Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Last Call

Can we call the last two weeks of the semester a "season"? Because I have to admit that it feels like a space and time that is uniquely it's own. Not unique to Upstate New York, but definitely unique to the wide world of education. It's the academic equivalent of 15 minutes before closing time with the bartender is yelling "last call" at boozy stragglers who need just one more before they can sleep.

This is the time of the semester when we second, third, and fourth guess ourselves. When those of us who do remarkable things every single day wake up in cold sweats because we know that it's not enough, isn't good enough, and will never be good enough. Plus, we're pretty sure that we're going to be fired. Tomorrow. Because our work is so bad that the powers that be won't even let us finish out the semester. I know, because not only do I have this conversation with assorted faculty and staff on a daily basis, but I fall victim to the same kind of thinking. There's nothing quite like the feeling of losing complete grasp of everything.

In the world of academic support, our resources get stretched to breaking points; the stack of paperwork on my desk grows exponentially; students' tough veneers are most likely to crumble, devolving into yelling or, worse, tears. Factor in holiday pressure, and it's a wonder we're not all eating Xanax by the handful.

But we keep going, all of us--teachers, tutors, techs, housekeepers, secretaries, administrators, cooks: teaching; listening; guiding. We will walk students to the health or counseling center even while we're mentally going over increasing to-do lists. We will take the time actively listen, even when that puts us behind; and we will, somehow, get it all done before the last call has ended and we stagger home to pass out for a long winter's nap.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pursuit of Imperfection

In one of my alternate lives, probably the same one in which I work as a chef-instructor teaching underprivileged youth how to establish and cook with things grown from community gardens, my holidays are magical perfection.

The tree sparkles (our tree skirt has a burn-mark in it from the year one of the bulbs got caught between it and the last quilt my mother made for us)

The house is redolent of pine and cedar (ours smells a lot like furry critters, all but one of whom is either an adopted rescue or a stray who found us)

Decorations are carefully hand-crafted from home-loomed wooly bits and pine cones gathered from our yard (we still have a lot of the cheap ornaments we bought our first Christmas together, when we were flat broke and neither of us had so much as a string of lights)

The perfect gift waits, beautifully wrapped under that sparkling tree (I'm a terrible shopper, just ask my spouse who, one year, received a rubber Richard Nixon shower-head cover, and for whom I am STILL trying to finish crocheting a lumpy, uneven scarf. I also can't wrap worth a darn which means that it must be elves who come in during the night and put my askew bows to rights)

I send cards with pictures of my child beautifully posed, his hair combed neatly, his clothes matching (one year, we sent cards with a picture of him holding his shirt up to show us that he'd drawn a ginormous smiley face on his belly. With a green Sharpie.)

Plates of beautifully hand-crafted cookies decorate the table (every year, I make a recipe from CDs grandmother. She lived to the age of 102, and somehow I was the recipient of a recipe that has been handed down for multiple generations. Once the very soft, very sticky dough is mixed, it has to sit in the refrigerator for 2 weeks before I can carefully roll it out on her old cookie board, and cut them out with the even older baking soda tin that she used for all of the decades that she was the designated cookie maker. Every year, I kvetch throughout the process)

Everything in the world glows during this season in that alternate life (one more extension cord and all of the front-yard lights should be good)

But in this life? Well. It would seem that I am imperfect. My holiday visions fall flat, go awry, make me sad, tired, angry, and stressed out. What I want and what I end up with are never the same; the results never quite good enough. And now I wonder, for whom?

They're good enough for my spouse, whose holiday is complete when he tastes the first lebkuchen.

They're good enough for my son, who is happiest when we're cuddled up on the couch watching Christmas movies.

They're good enough for the pets, who have a warm home and plenty to eat.

They're good enough for the friends and family who ask only for a few quiet minutes together to reflect, to laugh, to be content in each other's company.

It seems that I'm the only one unhappy with this arrangement; the only one who can't see perfection in the imperfect, the only one who doesn't understand the concept of good enough.

This, I think, will be my gift to myself this year: the pursuit of imperfection, and a reminder that time spent together is well-spent even when the cookies are burned, the tree is leaning sideways, and there is fur in the corners of our warm and happy rooms.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Christmas Market

For the past few years, our town has had a Christmas Market a weekend or two before Thanksgiving. I haven't been before, and the excuse I most often use is that I don't like dealing with the parking. The truth, however, is that the excess of noise, bodies, and sights makes me intellectually dizzy. This year, since we're two blocks away, I had no excuse. Today, the weather is a gift, being in the low 50's with sun and a breeze--corn maze weather. But corn maze season is past and so we went to the Market.

We all went. I bought a giant snowman head for the front porch, we got a funnel cake for the boy and then I sent them home. (The giant snowman head is made of wood; it will last longer that way.) I stayed a while, wandering up and down the packed aisles, listening to the guy with the guitar playing holiday classics such as "The Boxer" and "I'm Yours." Actually, he was very good, sweet-voiced and lending a slight ethereal quality to the music that floated among the tents. He also had groupies, which made me giggle.

We do love our festivals and gatherings here in upstate NY. On any given spring/summer/fall weekend, you can find one within a 75 mile radius and the certainties are that there will be wine, there will be crafts, and there will be food that is uniquely ours (grape pies and garbage plates to name two). Christmas Market was the same, only with more greenery and lights.

My wanderings took me to the goatsmilk soap stand (guess what you're getting for the holidays) where I had a long chat with one of the women staffing the area. Like any mama she was bursting with pleasure over the results of their hard work, and the notice they were receiving. She told me about her daughter who makes the soaps and lotions, and her son-in-law who does the writing and the graphic design for the business, of how this was the first show they'd done, and about winning the prize for best booth in show much to their collective surprise. She gestured toward them and said "they do so much, and they're so good. And me?" She shrugged and let her words drift away. "You get to be proud," I said. Her face lit up, she grabbed my arm and said "Yes! And it's the best job in the world."

I love moments like this. Unexpected, and filled with camaraderie, warmth, storytelling. The tent, at first little more than a crush of the curious and the anxious, became a site of humanity, and of community; a place where potters explained their craft, woodworkers talked of turnings and tung oil, and the tile-maker described how she baked leaves into the clay and of how the blistering heat of the kiln would burn them away until only fossil records remained. A place where each hand-crafted piece came with a story, if we were ready to listen.

It is so easy to lose ourselves in our own thoughts and wants, and I am so often and so readily drawn to the solitary, that the small daily magic passes by, unseen. It's when we stop to listen to the guy with the guitar, the woman whose children are making a life from their passion, the stories of those who create things that are of and beyond themselves, that we find it again. If only for a moment. And I wonder, as I reflect, if those moments aren't truly the things that define us. And if they are not, then perhaps, they should be.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Best Practices

Like most academic types, I spend way too much time living in my own head. A project that takes a half hour to manifest has stewed internally for days while I've gathered multivocalic threads to study from a few too many angles and perspectives. A friend refers to this as "falling down the rabbit hole," and I think he may be right.

What does this have to do with seasons in New York? Well, not much, really. It connects only in that I often get so caught up in my own research and thoughts that I'm temporarily blind to everything else going on around me. It's hell on relationships. The more patient of my friends slowly back away, knowing that I'll come out of it eventually. Others are less so, giving me a swift metaphoric kick in the backside as a reminder that "Helloo, we're still here." As much as I hate to admit it, I need both kinds. Something, by the way, that I had to move here to learn.

Having spent the last few weeks buried in research about Deaf grammar acquisition and best practices for tutoring students on the autism spectrum; working on conference proposals and brainstorming outreach possibilities, and keeping my students and my staff engaged with their learning processes, I have been far less present than I think I want to be. Presence, in this example, means being cognizant of my surroundings and the people who populate them. Present as in awake and aware and engaged with the external because that is what adds dimension and color to our internal lives.

So if you see me walking around in my own private fog, give me a hug and point me toward home. It's not far away.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Season of Giving

One of the greatest pleasures of being an outsider is noticing things that others have come to expect and, at times, take for granted.

We went to lunch up the street, at the bakery/cafe our friends own. I am currently having a mad love affair with their pumpkin bisque and will be sad to see it gone. But, like all things, pumpkin bisque has a season, and I will joyfully consume it until it gives way to whatever comes next.

While we were waiting for our food, a middle-aged man came in and ordered something to go. He sat down at the table behind ours, and a few minutes later, walked over handed CS something and said, "This is for you to have on Halloween--so you'll be seen and won't get hit by a car. I've been hit. It's not fun." It was a battery-operated flashlight/lightstick with a cord so that he can wear it and have his hands free for the candy he's anxiously looking forward to. A small gift, but one so thoughtful and unexpected that it felt, for a moment, like Christmas.

It gave me enough pause that I took a minute to reflect on the unexpected gifts that are so easily overlooked.

My child, for all of his talents, is not a natural athlete. He decided he wanted to play hockey despite the fact that his first time on the ice was, for all intents and purposes, his first time skating. I worry. I worry that he'll be slow to learn, that his coaches and teammates will be impatient and unyielding, that he'll decide eventually not to pick himself up and keep going. And I would understand all of these, because all too often it is easiest and most efficient to celebrate talent and let the rest go.

My fears, so far, have been unfounded. Instead of those reproaches, he has been welcomed to the ice and the team. It is an established fact that he's not ready to play--he's slow, doesn't know the game, doesn't move with the same fluidity as the rest of the kids. But he keeps working at it. From the first session a month ago until last night's first game, he's made huge improvements in his skating ability, and he's worked harder at it that I would ever have imagined. But he still has a very long way to go. His head coach and the rest of the coaching staff, have been one of those gifts. Coach Jess said to me last week, "I was talking with the other coaches last week, and we believe he's part of our team for a reason. We're glad he's with us, because we have things to teach each other."

Last night was the first game of the season. I had prepared my boy for sitting on the bench during the game, and suggested he use the time to watch and learn and ask questions. His dad and I sat in the stands, watching a great hockey game and then, in the second period, they put him in. He wobbled out onto the ice, looking like a fawn just discovering it's newly unfolding legs. We were sitting next to his best friend's mom, and the two of us started cheering and clapping as he made his way onto the ice. And then the rest of parents in the stands, our team and theirs, joined us. He was so intent on finding his position and being aware of the game that he never heard us cheering. But I did, and it was a gift that nurtured and reminded me that it is all too easy to over look what matters the most.

There are people for whom this kind of giving is a natural as breathing. The friend who randomly sends me texts saying "I love you"; the one who finds her life's purpose in helping others out of the mire of addicition; the one who overthinks everything for fear of being insensitive or thoughtless to others when in fact she is one of the most caring, loving people I've had the privilege to meet; and the one who quietly takes care of everyone else despite the fact that his life, lately, has been one massive hurdle after another.

It is all too easy to take each of them, and each of us, for granted. Sometimes, it takes a wobbly boy on skates, and a token of caring to remind us. And that reminder, too, is a gift.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


It must be fall, because we just came home from the corn maze and have scattered pumpkins across our front porch steps.

We've been waiting for the perfect fall weekend, one of those glorious days when the sun shines, the temperature hovers in the mid-50's, and there is just the slightest breeze crisping the air. Unfortunately, this fall's glory days have limited themselves to mid-week, when we're at school, at scouts, at hockey, or just too tired to move. So we went today, and although the temperature remained in the low 50's, the clouds refused to budge and the air still has a hint of damp from last night's rain.

The paths through the maze were muddy and, truth told, without the sun adding some dimension it eventually all just starts to look like corn.

There is something mournful about this time of year. We celebrate the harvest, and Halloween, and prepare for those things called "The Holidays" as if to distract ourselves from the quickly emptying tree branches and the chill that becomes more pronounced each day.

My garden is full of black walnuts; my front yard is filled with spiky chestnuts, both from trees planted multiple generations of homeowners ago. The squirrels scramble to gather as many as they can before the inevitable snows fall and every morning, I must remind my son to wear a sweatshirt despite his 9-year-old-boy protestations that it isn't really cold outside.

Time itself somehow becomes more precious, and I try to hoard it by refusing to spend it on any but the most needful pursuits. Like corn mazes and choosing the right pumpkins for the front porch. Excluding my family, I spend less time with the people I most love and this feeds the malaise of the season, making it all to easy to overlook the gift of being in a time and place that is home.

And then the silliest, most inconsequential things remind me that place and belonging are matters of choice, and that I have chosen well.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


We were supposed to be at Scout camp today. My little one is finally a Webelo, and we were going to our first overnight at the big Scout camp. We should be doing things like archery, shooting BB guns, and eating hobo dinners. Tonight, we would sit around the campfire singing goofy songs and eating s'mores before crashing in our tent. Yes, tent.

Instead, it is 45 degrees and raining outside. Between the weather and that fact that we've both been sick with respiratory ick, well, the tent we've borrowed will remain safely in the back of my car.

Sure, it's turned fall pretty quickly out there. I have a pot of onion soup simmering, the yard needs raking, and I would really enjoy a nap right about now. That said, I tend to think of this as back to school season--the real fall (for me) comes when we hit the corn mazes, make things out of pumpkins and drink cider in its various forms (warm, cold, spiced, straight, spiked).

Back to school season, on the other hand, includes things like new pencils, bus schedules, and bought v home-packed lunches. This year, it also means that CS gets to learn how to play an instrument (the cello), join the snow sports club (snowboard), and he's decided to try a new sport (ice hockey even though he's never played, and doesn't know how to skate).

Of these, the most unexpected was his decision to try hockey.

Before the move here, he had zero interest in any organized sport. Or disorganized sport either, if I'm honest. His willingness to try new things was limited to TV programs, and all too often his fear of failure kept him from participating in new things.

I don't know what it is about his place, but something has empowered this kid. I first noticed it last year, when he joined the chess club. I assumed he'd go once or twice and then drop out. He surprised me by sticking with it. Not only did he stay with it, but he went back week after week and never won a game. I'd pick him up after school, ask how he did, and he'd say things like "I lost, but next week I'm going to try a different move and see if it goes better." Come spring, he wanted to play lacrosse and I said "only if you commit to the whole season." He's a terrible player, but loves the sport and is looking forward to going back next year. Before coming here, he would've walked away without even a backward glance.

In education we call this perseverance. Perseverance is marked by a willingness to keep trying, even when we might fail, and the ability to look at failure and make plans to keep going. I don't know what changed, but I do know that each time he tries something new and goes back for more; each time he fails but gets back up and keeps going, I lose my breath to a rush of gratitude.

So here we are, at the opening volley of another school year. There are new friends to make, a cello to play, hockey equipment to beg, borrow, steal, or (if we must) buy. Lunches to pack, buses to catch, Iroquois longhouses to build. There will be joy, and loss, and another chance to camp out with the Webelos. We don't get to predict what comes next, and don't get to control much outside of our own tiny selves, but we will persevere.

I'm a little disappointed that we're not camping tonight, but mostly I'm looking forward to onion soup and a chance to cuddle with my kid while we watch Ghostbusters. Tomorrow is soon enough for cello practice and hockey equipment.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Repositioning. A post in four parts

Repositioning is a term used by cruise lines to designate journeys from one originating port to another. So, if a ship has spent the summer, oh let's dream, sailing around Italy, and if that ship will spent winter traveling among the Caribbean Islands, it has to get from point A (Italy) to point B (Cape Canaveral, perhaps). The trip is then named a repositioning cruise. Now that I've been here for two years and we own a house, I can't really argue that I'm still journeying to the center of New York. I've realized that it's time to reposition this blog.


Over Labor Day weekend, the last (unofficial) weekend of summer, the commuter boys and I went to the local water park for the last time. It is an outdoor-only water park that closes after Labor Day weekend. A lot of our community members would like to see it recreated as one of the big indoor/outdoor water parks ala Great Wolf Lodge. I like GWL--it's a great, quick weekend getaway when the snow is making us buggy and Florida is out of the question. But it goes against a trend that is dominant here: seasonality.

One of the things that I most love and am most fascinated by here in our new home is this quiet emphasis on seasonality. We are a region that celebrates each season in its own time and way, and I think this is something worth embracing. I also realized, as CD and I were discussing it, that this is what I want to write about as we continue exploring our new home.


The weather has turned autumnal, but the trees are still dominantly green. The primary boat launch is closed, but on sunny afternoons sailboats still dot the lake even though it's a bit chilly for all be the hardiest of our waterbabies. Concord grapes and early apples are in at the farmer's market, along with the last of the tomatoes and the fall harvest honey. The vendor explained that the fall harvest is a mixed seasonal honey, often consisting of goldenrod, thistle, and whatever last flowers are blooming. Like the rest of us, the bees are savoring summer's last hurrah. The honey we bought, raw and unfiltered, is delicious and resembles the national versions found in grocery stores about as much as the jam that I made from our grapes tastes like Smucker's. As much as I love summer, it's fall that I miss most.

Our town also hosted the first annual "get the community out and doing artsy things" event. (To name it would be to give away our little town and I don't feel like sharing.) CS and I, after our market trip, wandered around downtown and created sidewalk chalk art, painted rocks, attended a chocolate demonstration, and other simple, communal things. It's Constitution Day (I did not know this), so CS decided to draw an American flag on his section of sidewalk, then added the words "We The People" as a caption. When I asked why, he explained that 1) it's Constitution Day and 2) communities are made of people, and this one is ours. We passed it on our way to dinner, and it was still there. Undisturbed, but surrounded by a field of chalky flowers.

I've lived in small towns and large cities. In the west, the midwest, the south and now the east, and I'll confess that this is the first time I've lived in a place with such a shared passion for community. One of the advantages of being an outsider is that we can see shapes and patterns that insiders often miss. When I'm asked why I love this place, I always answer "community." I know others, once outsiders, who say the same thing. And yet those who've always been here don't see it, don't realize what it is that they have, or how rare it is. I hope that I never lose the ability to see things from the outside, that I don't lose the sense of magic and wonder that come from finding what has been missing.


This is New York. On September 11, CD came inside and said "there are firetrucks outside. One is in front of the bakery (owned by friends), the other is across the street. I hope nothing's burning." Our first concern was for our friend's business, but there was no smoke, there were no sirens. Instead, there was this:

a slow, silent parade marking the 10th year since the attack on the twin towers. CS, who is a proud cub Scout, stood at the curb and as a group of service men and women walked by he gave them the two-fingered Scout salute. To a person, they returned his homage.

This place, these people? Home. We're a little goofy, a lot caring, and we love to celebrate the changing of the seasons. For this next year I plan to write about the seasons as they change, how we embrace them, and how they shape our world here in this corner of upstate New York. I'm looking forward to it, and hope you are too.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Travis's House

I have been crabby all day. It started with a "Why can't I access my e-bill" utilities battle that made me late for an important meeting. I know, we all have those days. But it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Fast-forward to this evening when I met the paralegal in charge of my landlord's affairs and we did the final walk-through of the house we rented last year. She asked about the house we bought, I told her, she thought for a second and said "Oh, Travis's house." We talked about Travis for a minute (I only know him by posthumous reputation), then parted and I headed to the grocery store.

Some [really jerky] guy did one of those obnoxious parking-lot cut-offs. The kind where car A (me) is traveling down the aisle while car B ([jerky guy]) cuts through and does a near-miss. It is a lucky thing that I didn't encounter him in the store, because I had a loud diatribe prepared for him. It was about the development and propagation of [jerky guy] cultures, and how I'd just moved AWAY from one of those places and I was by God not going to live in another one. I was ready to let him have it, which is completely not what I would normally do. But I've been pretty crabby today.

I paid for the five things I went in for, and drove home. To Travis's house. I put things away, started wiping down the counters, and realized that while this will always be Travis's house, it will also always be my house. For the first time in my 40-some years, I'm not looking around the corner to see what else, what more interesting place, is waiting. I'm home. And suddenly, like a quiet breeze through the kitchen window, I'm not crabby anymore.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Little Pink Houses

We are the proud owners of a slightly sprawling, slightly ramshackle pink house on Main Street. The floors dip, the roof sags, the porch has been painted over so many times we can count the layers in the peeling chips, and did I mention that it’s pink?

After we had signed the papers, Commuter Dad and I walked into our house and stood there, both shell-shocked and thinking “What have we gotten ourselves into?” Our previous houses were new builds, with even floors, central air, new appliances and professional landscaping all conveniently located in homogeneous neighborhoods where, frankly, we just didn’t quite fit.

We have too many books and not enough televisions; more interest in cooking, or reading, or playing, than in cleaning and keeping up appearances. “She kept a clean house” is not what I want as my epitaph. But the funny thing about where we choose to live is that we, often unconsciously, try to fit ourselves into the gestalt of that space. Our houses never quite fit, even when we tried to force ourselves into those molds.

The story of this house—our coming to this house—starts before we’d even started looking. I was at the grocery store one afternoon, loading up the back of my mom-car when an older woman with bright red hair and a small child in tow stopped to ask about the Coexist sticker on the back of my car. It let to a long conversation about the nature of “alternative” religions and lifestyles, and the ways we find acceptance and peace in our varied beliefs. During the conversation, she mentioned her daughter-in-law, how she and her late husband had owned a new-agey shop in town (one that I had quite liked). It had recently closed, and her daughter-in-law was trying to sell her house because she was ready for a new beginning. The woman expressed sadness that the daughter-in-law was leaving, but hope that she would find what she needed to move forward.

Two months later, our real estate agent brought me and Commuter Son to this house. The moment we walked through the front door, I was overwhelmed by a sense of utter joyfulness. It wasn’t the furnishings, or the décor, or any other tangible thing. It was simply a part of the mortar and bricks of the house itself.

The homeowner was present and did the walk-through with us, pointing out what had been some of her favorite things (the library with built-in bookshelves, for example). She pointed to some boxes in the middle of the floor and commented that they were from her shop that had recently closed. When she named the shop, I realized that this was the daughter-in-law and I told her about the meeting in the parking-lot, which made her laugh and say that, yes, it sounded just like her late husband’s mother. Then, she opened a door under the stairs and said “We call this the Harry Potter potty.” It is a tiny powder room, just a toilet and sink, tucked into the empty space under the staircase. I laughed, because really, who wouldn’t? When I laughed, she looked at her friend who was here that day and said “She gets it.” The friend nodded—I had passed a test.

Later, they walked us out to our cars (our agent’s and mine), saw the same Coexist sticker, looked at each other and nodded. “She gets it.”

Some wrangling and legalities later, the house is ours. It is quirky, and in need of TLC and paint, but one of my friends who helped us moved walked through and grinned. “This is your house; it’s so you.”

But the story of our house is just beginning.

Today, I took the kiddo and some of his friends to the water park. It was hot and sunny, and its summer break, and they were desperate. While we were gone, Commuter Dad (bless him) hauled some more stuff over from the house we were renting, then spent some time in our new garage. Our seller’s late husband was a potter, and the garage is still home to his kiln and some other supplies. There were also, as CD discovered, some of his clay pieces. One is a large bowl that now lives on our bookshelves; another is a happy, hand-built dragon springing to life from a small block of clay. He is the Labrador retriever of dragons—wanting nothing more than to have his ears rubbed and a ball thrown for a game of fetch.

Out of curiosity, CD then did a search for the late potter and learned that not only was he a husband, father, artist and a shop-owner, but he was integral in designing and rebuilding what is one of our son’s favorite parks. He was respected and active in our community and in charitable organizations. And he died at the age of 36, after a 13-year battle with cancer.

If it is true that where we live shapes us, and if we work to live up to the expectations of that space, then this house is going to challenge us to be the very best that we can. It will push us to grow, and to love, and to give. The joy and the peace that reside in the mortar here aren’t happy accidents; they are reminders that what we give comes back to us often in the most unexpected of ways.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

On a plate.

Before my interview here, I had a long conversation with a good friend about not knowing what was coming next. The not knowing was unnerving, but I remember saying that I couldn't let that uncertainty stop me from moving forward. She described this as the place where the headlights stopped--you can't see what lies beyond them, but you go forward with courage, hope, and a whole lot of faith that the road you're traveling isn't really a cliff with white lines.

Since that conversation we've been sneaking out of Michigan, one thing at a time until here we are, preparing to close on our first New York house. It's heady stuff, but the piece of this journey that unexpectedly smacked me in the head was this one:

I have new license plates.

Yup, after two years of living here in the glorious Finger Lakes, I finally have New York license plates. This should've been a no-brainer transition. I am surrounded by New York (and garbage) plates; both are facts of life here. But when I stepped back for a look at the just-installed, wretched orange-and-navy-blue license plates (they tell me they're homage plates, designed to look like ones from this state's past. I say they're ugly as proverbial sin) I felt, for a moment, like I'd been sucker-punched.

It was wholly unexpected.

Truly, I hadn't given any consideration to the possibility that something as mundane and necessary as a license plate could be a touchstone. But it was, and is. There's also the fact that my Michigan plate provided a frame of historical reference, a small definition of self. The new one is anonymity writ orange.

Why is it, I wonder, that the insignificant things are the ones that serve to highlight change and struggle. Why has a license plate unsettled me more than the house we're preparing to buy? And why, oh why New York, did you choose to make license plates in a color that looks dreadful on every car ever manufactured?

The coming year (I define the years as "Before NY" and "After NY") will see a third installment of this story. It will bring a series of new adjustments and permanence, and permanence makes me uneasy because it implies stagnation and immobility. I've long been aware that the potential for leaving has made it easier to stay because it's easy to be bold when there is nothing to lose.

The orange and blue plates are dreadful but I like them. While I recognize that they mean I have something to lose, what I know is that here? here is where the headlights stopped. It may be easy to be bold when we have nothing to lose, but I'm finding that it's even easier to be bold when we are supported, loved, and allow ourselves to develop roots because, well, it may be a bad cliche but this is how we bloom.

I don't know what comes next, but whatever that thing is it comes wrapped in ugly license plates, old houses, friendship, and a sense of community unlike any I've known before.

So here's to bad automotive analogies, garbage plates, and the end of the road. Whatever this next year brings, and I'm pretty well convinced that whatever I plan for won't be what I get, I'm ready.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gulf Freeway

We're hanging out in Houston this week. "We" in this instance meaning myself and a friend/colleague. (Perhaps I should call her "Commuter Friend" for the purposes of this post?) Specifically, we're here gathering information for a project that CF has created. It is her project, but my center is the beneficiary of the work. Ergo, we're here in Houston to learn.

I spent my childhood in Houston. I've been back a few times, but my family has settled in points north and east of my childhood neighborhood so it's not a place I've seen in 30-some years. If you're not familiar with Houston, Texas, it is a city made of sprawl. It is possible to set out from the far east side of town, drive slightly above the speed limit in a straight line toward the west and an hour later still be in urbania.

Our travels this week have taken us about 10 minutes south of where I grew up. I knew from the map that we'd be heading this way and I considered it with a mild bit of curiosity. I googled my previous address to peek at the house (it's still the same), and the elementary school I attended (still there). It was fun, being able to do that, enjoying the quick trip down memory lane. It was also fun seeing street names long-forgotten but that I still know how to pronounce (Fuqua, anyone?).

I found the ownership records of the house and discovered that when we moved away, my mother had sold it to our then-next-door neighbor. I hadn't thought about those people in a couple dozen years but with grown-up, retrospective eyes it makes sense that they would've bought it just to get us out of town (short version: in South Texas in the 1970's, divorced women were highly suspect). We haven't driven through there yet; I'm sort of thinking about doing that today some time. What we have driven past, however, is the mall.

I'm not given to waxing poetic about malls. They serve their purposes, but there are places I'd rather spend my free time.

However. Last night, CF and I met our Texas colleagues for dinner at a Tex-Mex place in a strip mall next to the "real" mall, and our route took us past the mall. As we were heading that way, I remembered another of those half-forgotten moments--4th grade, Bugsy Malone, and my first-ever 'date' with a boy named Jeff. His mother dropped us off and we watched the movie in the frozen, silent fear of the opposite sex that is unique to elementary-aged kids. I don't remember much about what happened after that and I'm largely okay with this. That memory alone was a kind of unexpected gift, a reminder of a golden moment in a mostly-forgotten childhood.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Phase 3 Begins

If phase 1 was moving here, and phase 2 has been settling in with Commuter Son, then we've reached part 3.

It's time to commit.

Yup, it is time for us to buy a house here in New York. Like most home-owning folk, we have to sell one before we can buy another. What compounds this little problem is that before we can sell the one in Michigan, we need to move things out of it, and we can't move things out of it until we have somewhere to put them (don't say "storage unit" to me--I don't have good luck with them), and we won't have somewhere to put them until we sell the house in Michigan. It's a bit like the wheels on the bus, really.

I am, as is well documented, a firm believer in inviting the divine into our quandries (in whatever way is most comfortable--prayer, chant, drum, spell, meditation, bike ride), and then getting busy. I have limited patience for those who believe that prayer alone solves problems. I have equally limited patience for those who don't believe that prayer in whatever form works.

So there we are, stuck with our housing dilemma and frozen in place because the prospect of magically manifesting a house is, well, daunting.

There's a house here in town that I've long admired and that has long been empty so, knowing that I needed to do something (anything), I contacted the listing agent to ask about it. A couple of weeks later, she had introduced me to one of her agents who does, in fact, specialize in...(drum roll please)...difficult circumstances such as ours. We met, she said "we've got this" and I left feeling like maybe, just maybe, that light at the end of the tunnel was not, in fact, Thomas the Tank Engine.

Commuter Kid and I looked at our first 3 houses today. One was a definite "no." One was "this is lovely and I could live here without too much complaint" and the third is, well, it. (Note: the house I first contacted the realtor about has sold, and not to us.) The third one is imperfect. It's old, needs paint and carpet, wants a good scraping and a fair bit of sweat equity, but it feels like our house. After we were finished looking and I had sent pictures back to Michigan, I was talking to Commuter Dad, who said this: "We bought our first two houses for logical reasons and that didn't work out so well. Maybe this time we should follow our hearts." Maybe so.

There are a pair of intertwined stories about this house that I want to tell, but prudence holds me back. You know--that feeling of not want to "jinx" something. But it feels good, and I'm optimistic. And well, even if it's not this house, it will be a house. And what I know is that whichever house it is, will be exactly the house for us.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Willie, Waylon and Me

My friend Joe recently wrote a post about music. (You can find it here: Borne out of a facebook conversation we had, it reminded me of something I thought I'd lost and I've been wanting to type a word or two about it since then.

It is an established fact that I moved around a bit while growing up. There were good things about it (I got to see the Grand Canyon while moving from Alabama to Arizona) and some ever so slightly less good things about it (we only stayed at the Grand Canyon for 15 minutes).

Note: When you move around, you learn not to become too attached to things and sadly, this can apply to people as well. Attachment, as one might imagine, leads to heartache. I sort of inadvertently learned that from my mother, who was gifted at traveling light.

Or so I always thought.

Eventually we found our way to the middle-of-nowhere Missouri at a time, and in a town so small, that we didn't have cable for our television. Besides which we lived too deep in the hollows of the Ozarks to pick up anything so we didn't bother with owning a TV. What we did have was a stereo, complete with a turntable and an 8-track player.

I had forgotten about the box of 8-track tapes.

The only radio broadcast we picked up on a consistent basis was from an AM channel that shut down at 6 pm, finishing their broadcast day with a prayer and the national anthem. During the day the DJs, all high school students, would play an unrelenting mix of country and gospel music. This was usually broken up by the recipe of the day, or a reading of the death notices. On a good day, we'd get both.

At night, however, all we had were our albums and 8 tracks.

So I grew up listening to Jerry Jeff Walker, Merle Haggard, Hank and Don (the Williams Boys) and, whenever I could manage to sneak it onto the turntable, Heart's "Dreamboat Annie" album (borrowed from a friend during our time in Arizona). Yes, I know, it explains so much. I could never understand, as I grew old enough to start talking about music with my friends, why they didn't know the words to "Mama Tried." True story.

I had forgotten my musical upbringing until the "Night Rider's Lament" exchange. And, I had forgotten the cardboard box of 8 track tapes that went with us everywhere we moved. They were so much a part of my childhood landscape, that I can't remember them ever being moved from one place to to another, only that they were always there.

After my mother died and I was sorting through what she'd left behind I found, in the bottom of one of her drawers, three things: Her divorce decree from my father, their wedding picture, and an 8 track tape of Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights."

It would seem that along with her ability to travel light, I also inherited my mother's flair for the dramatic.

(With thanks to David Allan Coe for the title of this post.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Stealing: Defined (300 words, course-specific entry)

One of the topics for this week is "stealing, defined."

Now that we've reached the midpoint and just past it, I want to move is into thinking about research and how we use others' words and ideas. It's one thing for me to talk about plagiarism as theft; a completely different thing to have students put it into sanctioned practice.

The first think I'm asking for this week is that each student steals two sentences from a classmate. In this instance, we're going to give credit for them because that is appropriate. Later, we won't be so thoughtful or honest.

Teaching plagiarism--or, more specifically, the importance of avoiding plagiarism--is one of the toughest parts of the job for me. On the one hand, I believe that borrowed work should be credited. On the other, well, we are an increasingly collaborative society.

A couple of examples of this that I find most compelling and telling are Wikipedia, of course, and Found magazine.

Wikipedia is a fascinating example of true collaboration in action--together, we know more than we can possibly know individually and nowhere that I know of is this more clearly demonstrated. Of course, we occasionally know things wrong and that too is demonstrated here. I admit to being intrigued by our ability to shape knowledge in this large and public way; in this anonymous way. When we credit Wikipedia, we're kind of crediting an unknown collective. It's terribly unacademic of me, I know, but when I have questions, that's often my starting point--sometimes, I just want to answer Commuter Son's question such as one from this weekend: "Mom, what was the Enlightenment" and Wikipedia does that just fine. (The Enlightenment, as I now know, was also called the Age of Reason and largely relied on reason and scientific observation. What I don't know is why CS asked me this.)

Found magazine, which as far is I can tell is now mostly-defunct, was/is a product of our collective that is largely unattributed. Found bits of writing such as grocery lists, love letters and notes to home are/were organized in ways that create meanings extending beyond the individual item. The collected notes and effluvia had a kind of gestalt that could only come from a collective.

So as we're heading into the last brave portion of our semester, we'll be focusing on items stolen, and things found. Our goal in all of this is to think about ownership--who owns what, and how can we, any of us individually, claim knowledge as proprietary.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Carlos I (300 words)

It's been a long time coming, but I think I'm finally a New Yorker.

For the first 18 months or so, I would find myself out and about--driving somewhere, walking through a parking lot--and confused by the vast array of New York license plates, or other references to the State of New York. It took a second or two to sink in that, no, I'm a New Yorker these days and all of these plates are not, in fact, as odd as I think they are.

Some point during the last 3 months, that stopped. I'm not surprised to find myself here; I'm taking it for granted. Funny thing is, though, I can't decide whether taking it for granted is a good thing because it means I'm settled in, or whether it's a bad thing because it means I've become complacent.

I've said many times before that I never pictured myself living in New York. On my big list of "places I want to live some day" it hovered right around number 36--between Oklahoma and South Dakota so when I accepted my position and moved here nobody was more surprised than I.

I shouldn't have been.

One of our dogs, Carlos, was a roundabout rescue whose story I'll save for another post. What's important to this one is that we were driving along the New York Thruway (which I thought was all there was to the state until moving here) when we got the call that Carlos was in trouble and we needed to rescue him.

Commuter Dad, when he was here last weekend, walked in and said hello to Carlos then stopped and looked around as though something had just clicked. "You know the rest area just up the Thruway from our exit?"


"That's where we were when we got the call about Carlos. He's the one who picked New York. Now it all makes sense."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Free topic (Shut up and put your money where your mouth is)

I'm in my office on a normal Tuesday afternoon. The sun is shining; the air seeping in around the cracks in my windows is cold; Bob Schneider’s “40 Dogs” plays softly from my laptop.

I’m reading an article about Governor Cuomo’s funding cuts for special schools.

Sounds drift in from the Commons:

Thomas a’Beckett

Blood typing

You’re welcome

The insistent beep of the copier begging for paper. It feels like I’m living in a poem; one about postmodern noise and meaning.

Punctuating it all is Cuomo’s insistence that
“We spend too much, we tax too much…you cannot spend more than you make” (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle).

I would not want to be Cuomo. Not now, not ever. I don’t have the answers; instead I’m racked with questions like “what DO we cut?” and “Which special interest group wins?” Because in our fragmented society, we are all special interests.

Comma splice?

The “t” in the equation represents time unless

How are ya?
The pound of the stapler; staccato handiwork

Bob Schneider becomes Katy Perry with the imploring demand to shut up and put our money where our mouths are and I think, yeah.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Comedy (3rd 300 word post for the week)

Yeesh. I wasn't certain I was going to get this one in on time, and the standing rule is that if I don't, nobody else has to. Dratted rules and accountability.

We're...I'm using comedy in the classroom this semester. In the past I've worked with hands-on (rather than text-bound) research and community service requirements both as ways of digging into a project-based course. I'm a firm believer in active pedagogy and project-based learning so I'm always looking for new ideas that help us get into the material.

This semester, I've built my 101 around "Beg, Borrow, and Steal" as an active and project-based way of putting plagiarism into (and hopefully out of) action. One of tools I'm using to get into that idea is comedy.

For me, comedy is one of the great unifiers. Although we don't all have the same sense of humor (please, oh please, spare me another minute of the Three Stooges in this lifetime), chances are good that given an assortment to choose from, everyone can find something that generates at least a giggle. I'll confess to preferring over-the-top word play and physical comedy to the more subtle choices, by the way. Give me Wallace and Grommit, Shaun the Sheep (both Aardman), or a Christopher Guest movie (A Mighty Wind is my favorite) and I'm a happy girl.

Here's something interesting I observed, though. For all of our adult (and forgive me, my students, because in this moment I mean "adult" as over 30 because we're your educators and parents and thus see ourselves in the role of shaping your lives. Hubris anyone?) assumptions about the current generation of traditionally-aged students, one thing I've learned is this:

Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears was right about that "assume" thing.

For the first comedy-based assignment, I posted 5 clips starting with Abbot and Costello and ending with Eddie Izzard for my students to interact with. I assumed, foolishly, that the entire class would gravitate toward the Eddie Izzard; that it would be the hands-down favorite. I was wrong.

It turns out that young, contemporary audiences still like The Three Stooges, and that Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch is a classic no matter who is watching it. Once again, I find I've done my students a disservice by assuming that they're interested only in what is now and immediate. That by failing to acknowledge that they more complex than the media or my colleagues make them out to be, I am no better than the media or my colleagues. And for this I am apologetic and appalled. I can own this.

The good part, however, is I like that I'm constantly learning from them, even when it means my assumptions were dead wrong. I can own this, too.

We watched the Marx Brothers in "Duck Soup" last week. Next week, we're watching a more contemporary movie. I'm looking forward to reading what they have to say about the movies. I expect I'll be surprised, enlightened and, yeah, amused.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Because They Make Me Happy

One of my required topics is on why we wear shoes.

Allow me to confess now that some of the prompts are intentionally ridiculous, silly, or simply intended to provide an unexpected starting point. This would be one of them.
I have, in my closet back in Michigan, somewhere between 75 and 120 pair of shoes. Most of them are kitten-heeled, sequinsed, beribboned and utterly frivolous. One pair looks a bit like this, except in purple:

I wear them because they make me smile.

If you know me in my New York life, you would assume that my shoe collection consists of Keens, Uggs, Birkenstocks, snow boots and a lovable pair of leather flip-flops. This is because most of the time, unless I'm in my office, I'm actually wearing them. They look something like this:

That's the problem with my excellent shoes--I don't actually wear them for longer than it takes to walk from one room to the next. Mostly, they're for display purposes only. I do enough walking these days that I can't wear display shoes--they have to be practical. This makes me sad. Maybe I should go shoe shopping.

I just realized that I forgot the last, and most important, piece of this post on shoes. I'm lusting after these:

I'm too active in the classroom actually teach in them, but they'd sure look nice on the floor next to my desk and would definitely add some style to the jeans-and-cardigan combinations that I usually wear in the winter. Right?

Monday, February 21, 2011


Last week, I ran out of words. It's the only possible explanation for why I didn't get my posts done, my assignments written, my presentation started or any of the other word-based things that needed to be completed.

I hate it when I run out of words. No words, no job. No job, no rent money. No rent money, no place to live. No place to live, no electricity. No electricty, no coffee. No coffee, I'm doomed. I guess I need to figure out where my words went.

I just had a conversation with one of my tutors about setting and meeting standards, and how I can't name a standard and expect my students and my staff to meet it if I'm not willing to live up to it myself.

Darn it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Derby Car, Part II

When we left off, the Jedi Starspeeder was still in its rough cut stage. Fortunately, Commuter Dad was in town this weekend and he and the boy got the car into racing shape.

Here, the sanding is finished, the paint is on, and we're ready to work on the legal specifications.

First, it was time to add some weight. Derby cars can weigh a maximum of 5 ounces, and the builder's goal is to get the car as close to that 5 ounce cap as possible.

Although we had some fancy weights, we opted to use quarters. Each slot has two quarters that have been hot-glued into place.

This is a high-temp mini hot-glue gun. It gets quite hot.

Here, I'm holding a chunk of aloe
vera plant on my burnt fingers.

Success: 4 7/8 ounces

Our pilot is an ice Ninja. Several Jedi, both Lego and action figure, tried out for the slot, but the were all too tall to fit comfortably, especially after we added the canopy.

And finally, here's our Jedi Starspeeder, ready for the Pinewood Derby. We're all pretty happy with it. I'll let you know how the race goes.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

10 years from now

My ten years in the future looks something like this:

I have completed my dissertation, and am thenceforth known as "Dr. Commuter Mom" because I will insist on full use of my title by everyone. Including my kid.

I have also walked away from academia to pursue my other love, which is pretending I'm a decent cook. I have also, in this imaginary future, rediscovered a passion for gardening, and this passion has resulted in a most excellent kitchen garden where I grow most of the stuff for my job.

What job, you ask? I have had an ongoing fantasy: a tamale van. Keep in mind that I'm originally from Texas, the land of tamale vans. For the uninitiated, a tamale van is a regular van, usually painted white and usually with the word "Tamales" painted on the side with red paint that is flaking off in places. Next to the tamale van is an Hispanic woman, usually built a lot like I am. She is the tamaleria, or tamale-maker, and her wares are sold by the dozen in brown paper bags that are dripping grease. Sometimes she has a rump-sprung lawn chair, the metal legs hot from the Texas sun, where she waits for customers. But either way, the tamaleria is a fixture; the proof that these are home-made tamales that could be yours for $3.

I can definitely see myself, ten years in the future, driving around the country with a van full of tamales. My son will be off at college, so I won't need to be home in time to make dinner. And if I get hungry? Heck-I'll have a van full of tamales. Life will be good.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review (300)

My second post for the week is the blog review. Since I have the plague, and it is making me miserable, I'm going to go easy on myself by reviewing "Hyperbole and a Half" because it is entertaining and thus easy to work with.

My first experience with Allie Brosh's blog was this post: The English teacher in me fell in love with the grammar-based humor and the gentle lesson inherent in the silliness.

However, English teacher is only a small part of my persona. My well-developed sense of the goofy absurd is much more prevalent in my day-to-day interactions in most realms of my existence, and it is to that part that the majority of her posts speak.

That humor is in strong evidence here: Much like the Eddie Izzard Star Wars Canteen piece, this one brings me to incoherent tears of laughter. Also like the Eddie Izzard piece, it is situated around canonical irreverance that I find absolutely irresistible though I know there are some who would be horrified by both.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Derby Car, Part I

The Beginning
As I've mentioned previously, Pinewood Derby cars start out as blocks of wood, just like that one. The kit does include wheels and nails, and those vague instructions. Everything else is up to the scout and his parent.
Next: The Design
My scout is a fan of Star Wars. I could write multiple entries about his level of fandom, but I'll spare you beyond a mention that, on the corkboard in my office is my official Jedi Knight certificate. My scout also has one; we earned them by attending Star Wars camp this summer.

Needless to say, he wants his Derby car to be made in the image of a Delta-7 Jedi Starfighter (I just checked with him to make sure I got the name right).

Part 3: The First Cut
I know nothing of woodworking. Nothing. I've watched craftsmen turn table legs on old PBS shows, but that didn't translate into any kind of knowledge. The first drag of the blade across wood was far more intimidating that I expected. I think part of it was the fear that if I blew it, it was over and there would be no Derby for us this year. Yes, I know, we could wander over to the Scout store and get another one, but logic has no place in a discussion of fear.
It turns out that not only do coping saws only cut in one direction, but that their thin blades get wedged into the wood. Here, I'm shaking the saw trying to loose the wood so that I can finish cutting in the rear rocket boosters.

Rough Cut

This is the basic shape of our Jedi Starfighter/Pinewood Derby car. I did have to saw more of a point into the front, and my scout has started sanding it.

Next, we'll need to get a circular drill/saw to cut in the cockpit, paint, put on wheels and other refinements. For tonight, though, I'm just glad we made it this far.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Expectations 1 (What I Expect From Myself [also: 3rd post for the week.])

I was going to launch into some long-winded reflection of best practices and how they dovetail with expectations.

Instead, I'm going to discuss the Pinewood Derby and my impending sense of doom. Kiddo is a cub scout, which has been a godsend in terms of meeting new kids and having opportunities to try things like skiing and archery. I's good for both of us because my inclination is to hibernate while he is much more socially inclined. Additionally, I've always adamantly refused to overschedule the only childhood he has, which means that the one thing we DO choose needs to be something he really loves. This kid will never be a good team sports player--it just doesn't interest him. The scouting activities, however, he loves and so we plow forward. But now, it's Derby time.

Pinewood Derby cars, if you didn't know, start out looking suspiciously like a block of wood with a couple of grooves on the bottom. The block comes with a small packet of hardware and instructions like "A car with untrue axles tends to steer to one side or the other" (BSA). Is it just me, or does it sound like I should be performing lie detector tests? Kiddo got a Spy Gear version of one for the holiday, perhaps I should go dig it out.

This is our third year doing Derby; for the last two, his father helped him fashion something car-like from the block of wood. Given that his father lives in Michigan, it looks like it's my year to do the Derby car.

Oh god.

Rumor has it I need to buy a coping saw, some powdered graphite, sandpaper, paint, and various other...things related to crafting a Pinewood Derby car. Also, I've started making vague noises about offering extra credit to any of my students who can make one of the wretched things. Who cares that it's a writing class rather than woodworking, right? I'm all about alternative literacies.

Plus, the guys at Lowe's will probably laugh at me when I tell them I don't know what a coping saw is or how to use it. I hate it when the guys at Lowe's laugh at me. Again.

What, you're probably asking, does all of this have to do with expectations? Fair enough, since the assignment is to write about expectations.

So here ya go, my expectations (for the time being):

  • That I will not saw off one of my fingers
  • That my best efforts, and those efforts of the boy, result in placing higher than 5th yet again (per his request. I hate denying him things but I can't guarantee this one.)
  • That I will not start smoking again as a result of this endeavor
  • That at some point I will remember that I am, for the most part, a competent adult who is capable of following directions (even bizarre and arbitrary ones) most of the time

Surely these aren't too much to ask.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

An Appeal to the God of Wiper Blades (300 words, topic of choice)

The god of wiper blades hates me

It started last fall, during the rainy season. My driver's-side blade squeaked something fierce. It was particularly annoying that day, though in retrospect I'm not sure why.

I set off for work, heading down the back roads the way that I always do in order to avoid the Main Street traffic, which isn't heavy outside of tourist season but can be annoying nonetheless. Squeak. Pause. Squeak. Pause. Squeak. It didn't matter whether I sped them up Squeak.Squeak.Squeak. Or slowed them down. Squeak...pause...squeak...pause...squeak. They squeaked.

(Aside: I swear I thought I had written about this, but maybe not--maybe I just told the story so many times that it feels indelible.)

In a flash of brilliance I thought "Hey! I know! I'll snap the blade--that occasionally works." And, in fact, it does work sometimes. Unfortunately, "sometimes" is not equal to "while driving down the road at 50 mph." I know this because when I rolled down the window and reached out and grabbed the blade as it swiped toward the driver's side, it snapped off in my hand.

To make a long and much-told story short, that blade is, to the best of my knowledge, still resting peacefully somewhere along the side of CR-10.

No, the wiper-blade-god-hates-me story I wanted to tell is this one:

This morning, I decided to be lazy and not bother scraping the snow and ice off my car. Instead, I started it, cranked up the defroster, the defogger and the seat, then finished getting ready for work, which includes running around in the back yard with the dogs for a few minutes. This is apropos of nothing, just a part of my morning.

By the time I was ready to go, the windshield was clear enough to see, so I threw my stuff in the car and headed off.

I don't know what it is about CR-10.

Eventually, enough snow had blown off my hood that I needed to use the wipers, so I did. And so the arm made a swipe across the window while the blade itself stayed behind, frozen in place. Just...frozen.

I'm still not sure how that happened, given the way the wiper blade housing works on my car. What I do know is that I fixed it with a twist-tie (thankyouverymuch) and a whole lot of automotive optimism. I also made it to work frozen, soaked and a little grubbier than usual.

As for the wiper blade, I will have it replaced (again). And I will wait, ever so slightly on edge, for the next wiper mishap knowing that whatever it is that I imagine, the reality will be just a bit more absurd.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Arm Bar (300 word memory post)

Late spring of 2008, my mother had a massive stroke. She lived in St. Louis, MO with my brother; I lived in Michigan. Because it was summer and I had the freedom that comes with living by the academic calendar, I spent many of those weeks driving back and forth. During the time in St Louis, I reconnected with an old friend. It turned out to be one of those relationships that withstood the test of time, which was a gift at a moment when I desperately needed one.

My old friend was participating in a self-defense class that was built on the principles of ju jitsu. I involved things like triangle holds, hip flips and my favorite, the arm-bar.

I had a lot of anger that summer; it was a complete compendium of anger, really, the kind that can be destructive if we don't find ways to release it. I must have been quite the sight at those self-defense classes. I would come in to them after a day spent at the hospital, having one-sided conversations with someone who was barely lucid at the best of times; I was still angry, still tired, still unable to control my own life that was spinning out of control. The instructor paired me up with a guy who was twice my size and half my age--probably wise decisions--and twice a week he would grab a set of pads and I would proceed to attempt to beat the crap out of him. I don't think I did too much damage--he got pretty quick at blocking.

And eventually, a few weeks into the summer, the anger had finally reached a manageable level and the instructor decided that I was actually ready to learn a thing or two about self-defense. We started with basic evasive tactics, then quick disablers and ways to use an attackers strength against him or her, and then finally, near the end, I learned how to perform an arm-bar. Learning to do the perfect arm-bar was, for me, the high point of the summer. I had never been the world's best daughter or ideal sister; I might have spent a lot of the days with my slowly-declining mother wishing to be anywhere but there, but by damn, I could disable anyone who tried to get in my way.

There is power in anger, but there is more power in anger well-used. While it's true that I've grown a little rusty on the arm-barring (it would require practice, after all), what I haven't lost is the knowledge that I can choose how I engage with the world. I can use my anger to harmlessly attack a guy with pads, or I can use it more productively as an advocate for things like access, fairness and standards. Anger is a lot like fire--we can use it destructively, or we can use it, like a forge, to create something new and often unexpected.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Something (300 words)

For the third of last week's journals I asked my writers to describe a thing. The problem, or maybe advantage, of prompts like these is that I actually don't enjoy them. Instead I spent an awful lot of time debating and considering what "thing" I should describe, and how I should describe it. Should I write about the house I'm living, or one of my dogs, or what? By the way, it might be considered an advantage because it means that I recognize the limitations of the prompt and why I should actively avoid using it in the future.

A sidenote here--please keep in mind that 300 word posts should be reasonably coherent, but are not required to be deeply meaningful.

Prompt writing, like assignment-writing, is a blend of art and function. Too much art, and the prompt doesn't make sense (eg: Write a detailed personal-experience narrative that describes how you feel while eating burned popcorn and following the principles of Feng Shui); too much function (Describe an object) and it becomes--like this one--too vague. Knowing where the two meet, though, isn't as simple as it sounds. Mostly it requires a fair amount of trial and error and a willingness to get it completely wrong from time to time. Good (or even reasonably competent ones like myself) teachers are always trying new things. The ones that work, we keep. The ones that, if we're smart, we discard and never speak of them again.

So next time, I think I'm going to try to split the difference and maybe assign something like "Describe a moment in time that took your breath away." A little room for art, a little space for function, and hopefully a chance at some creativity that "describe a thing" sorely lacks. I suppose even "Describe an inanimate object that, when you see or use it, makes you happy" would be more effective.

And there, I just wrote 328 words about a writing prompt.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Magic carpet ride (300 words)

I am now officially behind on my entries, and my class will never let me hear the end of it. No doubt it will become a point of negotiation. :)

The second required topic that I'm working with today is describing a place. Since I'm freshly back from my first snowboarding lesson and whimpering on the couch, it seems like a good place to go for this entry.

I'm from the south, in case you weren't aware of this. I'm from a place where "fall" means that one day the leaves on the trees are green, and the very next they're brown and on the ground. There's no transition just...fall. I always thought, growing up, that "fall" meant that one day, and not an entire 3-moth season. True story.

I make a big deal out of this but, actually, I haven't lived in the south for, oh, um, over 20 years now. I don't have an accent, unless I've spent time communing with those who do, and the heat really does get to me if I happen to be below he Mason Dixon line in the summer. I also laugh at old friends who whine and wear heavy coats when the mercury dips below 50. Wimps.

Anyway, I'm rambling off-topic here.

Last winter, son of Commuter Mom had a snowboarding lesson and proved to be a bit of a natural at it. This is one of the advantages of living in northcountry: winter sports. We'd been talking about going back to try it again, and today we finally went.

Since moving to NY, I've tried a few things I've never done before. Something about this move has given me the courage to wiggle out of my comfort zone and I'm grateful. I may be in pain, but at least I'm not stagnant.

So today we went to a local resort and took snowboarding lessons. As I was driving up to the lodge, the mountains rose behind it, starkly menacing with their peaks hidden in the low clouds. This is NY in winter--there are always low clouds. But I had promised, and we were there, and so we went. The boy had a wonderful time, though the teaching style here is different than it was at the place he went in Michigan so there was a bit of confusion at the beginning. Fortunately, he's got enough natural ability that he could board down without breaking a sweat.

I was set up with a one-on-one lesson. My instructor was a lovely woman who has three kids and enough patience to not smack me upside the head though I'm sure she was tempted. After an hour of hard work I learned to stop and turn and (most importantly) stand up without help. Yeah, I'm that good.

After the lesson was over, the boy and I got some lunch then headed back to the bunny hill. He took the magic carpet like a pro, explaining how it was done like he was born to it.

I, on the other hand, slid off the end and took out the bright orange "poles down" sign when we got to the top. True story.

Next time, I'm going to try skis.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An intellectual beggar

As an educator, I spend a lot of time reading random and often arbitrary condemnations of the contemporary student. The complaints range from a generalized "students don't care" to this piece claiming that students have no curiosity:

I will confess that I've said the same thing more than once. It is every educator's fear that we are creating a generation of automatons--information is poured in, regurgitated on standardized tests, and we dust off our hands proclaiming students "educated". If this prospect doesn't frighten you, you're not paying attention.

Last year, my 2nd grader turned in a project that was, to our eyes, a bit of a mess. His teacher, however, was delighted with it. Her appraisal was that it was exactly the work a kid his age should be turning in and she lamented that his was one of only two that were.

And so this leads me to wonder which of us is responsible for a non-curious generation. Is it our testing society? Parents so afraid of their children failing that they take over and do the work? The media? Or, and this is the most challenging to swallow, are our students today as curious as we were back in our day but their curiosity manifests differently?

We tsk and cluck over the amount of time our students spend online rather than listening to our lectures, certain that intellectual Armageddon has finally arrived. We accuse them of being more interested in getting As than in learning. We may be right, or we may be missing the opportunity to become social anthropologists in our own world.

I've asked my current class to discuss what "intellectual begging" means for them. In return, I'm asking what it means for us, as educators. Sure, I have more content knowledge than my class. That's an easy one. What I don't have, however, is confidence in my ability to reshape the world in a keystroke. Despite my academic background, I don't have an aesthetic based on constant communication and collaboration. But what if I did? What if we all did--would it turn out tht we're the ones who've become incurious? It's something worth considering.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

English 101, Spring 2011 Ground Rules and First Entry

For this semester, I've reconstructed my Freshman Composition class (I'm contractually obligated to 1 per semester) around the concepts of Begging, Borrowing and Stealing. If you're here as part of that class, welcome and keep reading because there is some information here that you'll find useful. If not, you may find the work here more pedantic than usual. Please bear with me because it should get interesting as our semester progresses.

Some general background: every semester, I rebuild my Freshman Composition class because I'm never completely happy with it. For this class I hit upon the idea of beg, borrow and steal while I was thinking about how, in my other job, one of the things I'm charged with is gatekeeping, and how monitoring and preventing plagiarism is part of that process. And so as I was considering the ways that we attempt to do this, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to build an entire class around acts of plagiarism.

I had originally considered starting a new blog space for writing along with this class. The answer lies in the simple act of modeling. Some of my entries have the potential to be interesting, others are quite dreadful but in either case they are writing for the purposes of discovery, which is one of the goals of this class. Thus, I decided to build on what I already have rather than start over.

A little information for my students:

As I will continually remind you in class, my posts are largely unedited except for spelling and grammar. I expect that yours will be similarly proofread, but I'm not concerned about perfect prose.

I do not expect you to comment on my work. I do, however, expect you to thoughtfully comment on at least 3 of your classmates' posts.

I strongly recommend making a note of which classmates' posts you find the most interesting. This will serve you well later in the semester. Trust me.

Finally, this course is rated PG. If you fail to recognize that boundary, you will lose many points. Not sure what PG means? That information is available from the MPAA.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

10 Things to Do This Week

I have been a slient witness, the past few weeks, to monumental acts of courage. Among them are a young man, a college student, who publicly admitted that he is bulemic, a young woman with a life-altering illness take an offered hand even though it is against her nature, a friend pick up the crumbling pieces of a life she knew and start rebuilding, brick by brick.

They, of course, are not the only ones who have stared into the eyes of extraordinary challenge and tackled it head on. It happens daily, minutely, with each breath. They are our loved ones, casual acquaintances, and total strangers.

I've always felt a bit cursed that I attract damaged strangers and their stories. What, I've often wondered, am I supposed to do with these? But, as I've watched these lives unfold, listening to these stories told by people I know and love, it occurs to me that maybe this isn't a curse at all.

Exclusive of my role as a silent witness, I have no role in these stories--they are not mine to tell. However, I don't think it's possible to know extraordinary people without turning at least some bit of that lens inward; I am reminded of Socrates who argued that the unexamined life is not worth living. And I would like to believe that examining ourselves through those lenses can make us better at our own lives.

We've read the experiments showing that when many people are gathered, no one steps up to help when something happens. At the airport, recently, my son accidentally knocked a full cup of coffee out of my hands as we were waiting to board our flight. As I stood there, overburdened, soaking and watched with some sympathy by a group of unmoving people, a man slid through the crowd and handed me a large stack of napkins. "I saw you down the hall" he said, "I let them know that they need to get a mop." And I thought, as he disappeared back into the crowd, I want to be him.

I am a classic introvert. I tend to be silent when speaking is preferable, I tend to keep my thoughts and ideas to myself unless I'm certain of their welcome. Recently, I did a posting about 25 things I would do if given a day without consequences. For a variety of reasons, most of them are improbable (I did mention my introversion, right?). What my current self-reflection tells me, though, is that I spend too much time naming the improbable in the service of avoiding the uncomfortable. So, in no particular order, 10 things I will do this week not because they are extraordinary but because they aren't:

1) Say "I love you"
2) Admit fear
3) Assume the positive
4) Express gratitude
5) Share
6) A favor
7) Touch with care
8) Forgive
9) Hope
10) Speak

It's all very touchy-feely, something I actively try to avoid. This may be the most frightening week of my life.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


When given a little bit of quiet and left to my own devices (such as while flying), I think about things like what would I wish for if a genie should swoop down and offer me one wish (no wishing for more wishes), and one wish only. At first, I assumed I'd be a bit altruistic. After all, what's the point in having wishes if we can't put them to good use?

Then I decided that this is my fantasy life we're talking about so I would instead wish for something that is probably beyond the realm of possible. That was a little more challenging, but I finally made a decision: 24 hours. More precisely, 24 hours without consequence; 24 hours in which I could do anything I wanted without the effects, for ill or for good, lasting beyond my 24 hours.

Then, of course, came the thinking about what I'd do during that 24 hours.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of 25 possibilities. Some are questionable, a few others are illegal, and many are just in very poor taste.

Note: my family is not included in any of these--they can pick their own 25 things should they choose the same wish.

Join the circus and learn to walk the tightrope
Tell only lies
Borrow a monkey for the day
Sing instead of talk
Eat nothing but bread, cheese and butter
Act my age
Drink scotch and smoke cigarettes
Spend a few hours in Italy
Kiss someone dangerous
Buy tabloid magazines and tuck them into random strangers' shopping bags
Shoplift excellent shoes
Drive a cab in NYC
Take a train to an unknown destination and lose the return ticket
Dance instead of walk
Embrace the impossible
Speak only truth
Wear tacky clothes intended for a much younger woman
Speak in bad foreign accents while wearing mom jeans and white sneakers
Flirt with everybody (especially old people)
Steal books from the library
Buy dinner for 8 strangers
Swim in the Arctic Ocean
Dig for dinosaur bones

This is fantasy not reality so sure, most of these are beyond my personal realm of probable. But maybe not all of them--and isn't that the point of an exercise like this? A few minutes of fancy just might lead to a new path (like joining the circus) or a refined goal (dinner with 8 strangers? Intriguing). Entertaining the impossible gives us the opportunity to illuminate what is possible. It may also be nothing more than a half hour's quiet entertainment; what we make of our wishes is, simply, up to us.