Friday, September 30, 2016

Happy Anniversary Mom

How do I acknowledge, even celebrate my mother's wedding anniversary? Especially since my father passed away two years ago. Their marriage endured 57 years while he was alive--just because he's gone, doesn't mean such a legacy isn't worth celebrating. Like all marriages, Mom and Dad's had its ups and downs, sideway spins and free falls. All the more reason to celebrate!

Fortunately, before I take her to the airport, there's time for granola French toast and an omelette at Gustatory on Orange Avenue. I arrive early at her place, set up my computer at the table, and prepare to ask her some questions to set the tone for the day.

She sits on the edge of her chair.

"Without thinking about it, what is a favorite memory of Dad?"

She pauses only a half-second, "Traveling. Europe. Switzerland. I just loved to get him away. When we traveled, he was all mine."

"Now you can take a minute and think about a favorite memory," I say.

But she doesn't have to think long. "The time we took you kids to Disneyland and your Dad and I went to a fight and left you alone. You know what happened, there was a riot when the crowd disagreed with the winner and they set a fire and we had to get out of there."

She sort of throws up her hands, because perhaps there are too many favorite times to remember and retell. "I just loved being with him; he was a fun person to go and do things with. He loved to dress up and for me to dress up and he loved to look nice, so it was always fun to dress up and go out."

"What is your favorite attribute of Dad's in Loraine (my sister)? Favorite attribute of yours?"

She answers and we apply all the questions to all the children, and even bring in the grandchildren....

"What would you say to him now?"

"I already said it this morning, I love you and I miss you."

After 57 years of an earthly marriage, I can only imagine the feelings she must have for this man, my father. If she had the chance, what would she do for him now? The time and trial of caring for his infirm body, must now only seem like a blip.

And what would he do for her right now? I know he is limited, but in that limitation of death, of an existence in which I cannot comprehend, I believe he is still concerned for all our welfare--especially his wife's.

While eating our breakfast on the cafe patio, we are enjoying the music of Frank Sinatra and his contemporaries of the 1950s and 60s. Mom's favorite songs keep popping up. It's so natural that we hardly notice, until we take our last bites and the track changes. First it is a heavy handed pop song and then an obnoxious western tune about wanting to bed a man. The contrast is so distinct that we both get the same idea at the same time.

It was Mom's anniversary breakfast party, and Dad was there to make sure the music was just right.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Teaching In the 21st Century

Yesterday, my teaching partner was home sick with a sore throat, and I was on an airplane for five and a half hours (with a one hour plane change in SLC).

Just because Deb had a sore throat and was home in bed, doesn't mean she wasn't working. Just because I was above the earth doesn't mean I wasn't working too. Because in fact, we were both working. Or in this case, we can call it playing.

Students are almost finished reading Viktor Frankl's, Man's Search for Meaning. The book creates amazing discussions. I've watched students come alive as they discover a new way to look at problems, at life, at finding meaning in their own lives. Yesterday was discussion day, but remember, both teachers were absent from the classroom.

Google has some amazing resources such as google classroom and google docs. Deb created discussion groups and invited three or four students to each group. I also received an invitation to each group discussion. While sitting on the plane, I had an open window to each discussion and would jump back and forth among the five groups. To some of the students, I entered the conversation by typing, "Hi, I'm joining you from 30,000 ft. I look forward to reading and participating in your discussion." I followed the conversation and jumped in with encouraging words such as, "That's a great point Garret," or "That's a great quote you used." I asked questions and offered a few of my insights, but most of all I listened in cyberspace as the students spoke to one another via computer.

For the second hour of class time, students were writing their college application essays in  Google classroom. It is an amazing tool that allows me to FREAK out my students. They will be typing along and suddenly---I am present in their document. Yesterday's participation included compliments on writing style and opening lines, and my excitement to see where the essay was going. Joining their online writing effort seemed to be a special nudge. Often I would open a student's document and find a first line only. I'd hop to another student's writing then hop back to the first student and it was still just one line. Then I would break my silence. "Are you still thinking?" When I returned, sometimes an entire rough draft would be hammered out.

At the end of school, Deb and I were pretty amazed at what had happened. Even we communicated through an online source. I texted, "You successfully created a way for us to stay in our pajamas at home and teach school. We can now hire a robot."

Today Deb was feeling better and back in school. A minute before the bell rang, as students were putting books in their backpacks, she took a casual poll on yesterday's silent Socratic discussion. "They loved it," she wrote.

Teaching in the 21st century certainly has its challenges, but it also has its perks. Who could have imagined I would engage with students while flying over North Dakota--still a rarity-- as it could become a very expensive way to teach school.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

When Values Clash

I'm standing on the sidewalk when a man on a bike stops in the road and asks in a muddled voice, "Excuse me, do you have some change? I'm really hungry." My pockets are empty but I offer to get him some food. Maybe a sandwich or a slice of apple pie.

"You and me---don't think we eat the same food," he mumbles. "I just need a little change to go down to Bills to get something to eat."

"What will you eat? A sandwich? A protein bar? He scrunches his face and curses, "A protein bar!"

I tried.

"Well good luck," I say, because I don't know what else would be appropriate.

He's peddles away but turns back, "Ain't no such thing as good luck. I'll make you pay for that good luck."

So much for good intentions. I'm left to worry he'll hold a grudge and come back to my daughter's house for revenge.

This is what happens when we value different things. For me, it was an almost-offer to dish up a piece of homemade apple pie I'd made the previous night. For the man on the bike, I suspect he valued alcohol or drugs.

I can never forget the crazed eyes of a woman who also had different values. She stood in the middle of the crosswalk, her eyes wild, her arms in the air, muttering in French. I wasn't sure what she wanted, so I studied her: she wasn't wearing shoes but her feet were somewhat protected by several pairs of long, dirty, socks. Her sweater was stained and shredded. Her hair looked like she'd slept on the streets for weeks.  We made eye contact and she came directly to me. She said she was hungry; she wanted money, but I had no money. Ahh, I was delighted when I remembered the contents of my purse. I had chocolate from a Parisian chocolatier.  I opened up my purse, showed the woman, and proceeded to break off a piece for her. She scoffed and looked at me like I was the crazy person.

I valued that chocolate; she wanted money to feed her demons.

Once at the end of a trip in a foreign country, Tony and I were unaware of the queen's birthday that shut down bus service and banks. We had to rely on a cab driver who took us to the train station for half the fare. Once at the station, I had to stand on a corner and sell our bus tickets in order to buy train tickets. I depended on the kindness of strangers who could speak English. Fortunately a woman took a chance and stopped. I gave her a deal--half price bus tickets. She valued the tickets, I valued her money that would get us to the airport.

I often think about the cab driver who had a value we were so in need of: mercy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Good Leaders

"Goodnight," I said to my son-in-law, "it's good to know all of America can sleep well tonight."

He laughed heartily.

After all, we'd just watched the debates.

Did you sleep well last night? 

I didn't think so. 

However, I was pleased that candidate A & B didn't turn the debate into a barroom brawl. Both candidates were more civil than expected--it was easy to see how they were one time friends or at least, friendly New York acquaintances. Each candidate had as many sincere comments as snarky, vitriolic jabs. Both candidates looked healthy.  I liked that both candidates said they would support one another if the other was elected.Overall, it was a good night, because it might not have been. It's sad, cultural commentary when South Park airs a parody on the presidential debate and calls one candidate the Giant Douche and the other the Turd Sandwich.

When the debate was over, I asked my daughter and her husband who they were voting for. My daughter hadn't changed; my son-in-law said he couldn't vote for A or B. Then the phone rang: Tony was calling to join the after-debate conversation.

"Candidate A is_______, and candidate B is___________." He was in turmoil.

At least each candidate did a good enough job to cast doubt in the other.

So this morning, riding in a cab, enjoying the privileges of a prosperous, safe, free country, I have to move closer to a voting decision. Do I think America and its current policies are in rough enough shape that I need to take a risk to make America great again? Vote for a man who has outsmarted the system to not pay federal income taxes? Or am I happy and secure with status quo, and the competence of a strong, admirable woman, to take a risk that we can be stronger together? A woman who's been under an FBI investigation?

My cab driver from O'Hare was an immigrant from Nigeria. He's been in this country for 19 years. Since leaving his native land, he's watched its further deterioration. He makes passionate accusations of its corrup leaders. He is thankful to be in America.

This morning, my cab driver to O'Hare, has been in our country for 28 years. He left Haiti and having just witnessed the state of Haiti myself, we have some commonality.

"There is money there but the leaders are corrupt," he says. "The last president built himself another house that cost 8 million dollars. Not 8 thousand--8 million. All the money collected from the earthquake relief? I don't know where it is, but it isn't in Haiti. Corrupt leadership again and again."

The rest of the cab ride is silent, because corrupt power is unsolvable for a cab driver and his customer.

Sometimes I wish I wouldn't take this election so seriously, but it's overly evident how important good leaders are to a nation and its people--as I learned from my cab drivers who were driven from their countries by corrupt and greedy leaders more concerned for their own gain than the welfare of the people who trusted them to make a difference.

Monday, September 26, 2016


It's the preschool fall festival! The children are active, adorable, plentiful. The parents, mostly thirty somethings, are handsome, healthy people. The food spread is a treat--a catered main dish and a pot luck of salads, fruit, dips and desserts. The weather is balmy and when the sun sets, it cools off to facilitate that magic end of summer feeling.

The children are treated to two bouncy houses, face painting, a balloon tying man, a bean bag toss, and the tree lined street where the old Presbyterian church houses the preschool, is blocked off for a bike riding extravaganza.

As delightful as the occasion is, I am waylaid with a darker concern: my invisibility. Yes, I am just the tag along grandma, and I am invisible.

This invisibility started years ago. I noticed it while in the company of my daughters. One of them would be noticed by a young man and I could make faces, contort, my head could spin and I wouldn't be noticed--but that was okay. I didn't want to be noticed by young men.

It then started happening in a store or at the bank, or a restaurant. I hadn't been aware of the problem until one day, my youngest daughter accompanied me to buy some running shoes. A salesman came out of nowhere. The experiment began, and sure enough the hypothesis was proven. While doing business on my own, I was invisible. When my daughter came along, I got the best service possible; I started taking her with me whenever I had important business or an important purchase.

At the preschool fall festival, the hosts greet my daughter's family, but I remain unacknowledged, standing on the periphery. Again and again.

Isn't it my fault? Shouldn't I go out of my way if I want to socialize or be involved? Yes. But I am running another experiment and I want to prove to myself I am becoming part of the forgotten demographic: older, marginalized, unnoticed people.

My son-in-law makes films. Some of those films are for his mountable speaker company. The short clips show young people skateboarding, surfing, biking.  I'm just as interested in mounting music on my kayak, but he's not interested in my subset. I tease him, "When you're ready to show an older clientele, I volunteer to be in the ocean kayak film." But he knows the surest way to kill interest and the cool factor is to use old people in his promo films.  "But we're the ones with the money to spend!" I try to reason with him.

It doesn't matter. Product success is dependent on image. The right image, the young image.

I accept that I'm invisible, but tonight, it seems harsh. I think of my friend Deb whose job it is to pay attention to old people in her work as a chaplain. She is kind and she is happy. I imagine being with her in a social situation and she is the one who walks over to the old person at a party.

I want to be more like Deb.

The preschool's tree lined street is also lined with beautiful homes. I am sitting on the curb watching my grandson and the other tykes ride their trikes, their two-wheelers with training wheels, their scooters--when I notice an older than me gentleman standing in the street. His wife is in their driveway and they're trying to pull out. The situation seems hopeless--how will he stop the speeding tykes? No one is paying attention to him, not even the parents when the man's goal is obvious. He is invisible to the children.

Jumping off the curb to help jolts me from my invisibility slump. We try to stop the big wheel traffic, but we need help. We solicit the help of other parents and only after forming a chain, is the older woman able to pull out of her driveway. In this further demonstration of invisibility, I know I will not be content to be forever invisible, but it's up to me to fight the inevitable. There's a shift in my presence--less on myself, more on others.

It's now dusk and theoretically I should be more invisible than before, but as I push the bike with training wheels towards the car, I pass a young woman who smiles and says "Hi."

She'll never know how much it meant to a woman who thought herself invisible.

Forget my invisibility--look for the other person who also feels invisible and make her visible--it may only take a smile.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Apple Pie

We're off to a rough start. The four year old, after refusing to switch his natives to the right feet, tripped and skinned his tummy. The baby cries. After stopping for gas, we return home because mother forgot the baby carrier. And last night? The baby was up from 3:30 until 5:30 am, and the guest room is right below the nursery.

Once on the road, the rough start is only a blip of the one hour drive to Indiana to the best apple picking orchard in the midwest...or so my daughter says.  As we pull into acres of parking and lines of cars, I realize I'm on a mid westerner's fall pilgrimage. Every one is here from Illinois and Indiana: young, old, millennials, a group of Vietnamese aunties who cluck and smile at the cute baby in my arms.

This I am sure, is the all-American experience: corn maze, pumpkin patch, animal farm, a tractor ride to orchards with 35 varieties of apples. Picking those apples is part of the $5 per person fee.

I am amazed by the varieties I have never seen nor eaten, but a successful harvest is somewhat determined by one's apple IQ. We seem to have wondered into a stretch of Cortland apples, yet the expectation of a juicy, sweet, fresh off the branch bite is a grave disappointment. Are they not ripe or just a bad tasting apple? Clearly another row of apples haven't reached their peak sweetness. The Honey Crisp apple rows are picked clean.

The sun is emerging from behind a kind cloud cover and the midwest humidity sends trails of sweat down my back. Excitement gives way to feelings of I'm done. It reminds me of noon in Disneyland-when every other child is crying and anticipation has parted for hunger and tired. It's time for lunch. But the Disneyland tram, or rather the tractor pulled wagons are momentarily stalled. A tractor engine is on fire. We are hardly delayed because the next wagon arrives.

A short lunch and a walk through the big market lined with bins full of pumkin donut packages, chedder popcorn, side carts selling pie, ice cream and other specialty foods. An old beekeeper stands behind a cart giving out honey samples. Never pass up a chance to speak bee, my subconscious whispers.

"How many hives do you have?" I ask.


A real beekeeper. I almost blush when I tell him I only have one.

"How do you handle mites?" I ask. Varroa mites are a recent invasion and hive devastation to American beehives.

"Well, I use a somewhat illegal combination that works real well. It's part what we used to dip the hogs in, a little mineral oil, I rag it and put it in the hive for two weeks. After I remove the supers. You know, I think the bees are getting weaker."

Not what I want to hear.

"If I could, I'd get out of beekeeping."

"But we need you."

He smiles because he knows it's true.

In the late afternoon, we've had enough of our all American experience. We buy some honey suckers, blue popcorn, three pieces of pie: caramel apple, blueberry and sweet cream. We go for the chedder popcorn, a rack of pumpkin and apple spice donuts for tomorrow's Sunday school class. We pay for our orchard picked apples and grab a bag of Honey Crisp apples-$14.99.

When the customers in front of us, with a cart full of big pumpkins, hear the cashier say, "That will be $131. dollars, the father is shocked. The mother and daughter respond, "It's a good thing this is only once a year."
Back in Illinois and almost home, we stop at Marianno's market for a Vito and Nick's frozen pizza and ice cream for tomorrow's homemade apple pie to be made by moi! We peruse the apple section--as abundant as the three-hour-drive-to-apple-orchard-land's apples. And there it is--the same size bag of Honey Crisp apples for $6.99! Another part of the American experience.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Page Turner

Margo doesn't sleep at home in Chicago without being held, but within a few days, she's sleeping because all four of the aunts, one great aunt, and two grandmas are more than willing cradles.

Certainly then, the problem isn't Margo not being able to sleep, the problem is there aren't enough Aunties and Grandmas. Can there ever be enough? Can there ever be too much maternal love?

When my children were growing up, my mother was the perfect grandma. She made dolls and blankets; she filled baskets with toys and goodies; and always she drove or flew to be with her granddaughters. It was her goal to visit once a month. What a Mom, what a Grandma.

I am however, not as generous with my time, nor do I sew and create beautiful packages delivered by UPS. And Margo is a four hour plane ride away--not to mention, no one visits Chicago in the winter. Not even for grandchildren...ah but this may change. The pull is getting stronger.

I stumbled upon the most lovely paragraph ever written by a grandma, a famous grandma.

"Becoming a grandmother turns the page. Line by line you are rewritten. You are tilted off your old center, spun onto new turf. There's a faint scent of deja vu from when you raised your own children, but this place feels freer. Here you rediscover fun and laughing, and reach a depth of pure loving you have never felt before," Leslie Stahl reports.

How unique that through the birth of another human being, I am changed. I am molded.

Beautiful words. A beautiful responsibility. A beautiful blessing: Grandma.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Banking Rant

There are very few times when I go to the bank to withdraw a larger than usual amount of money. Each time, the bank teller, in a casual friendly way, has asked me what I'm doing with the money. The first time it was slightly jarring, and none of her business, but it seemed like an over-friendly fluke and I thought nothing more.

On another occasion, I was asked again. This time the money was going to a young widow who needed some help. I didn't have any problem answering the question about my altruistic withdrawl.

When it happened yet again, I casually answered, "A woman's got to have some cash." The bank teller and I had a little laugh.

This time, as I made plans to stop by the bank, I wondered if the question would pop up again. If it did, something was amiss. This time I was ready to fight the intrusion into my personal money management.

Poor guy.

After I handed the teller my withdrawl slip, the expected question wasn't even disguised as casual interest, "What are you doing with the money?"

Hmmmm. I'm on the verge of blowing a fuse at the young man who is probably following protocol established by a higher-up.

"Why do you ask?" I ask with suspicion.

His answer is reprehensible; he explains the bank feels responsible for how I spend my money and more especially that I'm not being defrauded.

I feel like I'm in a twisted version of Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's 1984. Is this really 2016?

We banter back and forth and the young man as sweet and concerned as he is, cannot convince me that the bank is acting in my best interest. Their assumptions are plainly that I am stupid. The bank feels responsible for my money.

"Like you're doing a service for me right?" I question him about the zero interest policy that's popping up at various financial institutions. It may not be too long before the bank convinces me that letting them take care of my money is a great service and I will be paying for those services--instead of the bank paying interest on my money they are using to make loans, interest, which = money.

This encounter seems to be the norm. The woman at the next teller window overhears the conversation, and when she finishes her transaction, she leans into me and says, "I just always tell them I'm going on vacation."

The bank teller stammers. He apologizes for offending me.

I wasn't offended, I was made aware. I can't ignore that this is the same bank where the CEO recently resigned for a fraudulent act. Hmmmm....

Time to find a new bank.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Top of the Mountain

I felt It on the morning we pushed our kayaks on to the River of No Return. I felt It the day we pushed and paddled through the first surf on the Napali Coast. I felt It on the trail walk with mountains looming 2900 vertical feet before us.

The It is an almost tangible reverence for a great endeavor about to be taken. It's part fear, part vulnerability, part reverence. It's self doubt, quiet contemplation, and foremost--excitement. It's a confirmation of the human spirit and a discontent to remain static in a world so full of mountains, rivers and oceans.

The It, was a climb to the top of Snowbird.

When we reach the top, we can ride the tram back to the resort.

"Why is it free?" one of us asks.

"If you make it to the top, you deserve to come down free."

We dare to laugh.

On the first stretch, I'm already pausing to catch my breath.

Up ahead, a hunched hunched-over figure with hiking poles, seems to be a very old person. As we pass, we say "Good morning;"  he returns the salutation. He looks like a wise ancient Indian guru. His steps are purposeful and made at a steady pace, but I wonder if he will make it to the very top.  As we twist and turn on the pathways, I lose sight of him. When I am his age, will I be strong enough?

For three of us hikers, this is our first time hiking Snowbird, but we are in the company of two veterans who have made this pilgrimage before. Lisa tells us that when we reach the top, we must pause and make a goal, because goals are attained when made at the top of this mountain. She explains that after such a climb~~ anything is possible. Just a few years before, Judy made the goal of finishing a degree--which seemed impossible at the time. As we ascend, we all know that Judy, with a full time job as an ICU nurse, finished her degree last February. Maybe there is power at the top of this now sacred, goal-setting, mountain.

As we see the culminating peak, it reminds me of the ascent to Mt. Everest. I've never been there, except in the movies, yet I still feel like I have a little glimpse of what it's like.

"Twenty-five percent of the people will die who climb Everest," someone reminds us, and I warily look down the steep sides.

Our last steps require stops to catch our breath. The end is near and a kind of exhilaration is imminent. We reach the edge where Judy and Lisa make their annual goals. It is far from ceremonial but in my quiet mind, I know what I have to do.

Everyone is content. There is quiet joy in overcoming obstacles, in working hard, in reaching the top.

And the view...

is spectacular.

We have the luxury of sitting on the deck's adirondack chairs while waiting for the tram ride to the bottom. The bell rings signaling its departure. We stand, gather our belongings. I turn and see another beautiful sight: our ancient Indian guru has reached the top of the mountain--his steady pace, his never giving up, has paid off--the same requirements it will take to reach my goal.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

When A Snake Crosses Your Path

I froze. I backed up. I assessed the situation the best I could. Is it a poisonous snake? A rattle snake? I'm alone on this trail; what would I do if it struck?

Not an expert in reptiles, it was probably a harmless garden snake and all my fears were a little dramatic. fears were real because I didn't know what I was up against or the potential threat of the slithering creature.

I find it rare, in any worthwhile endeavor, that a snake doesn't cross my path, and in these cases, the snake has been a contrary colleague, a stubborn child, a comment taken the wrong way. I usually freeze, back-up and assess the situation to the best of my ability, and just like the literal snake on the path, the perceived threat to success is a harmless one indeed.

So...I took its picture, backed up and made a giant leap to insure if it did strike, I was far above its treacherous threatening venomous fangs. When I made that leap, it scurried back into the brush, more afraid of me than I ever was of it...usually the case for obstacles or snakes that try to stand in our way.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

True Friends

My dear friend lives a busy life: four children (two teens), a grand baby, a business in her garage and a full time job counseling teens who have stumbled.  I have a few responsibilities of my own, and so when we do get together, which is often just ten minutes here, or a short walk there--always, we have too much to catch up on in too little time.

Yesterday we only had ten minutes. We started several different conversations and never had a chance to finish at least one story.

A few hours later, my phone rings, "Hi," she says, "I called to tell you the rest of the story."

Just before hanging up, my friend reminds me, "You know, it's only the best of friends, who can pick up weeks, even months later, and continue the conversation. You're one of those friends."

I acknowledge the truth of what she's saying. Real friends can pick up where they left off even if it's years later. For my best high school friend and me, it was my four-kids-grown-up later before we could get together again.

Today, another friend, who I haven't had a real conversation with in years, is meeting me for lunch. Another friend dropped by with her boyfriend after one long year of her absence--it didn't matter.

And then...there is the friend who doesn't appear to have stood the test of time.

We were only sixth graders when we said good-bye, but we promised to meet as grown-ups. I never forgot and one day, the third friend who'd been part of the pact, found our long lost friend on facebook. She'd become a famous person in a fame filled world and in spite of the demands in our very different worlds, we'd managed to find a time to meet. She was in the middle of moving, I was responsible for sixteen teenagers, and we were two LA suburbs apart. We miscommunicated; I tried to change our meeting to another day. In the fit of a too-busy woman who isn't used to people changing appointments, she canceled. I apologized. She didn't respond. Crestfallen, I realized I should have done this, I should have done that. A childhood dream ended in disappointment. I accepted it and vowed to be more considerate of others' time.

Years passed. Whenever I thought about the failed reunion, I felt a little stab in my chest.

I just so happen to have a little-used facebook account where I belong to beekeeping groups only. I don't stay on top of the messages, but this time I clicked on the messages and one was from my sixth grade friend. She'd seen the Broadway play, Beautiful, the story of Carole King, and she'd thought of me because I used to sing along to Carole King songs. She'd sent the message in July and I didn't see it and reply until September. I hoped I hadn't blown it again.

I re-read the first heartfelt messages we'd sent when we'd found one another. So kind and tender.  Those messages were sent in 2010.

We'd reconnected after thirty years. It didn't matter--we were still bonded by our sixth grade promise. She cautiously reconnected again after six years, and I truly hope it is the beginning of possibly meeting again~~~because with true friends, it doesn't matter how much time has passed, how many stories there are left to tell.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Bad Tune

A young acquaintance of mine walks into the fridge at the grocery store where he is employed, counts to ten, returns to the customer and says, "No. We don't have anymore."

The customer thanks the store employee for checking.

Employee feels no remorse.

I however, am stunned.

"You mean, every time the grocery store shelf is empty of a product I want to buy, and I ask an employee if there are any more, he or she goes to the back of the store, or to the refrigerator, counts to ten, returns to tell me, "Sorry, we're all out?"

"Yes," he replies. "Everyone does it."

He recognizes my horror and interjects, "It's because we've learned that if it's not on the shelf, it probably isn't in the back of the store or in the fridge."

This is a reasonable justification but, his previous words ring like a bad tune in my mind.

Everyone does it.

If ever I find myself acting or doing because everyone's doing it, it may be the very reason to change course.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

$15, 594 and Growing

Next week, I'll be in Chicago.

I think a lot about Chicago, mostly about the people I love.

Then I think about the people I've met in Chicago. The strangers I've encountered. The strangers I care about. Every stranger in Chicago has a story. Every stranger is a potential friend. Whether it's the Nigerian woman on the corner waiting for her children; or the Muslim, black cloth covered girls in Target; whether it's the young black man asking for money to bury his friend killed in gang warfare who stands outside of Whole Foods Market; whether it's the hedge fund manager with a top floor office in downtown--everyone has a story.

I understand why my daughter loves Chicago--because she loves people and the people have stories.

Even when the stories have a sad ending. Over Memorial Day weekend 58 people were shot of whom 6 died. The saddest story concerns a mother of three who was sitting in her car when a bullet pierced her window and found its way to her spine. She lays comatose in a hospital, her mother waiting to take her home. Yet, taking her home looks bleak.

The mother of the comatose woman is grandmother to three children who need their mom. Their mom who also supports the family. Grandma wants to flee the violence and created a Gofundme account asking for $50,000. With that magical sum, she believes she can find an apartment where "white people live...where they can walk to the store" without getting shot. Before the NYTimes story, the account collected $200 in almost three months. After a few days on the front page, the account has reached $13, 459. While at my computer, I refresh the page and my heart dances as I watch it climb.

While in Chicago, I say to my daughter, "Why can't we go down to south side Chicago and help some people?" She smiles at her altruistic wanna-be Mom and thinks how naive I am.

$14, 089.

Of all those people who are shot in south side Chicago, a small percentage die and most likely make the news, if only as a statistic. Recently Nykea Aldridge, a cousin of basketball star Dwayne Reed, was shot and killed in one of those crazy, senseless, drive by south side Chicago shootings. Finally, I thought, a person with a connection to a celebrity who might step in and help the problem. This was before the Memorial Day shootings and no, it doesn't seem to have made a difference.

But the other people who the comatose woman--whose medical bills keep climbing, whose bills won't get paid, who children will not be cared for ...what about them? I've already imagined finding some of these people, going to their homes, telling them I care, bringing a gift to momentarily ease their burdens. I know I won't or can't go by myself; I can't risk taking my daughter, the mother of two small children. I wonder if my son-in-law would go with me, then reality hits and I feel foolish with self doubt and grandiose save-everyone desires and ask Who do I think I am?


I remember the weekend when my two daughters and I rented bikes in Central Park and rode them into Harlem. To me, we were just white people in a black neighborhood and why should that matter?

An older woman, came up to me as I rested my foot on the curb, and told me I needed to leave Harlem right away. I took her advice and we peddled straight back to the safety of "where the white people live..." I will never know the exact reason for the warning. Was I not allowed among this culture? Was I in danger?

When President Obama, who was once a senator from Chicago, announced he would live in a beautiful DC suburb while his daughter finishes school, who has supposedly purchased a California estate to reside in after, I felt a kind of disappointment  that he didn't move back to south side Chicago to help the people. Imagine the impact! Surely it would change if the ex-president and his messages of peace could be applied to one of the most violent places in the world.

A few years ago, I was asked to assess the education efforts of a charity working in war torn Sudan. There was a cease fire and I was ready to go...until my husband came to me and asked if I would reconsider. It was a dangerous place and I was too much to lose for my children, for my husband. I couldn't argue with his plea. I never went.

Recently, my daughter and her nice neighborhood where white people live... have heard gunshots. Blocks away is the crossroad of two feuding gangs. My daughter wants to help, wants to be involved in the community action that communed last month to come up with solutions to fight the violence that has now reached into those desirable, violence free neighborhoods.

She has a lot of hope, is determined to not move, and was excited to facilitate change. When I asked her how the first meeting went, she had to sadly admit she never went. The meeting was held at night in a place where she wouldn't have felt safe.

$15, 234

People want to help. People want to save lives. People want others to feel safe, to know their children can play on the school playground without getting shot. Collectively, we will donate enough money to move one family out of Chicago south side--but how many are left?

At the same time I am disappointed in myself that I lack the chutzpah, the fortitude, to go and make a difference, not once or twice, but many times. What is the difference between a fool and a game changer? Is one a necessary step to the other? Or am I seeing it backwards and does the precursor to game changer require wisdom? With hope, I cling to wisdom and precaution, that my daughter and I can be part of a solution that requires wisdom and sometimes that takes standing at the edge of a fire for warmth and not jumping in and getting burned.

I pray for that wisdom, that patience, and an opportunity.

Maybe that will be helping with one family at a time.



$24,960  10:30 p.m. EST

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Beautiful Saturday Morning

It's a beautiful Saturday morning, though a tad bit chilly at 7:00 a.m.

Most people should still be tucked tight and sleeping unless they have a job, or a baby, maybe an early soccer game or a garage sale! Yes, just up the street, my neighbors are moving and loading boxes to take to a busy corner for a garage sale.

Last night, Tony and I carried a dresser, a nightstand, and fit it into the back of the SUV. I cleaned out a few closets, made a sacrifice or two--but for the most part, it was a chance to clean house with hopes that my extra would be someone else's treasure.

When I first pull next to the corner lot, my friend is putting up tables all alone. It doesn't look like it will be much of an operation. I help her, we unload furniture and arrange the clothing.

Ah...another truck pulls up full of hopefully valuable goods. It's the uncle of Lucy!

I make another run to the house for another stack of goods. I pause for breakfast then return. This time, the garage sale has a few customers and quite a few more goods and more trucks are backing up--one with a brand-new-looking fridge. It looks like Grandpa might be here too; he's wearing a bright green shirt with a shamrock and white lettering that reads: Love for Lucy.

A woman sells watches, a customer wants to know "How much?" Vans pull out, children rummage through toys. I want to hurry home and empty out my house to support the cause.

It's a beautiful Saturday morning; the sun is up and the temperature has barely reached 52 degrees; but my heart is on fire. All of us are here for a four year old girl, for her family. She was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor--she will not live, but the medicine to alleviate her suffering is too expensive for her family to afford. In the words of my industrious friend, "I don't have $1000 to give, but I can help organize a garage sale."

The love and warmth I feel on a cool morning, standing on a weed-filled empty lot~~~there's no place I'd rather be.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Activist Needed

I walked out to the bee yard on my nightly watch, expecting all to be well on the bee front.

 It wasn't. In part, it's what makes beekeeping such an interesting challenge; I can never take the practice for granted. Nature is much too fickle.

One day the hive will be thriving and days later the queen will be missing without a clue to her disappearance, because she never leaves a note. I ponder and speculate--did she die? Find a better gig? Did she go on strike for better hours and higher pay?

So on this early evening, the sun almost set, the hive hadn't settled down; the bees were furiously dragging dead bees out the door, hitting the ground and tugging them as far away from the hive as possible.  A pile of a thousand bees lay just beneath. I crouched low and watched until dark, when the bees should have been huddled in the hive, and not so driven and desperate.

Previously I would have been devastated and heartbroken to find so many dead bees, but this time I looked at it with a scientist's objectivity intent on finding a hypothesis to the death wave.

I snuck my gloved hand into the mayhem and picked up five little bees. They rested in my palm and I carried them like a pall bearer to the kitchen where I laid them on a chinet white sepulcher,  then continued the procession up to my desk. I pulled out a magnifying glass. I was distressed to see each one died with an extended proboscis or tongue. A sign of pesticide poisoning.

What to do? I called the beloved county bee inspector Joey.

"Hmmm, I need to take a look." A day later Joey was at my side lamenting the box of dead bees.

"Pesticide poisoning. Does anyone have a problem with bees?"

"My neighbors love the bees. They've noticed how their garden produce has tripled in the last few years."

 I've heard several times, "We never saw a peach until you started keeping bees." I think of my poor friend's berry patch in South Carolina that no longer produces because there are no bees to pollinate it. My patch has so many berries we can hardly keep up.

Joey continues his questions, "Has one of your neighbors recently sprayed?"

"I wouldn't know." Thank goodness I don't keep tabs on any of them.

"But," I answer Joey, "look at these beautiful lawns; they don't just happen. I think all my neighbors use a lawn service, and I respect this."

Joey agrees, but he talks to me about safe pesticide usage. "You really should talk to your neighbors. Let them know the simple ways they can help save bees." He hands me a stack of flyers to distribute.

We both wonder if lawn services would ever start spraying at dusk when the bees are safe in their hive. It seems like a great public relations move for a company that sprays poisons into a sensitive environment.

Joey again mentions the need to educate my neighborhood. I'm not much of an activist, but the Department of Agriculture and Food needs help. Bees need my help; the environment needs my help; our food supply needs help...and we all can help.

Preventing Pesticide Poisonings of Honeybee: by following simple guidelines, unintentional pesticide poisonings of bees can be reduced or eliminated altogether.

*If an insecticide poses a residual hazard to bees, 4-8 hours, only spray after bees have stopped foraging-between late evening and midnight.
*Pesticides with extended residual toxicity to bees-8 hours or more- should not be applied if plants in bloom are present.
*Don't allow pesticides to drift to non-target crops or weeds that are in bloom.
*If a pesticide is toxic to bees, try an alternative pesticide or other control if such options are available.
*Use the least hazardous formulation of the insecticide.
*If an insecticide is highly toxic to bees, ask beekeepers if their colonies can be moved prior to application.
*When temperatures are unusually low or dew is forecast, don't make applications. Bees are especially vulnerable during these conditions.
*Control weeds before they begin to bloom.
*Some blossom thinning agents are hazardous to bees

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Gain Vs. Loss

My teaching partner asks all the students to hand in their annotated work on William Golding's "Thinking As A Hobby." A student comes to the front of the class and explains how he elaborately annotated the reading, but due to his waking up late, he forgot to put the elaborately annotated piece in his backpack. Alas, it is still at home, sitting on his nightstand.

Without a blink, my clever teaching partner, responds,  "Tell your mom to take a photo of it and send it to me."

Student (exhibit A), is speechless.

"He never sent me the photo," she later laments.

Later that afternoon, mind you ---the same day, I watch as my friend listens to her eight grader. He asks, "Can I go to (friend's) house?"

"No," she responds.

"Why not?" He whines.

Cool as a refrigerated cucumber, she responds, "You know why." He slinks out the door.

"Okay, what did he do?" I ask.

"He went to second lunch when he was supposed to be in class. His brother saw him out the window of his class and sent me a text, David's (name change) ditching class."

"So, I sent him a text asking him where he was and he responded, In class. I knew he wasn't so I texted back, Take a picture of your teacher. He didn't respond."

Clever, clever friend, clever Mom.

Does deceit make us dumber? Does wanting to bust the deception make us more clever?

Certainly, the ubiquitousness of phone cameras make a liar's world just a little harder to live in, and a teacher and parent's world a little easier to live in.

But it also makes us all a little more miserable. Without much effort we become a voyeur on a dark night, peering through the partially closed shades of someone's bedroom window. The lack of privacy takes its toll on not only the undressed, but the person who might have accidentally gotten a peek.

In one sense, the camera phone is the best thing that could happen to a society with a propensity for violence as a problem solver and lying as a way out of trouble. The person with authority, power, and that propensity, may pause in his or her actions with the threat of a recording camera; a person my be forced to tell or admit the truth--however, the reliance on technology instead of virtue is a great loss in a person's life, in his integrity, and ultimately for his or her nation.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Can We Change the Post Cold War Mentality in 2016-17? Should We?

Possibly the two greatest threats of current unrest in the 21st century are the nuclear capabilities of North Korea and the Syrian situation causing a refugee crisis of epic proportions.

Possible solutions require a different way of thinking and of executing foreign policy.

1. North Korea

Joel S Wit, in an opinion piece for the NYTimes on September 13, writes that the Chinese and even the North Koreans believe the only way to stop KimJon-un's nuclear testing, continual build-up, and imminent threat to the west, is for the United States to intervene.

He even writes:  Nevertheless, there are signs that North Korea is interested in dialogue. On July 6, the government issued a pronouncement ostensibly seeking denuclearization talks with the United States, specifically mentioning Kim Jong-un’s name in support of this initiative.


Remember the bridge Richard Nixon crossed with the great and fearsome Red China?

There is however, one scary word Mr. Wit uses: ostensibly. Seeming to be true or real but very possibly not true or real.

President Nixon took a risk and the risk had lasting repercussions. In 2016, we are at peace with China, we trade with China, we can climb the Great Wall in China.

Mr. Wit also suggests that the US hesitates to intervene because of the past relationship between the USSR, China and North Korea--vs. the United States. In 1950, after fighting the Nationalist Kuomintang government since 1927 ( a war the US supported to fight Mao and communism), Mao declared the People's Republic of China, backed by the USSR. 

The US was committed by dogma, the Monroe Doctrine and the containment policy to fight communism. We were in the midst of purging our own country of any breath of communism. 

North Korea only invaded the South when Stalin gave Kim Il Sung permission to do so and the North Koreans only prevailed when the Chinese crossed the border in massive waves of human power. General McArthur was so sure he'd won the war, he started sending home ammunition. 

The USSR, Chinese, North Korean collaboration is well established, but now, they ask and reason that the United States needs to temper the North Korean's nuclear overdose. According to Mr. Wit, North Korea this year has already conducted 17 missile tests and two nuclear explosions, one of which occurred just last Friday. Satellite photos reveal they are in a position to test three more nuclear bombs. Furthermore their nuclear and hydrogen bomb capabilities are much more advanced than previously thought.

Given the weight of North Korean nuclear disaster potential, in the upcoming month, I am looking for the candidate who is divining the ambassadorial spirit of Richard Nixon--the presidential candidate who is willing to sit at the table with chopsticks and the irreverent, Dennis Rodman-loving president. I'm looking for a president who is willing to consider changing the armistice of 1953 into a more permanent arrangement. Not with naivety that Jung-un can be left with his hand in the cookie jar, but with hope that dialogue will open doors to peace and lessen the threat of his uncontested nuclear playground.

2. Syria

It is day two of the required Syrian government cease fire before the possibility of an epic arrangement with Russia may go into effect--an arrangement not seen since we worked with the Russians to defeat Nazism.

Secretary of State John Kerry is fighting for a Russian, United States collaboration on defeating terrorist strongholds in Syria. His greatest American government opponent is Secretary of Defense Ashton B Porter. 

If the Syrians can continue seven days of cease fire, on day 8 the US will possibly "share information with Moscow on Islamic State targets in Syria" (Cooper, Sanger

We are asking for a dramatic mindset reversal at a time when Russia and the US are currently polarized over the Syrian issue; we are asking the two countries with a 43 year old history of trying to obliterate each other, to collaborate after only eight days of cease fire, after supporting opposite sides of the conflict. Can we do it? Is a common enemy, the Islamic state, enough to join forces? Was Hitler a good enough reason to collaborate? 

Are six million refugees enough reason to collaborate?

But the lack of trust remains. Recent Commander of NATO, General Breedlove recently said, "I remain skeptical about anything to do with the Russians." The pentagon force against collaboration have been accused of "Cold War" thinking. Is it time to move past this thinking or are recent Russian aggressions in Crimea and the Ukraine worth holding on to our seventy year old thinking?

Once again, I am looking for a candidate who is willing to try working with the Russians. President Obama agreed to the collaboration after-the-seven-day cease fire amidst tremendous opposition. He understands the risk, he took the risks; they are necessary risks of trust to end a possibly endless conflict. 

 Day 2. Pray for a day 3 ceasefire, a day 4, 5, 6, 7. Pray for two superpowers to once again combine their strengths to overcome an evil greater than the third reich.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bright Eyes

Last year, Tony was asked to reconfigure and re-haul a freshman computer class. There are 1000 students enrolled in three sections and out of this ginormous number, he has one of my seniors from last year. One out of a thousand.

Yet, this isn't just any run of the mill, one in a thousand old high school students.

I've known his dad for years and one day he sent an email asking for my opinion about the school, because his son needed a change. At the beginning of the year, the young man was a typical student, but as time passed, he moved from the back of the class to the front and his eyes continually lit up with epiphanies, curiosities and brilliant thought. He often sat on the edge of his seat.

I passed this student on to my husband; yes, I take credit because how else would he have known the young man among thousands. My husband now has the joy of his company; he is part of a group of students who after class surround the professor, bringing those extra questions, their inquisitiveness, those shining bright eyes.

When Tony tells me about the students who line up, his voice cracks and he tears up. Another student who joins the after-class gathering, carries his ukelele and while everyone asks and listens, the young man serenades. It brings an ambiance to Computer Science heretofore unknown to the old professor.

As we listen to one another's stories, we're kind of floating, because we realize how blessed we've been and how blessed we are: there's nothing better than the association of people who want to learn.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Magic Sausage

The thirty second timer beeped; I opened the microwave to retrieve my yellow bowl, but when I pulled out a white plate with two sausages on it, I was so startled that I flipped one of the sausages onto the floor and felt lucky I hadn't dropped the glass plate. The previous night, we had all watched the sequel to Now You See Me, NYSM2, a movie with some pretty far-fetched magic along with a stellar cast.  I momentarily wondered if the microwave was really a rabbit-popping hat and it had changed the bowl into a plate with old sausages.

I had been the only person to come home after we'd all left that morning. Whose sausages are these and how long have they been sitting in the microwave? I wondered. Since they were already long past saving, I left them out so the offender would be aware of his offense. It had to be one of the two guys living in the house because the two gals wouldn't be eating sausage.

"Did London make sausages for breakfast?" I asked my daughter. "No," she answered, so I figured it was Tony, but he never makes sausage for breakfast.

When he came home that night, my daughter pointed to the old sausages and asked if he'd left them. He pondered for a moment, then jumped in recognition and regret. "Yes, I'd made some waffles the other night and put the sausage in and forgot all about them." Two wasted sausages is as close to tragedy as Tony likes to get.

Finally, when we are all together in the kitchen the next day, everyone tells their side to the story and just like it is in the movie, the magic moment is revealed to me in the form of a flashback. I see exactly what happened and it was never magic, only a deception.

The microwave sits in the cabinetry above the oven--higher than my head. I had opened the microwave, slid in my plate and failed to notice the plate of sausages that had ended their round table roasting at the back of the microwave. When the thirty seconds ended, the sausage plate had rotated to the front and my bowl to the back. When I reached in--voila, a plate of sausages.

This time, laughter is the magic.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Personal 9-11

One of the planes that slammed into the twin towers, carried a bag of US Postal letters. One of those letters, an invitation, survived the fireball and was most likely sucked out on a magic carpet of an air pocket. It floated downward amidst all the other pieces of chaos and ash. The invitation was in a red envelope and caught the eye of a man running from the soon-to-collapse tower. It was a gesture of hope that something so slight, so fragile, could survive the mayhem. He carried the letter, still covered in dust, back home to England where he placed the envelope in another envelope and addressed it to the intended receivers.

The letter's journey became a symbol of hope for everyone who came in contact with it. It is now part of the 9-11 museum's collection in New York City. The NYTimes made a short film about the letter, and I watch on the morning after a former and beloved student sent an email with news of his change of plans.

He was on a trajectory for success until he was slammed with thoughts of suicide. He'd had his own personal 9-11.

Unlike the real 9-11 tragedy, he stopped the collision: he'd asked for help.

September 11, 2001 is seared in my memory, so much that when my students don't remember that day, I am surprised. Possibly in the same way our parents, grandparents, great grandparents share a reverence for December 7, 1941. Just like my father who remembered he was playing football at Sugarhouse Park when he learned Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese, I recall the day I walked down the basement stairs after Tony called me to come down. He was peddling his exercise bike, was flipping channels before putting on a show, and he'd seen the confusion of the first hit--which we thought was crazy that a jet had lost control, because we didn't have it in us to believe a jet would intentionally target a tower with thousands of people inside.

It was a tragedy, but a tragedy from which we learned about vulnerability, sorrow, the existence of incomprehensible evil. We learned about resilience, the preciousness of life, that people can become their better selves when circumstances demand. An entire nation had moments of softness, kindness and sacrifice.

It is the rare person who will go without a 9-11 in his or her life, but as Viktor Frankel so eloquently taught through his own personal tragedy-- we must find meaning in our suffering. When we do, life becomes a gift; the tragedy can even be a lens through which we see more clearly and more dearly. A 9-11 can be personal proof we are strong, resilient, and able to stand tall after sinking so low.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Teaching Voting

I've found myself with a heavier responsibility than I ever could have imagined.

Last spring, I had an epiphany. After experimenting with how to teach history to seniors in a newly introduced class, I knew there had to be a better way.  After due diligence I proposed the "new way," to the curriculum board. The idea was enthusiastically embraced.

Traditionally (as I understand and may misunderstand--because how can I know how everyone teaches?),  history is taught sequentially as events: WWII, Civil Rights Movement, etc. My new approach would be to look at present day concerns and trace them back to their origins; in other words, ask the question for each issue: How did we get to where we are today? In this way, students would see the pertinence of modern day issues and would want to know how the United States drove to arrive at our current destination.

For instance, the New York Times headlines today includes three articles about nuclear weapons threats: North Korea's Nuclear Enabler, A Nuclear Threat to the United States by 2020, Experts Warn, and North Korean Tests Leave U.S. With A List of Bad Options. 

Three weeks ago, we started with students reporting on what they found about nuclear weapons, nuclear threats and nuclear annihilation. Many were surprised to learn about the erratic, silly leader of North Korea and his nuclear aspirations. With students' awakening to a modern day threat, they were excited to go back in time to the very beginnings of communism and its role in the Cold War and the consequent development of nuclear weaponry. The history becomes important, even critical in piecing together the apparent escalating nuclear threat in 2016.

The other critical modern day concerns are immigration, the environment, racism, nuclear threat, national debt, terrorism, and voting rights... it is the last subject, voting rights, that feels like a heavy responsibility.

When I listed the topics or themes which would be our lens for history, students' immediate and greatest interest was in the voting rights and more specifically, the election. The presidential election this year has incited curiosity, passion, disgust, and with my students, a desire to understand what's happening. It's soooo in their face and they want to know more.

I am left to prepare and present the ideas, the dogma, the controversies, in the most unbiased way possible. This approach has truly recreated the student in me, a true seeker of knowledge with a calm and open mind. I have sought the wisdom and opinions of die-hard Hillary devotees and devoted Republicans who will vote for Trump because they see the conservative appointment to the Supreme Court as the most important issue of 2017.

As I prepare, I think of the old adage: never discuss politics or religion because they are topics that cannot be discussed without emotion; but politics, and the upcoming election are two of the most important issues to study in a Socratic Seminar that lists Current Events, History, and Language Arts as its emphasis.

I had the fortunate opportunity to sit next to a woman, who is Jewish, who is an attorney, whom I assumed by demographics, was a democratic-Clinton supporter. I approached her because I wanted to hear something good about Clinton. She had worked for the Clinton administration and when I asked her how she felt about this year's presidential election, I assumed she would harangue Trump. Instead she responded, "I am deeply disturbed she is running for president."

I hear the same disenchantment when my own daughter tells me Trump is accused of rape in his ex-wife's book.

These are the taboo tidbits that won't be allowed in our classroom discussion. It is my implicit commitment to the fair and equal education of my students to teach the voting process without prejudice or favorability, without rumor and heresay. Instead we will focus on the real issues no matter how hard and far we have to look, because the core of the election should be determined by truth---what now seems to be clouded in the media and in the candidates themselves.

I've found myself with a heavier responsibility than I ever could have imagined.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Photo Sharing Chair

"Tony!" I yell from my study to his, "I need to tell you about my day."

It takes twenty five steps for me to stand up from my desk and walk down the hall to Tony's study, yet it's easier to yell. Sometimes it feels like there's a 10k distance between us, but tonight, he appears in the doorway within seconds of my call. When he sits in the big purple comfy chair, I move in next to him.

When the children were little, I seemed to only buy chairs where a child and I could sit comfortably together to read books. Tonight, the chair is a perfect fit for two adults, and when I realize this, I remember the photos I took and can't wait to share. I show him all the photos; in doing so, it brings back the emotion of an experience that only ended a few hours earlier. I am filled with gratitude for such an auspicious day, and gratitude for the association with tremendous students encircled by glistening rays of the sun.

Last night we met in the park for Tony's department's annual fall pizza party. The party has an extended-family standing-invite, and each year we look forward to a beautiful night with no worries of food prep and clean-up. When Grandpa Tony started flying the children, my daughter had forgotten her camera and asked to use mine. When I pulled out my phone looking for other photos, I found these treasures from the night before. The only thing missing was Tony~~to share in the joy~~that will tonight in the big purple comfy chair.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

My Story Matters

Our students were invited to interview and write down the bones of fellow students' stories,--refugees, immigrants and students whose family members had never attended college. These students were pinpointed and invited to join a class that focused on helping them achieve their higher education goals.

The bus ride took 40 minutes to a suburb known for its poverty and ethnic diversity.

When one hears a person's story, walls crumble.

My interviewee was a girl with bright red-dyed hair. I may have appeared to her as just your average white middle aged woman with dark roots past the need of a touch-up.

Just two or three questions in, I knew I was sitting next to a winner.

Less than  a year ago, her mother went downstairs to check on her father. She called the grandmother down to see what was wrong. He wasn't moving. The mother was in shock and didn't recognize her husband had passed away.

An autopsy revealed that he'd died from a rare form of heart disease and the disease was genetic. My interviewee and her brother were tested: MRIs, stress tests, echocardiograms, but the disease stayed hidden. Finally, through a test (I don't recall which one), doctors discovered both she and her little brother had the disease.

The discovery changed her family's life. Her life.

Life as she knew it was immediately restricted. No running. Certainly no swimming alone. Medication, and the most sobering--knowing her life was tenuous. Ah, but she had a grip on that life. She writes for the school paper; she sews for her fashion design class; her family time is sacred, and their loyalty and devotion to one another is supreme. I met those friends and they were as varied as candies in a candy shop.

 I would have voted for my friend if she were running for president.

When it was time for her to go back to class, I held on to her a little longer than I should have, and she heard the crack in my voice.

"Are you going to be alright?" she asked.

I would be more than alright, because I had met her.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Yellow Jackets Persist

"Why don't you just nuke em with bug spray?" I am asked when I complain about the yellow jacket nest in the fence.

I ask this question of myself, as I am now afraid to walk past the irritable nest of pests. They're virulent, organized and cranky. Within the yellow jacket world is a system far worse than any mafia family. Their ability to organize and attack is uncanny, and they must possess within their horrible, creepy little heads a stellar, sophisticated communication system. I walk up the path next to the nest where I am marked, buzzed, and followed.

In the beginning weeks, I hung yellow jacket traps with raw meat. Three of them. Nothing. The traffic going in and out seemed to triple, so one day I dressed in chainmail and placed the electric zapper  over the entrance. I walked away knowing I'd made a dent in their operation and then...

I had been followed. A vigilant hit man had weedled its way into the folds of my clothing, had persisted past three layers and detected human flesh. I've since learned a yellow jacket can sting more than once. Unlike the bee who will die when she ejects her stinger and loses important innards, the yellow jacket lives.

The pain was instantaneous and lasted for more than a week. The swelling in my tender stomach was such that none of my pants fit and I started the first day of school with a loose dress with ties around the front that camouflaged my bulging stomach. Loose shirts the rest of the week. Each night I slumped at my desk dousing my stomach with rubbing alcohol.

"Why don't you just nuke em with bug spray?"

I stand on the deck above the nest. The nest is surrounded by the black raspberries my children and I have cherished for almost two decades. The first of the season, we watch them burst as small green mounds. We watch each day as the green gives way to light pink to mellow purple, to dark purple and finally the richness that brings the unmistakeable sweetness that ushers in a summer's worth of morning berry popping.

"I don't want the poison in our soil, in our food," I answer as to why I don't just nuke em.

Yet it almost seems cruel to fight them, to watch them sizzle when they hit the electric mosquito zapper. Which is worse? To just end it fast or keep fighting. It might be with each attempted slaughter (I've tried flushing nests with water, boiling water, pinesol and smoke), they evolve into meaner, more defensive insects. Prolong or just get it over with? Which is more humane?

But at the core, is my desire to keep poison out of the garden. Other insects thrive, birds are plenty. Guinea hens waddle about and no creature will die from poisoned soil or insects. I need to keep up the fight, but...sometimes, I seriously wonder if I can go to heaven with this desire to kill.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Berlin Blockade

I can see it in their eyes: selfless people share the same look. It's calm and confidence combined and on this afternoon, it was apparent in a student sitting in the back of the class.

I prefaced the question by saying it was rhetorical--no need to answer except in their own minds and hearts.

"How many of you would jump at the chance to liberate people from oppression?" Some students demurred, some expressions took on fright, but the kid in the back didn't look away. He'd already thought it through, possibly dozens of times; maybe after he'd seen a war movie, or heard a soldier speak, or even while learning history. Maybe serving the United States was in his blood, in his family legacy.

He later made a comment and I was bold enough to ask, "You're one of the ones who would jump at the chance to defend another's freedom, right?"

There he sat with that confident calm. He didn't even need to say yes; he only needed to shake his head. He made me proud. I clearly understood who he was and he knew I knew.

It was that kind of resolve, that calm confidence that had to exist in Berlin 1948. Three years earlier the three allied powers, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, had divided up Berlin into four sectors. The lines were confirmed when Stalin, Truman and Churchill once again met up in Potsdam Germany.

Germany was divided into two sections: the East to be ruled by the Soviet Union, the West to be ruled between the English, French and the United States, but few people understand today, that the city of Berlin was deep into the territory of the Russian's East Germany. It is so misunderstood because it's sort of a crazy set-up. But the heart of Germany was Berlin, and even after being ravaged and mostly destroyed, it still represented the most industrialized city in Europe. Berlin was the prize. The city also was divided into four sectors:  Soviet Union, American, French and British, and almost from the very start there was trouble.

The only way into West Berlin was through a designated highway, a railway and a waterway. From the start three "free" air passages were also established.

Stalin's intent was to cause chaos and runaway inflation in West Berlin so they would vote to be one large communist city run by the powers established in communist East Germany. But the west was reviving, even thriving while the east stuttered.

The Americans secretly met and decided to combine together to make one West Germany; they also introduced a new currency to counter Stalin's plans. Elections were forthcoming and Stalin feared communist losses if he didn't get rid of the westerners. His great advantage was that supplies to West Berlin either came from the east or were brought by trucks, trains or boats. If he just cut off the routes, the west would be starved and frozen into submission. He doubted the west would risk another war so soon after WWII.

The United States' policy at the time was "containment." Do not allow communism to spread anymore than it already had. Churchill had already articulated and condemned "the Iron Curtain" in a speech given at Truman's alma mater, Westminster College. Soviet satellite governments had settled in countries from the Baltic seas down to the Adriatic almost tipping into Greece. Communist forces were fighting the Greek National government. Berlin became an important stake--the first conflict of the Cold War.

Stalin ordered trains to return, he blockaded roadways and waterways stopping the flow of food and coal to a city of almost 2.5 million people. The allies figured West Berlin had about 36 days of food before they would starve.

The calm and confident stepped forward with a plan, willing to risk their lives for a greater cause. Americans called upon the English, the Canadians, the Australians to help fly food to West Berlin. It began and built up to 500 flights a day. They started with 90 tons and worked up to a 1000, but it was only supplying 1/4 of West Berlin's needs.

At one point, all the flights within a narrow corridor flew dangerously close and the inevitable crashes took the lives of pilots and crew.

General William Tunner answered the call with confident calm. Just two months into the Berlin blockade, he took charge. His plan was precision and timing. Planes flew into two corridors and out a third. All planes flew three minutes apart at five levels. A pilot could see planes above and planes below.  They accomplished the impossible: 4500 tons of food and energy delivered a day in 1500 flights.

Stalin didn't believe the allies could last. He was wrong.

He didn't understand the confident calm, the selflessness,  the young men and women, who valued freedom and liberty and were willing to risk their lives to prove it.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Tie

"Chilly for willy!" Tony calls from across the court.

On another day, it might be "ping for wing." What it really means is: it's time to rally for first serve.

In today's match, anything could happen because we are playing outside; I insist since the beautiful weather will soon pass, and soon we'll be playing in the windowless gym.

This morning, it took time to get to the tennis courts with pickleball-painted lines. First we had to stop at Harward Fruit and Vegetable stand because the big watermelons go fast. In a few more weeks, watermelons will be a thing of the summer-past, but Tony will hold out and will keep buying them until even he can't enjoy the soggy out-of season melons.

Today the stand is crowded with people~~Saturday morning shopping for the last fruits of the season. We pick up plums, a few peaches, a small bag of beets, a baker's dozen of corn. I've become friends with Walker, the young man who mans the stand on Saturdays. He's delightful and tells us he's giving us a deal on the beets. I'll drizzle these beets with olive oil, roast them soft and toss them with pomegranate vinegar.

Our next stop is in search of the pickleball courts Lindon City is supposedly building. Instead of finding courts at City Center Park, we find a helpful police officer running his German shepherd. He gives us directions to the new pickleball courts with a warning, "The nets aren't up yet."

With hope the nets were just hung, we pursue the new courts. Four of them, and close enough to ride our bikes. They still need paint lines and a surface, but we hope it's before the weather changes.

I win the chilly for willy this morning and serve the first ball. Tony passes a beautiful shot out of my reach. It's going to be a tough match. My calming mantra on the court kicks in, He is not the enemy.

Score: Tony 1, Pat 0

On the court, I tend towards over-competitiveness with Tony, and more than likely it's because it's the only way I can beat him. I have to be on my game, but today I'm a little distracted. It's more about the ambiance, the cloudy sky, the first cool breeze after days of temperatures in the 90s. It starts to sprinkle and then a downpour. I love it!

Score: Tony 2, Pat 0

The courts take a while to get used to. They are tennis courts with pickleball-painted lines, and I have been playing tennis this past week. The school coach is on a trip and I was asked to coach for a week and a half. The girls ask me if I've had any experience. "I was a ranked youth player," I respond. Not wanting them to expect too much, I add, but that was 40 years ago. Frightening.

"Did you play college tennis?"

I don't want to disappoint them, so I tell them "No, but I did teach one summer at a university sponsored tennis camp." Okay. They seem satisfied. I add a caveat. "But I've been playing pickleball and I hear it ruins one's tennis." We shall see. Indeed it does. I have instruction skills to help the girls, but my own playing-tennis-skills are grossly under par.

Score: Tony 2, Pat 1

The courts we are playing on sit to the side of a pavillion with barbecues, picnic tables, a playground. The party gathers and not much time passes before we smell the last of the summer get-togethers. "See Tony. What could be better than playing with the smells of a barbecue." This must infuse Tony with energy because the score creeps up:

Tony 3, Pat 1
He has officially won the match.

On some level I refuse to give in. The Happy Birthday song erupts from the pavilion area; the rain has cleared; my head is in the game; the distractions float away like clouds.

Score: Tony 3, Pat 2

A slight wind kicks up. Tony realizes the tennis net is higher than the regulation pickleball net. He wanks a forehand and his negative spiral kicks in. I now know we will walk away from the court with a tie. I insisted this is the last game; it's past lunchtime and I'm hungry.

Score: Tony 3, Pat 3

These precious last days of summer.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

But For Grace...

My childhood friend's son was murdered last week. He was 22 years old.

It was in my friend's bedroom with a double canopy bed, white furniture and fluffy pink bedding that I attended my first seance, with the first woman who ran a hotel empire. It was with my friend that I first rode a horse, and the first time I sat in the backseat of a car while attacked by her ice cream cone.

It was the first time I got my cast wet, because she pulled me into the deep end. Basically, each playdate ended up in an adventure with an almost guaranteed outcome of trouble: coming home late, or having flooded the sunken tub in her parent's bathroom.

When we entered junior high, we stayed close but she gravitated towards different friends. She started to smoke, she started missing school. The pattern continued and I'm not even sure she graduated.

She came and saw me one Thanksgiving when I was already married and the mother of two children. Our worlds couldn't have been further apart, but I loved her the moment her statuesque, dancing body entered the room. She was between shows, a dancer on the strip. Topless? Perhaps.

Time never stopped but the commonalities in our life did. She had a bout with drugs. A marriage, a divorce, two sons, another marriage, more drugs, an ex-husband who died of a drug overdose. A body that gave out on her--four years in a wheelchair. When Mom attended the funeral for her son today, she told me I wouldn't have recognized my friend.

But what I do recognize is the pain. One mother to the next can only imagine the deep grief that accompanies the loss of a child. It doesn't matter how we lived, how we raised our children, the pain is shared and feared. It's what we would never wish upon anyone and when we hear of a child's death, we go white, stagger, and know, but for the grace of God, there go I.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Essay Cafe

For almost two weeks, I have been preparing students to write, write well, and in the last six days, they have been writing. I've encouraged them to "spill" it on the page by writing an essay a day.

"Writing is like a muscle, and when we write everyday we build that writing muscle."

Some look at me with droopy eyes, others emanate excitement. Oh to please every student every day is equivalent to feeding the thousands, healing the sick, and raising the dead.

In the days preceding Essay Cafe, the inevitable question begins, "Do we have to read our essays?"

I encourage, promise, remind them it is an essay CAFE, and food makes everything comfortable. I see a student sit up straighter in her chair and another refuse to meet my eyes. I know who will be reading and who will not.

Most of all, I promise it will be a safe place to share some of the most important and personal thoughts they've ever written.

Essay Cafe finally arrives. The reading hour of a two hour class has more absences than usual.

When the first person volunteers, it's like the airplane door has opened and whether or not they're ready, it's time to jump!

The first essay opens with a confession that our author has kept hidden. It's not a grave sin, just something he's kept to himself out of fear. I brace myself.

"I still watch Thomas the Train," he admits.

Waaaa!! He jumped, he broke the ice, he threw the first pitch! When he finishes his delightful piece, the class starts admitting the childhood shows they still watch. When someone mentions "Dragon Tales," the class erupts in a collective cheer--almost everyone else still enjoys Dragon Tales. We've reached common ground that might have taken months.

Another student of Korean lineage but born in America, shares her journey to patriotism. In her short years, she's been asked, "When are you going back home?" and "Are you American?" She must sort through the angst, the accompanying embarrassment in not knowing exactly where one fits--but she finds where she does and  finally experiences heart burning patriotism like a real American should.

All along, I've been trying to teach how a personal experience becomes an essay when the writer elevates it so every reader or listener can relate. "It must have a theme, or a universal truth. Universal truths are something that everyone understands. We've often experienced the same feeling, or epiphany, or shame, and so we relate. The essay gives meaning and understanding to our own experiences; we learn we are not alone. We are not the only person to have been humiliated, embarrassed or reached a conclusion of joy or sorrow.

When E stands to read, she shares a moment of utter sadness when she reached out to a caring person with a phone call. The person is a thousand and a half miles away, but she wants to help my student, my E. She picks up a stick and through the face time call explains that it is all she has to give her at the moment, but she is clear it is a gift of sincere love and comfort. E searches her surroundings and can only come up with the elastic hair band she pulls from her head. She holds it up and returns the gift. Her essay conclusion is that it is all they have to give...but it is enough.

On my nightstand is a one inch, plastic Catholic cross. A Syrian refugee on his way to Poland pushed it into my palm to show his gratitude for what little I had given him on a January night in a cheap Athen's hotel. Eight months later, I see it every night and my gratitude for the remembrance grows stronger.  It was all he had to give, but it was enough.