. When she turned around? Nobody was there, but the papers on the bulletin board behind her were fluttering in an invisible breeze.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Blood from a Stone

The last time I had to go to my doctor, I raced out of school at not quite the end of a contentious meeting, wove and honked my way the two miles to the hospital, played chicken with the patrons of the parking garage, pounded up seven flights of stairs rather than wait for the elevator and arrived breathlessly with one minute to spare. Then I waited for 90 minutes to be called back for my appointment. After two nurses asked me why I was there, (because the doctor asked me to schedule a follow-up appointment), I was finally shown into an examination room.

"You look exhausted," my doctor told me. "Why are you here?"

And with that, I burst into tears.

On my way back to school that day (even though the final bell had rung hours before, I still had several things to do), I vowed that such a thing would not happen to me again. I was through trying to shoehorn my health care into the tiny openings in my work day.

Today, I took sick leave to get my blood work done, and what a difference it made. I got a little extra sleep, still made it to the doctor's office early, got right in, and was out in plenty of time to

go to the post office
go to the hardware store
do the grocery shopping
get the coffee I like, which is only available in one place
go to my favorite sandwich place for lunch
get the batteries replaced in 5 watches
get my hair cut
fix the cabinet door on Heidi's bed side table
walk the dog
update my grades
finish the grading on the Early Adolescent Development course I'm teaching
pay the bills

I also promised myself I would find another doctor, but that will have to wait until next time.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Inside Out

As an average person alive in America these past few decades, I have certainly heard the song Feeling Good. Why is it then that I have never actually listened to the words before? Maybe because I'm not a huge Nina Simone fan, although I do know of her. Maybe because it's pretty bluesy and that's not my favorite type of music. I really can't say.

I heard the song tonight on my way home from school. They played it at the end of a ridiculous piece on NPR about web sites that offer virtual compliments and hugs. At nearly 6 PM, after ten and a half hours at work, knowing of such opportunities was really not helpful. There was something about the song that made me listen up, though.

It may have been the disparity between sound and message-- since when have the blues ever been uplifting? Or perhaps I actually heard the lyrics for the first time-- dragonfly in the sun, you know how I feel -- and finally realized the wisdom of the piece.

You know how I feel?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

New and Improved

"Remember when this place used to be a mall?" I asked Heidi as we entered Target this afternoon. "I kind of liked it better then."

She laughed and nodded because I ask her that question a lot when we shop there. And when I don't ask, I'm still thinking about it. I can't walk in the door to that place without remembering it used to be something else.

Today we explored the nostalgia a little more than usual. The Starbucks used to be a shoe store; there was a movie theater in the linen department and another one back by the garden shop. "Wasn't there a play place, too?" Heidi asked.

There was. I used to take my nephew Riley there all the time when he was little. He's 20 now.

In fact, it's been so long since the place was reconstructed that the store itself has actually been renovated.

"Remember when they used to have the Christmas decorations over there?" I asked Heidi. "I kind of liked it better then."

She was good enough not to roll her eyes.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


10 x hour of sleep
2 x hour putting the garden to rest for the winter
1 x movie

Repeat as necessary

Friday, November 30, 2012


Middle school kids are good at a lot of things, but one of their weaknesses is cleaning up after themselves. It can be infuriating to plan a fun event and find yourself yelling at kids and picking up garbage at the end. Then they always say the same thing, "That isn't mine," and give you a wounded look when you ask them to throw it away anyhow.

Today we took our students bowling. This field trip was a team building opportunity that we scheduled to take the place of our annual corn maze visit which was washed out by Hurricane Sandy this year. As I've written before, it's a great trip-- the kids are contained and easy to supervise, but they have a lot of freedom, too. Plus, the price is right: ten bucks buys two games and a pizza lunch.

For a hundred kids, they gave us 25 pies and a drink cup for each with unlimited access to the soda fountain. As a matter of practicality, we put their names on the plain white Styrofoam cups, so they wouldn't get mixed up. 

We all had a fun time; for the most part, the trip did what we hoped it would-- kids and teachers had the opportunity to connect and build even more positive relationships.

And when it came time to leave? Clean up was extra easy, probably because there wasn't any question about whose trash it was.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wait a Minute

Towards the end of Writing Club today I pulled out the puppets. "Anyone interested in writing a show?" I asked.

Four sweet little girls made a dash for my desk and gleefully swept away the monkey, the dragon, the elephant, and the moose, chattering excitedly about their ideas. How nice, I thought, and settled back in my seat, confident of some wholesome entertainment to come.

"The first rule of puppet fight club is never talk about puppet fight club."

Or not.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Presumed Guilty

I always tell the students that the morning announcements is my favorite show, and in some sense it's true. I love seeing former students, I like knowing what's going on, they have puzzles, trivia, and math challenges; seriously, it's a great way to start the day.

This year we have a new feature as well. Our principal offers "words of wisdom" every day, consisting of quotes and affirmative advice for the students. It's a cool way for her to connect with them daily, and the content is interesting and thought-provoking.

I can't say I always agree with her perspective however, and that presents a bit of a dilemma. For example, yesterday, she spoke about jury duty and she said that because someone had done something wrong, people had to miss work to serve on the jury. It sure seemed like the implication was that whoever was standing trial was guilty from the start.

It might be easier to overlook such a message were it not a metaphor for the education reform movement as a whole. Every school and classroom is swept up in the dragnet of failure, and any protest is characterized as complacency, or an excuse, or an axe to grind.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


We are starting the annual Letters About Literature assignment, and so we will spend the next couple of weeks analyzing model letters so that the students can figure out what will make a successful piece. The purpose of this activity is for students to write a letter to an author telling him or her how their book changed the student's view of the world or of themselves, and the first mini-lesson is that their letters should, "correspond not compliment." 

One of the exercises has them looking at a letter to Dr. Seuss about How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The piece is nothing but praise, no substance to it, but because I have found that this story is so very familiar to almost every student (regardless of ethnicity or religion) I always ask them to suggest possible revisions to the letter based on the lessons they might take from the classic tale.

You might predict that they would all have something to say about materialism and holidays, but the number one theme my students identified was rather that nobody is as bad as they may seem, and even the meanest person can turn it around.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What is This?

Thirty-five years ago I might have recognized it immediately, but today, even knowing what it was supposed to be, I could barely tell what this image portrays.

I need a different point of view.

(Hint: It snows green and red in the Alps.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Earlier this year when we went down to Atlanta, I got a little app for my iPad so that my nephew and niece could write and illustrate their own stories. We had a good time creating tales that starred their new kitten.

It was a hit this weekend, too. The only glitch was that as they took turns using the iPad (they are really good sharers, those two) Annabelle accidentally created several pages in Richard's book. Today was the day when we were writing the text, so rather than delete the extra pages forever, the kids worked together to write one story-- the sequel to the kitten's first adventures.

There were some surprising transitions (Page 7: The kitten is using a really strong gun to blow up a robot. Page 8: The kitten is resting in a beautiful flower garden at night.), and a little disagreement-- one wanted to write a story for boys, the other, for girls, but in the end, the story came together nicely as a tale for people of any age.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Family History

Some time back, I got the results of my family DNA test. It turns out that I'm 97% of British Isles descent with a dash of Northern Africa or Middle Eastern ethnicity thrown in. Regular readers will note the absence of any American Indian genes and may conclude that my friend long ago was correct. (Click here to refresh your memory or catch up with that saga.)

We spent the day today visiting with family and friends, and so I broke the news to my mother's sister, our Aunt Harriett. She laughed, but it must have been kind of a blow to her after spending her 76 years believing she was one-eighth Choctaw.

As we chatted around the table, Emily and Annabelle were drawing and making cool accordian-pleat books. They handed a blank one to Aunt Harriett.

"You can call it All My Indian Ancestors," her husband said.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Instead of Sheep

This morning, when I was browsing online, I happened to see Marilyn Monroe's turkey recipe. Written in pencil on a sheet from a City Title Insurance Company pad (telephone? GArfield1-8530), it was a fascinating window into a real person who happened to also be Marilyn Monroe.

In my family, one of our traditional dishes is an oyster casserole. It was always on the table at my Aunt Sis's house where we spent the holiday each year, and the story is that the recipe came from Rosemary Clooney, via a mutual friend. The other must have from those days is mashed yellow turnip. When I was a child, those were the things I hated most, but now I personally prepare them for our meal.

Earlier in the week, I heard someone say that Thanksgiving is a time when emotions are close to the surface. I couldn't fully agree, until she made the further point that it is a time when our traditions, while comforting, are also reminders of those who are no longer at the table.

There is a lovely essay by Michael Chabon in the November issue of Bon Apetite magazine in which he warns that the act of returning to the same table, to the same people and the same dishes--to the same traditions--can blind you to life's transience. It can lull you into believing that some things, at least, stay the same. And if that's what you believe, then what have you got to be grateful for? He advises us to be thankful not for what we have, but rather for what we have lost.

Today I am thankful for both.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Freshly Remembered

I got to spend some fun quality time today with my niece and nephews. Our conversations were typically wide-ranging and at one point involved watching the trailer for Iron Man 3 with my older nephews. One Marvel thing led to another, and as we were discussing Thor, I remembered that it had been directed by Kenneth Branaugh.

"That's Gilderoy Lockhart to you," I said, but then I thought back to when Branaugh was kind of a sensation after directing Henry V. "You might like that movie," I told my nephew Treat. "It was great. Hey! Let's watch the trailer."

I pulled it up on YouTube without any trouble, and then the voice over started. You know the one.

It was a time of courtier and kings...
It was the turning point for the English throne...
It was one of history's greatest adventures...

And so it went on. For a moment, I was sure it was a really funny parody, and I giggled, but as it turned out, it was just a cheesy trailer from 1989.

Not at all what I remembered, which is ironic given the pivotal speech of both play and movie.

This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered

Or not.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Assignments With Friends

I have a colleague who, to me, has always seemed a little obsessed with preventing kids from cheating on tests. She teaches math, though, and so I realize it's a much larger issue for her class-- it would be silly, and a little obvious, for my students to copy each other's writing. I guess I just assumed that their integrity extended beyond the walls and purview of English class.

Today, though, my lesson plan included a few puzzles and other fun activities for them to exercise their thinking and creativity on the day before Thanksgiving break. I have to admit that I was a little appalled at how many kids were peeking at their neighbors' work to get a little help in solving the challenges. It almost seemed like a time-honored strategy, but where's the fun in that?.

Here's a version of one of the puzzles I offered:

Directions: Add two squares to the drawing so that every turkey has its own pen.

(Thanks to this site for the image-- mine was in a word doc and just would not cooperate with this format.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Up and Coming

One day, several years ago probably, I crossed the line from teacher to old teacher. Although I didn't even notice it, clearly the boundary has been breached. Oh, I remember how it was when I first started, building relationships with the veterans, asking for guidance, hoping for approval, but secretly looking at them kind of critically, too. What could they possibly know that I didn't? One thing they weren't? Friends.

But now, the tables have turned, the shoe's on the other foot, insert your own proverb here, and younger, less experienced teachers are everywhere. It's just another part of the job to negotiate a professional relationship with them, never mind a personal one.

This year, as a result of our expanding enrollment, we have gone from 2 teams to three, and so now we Dolphins share our space with the Sting Rays. Some of that team were on our team last year, but of course there are new folks, too, and one of them is the science teacher. She is young and brash, and the introvert in me has taken some time to warm to her.

Last weekend, on our trip to the beach, we found some fossilized ray teeth, and when word got back to my friends on the Ray team, they were curious about it. After a grade level meeting, I quickly filled them in, and as one thing led to another, we exchanged a little fun trash talk, something about dolphins this and rays that. I was laughing as I turned to leave, when the new girl gave me an ironic salute.

"Peace out, Flipper."

I kind of liked that.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dukkas and Don'tkas

There are basically three reasons to make some things from scratch: 1) it's cheaper, 2) you can't readily buy it, or 3) the way you can buy it isn't the way you like it.

This Sunday finds me tearing up the kitchen-- in addition to the sauerkraut I started a couple of weeks ago, I have a little kim chee going, some vegan pumpkin-chocolate chip muffins, and I'm also toasting the spices to make some dukka to go with our roasted cauliflower soup.

What's dukka, you ask? It's a delicious nut and spice mix from Egypt. You take a hunk of bread, dip it in olive oil, and then in the dukka. We love it around here, and here is the only place we can get it.


1/2 cup hazelnuts
6 tablespoons coriander seeds
3 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1/2 cup salted roasted pistachios
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the hazelnuts in a pie plate and toast for 12 minutes, until fragrant and the skins blister. Transfer the hazelnuts to a kitchen towel and let cool. Rub the nuts together to remove the skins and transfer to a food processor.

In a medium skillet, toast the coriander and cumin seeds over moderate heat, shaking the pan, until golden and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Spread the spices out on a plate and let cool completely, then finely grind in a spice grinder. In the same skillet, toast the sesame seeds over moderate heat until golden, 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer the sesame seeds to the plate to cool. Add the coriander, cumin, sesame seeds and thyme to the food processor along with the pistachios, cayenne and 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and pulse until finely ground. Transfer the dukka to a bowl.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Some Habits Die Hard

This morning I was facetiming with my mother. She's coming to town tomorrow for the holidays, so I wanted to get her flight info and wish her safe travels.  I was sitting in an easy chair by the window during the call, and rather than allow my face to be darkened by backlighting, I turned sideways so that my folded legs were against one arm and my back rested against the other. It wasn't the most comfortable of positions, so I was wiggling a bit to find a sweet spot as we chatted.

"Do you have to go to the bathroom?" my mother asked me.

(Full confession: As a kid, I was notorious for getting caught up in something and rather than pausing, I would just do a little dance until the moment was more convenient to visit the restroom. My family might say that I never outgrew that particular quirk. Whatever...)

"No!" I answered, and started to explain, but then I stopped and said, "Mom! I think now that I'm fifty you can stop asking me that question."

"No I can't," she replied. "You'll always be my little girl."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bless My Heart

Tonight the way the November light drains slowly from the sky pleases me. The black, black silhouettes of phone poles, power lines, and lately bare trees against the yellow-washed horizon and the silver nail of the moon in the indigo dark above is almost too good.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Not So Super

My classes have been competing in "Super Sentence" tournaments the last couple days. The premise of the activity involves finding sentences we love, breaking down their components, and then composing our own sentences that somehow rise above the norm.

The competition itself is head to head brackets where the winner goes through to the next round. The judges are the other students in the class, with a reminder every round to vote for the sentence not the person, along with random debriefs where kids have to justify their votes based on our agreed upon menu of criteria. I never vote, unless it's a tie.

It's a fun and engaging activity for most. I do my best to keep the stakes low and to pad the disappointment of defeat by praising each sentence myself. Still, there are always bruised feelings, which I also try to turn into teachable moments about writing and audience.

Even so, today, I totally screwed up. In the last round of my last class, I mentioned that should the male student win, he would be the only boy champion of the tournament; all the other class winners were girls.

Was it any surprise then, when all the boys voted for him and all the girls voted for his rival? Of course it was a tie.

And since it was up to me? It remained so.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

You Dirty Rat

There's a pivotal scene in the latest Bond movie where the villain describes how his grandmother rid her island of rats. She lured them into a barrel, and then rather than killing or releasing them, she left them until inevitably they turned on each other.

Was anybody else at our department meeting today?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Different Stripe

I have a lot of striped shirts, mostly because I prefer to wear t-shirts and pants to school, and plain t-shirts sometimes seem a little more casual than what I'm going for. It might be hard to tell that I'm going for anything at all, and it probably should be, because I don't give my wardrobe a lot of thought.

Evidently, there are some who do, however. This year, for some reason, my students have been commenting on my clothes. They talk about my shoes and my tie-dyed socks, but more than anything, they want to know what's up with the striped shirts.

Shrugging it off only adds fuel to the fire, and I confess to becoming a little self-conscious about it-- one kid even put stripes on the fish that was supposed to be me on her team t-shirt design.

Lately, though, I've had a little luck in turning the tables. When someone asks why I wear so many stripes, I tell them it's because stripes are awesome. "Who's with me?" I ask, looking around, and I can always count on 3 or 4 others wearing stripes, too, to give a little shout out.

Today the whole thing took a turn. As I was getting the kids settled after lunch, one student came up and threw her arms over my shoulder, wagging her finger back and forth between our shirts. "Stripe club!" she said.

"Who's with us?" I added, and just like that, stripes were much cooler.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Call Me Skyfall

I saw the new James Bond movie today, and at the risk of seeming egocentric, it was clearly all about me. The franchise and I have something in common: this year is the 50th anniversary of our entrances into this vale of tribulation. As much as I'd like to think we both have aged nicely, thematically the movie addresses staying relevant in a changing world, a challenge that faces Bond, M, and MI-6 itself, with the central question for all of us being how to balance the benefits of experience with the inevitable ravages of time.

Perhaps Tennyson, as quoted by M, said it best:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nothing Wrong with a Good Head Scratch

There are awkward moments in certain conversations when someone mentions an idea or a person or an event that is unknown to you. What to do? Do you interrupt the speaker and declare your deficit, or do you nod knowingly hoping you'll be able to make some sense of the reference in context?

This dilemma might be intensified when another person in the discussion admits to not knowing the particulars and so asks to be brought up to speed. In order not to be enlisted in the tutorial, you must avert your eyes, but not so much as to reveal your ignorance.

Or, so I've been told.

These days, I'm not too proud to admit it when I read or hear a word I'm unfamiliar with. Such was the case today when I read Maureen Dowd's op/ed piece in the NYTimes. The starting point of her essay was the throw-back nature of Mitt Romney's popularity among white guys of a certain age; Mad Men was used as an exemplar, but then Dowd noted that that particular TV show "seems too louche for a candidate who doesn’t drink or smoke and who apparently dated only one woman"

Louche? Cool word! And the best part is I know it now.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chicken-headed Folk on Penny-farthings

When you pay to stay at other people's homes you are hostage to their taste for the duration of your rental. For the most part, the place we are staying this weekend has been beautiful at its best and inoffensive at its worst. That doesn't rule out bizarre, though. You decide where on the spectrum this particular piece of art falls.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Home Away from Home

We are spending the weekend with my brother's family in a vacation rental about an hour and a half outside of town. The house is incredible-- definitely one of the nicest places I've  ever stayed in my life. Surrounded on water on three sides, it has wide, heart of pine floors, tons of windows, 5 bedrooms,  several porches, a huge kitchen with 2 sinks and 2 dishwashers,  and plenty of other amenities that made the harrowing drive down rutted dirt roads through pitch dark farm fields totally worth it.

Over the years we have rented a lot of vacation homes.. That sort of accommodation just fits our needs better than a hotel ever could. Plus it's fun to imagine what your life might be should you actually have a home in this location. Predictably, there has been much variation in the quality of the places we have stayed

I know the boys will never forget the place where palmetto bugs and centipedes shared their room. Then there was the gorgeous house in the middle of the woods-- once inside it was all hard wood and vaulted ceilings, but you had to get past the mosquitoes to enjoy it. Another time we stayed in a place in the California canyons that hadn't been touched since the 70s. It still had the original shag carpeting, velour furniture, and mirrored walls which Treat crashed into at full force. ( To be fair, it also had a fun little pool, a hifi stereo, a nifty LP collection,  and a pool table.)

There have also been lovely things like the adirondack chairs and ceiling fans on a certain porch in Maine, the crooked wooden floors in the upstairs of the same hundred year old fisherman's home.. I particularly liked the bread maker in one place we stayed, and you can never say enough about an ocean view and beach access. In other homes there have been fabulous kitchens, huge tables we could all fit around, bright sunrooms with comfy couches, and big living rooms with giant TVs and fireplaces.

In the end, it really doesn't matter as long as it's big enough for all of us to stay together.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

No NaNoWriMo fo Me

I just got an encouraging email from the sponsors of NaNoWriMo. might have finally started to come down from the creative high of week one. If you're feet have nearly touched the ground now, it's possible you've started to panic (even if this isn't your first year, you might have started to panic by now). There are all sorts of panic. Why am I doing this? Where do I go from here?

I appreciate their sympathy, not because I'm trying to write a 50,000 word novel this month, but rather because these days panic is pretty much the professional status quo in my neck of the woods. NoWri is unfathomable at the moment.

Even so, the contact was doubly valuable to me because today was the day when our writing club met. Believe it or not, 14 kids spent an hour after school writing and reading each others' work just for the fun of it. Amazing! Those kids regularly refresh me with their creativity and talent. Words and ideas flow from them like water from a spring. At one point, they were talking about using online document sharing to help a student who wasn't even there (she has a weekly conflict until December) work through being stuck in her novel's plot, and before they left, they tried to convince us to let them meet twice a week.

I wish I had the time to do that.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


The election is over,
and the world awaits.
Hasn't it always been there?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Catching Dreams

Twelve years ago tomorrow we sat in Bill and Emily's living room watching election results. It was Heidi's birthday, and we were there to celebrate. Vic and Judy were there, too, and Treat was 5, and Riley was 8, and the next day my sixth graders were making dream catchers, so the boys and I sat on the floor measuring yarn and counting out beads and pipe cleaners and feathers and zipping it all into plastic baggies.

At some point, I made a model of the project with a red, white, and blue color scheme and as a finishing touch, we peeled off our I Voted stickers and fixed them to the middle of the net. The evening wore on and as no clear winner emerged, first the boys went to bed, and then Vic and Judy headed home, and then we thanked everyone and went home, too.

Who could have imagined that the election would not be decided for 28 more days? Back then, that seemed like an eternity, day after day fraught with drama, but now, so much has happened in the time since, that it's hard to remember the angst of it all. Even so, tonight we'll sit down to watch this election's returns, with fingers crossed that there will be much less contention coming our way.

Today, before I left my classroom, I took a long look at that dream catcher. It hasn't aged a bit; the colors remain steadfast and the message is clear.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Light Bulb

Today was the last day of the quarter and I required my students to turn in all their work on the three poems I assigned a couple of weeks ago. Many were not finished, despite a clear deadline, but there were several mitigating factors, among them a storm called Sandy and a storm called middle school.

It's easy for those who are not familiar to shrug off what a major transition it is from elementary school to our developmentally crucial place at the focal point of education. Primarily, we are trying to ease kids from reactive to proactive agents in their own lives, and inevitably there will be stumbles.

I think that explains the freak outs and shut downs I tried to counsel my classes through today. Student after student came forward with anxious expression. "Is this good?" they asked, thrusting their writing at me.

"What do you think?" was my reply.

And at the end of each class, most kids proudly turned in work that represented a lot of writing, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of thinking.

Even so, not everyone was satisfied, and I completely understood why. Tonight when I got home I enthusiastically opened the Home Depot bag that I had prominently set on the dining room table. One of our lamps in the living room shorted out on Saturday, and as annoying as that was, I knew just how to fix it. Last night I got the parts, and today I was eager to get the job done. In under 10 minutes, I was turning the switch and illuminating the room.

If only every job could be like that one. Right kids?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wisdom of Crowds, Part 2

Oh the polls! At this stage of the presidential election there are so many new polls every single day that it's hard to consider any of them that valuable, never mind that the race is so close that the predictions are always conflicting. Most of the time, I'm with Abbie.

Sure, if you care, you can try to generalize across survey results; my preferred tools are this Wall Street Journal site and this New York Times site (you should try them, they're kind of fun really).

Even so, at last today I heard of a measure that might actually be useful. The people in this particular national sample were asked not who they would vote for, but rather who they thought was going to win. President Obama was favored by a margin of 54 to 34 percent, with the others unable or unwilling to hazard a guess.

If you ask me? I think they're on to something. (Especially after this post.)

But only Tuesday will tell.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Today may very well have held a defining moment in my social media life. For the first time, I unfriended someone. She was a high school classmate who lately has rounded some sort of bend and entered into a place where it seems reasonable to post rambling rants about creator and country. These screeds are too appalling to ignore and so unhinged that I cannot even agree to disagree with her. I'd post an example, but I can't, and for that I'm glad.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Part of most teachers' responsibilities is administering standardized tests. In the interest of full disclosure, I must now confess that as a student I looked forward to standardized tests. To me, they were like a day full of puzzles and trivia, and I flew through them gleefully. I liked everything about them, especially the ritual-- the interruption of our daily schedule, the number two pencils, the careful bubbling, the odd minutes assigned for each subtest, the incantation of the proctor reading the directions.

Imagine my thrill, then, the first time it was my voice chanting those magical words, Read the directions to yourself as I read them aloud...

Well, over the years, despite my love of being the sage on the stage, my attitude toward standardized testing has evolved. Interrupting the daily schedule, my students' learning time, no longer seems like such a great idea. I have also learned that not all people are like me, and these assessments are no fun for them. In addition, as an educated educator, I question not only the value of the data we are collecting, but at times, the questions we are asking. (But that's above my pay grade.)

Just today, I was reading the sample question and answers on a language test to a group of very capable students. The task was to look at a sentence and evaluate the sentence structure. Swimming in the river and quacking were the ducks, was the original passage. Odd phrasing, true, but kind of interesting. Then I recited the other options, one of which was, The ducks they were swimming, and in the river they quacked.

My students laughed, but one raised her hand and said, "I kind of like that one."

And I knew just what she meant. It was unusual, but evocative, and technically not incorrect. (For the record, the example was grammatically sound as well.) The rules of standardized test proctoring are clear, however, and I knew how I must respond, despite any collateral damage to my credibility as a writing teacher who encourages creativity.

"Read the question and do the best you can," I said.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


I love all the warm and fuzzy positive stuff on facebook. Sometimes I even want to repost or share, but I refrain out of respect for my friends. I trust that they will find their own affirmations. Still, it's tempting. Just tonight I was nearly convinced that I should share this:

We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness.

We are monkeys with money and guns.”
-Tom Waits

I felt it was a bit complimentary to my last post. Then I read this:

Don't let negative and toxic people rent a space in your head. Raise the rent and kick them out!
-Robert Tew

It seemed kind of relevant to work lately. But then I read this one:

When we dwell on our troubles, in our minds they grow worse than they actually are.
If we magnified blessings as much as we magnify disappointments, we would all be much happier.

And I thought, yes, yes!

But then I tried to fix the dishwasher with the part I ordered and found that it didn't fit, and after 30 minutes of trying to find a work around without success, none of that stuff seemed relevant anymore.

Never mind the money and guns, where are those monkeys with wrenches when you need them? Wine and dominoes anyone?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pack Your Bags

I read a wonderful article over the last few days about an idyllic place. It was even called, The Island Where People Forgot to Die.

The story it told bordered on mythical. A man, born on a Greek island, forced away from home by war, injured in battle, healed by strangers, and drawn to seek his fortune in the land of opportunity, is struck down by incurable disease in the prime of prosperity. Unwilling to burden his family with the expenses of his illness, he returns home to die quietly, but instead, completely untreated, he slowly regains his health until 30 years later, at the age of 90, he lives on, tending his vineyard and playing dominoes with his nonagenerian friends.

Who wouldn't want to know the secret of this island? Scientists have indeed studied it, but their findings have been illusive. Certainly diet plays a role-- most residents eat very locally, the Mediterranean diet by definition. Most are also active, but not on the treadmill or at the gym. Theirs is physical labor of a different sort-- in pursuit of a crop, or up the hill to worship, or down the road for a glass of wine-- all places worth going.

Time, as we mark it here in the most powerful nation on earth, is almost unknown to them. They rise when they wake, they conduct their business, they nap, and then they spend time with their friends and families until they tire.

Although there is no great wealth, there is no poverty either, and the people there reach the age of 90 at a rate 2 1/2 times that we do in America.

Shoot! They had me at no alarm clocks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


It's back to school tomorrow, and although I've enjoyed our unplanned four-day weekend (just slightly more than I'll appreciate the three-day work week), it'll be a treat to see my students and hear their tales of surviving the monster storm.

Embracing the rest of the grind will be tricky, but I guess that's the nature of the day.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Whirlwind Vacation

Or, it's all fun and games until the power goes out.

Which it hasn't, despite howling winds and pelting rains. The trees outside look like a scene from a Gilligan's Island typhoon episode, and then they don't, which makes sense given the bandish nature of such storms as this one.

The worst is supposed to begin in about an hour and last through the night, and so we have spent the day taking advantage of our electricity-- cooking, showering, charging things up-- and thus I remain


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Out of the Woods and into the Rain

Since we figured that we probably wouldn't be spending much time outdoors in the next couple of days, we decided to take advantage of the literal calm before the storm and go for a little walk around a nearby lake this afternoon. It was overcast and breezy as we stepped onto the trail but not unpleasantly so, and the fall leaves still showed a lot of color.

We were on the home stretch of the loop when the wind picked up and a shower of leaves, golden and red, twirled down around us, and a bald eagle skimmed the tree tops, wheeling on the airstream. Just as the trail emerged from the woods the rain began, a fine mist, but so persistent that we were drenched within minutes.

I didn't care though. Perhaps it was knowing that this was the leading edge of something so huge, or maybe it was wondering what far-off place these tiny drops had come from, or it could have just been having the day off from school tomorrow, but whatever it was, there was something about the moment that made me want to embrace the storm.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Every four years the clarion charges of election tomfoolery blare, common and wide. This time the arc of accusations rises from organized campaigns telling folks it's fine to go to the polls on November 7 to voter id laws and the challenges to them in court and then back down to people promising an acquaintance ten bucks if he'll vote their way.

Certainly this election has been polarizing, perhaps more so than most. "I don't think I can even go to work the next day if [my candidate] loses," a swing state voter confided to me today,  "because all those jackasses will think they were right."

The Electoral College is not looking very helpful here. There's a good chance somebody might win the popular vote but lose the election. A better recipe for guaranteed gridlock probably does not exist. I also saw a not-so-far-fetched scenario on the news the other night where the electoral college was tied. I did not know this, but in such a case, the House of Representatives would elect the president and the Senate, the VP.

Romney-Biden anyone?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Happy Returns

It's that day of year when Heidi and I mark an anniversary... fourteen years have come and gone since we joined forces to face the world together. To celebrate, we return to a favorite old movie, The Godfather, along with a simple meal of pasta and sauce, spinach and mushrooms on the side.

And despite Don Corleone's admonition to Sonny to Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking, I'll continue.

"What's the first line of the movie, again?" I asked a few minutes ago in anticipation of our big night. "Is it Vito, or is it that guy, what's his name? Buonanotte?"

"Who?" Heidi asked.

"Oh never mind, I'll Google it," I said.

I believe in America. America has made my fortune.

And the speaker? Amerigo Bonasera. (I never knew his first name before, but it really adds to the movie, right?)

I was actually kind of tickled at my error. In Italian, buona notte means good night, and buona sera means good evening. Only someone with some knowledge of the language could make such a mistake.

I learned a little Italian thirty-five years ago when I was in boarding school in Lugano, not in any class, but simply by the necessity of living there.

It pleases me when it comes back.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

This is Why We Do It

"This is the best club in the whole school!" one student exclaimed this afternoon before Writing Club had even officially began. Maybe it was the kettle corn or maybe it was the ten other kids who showed up after school to write, but whatever it was was infectious.

"Yeah it is!" her friend agreed.

A little while later, after we had introduced NaNoWriMo and pledged our support should they choose to accept the challenge, that same student was breathless. "I've always wanted to do something like this my whole life, and now I can!" she cried.

Now she can.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It Wasn't about the Mushrooms

At 5:30 this afternoon I found myself fighting traffic to drive across town to a favorite grocery store. I've been putting off my shopping there because of time and travel, but today I needed coffee and so I shut down my computer at school a little earlier than otherwise and headed out.

It was a beautiful day here: unseasonably warm (1 degree from the record!) but clear and dry. The fall foliage is not quite peaking, but it is stunning even so. Many of my fellow citizens were out and about with me, and I found myself waiting. Waiting at lights, waiting for pedestrians, waiting for a parking space. I let it go but exhaled in relief when I finally cut the engine and reached around to gather my phone, my keys, and my wallet.

My wallet? Where's my wallet? Despite the fact that I am very conscientious about always carrying it with me, I knew it could be anywhere-- at home on the table or by the computer, in a jacket pocket, or even on the floor by my desk at school-- that's how scattered I am lately.

My pocket contained my list and my cash. A quick comparison was not promising, so I raided my emergency car fund and all together I ended up with 56 bucks. I grabbed my reusable bag (5 cents credit!) and headed into the store.

The automatic doors sighed behind me as I entered the produce department. It was only moments before I realized that A) I had dropped my list, but B) I had a good idea what I needed.

From there, shopping became like a little puzzle. I mentally calculated the cost of what I wanted and subtracted it from my holdings. Approaching the check out line, I knew it was going to be close, but I had no desire to play it safe.

It just so happened that the shortest wait was at the register of a cashier who has worked at the store almost as long as I have been shopping there. We always chat cordially whenever we meet, and this time was no exception, even though I was a bit distracted watching the screen carefully as she scanned each item.

With three items left to go, I could tell I was going to be over, so I grabbed a package of mushrooms and set them aside. The total was $55.60. The cashier's eyes widened a bit when I handed her a stack of ones and fives, but then she laughed. "I like this," she told me. "It's good for my drawer."

I laughed, too, and proud of my shopping chops, I told her that I had forgotten my wallet. "I think I did pretty good," I said as she deposited a quarter, a nickel, and a dime in my hand.

She smiled and handed me my bag. Spotting the mushrooms, she asked, "Is that why you put these back?"

I shrugged. "Yep."

"Here," she said, "take them. No problem. I'll take care of it."

And that act of kindness made my day.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Price of Policy

So far it's been a tough year at school: our meeting time (team, grade level, departmental, staff) has increased, as have the documentation requirements for all such meetings. There is a new class to teach, a new sixth grade configuration, a new principal, a new teacher evaluation process, a new test of standards for my curricular area, and a new state accountability process. Our enrollment has increased by over 20% and our classrooms are encumbered if we should want to work beyond our contract day.

The professionals in my building are frustrated, not because our formerly cushy jobs have suddenly entered the "real world," but rather because all of those things breed anxiety and take time, which is time away from planning and grading and from sponsoring after school activities-- there are only so many hours in the day.

My students this year are delightful-- smart, inquisitive, and conscientious, and I would love to devote more time and attention to them, but I can't. Because I have to jump through hoops to verify that I am meeting their minimum needs, I don't have the time to push them as far as they can go.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Far Have We Come Again?

Today in Tolerance Club, we did an activity that we've had success with every year. Called In and Out, the concept is simple: everyone in the group forms a large circle, and then someone reads a series of statements. If you feel like it it describes you, then you step in, otherwise you stay out. (It's kind of like the Hokey Pokey with an agenda.)

The activity is designed to spotlight our uniqueness by highlighting our commonalities and differences, and the kids love it. As we hear statements like, I speak more than one language fluently, I consider myself a musician, I like to read for fun, I have a friend or relative with a disability, the perimeter undulates like a living cell under a microscope, and people laugh in delight, recognition, or even embarrassment at their admissions and the attendant associations.

It's always a bonding experience and it's always eye-opening, too. Today my personal wake-up call came when we heard, I have been told I couldn't do something because of my gender, and the only ones inside the circle were girls.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Wonderful Child

Despite all that sabbath day stuff, Sunday is the step-child of the weekend-- delightful to be sure, but always a little less so because you just can't miss that glimpse of Monday in Sunday's smiling face.

Even so, who could fail to love a day where there was sleeping in and hot coffee, reading and writing, working and shopping, harvesting and cooking?

Today I love Sunday sooooo much?

I wish I had a couple more days just like it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Film Buff's Dilemma

"Question!" a colleague approached me the other day. "Have you seen The Master, yet?"

I told her it was on my list, because of the critical buzz, but I hadn't seen it.

"Darn," she literally stamped her foot. "I need someone to talk to about it, and I was hoping it might be you."

I laughed and shrugged. "I'll definitely let you know."

Did her comments influence me when choosing a movie for today? I'm sure they did, and this afternoon as I sat, baffled, I knew just why she wanted to talk. Critics suggest that seeing it more than once will definitely help clarify the film, but while Joaquin Phoenix's performance is breathtaking (Early prediction? Oscar.), it would be a tough movie for me to sit through twice.

Fortunately, I know just who to talk to.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Stepford Homeroom

Today was student-parent-conference day, and for me it was markedly different than those in the past.

At our school, we conduct student-led conferences where the homeroom teacher is a facilitator. Because those groups are not only heterogeneous but also random, that means that in some cases the conference is being overseen by a teacher who might not have the student in class.

Therefore, in order to support the students, we prepare them and ourselves in advance. Not only do we make classroom teacher assessments, student self-assessments, and current grades available to students and teachers in the days leading up to the conference, but we designate teacher meeting and planning time to review that data and to clarify any questions we might have.

That's what we were doing just a couple of days ago. The teachers on the team were flagging students of concern to be sure that their parents were aware. As the meeting progressed, I realized that not a single one of my homeroom kids had been mentioned. "There must have been a mistake,"  I joked with the guy who had a whole page of notes, "I think you got my students."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Wisdom of Crowds

I heard a piece on the radio a few weeks ago about the philosophy behind Wikipedia and its public editing policies. It seems that the concept is based on a tenet of crowd psychology discovered over a hundred years ago. When asked to guess the weight of an ox at the county fair, whether or not any single person was correct in his or her estimate, the mean of all the entries was within a pound or two of the animal's actual weight.

In other words, even if individuals are off the mark, collaboration and/or combined effort will yield accurate results.

As interesting as it was, I totally forgot the notion until the other day. At the end of reading a series of memoir excerpts by Ralph Fletcher, I asked the students to create a time line of the key events. They could work individually or in small groups, at their preference. At the end of the assignment, there was quite a variety among the 12 products. We hung them up and did a little "gallery walk" where students  walked around silently and studied the work of their classmates.

Afterwards, when we talked about their observations, we started by listing the events that were on everybody's time line. It turned out that there were nine, and while any given kid or group could explain the extraneous entries on their chronology, the amazing thing was that those nine were definitely the main points of the story.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why So Serious?

Let me start with a riddle.

Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: That's NOT funny.

I used to think that joke was hilarious, but last night when I heard Mitt Romney say, "binders full of women," the patronizing attitude just made me mad.

Clearly I need to lighten up, especially because other folks have had a lot of fun with that image today.

My two favorites:

And this tweet

If you like it then you should have put three rings on it...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ya Think?

With the rise in the availability of e-readers and e-reader apps, our school is on a threshold. We want kids to read and have their books handy, and kids want to read on nooks and kindles. All well and good, but for our antiquated rules about electronics in school.

And so it was in good faith I brought up the question of revisiting or even recrafting our regulations about such things in our team leader meeting this morning. At first the concern was roundly dismissed by another teacher. "Just tell them to turn it off or take it away," she said. "You have to monitor it, just like anything else."

Set aside the implication that I don't know what to do when my students are off task, and you'll see that she actually reinforced my question. Do we tell them to turn it off, or do we take it away, or is there another option?

Perhaps a clear rule would be helpful here...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dinner is Served

Thank goodness I don't have to do the dishes!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sense of Wonder

I spent the day catching up on some grading, and so at last I had the chance to carefully read the final drafts of the "sense poems" my students wrote and posted a week ago. As I mentioned in a previous post, the assignment was to choose a specific place and then conjure a descriptive detail for each of the senses and then put those descriptions into a prescribed format.

Overall, the kids did a nice job; most of the poems were sweet and observant, and almost every one had at least one inventive detail or conclusion that elevated the poem.

Even so, my favorite piece by far was this one about Egypt:

crowded stores with unique clothes that are new and fashionable
polluted air makes me hold my breath
shouting sellers make my eardrums go boom boom
strangers rush through me like I'm invisible
the hopeless water that comes from nowhere tastes like nowhere
oh my, what time is it?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Well Hush My Mouth

"Why don't we have summer rolls this week?" Heidi asked me last Sunday at the grocery store.

I shrugged. "Well," I said, "we could, but it's fall. That doesn't seem very seasonal."

Heidi graciously let it go, probably because in our family, I'm kind of the boss when it comes to food.

You can imagine my surprise (and humility), then, when I checked in with the New York Times food section this morning only to see this headline: Spring Rolls from Fall Vegetables.

And the recipes looked pretty darn good, too.