Monday, March 30, 2009

Finding Ourselves Again

Do you want chopsticks? I asked my husband as he stir-fried the meal from Trader Joe's, one of our favorite resources when neither of us wants to stop and cook.

He did and so did I, so I pulled open--or should I say--yanked open the drawer in our kitchen which houses the odds and ends. Yanked, because something was stuck. While he pushed the food around in the hot pan, I decided to excavate.

Plastic forks, spoons, some wrapped from fast food runs, the Japanese chopstick rests, the children's silverware (miniature versions of ours for the grandchildren), serving spoons, the Christmas-themed cheese spreaders, nutcrackers, more-than-enough chopsticks (from our trip to Japan), clippies to hold the chip bags shut, cheese slicers, orange peelers: a veritable treasure trove of clattering, clanging, cluttering detritus.

My husband looked over at me as I unloaded most of this onto the counter. What are you doing? Getting the chopsticks in order, I said. I didn't wash out the baskets that held it all, but did winnow down the bulk of these items and restowed them back in place. The drawer opened and shut smoothly.

When I'm on the run, it's tasks like this that remain undone. The floor in my study starts to pile with books. The ironing board becomes another surface on which to pile things. The guest bedroom collects shipping boxes around the corners. The spare bed in my husband's study starts to resemble an archaeological dig, layer upon layer of manuscripts and papers to be read.

For when we get too busy, we just stack and layer and toss and vow to come back later (summer, anyone?) and find ourselves again.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Luminosity at the Beauty Counter

Yesterday I spent 40 minutes with a really charming young salesclerk with long brown hair, big eyes, an engaging smile and a pace that would never challenge a snail. After more than a half an hour of trying to find my bottle, my color, my style, sorting through the more than seven Wonderful! Different! Age-Defying! kinds of make-up and then realizing that they didn't really stock mine, I decided to push on with the rest of my errands and asked her to call me when she figured it all out.

She called last night. I said I'd see her around 2 p.m. today, after teaching.

Went back, arriving at 2:05. She was at lunch. I wait while the neighboring beauty counter lady helps two people. Then it's my turn. However she couldn't find the bottle on hold--did she put it on hold? she asked me. I shrugged my shoulders and recounted to her that I'd received a call saying it was here. After thirty minutes of waiting, looking, more shrugging, the Salesgirl waltzes in from lunch.

Can I just say it shouldn't be this hard to pick up some make-up? And why didn't I head over to another counter? Free gift time, of course. Can't miss out on those free little make-up bags with free stuff.

She shows me what she thinks, dipping her swab into the bottle and then on me. It's lighter, I say. I'll look like I'm wearing a mask. I'll have a make-up line at my chin like all those old women I see.

It's not really lighter than yours, she says, Just more luminous. We have a scale of 1-6 of luminous, she says, leaning in closer.

The thought crosses my mind as she continues to try to persuade me with her limited grasp of her product line that she sounds like my remedial English students trying to explain the use of commas in their Grammar Groups. I'm also thinking, as I look at myself in the mirror--then look at her face--that she sees me like she sees her grandmother. And maybe that's why she's so pitifully slow. She's trying to give me a break and let it all sink in to this obviously near-dead brain. Whatever. It's painful. (If I am near dead, it's because I was trying to explain commas to remedial English students, preparing for their Grammar Group presentation.)

I realize that when I look in the mirror, I see all of me--my life, my kids, my grandkids, my eyes, my face, my older self, my younger self, my possibilities, my limitations, the extra weight I should lose, the wrinkles I've acquired, the great smile, the good teeth, the pretty-good eyebrows, the love I have for my students, the fatigue of grading, the pride I feel over having walked already that morning even with a sore hip, the lingering dream about trying to mold clay over and over at a potter's wheel (never even sat at one). I see everything.

When she's stroking make-up on me at the Estee Lauder counter, she sees: old woman. Not her possibly ancient abuelita who they maybe buried last year in Guanajato, but just old, as in her mother, her grandmother. The worn-out-from-life old, the come sit here by me on the sofa you beautiful granddaughter old, as the wrinkled woman supposedly pats the plastic covered cushion, while the salesgirl flicks back her long dark hair. Her grandmother catches it, strokes it and calls her Mija and they talk about the day and how it went for her at the beauty counter with all the different people. Oh, it's crazy, the salesgirl says. It's free gift time, and so many people!

The salesgirl puts the foam wedge down on the tissue, studies my face and shrugs her shoulders. It's not lighter, she repeats the third time. Just more luminous.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Think About It, part I

I picked this up last night from a teachery site (basically rants about our beloved higher education experience--so cathartic). Couple that with a book I've been reading, L. Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences, and I'm starting to bend my mind around a new thinking about higher ed.

I have resisted mightily all this K-12 "drift-up" of assessments, Student Learning Outcomes, scorings, reading other classes' essays and the like, feeling instead like I was the one being scored. It's partly true, I realize, because we as teachers are the one constant in education. A good teacher, according to Malcolm Gladwell's piece, teaches up to a year-and-a-half's worth of material; a poor teacher accomplishes about three-fourths of what is expected.

But this video hits on my level of education, and my fondly-held beliefs are sliding away, inch by inch. I resisted the idea that we move away from content-centered teaching to student-centered teaching because it all sounded so, well, chaotic. I had this vision of a classroom of hepped up freshmen, tuned into iPods, throwing pencils or Twinkies at each other--basically the inmates running the institution (unfortunate metaphor, but it works). But Fink's book is wising me up to a different thinking about how I approach my classroom experience. I think of some of my students who are relying on me to present good content, as well as assist them in getting through the research paper/English 101. That responsibility weighs heavy some days.

I'm looking forward to summer, where I can really dig into my syllabus and (perhaps) even make some changes.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Free Stuff

I know now why I've put off grading these English 101 essays. I'm more than half-way through and I have to spend an inordinate amount of time going over their sources to ensure proper attribution. Do Grade 3 teachers worry about plagiarism like we do up here in Grade 13 (a standard joke at our community college)?

When a generation thinks it's all okay to download music, books, software all for free I can tell they haven't internalized that old saying of my friend's: You don't know whose it is, but you know it isn't yours. In other words, if you don't own it, you can't have it. If it doesn't have your name on it, you can't take it home with you unless you pay for it. If you find it, you don't say Finders-Keepers-Losers-Weepers--you try and find the owner unless doing so is completely out of line with the value of the item or where you found it--say a penny on the side of the road.

Perhaps the sloppy scholarship I'm seeing comes from being seduced by the strength of the author's words, which make writing look so easy, so smooth. Maybe the plagiarism is accidental, due to ignorance. Hard to believe that a student can come to my classroom never having heard about plagiarism. Or perhaps it's laziness.

I like a freebie as well as the next person, always lining up at the Clinique counter for my Beauty Bonus. And when my husband goes to a convention I tell him to pick up whatever they're giving away--free stuff is always a good time.

Just not in my English papers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Happy Place

Just like Peter Pan had his Happy Thought Place, I have mine, but on the web. I go there when I'm sick and tired of lesson prep, grading, entering said grades. I sit. I click. I wipe the drool off the keyboard. You have your own Happy Place. This is mine:

(Heather Bailey's online shop.)

For I'm a quilter, you see, and we collect fabrics. We don't collect them necessarily to do anything with them (a corollary would be a workbench full of screws, nails, power tools) but we always PLAN to do something with them. Sometimes this planning takes place as we are stroking the folded fabric in our local quilt shop, or clicking-clicking online. Many times it is in the abstract, as the shopkeeper slices off a yard or two of an especially exquisite piece of yardage.

It's for the Double-Four Patch, we'll say when she asks us. Or--we add,tilting our head to the side--this piece might also coordinate with that group of greens I've been saving for the guest bedroom quilt. She nods knowingly, as she's seen this disease before, wields her rolling cutter, and slice! Another folded piece for our stash.

Yes, the technical name is "stash." I have a fairly comprehensive stash, some fabrics dating back to when I first learned to quilt, some thirty years ago. At that time I took one class and learned how to make a nine-inch square quilt. The second class taught me how to bind it and quilt it. Then, feeling ready, I made a queen-sized quilt out of fabric and sheets. This was in the days before rotary cutters, rulers and mats. I painstakingly traced around a cardboard template for all of the patches, then sewed them together on my little sewing machine, then quilted it all by hand. I only had one baby and no job, so within a year I had that quilt on my bed. That seemed all rather quick, actually.

Now we slice, sew on machines that cost as much as a car did then (you know, back when we churned our own butter). Now I take it over to the quilter to get the quilting done. A slow machine quilter will take about a month, rotating my quilt into the line-up (I think the actual quilting only takes a day or two) and within 6 weeks, if I'm diligent and am not grading papers or doing lesson prep, I could have a quilt start-to-finish.

Today I'm dreaming of summertime, of days when I can quilt and sew and cut and listen to music and NPR radio shows and not think about dangling participles, run-on sentences, cranky students and wierd emails. Today I'm in my Happy Place.

(Anna Marie Horner's shop, online. )

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thank You For Shopping

Our local grocery store is undergoing a renovation which translates to moving all the grocery items around so you can't find them, ripping up the floors every night so we walk on scraped concrete in the day, and filling one-third of the parking lot with fenced-in equipment, supplies, boxes and trash. It's a slight pain, nothing big, really.

Until I saw that they planned to get rid of three of the regular checkstands and put in those annoying self-help checkstands. Okay, okay for those of you who love them, let me guess why: no waiting in line, can control the pace, you love the annoying voice that narrates your entire transaction and you enjoy the game of Where Do We Put The Money, along with Where Does The Money Come Out.

I use these at Home Depot. A can of paint is not a big deal and the weigh machine is NOT confused that there is an item that has been moved to the bag. It doesn't ask you to place the item in the bag over and over.

But how is this good in a grocery store, where a jalapeno chili requires three screens of look-up and when all's said and done probably the bag it's in weighs more than the chili? Or if one of the PLU stickers is off of the zucchini (you get extra points if you know what PLU stands for, or even what it is when the annoying digital lady voice tells you to look for it) that you have to know to hit the pumpkin screen because it is, after all, a squash and then hit the squash screen again and then don't hit the cucumber screen but instead the zucchini screen and there's no way to fix your dumb error and you're really hungry and all you wanted was some vegetables (you lose extra points if you use the word "veggie" around me) to go in your salad and where's the REAL person?

She arrives and you just know she worked in a dental office before she came to work at the Grocer's and is firm, but pleasant and no nonsense and you wish you had gone through the checkstand with the tall lady with the hair that's upswept platinum and takes a half of a can of hairspray to keep it balanced while she enters your PLU codes and smiles the whole time even though her lipstick is outside her lip line and bright pinky-red, she's infinitely better than the digital lady voice saying for the third time, THANK YOU LOYAL CUSTOMER PLEASE TAKE YOUR CHANGE, and you would if you could only figure out where it is.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Common Threads

I listened to Joe Cocker's Feeling All Right as I crossed the desert. After him came New Soul, Sunchyme (a trance cut), Crush by David Archuleta, Bongo Bong by Manu Chao, Praan, and Living in a Bubble by Eiffel 65, among others.

(Crossing the Mohave)

I like music most of the time. I think about those early settlers who sang or whistled to provide their own tunes, with silence as the norm. I think I'm lucky to be able to carry a tune, but have to admit I sound much better when the iPod is cranked up and it's blasting Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, with me as Annie Lenox's back-up singer.

I carry music on aforementioned iPod, have it on my computer when I'm working, driving, cooking in the kitchen. I have different playlists for different moods and seasons, and in all this I'm not much different than any other person today.

But don't give me music when I'm on hold on the phone, or when I'm in the doctor's office (and NO television there either, as I carry my own reading material and have ways to entertain myself that don't involve People's Court or Oprah). I also hate music on websites and especially blogs as I have my own tunes playing as I surf the web, thank you very much.

And now, Sunday morning I'm off now to church where another wonderful musical tradition exists: the hymn. I love the old standards, the words and melodies and shifting harmonies, that have always been a part of my life. Sometimes I visit other churches when I'm traveling and when the pastor/preacher's sermon grows less engaging, I'm apt to open the hymnal of this different religion with its different service and pattern. In these hymns, no matter what church you were raised in, can be found our common threads.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Letter I Didn't Send

The Letter I Didn't Send:
Dear Dingbat,
When you wrote me last time for your mid-term grade, I had just walked in the door from school, a mere 3 hours after I had given your entire class of 30 students the test. I didn't even roll my eyes when I wrote you back saying that I don't give out grades without the tests, and that I would work on them over Spring Break and you'd find out your score when we returned.

Imagine my surprise in checking my email the night I returned home from my trip, finding another email from you, telling me it was really important that you know your mid-term test grade and would I please tell you.

Well, Dingbat, I've been a little busy. Since I last corresponded with you, I've been in three cities, two states, driven across two deserts, flown over another, attended a funeral, held babies, cooked and cleaned and sewed and sorry to say, didn't get your midterm graded.

And because Uncle Sam outranks you, I didn't even jump right on it this morning, instead doing taxes with my husband, so we can send them off to our tax guy Lloyd this afternoon.

So, as I said before, you'll find out your score when I hand you back the test on Tuesday. I also noticed that you hadn't posted on our class blog like you were supposed to, and that your paragraph revisions---the only grading I did get to--was missing. Did you forget to turn it in?

I like you a lot Dingbat, but enough already. I have a full life outside of the classroom. As an adjunct professor, I'm only paid for the hours I'm there, so my off-time is my time. Not yours.

See you Tuesday.

The Letter I Did Send:
Dear Student,
I've been out of town traveling and am not near my school materials. I hope Tuesday is early enough for you to find out your grade on your midterm.

Ms. Teacher

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Saturday morning, I got up very early, navigated the speed traps on the freeways around my son's town and flew up to Utah to Aunt Jean's funeral. This lovely tree is at the Farmington cemetary, where she was buried.

My mother is always very thoughtful and gets flowers to send from our family. This is a closeup of the beautiful arrangement.

Sunday morning, I was back on the plane, back through Phoenix's airport where they have a wonderful stained glass ceiling over a suspended airplane in the center of the terminal.

And I headed back to Matthew's to this treasure: Brooke. Here she is laying on the quilt I made for her, steadied by her father's hand.

Monday morning I was on the road again, up to Flagstaff to Barbara's house, where a happy baby welcomed me.

Barbara is beautiful, although to me she looks tired, and one of her helpers was at her home when I arrived. The helper agreed to babysit the 2-year-old while I drove my daughter to get gas in her car and some food in the fridge. I worried the whole time that I would tire her out further, and rounded the corner to see her leaning on her shopping cart (I was getting some milk). I couldn't get her home fast enough.

How to keep life going when you've been hit with a chronic, debilitating illness seems to be her challenge, and it's like watching Philippe Petit cross the cables strung between the Twin Towers, one step at a time. One step at a time. How come something so trite is actually calming? Do those old cliches get repeated because they all contain a nugget of truth? My latest for myself is "Go Zen," meaning take it in stride, as stress-free as possible.

Friday, March 06, 2009

I've always been fascinated by Matthew's hands. From an early age, they would reach out, fingers often splayed as if to filter the world down to his size. So, that led to a photo of his hand with his new baby's. I like her expression--what would you say it is?
Some days I just worry about myself.
I didn't worry when I was twenty, when I should have.
I didn't worry when I was thirty, because I didn't have the time.
I didn't worry when I was forty, because nothing ached yet.
Fifty came and went and I was still standing, and holding my long-sought-after MFA. On top of the world--fifty looked good.

I remember reading a story about two Bubbes in the New York Times many years ago. These little grandmothers of Jewish origin had prompted a piece written by their granddaughter and it was a touching, insightful piece about the ravages and delights of old age. (A hit, the granddaughter went on to write a book.)

I'm certainly not there yet, but I can stand in the middle of my life now and see those years coming, just as I can look back and see myself at twenty. Of course there are some basic assumptions being made here, such as I'll someday be as old as my grandmother, who died at 105.

So the worrying comes when the plate is too full and too grueling (like the feeling at the end of term--for all you teachers--with grading and grades and lesson plans and hitting the wall) and I worry that I won't be able to pull it off and that I'll have to lie on my sofa for days afterwards, eating comfort foods and watching movies from the 1940s when I should really be up-and-at those other projects I'd lined up before the wall came around and smacked me in the head.

My marathon week begins today with a drive across the California-Arizona deserts to see my newest grandchild, a five-hour schlep. I've downloaded some new tunes onto the iPod, bought some red licorice and pretzels (perfect driving food), threw my clothes into the suitcase last night and have my stacks and stacks of papers to grade (just in case I need something to do while I'm there).

So stay tuned, and please get out those ratty pom-poms from the last football game you attended and cheer me on. And while you're at it, give a cheer for yourself. We can all use a little razz-a-ma-tazz now and then. Even if you worry.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

(The only photo I have of her is this snapshot with Uncle Steve mugging in the foreground, and she by his side with that wonderful smile on her face, Yes--that's me on the right.)

I woke up early today, thinking about my Aunt Jean, my mother's sister, who died yesterday after a long illness (Alzheimer's Disease). I remember my last interaction with her at her rest home.

She looked like an adolescent, with acne and her dark hair--relatively free of gray even at her age--now cut in a bob. She didn't have her glasses on and as we sat around the table I wondered if to her, we all looked like blurry moving masses of color. Uncle Steve, her husband, met my mother, my father and I there; we had come because it was my aunt's birthday.

She sat silent, gazing at us like we were the ones in the zoo, her mask-like face showing neither awe, nor curiosity. Uncle Steve stroked her hand. She turned and looked at my father, mother, then me, then at the lady serving lunch.

After chatting at her and around her and congratulating her on her birthday, it was time to go. I stood and leaned over very close to her face and said "Happy Birthday, Aunt Jean." The blank mask she'd worn the entire visit dropped away for a second; her eyes lit up and I sensed the person there. A wide, beauty-queen smile--a twin to my mother's radiant grin--broke over her face. I patted her shoulder, moved back to give my mother her chance. As my mother stood up from her hug, Aunt Jean's mask slid back into place.

We left her behind the locked doors, walking out into the brisk sunny day. Although in many ways she's been gone a long time, today I miss her more than I can say.