March 31, 2009

Slices That Illuminate

The day we left our home in California, some five years ago, to live in Washington, DC for a year's sabbatical, both my husband and I--unbeknownst to each other--took photographs of our house. He said he was taking them in case the renters trashed the place. I was taking them to remember--to capture this place where we'd come together just married with four children as now we were moving on to a different phase of life: sans children, building our own memories together.

So, I'm taking photographs today--mental photos--clicking around to each of your blogs to say goodbye on this last day in March after a month of Slicing. I did it initially as a lark. As in, I say I'm a writer, but all I've been writing lately is comments on English papers, time to see what I'm made of, sort of thing. This Slicing is a treasure.

I've left the reasons why in bits and pieces on all your posts. Like Carrie, I treasured what I was taught about writing when you don't feel like it--when you have to, like what we ask of our students. Like Lisa, it's that one perfect shrimp-quesadilla-moment that we hang a memory or two on. Like T-Dawg, it's realizing that the writing has taken a backseat far too long, held captive by grading demands and lesson prep and finally, it was time to Take Ourselves Seriously and write.

I went onto Two Writing Teachers' blog to read the origin of this March Madness (if I may borrow that phrase). A student complained his life wasn't worth writing about. But if he'd seen Lennye's post about her student Kenny, sprinting for the outside sun after sitting by his mother's casket all day he'd see what Ruth and Stacey saw: that all of our lives have slices that illuminate the world with goodness and sorrow and indecision and anguish and wishing and hoping and bad days and grocery store crazies and getting a suntan when it's 63 degrees outside and eating a waffle breakfast on a getaway weekend and playing Quidditch and writing one-sentences posts and so on and so on.

Many thanks to Ruth and Stacey. Many thanks for everything.

March 30, 2009

Going Minimal

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I love the early morning quiet.
Sliding into the computer chair, I write my penultimate Slice, note our squeaky wheel sounding bird in the neighbor's tree, anticipate the dawn. The day lays in front of me like an empty freeway; I'm turning up the stereo full-blast and taking it on.

(Inspired by Carrie's post yesterday, I'm going minimal, instead of my usual maximal).

March 29, 2009


I sat in the back today in our church service, as we were a tad late and the only available seats were in the rear of our chapel. I didn't feel terribly connected to the service, distance will do that you know, so allowed my mind to think about my mother-in-law, Alberta. This brain-wandering might possibly happen in a park, or at home, but in all other places I keep myself busy, occupied, reading, writing, watching, thinking. Only in church, do I sit. And ponder. And today it was about Alberta.

Her son (my husband) married my four children and I, I like to say. We were both older, but the children were not (ages 5-12) and so he and I raised them (as their father also sat in the back on his children's lives, so to speak). Alberta was an excellent mother-in-law, and was generous and giving, kind, with an occasional wit that would come zinging out of nowhere. She took her job seriously, not in the way grandmothers tend to do now--with too many trips to Toys-R-Us for multiples of cheezy plastic toys--but in the way of playing Rummikub for hours with our youngest son, or happy to take our teenaged daughter up on her offer for a lipstick (culled from my free beauty counter discards). She also encouraged our older boys to hang out with their other cousins-by-marriage, often involving long hikes to the top of peaks, late-night ice cream runs, water balloon fights and Ultimate Frisbee games.

I loved her, realizing from the first marriage, that a mother-in-law could help or hurt. I now had a helper, and so was welcoming and kind even when they'd come the week of finals in my senior undergraduate year. (Her advice for me then was to "slow down," a bit of a mismatch considering what I pushing through, but I recognized the impulse, the message.)

She died a few years ago, in May, and now that I have my own daughters-in-law, I see only too keenly what skills she had, and how in many ways I could have been a better daughter-in-law. I could have called her more. I should have sent more notes and newsy letters. I did remember her birthday every year, but why didn't I send her flowers, just because? Just because she was the mother of my husband?

I've run into stormy weather and I can't seem to fix it; it pains me. I have wondered for this past year if this is a kind of payback--Karma-style--for the distance I must have unknowingly maintained with Alberta. Do I feel guilty? Undoubtedly. However, I do allow some of missteps to be acknowledged as just that: missteps due to ignorance, or lack of understanding. Never was it calculated, as is the situation I find myself in now.

So, back to church. As I sat half-listening, mostly thinking about Alberta, the refrain I constantly ask myself in conjunction with the difficult situation arose: Am I doing all that Alberta would do? Am I measuring up? And then I apologize in my mind for the umpteenth time for not being a better daughter-in-law. I do that often. Would Alberta be proud of me?

I listened to the organ begin our interlude. Stop worrying, came the thought. And then in the first person: I am happy with what you do.

This wasn't from a heavenly visitation, there was no celestial visitor (I'm no saint!). It wasn't like that. Perhaps I just had to be still enough for long enough that I could recognize what she might say to me if she were still here, if I could confide in her and ask her advice. Whatever it was, I felt a wave of warmth, grateful for church and stillness and pondering. Grateful for Alberta.

And about the other situation? I'll keep trying, just as she would.

March 28, 2009

Finding Ourselves Again

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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.

March 27, 2009

Time Can Work Wonders for my Photograph Skills

Slicing my computer desktop into squares, my computer screen saver reminds me of our last trip to England and Italy: the delights of Lake Maggiore and its perfectly charming hotel/restaurant, our travels to other lakes and Bergamo. We also skipped over to England and toured York and the bucolic countryside of central England (we even went to Wallace and Grommit's creamery in Wensley Dale!).

When we first come home from a trip, the pictures seem so pitiful and puny. This wasn't at all like what we saw or experienced, we'll say to each other. We washed out again in the photo department. But give it about a month and we'll be gazing at our screen saver, pointing out memories, trading our stories. It's amazing what time can do for one's photography abilities.

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 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 ancient as in her abuelita who they 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 I supposedly pat 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.

March 25, 2009

Slices to Brighten the Day

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Teensy slice:
Relieved of the burden of heavy grading load for a day or two, today was:
dr. apt
birthday shopping
deposit check
eat leftover birthday meal for lunch (yum)
shop for clothes
shop for sheets
race race race to get it all done on one day and when I turn out of the Mall parking lot onto a neighboring boulevard, there were thousands and thousands of orange, rust, yellow, red daisy-like gazanias bordering the road.

This was a perfectly delightful slice of color that brightened up my day. (And I followed it with a slice of leftover birthday cake!)

March 24, 2009

Cake Olympics

There's a great lemon cake recipe in the Silver Palate Cookbook. I've probably made it over 150 times and always in the pan shaped like a cathedral.

At least that's what we think it looks like. The recipe calls for "preparing the pan." That doesn't sound like much, but with all its nooks and crannies it can take up to ten minutes greasing it with a brush, then banging the flour into the crevices with a satisfying thunk on the palm of the hand.

For the trick is not in the cake, necessarily, for it would be good in any tube-type pan with its combination of buttery lemon goodness. No, the trick is 10 minutes after the cake has been cooling on the rack and It's Time To Take It Out Of the Pan. We could rate this process like the ice skating judges do--okay, maybe not those people--how about like the old-fashioned gymnastics scoring, back when we understood what a 10 was.

When I tried a shortcut of just using spray shortening, that time we ate the cake in pieces. (score: 6) When I stepped up a level and used spray shortening-and-flour, we ate it in chunks, a cathedral peak at a time. (score: 7) Sometimes the side would remain in the pan, or else the top, stuck in the pan's ceiling as if adhered by denture fixative. When I would lift it off the inverted cake, all of a sudden it would fall like a sack of hammers onto the bottom section, disintegrating (think those implosions of old Vegas hotels). Smaller chunks, accompanied by crumbs. (4) We ate it anyway.

So, for my husband's birthday on Monday, I held my breath as I lifted the heavy cathedral pan off of the inverted cake.

A career best: 10s all around.

Happy Birthday!

March 23, 2009

Something to Think About

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.

I've already started one new thing: minimal marking. For those who are English profs, the grading is the complete and utter drag. The students write essays; we hook a ball and chain around necks and give up our nights and weekends.

I've switched to a technique called minimal marking, putting Xs in the margin where I see their errors (sometimes writing down what I see on the side), not correcting their errors or their syntax. I then total up their errors on the grading rubric that gets attached to their essay. We had a class record on Saturday of 63 errors in a 4-page essay. I mark their grades down in MY book, and hand them back unscored. While I do have to look over the revisions again when they come in, it's a much quicker process and I'm not bleeding ink all over their essays. Overall it does take less time.

I'm also not bitter ("I spend so much time and you're still turning in this. . . this drivel?"). They have two weeks to get the revised essay back in, or I'll retain the (usually lower) provisional score. Email me if you want details at e(dot)eastmond--at--gmail(dot)com, or do a search on Minimal Markings.

The wind is blowing here, it's my husband's birthday and guess what? He's downstairs at the kitchen table--grading student homework (he's a professor of science at Big U). So whistle Happy Birthday in his honor!

March 22, 2009

If I Were a Hound

If I were a hound dog, the day thus far would smell like:
peachy talcum powder brought back from England
banana on a bowl of granola
freshly-squeezed orange juice
moth balls from the lady sitting next to me at church
sweet sweet, overly sweet perfume from another older woman
buttery madeleines--a treat for my Sunday School class
Leninade, a combo orange/lemon soda bubbling in a blue glass, tickling my nose
cinnamon-spice from a batch of snickerdoodles
freesias on the kitchen table

March 20, 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.

March 19, 2009

One Sentence, Please

I must say, that this assignment/request/challenge--that of writing a Slice in one sentence--reminds me of a term at grad school, when the professor (an amazing poet of some reknown) declared that we would write poems, and not the usual free verse we'd been used to as undergrads, but rather would attempt (her words, not mine) to write them in a certain form that only she, as the professor, would choose because after all, we were there to learn, weren't we, and at this we all nodded and took to writing in villanelles, sonnets, blank verse, Shakespeare's favorite of iambic pentameter; we slaved over these forms, willing ourselves to be swept up! taken up! transformed by the sheer rigor of form, rather than letting our messy selves be untidy and unkempt--for form championed all, and it gave a structure for which to tackle the difficult, as did Browning in his romantic and oft-quoted sonnets--and in our puny lives we figured our difficulties would move us to write transcendent pantoums, ballads and sestinas and so eagerly did we attend to our task that we were completely surprised, that final week of class, to learn that our assignment now was to lay aside the form and write from the heart, not being restrained by either ancient or modern verbal shackles, as she felt that we had learned our lessons and now would write better for having tried, would write better for attempting the difficult, that we would write (so she hoped--and so did we) . . . better.


The scent of orange blossoms fills the air, competing with freesias and wisteria for my attention.

Tired, oh so Tired

Can I just talk about tired right now? Does the talking about it make it better or worse? Does thinking about napping summon the energy to get up, take the shoes off, fiddle with the blanket and snooze? Or do I just drag drag drag through the day and anticipate the pleasure of getting jammified and in between the sheets early in the evening, letting myself drowse off after reading a House Beautiful magazine?

Okay, I'm tired. Not as tired as Katie wrote about yesterday, having gotten up at 2:30 a.m. Maybe not as tired as I was when I had little babies at home and one of them had an ear ache and cried every time I laid her down, so I spent the night on the sofa, the tiny head up against my warm chest, sitting vertically so the pressure was eased on my daughter's ear.

Maybe not as tired as I was after spending the night in a hospital chair beside a son's bedside, the nurses and orderlies and doctors in and out all night long for the patient across from us, the last lab tech--after drawing blood from an ankle--leaving the little child all uncovered and crying. I glanced over at my son, still sleeping. I got up, re-dressed the baby, wrapped the little baby girl tightly mummy-style and propped her up on her side, my hand caressing her back until she fell asleep.

But I think it's a terrible joke of nature that just as soon as I get the babies raised and the teenagers all settled in their lives, taking their variety of sleepless nights with them, that I can't sleep. Last night it all began with a spate of mid-term grading, lasting until midnight. I turned out all the lights, went to bed, exhausted. But at this age, sometimes sleep comes and sometimes it doesn't and there isn't much--other than swallowing a pill--that I can do about it.

The windows open because of mild weather--I lay there listening to the lone bird a street or two over call out in the darkness. I heard a car drive slowly up our street, then drive back down again. The beep of a car door locking. I turned to the other side, and finally fell asleep, the last glance at the clock showing nearly 1 a.m.

So, today, since I have no babies, no teenagers, and no class tomorrow (I'll start grading again later--two more sets of essays), I'm kicking off my shoes, and going horizontal.

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. Click to enter.)

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. Click to go there.)

March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day

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I wilted into my computer chair after arriving home, willing myself to think of something to write, to post. I'm in the habit now of reading others' posts, enjoying this community of writers (I'll hate to see this end) and feel a responsibility to write something worthwhile.

But try as I did, the headache, the classes, the grading, the fatigue all conspired against me.

So I went to the local shopping center to pick up some analgesic. Who would have thought that on this, St. Patrick's Day, they'd import Scottish bagpipers to liven up the shopping? I felt better immediately watching their kilts swing as the walked back and forth as I listened to the drones. One piper's nimble fingers coaxed out the tune Scotland The Brave (one of my favorites). I thought of my father, who wanted to learn the pipes at a certain point in his life--right about the age I am now. He bought the chanter, took lessons and occasionally would bring out the bag to show us. It's all gone now, that whim traded for serious landscape painting around age 70.

I stopped in for a pedicure, where the Vietnamese lady who runs the shop says "Hi Liz" (she never says my whole name) and who answers her phone, "Super Nail." Tracy, also from Vietnam, is my usual toe-lady and she and her friend Christine break off from conversations with their customers to trade quips back in forth in their quick-talking native tongue.

Next door is the restaurant Miyako, and since my husband's out of town, I stopped in for some sushi. Next to me was a family from somewhere in Eastern Europe--Russia would be my usual guess, but they could have easily been Turkestanian or Georgian. They asked the waitress "What ethnicity are you?" and although I thought of her as American, she answered "Korean."

Most people in the US think of California as something either Hollywood-ish or Mexican, given our movies, Spanish background and immigration numbers. But somehow in the city where the navel orange grows in fields and fields of bushy green trees, we have our own little United Nations.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

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.

March 15, 2009

Common Threads

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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.

[I got around to most everyone's posts yesterday, up until I went to dinner with my husband. I found (to my delight) that none of the Slicers have canned music on their blogs. I guess we're all about reading and writing, allowing our visitors their own choice of songs.]

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.

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, my dear student, 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, 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 David,
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

March 13, 2009

Homage to Barbara

(Barbara plays with her new daughter.)

Today is the day I leave my daughter's and head home. Last night after we said our good-nights, I went to my room and wept. She is my only daughter, named for my mother. I know some of that emotion is simply coming to the end of a busy and long week, but some of it is also saying good-bye to someone I love more than my own life.

I admire so much about her. She, even with her heart disease, runs a tight ship--although it feels less so to her currently. The kindergartner nearly always has her clothes chosen for school the night before. The backpack has already been gone through, the papers to come home swapped out for the papers to go back. My daughter, raised in a "we'll be there just in time" household has an iron-clad rule that everyone should be anywhere on time, and ten minutes early is even better. So her child is never late for school and we were there early for pick-ups.

Her laugh is contagious and she ministers well and faithfully to her coterie of friends, many who have returned the favors since her diagnosis with picking up children, play dates, meals brought in and going the extra mile for her. When she was first diagnosed, I wanted to bring her home with me, put her to bed and take care of her children--a mother's impulse that soon gave way to more rational thinking. She has a good man for a husband, and he is good to her. I realized that she had to, in essence, put in motion a giant machine to help her in getting better. But she also had to build that machine, one cog at a time: getting the day care or friends to help with their two-year old son, finding someone to help with housecleaning, finding doctors, and being willing to accept meals and help--a difficulty for a woman who has always taken the meals to others.

But the cruelest cut of all--the realities that this condition imposes on abilities, expectations, and her joie de vivre--has been deep and swift. In this, we both suffer, kicking against these deep pricks of the soul.

Yet, she is radiant and beautiful and so full of love for her children. In short, she is amazing. I'll think of her as I drive home across another desert--the Mohave with its grand sloping from high to low desert--the vista stunning, spare and humbling. I'll think of our busy week, sewing skirts for her two daughters, running errands, our talks throughout the day.

When she was born, I began embroidering her birth sampler, but set the crewelwork aside after a few months, dissatisfied. I started another, a clean-looking cross-stitched design depicting a little pink baby swinging from a pink safety pin. The caption was simple and succinct.

Thank Heaven for Barbara.

March 12, 2009

Zip. Nada. Kaput.

(click on logo to return to SOLSC Day 12)

Zip. Nada. Kaput.

Ever have writing days like this? It's the tyranny of the blank page, or the blank screen which really emanates from a blank mind.

I even got enough sleep last night, unlike previous nights. So I should be brimming full of great ideas, vim and vigor. Isn't that the myth? I have a few quotes I write up on the board for my students when they are busy whining about their essay writing. One is: "Writing is easy. You just sit looking at the blank page until drops of blood form on your forehead." I have another similar one about slitting wrists and dripping blood on the page, but I only use that if I have a few Goth students sitting in the classroom.

One phrase that is echoing through my mind this morning is my mother's: "Mothering is a young woman's game." I am filled with the doing this past few days: cooking, cleaning, caring, washing, folding, wiping, cleaning again, changing diapers, grocery shopping and putting away, teacher-parent conferences, kids to school, kids to pick up, navigating nap times and being exhausted myself. I've decided that's why I have nothing to write this morning of any interest, significance, or viewpoint. But--at least I've conquered the blank screen. And that's something.

March 11, 2009

What Gets Noticed in a New Town

When I'm in someplace new, I notice the odd things, the usual things, the things I don't think a thing about when I'm home.

Like old signs on motels, one saying Ponderosa Motel with decrepit old wagon wheels, a covered wagon outlined in neon and a fake life-sized horse out front.

But what I noticed lately is street names. Around here it's all mountain-themed: Elk Run, Tall Pines Way, Deer Crossing, Vista Way, Fox Run, Running Tree Loop. You get the picture. It's evident that Flagstaff is a city at 7,000-plus feet, with higher mountains around it. Lowell Observatory is within a stone's throw from downtown, and today we saw Olympic race-walkers in training, their peculiar gait something to gawk at as they waggled down the street.

In Phoenix, the person who wrote the street names was into Western Lore: Fetlock Trail, Desperado, Tombstone and Covered Wagon Trail. (I'm not making these up. Can you imagine dictating Covered Wagon Trail over the phone to LL Bean when you're placing an order? Painful.)

So at least we know where frustrated creative writers work in government: the street-naming division.

March 10, 2009

One Step at a Time

(click on logo to return to Day Ten of the Slice Of Life Story Challenge)

Since I've been on the road (it will end, soon) I seem to write my posts backward-looking, posting in the morning.

I've noticed that if I post in the evening, there's no comments. If I post in the morning, it's apparent that there are a lot of early-birds out there in Slice O'Life Land, who tackle their correspondence first thing. Because I am trying to be a good Slice-O-Lifer, I aim for the morning to fit in with the routines of my fellow writers.

Update on the Journey: I read Kevin's posts early yesterday morning and he talked about a late winter snowfall. As I read that, I was sitting in Phoenix. But Flagstaff must have been in on the vibe for I drove through snow-sleet-rain from about 4,000 feet on up to Flag (at 7,000); apparently it was producing its own version of a late winter storm.

My daughter 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 walking the baby around the store). 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.

What cliche falls off your lips quite regularly? How does it resonate in your life?

March 9, 2009

Another Day in an Alternate Life

I'm weary today. I've woken up tired, with some worry around my edges about Life in General. I'm headed up to my daughter's home in Flagstaff today, driving up from my son's home (and that brand-new baby girl)--about a two-hour drive.

It rained in the night, the hard drops hitting the window all night at a slant; I gave up sleeping about 5:45 a.m. and started to pack up to go.

I remember my mother's admonition: "A change is as good as a rest," but this morning I feel like I've changed into an alternate life from the one I usually live. I have three essays, two midterms to grade from that other life, and it's doubtful I'll get to them while in Flagstaff. The life I'll be living for the next week will be a treasure of chubby hands, energetic children, cooking and helping, visits with my daughter and her husband--in short--grandmothering and mothering.

Having said (whined?) all that, the final question for today is: would I trade a completed stack of essays for this trip of babies, funerals, talking with my family, and seeing my daughter's engaging face?


I just need that Other Person in that Other Life O' Mine to get going on the grading, so I'll be ready when my spring break is over.

March 8, 2009

Stars to Steer By

(click on logo to return to SOLSC main page, Day 8)

My sister and I stayed up late last night after all the relatives had gone home; we could hear her husband snoring in bed. She's my mentor and example, a woman who has successfully balanced the particulars of the professional and family, and still welcomes a houseful of company at the drop of a hat.

We discussed Aunt Jean's funeral and my sister's remarks--which made me cry with its good memories--and of course we visited about other relatives and family. But somewhere after that final round of talking about the quirks and oddities of those who we love, we talked about some of our personal goals.

These aren't the ones that are set out for us by our colleges (she's a professor and assistant dean, and I teach at the community college level), nor did we discuss those benchmarks dictated by bills, family, community obligations. It was the personal, private goals that we wrote in our journals, hating confessing to others and at which we often found ourselves failing as much as we succeeded. But goals written down can sometimes become sticks to beat ourselves with rather than stars to steer by, those scrawls on the page reminding us of our inability to do that which we hope to, wish to but can't seem to achieve.

For years I wrote nothing down--not a to To Do list, not even an easy errand list. Nothing. Because I was pulled too many directions by my schooling, housework, church work and being a parent to three teenagers and a junior-higher, I found that I felt powerless to accomplish anything of my own concern. So week after week, until I abandoned the idea of Goals Written Down, the list was like a scold.

Last year, I bought a journal on a whim. A DAILY journal. The blank pages were a challenge of sorts. I wondered if I could pull it off and so, although it began in July, I wrote nothing until Inauguration Day, figuring that was about a good of a day to being something as any day. Have I been 100%? No. But I've discovered that the small page was a good place to recount the day, take stock of my successes, even vent a little here and there. I began again to take up the reins of my life, just a little. I have even taped in a completed To Do list, a first after years of drought.

As my sister and I talked late into the night, I borrowed hope that I might craft a long-term list of personal goals and begin work on them. We promised to keep up with each other on this idea, squeezing in time for the personal, slipping in moments of (hoped for) accomplishment.

March 7, 2009


I'm posting this very early Phoenix time, as I'm on the next leg of my trip: to my aunt's funeral in a neighboring state.

The drive out here was brain-clearing. Compared to the lush eastern coasts of this country, the deserts seem harsh, barren and unwelcoming. But I found abundance today in the wildflowers blooming all along the highway: sage-colored bushes that look like they have heads of hair standing on end, and at the end of each strand of hair is a golden-yellow blossom. The spiky lavender flowers, low to the ground, edge the asphalt, followed by carpets of neon-yellow blossoms. I tried to take pictures as I zipped along at 75 mph, but none of them were worthy photos for this Slice of Life post.

However, I do have a photo that is worthy: my granddaughter Brooke and me.

And a photo I take with every child of mine: their hands intertwined with their newborn's.

Abundance, indeed.

March 6, 2009

Some Days I Worry

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 schlepp. 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.

March 4, 2009

Pouring, Not Raining

So it starts like this.

"Hey, Mom."
"Hey, Matthew."
"Kim's water just broke. We're at the hospital and she's already a 5." I glanced at the clock. 7:00 a.m. "We expect she'll have it by noon or something."
"You excited?"
"Oh, yeah. Totally."
Obviously this third baby hadn't checked in with her busy parents' schedule to see that she was scheduled to be induced at 2 p.m. on FRIDAY. He continued. "I hope you're not disappointed about not being here. You can change your plans and head directly to the funeral if you need to."

The original plan was to drive to my son's house in Phoenix and help get the baby here, take a flight up to the funeral in Utah on Saturday morning, fly back Sunday night then drive to my daughter's house to help her during my spring break. I shrug my shoulders. "Oh, they're pretty set. It's fine. I'm really happy for you, Matthew."

And so their third daughter, my eighth grandchild, arrived today at half-past noon. Kimberly Brooke is twenty inches long, 9 lbs 8.8 oz and oh-so-chubby-cheeked. Here's a picture of the happy parents and sleepy baby.

I wondered if she and Aunt Jean high-fived each other in the hallway of Heaven as they passed: one leaving earth and the other one heading down. It was an appealing little sliver of an idea.

I'm still driving out there tomorrow, and am anxious to see my newest grandchild. I have a little poem I found a long time ago that I print out and give to new moms I know. It has a religious bent, and so if you're not inclined that way, feel free to skip over it. Just know I'm happy. You be happy too. With all these life events, it's pouring, not raining over here. But with this new baby, we're singing and dancing in the rain!

And he who gives a child a treat
Makes Joy-bells ring in Heaven's street,
And he who gives a child a home
Builds palaces in Kingdom come,
And she who gives a baby birth
Brings Saviour Christ again to Earth.

Dropping the Mask

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 the lunch gruel, a white pasty dish.

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, escaping into the brisk sunny day.

March 3, 2009

Upsey-Downsey Day

It's an upsey-downsey day.
All's good on the daughter front: her husband received his MCAT scores and while they won't reveal numbers, it's a Two Thumbs Up, she says.

And then my Aunt Jean, a fascinating professor of history, my mother's sister, an organist for her church, a nervous sort at times and an Alzheimer's patient for many many years passed away early this morning. She was in Hospice care for the last week so it wasn't unexpected.

My students' scores on their re-writes generally all improved by five points.

One bright young woman in the back wants to do her argument research paper on forced tubal ligation of women after two children, in order to protect the environment. I mentally roll my eyes and wonder to myself if there isn't a better way to protect our planet.

While I was at school I forgot to make copies of all the grammar lessons I'd planned out so carefully yesterday, so now (since I'm an adjunct) it's on my dime at the local copy store.

What else could I do after this upsey-downsey day but make a batch of Snickerdoodle cookies as soon as I'd dropped my bags at the front door? I scratched a whole nutmeg on the teensy grater to add some spice to the dough, remembering the little store in Italy where I'd bought it. I eat, not one, but two warm spicy-sugary cookies right off the cooling rack and come upstairs to record my slice of life.

(click photo for recipe)

March 2, 2009

Today's Forecast: Sunny and Boring

My daughter's phone call comes early. I listen carefully to her voice. Today's voice is laughing, sunny and bright—a perfect barometer for her world. This heart disease of hers came on suddenly and knocked us all flat for several weeks. In those early days, her voice would be a whisper, a spectral representation of the shock and chaos that had rocked her world. Although it's a day-to-day (moment-to-moment?) process working with peri-partum cardiomyopathy, today's forecast is for bright skies.

Now that she's settled, I head to today's task: straighten out the Grammar Groups. I teach a developmental English course at our local community college, the class that my 80-year old mother calls Dummy English. I laugh every time she says this because I am the dummy when it comes to teaching grammar. So I found a book which I think was recommended on the Two Teachers' site, about teaching grammar to elementary school children. After reading through it, I feel less in the dummy category (although I have re-written the above sentence about ten times, trying not to embarrass myself in this community of writers!). I can talk for days about fluidity, coherence, transitions, structure, but sentence-level errors--where most grammar errors take place--are harder to discuss and teach effectively, memorably.

I set up the sign-up sheets, decide which of the multiple errors seen in my students' papers I wish to cover, and start assembling tips and ideas and guidelines for each grammar group. Today I plan to assemble packets for them to present their chosen concept, and help them formulate a writing exercise for each student to work on in their writing notebooks.

I think I can tackle the reorganization of this Grammar Beast, but I find myself carrying on a conversation with the K-12 teachers, cheering them, encouraging them to teach those grammar concepts. I love working with those students who already have the skills, who "get it."

I wish I could say my slice of life may be different this afternoon, perhaps a little more esoteric, heart-gripping or dramatic, but I think I'll spend the day being boring, as sometimes it's nice to only worry about fragments, run-ons and adjective strings.

P.S. The book is "Mechanically Inclined" by Jeff Anderson.

March 1, 2009

Happy Birthday

"So how's your daughter?" my brother asks, when I call to wish him Happy 50th birthday.

"We wait. We hope." I pause.

He's quiet.

"She's on the big drugs now," I say. "Beta blockers, ACE-inhibitors--those are for her heart--and a combo of antibiotics for her pneumonia and sinus infection." I hear his dog barking and a lot of noise in his kitchen. "But I didn't call to talk about her. Happy Birthday and many happy returns little brother."

He details the neighbors gathering for a festive cake-cutting last evening, and the three other families who'll be coming over today. He says he feels old, well at least, old-er.

"You know that saying?"

"What's that?" he asks.

"Not all young men will be old, but all old men were once young." He laughs at this oft-quoted saying of our father's.

Off the phone, I check my daughter's blog, where she has posted a new photo of her baby daughter, all dolled up in a lavender polka-dotted dress. With this baby came her illness. I focus on the child's expression, so sweet and young. It reminds me of my daughter's at that age--coy and knowing and challenging but oh, so engaging.