Ripples in Time

On Saturday morning, my husband suggests we go to an out-of-the-way farmer’s market. We get there before they open, but he says “there are things to look at” and we continue down the road. I smile and nod. I’m along for the ride.

He points out a trap shooting place where he went as a kid and reminds me of the restaurant that burned to the ground. Several miles later we pull in to a conservation area where he used to fish.

“We came here even in winter because the water was always open.”

I ask, “Why didn’t it ice over?”

“They have bubblers,” he tells me. “You’ll see.

We park and walk down a gravel road along the “ditches” as the signs call them. He gestures to a row of wooden posts sticking out of the water.

“There were docks on those where we could stand and fish on all sides.”

Bubblers, like tiny fountains, send rings of ripples out around them. “See?” He points.

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We come to a patch of soft ground and spot paw prints.

“Looks like a big dog,” he says.

“Or a cougar,” I guess.

Another set of prints is clearly a racoon.

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He spots a fish making its own set of smaller ripples at the surface, but it’s the only one he sees. No one is here fishing on a Saturday morning, a sure sign that the catfish and crappie are gone. Further on, the ditches open into the Illinois River, where Asian Carp have taken over, dangerously lowering the native species.

A concrete boat ramp sits partially out of the water, skewed at an angle.

“I think this is where we used to launch our boat.”

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As we walk back, he kicks the gravel. “We used to find arrow heads along here, but they’ve probably built this road up with trucks of gravel several times since then.”

As he leans over to point to a tiny frog, it takes off with a powerful foot-long leap into the weeds.

We pull out and head down the road. Looking back, he says, “I must have fished here a hundred times, even though it’s a long drive.”

My childhood home is a city, hours away, so I don’t often run across people and places that bring back those early memories. The manmade landscape has changed many times over in urban renewal. I tend to reminisce about people, their words and how they felt.

His stories are activities: a neighborhood wiffle golf ball tournament, playing baseball where the library is now, and burying treasure in a friend’s backyard. The locations surround us as we live mere miles from where he grew up.

My recollections are moments pinned to a timeline of my life, emotional events that shaped me, as the lead, and the other roles in my story. There are moments of precious friendship, heartbreak, grief, joy, and loss, each one complete with characters and plot, even if the setting’s space is a little fuzzy.

His stories are fixed in place, literally the locations where they occurred. Each adventure is a spot on a map of his childhood, with episodes reoccurring to him as we drive past them in the present.

Our memories of our time together are parallel. He knows when the furnace was put in, when the trees were planted, when our daughters’ cars might need service, even though they live in different states. Mine is a memory of important events: first declarations of love, our daughters’ births and milestones, vacations, graduations, life lessons. He can find spots visited only once. I can find items others have lost in the house. Together we keep the structure of our home and lives in place.

The memories link like the water to the river, endless ripples flowing on.

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A Marriage of Meals

I chop green pepper, onion, mushrooms and spinach and saute them in olive oil. I heat a pan on high and swirl beaten eggs in a thin, light layer. As they cook I sprinkle black pepper and the sautéed vegetables over the eggs. I fold the omelet over into a half moon and slide it on a plate. With sides of fresh asparagus and buttered toast, I settle down to eat dinner.

On the nights I cook for myself, I often make some variety of veggie omelet, French toast, or big spinach salads with loads of veggies or strawberries or chopped apples. Always with balsamic vinaigrette.

My husband is all Ranch dressing and cheese. He’d happily eat iceberg lettuce if I wasn’t so particular.

This has been our marriage in meals.

Alone, he eats plates of brown. Fried meat with potatoes.

Alone, I eat plates of color. Light on meat, plentiful vegetables.

Together, I make his mother’s chili recipe, slow simmered ground beef and beans. I add tomatoes to mine and he adds shredded cheddar to his. I make meatloaf and sneak in bits of cooked carrots, peppers, and onions.  He makes steak sandwiches and I load mine with peppers and onions, while he adds a little onion and cheese. He makes a wonderful roast chicken with baked potatoes and peas. We turn the leftovers into chicken salad or sandwiches. I boil the remaining bones and meat to make broth that will become chicken and noodles or chicken soup with carrots, peas and noodles. The omelets I make for him include bacon and potatoes. We have meals that can be tweaked to taste by one or the other.

In my thirties, I became lactose intolerant and in my forties the doctor told me to cut down on salt. I’m a nightmare dinner guest. Once when talking to our daughter, my husband joked, “I’d better go cook my no cheese, no salt, no flavor meal.”

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I’d say that’s the way to a woman’s heart as well.

In the early days of our marriage, cooking and chores were shared equally. As time went by, he did less of the cleaning and more of the cooking. Now that he’s retired and I’m still working, I rarely cook at all. Tonight, he served barbecue chicken, with baked potatoes and the last of the asparagus.

Without me in his meals, my husband wouldn’t eat as many healthful vegetables. With him in the kitchen, I can have perfectly roasted chicken or tender beef. We eat better together.

They say we are what we eat. A marriage of meals.

Lockdown

The call comes in over the intercom.

“Lockdown, lockdown.  This is a hard lockdown.”

Today it’s just a drill. I pray we never have to use all our practice for the real thing.

If you were a child in the 1950s and early ‘60s, you may remember fire drills, tornado drills, and air raid drills, hiding under your desk. The air raid drills, that could never have protected anyone from an atomic bomb, have gone by the wayside. Today’s students practice a safe escape in case of fire, taking shelter in case of tornado, and evacuating the building in case of gas leak, attack, or another emergency. We also teach students what to do if someone comes into our building with the intent to shoot everyone there.

We do not tell elementary students that someone with a gun could come into our school. I introduce the idea of the drill this way.

“Boys and girls, you know how we practice fire drills even though our school has never had a fire? And we practice tornado drills even though we’ve never been hit by a tornado? Next week we’re going to practice another kind of drill. In this one, we’re going to practice what we would do if someone bad came into our building. This has never happened and I don’t think it ever will, but we’re going to practice just in case.”

We go over procedures, pretending that I’m the shepherd and the big, bad wolf is coming. But my third graders know the difference. They imagine details far worse than any I provide. I think it says something about our culture of violence that most of my little boys promise to beat up any bad man who would come in.

I won’t give you the details of the drill or procedures. No point in advertising. If you have children in school in the U.S., ask them. What they say may surprise you.

The FBI says, “Odds are one in 1 million that a student will die at school as a result of a violent act.”

For the parents at Sandy Hook, that statistic can provide no comfort.

The unfortunate reality is that no amount of drill practice can prevent a shooting. The best we can do by teaching these skills is to minimize the number of casualties. As a police officer assisting with one of our drills told me, the shooter’s primary target will be shot.

But our state requires the drills, as well as the sign at the front door. It warns that no guns are allowed in our building, as though that will stop an individual with intent. Just as in so many other areas of crime prevention, we put our emphasis on preparing potential victims, rather than using proactive prevention, a multi-faceted approach.

There is no single cause for school shootings. But something I know after more than thirty years of teaching is that violent people are unhappy people. Certainly, caring and awareness are essential first steps.

People often say that shooters are people who have been bullied and this is how they are striking back. This can be true, but it can also be just the perception of being treated unfairly that provides the “reason” for the attack. Feelings of alienation can be the cause of outward violence, but also of self-harm. We need to reach out and always be kind.

One theory often proposed is that school shootings are caused by mental illness. It’s true that our country has repeatedly failed in dealing with mental illness. We’ve gone from jails to horrific psychiatric institutions, then back to prison and homelessness. Our funding, facilities, and public attitude toward mental illness have progressed very little since the 1800s. According to a Mother Jones timeline, the ratio of psychiatric beds to population today is the same as it was in the 1850s.

So, does mental illness cause attacks? Sometimes, yes, but the reality is that mentally ill people are more often victims than perpetrators of violence. The New York Times and This American Life tell a frightening story that partially resulted from the increase in armed security guards in hospitals. More guns are clearly not the answer for mental illness.

Sandy Hook parents have banded together to provide free information on prevention. They want you to know the signs. One is, “Exhibiting excessive over-reactions or aggressive behavior for a seemingly minor reason can signal someone who cannot self-regulate their emotions or control their anger.”

Reading this rings bells for me. A major issue in education today is working with children of trauma. Paul Tough in The Atlantic writes about the results of “severe and chronic stress in childhood” which results in that hair-trigger fight-or-flight response. Poverty is strongly correlated with alcoholism, family instability, violence and more. Sadly, over 50% of students in schools today are children of poverty, most of whom are the working poor. We must address income disparity, but children also suffer trauma in wealthier communities. Issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual abuse sadly happen to children everywhere. Programs for partners and children from the CDC can be a first step.

Then there is the smoking gun. Critics would say that guns don’t kill, people kill. True, but the reality is that automatic weapons significantly increase the number of people someone can kill. School shootings are largely an American gun-culture phenomenon, as shown on this annotated list detailing events since before the Revolutionary War. In time, weapons have increased in number and efficiency. We need screening, monitoring, and restricted access for youth and those with mental illness.

We must act. To reach out to those on the outside. To compassionately serve those with mental illness. To combat sources of childhood trauma. To control the availability of firearms for those who cannot be trusted to use them safely. Until then, we will continue to read the headline, “Another School Shooting.”

Whose school will be next?

 

 

Transformation

Last Saturday my sister and I each drove from our homes, to a town we’d never been to before, to spend the afternoon together. We ate lunch at a restaurant called Spoons and walked along the two block downtown wandering in and out of shops.

In an old-school music shop, the clerk greeted us and asked how we were.

“Good,” we answered. “How are you?”

“Great!” he said. “I’m doing what I love.”

I recognized a man who wanted to tell a story, so of course I asked. After “retiring,” he looked around his house at what he had collected all his life. He considered what his kids would do with the three rooms of albums he had lovingly acquired and knew they would just want to sell them. So, he opened the shop. Now he gets to talk about music all day long and sells his albums online across the country.

My sister is retired herself, from a career in tech. Just a few months in, she is still feeling her way. She thought she’d see if a community orchestra could use a flute player, but when there was a waiting list for flutes, she agreed to play the bass drum. Now my sister is just an inch taller than short little me and, while she clearly reads music, has never played percussion. She says it’s a little nerve-racking to lose your place in the long periods between her parts. I mean, it’s not like you could hide the boom of a bass drum coming in at the wrong time. Still, it must be exhilarating to get it right.

She shared a story from The Moth with me.  Cynthia Riggs had a degree in marine biology and a career as a boat captain. She reinvented herself once to join her mother in running a bed and breakfast, then again to become a mystery writer at age 70. Her life took a further turn with a late-in-life love story told here, but that’s another tale.

I have a good friend who retired early from teaching when the stress became too much. She went back to school to become a massage therapist. These days she massages two days a week, as well as being an elf at Christmas and the Easter Bunny in the spring at a sporting goods store. In the summer, she adds on ushering at baseball games. She says she’s having fun with it all and she loves being appreciated everywhere she works.

As I get closer to the point where I might want to retire myself, I’m finding that it’s more of a beginning than an end. Not quite the open options of when we were eighteen, but certainly full of possibility.

After our shopping, my sister and I drove around looking for a park to stroll through. As happens in small towns, a wrong turn led us out of town, down winding country roads. We stopped at a canal and took a walk down the trail, enjoying the sunshine.

You never know what you’ll find at the next turn in the road.

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Getting Even With the Dentist

I went to the dentist today. (Do I sense cringing out there?) I don’t enjoy dental visits, but they don’t scare me either. I think that’s because of my mother’s brainwashing all through my childhood.

She’d always say, “Now that they have high-speed drills, it won’t hurt.”

I’m really not afraid of pain at the dentist, but the sound of scraping and drilling can get to me too.

My childhood dentist was Dr. S, a middle-aged guy with laugh lines around his eyes and salt and pepper hair. My mom would schedule appointments for all four of us and he would see us one after the other. And we had lots of cavities.

Going to the dentist, I’m five years old again. I can remember being small in the big chair. Dr. S had to put up with a lot from us. I remember screaming from the moment the drill was turned on, before it even touched me. I don’t think I was really scared. It was more making my dissatisfaction heard above the grinding whine of the drill.

Another time, Dr. S said, “Open.”

I opened.

With his fingers still in my mouth, he said, “Bite.”

And I bit him. Hard.

Fortunately, Dr. S had a sense of humor. “Well, I did say bite.”

He and his assistant, M, would joke around while they worked. M was a round woman with a ringing laugh. Every visit, after Dr. S rinsed your mouth out, he would squirt you on the nose and M would laugh.

Just counting my family, over the years from when I was four to eighteen, Dr. S saw us and squirted us about 110 times. But it wasn’t until around the 108th time that my twelve-year-old brother got even.

He played it straight throughout the appointment. No one noticed that he kept his hands underneath the paper bib. No one noticed until Dr. S gave him his traditional squirt on the nose. That’s when my brother pulled out the squirt gun and shot him back. M’s laugh could be heard clear out in the waiting room.

Sometime after I grew up and moved away, Dr. S retired. His son took over his practice. I wonder whether another generation continued the nose squirting routine.

My adult dentist, Dr. T, saw my kids through their childhood. She is calm and gentle and kind, and they were never afraid. She never squirted them on the nose. At every visit, she asks about my girls and I ask about hers. I like her and my kids did too. But I doubt they’ll look back at their childhood appointments with the same fond amusement that I do.

Dr. S’s son is still practicing dentistry in the same office I went to as a child. Dr. S is an old man now. I wonder if he ever thinks of the boy who squirted him back.

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 (Truthfully, I was third out of four, but hey, you’ve got to take success where you can get it!)

Community

I have written enough about cities and travel, that you might think a small-town life is not for me. I spent a couple of hours yesterday going door-to-door in support of a candidate for school board.* Everything I love about small towns was on display.

As my area to canvas I chose two streets just down from the school where I teach. No one answered at the first few houses. I hoped the pamphlets I stuck in their doors wouldn’t blow away.

The next door was opened by a young man. I told him why I was there and offered him a leaflet. He admitted he didn’t know about the upcoming election and he was new to town. Although I knew I should jump into the merits of my candidate, I switched hats.

“Do you have kids?” I asked.

He smiled. “We have a two-year-old daughter.”

“In a few years when she’s ready, there’s a great school just down the street. I’m a teacher there,” I said. “But today I’m a private citizen.”

I summed up my concerns for the election and why he should vote for my guy. He asked a few questions and nodded along.

Several more doors opened enough for a smile and to take a pamphlet, but not long enough for conversation.

At one house, a small child peaked out the window. Then I heard him yelling, “Mom!”

A few minutes later, a woman came to the door in a bathrobe. I felt bad that I disturbed her shower. She took the flyer and moved to shut the door. I thanked her and turned away. I was almost to the next house, when she leaned back out and called to me.

“Are you for A.?” she asked.

“Yes!” I called back.

“Sorry about that,” she said, meaning being abrupt, “I’m voting for him!”

“No problem!” I said. “Thanks!”

Other doors were opened by a business owner with a fussy dog, and in another block, the police chief. I know them and have had each of their sons in class, so we exchanged pleasantries. They took the flyers I offered, but we didn’t discuss the election further. They may or may not agree with me, but it’s probably best that they don’t publicly take sides.

The race is contested, with several open seats, and feelings are running high on all sides. I didn’t stop at houses that already had three signs in the yard. For most people who answered, I didn’t know which way they will vote. A few told me that they will vote for my candidate. No one yelled at me or slammed the door in my face. Most just accepted the pamphlet. Small towns, at least in the Midwest, are nothing if not civil. Once the election is over, we may agree or gripe about the decisions the winners make, but we’ll bide our time and wait for the next election. Once the ballots are counted, we still need to get along.

An older woman leaned down to manage her rambunctious dog, never looking as though she was in a hurry to get rid of me.

The woman who came to the next door is the parent of one of last year’s students. I know her political views are far different from mine, but she smiled at me warmly and asked how I am.

Around the next corner, two parents worked in their yard, while their little kids played around them. I approached the wife, who was closest to the street. She took the flyer and told me she knew who she would vote for, but didn’t say who. Probably not a good sign, but I just thanked her and walked away.

As the weather warmed up, I dumped my jacket in my car and kept going. More and more people headed out for a walk, run or bike ride. I greeted a few walkers and offered them my words.

I met some door-to-door competition, coming from the other direction. Two women were proselytizing. I expected to see Bibles in their hands, but instead I saw tablets. Technology has reached the churches too. I was careful not to dislodge their prayer cards when I stuck my flyers in the doors and hoped they did the same for me.

In another block, I heard a voice calling my name from above. “Mrs. S! Mrs. S! I’ll come down and let you in!”

As I walked up to the door, my student opened it, smiling. “I’ll get my mom,” he said and ran away.

“Mrs. S is here!”

His mom invited me in and sent him off to finish getting ready for soccer. We chatted for a moment, but I could see they were busy, so I headed out.

I take great pains to teach social studies without kids ever guessing my political opinions. But I love that when I talk to the kids about voting and how our government works, this one will know I practice what I preach.

After a couple of hours, I called it quits and drove over to my candidate’s house to drop off the remaining flyers. A friend saw my car and pulled over to chat. Next time we’ll see each other on purpose.

And that’s what small towns are. Families and single people. Businesses, government and churches. Differences of opinion, but mostly civil discourse. Your political opponent may need your purchases to keep her business going, and you might go to the same church. A police officer may pull you over for speeding, but will have the same butterflies that every parent has when they come to a parent-teacher conference. Your kid’s teacher may be holding mini conferences in an aisle at the grocery store. You must be careful who you complain to about anyone, because you never know who is related. Like a large family, people disagree and get along.

Community.

 

*If you’re local, I’ll be happy to tell you who I was campaigning for and why.