Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Legal in Virginia

When you know it's right, it's right.

This morning after 16+ years together, Heidi and I went on down to the courthouse and got us a marriage license, and while there was no walk down the aisle, there were many wedding day smiles when the civil celebrant put it all to rest, as long as we both shall live.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bragging Rights

A few months ago my brother complained of hip pain that grew excruciating when he was forced to sit still, for example on airplanes (on which he traveled on all the time for work), for any length of time over a little while. "I know what it is," I said. "It's bursitis."

I was able to speak with such authority, not only because I'm a notorious know-it-all, but also because, I, too, had suffered from such pain. Regular readers might recall that back in May of 2012 I sought help from an acupuncturist for my malady. Back then, after a couple of months of semi-weekly treatment, I was pain-free. Recently, though, that hitch in my left-side giddy-up has returned and so I also returned for a little more spinning needle therapy today. Although my relief was not quite as immediate as last time, I am looking forward to a couple of 30 minute snoozes a week for the next month or so.

Oh? And when, a couple of days after that conversation, my mother called to check in with my brother about his own hip, he had been diagnosed and treated, and in response he spoke some of my favorite words:

"Tracey was right." 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Shipping News

The guy at the UPS store saw us coming: he burst out the door to help us with our burden of parcels and bags and boxes to be shipped. Once inside, though, it was him who seemed to be hyperventilating. "We'll get through this!" he said under his breath surveying the load now stacked neatly on the floor by the counter.

Our eyebrows were raised; we knew there was a lot to send, but this was a shipping store, wasn't it? And as nice and helpful as he was to us, he was a little testy with any new customers coming in the door, "It's going to be a few minutes," he informed them curtly.

Each box that was taped up, weighed, and labeled was a personal triumph, a huge weight off his shoulders and onto the pick-up pile. And when, 85 pounds later, at last I swiped my card and signed the slip to finalize the transaction, for a moment it seemed like he might vault the counter to give us a high five or something, so it was a little anti-climactic when he simply nodded and said, "Next customer?"

Sunday, December 28, 2014

There is a World Elsewhere

After eight crazy days of family, we dropped the last of our holiday guests at the airport this afternoon and decided to head downtown instead of home. There we entered a jolly throng of folks visiting the mall and its museums. The Nature's Best Photography exhibit was stunning as always, and there were several fun items on sale at the bustling National Gallery gift shop. Afterwards, a crescent moon shone bravely through the clouds and stop lights reflected red on the wet pavement of Constitution Avenue as we drove home in the gathering dusk, and it felt good to have rejoined the world.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Color of Time

Looking for a movie to entertain our diverse group, I found The Hustler on Netflix this afternoon, and sure enough it had something to hold the attention of each of us: Heidi's dad liked the pool playing; her mom liked Paul Newman; her brother was interested in watching a classic for the first time, and I got a kick out of seeing Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. When it was all over, I flipped immediately to its sequel. I saw The Color of Money back in '86 when it came out, and I haven't seen it since. Back then, I considered it a Tom Cruise movie, of course, and Paul Newman seemed like a minor character who abandons Vincent in a temper tantrum.

Today, though, I was mostly interested in seeing how Fast Eddie fared in the 25 years following his hollow victory in Ames, and when it came down to that final showdown in Atlantic City, I was actually rooting for the old man. Sure, Tom Cruise and I are the same age, born just a few days apart, but both of us are much closer to Eddie Felson's age now. Funny how that happens.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Don't Let Me Interrupt

I was upstairs washing my face and cleaning up a little after dinner, and when I opened the door to go downstairs I heard raised voices below. Heidi, her brother, and parents were having a little argument about sex, the church, and marriage. "That's called fornication," Mark said forcefully, and all of a sudden? I didn't need to go downstairs anymore. So I tip-toed back into my room and quietly closed the door.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

What is Christmas?

This year our family holiday traditions were upended tail over tea kettle, and in the days leading up to Christmas there were several earnest and somewhat emotional discussions about how and when things should happen. In the end, like Charlie Brown's Christmas pageant, everything turned out just right. The truth is, with the spirit of the season and our abiding love for each other, we couldn't fail.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sounds Like Fun

We have only opened our stockings, but so far a big hit of this holiday has been the hand held sound effect machine that 9-year-old Richard got. With 16 options ranging from applause to farting it's entertaining on its own, but when we invented a little game where someone asks a question that must be answered by pressing one of the buttons, things got really hilarious.

Treat: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Richard: Bomb falling and exploding

Me: How do you feel about your brother?
Annabelle: Loud belching sound

And then she whipped out the tiny pink water pistol she got from her Christmas cracker aimed it at Richard and punched the sound of a weapon loading and firing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Do You See What I See?

You do if you're looking at turducken. Which incidentally, as Bill observed, looks exactly like the roast beast they serve down in Whoville. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Prettiest Sight You'll See

I have been looking for the ideal location to string that extra set of mini LED lights since the 2-pack arrived a couple of weeks ago. The first one festoons the window behind my desk at school, and I like it so much there that it will continue to blink merrily all throughout the year. But the second set sat forlornly on the dining room table until last night, when it occurred to me that a table-top tree for the apartment our neighbor has so kindly lent my sister and her family would be the perfect place for it.

And that's what we did: there was a cute little balsam with colorful lights aglow waiting for them when they pulled in from Atlanta at 1:30 last night. The paper reindeer with the handprint antlers that Annabelle presented to me then was an instant tree-topper, and this morning we made ornaments from shrinky dinks. Sure, I've seen a lot of pretty trees this year, but this one? Is definitely in the top three.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas Past

I am a freshman in college, thousands of miles from my family, feeling all alone in a tiny town in upstate New York. A high school buddy of my dad's is the principal of the local school, though, and sometimes I babysit for his three children. On this December night, after the kids are in bed, rather than study for exams as I should, I snap on the TV. Sitting in a family living room rather than surrounded by the cinder block walls of my dorm room seems so normal, that I can't resist. I don't need to turn the knob far to find what I want to watch-- John Denver and the Muppets are in the middle of a corny version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, and for the next hour Home seems a little closer.

When it's time to go home in a couple of weeks, I bring the soundtrack album with me, and over the next thirty-five years it becomes a family classic in all its goofy, sappy splendor, but the show itself is lost, never released to be viewed again...

Until tonight, that is. Last year I ordered a bootleg copy from some sketchy internet pirate, and although it didn't arrive in time for Christmas then, I have it now, and true it's blurry and quite dated, but I am not disappointed.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


I hung the last of the ornaments on the Christmas tree today, and as I worked, I took a moment to admire each one in our collection. It was with pleasure that I placed the hiking boot, the loon, the snow shoes, and all the curly white dogs. As I found a place of honor for both the pencil and the pen, I noted that there was no computer, phone, or tablet, and I knew then, in my curator's heart, that there never would be.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sprung from Cages Out on Hwy 9

My breath was the only thing steaming as I waited in my 37 degrees car this evening. My battery was dead, but I knew it was coming (it's been a lazy cranker all week), and honestly? Things could have been much worse. As it was, I could see the bright lights of my warm classroom from where I was, and roadside assistance was on the way.

As I waited, I thought back to other car troubles in other times. In my early 20s, I lived at the beach and my brother, sister, and I drove a succession of beat-up Hondas and VWs. When they wouldn't start, we would get whichever of our friends were around to roll them onto the flat feeder road that ran parallel to the shore and while everyone pushed, one of us would sit in the driver's seat, pop the clutch, and floor the accelerator to get the engine running. Then, with a toot and a wave, the driver would speed off to charge the battery on the wide boulevards of our resort town. It felt like a magic trick every time.

I guess cars were less complicated then, and it seemed like everything else was, too.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

You Have Not Because You Ask Not

We were discussing the theme of a short memoir in reading class today. The basic plot line is that a dad takes his six children into a department store where they happen to be selling baby chicks. One of the kids utters the words we have all spoken, most of us more than once. "Can we get one, Dad?"

This dad says, "Sure."

The oldest brothers in the story look at each other in disbelief. "We can?!" one asks.

And then, when the half-dozen of them are bickering for picking rights, their dad tells them that they can each have one.

At this point, I always pause, and look out at the class. They are generally wide-eyed, because, they, like the kids in the memoir,


Later in the story, their mother is also incredulous that her husband would think such a thing was a good idea, and one of the chicks dies and the oldest brother offers to share his with his grieving little brother, but through it all, when asked what they take away from this tale, the students always come up with some version of It never hurts to ask. Like today, they offered my favorite yet: Expect the impossible! And they mean it in the best possible way.

And it is the charm of such childish optimism, especially at this time of year, that is one of the reasons I'm going back tomorrow. (But after that? I'm going to take a couple weeks off.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Old-fashioned Way

What advice to give a classroom full of sixth graders with brand new iPads?

Well... in addition to the pages of acceptable use guidelines and possible consequences for misuse (I had my group do charades), in the end the best guidance I could give was this:

If your iPad makes the job quicker and easier, then use it, but if not? Don't.

And so it was that in reply to several complaints that was inadequate for the current assignment needs, I finally held up one of the twenty-five volumes we have in the classroom in exasperation. "Try this! It's called dictionary dot BOOK!"

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Last Time for Everything

I changed into sweats and a hoodie when I got home from school today and then ran out to the grocery for a few things. At the register the cashier asked for my ID before scanning my six pack of beer.

It's been a while since that happened.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Sidewalks of Life

The list of classic childhood injuries is mercifully short if oft-repeated. Skinned knees and elbows, mosquito bites, stubbed toes, and crushed fingers top the list. As we grow older those maladies are replaced by pimples, paper cuts, sunburns, and hangovers; our earlier mishaps become nostalgic novelties. Later still, we are beset by those prosaic aches and pains accompanied by lingering suspicions of more serious indispositions.

Is this progression or digression? Hard to say, but I can tell you from personal experience today that it still hurts like hell to get your fingers closed in a door.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Found Poetry

A friend's daughter posted the following on Facebook:

I want to tell a something.

I am miss my older brother,

He is moving to heading to new Colorado in today, And He is time new a chapter of his life but he will learning more a adventure new a place like beautifully, A cold in there. And I hope He will be safety in the Colorado and I know that is dangerous is big road because of ice and snow as I am sure.
I want to thank you for long time you and I are taught know many years be though we are know each other a close big brother and little sister. And also I am always love him as my brother and I know he is good guy and good rough of man. He is always used care of me because I am his little sister.

My Brother,
I hope you be safety in new Colorado and I am sure you will love photography in there a lot as more and also hope you will see visit to us again. Merry Christmas.

The author is deaf, and so perhaps her writing is shaped by ASL, but regardless, I am captivated by both the powerful prose and the surprising syntax, and I find it quite beautiful.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

O, Christmas Tree

Each December the Lions Club takes over a little corner of a grocery store parking lot not far from our home. Staffed by friendly volunteers, they offer a nice selection of firs and balsams, and it is there that we usually find the perfect tree for us. Every year jolly men in parkas and boots assisted by pink-cheeked high school boys carry our find to the front of the lot, give it a nice fresh cut, bind it in plastic mesh, and tie it to the roof of our car.

This evening when we pulled up after a busy day of shopping and errands, we were greeted by a whole different staff, comprised mostly of teenaged girls in fuzzy pajamas, thermal shirts, down vests, and knit caps. Their leader was a woman of perhaps sixty with a bit of a harried air; she manned the electric saw as most of the girls chattered by the binder. As we waited to have our tree trunk trimmed, another customer called over to her. "I see you have a new crew here! Are they any good?" he asked with a wink.

She looked at the assembly maneuvering a Fraser fir toward the parking lot. "They're very," here she paused, "energetic," she finished diplomatically.

"We heard that!" The girls shouted back, and then they giggled as they hefted the tree onto the roof of the waiting car and neatly tied it in place.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Nothing You Dismay

In my years as a teacher, I have sat through many a school concert, and in general, I'm pretty impressed with what the music department at our school can do with a couple hundred novice, not to mention child, musicians.

In the last few years they have introduced short interludes played by small ensembles between acts.  It's a great concept; it gives the restless adolescent audience something to focus on as the crew resets the stage between the chorus, orchestra, and band portions of the show. These mini-numbers aren't always as strong; there a lot fewer musicians to bolster the performance, but it's impossible not to give the student musicians props for their effort.

Today I was delighted to hear a couple of former students, brothers, playing a french horn-trombone duet of O Tannenbaum, but it was the brassy, trumpet-tuba version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman that made me wish I had brought my phone along to record it...  And I mean this in the most affectionate way: it was so bad, it was awesome!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gno Way!

A few days ago my nephew texted me a picture of his dinner.

Away at college, he had prepared the homemade sweet potato gnocchi that we made together while he was home for Thanksgiving-- how awesome is that?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


My students were doing some dictionary work for their weekly word study when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one kid slam his finger onto the page and turn wide-eyed to his partner. "Is this even allowed in school?!" he demanded.

To be honest, that type of thing happens a lot-- students are forever looking up "inappropriate" words in the dictionary and pointing them out for the entertainment of those around them. What follows is usually a brief lecture on maturity from me, and today I took a deep breath in preparation as I walked over to the two boys huddled over the giant book opened before them.

"Granny!" read the first student. "An OLD LADY!"

"That's just rude!" replied his partner, and then slid his finger down the page to graph.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Junk Fair

Today was the day when I took my classes to the school book fair. Sponsored by the PTA, it has been an annual tradition at our school since before I started. My students are always so excited to go and check out the merch in the makeshift bookstore set up in the library that it truly makes me question the fall of brick and mortar commerce. It's never the books that they want most, though-- most of their crumpled bills and sweaty coins go for posters, bookmarks, pencils, and other novelties such as this year's big seller, the chocolate calculator. For four bucks you got a little box that had either a calculator made to resemble a chocolate bar or a chocolate bar made to resemble a calculator; I'm still not sure which.

Monday, December 8, 2014


I've noticed that my students this year are really good test-takers, and by that I mean they are very respectful of a testing environment, always quiet and quite serious. I don't mean that they are good at studying for tests, because they are not; preparing in advance for an assessment on specific material is still an emerging skill for most of them.

That's not entirely unexpected, though, managing a schedule of 7-8 different teachers is one of the ways middle school kicks it up a notch from elementary school. Unfortunately, they also seem to have another glaring weakness as well: so many times when I ask them to use their imagination they act as if their brains are breaking.

Just today in a mini-lesson on figurative language the question was "If the main character in your book was an animal what would he or she be and why?" I was astonished at how many students could not fathom how to approach this exercise. "There's no right or wrong answer," I told them, "as long as you can explain why." And that seemed to frustrate them even more.

PS Could it actually be 34 years since we lost John Lennon? Imagine that.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Fire Side Chats

"I just don't learn that way," a friend of mine said the other day when I was asking her, again, if she was listening to the podcast that is sweeping the nation, Serial.

So that was a no, but it was not a no I could really understand. Personally, I love the radio, and specifically, talk radio. In fact, I'm sure I listen to way more radio than I watch TV, which is a revelation to even me, as I type this.

My appreciation of the medium actually goes pretty far back; I have clear memories of being eleven and desperately trying to tune my AM radio through the static to find WOR from New York City. At 7 PM, the airwaves were usually pretty cooperative, despite the 70 miles separating me from the station. What did I want to hear, you wonder? The CBS Radio Mystery Hour, hosted by EG Marshall.

Oh, it was an acknowledged throw-back to the golden days of radio, but I couldn't get enough of the suspenseful audio drama. Later, I became a fan of Prairie Home Companion, also a nostalgia-fueled program. And these days? In addition to news, I love me some audiobooks and podcasts. And just tonight I heard a radio documentary on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, who were, it seems, the first family of radio.

Of course, I was enthralled.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Well Played

Every middle school kid is fragile in some way, but some are a little more so than others. This year we have such a student; he had enough trouble in elementary school that we were all a little worried about how he might make the transition to sixth grade. So far, he's surprised everyone with how well he's doing. In fact, if I didn't know what to look out for, it probably wouldn't be on my radar screen at all.

Sure, he's a character; and when the other day he burst into homeroom in his usual state of disorganization and dishevelment and asked loudly for everyone's attention, he certainly had mine.

I watched carefully as the 12 other kids stopped talking and turned to face him with curiosity.

"I have a very important announcement!" he continued. "I... have... an... ocarina!!!!" Then he bowed slightly and headed toward his seat.

"No one cares if you have an ocarina!" snorted one of the other students.

I took a deep breath, but before I could address this unkind remark, the first kid turned to his classmate and replied, "Dude! Nobody cares if anybody has an ocarina. That's why it's funny!" Then he shrugged and sat down.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Free WiFi

I played a little soft jazz for my students this week as they circulated through the class sharing ideas for their next writing pieces. It was what I happened to have on play on my phone, and I figured it was unobjectionable enough.

I never would have predicted how popular it would be! In fact yesterday, at our voluntary, after-school study hall, which we call "homework club", several students requested that I put it on.

"It's so relaxing," said one.

"Yeah," added another, "we should call this the homework cafe!"

And indeed, they sat scattered around tables and in easy chairs, with books and lap tops, working diligently.

Heck! I was tempted to start serving warm drinks!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

No Scrubs

My mother always taught me to clean up as I cooked, but working in a professional kitchen rapidly disabused me of that good habit, and so I usually just pile my bowls, pots and pans at the edge of the sink and keep on cooking. At our house, I'm the chief cook and so rarely am I also the bottle-washer. There are times, though, when I am finished with our meal, and I look at that hefty stack by the sink, and just grab me a sponge or a dishrag and get to washing.

Tonight was one such night. As I scrubbed, my thoughts floated up with the soap bubbles and back to my first cooking job. It was in a little cafe with a cold case. We made fresh pasta on the premises and sandwiches to order, but the primary business was filling the case and catering. The backbone of the kitchen staff was Robert-- he made the pasta and supervised the clean up and prep staff which consisted of his sister, Reesa, and his brothers Richard and Seward.

Seward was actually the oldest sibling, but he was, as we described him back then, simple, and so he did all the dishes and mopped the floors. He was a cheerful guy with a huge grin, and his signature replies were, "I sure am!" or "You do, don't ya?" The owners had affectionately dubbed him "Monsieur," and everyone appreciated his sunny personality and more than tolerated his occasional foibles.

Once I was having a conversation with another cook, and as Seward came by, he mistakenly thought we were addressing him. He stopped, confused. "I'm not talking to you, Seward," I shook my head as I corrected him.

"Why?" he asked, crestfallen. "What'd I do!?"

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

That Bell Can't Be Unrung

Today my students and I were talking about the theme of immortality and whether living forever would really be all it's cracked up to. Our discussion was centered around Tuck Everlasting, but I asked the class to make connections to other books they knew.

Personally, I was thinking vampire, because there has never been a topic that made me wish for immortality less; Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer have convinced me of just how boring everlasting life would be.

My students were engaged in the conversation too-- they suggested Eragon and certain Greek gods. "Are elves immortal in the Lord of the Rings series or do they just live a long time?" someone asked.

"What about wizards in Harry Potter?" wondered another student.

"No way!" I said. "They kill each other all the time. Even Dumbledore dies," I shrugged.

"What???" the student cried. "Dumbledore dies?!!!!"

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Two for One

I stood idly arranging the contents of my grocery cart to fit on the belt as compactly as possible; perishables, cans, boxes, and bags all jigsawed neatly together. The order ahead of mine seemed to be taking a long time, and instead of wishing I was somewhere else, my attention was drawn to the animated conversation of two young women in the next line over. They had serendipitously run into each other here, and so they chattered about the recent holiday, cute nieces and nephews, work, mutual friends. One mentioned a certain yoga studio to the other, and her friend replied that she had been meaning to try it. "Oh you should!" The first woman said. "It's wonderful! I'm literally there all the time!"

At that I chuckled to my inner English teacher and recited a little poetry back to myself:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both 
And be one traveler, long I stood

Evidently the lady in the other line didn't have that quandary. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Another World

We had dinner with a friend of my mom's tonight. She's been a lobbyist in Washington for over 25 years, and although I don't always agree with her perspective, I really appreciate her sensibility. It's practical and on a level that I rarely have the opportunity to experience.

For example, when you're a teacher looking for a position, you have one maybe two interviews, usually around a cheap table in a make-shift conference room at the school where you're applying. Tonight Shannon told us the story of her nephew, a 23-year-old who refuses to eat much more than his childhood favorites. 

"If he applies for a job," she said, "and he's one of two finalists? I'm sorry, but if I take him to lunch and he orders chicken fingers? No way he's getting the job!"

Wait. What? They take job applicants to lunch?