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

Sweet Notes

My mother liked to tell the story about five-year-old me at my first recital. I wore a shiny gold dress that someone had passed down to me after serving as a flower girl. Between my sissy socks, shiny black patent leather shoes and dimples, I was an adorable little lady, sauntering down for my turn at the piano. Until I reached the bench. Instead of gracefully sliding in from the side, I straddled it before swinging my other leg high and over.

This story sums up my instrumental career. On the surface, I seemed to have a certain amount of musical ability, but I couldn’t quite get up and over to doing well. To be fair, I seemed to have an allergy to practicing. Perched on our piano bench at home, I would wiggle and squirm, yank a hand from the keyboard to scratch an itch or wipe my nose, and whine. My mother was determined. She quizzed me with note flash cards and punctuated my playing with the tick of a metronome when her constant cry of “Count!” didn’t do the trick.

We took lessons at school during our lunch hour. At the end of every year our teacher, Mrs. K, held an awards assembly. My older sister won a piano pin for being best. I thought the only category I had a prayer of winning was “most improved.” In second grade, if I had made any progress, it was certainly more than in the past. I listened while all the awards were given and held my breath.

“And the award for most improved goes to – “

And she said my kindergarten brother’s name.

My eight-year-old heart sank. Even a five-year-old was better than me.

My nonmusical father was determined he would give all four of his kids a musical education. The four years of piano were nonnegotiable. After that we would choose a second instrument. My sister stuck with woodwinds, my brother with brass. My youngest brother wanted the drums. I think his plan was to be so annoying they’d let him quit. In the end, he got his way. I chose the violin. Finally, I had a chance to do something no one else in my family could do.

Mr. A, my longtime teacher, was a professional violinist who gave lessons on the side. Endlessly kind, he’d prompt and remind and demonstrate, and I did improve. When I hit a sour note, I wrinkled my nose. In a rare moment of impatience, he said, “I know you can hear it. Why don’t you play it?”

I quit violin for a six-week group guitar class my junior year. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t mind practicing. But with college looming, I was struck with an inexplicable urge to try out for my university’s general orchestra. Senior year I went back to Mr. A. The next August, I restarted the audition piece three times. They didn’t cut me, but I was the last chair. In retrospect, I realized they let anyone in this group, unlike the symphony which was by audition only. A month in, I quit. No one discouraged me.

Fast forward fifteen years. On a visit home with my kids, I told my mom about taking out my violin for the first time in ages. My baby daughter looked at me with adoration. Her three-year-old sister cried when I wouldn’t let her try it and the dog howled along. Mom and I laughed together.

“I looked through my old music,” I said. “I can’t believe I used to play that. I don’t remember being any good.”

My mother raised her eyebrows. “Of course you were good. Don’t you remember?”

I didn’t. I still don’t. She might have been biased. But the evidence of some quality is there in the music I played.

But here is what I’m left with. I have a friend who likes music and theatre as much as I do. We are each other’s culture buddy. Sometimes we go to student and faculty concerts at a nearby university. I marvel at the brass and woodwinds and picture my brother’s trombone and my sister’s flute. We go to see Time for Three and I admire the bow and fingering, hear the technique, recognize the harmonics. We attend an occasional symphony concert and I am immersed in the rich layers of sound.

Almost forty years later, all I’m left with is the love.

The Road Taken

There’s a park on our country road that looks like a small picnic area. We recently found out about its short trail in the woods. My daughter and I walked it about a month ago. The barren winter stillness was only broken by the persistent call of a cardinal.

We picked our way through fallen twigs, crunching leaves, and mole rippled ground, looking up occasionally to see around a bend. When we came to a fork in the road, I tried to remember where each path went.

I shrugged. “Let’s go right.”

Forty feet around a bend, the trail dead-ended at a stream. A crumbling log was the bridge.

“Come on, Mom.” My daughter walked out on the branch, effortlessly turning back to wave me on.

I stood rooted in place.

“You can do it.”

This moment is but one of many that started when she was a kid and I learned to ice skate at the age of thirty-seven because said daughter wanted us to take lessons together. Aside from a few bruises and a wrenched knee, it was a lot of fun.

Then there are the vacation adventures. My other daughter talked me into parasailing. When the guide told us the ocean was rocky and offered us an out, I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter so I, who have major motion sickness, went anyway. Turns out being high in the air isn’t as soothing as it looks. I won’t paint that picture for you, but when they tell you to put your hand on your head and they will pull you in, don’t believe them.

Then there was snorkeling. It was a bright clear day. While my daughters happily swam out in the bay, diving down to admire the colorful fish and coral, I found myself panting through the mask and turned back before I’d have to take the life preserver away from the one child in the group.

And then there was zip-lining. I zinged from tree-to-tree, only once stopping short and having to be rescued ten feet from the platform. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

Just last summer, my hiking daughter talked me into going on a six-mile hike in 85-degrees with 90% humidity. I made it, barely. A month later we did seven miles on Oregon hills. At least the weather was cooler and there were multiple waterfalls to pause and admire. I could barely walk up stairs for days after that.

In Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, I trailed behind as my daughters scrabbled down a steep slope. When I leaned over a little farther to see where they were going, they turned in unison and yelled, “No, Mom! Don’t try it!” I had more sense than that.

Now it was forty degrees and the log looked wobbly. Balance is one of the first things to go as you age and getting wet wasn’t appealing.

“Nope.”

I turned back and she followed.

E495D5C2-D9FE-4DAB-A4A1-AB1C3F7FE4B9

We backtracked and took the other fork, passed through a clearing and ended by the biggest tree in the park, before we walked out the way we came. Dusk was approaching. I wondered aloud if the hooting we heard was from the owl who visited our yard.

She shared a story about someone being attacked by an owl for being in its territory. Hmm, maybe crossing the stream was less dangerous than the walk.

“I almost got you to do it.”

I just smiled. She almost did.

On the Way to School

To get from home to school, you’d go out the side door, because the front door was only ever used when company came over. Your Beatles lunch box would be useful both to carry your sandwich and thermos and to swing it at the kid who’d always tease you at recess. Books in your other arm and your jacks in your pocket, you’d pass the front porch where in summer you’d sit on the bottom concrete step to strap adjustable roller skates onto your shoes. But no skating now. Not on a school day.

Depending on the year, you’d walk with your sister and one or both brothers and the friends who cut across the alley through your yard to meet you. You’d turn left right after you pick up the girl from the corner house (who was hit by a car in the alley one summer and you saw your father run, which you didn’t think he could do.)

Down just a half a block, you’d come to the house (who knows why there) where in second grade you always started to panic. After the first time just the idea of passing there set your heart racing.

But today you’d walk past fine, the older girls in front, you and your friend chattering behind, with the brothers trailing. You might pause to hike up your itchy tights, because they never stayed up and girls wouldn’t be allowed to wear pants suits to school for another couple of years.

Next, you’d turn right. The single-family homes would make way for two-flats and at the third one from the corner you’d pick up your neighbor’s cousin, who had almost the same name.

Coming up you’d pass the house of the tall blond boy, your first crush. Did he like you too? You’d never be sure.

At the end of that block you’d reach the spot where once a strange kid, a half a head taller than your little brother, tried to start a fight and you knew you couldn’t let your brother be hurt. So you wrestled the boy to the ground and pinned him. When a woman came out of her house yelling, you started to cry, and the woman wagged her finger at the boy, saying “I know you. You’re the one who causes all the trouble,” and let you go on your way.

In the fall you would scuff through crackling leaves. In spring you’d throw handfuls of maples seeds and chortle as they helicoptered down.

The street would T at the college campus, so you’d turn left and walk the final stretch to the traffic light. You’d rattle the coins in your pocket and think ahead to after school when you’d go another half block to the penny candy store to buy a paper strip of dots, Bazooka bubble gum and wax lips for a dime.

But now you’d pick up the pace as the bell rings. You’d hurry across the gravel playground, past teeter totters, high flyers, and a tall steep slide, along where the girls formed long lines to jump rope to chanting rhymes, toward the wall the boys used to play pinners where the trim met the brick.

You’d race up the steps and merge with the crowd of kids heading through the double doors to childhood’s past.

Under the Gun

Content Warning: School shootings, gun violence

A while back 6 Degrees to Kevin Bacon was popular. It started as Six Degrees of Separation. Though the Kevin Bacon version was supposed to involve actors, we just thought about how closely every day people were connected.

That came back to me today as I wonder how closely connected to mass shootings you need to be to actually have a change of heart. Every school shooting panics me as both a mother and a teacher who has to practice for this possibility every year. Someone I love was less than 20 miles from the Las Vegas shooting and had friends who were there. That puts me at two degrees away, which feels much too close.

Our country’s love of guns goes back to the beginning, to that fateful second amendment. 1950s kids might play non-PC cowboys and Indians. Today inner-city teens face gang violence, while their more affluent peers stage Nerf Wars complete with “making kills” and their own version of drive byes. We say, “Shoot!” and “Pull the trigger” and “Jump the gun.” Hollywood movies are full of mavericks surviving raging explosive battles, the little guy overcoming those in power. Is it any wonder that the NRA reigns supreme?

Right up front I want it clear that I don’t want to take all your guns. I know too many hunters to want that, law-abiding citizens who are more conservation minded than many others I know. If you feel you need a weapon for protection, I won’t quibble with you from my safe little corner of the universe. Maybe you have been closer than two degrees to violence.

But the only reason to have the assault weapons used in recent shootings is to have the ability to take multiple lives at a time. I have a problem with that, as do most Americans today, on both side of the aisle.

The gun supporting side often cites mental illness as a reason for mass shootings. But reality is that people with mental illness commit crimes at a tiny percent of the total crime rate, less often with firearms than the general population. Still, it makes sense to keep someone in poor mental health from having firearms. So background checks make sense, right? Then why did President Trump and the Republican Party recently roll back Obama era measures that would have made it more difficult for those with mental illness to buy guns?

Guns don’t kill people. People kill people, of course. But the reality is more available guns and more powerful weapons means more people killed. International study shows that the availability of firearms drastically increases the mass killings a country experiences. Correlation does not imply causation, but how else to interpret this data?

I recently listened to a story on NPR’s This American Life about Dodie Horton, a Republican lawmaker in Louisiana who tried to make it illegal to bring fake guns to school (not real ones which are already illegal in schools) at the request of a sheriff. A high school student brought a fake gun to school that looked and felt like the real thing, which caused a lockdown and evacuation. The sheriff was concerned about the risk for the student of being shot if officers thought the pistol was real. State Republicans wouldn’t back the bill. To be fair, some wanted to leave the matter for local control. But some were worried that measures to restrict toy guns send the message that firearms are bad, which could lead to kids growing up to support gun control. The safety of students and disruption to instruction, not to mention the trauma of thinking your classmate had brought a gun to school, were all less important than the idea that someone might “brainwash” kids into thinking firearms are bad. The local town council easily passed a measure prohibiting fake guns at school. If state lawmakers were a few degrees closer to someone being harmed, would they have decided differently?

Recently we’ve heard from students at zero degrees separation. Students from Parkland, Florida are loudly asking for change. Lawmakers seem unwilling to give it, even before students who place them at one degree from murder. But these 17- and 18-year-olds have been taught to lead, communicate, and persevere. Other young people are listening across the country. Where our generation has become critically divided, theirs seems driven for change. We may be at the cusp of cultural shift. Too bad it won’t happen before the next lone gunman makes news.

Small Blessings (a listicle)

 

Two weeks past Thanksgiving, I’m still feeling thankful. Yes, I’m thankful that the larger parts of my life are going well, and no, I’m not happy about the events in my newsfeed. But the little things in life have been catching may attention lately, small blessings that can make my day, in the same way that frustrations can ruin it.

I’m thankful when the sun comes out after days of gray.

I’m thankful that living in the country means I don’t have to rake leaves.

I’m thankful that my little Prius still runs well, for the simple reason that it’s the only car that I’ve ever loved and I want to continue driving it.

I’m thankful that my commute is ten minutes long. (Jealous?)

I’m thankful for a keyboard that had power to run for two years and especially for the friend that lent me her charger as soon as I questioned, “How do I charge this thing?” Because after two years, I had forgotten what that black cable was for and who knows where I put it.

I’m thankful for canceled meetings, like gifts of time opening in my day.

I’m thankful to be vigorous and active, though getting up off the floor isn’t as quick as it used to be. (Do you sit on the floor? I find myself there often, not just working with students, but playing with the dog, getting things off low shelves, and looking under the bed to find my missing sock.)

I’m thankful that I work with children, because with kids there is always hope for the future.

I’m thankful for peanut butter, especially the crunchy kind. (If you’re allergic, that’s unfortunate. I’ll eat it somewhere else.)

I’m thankful for openings at the doctor’s office when I need to get in and a good stick when I give blood.

I’m thankful for a cup of hot tea on a cold day and for chocolate, because who wouldn’t be?

I’m thankful not only for my wonderful daughters, but that their chosen fields make them great sources of information for me. My life is richer and better informed for knowing them.

I’m thankful that my friends still want to see me after we’ve had busy months away from each other. (That seems to be a condition of my friendship. You have to wait to see me and then pick up exactly where we left off.)

I’m thankful for new adventures, even if they are only online ones, and for the new people I am meeting through writing. (You can never have too many friends.)

I’m thankful for those who read my blog and come back to read more. I’m especially thankful to the ones who stop to chat, offer words of encouragement, yes, but also just share their thoughts and experiences. It continually amazes me that my words reach people around the world.

I am thankful that I come home to a wagging dog and to eat a warm dinner that I didn’t cook. I’m thankful that I have a comfy spot on the couch and can spend time with my husband as I end my evening. Then to bed, where I’ll be grateful to sleep.

Unhappy Camper

I’ve been celebrating my first blogging anniversary by sharing my favorite posts this week. This was first posted July 19, 2017

My mother and I walked the three blocks to the meeting place that Friday afternoon. I wore my usual jeans, sneakers, and a light jacket, all suitable for Girl Scout camping in the spring. My mother, volunteering as a chaperone, wore her light blue trench coat and one of the few pairs of pants she owned. She sniffed and dabbed at her running nose with a tissue in one hand, while the other arm clutched her bedroll and her sack supper that she’d put in a beaded shopping bag made of pink plastic netting, with handles for easy carrying.

My back tensed as we approached the gathering group of girls and our leader, nicknamed Nuke. I was only still in Girl Scouts as a seventh grader because of Nuke. She made meetings fun, took us to camp, was stern when needed, but genuinely seemed to like hanging out with a bunch of adolescent girls. I set my bedroll down next to her daughter, Missy.

“Your mom came,” Missy said.

“Yeah.” My shoulders slumped.

“I love your mom. She’s so nice.” Missy smiled.

I looked toward Mom, standing talking to Nuke, her blond head leaning in toward Nuke’s brown pinned-up braid. I loved my mom too. But at home. Not out camping for the first time in her life, with her pink beaded shopping bag. I sighed. Maybe it would be all right.

It was almost dark by the time the bus dropped us off at camp. We dropped our sack suppers on a picnic table. Then we paired up to head to our tents scattered in the woods and lay out our bedrolls before the last of the light faded. My friend and I brushed leaves and dirt off the wooden floor of the tent and were about to head out to eat when we heard a screech. It sounded an awful lot like my mother.

I rushed toward her voice. There was my mom, looking up in a tree and yelling.

“Hey! Give that back!”

Above her, the pink shopping bag dangled from a branch, while a raccoon reached inside, grabbing bits of her sandwich.

The raccoon won. Nuke and I shared our dinner with Mom and our group settled around picnic tables to eat. We sat around talking, but soon Nuke sent us to bed. The real fun of camping would start early.

The next morning, we started a fire, cooked pancakes for breakfast, cleaned up, and hiked in the woods. Nuke supervised, but the work was ours. One of the girls blared a transistor radio playing top 40’s music as we washed up. I waited for Mom to ask her to turn it down, but she said nothing.

The day flew by. That night I breathed a sigh of relief as we sat beneath the stars around a crackling fire, making s’mores and singing camp songs.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me….”

The weekend was almost over and no more Mom catastrophes.

Sunday morning after breakfast we sat in the sun with the radio blaring again, while we waited for the bus to pick us up. Mom cocked her head listening.

“You know, some of this music isn’t bad.”

_______________________

Now that I’m well on the other side of being the embarrassing mom, I see that weekend from a different perspective.

I asked my introverted, book-loving Mom once why she went on that camping trip, when she was so clearly out of her element.

She shrugged. “They needed a volunteer.”

Now I look back and see the lilacs blooming that my mother was horribly allergic to. She dressed for the trip the best way she could. These were the clothes she had and money wasn’t plentiful. The goofy pink bag made sense. It was hard to carry everything and blow your nose at the same time.

That weekend she shared a tent with Nuke, who didn’t like the way the bugs clung to the roof for warmth. So, they slept with all four flaps rolled to the top all night and Mom froze.

She had grown up in an era and town where they used an outhouse until midway through her childhood. Mom valued indoor plumbing.

Mom camped for the one and only time in her life because she loved me.

 

 

Life Around You

I’m celebrating my first blogging anniversary by sharing my favorite posts. This was first posted October 14, 2016

When we moved to this property twenty-some years ago, the trees were sparse and the only birds that summer were a persistent flock of killdeer that landed in the front yard and poked around the yellowed August grass. I had never seen killdeer and had to look them up to see what they were. We had none of the other common Midwest residents and migrants you usually see. But the killdeer were just a promise of the life to come.

My husband planted more trees, then more trees, and put out a feeder. He piled seed in the driveway and watched out the window to see what would come and eat.

Nowadays we are rich with birds: robins, cardinals, sparrows, finches, chickadees, big flocks of black birds that might be starlings and occasional glimpses of hummingbirds. A pair of chimney swifts nest in the rafters of the garage every spring.  Recently, in the tree outside our open window at night, we caught brief glimpses of a big dark bird and heard a low hooting. We have had big flocks of mourning doves too (accompanied by one confused pigeon) but since the arrival of a red-tailed hawk the doves’ population has gradually diminished. We find scattered gray feathers of the occasional meal, but not enough to account for the missing and I have to think somewhere in their little slow dove brains they have finally realized there might be a better place to call home.

img_1373

Of course all the food my husband puts out doesn’t just feed the birds. When the first ground squirrel showed up, we started calling it his “little buddy.” Now his buddies have a series of holes and tunnels throughout the yard. In the spring they pop up out of their holes and chirp, grabbing my dog’s attention, before ducking down out of reach. When she catches them out away searching for food, she’ll race at full speed across the yard, but hardly ever gets to them before they hightail it to a nearby hole. Only once she caught one. As I ran up to save it, it lay on its back, little feet clawing the air, or her nose if it got close enough, baring its tiny teeth and squealing a high-pitched squeal. When I grabbed my dog, it flipped over and ran, disappearing suddenly in the grass.

The ground squirrels aren’t the only critters benefitting from the bounty. Rabbits creep around the yard in the early morning and at dusk. My dog, about the same size as the rabbits, loves to chase those too. Where she is satisfied to race toward the birds and send them flying, her rabbit chases may involve long zigzags across the yard or racing circles around the pine trees before she listens to my calls and stays long enough for me to jog over to pick her up and end the chase.

The rabbits periodically appear, multiply and disappear. This may have something to do with the coyotes that we hear in the summer out in the fields beyond our yard, baying at the moon. Once, sitting at the kitchen table, I looked out to see three strange dogs (coyotes!) trot quickly in front of the house in broad daylight.

One of my favorite finds in the yard is the occasional toad. I read somewhere that when environments are poisoned, the frogs and toads are the first to go. So those toads are my canaries in the mine, telling me that, surrounded by non-organic farms fields, I am safe.

Of course beyond the mammals, birds and amphibians are countless multi-legged critters. There are always crawling and hopping insects, buzzing flies, swarming gnats in the summer. There are worms, caterpillars and roly poly bugs. There are countless spiders after them all leaving glistening webs in the grass and across the doorway to the garage. The first summer, clinging to the window screen, we saw a huge corn spider with bright yellow bands across its back. The occasional praying mantis can be just as big. My dog’s favorite crunchy snack is crickets in the fall and she’s learned the hard way to stay away from the stink bugs.

As I walked my dog this morning in the early morning light I heard a few tweets from the trees, but all our usual visitors and residents were hidden. It’s so easy to walk through life oblivious to life all around you.

img_1375

First Anniversary

This week marks a year since I started my blog. In the year since I first wanted a place to put my thoughts, I’ve written 71 posts, collected 458 followers and made a few friends. If you’ve joined me along the way, thanks for reading, commenting and joining the conversation!

This week I’m looking back by posting my favorite five posts. Look for one each day starting on Monday. These aren’t the ones that got recognition or got the most likes or views. These are ones that make me smile.