Thursday, December 31, 2015

You Know You've Been away from Home a Little too Long When...

...Your cat gets laryngitis from yelling at you when you get back!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Way Home

gas station
trashy audio book
snowless ski resort
trashy audio book
gray mountains
trashy audio book
peppermint chocolate pretzels
trashy audio book
paper mill
trashy audio book
gas station
potty break
trashy audio book
trashy audio book
traffic jam
trashy audio book
rush hour
trashy audio book

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Puppy Dog Tails

We woke this morning to sunshine and blue skies, and so we wanted to make the most of it before we had to leave for our 1:55 flight. Since Richard had promised that today was the day when he would learn to ride a bike, four adults, two kids and two bikes rolled down the driveway toward Piedmont Park.

Our expedition took a detour when we spotted one of the neighbors over on the high school lawn with his three year-old son and their two brand new puppies. Dory and Nemo were 10-week-old chocolate brindle mastiff-poodles as cute and wiggly as could be. In the time we stopped, they scampered, rolled, nipped, and chased each other in the impossibly adorable way that puppies do. We were all too happy to applaud any peeing outside and/or trotting in the direction of someone calling them. 

Time was ticking away and we continued on to the park. Heidi fell into step next to me. "I love puppies," she sighed, and I nodded. Knowing that soon we would see our own 12 1/2 year old puppy slightly salved the sting of our eminent departure.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Rainy Days and Mondays

It seemed like the Christmas holiday came and went so quickly this year, and the sky was gray and drizzly as Bill, Emily, and the boys packed the car to head home this morning. A little while later fat drops splattered against the driveway as Courtney backed out on the way to the airport for Mom's flight.

The clouds darkened and rain poured in torrents for most of the afternoon, but our much smaller group made the best of it, playing Settlers of Catan and charades. Feeling a little stir-crazy, Richard and Annabelle and I dodged the raindrops when the storm let up a bit to shoot baskets and play HORSE, dashing under cover of the garage or back into the house when the patter became too steady.

Eventually it was too dark to play outside at all, but it was time for dinner. My sister had seen on Twitter that it was opening night of chef Ford Fry's newest place, Beetlecat, and so we decided to see if we could get a table. Despite The renewed downpour, luck was with us and the six of us enjoyed small plates of seafood crude , raw oysters, Thai shrimp, octopus salad, hot dogs, grilled cheese, lobster rolls, and the best calamari we had ever eaten. Courtney even caught a glimpse of Ford, and for the second time in ten days we felt like we had had the privilege of eating fine food prepared just as the chef wanted it to be served.

More than satisfied we stepped out into the evening happy to see that the rain had stopped.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


'All I want for Christmas is toys and games," I told my family at Thanksgiving. I was only half joking, and my brother and his family were completely obliging. When all the ribbons were nearly rolled up and the gift wrap was in the recycling bag, I had a stack of new games under the tree.

Fortunately we are a family of game players (in fact I was not the only one who received some) and we have spent the last couple of days playing Exploding Kittens, 5 Second Rule, Foodie Fight, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Smart Ass. 

We can always count on Treat to read the directions and teach us to play even the most complicated game, and my sister, the lawyer, is a good second opinion if any questions about the rules come up. Today, as we were setting up Ticket to Ride, she told us that "the most experienced traveler" goes first. 

I scanned around the table, trying to figure out just who that might be. "Mom's not playing," I said.

'Right," my sister answered. "That means it's you."

I was flattered, because I like to think of myself as a seasoned traveler indeed, but in fairness I looked at my brother. "What about Bill? He travels all the time for work."

My sister raised an eyebrow at me. "I think that's just a polite way of saying the oldest player," she said gently. "Dont't you?"

And I might have agreed, had I not been choking on my coffee at the thought of it, which had never occurred to me.  

"I choose to take it literally,' my brother said, and made the first play of the game. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Holiday Hijinks

What to do when it's 75 degrees on December 26? Nothing but play basketball, walk the Atlanta Belt Line, and replace our traditional roast beef with grilled rib eye steak. But don't worry-- there was still mashed potatoes and gravy, and plenty of cookies and Christmas crackers, too.

But this year we added a new twist to the tradition. Instead of reading the corny jokes from the crackers, we read the punch line instead, and everyone else guessed the riddle.

How zany is that?

Friday, December 25, 2015

Pair of Knaves

At 8 am on Christmas morning our flight out of Buffalo was so full that Heidi and I could not get seats together. The day before I had reserved two aisle seats, one in front of the other, and those were the ones we headed to as we boarded. I was a little anxious as I scanned the throng of strangers already seated to discover who would be my companions for the next hour or so, but my eyes lit up when I finally got to my row.

In a reaction I bet few other passengers might have, I turned to Heidi with a little fist pump. "Yes!" I celebrated, "I got some boys!" And I happily slid Into the aisle seat next to a kid who was probably in sixth grade and his slightly older teenaged brother. "Let's put this arm rest down guys," I started, and I knew we would be fine.

And we were. The flight passed relatively quietly as the boys first played games on their iPad and then actually got out some homework to do. When the kid next to me could not find the room for both his empty cup and his vocabulary book on his tray top table, he froze, glass hovering above workbook like a ufo. I silently held out my hand, took the cup, and placed it on my own tray. "Thanks," he said, picked up his pencil, and got to work.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Mystery Solved

A couple of years ago I realized that as extensive as my Christmas music library was, I did not have a single recording of Need a Little Christmas. This was on the heels of downloading Count Your Blessings to fill another gap in the collection. And this year it's There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays that is the new addition. How I've missed these standards is unfathomable unless you take into account one key piece of information: 

The Ray Conniff Singers never recorded them!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Lighten Up

Back when my older nephews were little, driving around town at this time of year always involved playing an amusing little game called I See Christmas Lights. There was a sufficient number of houses decked out that we could repeat the phrase enough times to be silly, but not so many as to make it ridiculous.

Here in Buffalo, though, it is a whole other world when it comes to holiday decorating: almost everyone has lights and lawn ornaments. That makes it kind of fun to take a simple drive or even a walk around the neighborhood. At first it's thrilling to see all the twinkle and glow, but it doesn't take long before I become more of a discerning critic.

First off, any use of inflatable figures is dismissed on the grounds of being garish and non-traditional. Laser lights are out for the same reason, although I did sneak onto someone's lawn to see how the speckles of light dancing across their home were being projected. I hesitated just a moment before thrusting my hand in front of the device-- aren't lasers supposed to be dangerous?

Next, inconsistency with reality is also a disqualifier. For example one house had a big Santa Snoopy right next to another smaller Snoopy on top of his festive dog house. No! There are not two Snoopys. Likewise more than one Santa in any given yard is a no-no. You can have as many reindeer as you like, but only one Rudolph, please. It's also acceptable to mix secular and religious icons; a crèche surrounded by giant candy canes? Why not?

I'm rather particular about light choices, too. All red? That's demonic, but all green is too leprechaunic. Those new multicolor LED lights offer intensity, but most have too much purple for my taste. Simply tossing a few strings of whatever at the bushes is never a good choice, nor is running out of lights half way around the garage door and just going with it.

When it comes to lights, I love the classic approach of following the roofline, and I prefer it when it's done with good old-fashioned strings of ceramic C9 bulbs. Whatever you use, though, please make sure your lines are crisp, bulbs at attention and all facing one way. Lights are not forgiving; in the dark of night a wavering line seems careless, and even those dangling icicle-style lights are on the border of pretty and pretty sloppy.

The classy restraint of simple wreathes and candles in the window seems like a good idea, but around here, it just can't compete. Those houses need a few light deer and white spiral trees to pull it all together. There are also quite a few lighted Santas en sleigh with reindeer, but to be honest, I want them on the roof! Never mind the prediction of 50 mph winds tomorrow-- why would Santa land on the yard?

I have to admit, though, that in the aggregate, all the lights in all the yards together really, really work for me. It's magical and I wouldn't change a single bulb.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I'm Your Girl!

I reckon that, in support of our school district's one-to-one initiative, I've set up a hundred iPads or so over the last year, not to mention the devices I've helped to troubleshoot, nearly on a daily basis. So when Heidi's dad asked me to assist him with his new iPad mini, I only had one thing to say.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Food AND Friends

So often when you go to a hip new restaurant the staff kind of has the attitude that you are lucky to be there. Not so at Requin the other night. The pop-up is the brainchild of two Top Chef alums, Mike Isabella and Jen Carroll, and both chefs were working the kitchen when we got there. Not only was the food (Mediterrenean-inspired small plates and family-style entrees) outstanding, but the service was excellent. It seemed like everyone felt lucky that we were there, not just us. Our waiter even arranged for Mike and Jen to come out to meet us and pose for a picture. The place will have its permanent home down at the new waterfront development, and if they continue like that? They are sure to be a huge success.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Force Awakens

It was early this morning when we lined up for the first show of the new Star Wars movie. A friend had been kind enough to offer us her extra tickets, and so we blearily rolled out of bed on the first day of winter break and headed to the theater. Even the icy wind couldn't wake Heidi up entirely. "Is that guy in a costume?" she asked, pointing to a figure in a long, brown hooded robe.

I raised an eyebrow at her. "Either that, or he's a real Jedi," I said.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Have Fun!

Have fun with pants! has become the inside joke of my reading class this quarter. After every memoir they come up with a theme that fits that pattern:

Have fun with soup!
Have fun with bears! 
Have fun with sweaters! 
Have fun with brats! 
Have fun with death! 

Today I got one of the best teacher-gifts ever. One of the students in the class who is a witty writer and talented cartoonist gave me a comic book that he had created just for me. It's all about a giant squid who opens his Christmas present early. When he doesn't appreciate the pants inside, he lands on Santa's naughty list, but when Santa's pants are stolen he has the chance to redeem himself. Can he do it?

You'll have to read Have Fun with Christmas! if you want to find out!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

It Can Wait Until January

My philosophy of the week has been tested by meetings, emails, and colleagues, but with one day left before winter break, I think I'm on pretty solid ground.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Packages, Boxes, and Bags

So, we were talking again today about the difference between a fan letter and a letter that tells an author how his or her book made some kind of a difference to you, the reader. One of the examples that students evaluate is a blatant fan letter full of praise and not much else for Dr. Seuss:

I have always read your books and love them dearly. It’s unbelievable to me that in your lifetime you wrote so many books that are so good. They recently came out with the movie, “The Grinch,” after one of your books. Your books are so funny! I love how you make up words instead of using plain words.

"That's definitely a fan letter," one of my students told me.

"I agree," I answered, "but what could the letter-writer do to make it more of a thoughtful correspondence?"

"Maybe he could say something about the Grinch," the student suggested.

"That sounds good," I said. "You know the story, right?"

He nodded.

"Well, what do you think the lesson might be?" I asked.

"Protect your stuff!" he answered without hesitation, "because the Grinch might get it!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


While some students were finishing up their SRI test today others were working on an assignment to prepare for their next writing piece, a Letter about Literature. (It might be fun to click on the "Letters about Literature" label at the bottom of this post to review all I've written about that particular assignment.)

It was quiet, but there was a steady stream of students with questions coming up to my desk. At last it occurred to me to upload the text of the assignment and see what its reading level was. It came out to be a lexile of 980, which is nearly the median of sixth grade (925-1070). There were a number of students who were not yet reading on that level, however, and that pretty much explained all the questions.

For them this assignment, like many others in school, was doubly challenging: they struggled to read the content, and then they had to use their understanding to apply the information, evaluate the passages, and answer the questions. Teachers know that there will be a range of reading in any given class, though, and so we plan our lessons to accommodate everyone, as I did today. Students work independently, then in pairs, and then we check their answers with the larger group. That way everyone can access the content and concepts despite their reading level.

Even so, it surprised me today when a student approached me to ask about the task. "I don't understand what you mean 'give suggestions'," she pointed to her sheet.

"Oh, that just means that if you think it's a fan letter instead of a thoughtful correspondence, you should write some suggestions for changing it," I told her.

"But I don't know what 'suggestions' means," she said.


Monday, December 14, 2015


My students took their mid-year SRI today. It is a reading "inventory" created and administered by Scholastic, one of the top companies profiting from education accountability and big data. Hardly surprising, they also have a math assessment which is called the SMI.

All these acronyms can be confusing to the students as they try to navigate to the right online test to take, but my kids? Are super-cooperative and always helpful to each other.

"Isn't the SRI for math?" someone called out today.

"Nope," his charitable classmate corrected him, "that would be MRI. You don't need the MRI."


Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Weather Outside

It's been quite a few years now, but one Christmas we went down to Florida where Heidi's brother lives. The two of us arrived in town a little earlier than her folks, and so we headed down to Key West for a couple days.

And the weather we are having here in northern Virginia right now? It's a little warmer than the southern most point of the continental USA was that December. What can we do, then, other than shuck our winter woolen wear and fire up the grill?


Saturday, December 12, 2015

All through the House

What with the beautiful weather and the holidays looming, the theater was pretty much deserted this afternoon around four when we finally got around to see the last installment of The Hunger Games. I would be tempted to quote Clement Moore and tell you that not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, except that wasn't quite true. On my way up to claim my seat, a little guy scampered right past me. I don't know if he liked the movie, but I'm sure he enjoyed the popcorn spill beneath the seats on the next tier down.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Won't You Help to Sing

There was a light rap on my classroom door yesterday afternoon. The librarian poked her head in. "Do you have a minute?" she asked. I nodded and she sat down.

"Tell me about J," she said.

She is also the producer of what I like to call "my favorite show", the morning announcements, and I knew there had been auditions earlier in the day.

"Well," I started, "he's impulsive, and that gets him in some trouble, for sure, but he wants to do well."

"He didn't do poorly at the tryouts," she told me, but the faint praise made me brace for bad news. "Did you read his application?" she asked.

I had not. She pushed the rumpled sheet of paper across the desk, and I recognized his crooked scrawl. Under Why do you want to work on the morning announcements? he had written, Because everyone thinks I'm dumb and bad and I want to show them I'm not.

"How can you say no to that?" she asked rhetorically.

"You can't," I agreed. "When does he start?"

Thursday, December 10, 2015


I have my writing group tonight. Mary had the great idea for each of us to write something for the Mine column in the Washington Post Magazine. The parameters are simple, Tell us what you treasure in 250 words or less, the task not so easy. Anyway, here's what I wrote:

I was the last one out of the demonstration garden today on our fieldtrip, and so it fell to me to latch the tool shed before following the students through the gate and over the tiny bridge. Before closing the door I stepped inside for a moment. It smelled like warm wood and soil with the slight tang of recently oiled metal. My eye ran over the hand tiller, hoes, and shovels, and I compared them to my own collection of gardening tools.

By necessity, my implements are few; as a community gardener I carry my gear with me. Of course I can use the common tools, but I have a few specialty items of my own. The most indispensable of them is the one we call the poaching spade. Compact, with a sharp, narrow, curved blade, it cuts effortlessly through even the hardest earth and is perfect for transplanting, which is a lot of what vegetable gardening requires.

The poaching spade came into my possession one Saturday as we helped my sister-in-law sort through and organize some of the contents of her parents’ house. It was the first spring since we had lost her mom, and it was also our first season in the garden. My sister-in-law’s parents were devoted gardeners, but the spade was barely used: the green paint of the blade was flawless, the oval Smith & Hawkin medallion on the shaft unworn.

“Take it,” my sister-in-law said, “it’s a good shovel.”

It sure is.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Caveat Emptor

Our school's annual book fair is going on this week. Each English teacher is asked to set aside one half class period to allow the students to shop. In addition to all the books, there is also a large assortment of junk, novelty pens and pencils, erasers in all manner of shapes, bookmarks, stickers, posters, bracelets, and key chains, and of course these are the items that attract the most attention.

Before we even set foot in the make-shift shop set up in the library, I have several reminders for the students:

1) Don't walk around and play with things unless you intend to buy them.
2) These are retail prices and some items may seem expensive; even so, try not to complain loudly.
3) Every book is not meant for every reader; please don't make a big deal about it if you find something that really isn't for you.

That's what I tell them, but today when one of the kids asked a harried volunteer about the price of a pen that has a little rubber poof ball on an elastic cord that pops off when you press a button, she said, "3.99" then paused and looked at him meaningfully. "Some might say that is a little too much money to spend on something like that," she continued.

Our eyes met. I smiled and shrugged. "But it POPS off!" I told her.

"Maybe that's why it's so POPular," she answered, and we both cracked up as the student dug around in his pocket and pulled out a five.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

That's the Holiday Spirit

"I don't know if I would wear that Santa hat on our field trip to Mount Vernon," I said to a student this morning.

"Why not?" he answered. "It's fun for the holidays!"

I shrugged. "Well, you definitely shouldn't be wearing it inside the building right now," I told him.

"But it keeps my head so warm and toasty," he said.

"Ahhh," I replied, "both festive AND practical? That Santa knows what he's doing when it comes to head wear!"

He laughed and took it off. For the moment.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Score One for the Introvert

Heidi received a kind invitation from the family of two of her students, who are brothers, for a holiday dessert party. Unfortunately, the gathering is going to take place while we are out of town. It was an evite, and Heidi has no experience with those; it is I who handle most of our virtual social life. "What do I do?" she wanted to know. "Just click 'No'?"

"Yes, but don't worry," I told her, "you will have a place to make comments after you do that."

"Should I just say Unfortunately I can't make it?" she asked.

"Well, no," I answered. " Say something like, Thank you so much for thinking of me! It sounds like a really fun party, but I'll be out of town then," I suggested.

"Thanks!" she said.

"No problem," I replied. "I'm really good at turning down invitations!"

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Peril

Heidi and I are generally a very agreeable pair; there's not much we don't concur on. Dressing dogs in clothes is one of those few things: Heidi wants to do it, and I will not allow it. Over the years we have reached an informal compromise. For example Isabel has over a hundred collars, and she wears a different one every day. Isn't that a wardrobe for a dog? Lately, too, Heidi has been buying tiny hats and photographing all the dogs we know wearing them. That seems close to the line if you ask me, but no one has.

We passed all sorts of people and dogs on Roosevelt Island this morning as we walked its trails enjoying the balmy December day. One dog in particular caught both of our attention. "Look, that guy has a coat on," I noted as we approached from behind.

It was a smallish, short-haired little pooch. "He probably gets cold," Heidi replied.

"Whoa!" I said as we got closer. "It's also wearing some kind of dress!"

"Oh yeah!" Heidi nodded in appreciation as she spotted the frill peeking out from under the coat.

"My gosh!" I cried a second later. "It has pants on too! They're like bloomers or something!" I cringed. "It looks like a miniature version of the Big Bad Wolf dressed as Grandma!"

Heidi shrugged. "Layers," she said.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Haves and Have Nots

A member of the National Junior Honor Society knocked on our door during homeroom. "Do you have any cans for the food drive?" she asked.

We did not. "Are any of you guys going to bring something?" I asked after she left. "Because I know there's a lot going on and it's easy to forget. Remember, I'll match anything that you donate."

There were nods of agreement. "I'll bring something on Monday," one student assured me. "We have lots of cans at our house that we got from the food bank and never use." She shrugged. "I don't think my mom knows how to cook half that stuff."

Friday, December 4, 2015

Let's Not Get Crazy Now

We had an early dismissal for students today so that the staff could use the afternoon to participate in professional development. Such a thing happens about three times a year, and most of the time we have special school-wide activities planned, like the Day of Peace and the International Film Festival.

On those occasions, students spend the whole time with their homeroom groups. As worthwhile as those days can be, the abbreviated version of the daily schedule that we followed today also has its perks. The time flies by, and short classes mean focus is imperative (and possible) for all-- it's like anti-block scheduling.

"I love today!" one of my students said. "The time is going by fast, but we're getting a lot done!"

I nodded.

"I would even give up Saturdays off to have this schedule all the time," he continued.

And there our agreement ended.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time Well Spent

I confess that there are times when I really want to skip my bi-weekly ukulele lesson. Usually I don't feel like I've practiced enough; other times I'm in the middle of something at school; sometimes it just seems inconvenient to go down there at 5 pm on a Thursday.

I always go, though, and I'm always glad I went. My teacher is nice; he doesn't judge me, he just meets me where I am at the moment, plays duets with me, and gives me really good pointers about fingering, rhythm, and timing.

Tonight, for example, we played a few Christmas songs (which sound muuuuuch better when he plays with me), and he helped me through some tough spots by having me count the notes as I strummed them slowly. Once, when I was stuck, I called out the notes in tune as I pointed to them. "Wow!" he turned to me without a trace of irony. "You can sing, too!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Broken News

It was drive time when the news of the shootings in California started trickling in this evening. I listened with that sinking oh-no feeling, but it didn't take too long to realize that the news media had very little information. Beyond reserved speculation, they could only repeat the terrible details that three gunman had senselessly attacked an auditorium full of people at a social service facility.

I couldn't listen very long. I lost my appetite for the agonizing pace of live breaking stories years ago. It probably started with the slow speed chase after OJ Simpson, but certainly the night that Princess Diana was killed, when they repeated the facts and that one ten second video clip of her entering the car over and over, rubbed a dull, heavy spot on my consciousness that watching the twin towers collapse over and over again on the days following September 11, 2001 only aggravated.

Even a simple snow storm triggers over-coverage. Flip on the TV and you will hear the same forecast, see the same weather map, and watch the same closures crawl across the bottom of the screen over and over and over. I want to be informed; I want to know what is happening, but a few hours perspective in our crazy 24-7 news cycle?

That will keep me sane.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rec-ing Ball

There was a lot going on when I went down to the gym after school to walk our enormous indoor track. The weather was wet and raw here today, and so it seemed that lots of people had the same idea as I to escape the cold and rain and still get a little exercise. In addition to citizens of our fair county who belong to the rec center that shares our school facility, the girls on the move club was down there preparing for their big 5k this Saturday. The boys soccer team was practicing indoors as well, and there was a home girls basketball game so that team and the cheerleaders were all warming up as spectators trickled in from this or that afterschool activity.

Music was pumping, kids were laughing, and spirits were high, which made walking in giant circles kind of fun. When the starting lineups blasted through the loudspeaker I found a place in the bleachers, and I was sitting center court when the whistle tweeted the start of the first quarter.

It has been six seasons since I left my coaching position for the team, but my co-coach is still at it. He hasn't really switched up his game play much; I recognized the offense, the defense, and the in-bounds plays, but this team executed them exceptionally well. Not only that, he had three squads of mixed grade levels that he rotated in every couple of minutes, so everyone on the bench got playing time, and they all looked really sharp.

At the end, the team dominated its opponent even more than the 27-12 scoreboard reported, and I had a lot of fun cheering from the other side of the court. I even briefly considered rejoining the coaching staff.