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.

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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

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.

Regretfully

Dear Applicant,

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the position of Youth. While we respect your efforts to regain it, the level of energy you exhibit simply does not match our needs. As requested, we offer the following feedback.

It was admirable that you continued to race young students when you took them out for recess well into your thirties. Yet, although childlike, the power dynamic never really shifted, especially since once students started winning, you stopped running. We also must point out you haven’t run in over twenty years, unless you count that single game of Steal the Bacon five years ago, and you must remember how sore you were the next day.

We do appreciate the sense of wonder you exhibit on learning new things. We feel that will serve you well in future endeavors, but does not, on its own, qualify you for Youth.

You mentioned the distance you can walk. With all due respect, we feel we must point out that past the age of one, most people walk until very late in life. Also, consider the amount of huffing and puffing you do on hills. We do encourage you to continue the practice and remind you that anything you don’t use, you will lose.

An example of this is your recent attempt to do burpees. If you recall, you absolutely hated doing burpees in elementary gym class. The routine of squat with hands on floor, shoot legs back, pull legs in, and stand up with a jump was not difficult in those days. Though you have periodically practiced other youthful exercise routines, you only recently have thought it worthwhile to do your most hated one. As you have seen, without repetition, the ability has been nearly lost as evidenced by the way you crawled to standing at the end. It remains to be seen whether you will ever regain this skill.

In closing, we appreciate your interest, and with work, you might apply for the position of Longevity.

Sincerely,

The Three Fates

For a better example of this kind of essay read here.

My Privilege

I’m going to brag about my success for a minute. I’m not saying I’m financially well-off, but thanks to saving, scrimping and hard work through the years, we’re not in debt and my husband and I should be able to fund a modest retirement. Thanks to consistent parenting, we have two wonderful adult daughters. Our marriage is solid because we work hard to keep it that way.

Except, none of that is completely true. The good parts are real, and we did save, work hard, and try to parent consistently. We don’t struggle over our marriage. We just try to be nice to each other.

I think the truth is that we’re lucky. Not that we should play the lottery. Instead, I think we have the privileges that come with who we are in the world.

Our modest financial success did depend on our effort and living on less than we made. But sometimes people do both those things and still fall into poverty. Divorce, loss of a job, or a prolonged illness can all destroy someone’s finances, and by extension, their family’s as well. But there are things that can cushion that fall. If you have a financially stable extended family and other close-knit ties like we do, you can have support while you get back on your feet. If you are the first in your family to rise out of poverty, there is no safety net. It is way too easy to fall back in when disaster strikes.

We’re lucky because we’re American. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. Now, most of that wealth is concentrated among a few individuals, but my husband and I are fortunate to be among those who make a living wage. Worldwide, our modest income is in the top one percent.

I’m lucky to have a post-graduate degree, which I attained when college was still an affordable option. On average, college graduates earn consistently more than those with high school diplomas alone. They have lower rates of unemployment. Certainly, I earned the right with effort and good grades. But I also had undergraduate scholarships and graduate financial help from my employer. Enrolling at all was helped by having two parents with degrees. Students who are the first in their families to attend are far less likely to finish. If you are a parent of a prospective university student, you know about the visits, the financial forms, the application forms and fees. It helps to have a college education to help someone apply for one. Even when students finance their education themselves, it helps to have financially stable parents who won’t require their help.

Our daughters really are wonderful. We did try to parent consistently and I’m sure that helped. But no parent can be all things. Their friends, teachers, first jobs, coaches, what they read, what they watched, the trips we took, volunteering, their own choices all made them who they are today.

My husband and I both came from a middle-class background. We started jobs in high school and learned something early about managing money. If our parents had loan payments or a parking ticket, they were able to pay it and move on. In too many places around the country, too many people in poverty have been arrested for not being able to pay their debts. Extended time in prison and garnished wages don’t enable financial stability. Fortunately, that policy may finally be changing on a large scale.

We are privileged to be white. I don’t say this to say that being white is somehow better than other colors, just luckier.  As a white American, I am more likely to be financially stable, because my family’s wealth has had more generations to accrue. I am part of the majority, so most institutions cater to my culture and skin color. If someone believes a stereotype about me, it won’t be one that gets me shot or keeps me from getting a job. If we were really a country of equal opportunity, and effort was all it took to get ahead, there wouldn’t be the extreme disparities we have between people of different races today.

Like the majority of Americans, we’ve had our challenges, but like the lucky ones, we’ve had blessed supports as well. Our fate is as much the result of fortune as anything we’ve done to deserve it.

Dismissed

Twenty-some years before the turn of this century, I was a teenager working a summer job. When I opened my first bank account, my mother typed a note on the back of the account card which said I had her permission to withdraw funds. Like my sister before me, I deposited my check each week, taking a little cash for fun. At the end of the summer, we’d withdraw $1000 to open a CD at the credit union, all for college savings.

The first year, at sixteen, the bank issued me the check no problem.

At the end of the next summer, my dad waited in the car while my sister and I went into the bank. At separate windows, my sister withdrew her $1000 and waited next to me. The teller looked at my withdrawal slip and bank book, looked at me, and took them to a man in a suit.

When she and the man came back, he glared down at me. “You can’t take money out. This is a custodial account.”

“You have a note from my mother saying that I can take money out. I get cash from my check every week.”

His voice rose, and he looked at me with disdain.  “You are underage. Where is your father?”

“He’s in the car. But I shouldn’t need him to come in,” I said, my voice shrill.

“I’ll get Dad,” my sister said in a low voice.

We were still at a stalemate when Dad came in. Immediately the man’s manner changed. He was happy to issue the check. No problem at all.

I left humiliated and indignant. It was my earnings. Why shouldn’t I be able to take it anywhere I wanted?

“As soon as I’m eighteen, I’m moving my money to a new bank,” I told my mother.

And the next summer, I did. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I’d hoped. The man wasn’t there and the teller cheerfully closed my account.

Looking back now from about that man’s age, I can rationalize. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was right about the rules and truly felt he couldn’t give me a check made out to me. But there’s no reason he couldn’t have showed me the same consideration he showed my father. The frustration I felt wouldn’t have changed but saying no with respect would have mitigated my humiliation.

Nowadays debit cards and ATMs give us instant access to our cash. Many of the young people I know would handle themselves better than I did at seventeen.

We’re all made up of our experiences. This was only one of the times I was treated poorly, balanced by far more times I was given respect. But all it takes to trigger my irritation and anger is for someone to dismiss my opinion, act as though my thoughts and rights don’t matter. I’ve lived long enough to control my outward behavior, but inside I’m still seventeen, railing against the unfairness in the world.

I imagine what it must be like to receive that kind of treatment more often, to be doubted and dismissed regularly by those with more power than you. If I react at my age and experience, imagine the way someone steeped in humiliation might act.

We talk often these days about being kind. We certainly need more kindness in the world. But I would add to that, be respectful. You can make your point, stand your ground and stand by your opinion, but do it with respect. And the world might be a calmer place.

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.

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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.

Momentary Sloth

The last student leaves and I have a moment to myself. Fifteen minutes actually. I have a to-do list nine lengthy tasks long. I stick my long-cold tea in the microwave to reheat. Stare off in the distance until it dings. I take it to my desk and sit down.

I reach for the first stack of papers, then rest my hands in my lap. I turn my chair toward my computer to answer a string of emails, but don’t start. I pull out my phone to check it, then put it away without turning it on. I consider the books and notes strewed across my desktop but leave them be.

Instead, I sip and close my eyes. I slip my shoes off and pull my legs up to sit cross legged. I breathe. I think of how much I’ll still have to do later. Then I let it go. I continue my moment of calm and caffeine to the bottom of the cup.

And the students come back.

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.