Monday, February 29, 2016

The History of the Cold War #1

In 1992, my parents ventured into the land of distrust and bellicose relations with the United States for almost 50 years. The great and abominable USSR had opened their doors to the outside world and tourists. My parents tarried forth with curiosity and trepidation. They loaded their bags with gifts, because that was the way to greet people they had shunned and feared for most of their adult lives.

The surprise of their lives came when they entered a country of  poverty and deprivation. They had assumed, as most Americans had, that a nation capable and intent on obliterating their beloved country, would be a country of greatness.

Everywhere food shortages. Oppressed people. Unhappy faces who had learned to do without. Denied of privileges to worship, think, and act.

This is the country we have feared for fifty years? They wondered. Having prospered during the same 50 years of Russian misery, my parents wanted to help the poor Russians who could now engage in capitalistic trade. My parents came back with dolls, wooden nesting dolls, war pins sold by old men on the street; Russian hats, scarves.

Tony's parents, curious too, went to Russia and had the same experience. Their trip was more interactive with the people and they walked away with a shocking story from a woman they visited. When the communists came to dictate the new rules of the regime, they saw she had five, strong producing fruit trees. They promptly chopped down three of the five trees because no one else in the village had more than two and she wasn't allowed to have more. Insane politics.

Though mostly a child and a teenager during the cold war years, I too remember the strangeness of Germans in a divided country. East Germans who were shot if they tried to go beyond a wall. I remember the tensions and threat of nuclear arms build-up. Bombs in silos-projections of Russian missiles that could hit America. The clear words of Ronald Reagan, "Mr. Gorbachev, bring down that wall." I'd studied the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, read wicked stories of the KGB, saw impressionable photos of tough Russian leaders with gargantuan eyebrows, and of course knew the enemy in the movies was always the Russians. But I never knew from where it all began.

My curiosity has led me to undertake a study of the Cold War-the conflict between America and Russia, or America and communism from 1945-1991. I am motivated in part by the students who will learn from my research. I also want to understand the fifty year conflict from the angle of United States foreign policy. I will write what I learn and will include a works cited page in the last installment.

America Encounters Russia

Western exploration in the late 1700's brought the sometimes new Americans in contact with Russians for the first time. The men and women who pushed towards the west coast and California, found Russians just 60 miles north of San Francisco. 

The Russians had discovered Alaska in 1741 and claimed the land of sea otter pelts for their own. When the market for otter pelts crashed, they offered the land to the United States. It was Secretary of State William Seward's idea, and he was lambasted by the press for what was considered a worthless purchase of desolate, ice-covered land, referred to as "Seward's icebox," and "Seward's folly." The United Stated did purchase Alaska--at a cost of  7.2 million in 1867. It was a bold move considering the debt and destruction accumulated during the Civil War.

History of Russia Leading up to the Cold War

For 300 years, Russia was ruled by the Tzars. Oh, do they have their stories of failed goodness and successful oppression. Every Tzar had enemies, court intrigue, and many died at the hands of those enemies: beheading, poison, shooting and gonorrhea. They fought the peasants, the jealous, the power hungry, other members of family, to keep their power. By 1917, during the reign of Nicholas II, the Bolsheviks had gained the upper hand and Nicholas was removed and replaced by a provisional government. Provisional is an invitation for the greatest power to take control, and they did. Nicholas II and his family were shot in cold blood to insure the end of the reign of monarchy and autocracy forever. Yet, the change for the better proved just as bad, or even worse than the Tzars.

The leader of the Bolsheviks was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin and the founder of the communist party. At the age of 19, he was inspired by the writings of Karl Marx and believed his socialist principles would save his country.  He was a prolific writer and his theories and thoughts reached and inspired his countrymen. The weakened state of Russia during WWI allowed him and his band of Bolsheviks to overthrow the reign of the Tzars.

Beginning practices of the communists were put into place: private trade was forbidden; industry was nationalized; Russian peasants who had seized the land were legitimized; proletarian leadership was established; the cheka, or secret police were established.

The communist take-over did not go unopposed. The White Russians tried to fight the Bolsheviks and asked for international help. Churchill recognized another despotic regime and sent English troops. A few other countries joined, including the United States but the minimal help offered after the bloody battles of WWI, were too little to thwart the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks renamed their army, the Red army in contrast to the White Russians. Red was to become a symbol of their bloody leadership.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

We Are Stories--Story Canon #1

Our family stories stay with us. We remember. Stories shape our sense of who we are and the stories along with identity are passed down from one generation to another. Most of my family stories are oral renditions of experiences so indelible that they don't require writing. They are remembered. Yet, as a writer, I am compelled to write them down. The permanence of letters and paragraphs, guarantee the stories will last. If for no other reason, the writing will imprint them into my own mind, helping me to remember.

When I think of my mother and her story, I often think of the junior high dance she wanted to attend, but the soles of her required dress shoes had worn thin and wouldn't sustain her through a night of dancing. She took a cardboard box and cut out new soles, inserted them into her shoes, and had a lovely night. And a story.

As a child, as a teenager, as an adult, I've never gone without shoes, never had to worry about worn soles. I give my shoes away if they are scuffed, or I'm tired of the style, if I find someone in need; sometimes I feel guilty for the abundance of shoes, but I am consoled when I think the shoes may have a life for someone else.

On a home building trip in Ecuador, I noticed the daughter left at home while the mother worked in the fields, wore a pair of shoes that pinched her toes and looked terribly uncomfortable. I measured my foot against hers, and at the end of a workday, slipped the shoes off and insisted she take them. The rocky pathway to their cedar block, dirt floor home was a quarter of a mile and the short  barefoot-walk at the end of the day were some of the happiest steps ever taken. 

I doubt my children know this story, even though it's an important story to me.

When Tony and I were still in college and living as frugal a life as possible, when I was expecting  our first child, my father came to visit and found a need. My shoes were too scruffy and I needed some nice business clothes in my pregnant state. He and Mom took me to Nordstroms and bought me two beautiful maternity dresses. Dresses I would have considered an over-splurge. Now that I had nice dresses, I needed matching shoes. Dad gave me my first lesson on shoe styling.

"Always choose close-toed.  It's classy. A woman should never have her toes hanging out." I took Dad's advice to be sound. I became an observer of women's shoes and had to agree that female toes looked much better tucked inside the shoe (not including sandals). I was so committed to this principle that when I found the most adorable black cloth shoe with white polka dots and a white beaded flower at the instep, and it had a small window of an open toe, I felt down right rebellious for purchasing. I wore the shoes this week, with black pants and a white shirt with black polka dots, and I actually had fun thinking how wicked I was. Knowing how much Dad valued a little rebellion, he was proud I had broken the rule 30 years after he'd so impressed it upon my mind.

Dad was always a Florsheim man. Florsheims all the way. As a little girl, running errands with Mom usually meant a stop at the shoe shine store. It had a strong smell of shoe polish and the shoe shine man was an old African American who came to the front counter with a smile. 

As some point in Dad's life he became a cowboy boot man. He was a collector by nature and cowboy shoes lined his closet. As he aged, cowboy shoes turned into little-old-man slip-ons. This very minute, I wish there were a pair sitting in my front closet. 

These are my stories. My shoe stories. They speak of who I am and from whom I come from. Shoes, I guess, are a kind of family legacy. As I write these stories, I am flooded with other shoes stories I want to tell. I want to move them from the oral family canon to the written family canon. I am starting a written collection of life: a canon of stories.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mindset Readjustment

Class ends at 12:00 noon and Tony will be waiting to wisk me away to the slopes.

The computers are locked away, desks are almost empty, and by 12:04 I'm running for the door. We are hurrying to meet our friends at the Red Pine Gondola by 1:15. That leaves us with three hours of half day skiing on a beautiful, sunny day with friends we haven't seen in seven years.

We make it in perfect timing, even after having to stop and purchase forgotten sunglasses.

We see our friends! A little gray-er, but young and fit as ever. They hail from Santa Cruz California where they surf, windsurf, kayak, bike and you name the sport, they participate. This is their fifth day skiing, and on the drive to Park City, they stopped in Zion's National Park to hike an 8 miler and a 7 miler.

Though Tony and I are physical, speaking for myself only, the above schedule would have wiped me out.

Yet, would it have?

During dinner, Tony makes the mistake as referring to our selves as old.

"Funny," our friend interjects, "I don't see myself in that way."

"Neither do I," says the 64 year old woman who looks and acts like she's 30. She is the friend of our friends who also hails from Santa Cruz and has also been skiing every day for the past five days.

Then why do we? Feel old, that is.

We have an open and honest discussion about this and we all determine the reason we feel old and they don't is because we have children and grandchildren. Our friends and the friends of our friends, are both childless.

Yet, it's not what I seemed to imply. Our children and grandchildren have not made us old--if anything the joy and love keeps us young. The difference is in the measurement. When we watch our children grow and become adults, when our oldest grandson turns 12, there is no denial that we are moving up the age ladder. We are becoming older.

Inspired by our friends, we decide to make a paradigm shift. We have a nice little talk on the way home and remind ourselves that we are what we think.

So this morning when we are still in bed at 8:36 and our bones and muscles feel tired from a half-day of skiing, instead of Tony's usual lament Oh I'm old, he exclaims with youthful vigor, "Oh I am young!"

And so it is how we will think, until we believe (or until proven otherwise).

Friday, February 26, 2016

Technology Glitch

Two months ago, we were planning a family trip to Hawaii--not just our intermediate family, but grandma, aunts and cousins. We'd found one place to stay and it looked like we'd find plenty of other lodgings.  The planning had all taken place through a text thread. The texts were filled with details and evoked excitement for our future holiday plans. Then we added up the costs--during the holidays, some of the necessities, such as housing and transportation almost doubled in cost. The email thread fizzled out like a bum firework.

Today, at the height of mid terms, lingering cold weather, I received a rather chipper phone call from Paloma. I'd just sent her a text reminding her to call so we could buy the tickets--ski lift tickets for tomorrow.

"I'm so excited for Hawaii!" she exclaimed.

"Oh," not quite understanding her reference.

"We're really going?"

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"I just got all the texts from planning the trip, and then you asked me to call so you could buy tickets. When are we going?"

"When did you get the texts?"

"Just now."

"That conversation happened months ago."

"Ahhh, I hate when my phone does this!"

So excited, so thrilled. So disappointed.

Where were those texts for the last few months? Lingering in cyberspace? Falling, falling down the rabbit hole? Through the looking glass?

Where do all those deleted emails go? And the trashed downloads. And the blogs no one ever writes any more.

I think of thoughts and ideas long gone. Where do they go once they are used up, discarded or grown out of? Do they float off like rising smoke? Or do they all fit into one pencil tip of a place deep in the brain. Or are those thoughts rolled up in microscopic ticker tape? Could they be digested like carrots and flushed out as waste?

What about all those happy thoughts? Do they board vapor trains with floating tracks that float away and connect from one brain to the next? Do we breathe them in like the cologne from a passing man? If good thoughts reach and influence others, then what about the bad? Are they breathed in like fumes from a jalopy exhaust pipe?

When one has lived in the time of file cabinets, letter boxes, and newspaper recycle bins, it's hard to imagine all the intangibles without tangible places to go--yet I want a concrete vision, a place, a destination--at least, a pinpoint on a map.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Death by Taco

Sometimes I leave the house in a hurry and don't eat breakfast. I may manage to stuff a few nuts in a baggie or a tangelo in my backpack. By the time I arrive home, I can be ravenously hungry.

Today was the above scenario, and I started thinking about Tony's tacos the minute I pulled out of the parking lot. Didn't even change my clothes, but walked directly into the kitchen, opened the fridge and pulled out the glass containers with matching blue lids--my taco filling neatly divided and ready to scoop. Within seconds, I was stuffing my hungry face with tacos.

I'm thankful I'm not part of a reality TV show or that no one would care enough to place a hidden camera in my kitchen, because I caught an imaginative glimpse of myself dying while choking on a taco. Yes, dying. My bites were so fast and so big, that an unusually large piece of romaine lettuce wedged itself nicely between taco, teeth, and throat. There was never any real danger; I didn't have to perform the self-heimlich over the back of a chair. I didn't even have to stop eating. Didn't have to get a glass of water. Never even paused. It was just a milli second of Oh no, what have I done, and I could actually choke and die on this taco. And then I started to laugh, to myself-- not outwardly, or I really would have choked. No room for lettuce and laughter.

That would have been funny, I realized when the danger had passed. I thought of all the people who would have wanted to laugh had they heard the news that I'd died while stuffing eating a taco, but they would have been constrained by sadness or decorum or the pressure of behaving in a  socially normal capacity.

I hereby give you permission to laugh if you ever hear that I died while eating a taco, but only after   reminiscing over a fond memory, and wiping one tiny tear as it rolls down your cheek. Then you may laugh and laugh hearty you may. Irony requires that I will be laughing too.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

It's in the Argument

When Chief Justice Antonin Scalia died, I was a one-person captive audience who wanted to know more about the Supreme Court. Why did it matter? Why such a fuss over postponing a nomination until after the election year? Could the president just nominate a good person? Did it have to be a liberal vs. conservative fight? Did this have to be a partisan issue? Again? I wanted my students to have the same questions, so I planted a seed, and asked, "Whose parent is an attorney or might have knowledge of the Supreme Court?"

Students volunteered two different moms and two different dads and an uncle-judge.

Our first guest, a graduate of Yale, BYU and Berkley Law school, narrowed all the concerns down to one main point: argument. The argument is centered around whether the president has a right to appoint a supreme court justice or not.

"Whomever comes up with the strongest argument will win," he stated.

Could it really be that simple?

Today, I found what may be the first argument: the United State Senate Judiciary committee has thrown the gauntlet. In a letter addressed to Mitch McConnell, majority leader, eleven of the nineteen members have reiterated the constitutional requirements of the senate in choosing a Supreme Court member. According to Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, the president may nominate judges of the Supreme Court, but the power to grant or withhold, consent to such nominees rests exclusively with the United States Senate. This reiteration is to insure that the people of the United States receive their right to engage in a robust debate over the type of jurist they wish to have on the nation's highest court.

The letter then resolves to act boldly: "...we wish to inform you of our intention to exercise our constitutional authority to withhold consent on any nominee to the Supreme Court submitted by this President to fill Justice Scalia's vacancy. Because our decision is based on constitutional principle and born of a necessity to protect the will of the American people, this Committee will not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after our next President is sworn in on January 20, 2017."

Will the president now throw down his argument?

Is the senate majority really that fractured from our president? Does the protection of the will of the American people truly rest on this decision? So many questions and I may not even know the best questions to ask.

The exciting news is that we have another father-lawyer coming on Thursday. He is a Chicago man and I so look forward to putting together a few more pieces of the puzzle.

In a way, our guest speaker today, also threw down the gauntlet. He left us with these words. Think. Think. Think harder.

He was speaking to my students, but I do believe I'm up to the challenge. The privilege of curiosity, investigation and THINKING!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

On the Sidelines

Dear Unknown Woman Standing on the corner, 

Thank you for standing in the grass with your baby, today, as I drove past. You held him upright so he could feel the grass in between his bare toes. It could have been his first time, since he's so young and incapable of standing on his own--and never mind that the weather's been too cold and the grass has been covered in snow. I had stopped at the stop sign just long enough to see your child's delight. His smile made my day.

Thank you dear man, or father, or uncle, who walked the beach and allowed the little boy to skip through the surf. You didn't worry about him getting cold or too sandy even though you chose to stay on dry sand with your dry shoes. It would have been pointless otherwise because you could have never kept him from frolicking in the water. As we both watched him, we couldn't help but share a glance of understanding. Our eye contact and consequent smiles were enough to say we were both enjoying his joy.

Dear Caretaker,

You probably think you're invisible. Your life is tied up in the care of an almost grown child who will never care for himself. You listen to his indecipherable noises, you patiently wipe his mouth, you push him in his wheelchair. I can't say anything to you, because I don't know you, and my kind-intentioned words would be like an awkwardly placed domino- misunderstood as pity or sympathy, and I have no experience to be empathic. So I try not to watch your courageous and patient self, but I notice you, think of you and hope that wishes could be as easily sent like scents dispensed from aerosol cans that read Spring Meadow of Flowers or Citrus Bliss.

Dear Sister-in-law of my daughter,

You'll never understand how I have grieved for you and rejoiced for you. For years you have yearned for a child. The opportunity came later, and we have all wondered within our private-heart-chamber called doubt that it might have been too late. Miscarriage after miscarriage. Two babies who were almost yours before their mothers said "No." And finally, the last hope, a donated egg and science our foremothers could only have dreamed of. I waited on the sidelines to hear if it worked. I rejoiced when it did, and now with eight weeks left, I cry. I've been asked to pray. Your mind is at battle with your body to keep this child in its womb for just a few more weeks-please. You will never know how I bowed my head and plead with tears, how I ached as a mother.

Dear Unsuspecting Person at the Gas Station.

We pulled up to the side of the gas pumps, turned off our car and waited for the most beat-up, old car that ever lived. When you pulled up, we knew it was you. My child jumped out of the car and ran into the store to pay for pump #9 before you finished. We sped off. Guilty. You never suspected someone was watching out just for you.

We never know who's on the sidelines of our lives. Watching, laughing, caring, praying, sustaining.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Check and Balance

When my friends and I gather, we often inquire as to the state of each other's parents. We are at the age when the phone call in the middle of the night no longer concerns our children; those days have passed. The feared phone call is more likely to concern our parents.

D's parents have been slowly aging. Their decline in health, strength and capability, has been slow, but steady. She informed us today that neither of her parents can drive any longer--alone. But together they can still drive. What? Her father still has the physical capacity. He has a license and can see well enough. The problem is when he forgets where he is going or how to get to where he's going. D's mother's mind is still sharp as a whip and she can remember where and how to get to a destination. She has however lost the physical capabilities it takes to drive--slower reaction time and strength. So, together they make a great pair.

I remember reading a story about an old, old married couple who'd chalked up more than 50 years together. In their declining age, they'd become quite the fighters. Verbal insults were slung like snowballs in a schoolyard. It became their relationship and when one of them died, the other was left without a sparring partner. The son and author of the story had always thought their communication rugby was because they couldn't stand each other's company, but when his first parent died, the second was left without purpose and died shortly thereafter.

Tony and I are driving down State street when I notice an ugly, old building that I deem as an eyesore.

"It needs to be torn down," I say.

Within a few minutes, I see another blemish on the cityscape.

"I think that's what old people start doing. Start noticing the ugly things in their lives, in their towns, and then they start complaining and attending city planning meetings with demands for change. We need to help each other not become old people."

I see us working as a team, as an old couple, trying not to be an old couple. It's a check and balance system, a Senate and a House of Representatives.

Now that my mother is alone, her check and balance comes from my sister. There isn't a day that passes without a conversation between the two.

The nature of life is that we will lose our check or our balance. If I am the one to go first, Tony will need a friend, a sister, or a daughter, or all his daughters. If I am left without a balance, it will be a friend, a daughter or a sister.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


A few weeks ago, my sister found a blue dress, baby size. It wasn't an ordinary blue dress--you see, the previous year, she'd spent looking at blue dresses for herself and her daughter's wedding party. The blue dress had become an important symbol of family unity.

She found the baby size blue dress  for Mandi's baby girl, who is yet to be born--and somehow this meant that Mandi's baby girl was always part of the family. After finding the dress, she even wondered if the newest member of the family should be photoshopped into the wedding photos. Especially now that she had a matching dress.

Ah, but this goes so much deeper than just a dress and a newborn.

Previous to the birth of Mandi's first child, my sister claimed she had seen him. She described him as a two year old boy with blond curly hair. This vision made us chuckle and doubt because Mandi has dark hair and her husband could be mistaken, especially when he sports a beard, for a man from the Middle East. There was no way Mandi's future child, girl or boy, would be blond.

He was born with brown hair that thinly covered his head. As he grew, his hair got a little lighter, a little fuller, and by the time he was a two year old, he had a shocking mop of curly blond hair. He had become the little boy my sister had seen. And the boy we had doubted she'd seen.

So it wasn't a surprise that she now felt a connection to the little girl who won't be born until June, and that finding the dress entailed much more than a simple dress. When she sent the dress to Mandi, Mandi responded with the kind of joy that tickled my sister's heart. They both got the significance of the moment and when my sister called to tell me, we both understood that the present was received in the spirit it was given.

"Yes! That's it exactly," my sister exclaimed.

This simple encounter has kept me thinking about many things: the spirit of family, the connection of family, but most of all, the spirit of gift giving.

When a person gives a gift, the recipient will never actualize the entire process: the thoughts, the contemplation, the time, the meaning behind the gift. Perhaps the sacrifice. For the most part, the giving is for the giver. Regardless of the giver's pure motives, the greatest joy will always come to the giver. In the spirit of generosity, the giver understands this and is not hurt, or disappointed when the receiver doesn't appreciate fully all the gift entails. She understands the real token of the gift will come over time. Precious gifts take time to absorb and understand. The quilts my grandmother and mother made for me, are more meaningful with the passage of time.

There is however a slight burden on the receiver. Regardless of the gift, the joy, the disappointment, the receiver must always be grateful. Always.

When the gift recipient can imagine, when he tries to see that a gift is so much more than something that fits in a box, when he recognizes a story, sees the heartfelt action, then both giver and receiver exult together in an exalted moment.

Postscript: When I finished the last line, the thought, I can't wait for Christmas, reindeer hopped through my mind; it was immediately followed by, If giving is such a wonderful gift to oneself, why wait for Christmas when I can give every single day of my life?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

For the Girl's Basketball Team

I've never had the privilege of playing on a girls's basketball team. A REAL girls' basketball team.

Oh I did once, in my twenties,  and it was too temporary and too small of an effort to learn anything valuable: a women's church basketball season, created for a short burst of  camaraderie and exercise.

We were so bad that when we played against the Polynesian team and when I made one basket from the free throw line, our only point of the game, the other team's fans cheered for us. And then, the point didn't count because I'd stepped over the line. The defeat was so embarrassing that when the coach and his wife got in a fight and she stormed out the door mid-game, it became even more so-we were now down to four players.

As I watch from the bleachers, I see your privilege.  I sense you feel it too, though true appreciation and understanding may not come for years. When it does come, you will look back with fondness--for each other, for your coach, for your passion.

So much of life is looking back, and it's the strength in those moments that help us look and move forward. It's where the I can do its come from in doubt and darkness.

You will remember the sweat, the sacrifice, the push to be better. The knowing of what your team is thinking without speaking. Your purpose was one, your purpose was to work together. You knew what team work meant.

How can I know all this without having experienced it myself? Because I saw it, so clearly, in you.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Young Men Looking for Answers

Within the last ten years (and certainly the last 100 years), if the classroom, or the dinner party, or the small gathering discussion waded towards gender roles, the conversation would have focused on women. We were trying to figure it out; our mothers were trying to figure it out.  Career vs stay at home Mom? Children? How many?  Studies in the Science/Math--equal pay, equal rights...etc, etc.

Today when a student disputed a film director's claim that women were more compassionate, the classroom conversation determined that it wasn't necessarily true. With that claim proven false, the young men started to speak up in a way that took me by surprise. They were sincerely investigating through conversation and questioning, what it meant to be a man in the 21st century. Who was this new man? Who were they supposed to be?  That they could express their confusion, their longings, disdains and hopes, the desire to change stereotypes,---amazed me in the most wonderful way-- enough had changed so young men could dialogue about a previously taboo subject.

You're a man--just suck it up. Act like a man. Real men don't cry. Men are buff and they don't eat quiche.

One student pointed out that his male role models include a man who treats his daughter like a princess, and another man whose consideration to his wife is what he notices and admires.

The young men acknowledged that the day has passed when men were measured by their buff and braun. With an automated society, the need isn't as great for hunters and bicep bulging lumberjacks. A man today, is more likely to sit behind a desk than bale hay on his ranch. Was it the physicality, the lessening need for braun in our society that was helping to change roles?

The entire discussion was carried out with the utmost respect and thoughtfulness. Hours later, I look back and marvel that this was a conversation among teenage boys.

As we reached the end of classroom time, a young woman raised her hand and with great warmth, marveled that such a conversation could take place.

As the teacher in the classroom, I contemplate how it could have all happened.

Previous to our conversation, we had read a speech given by the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Arun Gandhi. He speaks of non-voilence and peace and from where his grandfather's desires of non violence came from. His grandson believes Gandhi's desires sprang from personal humiliation that drove him to find a better way to anger. Gandhi challenges us to not be ashamed of anger, to not, not talk about it, and to resist teaching about it. It's not enough to get anger out of one's system. One must find a solution to anger and commit to that solution.

We must resolve conflict, but Gandhi believed the secret to peace was to avoid conflict altogether.

Conflicts emerge from two main sources: inability to deal with anger and our inability to build good relationships, meaningful relationships.

The ability to deal with anger comes from writing with the intention of finding a solution and committing to the solution. As a writing teacher, I teach "write to discover," so this was a sweet back-up to the power of writing.

Concerning the inability to build good relationships--there is very little room in this world for another Gandhi. He was at the center of a perfect storm of politics, personality, experience, and era. For most of us, the greatest peace and change we will ever bring will be to our own families, neighborhoods and communities. If everyone brought this sense of peace to their own dominion, it would change the world. So, we must build good relationships within our realm of influence, and that is most likely within our families. Strong relationships depend on sacrifice, care and devotion.

In reflection, the reading of Gandhi's words is why, in-part, the young men were able to open up and discuss such an important subject. The study of peace, brings peace.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Oh The Let Down of Turning Twelve

I don't remember the exact day or year, but I remember the feeling when my birthday was no longer a big deal. I tried to stretch out that specialness for a long time, but meehhh, the inevitable caught up, rapped loudly, and busted down that door.

Oh, there were watershed decades (turning 30, 40), when it was a big when I turned 50. Tony and I picked out and brought home a new surf kayak with a formidable bow that cut through the waves like Odysseus on the Ionian  sea.  I paddled hard that week to defy the old age that kept on charging like the ancient warrior in search of Ithaca.

So imagine my sadness when the-day-before-turning-twelve, Max had the same melancholy feeling: Oh how he worried his birthday might not have the same charm as the birthdays in the years before. And he was only turning twelve years old. Much too soon. Much too young for birthday lamentations.

Like a good family, we rallied to help delay the truth about birthdays. We sang happy birthday a multitude of times, included him in the pickle ball match; everyone even gave into the demands from his mother: "No one is allowed to take a snitch from his cake until the official cutting." Even grandpa complied.

I continually reminded him of his unique birthday circumstances: "Max, you'll never again be swimming in the ocean, in Chacala, with your grandma on your twelfth birthday." Or, you'll never be surrounded by everyone who loves you so much, at this place, at this time."

Did it work?

Only Max knows if he weathered it through his new-age disappointment. Try as we might, we couldn't keep him from the companion of age: responsibility. For now on he would be responsible for his own attitude, his own happiness, his own engagement with the world. It triggers a little sadness at first, and one could think of it as a loss from childhood innocence and grace, but what could be better than gaining responsibility for one's own joy?

Now, I just have to figure out the joy I'll be gaining from advancing one more year into the fifties.

Perhaps Max will have some advice.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Walking On the Day of the First Snow-Melt!

After days of inversion, snow pack, and moping, mourning skies, the sun is finally shining!

I hurry home, pull on my sweats, running shoes, and a hat I won't need.

The immediate visible change is that the once-clinging snow pack, has retreated. Sidewalks are passable, grass is visible, and everything lost after the first winter storm is coming out to play. I notice an eyeglass case sitting on a rock. I imagine it was dropped from someone's unzipped backpack, unnoticed, and that very night the sky poured out thick snow. Today, the owner will come home and see his glasses that have been missing for months.

There is a scarf! And a candle! Broken, yet clean, protected by the snow pack.
My pace quickens a bit as I think of the treasure yet to be revealed; but my mind drifts to other, weightier things that happen when the weather starts to warm, and the cloaking snow begins to melt.

Just a few short years ago, a new teacher walked into my classroom, literally. It's the first thing we shared. The next thing we shared was a group of students we mentored, and then a three week class, and now we share all our students! A day rarely passes when we don't communicate. We are like parents who can only speak the way we do about our wonderful, errant, aggravating, amazing students, because we're the only ones who can understand.

The warmth of shared responsibility.

Three short years ago, three of us drove to Thanksgiving Point for our first beekeeping class. Together we've suffered, learned, explored, questioned, and gifted one another with honey, bee gloves, and books. Together, we have opened hives, scooped bees, caged a queen, deliberated over mites, sun exposure and best practice methods. We've worried over neighborhood pesticide use, if we winterized enough and on time, and when to take our share of honey. Today when the warm weather burst, so did our bees! It brought joy that only the three of us could share.

The warmth of discovery.

Today in AP Lit, an adorable student leaned forward and asked, "So, how did you and Tony fall in love?" I was shocked that she referred to Mr. Martinez in the familiar "Tony," and shocked that she would ask seconds before we were to start an important investigation into a short story. Yet, it was too sweet of an inquiry to ignore, and so I gave that small circle of six students, a very short chapter one of our love story. I was reminded that our relationship began under a foot of cold snow. It took a few years of warmth and thawing to develop.

The warmth of love.

When the snow starts to melt, look for what lies underneath!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

In Our Own Creative World

Ezra holds his mom's sunglasses. He's lifting the ear handles as if they were the bars that stop traffic when a train passes. "Ding, ding, ding, ding." The noise stops and I see the train swoosh by. "Ding, ding, ding, ding." The train safely past, I feel my car lurch forward and across the tracks.

Max sneaks around a corner. "Are you shooting someone with your air soft gun?" I ask.

There is no air soft gun here, but he gives me a covert nod as if doing otherwise will ruin the moment. The message is clear: I "get" what he's doing. He lifts his imaginary gun and points in a different direction.

As a child, I too created my own worlds. The spiral steps in my grandparents' yard were steps that led to a castle. Leaf covered pathways entered different worlds. My grandmother's garage was like a museum. Haunted-- not by ghosts, but by the unfamiliarity of days gone by.

Exploration and imagination are paramount to children, and the vividness of their engagements is inspiring. Though I am past pretending the enemy waits around the corner, or that my eyeglass arms are moveable bridges, I still feel the need for exploration and imagination in that exploration.

Saturday night, I am roped into chaperoning the school sweetheart dance. This includes walking the halls, looking for couples "seeking privacy," perusing the dance floor for over-board intimate dancing, and a twice-every-hour, stage check. The stage check is already covered, but while investigating the closed off part of the gym and open doors and hallways, I find myself at the stage door. It's dark and scary, but that exploration urge pushes me forward. I use the flashlight app on my phone and climb the stairs. It's spooky, black, and the perfect place to find a dead body. Or a zombie! I have to talk myself into staying calm. My moves are quick and purposeful, just a few stairs, an open door and I'm safe.

Most of the night is spent engaging with students: taking their photos, conversing over "little things," but mostly enjoying their handsome and beautiful dressed-up-selves. I even dance.

Before I left for the dance, I was partially dreading the long night. We'd rushed through dinner and I was missing the company of a visiting daughter. And foremost, it was a Saturday night at school. Who gives up Saturday night to chaperone at the school dance? The surprise was: I enjoyed myself immensely.

I had forgotten the childlike exploration and imagination that brings excitement and joy to life--and forgotten that both can be found, must be found, even in the mundane obligations on a Saturday night.

Monday, February 15, 2016


A student sits slumped in the back of the classroom, looking as if he's actually in pain.
He raises his hand.

"Yes?" I ask, always anxious to answer student questions.

"Mrs. Martinez," he drones, "could you please wear some color tomorrow. You've worn black for the past four days."

 I have a split second to decide how to respond. I think of telling him I'm in mourning.  It would be a good lesson for him. Or I've been diagnosed with an incurable disease and been feeling a little somber lately.

But I can't. As always, I try to take the request, as it was intended.

"Of course I will. I'll even go shopping and buy something bright!"

The room fills with laughter.

"I'll send you the bill."

More laughs.

A long time ago, a wise woman told me she never gives anyone the power to make her feel bad. If a person speaks harsh or rude to her, she takes the comment as it should have been said, or possibly as the speaker really meant to express himself. Her resolve surrounds her with a shield of positivity that deflects any wounding arrows.

With the wise woman's words always at my back, I saw the student's point of view. He noticed. It mattered. The morning was another foggy morning, and the student had grown tired of dark and dismal. I had the potential to lift his spirits and shrouded in black didn't do it. He was honest and open with me. What more could I ask for?

So how did I handle it?

The next morning, I wore cream colored pants with a bright pink sweater, and the day after, more color, and the day after that was a navy blue suit....anything but black.

And he didn't even notice--which is perfect. The child was having a bad day.

Remember that: __________was having a bad day.

And thank you ____________for teaching me that a positive reaction is more important than the color of the dress.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A student asked, "What was your favorite Valentine's Day?"

I didn't know how to answer.

So I sat there feeling foolish for my blank mind and what should have been a very special, well-remembered day, until it hit me, why I didn't remember.

My father's birthday was February 12th and for many years, I made my way to be with him on this day that often bled into the 14th. Most often the weekend was spent with Mom and my two sisters. Every once in a while, I'd bring a daughter, or daughters, and my niece would be there too. When Dad reached his eighties and his health began to decline, the parties gradually simplified. Dinners became simple and were held in the family dining room. Long gone were weekends in Coronado, nights at elegant restaurants, shows at a hotel, or even the front row seats at an Elton John concert.

It's impossible to imagine that anyone whom you can hug, or call on the phone, or someone who slips you a hundred dollar bill, could ever---not be, but it has never not happened. Someday, my daughters will spend their first Valentine's Day without their mother. Someday they may even be asked, "What was your favorite Valentine's Day?"

I hope too, that they will draw a blank. Not because they spent it in the non-traditional way with their mother, or father, or because they never had a stand-out day, but because there will have been so many loved filled days with a spouse, a child, a parent, and friends.

Happy birthday Dad; happy Valentine's Day Dad.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

When Someone Wants To Learn...

School was over, the meeting had been canceled, but still I lingered. My copy of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, was missing. The copy in which I had kept copious notes, scribbles, and discussion points. The copy I discovered almost 15 years ago. The copy that changed my life. The story that took me to New York, Connecticut, Tennessee, and France; the book that led me to the author's personal diaries, to his home, to Doris his wife--my friend. And now the book was missing. No wonder I lingered. 

I sat at the desk (which I share with two other women), and opened the cupboard and drawers in which I rarely venture. This time, slightly despondent, a little crushed if all the memories within that book were gone as if cast out to sea on a leaky boat. Alas, I didn't find my treasure, but I found another.

In a box, in the cupboard, I found this copy of Viktor Frankl's Man Search For Meaning. It was thicker than most copies, bulging even, and I pulled it from its darkness. It was a rainbow! --of colored post-it notes, of written, treasured, and learned-from-passages from a man who knew what it was to suffer.

Ah, this student understood.

Understood the connection of book to body, to soul.

Man's Search for Meaning books are a class set, and students are not allowed to write in them--but how can we have a mind-meld, engagement with a book if we can't talk back? If we can't record the "Ah ha," the part that crushes our soul, the moment of epiphany, the experience is never complete. This is why this copy was sequestered safely away. The teacher didn't want to let this go; she knew it was a work of art, a testament to experience, an understanding transferred truth.

Once I had a student whose yellow post it notes took over her checked-out, school-owned copy of Man's Search for Meaning. When the time came to turn in the book---oh how I wished I'd said, "Keep it Lauren. I'll replace the book." It would have been the best $10 ever spent. Why did I fail her?

Because I'd fought to bring the book to my classroom; I'd special ordered the exact number of books I'd needed; I'd momentarily treasured the book more than the treasure the book had brought to a student who wanted to learn.

Many of my students are having the same wonderful experience with  Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.

And so they asked, "We can't write notes in the book, right?

I wiggled uncomfortably and my face squenched in indecision.

"Well," I said, "the notes in a book are part of its history. I wouldn't mind if you underlined something really important or left a few thoughts for next year's readers."

The voice of the author, dead for many years, mingles with the voices of students-- a conversation still possible with words and a pen.

Billy Collins captured it best in his poem about annotation:

Marginalia by Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
Skirmishes against the author
Raging along the borders of every page
In tiny black script.

If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
They seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
That kind of thing.

I remember once looking up from my reading,
My thumb as a bookmark,
Trying to imagine what the person must look like

Who wrote "Don't be a ninny"
Alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
Needing to leave only their splayed footprints
Along the shore of the page.

One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
Fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout

To Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points

Rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
Without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
In a margin, perhaps now
Is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
And reached for a pen if only to show
We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
We pressed a thought into the wayside,
Planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
Jotted along the borders of the Gospels
Brief asides about the pains of copying,
A bird singing near their window,
Or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
Anonymous men catching a ride into the future
On a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
They say, until you have read him
Enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
The one that dangles from me like a locket,
Was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
One slow, hot summer.

I was just beginning high school then,
Reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
And I cannot tell you
How vastly my loneliness was deepened,
How poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
When I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
And next to them, written in soft pencil-
By a beautiful girl, I could tell,
Whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."