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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Egg Hunts in the Living Room

(Late entry today, so I’ll keep it short.)  My earliest memories of Easter specifically are from Estancia.  I do have some vague recollections of earlier days in Carrizozo and wearing a little outfit my mother made with a matching skirt and tam and purse.  In Estancia I can recall the lead-up and the days of Easter Week.  I can remember the smell of the vinegar and dye for the eggs.  I can remember those candy-coated marshmallow eggs that came in plastic wrapping.  I can even remember a solid milk chocolate bunny.

I have always loved Easter.  Aside from the fact that it is the best of all Christian Holidays, (I’m sorry those of you who prefer Christmas.  Easter is the BEST!) it has new clothes and pastel candy.  It has flowers, stack and stacks of flowers.  It has tulips and lilies and orchids and hyacinth.  It has crocus and daffodils and jonquils.  It has robins coming back from wherever they go in winter and marching around the yard like little bird superheroes with their bright orange chests.  It has the perfume of lilacs in the air.

Easter was the only holiday when mother would serve leg of lamb.  It was the ultimate pleasure of Easter, the dark rich lamb with its brown gravy and roasted potatoes.  (BTW, I’m making lamb tomorrow.  I’m going to roast it with the potatoes in the pan.  I’ve already got a flourless chocolate cake that I’ll top with berries and maple whipped cream.  I can’t wait for tomorrow.)

I even loved finding and hiding Easter eggs.  There were plenty of my cousins who could do both of those things better than I could, but it didn’t matter.  I loved doing both.

In Estancia, that week of the year could sometimes be the windiest week.  The wind would blow so hard, the sand would come through jeans and sting our legs when we walked outside.  During those miserable days we would hide the candy eggs in the living room.  Well, I would hide them, and Brian would hunt them.  We wouldn’t eat them right away. Sometimes he would hide them, and I would hunt them.  Occasionally we would miss one and find a petrified candy egg in June.  We couldn’t have eaten it.  It was a sugar rock.  Come to think of it, those days of living out in the country and hiding eggs for my little brother were like a preparation for quarantine.  In the words of my grandparents, “We made our own fun.”

I guess that’s why the current isolation doesn’t feel very strange for me.  I had some isolated days in my childhood.  Whoopee! (I know everyone must envy me.)

As much as I enjoy my alone time, I will be glad to have an Easter when I can hide eggs for someone again.  I used to give Seder dinners for my Sunday School class to show where the Christian traditions took from the Jewish traditions that Jesus followed.  As happy as I will be in a few hours when the sun rises on my favorite HOLY DAY, I will be a thousand times happier when I’m sitting at a long table with others celebrating the Resurrection in the future.

In the meantime, joy and peace to all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Do List for These Days

It occurs to me that in the distant and uptight past, communities would have women in their last trimester of pregnancy go into something called “retirement.”  They were expected to stay home (out of the public eye) until they had their babies.  There it is.  That is why “retirement” and “quarantine” look so similar.  The difference being that after retirement these days, it’s the pearly gates.  After retirement in those days, it was a baby.  After quarantine these days, it’s bad hair.  Yet another reason to wax nostalgic in 2020.

I haven’t been retired for long (less than a year), and I’m pretty bad at it, but I think I might be able to give a little suggestion here or there that might be of use.  I’ve noticed much of the COVID instructions on the TV are full of DON’T’s.  Those of us who have studied theology realize that is not a particularly good way to get people to change their habits.  Human beings like DO’s better.  We like to activate.  We like to be productive, sort of.

In that spirit of positivity, I’ve come up with a set of DO’s for retirement, and for quarantine (it turns out).  Here we go:

  1. Get dressed.  Every day, get dressed.  I spent one day after retirement in my night clothes for the whole day.  I did all sorts of stuff that day, but I never got dressed.  I even walked 10,000 steps, but I did not get dressed.  It was depressing.  I always feel better if I’ve put on my clothes, even if I’m not expecting ANYONE to come by.  If it helps, dress in something ridiculous or colorful or stretchy.  Dress in something that feels good, but dress.
  2. Make a pattern for the week, so that the days still have a “feel.” When you have a job, Monday has a feel.  At first you think that doesn’t matter, but it does.  If your days have a feel, you don’t experience a diffuse anxiety about time passing.  My method involves a pattern of chores (one per day) that fall on specific days.  Monday is laundry.  Tuesday used to be ceramics class but now it’s yard chores.  Wednesday used to be JOY Writers, but now it’s designated reading.  Thursday is do-for-others day.  I do at least one favor for someone else (someone outside the house) every Thursday.  Friday is shopping.  Saturday is one special cleaning project (usually small) or making up an earlier chore I missed.  Sunday is church and family dinner and sorting the laundry so I can do it Monday morning.  I’m not wondering what day it is.  I know what day it is.  I have a chore.
  3. Start projects that interest you. Whether or not you finish is your call, but starting a project will be frustrating and fun.  I have at least three projects going right now, and I’m working on at least two of them today.  Jigsaw puzzles are good.  Crafts are good.  Cleaning a closet can be strangely life-affirming.
  4. Enjoy a few minutes at least every day in complete silence. You might pray. You might meditate.  You might stare slack-jawed into the middle distance.  Enjoy the quiet.  Turn everything OFF.  As fun as binge watching and video games are, they wear parts of a person thin.   Give your whole self a break.
  5. Fix a special dish. Cooking and eating are among the rare pleasures many people have right now.  It doesn’t have to be a cake.  I like starting the grill and making smoked meats.  Make something you’ve never made before. Make something you haven’t made in years.  Make a mess.  You’ll have plenty of time to clean up.

That will do. I could go on and on, but these are the ones in which I have the most confidence.  I also want to encourage folks to keep a stiff upper lip.  It’s easy to feel sad.  I tend to feel sad, but I know it’s best for me not to wallow.  When sadness or fear come along I look at them briefly and then I do something else.  Sometimes I’m productive (like when I’m smoking meats).  Sometimes I’m not productive (like when I’m playing solitaire).  I just know that time is precious, even time that we spend at home, washing and re-washing out hands.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Eighteen Straight Failures

I’ve been seeing little news stories about “distance learning” and parents dealing with trying to be teachers as well as parents.  I suspect it’s not an easy gig for many.  I tend to think, “So…you thought my job could be done by anyone.  How do you like me now?”  Seriously though, I sympathize.  If any parents read this, I want you to know failure is a perfectly respectable option.  Just stay in there.  You’re likely to succeed as well.

Much of my blog has been about teaching, and I have often used this platform to give my high school students a chance to look at examples of how I might do an assignment I gave them.  That’s all over now.  I’m retired, since last June.  The majority of folks around here have been forcibly retired for several weeks now, and it seems like a good time to cast back on my past and tell a few stories of my great failures.  Oh, I’ve had some fine failures, but I rarely made a more consistent one than the yearly attempt to read Jean Shepherd’s “County Fair” to my students.  First, I need to give a little context.

Teaching in public school tests one’s flexibility, especially in the area of lesson planning.  During my years of teaching I usually had at least three preps.  That means during the day I would teach five classes, but they would often be paired.  I might teach a section of Sophomore English in the morning and another one in the afternoon.  Typically, I would try and give the same lesson on the same day because that way I could be sure the students were getting the same content.  I preferred to have three preps rather than one or two.  It was truly difficult for me to repeat the same lesson more than twice in a day.  I have known teachers who taught the same prep five hours a day and five days a week.  That is my idea of torture.  Every class has its own nature, and it was difficult enough to keep the kids synchronized when I only had two sections studying the same thing.  But, even with careful planning and instruction, the classes would sometimes get out of sync.  A fire drill or a bomb threat or a pep rally might put the afternoon class of Seniors one day ahead of the morning section.  In order to get them both back on the same timeline, I would have to give the section that got ahead a “back pocket” lesson.  All public school teachers have these (the experienced teachers do, anyway).  For years one of my favorite stop-gap lessons was a read along day.  I would have the students read silently as I read aloud from Jean Shepherd’s brilliant story collection Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters.

Many times the kids were amenable to this assignment.  It took considerably less work from them than my usual lessons which often required notetaking and class participation and discussion.  I designed most of my classes to be an intellectual workout.  This type of lesson meant they could either read along, or just listen, or (since I wasn’t looking) write notes or fall asleep.

Yes, it’s quaint to think I taught during a time when students wrote notes to each other and passed them between (or during) classes.  Now they can do all sorts of communication using their phones, but will a text ever have the same sentimental power as those hand-written notes?  I tend to doubt it.  A text is never as long as those aching pages of angst.  A text is never folded into the shape of a heart.

Anyway, the students who did read along or listened would give a little chuckle here and there.  The book inspired a popular Christmas movie—A Christmas Story.  It’s the one with the little boy Ralphie who wants a Red Rider BB gun.  Jean Shepherd narrates the movie and his delivery is perfect, funny and nostalgic.  I loved his voice, God rest him.

My favorite story from the collection is set in an Indiana County fair.  I grew up in little towns, in the country, and I have a deep affection for county fairs.  I won my first recognition as a cook at the Torrance County fair when I was nine years old.  I was in the open division (all ages) and I won a second place ribbon for my peanut butter cookies.  That red ribbon might as well have been a grand champion rosette.  I was so proud of it.

Anyway again, Shepherd’s story winds through the fair, and there are some charming and amusing bits all through it, but there is a section in it that I always find gut-splittingly funny.  I mean that.  I have read it a thousand times, and I still find it beyond hilarious.  That’s why the lesson always failed.

I would start reading and things would go fairly well, and then I’d come to the sentence that started my favorite section.  After listing no fewer than seventeen different things they ate comes the statement, “Steadily, we chewed our way toward Armageddon.”

And, I would get tickled.

Some of my students would laugh out loud at this point, and it would please me tremendously, but that only doomed my further reading.  With each passing sentence I would begin to vibrate and gasp and my eyes would water and then I would start laughing so hard sound would stop coming out of me, and then I would start sweating, and (as often as not) I would start coughing.  I would be unable to go on.  I would have to bend over and grip one of the front desks to keep my balance.

By this point the students would have stopped laughing along with me and stopped reading entirely.  They would freeze.  They would stare at me.  They would give each other sidelong glances.  I could almost hear their thinking.  “She’s losing it.  I mean it’s funny, but it’s not THAT funny.”  Then the bell would ring.

The students would bolt, and I would wipe my forehead and go sit at my teacher’s desk.  (I always had my teacher’s desk behind the students.  I did not teach from there.  It was for grading and writing and reflecting.)  Laughing that hard is a form of workout, isn’t it?  My heart rate would even out and so would my breathing, and I would feel so happy.

My students would walk around the rest of the day in a weird state.  The ones who liked me would be worried I had finally lost my grip on reality.  The ones who didn’t like me would worry what would happen the next day in class.  Perhaps I would bring in a basket of baseball-sized rocks and start heaving them in anger.

For years I would try to get through “County Fair” and to my recollection I never did.  It’s too bad really.  The kids would have liked it.  It has a good ending.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Dean’s Friend

I had something else planned for today, but I found out this morning that John Prine got to Heaven.  I want to pay a little tribute to a poet and singer I always thought of as one of my oldest brother’s cool friends.  I first came across his albums (and stole his albums) from my oldest brother’s record collection.

Dean and John Prine have a good deal in common.  They both served during the Viet Nam era.  They both delivered mail.  They are both poets, and they both have wicked senses of humor.  They even have similar accents.  I bet my brother Dean could sing a good number of Prine’s songs without even looking up the words.  I know Dean liked him because John Prine had the rarest of poetic gifts.  He wrote poems that sound simple and easy, rhymes as broad and familiar as the sun.  But, think about them and they turn out to be funny and wise and ingenious.  They get inside your mind and your heart all in one go.  Consider this song that he wrote when he was really young:

     I hate reading old love letters

     ‘Cuz they always bring me tears.

     I can’t forgive the way they robbed me

     Of my sweetheart souvenirs.

I can remember playing, over and over, and singing over and over, every song on his albums Sweet Revenge and Diamonds in the Rough.  Four about seven years I spent part of every summer with Grandma Jones.  I would listen to his songs, and since they sounded country, they didn’t seem radical to her.  And anyway, he sang “Nine Pound Hammer,” which was one of Grandpa Jones’ favorite songs.  There couldn’t be that much revolutionary about a fellow like that.  He even sang about Jesus.

     While out sailing on the ocean,

     While out sailing on the sea,

     I bumped into the Savior,

     And He said, “Pardon me.”


     I said, “Jesus, you look tired.”

     He said, “Jesus, so do you.

     Won’t you set down, son

     ‘Cuz I got some fat to chew.’

It was a revelation of sorts to my simple kid brain.  Here was someone who could find a way to sympathize with Jesus.  That was the thing about John Prine that most reminded me of my brother Dean.  He was always making me think about things, more deeply and with more careful consideration.  He also knew a whole lot of things about life and people that I couldn’t even guess.  We’re all old now, but that’s still how I see both of them.

I hadn’t been listening to John Prine’s sweet old songs lately until I heard he was sick.  I looked him up on YouTube and found his performance at Austin City Limits.  He sang “When I Get to Heaven.”  It was such a blessing to know he still had magic; he still wrote songs that were funny and smart and really, really good.

Tonight I’m going to sit down and toast old John Prine while he has his vodka and ginger ale.  I might even write a note to my oldest brother and thank him for introducing me to one of the best poets and singers I ever heard.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Radix Malorum est Cupiditas

Because I have developed an English teacher brain, I have been thinking about plague literature.  When this was all starting, I thought of Hot Zone, a truly scary look at the modern pandemic threat through the lens of Ebola.  If you haven’t read it, put it on your list for when this is over.  It is too terrifying for this moment in time.  I would make the same caveat for Camus’s The Plague and Porter’s Pale Horse Pale Rider. Instead, I’ve been thinking of earlier stuff—written during the time when wholesale death by disease was called plague.  Yes, I realize that’s the name of a set of specific diseases, but it is also a concept, one of the four horsemen of apocalyptic fame.

I should mention I thought of the death of the first born, the last of the ten Exodus plagues.  Talk about terror!  The Egyptians stared down frogs and flies and boils and even a river of blood.  The thing that broke them was the destruction of those first born—the future—the death of hope.  That was the most profound glimpse of Hell.

What can WE (modern citizens) learn from that plague?  Don’t mess with God or the Isrealites or own slaves or think you’re too tough to get your heart torn out of you.  Of course, the Egyptians were too hardened to prejudice and hate to be permanently changed.  They paid.  A lack of humility can come back to bite a nation.

Lately I’ve heard talk that there are people out there suggesting that grandparents would gladly die to save the economy for their grandkids.  I know.  It sounds stupid.  It is especially foolish when one can read Samuel Pepys diary, or Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

For those of you who slept since reading The Pardoner’s Tale, I will offer a faulty summary.  Three friends who are as close as brothers and as drunk as lords decide they are going to kick Death’s ass.  The short version of the plot involves the friends finding a cache of gold then betraying each other so that death takes them all.  The moral:  Radix malorum est Cupiditas.  If you can’t figure it out, or don’t read Latin, look it up.

What interests me more at the moment is a minor character they meet (near line 660) in their search for Death.  They are heading into a quarantined village, one where almost everyone has already died.  They meet one survivor, an old man dressed in rags, who begs Mother Earth to swallow him, but She will not.  His grief and doom are beyond bitter.  He offers a different lesson.  Plague doesn’t respect anyone’s wishes.  The people who die leave a wake of sadness, loneliness, and guilt.

My father died in 1982, and that moment broke my life into two distinct parts—the happy and the rest.  I don’t mean to imply I haven’t been happy since 1982.  I mean his death left an unfillable hole in my family.  I would not wish that grief on anyone.  Yes, death waits for all of us, but a premature and smothering death should be fought for the sake of all of us.  I can’t tell you how many times I saw both my mother and my grandmother cry in misery, full of grief and guilt.  My mother once told me she would trade everything she had and live in a tent if she could just have my father back.

The reality is the pale horse and pale rider have come for too many already.  No one should believe a grandchild does not grieve a grandparent.  In fact, those who serve, in medicine, in law enforcement, in the military, would not only die for the sake of their parents or their children or their friends.  They take up their burdens in order to fight for the lives of all those people and strangers as well.  They fight for life, not intending to die, as we all should.  Think of that!

How dear is the divine spark to us?  It is more dear than money because money is only man’s messy metaphor to make the exchange of goods and services efficient.  Life is God’s currency.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Driving through Fog (Revised)

Today I post with the JOY Writers in mind.  Let’s say the following poem is an exercise I gave to the group.  I will use it to teach how to write response letters in workshop.

EXERCISE:  Write a poem, essay, memoir, or story exploring the challenges of uncertainty.


On that long highway,

night came and with it



The desert highway of black top

and white lines

formed the whole, round world.

I drove.

Mother was with me.


The fog settled down on the road,

lonely with only a few filmy lights

of fellow travelers.


The fog hid the stars,

the horizon,

the ghostly animals that might

(or might not)

be out there.


The fog cumbered time.

Every mile looked much like every other,

as if rather than going as fast as wisdom

would allow, we were

barely moving.


I thought back to other times

when my kind father would be

at the wheel, me in back

with my brother,

my parents’ voices an assured

murmur over the hum of the highway,

so soothing I always fell asleep.


In this new fog I suspected a secret,

that I knew how my father felt.


He had these straining

eyes and hands and shoulders,

had these straining thoughts,

It’s on me now,

If I fail, we die;

If I make a mistake,

Someone else might die.

Lord, help me.


Mother and I made it home

after tedious hours;

I knew I would make it to my own bed

After the fog lifted and the lights of town

swam into view.


My last thoughts that night

returned to my father,

nice to guess I had

thoughts like his,

when he was in charge

of my world.


In cold daylight, I reconsider.

Maybe he did not think like I thought.

Maybe he felt calm.

He’d been on worse trips;

he’d slept under the decks of battleships;

crawled across bleeding sands;

set aflame men hiding in caves.


Maybe he was as calm

as he sounded

on those dark nights

driving through fog.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Aunt Ola

On March 10 my Aunt Ola died.  She was the last of my father’s siblings to go, the last of what I might call “old school McCollaums.”  Aunt Ola was a good McCollaum.  She had (I almost wrote “has”) many of the qualities that mark the “McCollaum” from my father’s side.  It’s a mixed blessing.  My father’s mother (whose maiden name was Green) used the name in a confusing way.  Whenever one of her kids did something scary or mean or pointed or rude or mysterious, she would say, “He let the McCollaum come out.”  Yet, she adored both her husband and her sons.  Contemplating that and my dear aunt, I decided to try to understand why I continue to admire both the name and the quality that is “McCollaum,” why I try to emulate them.

First, understand that though some members of the family were and are physically attractive, that quality was never particularly prized by the McCollaums.  Things built by my grandfather have been described as “short on beauty, but hell on stout.”  My father taught Industrial Arts for some years, and part of the test he put his students’ projects to was he would stand on them (the projects, not the students).  My father was a big man, commonly over 200 pounds.  He required his students to produce “stout.”

That quality my father admired came directly from the McCollaum Ranch and his family.    One thing they definitely admired was strength.  Every member of the family, man and woman, had to be strong.  Gender didn’t really figure in it.  My Grandma McCollaum could lift a twelve inch cast iron frying pan full of gravy with one hand and pour it as lightly as if it were nothing.  Every member of the family has that quality of physical port, even the thin ones.

Mental strength, intelligence, also counted for a good deal on the ranch.  By intelligence I am not referring to intellectuality, that rarified pose of knowing chemical bonds and Newton’s laws and foreign languages and Shakespeare quotes (though almost every one of the current generations has understanding of some or all of these).  The brains admired on the ranch were those of insight, observation, and reflection.  They did not put much stock in charm (big talk) or artistry (showing off).  Some could play music or sing or dance or draw.  Big deal.  What mattered was excellence.  That’s what they valued–high quality.  If you were a good story teller, that was fine.  If you were a good cook, even better.  If you were able to survive in the wild with only an axe, a gun, and your wits–best of all.

Their pursuit of these qualities combined to make the McCollaums valuable to others, especially those who lived in the wilderness.  If the s–t got deep, their courage never faltered.  They would make a plan, lightning quick, and execute it.  If plan “A” didn’t work, they would move on to plan “B” and “C” until the problem was solved.  They almost never failed and absolutely never panicked.  The people around them in times of crisis came to love them.   The McCollaums could be insensitive, rude, prickly, and curt, but they were the real deal.  A person could depend on them.

To illustrate the way this worked in the day-to-day, I will tell one of my brother Brian’s stories about our Aunt Ola.  My dad’s family and Aunt Ola’s family got together pretty often.  On our way to one of these gatherings, my mom told Brian, who was fifteen at the time, “Don’t bring up politics.”  Brian nodded in agreement, but he wasn’t really listening.  When we got to Aunt Ola’s house, everyone greeted each other but soon there was a lag in the conversation.  At that moment a political ad for a wildly redneck candidate came on.  Brian had been working on witticisms to make fun of this hick for weeks, so he grabbed the moment and launched into his material.  He only got one good zinger out when Aunt Ola went hard about the eyes and let him have it.  Evidently she knew this man, and she felt he was a worthy candidate, a man of conscience and integrity that Brian was dismissing for superficial and prejudiced reasons.  Brian thought, “Oh, yeah, Mom told me not to mention politics.”  After Aunt Ola finished, Brian mumbled an apology and headed out to the yard to visit with the younger cousins.

That was pure McCollaum.  McCollaums say what they think, and they treat young people the same way they treat peers.  They will not pretend for even the sliver of a second to believe something they don’t or to dismiss someone because he or she disagrees.  They have decided opinions, and they will give them.  They will also turn stony silent if the moment requires it, which can be even more unnerving than when they express their thinking.

McCollaums make great teachers because they do nothing lightly or without consideration.  My Aunt Ola was a teacher, and I know she was a good one.  She taught me half of what I know as a cook, and knew twice as much as I ever will.  It’s a lonesome feeling, knowing that she isn’t here anymore, but I know she is better now, back to her old powerful self.  Godspeed, Aunt Ola.

Ola as Sophomore

Aunt Ola as College Sophomore

Ola and Joyce

Mom and Aunt Ola–Good Friends


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments