If the Spanish word for cow is vaca, what is the etymology of vacation?

In a fog, and this might be the effects of being on vacation. One is meant, when one vacates one’s premises, responsibilities, and community rhythms, to refill the void thus created. Go for a this, try that, get this or that done, but no real work, nothing essential, and most importantly, have fun. And having a family (or partial family) vacation is meant to draw everyone closer together like being in the grit of real life never can. One has worked and saved and booked the rooms and flights and amusement facility tickets, doubled efforts to get all the vacation week’s chores done ahead, and briefed the temp workers who will hold down the fort meanwhile.

Then one packs and heads east, or west, whatever is deemed best by the man in charge, or woman in charge. Who of course asked one’s opinion, but there were certain correct answers and somehow it all came down to those choices, and among those you don’t care much any more. Isn’t it enough that it’s a vacation? It’s been so long. We’ll have a great time, honey. No separate vacations for us.

One arrives and settles in, then goes grocery shopping. Except this time it’s a special occasion and one is supposed to care less about price and quality and diet and more about making sure this is food fit for a vacation. More red meat, perhaps, and a small set of gourmet spices to go with the salmon. Then one sets the table and cooks it. One does not dwell on the awareness that there are some other couples who share domestic tasks, even on vacation, all other things being equal.

One enjoys a meal with the other vacationing couple, and then dang it if the men don’t go off to read their books and there are the dishes to clear and wash. Because among certain kinds of menfolk, old habits die hard. But these habits are close together on the allele with other good diehard characteristics, so one shouldn’t complain. And in this case the womenfolk don’t get paid anything much for their daily work, so why not have them have a slightly less vacant evening for their part?

The main thing is to get tired enough by the end of the day to sleep well. Because weed is not yet legal in the state of Utah, even for sleep aid, though the fellow in the orange house across town makes a good herbal mix with organic coconut one could try. Especially anyone who hasn’t slept more than five hours a night for months. Its no wonder, with a naturally fiery temper and sense of justice, that such a one said he would have punched the #$%&ing crap out of the band leader in the movie “Whiplash” if he treated him that way.

One’s digestion is, too, somewhat on vacation. Not enough stress and exercise and routine and plain food to keep things moving.

The pillows are good at the condo, though, and there’s no television in the bedroom, a nice change from the hotel. The mountains are lovely, softly folded and interrupted by ridges of sharp outcrops, divided by creases full of trees and snow. Textured like the scalp of a young black boy with closely cropped curls, all faded to washed out blue-greens and yellow-browns.

Tomorrow the river is the destination–a blue, babbling, stony river only a few feet deep meandering between the feet of the hills and the highway. The strongest color around, that blue, next to the snowy banks. There are reputed to be moose there, and likely magpies. Hoping to catch a little wildness, as everything else in the landscape has been tamed and trained into the service of the tourist industry and the pleasure of well-to-do retirees.

They have creased, leather faces and season passes to the slopes. And why should I think their faces don’t have the same beauty as that Amerindian woman with the homespun and woven alpaca headdress in red and blues? Why indeed–I am awash with unjust prejudice. Is it anyone’s fault that some have earned strength and beauty with useful work out of doors, and others through taking ski vacations or retiring into sunshine with their nest egg?

I’m already feeling the yearning to get back to my work, however I sometimes complain about it. Spring is coming and it’s time to get the potatoes and new apple tree planted. I want to get those chairs finished and reupholstered, and see if someone can’t improve my design for an addition to our little house. Because I want my son to have a room to set up a drum kit, and I want a sewing space and a place to lay out a puzzle for the family.

I want to see about getting my boy into the best college we can, figuring out how to get my youngest a drive back and forth to some kind of athletics training, helping my daughter through her cold virus, and the other daughter adjust to the pace and expectations of her community college classes..

For the next three days I’ll try to be a good vacationer, going skiing with my husband, hiking and sketching by the river with my son, and trying to spot a few movie stars at the lodge. I’m sure there are important things for me to accomplish and experience here, too. But for now I feel a bit like a grazing cow that looks up stupidly now and then and slowly follows the herd across the fenced-up pasture.

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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in Places & Experiences


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Putting myself out there in a new way

I just put together an application for a new teaching position in the public school district’s new Family Partnership program, working with homeschoolers for the public school district. I called myself “uniquely suited” to the role, been, having taught public school and been part of the local homeschooling community for a dozen years. Said I had a “good understanding of the reasons families choose home-based instruction for their children, the desire some families have to receive educational support from public school districts, and the ways in which this support can be worked out to fit homeschool families’ needs.” Which I realize, now that I have to distill it for my cover letter, is all true.

I didn’t mention that I come from a perspective that schools should be careful not to usurp parents’ authority in managing their children’s education, and be careful of conflicts of interest such as using public school-homeschool partnerships as a way to raise funds for the district. I’m aware of the drift of such programs toward more control over homeschoolers’ decisions about education, and so I understand the suspicion some home-based educators have toward district offers to “serve” them. Knowing there’s money that changes hands, and where there’s money, there’s control. Also called accountability–I’m not saying that shouldn’t be a part of it.

By the way, one of the reasons that this program is being launched is that four hundred of this district’s families had joined similar programs in other districts, even in some cases out of state. So it’s bringing the business home where it belongs, if anywhere. Behind the scenes of the happy, open, literature-rich multi-age classrooms, FTE student numbers have to be calculated, and since it takes money to use the building and pay the staff, the more FTE’s the better. But I’m guessing that the family members that come in to work with and support their own children in the district space won’t receive any of the FTE educator pay. Even if it could be seen as fair, there’d no doubt be a run on the money as there was in a nearby program, and we can’t have that. The other program has since severely curtailed the homeschool resources and programs it will pay for–at first they not only funded (secular only) curriculum but even private piano lessons, home science lab equipment, ski lessons, and more. Now they only pay for equivalents of what the district provides for public school children.

The building chosen to house this partnership is extremely conveniently located as a work place for me, though not for most of the district’s homeschoolers, who tend to live more at the edges of the city where a single parent’s income can cover housing prices. But the building was vacant, the elementary school it housed having been closed, and the former principal is now in charge of the Partnership. It certainly is a great location for overworked moms who want to drop off kids for a while and get a much needed break alone or with fellow homeschoolers. This part of town has the highest ratio of restaurants per resident.

So I hope I at least get a call about the position–no idea how many others will apply, and with what levels of experience, or what the hours would be during this “soft opening” while they figure things out. I’m guessing that since there aren’t many district jobs to be had yet this season, there will be a good number of fresh young faces applying. Though I’m hoping they are more seasoned than the ones that worked at the other district’s homeschool support site, and that they require less paperwork of the families.

Meanwhile I’m thinking of all the things that could come out of this, what I could do as a teacher/homeschool family support person. There are tidal flats a few blocks away for marine biology explorations, good local trails for P.E. and nature study, a nearby middle school that gets their student involved with kids in younger grades through their “service learning” program, lots of possibilities, depending on the areas parents want support or teaching in. And lots of space with tables, learning supplies, and maybe even a janitor.

Homeschool families also tend to want help in math, and science, which are my forte. I’d also like to encourage new homeschool parents in what they’re doing, help them find good resources specifically for homeshooling, help them develop their confidence and learn about the possibilities for a home-based education. So they don’t end up needing much district support as they go further on their journey.

A few years into homeschooling my own four children, I was asked to mentor newer homeschool families in their journey. I didn’t sign up because I felt I really was not any kind of expert and was still figuring so many things out and making so many wrong turns. But in applying for this position, I’m partly comparing myself with the other applicants who don’t even know what they don’t know. At least I have an edge there.





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Initial stages of melting

Yes I know what you mean. And that, if true, is a miracle in itself.

Yesterday my daughter showed me a photo of address that apparently is going viral, because when people view it, apparently about half see it as blue with black trim, and the other half as white with gold. (link here) No in between, no convincing either it’s any other shade, at any angle. Which leads into the subject of nominal aspect of color. I remember realizing with wonder as a young person that one can’t ever know what colors another person sees, only the common names for them. How does each one experience and interpret color, and, extrapolating, any stimulus of the mind or body?

What I meant was, I know what you mean about the danger of pursuing euphoric experiences. Not the usual danger such as death or injury from extreme sports, because life and limb were never our most important assets. I mean the danger of becoming mediocre, not much good to anyone, even oneself.

I remember climbing the stairs to my dorm room in Cochrane Bay at King’s, up a half flight, turn, up another, turn, alternately feeling proud of myself for something, then ashamed of my pride, then proud of my humility, and so on. I decided that laughing was the best cure, and getting back to work. I was also at that time immersed in the Christian teaching that we are here to bring glory to God, and also that our “success” is because of yielding to and participating with the divine will. Living in the paradox of individual insignificance and belonging to the royal priesthood, reflecting God’s glory just by being a created being, and becoming more like the Creator by grace and choice. “Not by works, so that no one may boast.” Yes, one ought to laugh and get back to work. Or rest, whatever is the plan. A favorite Bruce Cockburn song, “Laughter,” here.

What would it be like if humans could accomplish all the good of which we’re capable, due to our self consciousness, yet ditch the self consciousness at those crucial moments where one risks catching that virus of conceit, as I was experiencing on those stairs. I see this struggle being played out in interviews with great people, who continually divert compliments, who become less so that others may become more, who shun attention, sometimes vehemently, as a threat to their sense of purpose and identity. We all know of people who came to public light and never recovered from the glory lavished on them. They were tested and found wanting, whether scorned for their self aggrandizement or pitied for their failure of character..

Of course I am so far from the honor of being selected by the evil powers that be for that kind of test, and if it should ever come about that I am, having passed the daily smaller ones that would eat away at my God-given potential to bring more love and justice to this world, you won’t hear much from me. Wondering at your silence, you who are being tested, and suffer for the harvest of joy you have glimpsed beyond the curtain.

I have read very few spiritual classics, either Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or Confucian. Nor have I attended spiritual retreats, conducted purifying fasts, or gone vision questing. So this is an experiment so far in seeing what I can learn from everyday experience and the people around me, as I am in my writing. But think victory in this realm  is less a consequence of concentrated effort, self flagellation and that kind of reflection that makes two vertical lines form between one’s eyes, though these things are certainly sometimes necessary, but in the kind of movement of the soul that generates spontaneous laughter up and out. So, as Bruce Cockburn says in this song, let us go laughing.

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Posted by on February 27, 2015 in Personal Growth, Religion & Spirituality


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Frank and Ernest and their friends up North

I subbed for the first time at an Options high school this week. Where students who weren’t getting a proper education in the regular system go, you know, and get more support in smaller classes. And where they get more direction to go into into manual arts and blue collar jobs, I gathered from the textbooks on the shelves there. I’m starting to think it would be better to encourage them to consider becoming teachers. Why not, since even my son, who was interested in teaching, and would be good at it, has decided to go for a better paying job in technology.

The Options zone was an arrangement of four portable classrooms called North, with mellow, understanding teachers, a few I.A.A.’s, and an acting principal. There was no lesson plan on the desk, so I got the scoop from the teacher next door, who told me that today was basically a study hall day, with students doing whatever assignments they had to work on.

Five students filtered in, and when I had told them my name and jotted theirs down, they got settled down to work, and I realized i wouldn’t have much to do and wished I’d brought my copy of The Boys in the Boat. Now and then I’d check in with one or the other, but no one really needed anything. So I sat at the desk did some writing and planning.

After a while I got to talking to the two girls in the front. One asked me how I got into subbing, and then what I expected Options students to be like. Had I been scared? I said, I’m always a little scared, no matter where I go to sub, because I never really know whether I can do a good job, and what might come up. But I like that, I added—keeps me on my toes, and things usually go pretty well anyway. She offered that some subs came with an attitude, as if they know the students already, as if they were troublemakers because of being in the Options program. I said, yes, I believe it, I’d seen that kind of prejudice and disrespect, and it’s sad.

I asked her how it made her feel to be treated that way, and she said she felt like being bad on purpose. Mm-hmm, I said, and then the teacher can feel justified, right? She totally got that, of course. So I invited her, and her friend also in the conversation, and I suppose a few of the guys who could hear from where they sat (one in particular, a tall, athletic black boy with a bit of his face peeking out of his hoodie as he glanced up now and then), to consider how worth it it could be for them (and me) to rise above and be a free agent, and act out of choice rather than auto-response. Told her what I’d learned long ago (not so as I remember to apply it much) from Eric Berne’s transaction analysis, how if we can have the self awareness to act from our true mature self, even if someone is expecting less, it can change the dynamic. I said but I’m preaching too much, and she said, I like it. She had to go, but if we’d had the chance to talk longer, I suppose we would have to come to the problem of the prejudiced teacher thinking that the good response was somehow due to her skills and showing who’s boss, rather than the maturity of the student in the face of disrespect.

I went back to writing in my notebook, and after a while the other girl asked what I was writing. I told her this and that–notes, thoughts, two-minute timed pieces for my class, ideas for books and articles, research on writing markets, and so on. She wanted to know more, so I found one piece that made a little sense, on how Annie Dillard’s writing affected me. She was so interested and appreciative. Told me I should write a whole book of things like that. Maybe I will, I said, once I figure out what’s people might like to read. I mentioned my blog, and she wanted to know how blogs worked, so I explained. We chatted on, about our families, and I could see her parents and step parents and step sibs were lucky to have her in the family, and told her so.

On the way out she said she’d recommend me to sub again. And I felt that flood of thankfulness, of privilege, of blessing that keeps me going, that would almost make whether I get paid for this job seem irrelevant. Not that I’m desperate to be liked, because I now have a confidence of my own that I at least can do a decent job. But it’s a blessing be invited into someone’s domain, out of good will.

Since the lunch room was across campus and there was a microwave in the building, I cooked up my rice and chicken there, found a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest tucked behind a row of Math with Business Applications and enjoyed a quiet read.

One thing that struck me about Options, or at least the way it was organized there, was the freedom that these students enjoyed, to come or not come to class, to come late, to decide on what they’d accomplish and when. No hall passes or tardy slips. There was a sense of final preparations for their life outside school, an acknowledgement of their impending (or newly begun) adulthood. Even with a sub in the room, these five students were responsible and respectful, and did their work.

The afternoon class was completely different. I took over from a young male teacher in “North North” supervising two big guys whom he had allowed (or not interfered with their decision) to watch internet flicks. I asked one student his name, which he gave as Josh, and put his headphones back on, continuing to blurt out song lyrics now and then, complete with expletives. The other teacher said, funny, he introduced himself to the other sub as Josh, too. I asked his real name, in case I needed it.

I couldn’t help but be surprised at what I felt were the low expectations there. The teacher seemed too intimidated to expect much. Maybe it was just because of early release and schedule changes. I knew nothing about these two man-sized guys except that I would be alone for the next hour with them, and that, as the teacher had explained, usually subs were not expected to do much teaching. I said maybe next time, since they’ll be used to me. Otherwise it’s hard to stay awake, right?

I read a bit, looked around the space, logged on to school district websites and picked up a few sub jobs. I went over and congratulated “Josh” for successfully pulling the wool over my eyes. He was the first, I said, because he didn’t give himself away as most did by pausing before giving the false name, and then looking for a reaction. He made an acknowledgement sound. I asked why he hadn’t given his real name, and he said because most people automatically shortened it to nicknames he didn’t like. Said he’d just not answer them. I said I didn’t blame him–names are important, and I think people should try use the ones they are given by the owner.

The taller guy was roaming around bored, but the bell rang and the two went to get their drives home. As I locked up and walked across the parking lot to the library to put in my final hour of duty in which I had no defined purpose, I daydreamed about what I could bring to a place such as the one I’d visited this day. Would I be able to set up some cool science labs? Model writing for the love of it? Lead a reading of The Importance of Being Ernest? Inspire some kids who found they weren’t served by the system to become educators themselves?


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Natural history observations

Three bald eagles circle high overhead as I work in the garden, one lower down, feathers brown, a juvenile. Later they land in the cottonwoods across the road and chitter to one another like sparrows, only much more piercingly.

A young woman, thin, dressed only in light clothes, comes to us as we pack away the swim team’s food and asks for change so she and her girlfriend can get something to eat. She thanks us, wishes us blessings,and takes away her cheese, fruit, and cookies.

Several small formations of trumpeter swans wing across the sky above town from one field of sprouting greens to another, honking now and then, the sound of their wing beats just audible.

A man comes up to us in the hotel breakfast room and introduces himself, being from the same town, and has lots of interesting things to say, but after a few minutes we realize he doesn’t know how not to be the keynote motivational speaker. I’m sorry I naively introduced him to my father-in-law, thinking that as former teacher-coaches they’d enjoy getting acquainted. I have to go, nice meeting you, I say when his tone reaches the true believer pitch, and escape, as does my mother-in-law shortly after that. He gives my father-in-law his card and urges him to call to receive a free chapter of his new book, hundreds of proverbs on how to live an inspired life. He has eight hundred employees.

Three chestnut backed chickadees flit from one fir to another in front to the house, two in a fierce battle, swooping at one another and cheeping angrily, until one flies off, defeated, to seek another mate.

High school boy swimmers come in and breakfasting on waffles, sausage, cereal, preparing for today’s State competition. One, a friend of my son’s from another team, waves over at me. My lovely teen daughters sit down with us and work on their French toast. Suddenly the frequency of glances in our general direction triples.

The usual flocks of juncos pick at bits of composted vegetables and tidbits in the lawn. I can’t help but regard their visit as a special event, no matter how regular.

We drive into the packed parking lot as the previous event participants are starting to load up and leave.Competition for good parking spaces is high A bus and a van have blocked our access to the space being vacated ahead of us The driver and passenger of the van are oblivious as they peck letters into their cell phones, and someone comes from the other side and takes the spot.

Flickers, crows, our neighborhood flock of pigeons circle from their roost seemingly with no aim. Hawks on the power lines down in the valley, herons in the sloughs.Mallards and geese in the flooded flats.



Posted by on February 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


Serendipity strikes again

Thank God for real people. That’s you, and you, and you, the ones I’ve got a chance to see and hear know a little. If I had to go just on ideas, and opinions and the news, I’d be such an intolerable crackpot. Ideas–those I just inspect, dissect, prospect, speculate, synthesize, sympathize, synchronize, synergize, all very analytical and logical and objective, so I feel.

But you, with your eyes that look out, your voice that speaks with a tone, a rhythm, a catch, strong and forceful, low and uncertain, layered over laughter, wonder, or sadness. I believe you–please believe me. Over the years I’ve learned to be gentler with people than with ideas.

I subbed in a social studies teacher’s class today, for the second day in a row there, had about ninety 7th and 8th graders through the day. At the end of the day, they all went away, I had a free period with nothing to do but disinfect some desks, connect the laptops with their chargers, reflect, then write a little. Remembering the last class, the highest average energy group of the day, but still, like all the rest, pretty much engaged in the ongoing assignment, and, with some gently insistent encouragement, willing to make things work. Most challenging for the big boy with the big presence and voice, and a love of making others look and laugh. But he tried too, toning down his volume and calming himself whenever he got too wired, trying to focus. It’s relative.

All these little interactions happened near the end–a pair of identical twins, quiet African American girls, who hadn’t said much all class–hey, you look so bored, I said, why don’t you get up and make a little trouble so things might be more interesting for you, and we all smiled at the idea. Since I’d been working all period at keeping things relatively calm and trouble-free, and they were so “well behaved.”

Another boy, mature and thoughtful, actively working with his partner on rewording the Bill of Rights, took it upon himself to tell me I should come to a meeting that evening of teachers and parents, and maybe students too, who were discussing a problematic teacher, and how I should take his job. Which I took as a vote of confidence, when the other two at the table and the ones nearby nodded in agreement. I asked what they thought was the problem with this teacher, and the boy said he was failing everyone, but the more he required in work the less he taught anyone anything. How instead of learning how to create websites they were just typing, typing, and doing an online grammar program which they didn’t get. How they’d heard teachers talking about how he was a problem, and they though he should be fired. Why do people like that keep teaching, I wondered aloud–is it just a paycheck? What about trying to do a better job for the joy of it? And what was his side of the story?

Later I thought, in my job hunting I want my most important references to come from students, not just teachers and principals who pass through or read the reports or judge by hearsay. Students are actually there when I work with them; they see if I can manage a classroom, respect them  and treat people fairly, if I can handle a challenge, if I know how to engage, if I know my content. The are pretty good at seeing potential, and discerning a heart, even. I think I’ll distribute anonymous reference forms to students next time I have an extended subbing job, ask them to send them to my district HR departments.

The last two to leave before my prep were project partners from the back corner table. One had said she sometimes got so bored that she would literally fall asleep in class, and had to keep herself hyped just to get anything done, but also sometimes had fits of anger. The other was an Indian girl who had sneered at me for mispronouncing her name the previous day, and who I knew had had multiple run-ins with staff. She asked if I had any food. I pulled out a nut bar and shared it with her and the other girl, and off they went. Earlier I told her that for some reason I imagined that some day she’d be a teacher. She was skeptical, but , there it is in my mind, I said, for some reason.

I felt like an awesome teacher today. Not like I did it by my superlative prowess and immense wisdom, but that it happened, and I got to be in the middle of something special. And no, it wasn’t random thank God.


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Serendipity is not what you think it is

You and your talk of serendipity. Do you know that it means nothing? Just that something good happened to you by chance–that’s what the dictionary says. What you really seem to mean is that you think the gods are on your side because of your humble, open, goodness-motivated choices. Admit it. Or else say, “Something good happened to me.Your odds are probably worse because of that–sorry, but good luck. May the odds ever be in your favor too.”

It’s faith talk under a different name.  Like “It’s a God thing,” or God is “taking care of us” or “placing certain people in my life.” I used to be able to swallow all this, when my nice, positive-thinking friends and relatives put it out there. I’d actually feel guilty that I wasn’t thinking that myself all the time about my good life and many blessings, and resolve to get into a more “Christian” mindset. It always made me feel better to do that. But if I have to take such faith-based medicine, then shouldn’t everyone? Oh yeah, says the victim–he hits me and starves the children, but I know it’s all for the best, and God doesn’t make mistakes. It’s all in his control. Some faith perspective that is.

But wait, isn’t that the Hebrew Bible perspective? God hardens Pharoah’s heart, requires a father to keep his vow even to sacrifice his daughter. No excuses. Allows faithful Lot to send his daughters out into the street to be raped, so as not to break holy laws of hospitality. later, allowed the Jews to experience holocaust after holocaust after holocaust. Why, O Lord, why? How long, O Lord? The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. We suffer, and ask God why, but always yield and regard all suffering as due to our sins as a people. That’s what I call faith. And I understand why so many faithful Jews are atheists even so–seems more honest to God.

Individualistic faith is different. It’s awkward to teach that you and I are suffering because of our individual sins. So we thank God for the blessings, and try to huddle together and avoid most of the suffering, while we reach out to those who suffer because of their sins, or the sins of those secular people, or the sins of the parents, or just don’t think about why at all. Not that there isn’t any meaning in it–nothing is random and God is in control, right? But I’m too humble to say openly why others suffer. There but for the grace… I got the grace, for some reason. Not some random reason, but… To teach us all a lesson, except we can’t know why. Or judge… Now we see through a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face.

Is it just something so mysterious, so, so utterly beyond our ken, that really God is in control, and it’s only our paltry attempt to simplify that makes this seem inconsistent with his goodness?

Back to the woods for me. There I get it, a little. Beauty, grandeur, loftiness, death, birth, decay, intimacy, order, chaos, sensuality, mystery, grace, tenderness, terror. He is hiding, but I heard him cough.

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Posted by on February 18, 2015 in Beautiful Earth, Religion & Spirituality


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