The Three Things

When I was an English teacher, there were three things I was required to report to other members of the staff at the school where I worked. I was required to report to my superiors if I thought a student was going to harm others, if a student was going to self-harm, or if a student was abused and that abuse had not been confronted. It seemed to me a good standard for the secrets we all carry and sometimes share with those we trust the most. I told my students about how I had to handle these three things. I tried to be a kind and wise teacher, and I often carried the secrets of my students as sacred, knowing that there were some secrets that belonged exclusively to those who owned them. Still, there were times when I had to call for the help of others.

One time was when a girl wrote an essay in which she described how she was planning to stalk me and kill me. Imagine that. I knew she didn’t like me very much, but this essay was enlightening. The thing is, I wasn’t intimidated by this, and I was not amused. That’s what she claimed when it came time to discuss the essay. “It was a joke.” Well, my father, the former US Marine, the former Industrial Arts teacher, the high school principal, had already dealt with a similar experience, and so I had known, violent speech is not protected speech. Students are not allowed to threaten teachers, not even as a “joke.” In fact, threatening violence is not protected speech. Just because it happens, does not mean it’s protected. It is a crime, whether the person carries through with the threat or not. I had to report the threat to my boss, and there had to be a meeting with the girl about it explaining that it was the kind of joke that could get her in real trouble. As we discussed the reasons why she was not allowed to threaten me, I kept wondering where she got the idea that such a thing would seem funny to me. Did she really think it would be funny? Did she really think I would laugh as I read about her imagining my death? Since I can’t read minds, I will never know if the threat was merely a joke or a failed attempt to bully me. I would have understood such a threat more if it was in the heat of the moment, if I had made her furious and she had been so enraged she just exploded. It was the cold-blooded nature of the planning that made me wonder.

Over the years I had a few times when I had to report my concerns to my superiors. There weren’t a great many (thank the Lord). I also had students and friends share things with me that revealed their private suffering. I did (and do) know people who were in therapy for abuses they experienced, at the hands of family or close friends, and (in one case) a stranger.

When I was in college I studied psychology, and within some of my studies I read about abuse and the nature of it. Case studies would show how abused people would stay in close proximity to their abusers for years. Sometimes their abusers used physical restraint to keep them, but (more often) abusers also used the psychology of their victims against them. They played on the love, the loyalty, the fears of those they abused. Even years after the abuse, years of time to try and shake off the suffering, people can still carry the hidden scars, and not be able to shake loose the ties that bind them to their abusers.

When I learned of all this, I felt completely at a loss as to how to help someone in this horrible situation. Eventually I came to know one helpful statement. “You don’t have to stay in a toxic relationship.” If someone has trapped you, has abused you, you can leave, even if that person makes the terrible decision to physically try and keep you, you CAN get away. If someone has lied to you, ensnared you with fear and doubt, if someone has conned you, taken your confidence, eroded your values, lead you down the path of suffering–STOP, turn back, leave that person behind. It’s not your fault they hurt you! It’s not your fault.

Most important of all, you show more love by stopping the flow of poison than by enabling it. When a bully is on the playground, those who enable the bully not only prolong their own suffering, they heap suffering on the bully. A bully cannot heal until that bully has repented of the cruelty of domination. A bully must accept culpability for wrong doing. It is only in that moment that a bully can begin to heal from the wounds that caused the original cruelty to fester. Yes, I believe even a bully can be healed.

I have to admit here that my dear old Daddy would have shaken his head at this. “Some people can’t change,” he would have said. We had differing opinions about miracles.

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A Metaphysical Question

When I was a high school English teacher, we used to have discussions during which I tested whether the students could analyze ideas and defend their opinions. I always held truth as most important to persuasion. I would try to teach students to identify logical fallacies, but people are astoundingly dense when listening to poorly constructed arguments. They tend to agree with what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear verges on ludicrous.

One of the metaphysical speculations I liked to pose was to ask students if there was such a thing as a “good” lie. It was one of the few questions that really got them thinking, probably because all of us have, at one time or another, told a lie and then tried to convince ourselves or others that it was a good lie.

The conversation would necessarily begin with foolish but ready-at-hand examples of lies they themselves had told and then come to justify. “If someone asks me if an outfit looks good, I’ll say it does when it doesn’t.” Eventually we would get into higher stakes situations, things that test the metal of the dangers of lying. These discussions always brought out the finer points of language and reasoning, of manners and habits, of values and honor. Near the end of the discussion, I would put forth the argument that all lies are bad. They do exist. They are omnipresent. They are sometimes small, and seemingly insignificant. Still, all lies are bad.

The ones I should have made students consider more were the most dangerous lies of all, the lies we tell ourselves. My examples come from the astonishing story of Corrie Ten Boom’s life titled The Hiding Place. For those who have not read this book, go get it. Read it. In the book Corrie deals with the question of lies in the most clear-eyed way I have ever read. I will not go into all the ways she explores lies. She really does some important battles with them. The one lie that she spends little time on is the one that she must forgive most completely, and it is the one that is perhaps the most damaging that happened during the Third Reich. Near the end of the book, the Dutch women imprisoned by the Nazi’s in Holland are sent to a concentration camp in rural Germany. As they march through the countryside, they pass farm families with little children. The children watch the women openly, the way children will, but the adults turn away their eyes. Most Christians would be reminded of the story of the Good Samaritan.

These people, people going about what they would consider good and honorable lives, could not bring themselves to see what was happening right there, right in their community. They couldn’t stand it, so they tried not to see it, but the longer they lied to themselves, the longer evil was allowed free and violent reign. Time told. The regime fell, and all those little families had to face a truth that loaded the rest of their days and their nation with shame.

When the discussion about lies inevitably came back into the classroom, I would tell the students about one of my favorite characters in literature and what he had to say about lies. Joe Gargery, a black smith in the Dickens’ Classic Great Expectations, explains to the main character Pip what he needs to know about lies. ‘”There’s one thing you may be sure of, Pip,’ said Joe, after some rumination, ‘namely, that lies is lies. Howsever[sic] they come, they didn’t ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don’t you tell no more of ’em, Pip. That ain’t the way to get out of being common, old chap.'” I’ve never heard a more simple, good, wise, and reassuring assessment of lies.

The truth can be a heavy burden, a strict standard, a hard climb, but it is also a light and a promise. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) And, I pray that when I face the truth I will be brave enough to cling to it. I also pray when I am hurt by a lie, I have the goodness and sympathy to forgive.

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Unexpected Farmer

“What you have to understand, Eva, is that if you have livestock, you are bound to have dead stock.”

I was on the phone with my youngest brother Brian, visiting about his artisan farming operation in northern New Mexico.  I always love it when Brian gets into his darkly comic voice.  He has at various times worked in restaurants and grocery stores, at corporations and small businesses, at schools and even the highway department.  He has made me laugh at his horrible work experiences in all these settings, but the material that has surprised and amused me most are his experiences as a farmer.

It’s important to apologize for my limitations as a writer here.  Often, when I try to share a funny story, people will tell me the story made them sad.  I hope that will not be the case this time, but (Dear Reader) you have been forewarned.

Before diving into Brian’s farmer wisdom, I think it best to offer a bit of context on the man.  When he was in high school, he was a musician.  He was such a gifted performer that a retired band master gave him a college scholarship for “just being himself.”  Brian is the only person I know who has ever gotten such an award.

Brian has also read everything you have heard of but never read yourself.  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, he’s read it.  The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it’s one of his favorites.  Asimov, Heinlein, and Vonnegut—he can discuss them all.

He lived in Roswell for a brief time years ago.  Once he came downstairs at my house and said, “I have a testimony of shame.  I have now watched movie adaptations of all of Jane Austen.”  That was partly my fault.  I own them, and he had managed to work his way through everything else in my video collection until all that was left were BBC productions of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.

Now Brian has a small but going concern called Unique Le’ Natural in Aztec, New Mexico.  He and his wife Heather raise chickens and turkeys and quail and ducks and goats and sheep and dogs and cats and vegetables.  They also create lotions and soaps that they take with them when they sell their goods at farmer’s markets all over their region.

His comment about dead stock came during a conversation in which we were discussing his agricultural endeavors.  Brian being in agriculture is completely unprecedented.  Of the four children of my parents, I (the only girl) was the single one who was a card-carrying member of the Future Farmers of America.  In high school I had far more in common with Napoleon Dynamite than my little brother Brian ever would.  I quickly learned that I did not want to live the farm life.  I am much more comfortable with chickens arranged in a grocery store display fridge than with them clucking and pecking and squawking.  Once, when Mother and I went to see Brian and Heather, they had to prepare a raft (if that is an appropriate word) of chickens for sale.  They had a barn and equipment set up to mercifully and quickly kill and clean the birds, but I can tell almost nothing about this since I stood over a hundred yards from the barn door watching my mother, my brother, and my sister-in-law move about purposefully and mysteriously while all around me the first snow of winter was gently falling.  I realize that my squeamishness about killing animals should make be a vegetarian, but it doesn’t.  I love how they look when alive and how they taste after slaughter, but I want nothing to do with blood, guts, or gore.

Brian and Heather sometimes butcher chickens for friends, and they make clear they don’t have the equipment to butcher large chickens, great fat hens.  They can easily butcher small chickens, six or eight pounds.  Their friends say they understand.  Nonetheless, they bring chickens as big as turkeys and shrug in a mystified way when reminded of the size problem.  So…Brian and Heather have to butcher and clean and pluck them entirely by hand, without the benefit of mechanisms designed to make the job cost effective.  They do it because they love their friends.  But, they hate those big, fat chickens.  They also hate the ducks.  “Ducks are rapists, Eva,” Brian says.  Evidently some scientist did a bunch of research about what Brian himself has witnessed.  He tells me some truly nasty stuff I will not detail here.  It’s too gross!  Google it if you must, but keep your safe search on.  “Ducks are horrible.”

I say, “Well, they’re pretty tasty.”

“What?” Brian says, sounding a little incredulous.

“I said, ducks are tasty, when properly prepared.”

“Oh, Eva, I have known too much of ducks to ever want to partake of their flesh.”

He goes on to explain how goats can be cantankerous and mean and difficult to raise, but that sheep are on a whole other level.

“When a sheep wakes up in the morning,” he says, “that sheep doesn’t think, What shall I eat today, or what shall I drink?  It thinks, How can I manage to die today?  Do I feel lousy enough to just flop over and stick my feet in the air, or is there some other horrible possibility ahead?   Sheep have this weird digestive tract that is made so that if they get into the wrong position, they can drown in their own stomach acids.  Sheep even have this copper need.  If they don’t get exactly the right amount of copper, neither too little nor too much, they will have seizures.  They will flop onto their side and stare up at you with one baleful eye and you can hear them thinking.  Soon, I will be in the bliss, gone to the great green pasture in the sky, but you, my farmer friend, will see me convulsing like this in endless nightmares to wake in a miserable and guild-ridden sweat.”

You see how this is funny, right?  Maybe it’s just me.

Brian and Heather both have to keep day jobs in order to do their farm gig.  I have to say I deeply admire them, giving so much to this very old way of life, and giving so much back to their community.  Though they butcher some of their animals for market, they love them all.  They have a three-legged cat (among several other cats) and a new puppy (among nine other dogs).  Heather is tender-hearted, and the people at the animal shelter know that.  I suspect when they get a creature that absolutely no one else would consider adopting, they give her a call.  She’s that kind of generous.  Brian will grumble about every new addition, but the next thing you know the new puppy is sleeping in his lap.

I like that at least one of my parents’ children has gone back into agriculture.  We come from a long line of farmers and ranchers on both sides.  The thing is, the earth and the citizens of earth come from the Creator.  His good design is everywhere, reminding Brian during the sunrise feedings and the evening milking, everywhere around him is the mystery and bounty of creation.  It’s all good and it’s all from God.  (Even, dare I say it, ducks.)

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Join the Song

I met Lynn Werner when she joined the faculty at Goddard High School.  I had collaborated with a number of the choir directors at the school by handling stage directions for their musicals.  Lynn and I did Little Shop of Horrors.  During the time we were rehearsing it, I would sing the parts of the kids who were absent for any of the rehearsals.  After the show was finished, Lynn said I should be taking voice lessons.  I was deeply flattered she was willing to take me on, but I had no idea what it would mean to be a part of her voice studio.

Lynn was not like any other teacher I ever had.  She had a philosophy and a talent that so mixed in her, she simply offered a depth of experience many people might not be able to appreciate.

To begin, Lynn could not be mollified by mere hard work.  The vast majority of teachers are seduced by students who try really hard.  Even I would eventually hand over the “A” for effort grade.  A stumbling, fumbling attempt at doing what was required on an assignment would wear me down, and if a student had tried will all her heart, I would succumb to the honey of consolation and give a higher grade than the work itself truly merited.

Lynn did not do that.

I’ve known plenty of musicians in my life, some talented, some disciplined, but no musician I have ever known or even admired was more gifted than Lynn.  True music dwells in a separate place only adjoining the fields of scholarship.  There is an intuitive and mysterious element to true musicality that springs from a deeper water than all other genius.

Lynn once described how she used to cheat the drudgery of practicing piano by playing songs she knew while reading a book placed on the piano’s music rack.  She got away with this for a time, but her mother figured out what she was doing.  Her mother listened closely and could discern when her daughter was engaging her true musical gifts.

Eventually Lynn studied music in college, but the formalization of her studies nearly smothered her natural love of music.  She changed to studying something cold and analytical.  (It might have been accounting.)

Thank the good Lord, by the time I met her, Lynn had returned to the work of exploring the soul  through music.  So…this is what it was like to take a voice lesson from a musical genius.

First of all I would arrived at her house and wait while another student finished.  When I entered the small room where she gave her lessons, I stood in front of her piano and noticed the volumes and volumes of music on her shelves.  She would ask how my day went and after a brief conversation, she would begin playing warm-ups.

I cannot write what it is like.  It’s too deadly dull and repetitive to be believed.  It’s not words.  It’s not music.  It’s just scales, intervals, and arpeggios running the length of the vocal register, all in vowel sounds, until I finally had my jaw and my throat and my posture and my tongue, and my feet, and my lips, and my tongue(again), and my breath, and my mind in the right spot.  When the lessons first started, we would often spend forty-five minutes of an hour session on warm-ups.

It may not seem like it, but this was hellish.  When I finally got to the right state, Lynn would play the introduction to a song I had been practicing on all week.  I would open my mouth and sing the first note, and she would stop playing.

“Okay,” she would say.  “I don’t want you to start the note.  I want you to join it, as if it is already started in your mind.”

I would stare at her.  I had no idea what she meant, but I wanted to sing at least one song during the lesson, so I would say, “Okay.”  She would play the intro again.  I would open my mouth and sing the first note, and she would stop playing.

“Try and picture yourself stepping lightly down on the note from above rather than reaching up for it,” she would say.

I would think, I’m supposed to step on the note?  But, I wanted to sing at least one song, so I would say, “Okay.”

She would play the introduction.  I would open my mouth and start to sing, and she would stop playing.  She would tilt her head and look at me as if I were a riddle she was trying to solve, and (as often as not) I would burst into tears.

My memory may be a little off, but I think that scene would describe most of the lessons I had that first year, a whole year of warm-ups.

I’m not complaining.  I’m trying to show that she never settled for “good enough.”  At least, not with me.  She knew I was trying hard.  She knew I was full of doubts, and bad habits, and fears, but she never settled for good enough, and she refused to let me quit.

Lynn was always looking for that transcendent moment when the singer did not have to remember the words.  The singer knew the words so well they felt completely spontaneous.  The singer did not struggle for the pitch or the rhythm or the phrasing.  These all were so perfectly practiced, so completely ingrained and understood, the singer could sing every note, every bar without thought.  The song just became the conversation between the piano and the voice.

Because she refused to settle for less than the real power of the music, and because she refused to give up on me, I had some of the keenest pleasures of my life standing next to a piano while she played.  We once sang a duet.  It was sublime.  At her recitals singers of various ages and levels of ability and insight sang truly remarkable music.  The songs weren’t perfect.  Most of her students were very young (unlike me) or very squirrelly (like me).  Performance is always a gamble, a toss-up, but every recital also had its moments when the magic happened.  Music, real music, rose up and spread its healing across the room.  And, there was always her playing.

I’ve never heard a pianist I enjoyed more.  Her sense of the music, her delivery, was pure delight.

Lynn was full of ideas.  She would say, “All things that work, work the same way.”  She would say, “Learning is like a great spiral.  You learn one thing and move around the spiral and you come back to it again, and learn it better, and each turn around the spiral is a little smaller, a little faster.”  She would say, “Pick up that mirror and look at your mouth as you sing.”  For anyone who hasn’t done this, give it a try.  It will teach you all sorts of humility.

I was her student for years, but things changed.  Eventually we drifted into separate lives.  I changed schools.  She left voice teaching for a time.  We haven’t spoken in some time.

This week I learned that she died.  I was filled with regret and sadness.  She was such a dear person, and I let time and space come between us.  I let her drift away from me, and I shouldn’t have.

This week a song was released by a composer and conductor of virtual choirs named Eric Whitacre.  Seventeen thousand singers sang together in one voice.  In it I hear the echo of the music Lynn was always chasing and sharing.  I place the link here.

Lynn and I did not have the same religious beliefs, but I believe she does go on.  I believe that she is now a part of the great universal song that fills all the edges of creation.  That song’s first verse is joy.  That song’s second verse is peace, and the chorus is loveLove, love, love…

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This Changes Everything

So…I was looking at the calendar and realized that I had not made ONE SINGLE ENTRY for the month of JUNE 2020.  I am shocked.  I am chagrined.  I’m getting this one in right under the wire.  It’s now 9:03 local time on 30 June.  Here’s why the six week pause.

I did not want to write about the bad news.  There will be a long and thorough history of this time offered and recorded by thousands of different witnesses to all of it.  I’ve witnessed too much myself.  It makes me sad to think of all the suffering and strife going on here right now.  Since I can’t stop thinking about it so much, I end up feeling very sad and trying to get out of my head.  Luckily, I have a nephew who is willing to try and humor me.  We both talk a great deal about what is happening in this old world, and we try to think of ways to put it into greased groves.  When that fails, we work on home improvement.

The first project this year was my mother’s closet door.  I will not get into how hard I had to work to get my mother’s closet door to function.  Let me just say that I used language that probably made the angels cry.  I thought it would be an afternoon project.  It lasted at least three days, and I still shudder when I think about it.  That was the mere preview.

The real summer of COVID-19, the summer of 2020, the summer of quarantine started with the shop.  A few years after I moved into this house, I had a contractor named Jake Sides replace the fire trap and stray cat haven behind my house that we referred to as the shed.  It was made of found items and many of those items were old antique doors.  It had two whole walls made of antique doors.  It also had weirdly executed flying splices and a concrete floor that looked like it was poured and finished by someone with two sprained wrists and an odd sense of timing.  I do not have pictures of this because it was before I really got into photography of this house.

Anyway, Jake replaced the shed with a well made building on a new commercial grade concrete slab.  We called this new building the shop.  However, at the time I did not have the money to afford insulation for the shop.  Flash forward about twenty years to this sweltering summer, and I finally had the funds to buy insulation for the building, and my nephew was willing to work on it with me.

First, we had to move everything into the yard.  Once we had that place cleared we got to work insulating the place.  (Later we may try dry wall.  I’ve never done drywall, but how hard can it be?)

It took us a little over a week to finish with that project.  We then turned to painting the guest room upstairs.  About ten years ago, I painted my bedroom during the winter months.  I love that room, but painting it and dragging the equipment up and down the stairs for days and days really wrecked me.  (I have stairs that look like stairs, but they climb more like a ladder.)

Painting the guest room took us about three days, but we also had to shift all the furniture and books, books, books from both rooms into MY room.  After we got the room painted, I decided I wanted to get new carpeting for the bedrooms upstairs.  In between the time of the painting and the carpet, my second brother John showed up for a visit.  That meant more cooking and whiskey tasting than actual home improvement.

When John went back home to California, the carpet installers called.  They came to the house yesterday and put in one room’s carpet, but they had to stop because the end of the carpet role they had was shredded, so they couldn’t do both rooms.

In the midst of all this, I’ve been working with my contractor, Randy Bowen, and planning the ultimate challenge for the home improvement junkie–a kitchen remodel.  I will not even begin to discuss what that has been like, because there is so much still to go before that gets totally GOD-AWFUL.

So…here it is.  After seventeen days of 100 degree heat in June, I am finally blogging about a summer that has become a journey into the past twenty-five years of my life.  Here I am at a standstill, trying to keep my mother well, trying to stay well myself.  Trying not to bather on about my broken teeth and the great spasms of history happening all around me.

I’m including links here, to images of this Summer.  Here’s to sharing a struggle that turns out and in, and will change everything.

This second link is to a flower show. I hope you find it soothing.

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The Burden of Grading

As a teacher, from nearly the first year I worked, I asked my students to evaluate the classes they took from me.  I realized early on I would have to make it specific for the students to avoid getting too personal, so I came up with a simple matrix that kept it all above board.  I had them give me three pieces of information.  They were to tell me one thing we did during the term that they valued and should stay in the course.  They were to tell me one thing I could take out of the course, and finally they were to make one suggestion to improve the course.

In those early years I commonly got the suggestion to return graded writing before I took up the next piece of writing.  There, right there, is the procrastination trap I fell in early in my professional life.  Those first couple of years, I took a long time to get essays graded.  For a great many English teachers (teachers in general, really) grading is mostly drudgery.  It COULD be fun when the students showed improvement, or I would hit on an assignment that brought out original or enthusiastic responses, but teenagers mostly have cliched, banal, or superficial ideas.  They can’t help it.  It’s a product of the stage they’re enduring.

Nonetheless, they needed to be read.  They needed to be recognized.  They needed to be corrected, and THAT is a burden.  I have graded lots of different types of class materials, but none are more heavy or more complicated that grading essays.  I used to be a Math teacher, so it came naturally for me to crunch some numbers when facing a stack of student essays.  For much of my career I had about 150 students a day.  Let’s say they all submitted an essay.  If I spent five minutes reading and grading each essay, that’s over twelve hours of grading EVERY WEEK.  In reality the more mistakes a student makes, the longer it takes to mark his or her work.  Of course, the longer the essay, the longer the grading takes.

In those early years, I would sort the essays and then I would look for something else to do.  Think of how resistant students are to reading their assigned material.  At least they didn’t have to check the novel they were assigned for mistakes and then mark those mistakes and hand them to the author saying, “Fix these, and I’ll take another look at it.”  I had a novel’s worth of reading to do each and every week.

Some people might think, “Well, you didn’t assign writing every week, right?”  WRONG!  I assigned writing nearly every day.  “Why?” you might ask.  Simple.  The way people learn to write is by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and then writing some more.  My students bellyached about the writing load more than anything else in my class, and I gave really hard tests, and I am notoriously cranky, and I liked to assign really challenging reading like Moby Dick and Dante’s Inferno.  (True!  Look at the earlier entries in this blog.)

Writing was work for them and even more work for me, but it was also the thing students left my class confident they could do.  How many teachers get that feeling, I wonder?  I wonder how many teachers can feel certain their students took a practical skill from the class.  Maybe lots of teachers have that feeling, but not me.  I was only certain of one thing.  If a student made it through my class, he or she was no longer afraid to write.  (He might not have finished a single reading assignment.  She might not be able to tell a phrase from a clause.  None of them might be able to differentiate between a simile and a metaphor.)

They were no longer afraid to write because I MADE myself grade their work within the time it took for them to generate their next packet of writing.  I took a week.  They took a week.  I was not perfect at this, but I got pretty close.

That brings me to my last year of teaching high school.  I instituted an even faster method of response.  I got this suggestion from my older brother John F. McCollaum, History Teacher Extraordinaire.  He would grade the students’ work while they watched him.

My last year at NMMI, I made this deal with the students.  The day their work was due, they could come in and be marked and leave as soon as I finished grading their work.  Now, I almost never finished grading all the students’ work before the end of the hour, but many students needed the hour to finish their work.  Those who didn’t have the “live grading” experience, got their work back the next day.  This was a great success.  They improved, and those who really wanted to write, wrote more and wrote better.

I learned this.  The quicker someone gets feedback, the greater that feedback’s effect.  I offer this advice to anyone hoping to teach well.

First, grade the students’ work as quickly as possible and get it back to them.  DON’T PROCRASTINATE.  Second, never respond to an e-mail immediately.  Always take a least twenty-four hours.  That way you have time to reflect about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.  Calmer waters are likely to be the result.  Third, listen.  Most people will tell you their truth if you just allow them the time and space to express it.    Fourth, never let the grade be more important than the learning.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there.  I feel myself ranging into another story, one that is filled with teacher horror.

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Albertson’s and the Big Time Suck

I begin today by apologizing for failing to fulfill a promise.  I claimed I would blog daily sometime ago.  Boy!  Did I let those words fall to earth!  I have a whole blog about procrastination that I wrote a while back to put up for why I had stopped blogging, but I didn’t get it done.  So…there’s that.  Perhaps I will eventually put that up for readers to examine.  It will take several days, as it led me to contemplate other things, like Baptist preacher’s sermons and other terrors of the modern age.  Among those is the inspiration for today’s short entry.

Albertson’s is having a game, its version of Monopoly.

If there is anything that brings out my tendency to laziness and putting things off, it’s a stack of little paper tickets with tiny printing and sixteen symbol codes.  I have been gathering Monopoly papers for weeks and entering the information into the online second chance sweepstakes.  I finally finished with all those little tickets today.

Blog Albertson's ticketsI redeemed all my tokens, and I have won almost nothing.  I take that back.  I won a little bag of wet, springy carrots.  I also won a little bag of hamburger buns.  I was supposed to win a package of beef franks, but the Albertson’s here in town didn’t have any, not one package of the store brand.  Also, because of the virus, they are not selling individual donuts, so I couldn’t even get a single one to give to my mother.  I’m off donuts right now.  Perhaps that’s why I’m so cranky.  That has to be it, right?  It couldn’t be anything else.

Anyhoo…I think Albertson’s should redo their whole strategy of the Monopoly game.  Instead of making me sort through an endless stacks of little sheets of paper and type ridiculous sixteen symbol codes into their shopplaywin webpage, they should just give the prizes away.  Every time a regular shopper buys something at Albertson’s his or her name should be put in a big hopper and each week there should be a drawing.  They could notify the winners and tell them the only requirement to getting the prize is being willing to have your picture taken with the prize (to be used in advertisements).

Image all the time of customers and employees they would be saving!  Imagine the resources they would save by not printing out those useless little papers.  If they put their minds to it, they could figure out a way to make all the little promotions and advertisements they do with the extra ticket incentives and such.

I realize people might think, “Well, you probably have a huge amount of time on your hands these days.  It is probably fine that this dumb game is a gigantic time suck.”  Nope.  I realize that all sorts of people are going stir crazy and have way too much time on their hands, but I have things to do.  Videos about falconry are NOT going to just watch themselves.  Online games of solitaire are not going to play themselves, and SOMEONE has to go out in the yard every hour or so and move the sprinkler.  All these things take time, and I’m run off my feet by the end of the day.

I plead with Albertson’s to reconsider their game design.  I also hope I can get some cabinets cleaned out this afternoon, but who knows?  Maybe I’ll just wait for moonrise and take pictures of that.

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Lonesome Work

Lately one of my old schools has been advertising on local television.  The ad has a tag line, “World Class Education.”  My mother likes to turn to me at that point and say, “You have a world class education!”  I say, “Ha, ha.”  What I ought to say is, “No, I AM a world class education.”  Ha.  Ha.   The way I paid for my world class education started a little differently than most folks.

First, I should admit I used to be BOY CRAZY.  Well, I was MORE boy crazy in my teen years than I am now.  When I was in high school, I was good at Math and Science, and that set me apart from many of my female friends.  I also liked the idea of going to a school that had a four to one male to female ratio.  I liked those odds.  Boy crazy!

When I got to school, I had to find a job to help pay my way.  In those days, a fair percentage of people worked to pay their way through school.  My school had a work-study program and job office.  I went in and they asked what I knew how to do.  I said, “Well, I know how to weld.”  I did.  I wasn’t brilliant, but I could do it.  I did both arc and gas welding.  The guy at the placement office got me a job at a defense contracting company that was affiliated with the school.  It was really that simple.  The first week at school I got a job as a welder.

My first day I showed up wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  The boss of the welding shop looked at me doubtfully, but he took me outside and showed me two pieces of iron clamped together and he told me to tack them together with a two inch tack every six inches or so.  I nodded my head and he handed me a pair of old stiff leather gloves and a helmet and pointed me at the welder (the machine welders use to weld).  I did it.  The chore he gave me was NOT difficult, but when I walked back into the shop fifteen minutes later and told him I finished, he acted surprised.  He walked out with me and looked at what I had done.  He said, “I’m Mr. Byrd.”  That was the moment I realized I had passed the actual interview.  Within an hour I was up on the mountain, lying on my back under a huge pipe (twelve feet in diameter), and running overhead beads to hold the pipe to a bracing iron.  As far as I remember, that day was the worst I had on the job because my clothes did not protect me from all the little burns I got from bits of molten medal falling on me as I worked.  My next day I showed up with new overalls and my own pair of gauntlet leather gloves.

I actually liked my welding job most of the time.  I liked my boss, Mr. Byrd.  It’s funny to think of that now, but he was a really nice man.  He was near my father’s age.  He didn’t try too hard to protect me, nor did he resent me as a young woman in an otherwise completely male workplace.  It was there I experienced true sexual harassment and a near sexual assault, but that came later and is a story for another time.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is how what my parents taught me prepared me to face some difficult and lonely challenges as a welder.  I worked three summers and two school years as a welder while I attended school.  One of the things that made me successful as far as Mr. Byrd was concerned was that I didn’t have to be supervised.  He would give me a job, and I would do it.  I didn’t procrastinate.  I got to work immediately.  I took few breaks, and I only alerted him if something was REALLY a problem.  I have been this way since my late teens, and it has to do with my parents telling me, “Who you are really shows when no one is looking.”  That meant I would work as if GOD were my supervisor.

This lead to me being given the loneliest assignment of my life.  That last summer I worked out there, the company had bid on and won an iron bridge that had been decommissioned and torn down.  The big parts of it were brought to a little canyon that we all called “the bone yard.”  There were all sorts of raw construction materials there that the company used to make specialized equipment and military targets for weapons testing.  The bridge was in big pieces, with these I-beams with iron “ears” rivetted to them.  My job that summer was to break down the pieces into usable smaller pieces.  I took off the riveted ears and cut the I-beams to usable lengths.  I used an acetylene cutting torch to do this job.  I worked by myself.  I cut iron four hours in the morning, took a lunch break, then cut iron four more hours in the afternoon.

The bone yard was the hottest place I ever worked.  No breezes reached down into it, and the metal concentrated an industrial heat all around me, plus the torch was hot.  After eight hours of doing that, I would walk from the school, where the work truck would drop the student workers, to a little house my roommate and I were watching for the summer.

Imagine that June, July, and August.  Five days a week, eight hours a day, I was alone.  I didn’t have a Walkman on the job (no earbuds for those who don’t understand).  It was just me and the hot wilderness and sweat.

On the hottest day of that summer, I walked home and took my evening shower.  I felt woozy, and I decided to take my pulse.  I couldn’t find it.  I thought, “I’m dead.  I’m sitting in the shower, and I’m dead.”

It turned out I wasn’t dead.  I was just badly dehydrated and exhausted.  The next morning I felt fine and went right back to work.  It is strange that this memory doesn’t seem so bad.  In fact, I like thinking about those sweltering days and that bridge that I eventually dismantled all on my lonesome.  I miss being that ridiculously strong woman.  I had no idea at the time how rare it is to feel that physically powerful.

I puff-puff along and my ankles hurt now when I am on my feet for too long or go for a walk of slightly more than a mile, but there was a time when I was world class.

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But Sometimes I Don’t Like Them

One of my favorite comedians is a man named John Mulaney.  (Thanks to Barbara Alvarado for suggesting I listen to him.  You were right.  He’s my cup-of.)  ANYWAY, John Mulaney has a comedy album titled The Comeback Kid.  On it he spends some time discussing his childhood and his parents.  I really love that part.  The album is available on Amazon and clips are on YouTube for free.  He doesn’t really need a plug from me, but he is funny and worth a listen.  At the time he didn’t have children (I think this is still true).  I also do not have children.  I assert that fact here so anyone reading this can feel free to dismiss my opinion as claptrap because I have no practical experience in the field.

John Mulaney makes a joke about how people today will say things like, “My Mom is my best friend.”  He answers, “Why?  Was she a bad mom?”  He tells how he and his parents were not friends.

I totally identify with that.  I love my mother dearly, and I always have, but from the age of two until I turned about twenty, we were combatants.  I feel that is as it should be.  My Mom is the only person in the world who has ever told me to go back to my room and put on a slip.  My parents fed me and clothed me and told me not to pick on my brother and enrolled me in school and forced me to stay in clubs and on teams when I wanted to quit.  My parents corrected me (especially my Mother).  I would not tolerate such an impertinence from a friend.  My parents were my bosses!

Michelle Wolf in 2016 claimed “nobody likes their boss.”  Grammatical awkwardness notwithstanding, I agree.  Though I always loved my parents, they bugged the crap out of me.  They told me what to do.  They made me use good manners and shamed me when I acted selfishly.  They decided where we went for vacation, and when.  They gave me chores.

To their credit, they also gave all of their children the right to privacy.  We could read any book we wanted.  We could go outside and play, and as long as we didn’t get into trouble, what we did with that time was our own.  They allowed us to have time to share stories and things we read at the dinner table.

My father taught me how to drive, how to shoot a gun, how to find missing tools, how to read blueprints.  My mother taught me how to cook, to clean, to sew, to dress (wear a slip under a light-colored frock).  My parents provided the opportunities to go to museums and on picnics, to fairs and amusement parks.

I had a good family life and the right parents for me.  I have always believed that parents and children are perfect for each other, and parents have one big advantage.  They know more.  They know more about their children than anyone else, including the children themselves.

My mother now lives with me, and we get along pretty well.  We are friends, and we have had to learn to switch places on certain matters.  It’s my house, so I pay the bills.  It’s my house, so I allow the pets to come indoors.  (When I was a kid, we were not allowed to have the pets indoors.  Things are different at my house.)

BUT, no matter how things change, one thing will not.  Mother is still THE MOTHER.  She doesn’t boss me around, but she is still the boss.  I love her, but I don’t like to be bossed.  I didn’t like it at work either, but I need a good boss.  We all do now and then.  We need someone to remind us we have responsibilities.  We need someone to keep us on task occasionally.

I’ve moved around a good deal in my life, and I have had some terrific friends, but many have moved away.  We’ve lost track of one another.  My friends, sweet and dear as they are, are social peers.  I can discuss things with them that I would never share with my parents, but I am not committed to changing their diapers if the time ever comes.  I contend once that commitment is made, the person is no long a friend, but a family member.  Certain acts of service make a person a family member in some way.

I don’t think parents should expect to be liked all the time by their kids, especially when the kids are young.  There’s too much training and correcting to be accomplished, and it’s mostly one way (special situations not included).

Listen, my Daddy has been dead for over thirty years, but he’s still my Daddy.  He’s still the person I could lean on and trust the most in times of trouble, and Mother is of the same caliber.  I’m glad they’re not just friends.  I’m glad they’re permanently my parents.  Paraphrasing Emily Bronte, friends are the leaves on the trees.  Family are the stones beneath me, of little visible pleasure but more necessary and more permanent in my life.

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Years ago I was attending Warren Wilson College in Swananoa, North Carolina.  Very near the college is the historic Biltmore Estate.  One summer I decided I wanted to take the tour, though none of my friends at school were interested.  I went anyway, all on my own.  I had to pay an entry fee, and I’m sure all my wealthy buddies from school expected an invitation from the Vanderbilt family eventually.  Who knows?  Anyway, I wanted to write about my visit, and tell the lessons I learned from it.

Small aside here.  I have missed two days of blogging which I certainly never intended to do.  Here’s why.  I did not, and do not, really want to write anymore about our current situation.  I have already, and it’s certainly on my mind, but I’m more interested in writing about other things.  Besides, I figure PLENTY of very smart (and very dumb) people are writing about this situation, and my thoughts are not all that interesting about it.  Are my thoughts interesting?  They are to me, I suppose.  I especially like the idea of reflecting on days that feel plenty strange all on their own.  We’ll see how this goes.  Aside finished, back to the Biltmore.

This mansion, or more accurately castle, is built on a huge estate.  The main building was actually inspired by European castles.  It has much of what an American might expect in the way of “fancy family castle.”  I didn’t really dig the building all that much.  There comes a point at which a place no longer suggests anything like a home to me.  It’s more the flavor of a fancy hotel or spa.  There is simply too much, too many rooms, too much space, to many animal heads on the walls.  The only room I really liked was the library.  It felt like a real library, like a municipal library but with more beautiful paneling.  It also had chairs with red upholstery.  Yech.  And a balcony.  Nice.  I got through the house quickly and then I headed to the gardens and grounds.  That was really fun.

I also had the weird experience I have had before.  People kept asking me for directions, like I worked there.  I didn’t know then what it was about me that suggested I could answer such questions.  I have my theories now.  First, I was not young but I was not old, and that made me approachable.  I wore khaki skirts and white cotton shirts, and that is the universal uniform of summer tour guides, and I was walking happily by myself and with confidence.  I have always liked to walk like I know where I’m going, even if I don’t.  That combination signals to people that I know where I am, and I would not mind helping them find their way.  It’s not a bad vibe to have, actually.  When I can, I really do like to help others find their way.

The gardens at the Biltmore are spectacular, gorgeous, intricate, multileveled and a sweat-fest in summer.  But, that’s not all.  Once I was done with the gardens, I toured the farm and especially the vineyard.

After the tour of the vineyard, included in the price I paid for admission, was a wine tasting.  The tasting room was clean, spacious, and very welcoming.  The marble on the bar was cool under my forearms.  The glasses were stamped with the Biltmore logo, and there were these puffy slightly sweet crackers to munch between each wine offered.  I don’t’ know how many wines I tasted, but I know I got tipsy mighty quickly.  It was SO FUN.

Here’s the genius part.  To leave the estate and the winery I had to go through the gift shop, and I found myself with a little shopping cart in which I was loading bottle after bottle of wine.  It was madness.  I had no way of getting all these wines home.  What was I thinking?  I wasn’t.  I was enjoying.  I wanted the pleasure to go on and on.  The people at the Biltmore really knew their clientele.  They knew their strongest hand (really good but inexpensive wine), and daffy middle-aged women who felt entitled and tempted by such products.  I only bought two bottles of wine after all, but if I had been driving my own car all the way home, I would have bought two cases.  I was in that much bliss.

What did I learn from this?  First, know your customer.  Second, offer a good product at a reasonable price, and you’ll make money.  Third, alcohol will make money.  Fourth, money makes money.  Fifth, (most surprising) I can be alone and still have a delightful time.   It helps if there is wine, but even without it, I can still enjoy myself.

Anyone going to Asheville, North Carolina should consider going to the Biltmore.  As much fun as I had going through it alone, I would love to take my whole family there.  I would love to hear one of my brothers say, “So, here we go.  We’re going to pay money to look at a bunch of rich people’s old furniture.”

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