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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InULYfJHKI0

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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Biltmore

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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The Summer Slide

My nephew Orson is worried about his students.  He has noticed that “distance learning” and “distance teaching” have some real short comings.  It’s much harder to get the experience and practice it takes to get good at something in an electronic environment.  I know that from my own experience.  I once taught an online summer school English course.  It was torture.  I realized that to teach well remotely takes much more effort than teaching someone face-to-face.  To teach badly remotely is the standard.  Online learning depends almost entirely on the student being self-motivated and eternally optimistic, which is not the nature of most students, or most people for that matter.

I want to write all the time, but I don’t do it nearly as much as I ought to.  Imagine what it must be like for a student who really just wants to hang out with friends and be intimate with sweethearts.  The distance system of study is not going to come naturally.

Back in the old days we used to refer to the skills and content that students forgot over summer break as the summer slide.  I even remember experiencing it myself on the first day back to my Junior year in high school.  We were writing our “What I Did this Summer” essays, and I could not remember how to spell really simple words.  As a teacher I often noted the same sort of creaky re-adjustment in my students in the fall.  The funny thing was, it came back.  Much of the stuff I lost, and my students lost, over the summer came back when we tried to use it.  It’s a little like taking a break from working out.  The longer the break, the worse the slide.  If school does start back in the fall, the summer slide is likely to be disheartening.  Still, it will feel good to be back in school.  It will feel good to be back in an environment that’s really social and full of talk and possibilities.  Students might even truly appreciate their teachers after wrangling with their parents for an extended period of time.

Beyond that, I remember plenty of things I learned in the summer that I really value.  I learned how to do origami.  I learned how to play dominoes.  I learned how to make taffy.  I learned how to drive.  My Grandma Jones taught me how to make Ojos de Dios with toothpicks and thread or embroidery floss.  I read Jane Eyre for the first time the summer of my Freshman year of high school.  I usually resisted reading the assigned books in classes, but during the summer I could choose anything I wanted, and I loved it.  I read romance and mystery.  I also flew kites and swam in the river.

Since I retired, I have been acting a little like I’m on a long summer break.  Only now, when mother and I are dealing with quarantine and living on our lovely little island on the corner, am I beginning to try and overcome a desperately long summer slide.

Tonight my prayers are with all the teachers, students, and parents who will be facing the losses of a historic summer break.  Let them find a good way through the hedge maze of these unknown coming days, and let them learn things that will give them joy their whole lives to come.

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Darlene’s Guidance

In 1992 I moved to Roswell, America to start work at Goddard High School.  For those of you who don’t know, Goddard is also a bomb shelter.  Many of the classes meet sixteen feet underground.  Everything about teaching underground is an adjustment.  The air comes through air handlers.  Because there are no windows, time evaporates.  Everything is lit with slightly sickly florescent lights, and it really isn’t all that claustrophobic.  That’s partly because the designers of the building did one thing very right.  They made the ceilings high and the halls and rooms fairly large.

Once I got acclimated to it, it stopped bothering me that we were so far underground.  Besides it wasn’t like a cave or a mine (unless the power went out).  If the power went out it became darker than the darkest night, a dark so complete I really tried “it” one of the few times it happened.  By “it,” I mean I waved my hand in front of my face and saw NOTHING.  It’s an unnerving feeling, being in that kind of darkness, a darkness that makes starlight still feel like light.

I’m not writing about darkness today, though.  I’m writing about my adjustment to this very strange building, the kind of building few people have had to occupy.

When I started working at Goddard, I was an experienced teacher.  I had already taught for six years at Deming High School, and I spent a year at New Mexico State as a Graduate TA teaching Freshmen Comp.  I wasn’t entirely green, but I did discover that I had a weak immune system.  The first couple of years at Goddard I got profoundly sick each year during the winter months.  I hated missing work, and I dreaded being so sick I would have to take cold medicine while teaching.  It’s not fun, teaching while woozy.  During those first couple of years, I noticed that Darlene Klassen, the Head of the Math Department and one of the best teachers I ever saw, did not develop the same diseases I was battling, so I asked her if she had any advice to help me avoid getting sick.  Boy, did she!

First, she advised me NEVER TOUCH COMMUNAL SURFACES, especially not the handrails on the stairs.  It had not occurred to me that would be a problem, but the next time I was coming down the stairs I realized that even if they were cleaned every night (which they were not), germs would love them.  Half the rails were always in shadow and oily. YECH!  Darlene was even careful about doorknobs and faucets, about desktops and chair backs.  She cleaned her room with Lysol regularly, and she was beyond careful when a student was showing any signs of sickness.

I understood about watching kids for infection.  Even before I started my professional life, during my “stupid teaching” days (that’s what I call student teaching), I had learned to diagnose by sight conjunctivitis (pink eye) and by smell strep throat.  Still, Darlene was even more vigilant than I was.

One day I mentioned to my students that Ms. Klassen had been teaching me ways to avoid getting infected, and they rolled their eyes and sighed.  Yes, they were perfectly aware of her extreme measures.  When a kid sneezed, she could hardly wait until the bell rang to rush over and spray his desk with Lysol.  Sometimes their noses burned when they came in the room.  They clearly felt she was taking it too far, but I disagreed.  Their health was still in the boisterous phase.  They could handle many of the germs they were passing around.  They were just beginning the “kissing strangers” part of their lives, but not me, and not Darlene.  I knew she was going about it in a way that made much more sense than getting sick EVERY SINGLE YEAR WITH EVERY SINGLE BUG THAT WENT AROUND.

I never reached her perfect level of protection, but I followed almost all of her advice, and it changed my life.  I stopped being sick every year.  I missed almost no days of school.  I taught at Goddard for fourteen glorious years, and even after I left and went to an above-ground school with huge windows and my own office, I still followed much of Darlene’s very good advice.  I did get sick there occasionally, but I have always been one of those “soldier on” types.  I always went to school, even when I was sick, and I truly believe I did not spread my disease to the kids.  I have to.  I was extremely careful about the vectors of infection.  Until the last year I taught, I did not miss class due to sickness.  That last year I got shingles, the most painful disease I have ever had, and it made me miss a day.  Even when I came back to school, I would still have terrible bouts of pain.

I often feel a great wave of sympathy for those people who are essential workers at this time.  First, I understand their need to go to work, even if it is fraught with danger, because missing work feels somehow worse than going.  I loved my job.  I wasn’t saving lives, and I wasn’t moving mountains, but I was DOING SOMETHING.  Doing feels so much better than marking time.  But, I digress.

Today, I am thankful for the good counsel Darlene Klassen gave me all those years ago.  I say again, she was and is one of the best teachers I ever knew.

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Considering the Crown of Thorns

This is a glorious day in the Christian calendar, but I’ve looked into my past.  Christ’s suffering was cruel, His sacrifice profound.  I find myself contemplating His suffering and the part I have played in it.  What do I know of suffering?

One of my most instructive experiences of cruelty happened to me when I first started teaching.  I’ve had people be hateful to me my whole life for all sorts of reasons, about what anyone might have experienced in the cruel fields of childhood, but one of the worst things that was done to me as an adult was done by a group of girls.  These girls, three of them, were all having trouble in my class.  I spent a great deal of effort and extra time helping them.  I tried my best to make them strong students, not just in my class, but all their classes.  Their grades went up, and their reputations as students among the other teachers improved as well.

One day one of the members of Drama Club, a club I sponsored at the time, told me that the same group of girls were making fun of me and saying hateful things about me in the lunch room in front of other students.

This just rocked me.  I could not help, in those early days, being cut to the heart by them doing this.  I fumed and moped about it. This experience began the scarring process that goes on to this day.  I learned, and am still learning, that often kindness and generosity are repaid in cruelty and betrayal.  A genuine interest in helping others succeed and grow can result in those same others turning on their benefactor.

What should be the consequences of such an act?  What punishment would be proportionate to this act?

The worst punishment I can think of must be administered by a parent.  It is called “Withdrawal of Affection.”  I blush to remember my version of it, which I once (and only once) applied to a student.  Here is the essence of the process.  That child who has fallen out of favor, does not exist anymore as far as the parent is concerned.  That child will no longer be subject to the gaze of the parent either in love OR anger.  The child becomes a stranger.  The child may ask a question, but the answer, if given, is given as it might be to someone who has no relation to the parent whatsoever.  The child has the foundation of mattering and identity pulled from under his or her feet.  The shunning creates an isolation so profound that physical punishment would be preferable, even to the point of scarring.

The thing is, I don’t think anyone deserves this, or all people deserve this–both at the same time.  The worst thing a person can do is be cruel.  The effect matters less than the intention.  When a person seeks to make another person suffer out of some perverse pleasure, that is unforgivable.   At the same time, I know cruelty springs up easily in the human heart.  We all can be cruel.

Those girls that were saying unkind things about me after I went out of my way to assist them were being cruel.  I wanted them to pay in some way for what they had done.  (Does it matter they were cheerleaders?  At the time it mattered to me that they were cheerleaders.)  As I circled my feelings and considered them in various lights, I began to recognize two more subtle puzzles springing from my original pain.  The first was the student who told me about what the girls did.  Why did he do that?  What purpose did his action serve?  Was telling me an act of kindness?  Was he warning me to guard my heart against caring for people who cared nothing for me?  Or (what seems more likely) was he jabbing a sly knife of pain into my happiness?  He did not like those girls, and I clearly seemed to appreciate them.  He wanted me to stop supporting those girls, and it worked—in a way and for a time.  I never was able to relax around them again.  I continued to tutor them, so they would have success in my class, but my smiles for them were guarded and false ever after.  I never again enjoyed seeing their growth, their learning, their benefit from my help.  I did not stop helping them.  I stopped enjoying helping them.  So…I was doubly punished.

Another subtly eventually floated to the surface.  At the end of the year, I confronted one of the girls directly about this.  She came into my class wanting another type of favor.  I don’t remember what exactly it was, maybe something to do with fundraising, but I do remember saying, “You can stop pretending that you like me.  I know you don’t.”  She had been smiling and as sweet as pie.  When I made the comment, a comment that just skirted being rude in tone, more of a passive aggressive delivery (if you can imagine the tone I mean), she looked abashed.  She asked what I meant, and I explained how someone had told me the things she had said.  She protested, but there was in her every gesture and glance the truth of what she had done.  She was caught in her ugliness.  Still, there was also evidence in her reaction that it had been quite some time since she had said or done anything that was insulting to me.  She clearly had forgiven herself for what she considered a small sin, and I (because I was a competent enough actor to fool a teenager) had continued in the style of kindness as was my required wont, that her disrespect had evaporated into simple acceptance of me and my help as common place and beneath notice or comment or dislike. She had stopped faking her acceptance of me, and it had become (to some extent) real.  I wonder if the effect of my holding her unkindness up to her notice stayed with her after she graduated.  I wonder if it ever occurs to her.

All sorts of things come back to me these days, and as often as not, they are the moments that I too was cruel or unkind or foolish.  They pain me, but they offer an odd reassurance as well.  Being a great teacher, a truly exceptional teacher, is a dangerous game.  Consider Socrates.  He was not sentenced to death for a sexual proclivity for young boys.  He was sentenced to death for being an effective teacher.  He chose to carry out his own sentence, but that was fanaticism, right?  Consider Laozi, born old and doomed to understand only the decay of his culture and his followers.  Consider Christ, the best of us all.  I sit and observe my failures as a teacher and a person and I think, well, they won’t kill me for that.  That was terrible.

Have I forgiven the students and colleagues, family and friends who have hurt me through unkind words and actions?  I think I have.  I hope I have.  Just don’t tell about any of which I don’t already know, or that I haven’t surmised.  I think enough about the evil I suspect in others, and I blush plenty at the evil lurking in my own all-too-human heart.  I would like to take back those thorns my own weaknesses added to the crown, but I can’t.  All I can do is try my hardest not to add any more to the world around me.  Late entry tonight, and far too long.

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