Blog

Making Muffins

We hosted Thanksgiving twice this year. Since too few of our family members share my love of homemade cranberry sauce, I had leftovers. So on Sunday I baked cranberry muffins, and it got me thinking.

I preheated the oven on my poor old range. One of these days it will give up the ghost and we’ll have to buy new.

I pulled out a muffin tin and rinsed it out before greasing it. It had been awhile since I baked. As I dried it, I wondered what path this tin had taken to get to me. Who had mined the metal, made the alloy, designed the factory and machines, and stood on the line stacking or boxing? So many hands worked on this before mine.

I set two mixing bowls on the counter with the dry ingredients listed on the recipe. Oats are recognizable, but the white flour had to travel far from its wheat roots to become that bag we bought at the store.

I whisked the powders together and turned back to the recipe on the screen. I scrolled back up and collected the wet ingredients.

The egg probably took a straight path to my kitchen, but the almond milk had to come from some mysterious process, turning crunchy nuts into something that slightly resembled what had come from a bovine mother.

As I mixed up my batter from scratch, I used ingredients and equipment from across the country and around the globe, manufactured by who knows who doing who knows what. By the end, I had tasty muffins and the sense that my skills were very limited.

But that’s the trend, right? We have such varied conveniences that we have no need to know how to grow our food, sew our clothes, build our furniture, or truly take care of our own survival in any meaningful way. Like so many others, I spend way too much time online, but my real life has turned virtual too, a collection of bits like bytes sent electronically around the world.

There was a time when we learned life skills in childhood, segregated by gender. In the last twenty years, I’ve mended rather than sewed, but I could still follow a pattern if I had to. Once upon a time, I was taught the essentials of knitting, though it never really took, and I still know the basics to darn a sock, though I never do. My husband could build a shelter if he had to, but he’d much rather have power tools to do it.

Our most recent generation is the least equipped to go homesteading. Not only are they less likely to learn basic building and maintenance of home and hearth, their lack of hands-on play is affecting certain abilities. Apparently, all that touch-screen convenience is reducing their fine motor skills, to the point where many medical students lack the dexterity to be surgeons.

We don’t all need to become surgeons, though I hope some do for necessity. Today our most in-demand know-how involves the tapping of keys rather than pounding of hammers. Our modern world is by nature internationally interactive, so that all our survival is based on the interlocking expertise of millions.

My chosen career as a teacher doesn’t directly impact the lives of folks on the other side of the Earth. I’m sure you’ve seen the meme about teachers touching the future. It’s possible that I may influence someone who will invent or manufacture something that will enter your home. But certainly my money, and your own purchases, trickle into unknown pockets in far places.

For now, I just want to say thank you, for the minds that dreamed up this ease, the intellect that designed and invented the mundane tools of everyday life, and the hands that brought them to my kitchen, where I’ll enjoy a cup of tea with my muffin.

Advertisements

A Season Between

After the second wave of Thanksgiving guests have departed and the ones staying the night have wandered off alone, there is only an hour of daylight left on a gorgeous sunny Saturday. I need to walk off my carbohydrate stupor and breathe some air not scented by turkey and pumpkin pie.

The trees are bare, but the grass is still green, with the scattered brown of rain-slicked leaves. I want more than to wander around my yard, so I take off for town. Other fresh-air-cravers jog and bike past as I begin my loop.

I am caught in the odd in-between. In one yard, pumpkins literally melt, long past their prime. Across the street, a five-foot plastic Frosty the Snowman is flanked by a snow-tipped Christmas tree, starkly white against the deep green of the grass. With Thanksgiving over, Christmas is fair game.

The next day we say our last goodbyes at the airport. We spend much of the day watching the skies for the forecasted storm. It starts with driving rain, giving way to snow through the night. Fall is abruptly over.

The wind whips me out from between. I wake to white and the slow-but-accelerating slide to winter and Christmas.

E99C290F-D5EE-4DD5-A1C9-FFE9D6EC0B09

In Praise of a Boring Life

My life isn’t what I’d call tumultuous.

I have old friends and new, and a day job I’m passionate about with retirement in sight. I pass few cars on my daily ten-minute commute through Midwest farmland. I’ve been happily married for a long time, a definite blessing during rough years. While I remember the elation of a new romance, breakups were hard. The comfort of a strong bond is more appealing than any added excitement. My kids are young adults now, but I remember the drama of their teenaged years. They survived and thrived, and I wish them the same calm I have.

Though I know many tales of grief, adventure and heartbreak, they are the stories of others. They are not mine to tell.

I’ve experienced less trauma than some but have suffered my share of tragedy. It rarely appears in my writing. I could dredge up a young heartbreak or magnify the anger I felt toward the doctor who told me that my father died, but I’ve made peace with the past. I don’t bleed much on the page.

During some difficult years, interspersed with wonderful ones, I developed a theory. When you are suffering, at some point it will get better. The reverse is also true. Life is a timeline of peaks and valleys. If things are tough, this too shall pass. If days are good, why not enjoy it? There is every indication that it will only last so long.

In All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum has an essay on problems and inconveniences. When Fulghum complains about the irritations of his job, an older man, an Auschwitz survivor, explains the difference. Issues like food scarcity and war outrank annoying coworkers and getting cut off in traffic.

Life-changing problems make for gripping fiction, but my personal essays are peppered with mere inconveniences. I live in the present, occasionally dwelling in small moments from the past, sending out ripples rather than crashing waves.

So, I write the ordinary, the odd encounter, and those moments that catch you by surprise. I have the leisure of a quiet existence to see connections between strands of time and weave them into story.  As I describe this blog, I write about the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life.

When I reach the top of the next hill and begin the inevitable slide back down, I’m sure that words on the page will follow. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in the everyday moments that make up my days.

The view outside my window may be flat, but the sky is often spectacular.

 

 

Performance

It’s the night of the school music program. The kids are in their finest, bouncing in excitement, smoothing skirts, running fingers tentatively along spiked hair, grinning. Teachers shush them as they line up by height to strut onstage.

Like decades of programs before them, they sing and play simple instruments from tiered risers. Some try to go unnoticed while others show off for the crowd. This year’s bunch has great pitch and iffy rhythm, but after weeks of learning songs and four rehearsal sessions, tonight is their best performance yet. As they march back to the classroom past their artwork lining the walls in the hall, we tell them how wonderful they were. The younger they are, the more their mistakes will be forgiven as adorable.

The beauty of childhood is equal opportunity. Every child, no matter their talent or significant lack thereof, gets to shine tonight. Every child’s work gets equal space on the walls.

Later, parts will be given out according to a director’s criteria. Having been given the experience, some will self-select to opt out. Others will weep that another was chosen. Colors will fade. Words will be silenced.

As we grow older, we often stop those creative pursuits in favor of paid work and family life. Some, like my playwright sister-in-law, will persevere despite the day job and daily grind, and watch her words rise up on stage. For most of us, old dreams seem pie in the sky, or other goals are achieved. We may not regret the decisions we make, but one day we strum an old guitar, sketch quick strokes on a pad, or jot down story ideas in a notebook. We think of what we’ve missed. We wonder about the road not taken, the choice we didn’t risk. We take a chance or two, then return to normal life.

Some of us come back to our loves when our kids are grown, or jobs give way to retirement. In this safe position, it’s okay if our art doesn’t make waves or make a living. We can do it for love. My uncle painted a gallery of still life canvases after his second retirement. My sister took up the bass drum in a band. A friend used her camera to capture an eagle’s flight. I started pecking away at a keyboard to tell the stories that started buzzing again in my head.

This time around, the Internet has made the world small and my writer’s group encourages me from across the globe. This time around, the writer’s guidelines that used to be ordered through the mail are a click away. This time around, before I send my writing out to the ether, beta-reading writer friends give advice about the spots that need smoothing, the bland that needs spice. Like the kids at their concert, I have an audience of family and friends who read and respond, softening the rejection that inevitably comes.

But sometimes, even at this end of life, the spotlight shines and the crowd applauds.

Click here for a rare success, thanks to DeadHousekeeping.com

Cast Your Vote

When I turned eighteen, my friend David asked me what I’d do to celebrate. I can’t remember any of my plans. I’m sure they included celebrating with my family, maybe going out to dinner with my high school boyfriend. But I do remember telling David that the very next day I planned to register to vote. He just shook his head.

It wasn’t as if I were exceptionally political. If I’m honest, it was an expression of how stubborn and rebellious I was. I was tired of being ordered around and wanted a voice, both at home and in the world.

Eighteen meant I could control my own money, but socially acceptable adulthood wouldn’t happen until twenty-one. A few years earlier men would have had the dubious honor of registering for the draft. But having a voice in government was the one landmark available to a young woman in 1978 America.

The first time I would have cast my ballot would have been the midterm election in November. Jimmy Carter was the President, Congress stayed Democratic, and Jim Thompson remained the Republican governor of Illinois. Historically eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds have the lowest voter turnout of all demographic groups and that election was part of a downward slope with participation for that age group going from 50% to 39% between 1972 and 2016.

We Americans have a terrible voting record. We like to complain about the people in charge and claim helplessness to affect change. This apathy may have led us to a dangerous place. It would be fitting if, at this moment in history, our youngest voters would surprise everyone and rise up to show my generation how it’s done.

I have no idea which candidates I picked or what my reasoning was that year, only that it seemed important at the time.  I have cared about every vote I’ve cast, but I don’t believe any election has seemed as crucial as the current one. We are a divided society, but if you pay attention to history, you know we’ve been divided before. Think of the unrest in the ‘60s. We have immigration issues, but if you look at our record we have repeatedly failed in this area too. The forced deportation of Mexican-American U.S. citizens wasn’t invented by this administration. The economy is on the upswing, but it can flip at any time. I know all this, and still, the present makes me fear for the future.

Four decades ago, I was a new adult, surely holding little responsibility for the ills of the world. With the weight of years, I fear my own blindness and lack of action have added to the disfunction we call American society. My own social justice has gone by fits and starts. Ignorance of the world is no excuse. But there is one act that any of us can do to make a difference.

Yesterday, I cast my ballot early, recording my vote for governor, state and national representatives, and a local tax issue. I gave my opinion on whether judges should keep their benches. Forty years after my first vote, I do care deeply about politics. I believe my values matter and my single vote counts.

On November 6, take your convictions to your polling place. Punch your holes, click your buttons or fill in your dots. Make your voice heard for a better tomorrow.

Vote!

Holding It Together

Teaching is hard. Moments, even days, are joyful. Some weeks, lessons go as planned. But sometimes it all goes wrong. None of these days are easy. They all take invested emotional energy and commitment to our students, the children in our care.

Last Friday was not the joyful kind.

I spent a three-day weekend doing several hours of work to catch up on what had been a hectic week. And I rested, breathed, had school dreams, and made plans that included me. It isn’t enough to provide for the kids. I need to take care of myself.

Today my students came back. Today was joyful and tragic, hectic and measured. I listened, explained, and changed my plans on a dime when someone’s pain was more important than the lesson I had planned. I comforted, waited, and offered to carry the emotional baggage that a child of nine should not have to have. And inside I wilted.

The final bell rang, but my day continued. I consulted, collaborated, communicated, and prepared for the next day.

Before I was through, I stopped. I changed my shoes and put on my sunglasses. I pulled up the playlist on my Mp3 player and put in my earbuds. Anna Nalick fit the day.

As I walked down the block to the beat of The Citadel, I noticed the sun, the purple mums on a porch, the still-green grass of the yards. The weight of the day crumbled away bit by bit with each step. I looped around a mile. Feeling ten pounds lighter, I returned and packed up for the day.

Tomorrow I’ll be back for more.

 

 

 

 

edited

Date

After being married for 35 years, some days we’re more life partners than lovers, more roommate than romance. We have worked out a rhythm and trust I wouldn’t trade for anything, but it’s pretty predictable.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke early on a Saturday. Two hours later my husband came down.

I greeted him with “Good morning.”

Then I hit him with “I have a ton of work to do this weekend and I have that thing tomorrow, so I won’t be much fun. But we can go out to eat if you want.”

He rolled his eyes. “Why would I expect any fun. Is it wet out? I have to mow and it’s supposed to rain in a few hours.”

I’m married to a weather watcher.

We chatted logistics. I’d move my car. He’d put gas in the mower. I’d walk the dog.

Fifteen minutes later, I came around, walking the dog into the garage. He popped through the doorway, one hand behind his back.

“Happy anniversary, honey.” He whipped out a flower from our weigela bush.

Suddenly I was exactly 36 years in the past. I glimpsed the man who had picked me up for our first date: wavy blond hair, broad shoulders, and a bud vase with a single red rose in his hand.

“Sorry I didn’t have a rose,” he said.

“I love it,” I said, right before I kissed him.

I went inside to give my pink bloom some water.

My husband the romantic started up the mower.

 I shared this honor with an amazing essay by Amuse-Douche.

Second Anniversary

Two year down the road since I started blogging, I’ve posted 115 times and collected 575 followers. I keep writing for the joy of it and for those who regularly read and comment. If you’re here for the first time, welcome. If you visit regularly, thanks for stopping by and coming back.

In honor of this second year, here are five of my favorite posts since last September. Some may not have been the most popular, but they’re ones I look back on fondly.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Expectations

On the Way to School

How to Fold a Blanket

My Privilege

I hope you’ll stick around for the next year too.

 

 

 

Honestly

My daughter once told me I was brutally honest. I think she’d stand by her assessment. I don’t believe she means I’m not kind or I go out of my way to make cutting remarks. It’s just that I mean what I say and say what I mean. I don’t sugar coat. If you ask me how your performance was, I’ll tell you and you won’t need to worry I’m just being nice.

This is not to say I never lie. I’m human. But when you lie as little as I do, people assume you are always truthful. More often, my infrequent untruths are lies of omission.

In my real life, I sometimes tell meandering stories, and may even add side stories, playing devil’s advocate with myself. Without hearing the whole story, how could you possibly understand the truth of my words?

But in writing, I tend toward concise. If you follow my blog, you know I share real events in my life in very short stories. The tales are essentially true, but those lies of omission protect the anonymity of others I mention.

So, overall, I consider myself an honest person. That is, I did until I read this.

Yuval Noah Harari explains that much of what we consider the truth is lies promoted to keep society functioning. We trade green paper or numbers on a screen and credit them with the value of the items we buy. Our leaders gather followers with simplistic homilies, rather than the complicated facts that might solve problems but won’t inspire loyalty. Our love of books and movies results from our ability to suspend our disbelief. We seem programmed to seek out fiction, whether it’s our loyalty to a sports team or a product, or a disregard for the beliefs of others, all the while smugly thinking we are the ones being honest about the state of the world.

Now I wonder, as I teach my students, is what I’m sharing accurate? Not that our number system can’t be proven or that the Pilgrims didn’t arrive in Plymouth Harbor in 1620. Rather, the year 1620 is an arbitrary number, loosely based on the Christian tradition. Some of the skills I tell them they will use as adults may be less important than future skills I can’t even imagine.

When I listen and read pundits, favoring one, disregarding another, is it because “my” side is better, or did their political handlers spin the yarn that is my siren call, that will get me to follow?

My doctor prescribes a medicine for me at the recommended dosage for my sex (if I’m lucky) and weight based on studies of hundreds of my peers. But as we head into this age of personalized medicine, is it really the right protocol for me?

The engineers and physicists in my life would chide me for suggesting science is subjective. Certainly greater harm has been done by denying the veracity of science than by following its precepts. True science, while not completely objective due the presence of humans, has its system of checks and balances. Other scientists will review the literature, then repeat or further the experiments. Given time, mistakes will be sussed out and corrected.

As Harari says, where it falls apart is when we try to use science for policy, when politicians lead us toward what they can make popular instead of what might be best for our world. Should money go toward renewable energy or cleaner coal? Is it economically feasible to clear our food supply of harmful chemicals and drugs? At what level can we claim it’s safe? Politically, we can’t even agree human activity is creating global warming when the evidence is everywhere.

Despite Harari’s assertion that social “truths” can last hundreds or thousands of years, I can’t help wondering if our society is resting on a house of cards. If you pull one out, does it come crashing down? But he reminds us we are wired to want this, that following leaders has fostered cooperation and helped us survive through the ages. Faith in the system is the only thing that keeps it going.

I am left with the knowledge that, on some level, we are all figments of our own imagination. When I share my thoughts with friends and family, they are honestly mine. But whether they are true appear to be a matter of opinion.

A Life of Games

Five was the last time the older neighborhood girls would let me stand in the middle before they turned the rope. By six, I had to learn to jump in or be out of the game. Jump rope and jacks were the favorites through eighth grade, both on the playground and on the sidewalk in front of our friends’ houses.

The benefit of having four kids in the family was that there was usually someone who’d be willing to play a game. There was Monopoly and Sorry, and my mother’s favorite, Scrabble. At extended family get-togethers we played a hangman-like game called Probe. I once used my grandmother’s unabridged dictionary to find a word that stumped them all: quaquaversal. My uncle’s legendary game was won with flugelhorn.

At home we had a set of games that looked like books on a shelf. My favorite bookshelf game was called O-wahr-ee and involved spreading rocks around in a ring of cup holes, and collecting them based on the number left in the cup. It was something like mancala. My older sister’s favorite was Facts in Five, a trivia game that she could always win. When she headed toward her teen years, I’d play it anyway, just to get her to play with me. For years my youngest brother and I battled with Quinto, setting numbered tiles in crossword puzzle rows with multiples of five.

I learned Euchre from my husband early in our marriage. For a few years, we’d have dates with other couples to play.

When my girls were little, I’d stack the deck in Candyland to give them a chance to win, or at least let the game finally end. As they got older, we played rapid fire Uno, and never-ending Monopoly.

Now days, my games are more likely to be played alone on my phone. But on lazy Christmas days between gifts and dinner when my daughters are home, they may challenge me to Scrabble, or feeling childhood nostalgia, The Game of Life.