Monthly Archives: May 2014

Funeral plans (a work in progress)

Please don’t put on “Amazing Grace” at my funeral program. I’m getting that out of the way, up front. As much as I like its tune and ideas, I’d be, as usual, distracted by the terrible grammar of the last verse, and I can’t ask everyone to try to sing,
“We’ll have had no fewer days to have sung God’s praise
than when we first began.”
(And I’m not even sure that’s correct.)

No, it’s to be “Beautiful Earth” by Lydia McCauley, and I’ll try to come up with a few others–at least one a black spiritual with call and echo, and maybe one of the ones from Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, though someone will have to teach it, as it’s not in the canon.

I plan to be there in spirit, so if you have any trouble with the plumbing that day, either at the church or reception hall, take it as my final reminder that it’s time to put some funding into a gray water diversion system–use it to water the into the landscape, which I would prefer to be converted to vegetables and other edibles, with consideration for the needs of the pollinators and other beneficials. I surely hope you’ll already be composting the used paper towels from the restrooms by then.

I don’t want my remains to take up otherwise perfectly good residential or community garden land, nor burned, since that’s a waste of fossil fuels, at the very least. My best wishes go to the one who can arrange for all my body to be wrapped in a used cotton bed sheet, sprinkled with lime and buried in an orchard. If you can organize it, throw in all the leftover food and paper plates from the reception at the same time, and maybe some sawdust if you can get it. My gardening friends will know the correct proportions of green to brown matter. If there are any laws against those procedures in my green city, I’d be proud to finally be arrested, if posthumously, for a good cause.

You’ll likely know where to find my cheesecake recipe for the reception. Make sure there are non-diary options, and you may as well keep the other food vegetarian–no reason to have anything else killed on my account. My brother makes excellent beer, though I got naught but a sip at my wedding reception before I was whisked away to greet some guests. I hope lots of you will go out for coffee together afterward or have a bonfire, and perhaps there will be some flirting like there was at my father-in-law’s funeral, and not just among the under-thirties. My husband has always come across as rather flirtatious himself, but let’s not anyone expect too much from him, as he was really rather attached to me and will have the sense to avoid rebound. Besides, we have four children, all of whom consider themselves to be good judges of character, so all prospective mates, even after a two-year mourning period, will probably have to be vetted by them informally at least.

My children will recall that when they were being dramatic, crying out, “I’m going to die!” or even “I want to die!” that I always responded that yes they eventually would, and so would I. I trust that I have sufficiently neglected fixing their dinners that they will be perfectly independent by then and have no real trouble transitioning. Tell them all I love them, once again for good measure, and that they may read my journals if they wish when they are eighteen.




Posted by on May 31, 2014 in Uncategorized


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I want my best life now. Is it in the shed, or maybe in the attic?

Sometimes I feel I need to just pick up a copy of Joel Olsteen’s Your Best Life Now and give it a read. Can he help me with this?

After riding back from an especially grueling workout, I came up the stairs on shaky limbs to bring my bicycle in the front door en route to the storage area, because the proper route through the gate is now blocked by deer netting and bungee cords to keep the husky from jumping the low fence there. I arrive by the kitchen table and can’t get through because there’s a treadmill in the way, on which my daughter is finishing off her husky’s workout. I haven’t yet got a space cleared for it in the storage area by the shed. The dog needed to be tired out before her mistress went to school, so said dog would be less likely to dig under or break through the old, decaying fence again and bother our neighbor, who has already threatened to call Animal Control. Or less likely to scare the little girl up the road, and less likely to be confiscated from such incompetent pet owners who let their dog run around the neighborhood several times a week without a leash.

The dog, frightened by the new experience of the treadmill, has pooped on the floor. There is yelling, appeals to clean it up, use paper towels, don’t let the dog step in it. My daughter does the initial scoop but sees the clock and panics, says she has to go to school or she’ll be late. I consider taking my bike out for another spin. I don’t want to be the default shit-wiper any more. One son is reprimanding the daughter for causing the dog to poop, I’m trying to keep him out of it, husband is hollering from his bedroom office wanting to know what’s going on, I holler back not now!

On the way out my son knocks over a bicycle blocking part of the entry. No room for it in the storage shelter because there are tractor partsa lawn mower, a rototiller that doesn’t run, cut up wood from a renovation, another broken bicycle which I found out is not worth fixing but which my husband doesn’t want to sell because he paid so much for it and now it’s worth only $150. Some of these things might fit in the shed, but that’s packed with two rolls of fiberglass insulation stuffed into garbage bags because the dog shredded them when they were left untended last winter. Can’t throw that away, because they can be used in the attic, once we have time to get up there. I would do it, but I think I saw mold up there last time and I don’t want to deal with that in case it means we have to replace and re-vent the entire roof. Unless, of course, that spurs us on to tackle the addition project I have sketched out, since we’d have to cut into the roof for that anyway. But do we really need the addition? Yes, there are six of us living in 1200 square feet plus garage (half of which is a bedroom), but the kids are almost ready for college, and then what will we do with all that room, and how will we pay off the loan? At least in the summer we have the huge yard. All we really need, probably, is a nice bike garage.

Everyone has gone to school. My husband is working from home, and I assume he has had his breakfast, but when I sit down to mine, easy over eggs, hash browns, sausage, and steamed greens, he asks where’s his, and didn’t I think to get him some? I make excuses and tell him where the ingredients are. He’s a twin, so it’s hard for him to be left out, and he’s working, so why don’t I go get a job so he has time to fix his own breakfast? He doesn’t say this, but my conscience does, using his voice.The kids are all in school all day and I have no responsibilities, after all, and what am I going to do, work on my blog?

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Posted by on May 29, 2014 in Places & Experiences


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Education reform over cheesecake

The cream cheese has spent two full days softening on the counter. I plan to make two cheesecakes, just to have them on hand in the freezer to feed summer visitors and for weekend desserts for the family. Someone has dug into the big block for bagel frosting, the seal is broken, and mold is beginning to grow. It’s already after nine, but I can’t put off the work any longer. Yet I know from experience that, like sour cream, there’s something more rich and complex about cream cheese at this stage, so I take it up, cut off the grey growth, and spent the next hour preparing the chocolate-lined shortbread crust and mixing up the batter, dividing and modifying it into one chocolate espresso and one black- and blueberry swirl version. Midway my daughter comes and asks for a shoulder rub; wait until I get these in the oven, I say. She leans on the counter, admiring the cakes ready for baking, dips a finger in each in the guise of smoothing out the tops.

I pull open the oven’s maw, superheated for the initial twenty minutes, squint against the burn, and shut the cheesecakes inside. We slurp up the extra batter with spatulas conveniently not thought of until bowl scraping time. You have chocolate on your cheek, she says, and I disinterestedly dab at it. Who cares, really–going to to bed with chocolate on isn’t so bad.

She has been waiting with her aching shoulders and back all worked out by swimming and maybe then too much slouching in bed searching for the right Pandora stations. I try not to show that I don’t feel like serving at this late hour, instead tell myself these are the moments that matter and I’ll never regret saying yes. I’m thankful she feels comfortable with this; I remember rejecting my mother’s touch before her age–no particular reason I can explain. I work her shoulder muscles and get some of the knots out but I am distracted, not giving the prayerful attention she needs. I tire, she thanks me and goes off to bed. The child that never forgets to say good night, I love you.

I turn down the oven for the slow bake, open to remove the foil, receive a blast of steam that clouds my glasses, close the oven door again. I turn to act on my resolve to get that email to the school district superintendent, send a word of support for Washington State’s decision not to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. I tried to send it yesterday in reply to the email from the district office about the effects of this decision, but the letter was bounced back from the box, which could not receive replies. Directly email him? Whom else? Deputies? Board? I decide to research their backgrounds. Ever been teachers? Previous affiliations? So as to say things in a way most likely to be received in the way I intend. Should I bring up related issues? I decide to look up what the current governor is saying about education, start a point-by-point commentary. Time flies, I write, research, write, until it’s past midnight again.

This is how it was with my college papers–I’d get so interested in every connected idea and fact, want to grasp and master it all, not miss anything, not content with a simplistic, predigested view. And end up not finishing on time, or doing it without enough rest to function in classes the next day. I must learn some expediency. Chesterton’s “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I’m a harsh judge and badly it will have to be.

I decide to keep it simple, not reveal much of my current opinions, not assume any shared understanding, and get it ready to send it to the superintendent, the deputy and assistant in charge of teaching and learning. The result is:

I am mother of four students in the _____ school system. I was pleased to hear that Washington State rejected the tying of teacher evaluations with test scores. This idea is one of the many flaws in the Federal Dept of Ed’s attempts to standardize curriculum and testing across the country through financial incentives and other means. I’m aware of the growing movement to resist the implementation of the Common Core with its high stakes testing, and am following such arguments as well as the public relations efforts of Common Core supporters.

I hope you and other administrators will continue to listen to and support teachers and protect their freedom to do their best work in the interests of their students and with accountability to their communities.

Thanks for keeping us in the loop. I would even appreciate more details from our local perspective when you can provide them.






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On preparing our high school grads for the real world

My fit into the official scheme of things not well lubricated and calibrated. Deadline to get oldest child register for the SAT, and I’m late. That’s okay; $29.50 late fee will cover the inconvenience and give me incentive to be on time next kid. (Being late on vaccinations was kindly overlooked, until the system got caught up with us.) And by the way, please give us information about your race, parents’ highest level of education, your family income, the classes you’ve taken, GPA, rankings in all subjects, your desired college criteria, sports and extracurricular participation, aspirations, motivations, consecrations. It will help in the research of our non-profit organization, oh, so much, and help us determine the educational products you are most likely to buy from our affiliated educational products corporation, with the least fuss and bother. Sorry, we “prefer not to answer” or are “undecided.” Except, yes, we are white, and I feel it our duty to check that privilege–maybe will do some good somewhere–you can let Ed know.

Meanwhile, I check out for rereading the book The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education (link here), Colleges that change Lives (the link), as well as the usual catalogs dense with data, so we can highlight by quality and programs, eliminate by price, make a visitation short list. And try not to be swayed too much by vicinity to beaches. Not to say going straight to college is a given, global competitiveness aside. I don’t buy the rhetoric put out by friends of large industry, which merely wants to max its own advantage by decreasing training costs and creating a ready-made work force. Which could be done without the delay and expense of university, but without a heavy load of student debt, where would be the incentive for students to give themselves over into the rat race instead of gallivanting around the globe finding out about the effects of our style of business on the poor and our biosphere? And those tuition costs and the fear of being shut out of the top tier can do so much to get students to focus, to stream into STEM and not dawdle away their time with literature and historical anthropology and justice studies. And by the way, let’s cut out all that fiction-reading that creates empathy.

Went to hear Bill McKibben yesterday. When I got the postcard announcing he was speaking, shared it with my oldest son, and he practically jumped out of his chair. I had the gratification of seeing there was a new shared awareness and interest (thanks to the depth and breadth of the reading required by his community college English instructor). So we went together. It was an honor to hear Mr. McKibben in person, and be reminded of the principles presented in his book Eaarth.  He also showed moving images of our “brothers and sisters” in the movement, who, he pointed out, “do not look like typical western environmentalists.”

Speaking of how to win the “race,” (to save our opportunity to continue as reasonably stable civilizations), Bill said, “education is not enough. At a certain point it became clear to me that reason was going to triumph here. Because these things don’t, as it turns out, hinge on reason–they hinge on power.”

One of the questions asked at the end was about the need to radically change our personal lifestyles to diminish our CO2 contribution. Bill said sure, and I do, but it’s not enough, won’t do enough fast enough and our focus has to be weakening the power of the industries which are doing the most to exacerbate the problem, and their links to the political power structure. The fossil fuel industry has money, and “Unfortunately, money gives you more influence than you deserve,” so we need to use our currency, which is “movement, passion, creativity, hard work, sometimes spending one’s body, and going to jail.” He highlighted both the passion and commitment of young people, who have a lot to lose if they, for example, get an arrest on their record, and also older folks, out there “acting the way elders are supposed to act in a working society.”

I am struck again and again by the two visions of the world our college grads will be entering in a few years, one vision presented by the top leaders in government, business, and education, and the other by environmental scientists, those who are literate in their findings, and those around the world who already experiencing the painful effects of climate change. On the one side is the rhetoric about global competitiveness, economic growth, and a skilled workforce to achieve these goals. On the other is the idea that if we continue to pursue growth, accept and equip the young for the “real world” status quo workplace with its values and pursuits, we’re kissing their hopes of any career besides, as Bill McKibben put it the other day, “some form of disaster response” work.



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“If you’re hacking your way through the jungle looking for the lost temple of the bat god, and you meet someone by a campfire, he’s probably going to be a really interesting person.”

Spoken in a rapid, midwestern Canadian accent by Mike Spenser Bown in an interview I heard this morning on CBC’s The Current. And many wonderful turns of phrase describing his experiences backpacking around the world for the past twenty-three years. Some of my favorites:

Speaking with Papua New Guinea in mind as an example: “There’s a certain number of people, that’s perhaps ten percent, who are the rascals who create all the trouble. But the other people are really, really friendly, and if you can tell the difference between one and the other, and stay reasonably cautious, you can travel almost anywhere in the world.”

About riding out a typhoon in a Chinese junk, seeing phosphorescence: “There were all these beautiful swirly lines in the giant waves that were coming to crush you.” Can this be a heartening metaphor for life, the possible joys within stress?

“I can lift everything I own on my little finger.”

I look forward to the book he’s planning to write, especially now that I can hear his manner of speaking in my mind.

Here’s the interview with Mike Spenser Bown.


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A chance to give something back

The last few Fridays I’ve been teaching classes on Biblical holy days for a friend who is overloaded. Amazing how that sense of being of assistance to her has made it a delight to prepare and do these classes, even more than it normally would be. It made sense that she would ask me (and she didn’t exactly, not directly–more on that later), since I’d spend several years in Israel, saw and participated in the Jewish celebrations, learned Hebrew, used the blessings and songs. I mean, if she was struggling, I would definitely be the one to help out, but still, it took a while.

First, to get through to me that she was struggling–from her frequent pauses when I’d ask her how she was doing, from her lack of usual energy and clarity, and finally learning that she was going to the doctor to see about help with sleeping, her hug that seemed to be receiving and not just giving as it often was before, I finally put it all together. She was losing sleep, having trouble problem solving, worrying about transitions her kids were making or would need to be ready to make into public school and beyond, and on top of that, doing so much driving to classes, sports, and music lessons that she hardly had a moment to sit and gather her thoughts. And she works hard to keep her home in order (unlike me) and make regular meals, and puts her husband’s needs before her own. Where I have guarded a certain margin of time and energy these past five years or so (post small children) to do things I simply enjoy–reading, writing, gardening, and such, she has no hobbies or pursuits that I know of that don’t have to do with serving her family in some way. Once I asked her what she’d like to do if she had the day to herself, and i don’t believe I got a straight answer–it was as if that dilemma would never come up. I admire her devotion, as I said, but wonder if she may be de-selfing too much. I want to see that spunk, the occasional snappy answer to her husband, that energetic, adventurous spirit she has, along with the gentle spirit I admire so much. It’s an active, gentle love. But lately there has been only “I should be able to snap out of this…” and continued efforts to do all her duties. I would have cried Help long ago.

Planning the classes took some easing in, trying to see what she really wanted–for some help? For me to teach the classes? And did she have opinions and preferences and key ideas she wanted to make sure I included? All indirect–she never directly says things like “No, I think this would be better,” or “This is what I’d like like you to do.” Since I hate to be pushy or to make my friend feel dominated, I had to feel it out gently. This by a person who, at home, cuts through overly rambling complaints with, “What do you want, anyway?” and has got into the habit of cutting certain family members off with a “Got it; you don’t have to keep going on about it.” I also refuse, on principle, to respond to oblique attempts to manage or influence me, such as, “You’re wearing that?” [that merits no answer, maybe a look, or a request for a meaningful question] or “I don’t feel like spaghetti today,” [“If you don’t eat it, you’ll be hungry later, but suit yourself.”] or “Mom, we’re completely out of mini-yogurts, and I have to have a good lunch before my test tomorrow!” [we have A, B, and C. Take it or leave it.] Certainly the neighbor kid’s “I wish I had a glass of milk” spoken to the ceiling does not get a response.

But it’s different with this friend–I’m continually trying to figure out what she wants, what she feels, what bothers her, what makes her happy, and it’s a real challenge, because she’s so…nice. In the best, most true sense. My children and I use the words “wonderful,” “amazing,” etc. She’s the best mom they know–sometimes second to me, out of politeness), the most patient wife, the kindest daughter-in-law, the most loving hostess, the sweetest friend. We’ve been friends for about ten years, homeschooled our kids together for many of those, and I just enjoy being around her, so gentle and kind is she, so patient, so self-effacing, hard working and devoted to her husband and family. She was a huge support to me in hard times–stress with kids, with spouse, with culture shock, financial strain–her presence was a balm, her home a haven, for me and all my family. And she almost never, ever says she needs something from me, wants me to do something, help her with something (beyond the normal carpooling, potluck, division of labor in group events). That’s why I’m quite wild about the opportunity to take this burden off of her shoulders.

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Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Relationships


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It might be like sneaking into a prison disguised as a guard or a prisoner, hoping I don’t get caught

Again I observe that I dread the responsibility of being in charge, but work very hard to craft a high quality lesson, one I can stand behind and which contains personal elements and something to truly engage. I spend too much time–will I ever get more efficient at this? I gather the best materials I can, write out the plan, create props and examples, envision active, enthusiastic students who want to go deep and do their best. I mix it up, with art or music, reading aloud, questions for discussion, and food if possible.I overplan, but then flex toward teachable moments so things often take a different direction–the path of most engagement with what turns out to feel most important for these particular students.

Also I doubt, and ask myself, what do I think I’m doing, all this for one hour, even half an hour, and not even to get paid and shouldn’t I get back into that? I question my ability, question any possible positive impact I might have, wonder if I should call in before next time and suggest they find someone who can wholeheartedly sign the statement of faith or be more less likely to suggest a different translation, someone who can stick with the program, pass out the colorful worksheets and follow the idiot-proof plan and above all, stay organized.

On the way I energize, talk to myself, mentally prepare, pray for a clear mind and a big heart that the students can feel. The radio is off and I review my introduction and check the flow of ideas and processes. I arrive early, jot down the general structure on the board so I can keep track, write my name up in the corner in case anyone needs it.

It’s a big group today, and an assistant has been sent. Good, I suppose, since I don’t always remember to use the discipline plan for the hyperactive boy, or even remember that’s it’s supposed to be a problem that he wants his drawing to be different from all the rest, or wants to sit on the spinning chair or say bunny is spelled b-u-t-t. I forget I was told that someone doesn’t like to draw, and never do notice who that might have been. When I’m teaching I mostly forget what was in the individual files and briefings–previous convictions, behavior-modifying medications, persistent attitudes toward authority figures. They are fresh humans, and I’m ready to look for the best they have. When adult helpers are in the room I mostly ignore them, though I’m getting better at asking for assistance with materials or engaging them in the discussion too. I give no special acknowledgement to my supervisors and overseers, though I suppose they must come around sometimes.

I love teaching. I can almost always find a connection with the kids on some aspect of the material. They ask questions, they tell stories, they create, they bring us in unexpected directions. Something good usually comes if it. My own children love to hear about my lesson, how it went, the challenges and how I handled them, the funny and interesting things that went on. They see my energy, probably wonder why I wasn’t always so uplifted when I was homeschooling them. More than one has already expressed interest in being a teacher themselves. And there I go again, I can’t give it up. I think about the moments of connection, each interesting person, and wonder what more can I discover, what more do they want to learn, and what will we do next time. I get caught up in the grand scheme, think of the possibilities, wonder how I can incorporate more richness.

And yet, when I think of what I’d have to go through as a teacher returning to the public school after all these years away, I am daunted. Study all my core subjects and take the West-E tests, update my endorsements, get enough teaching hours to work on the next level of teaching certificate. Make sure I fit the criteria for Highly Qualified. Solicit other teachers and administrators to observe and evaluate me, gather fresh references. Learn about the latest legislative developments, trends, fads, and take all the trainings. Learn to respect and submit to administrators simply because of their position of power and even though they left the role of classroom teacher and the opportunity to gain experience that would have made them worth listening to as a mentor and guide. Plan lessons for large groups of students rotating through in several subjects with an hour or two of prep time plus whatever I can carve from family time, sacrificing some of the support I would have provided to my four children in the mornings and evenings in order to hole up with classroom assignments and grade to the rubrics, quantify outcomes. Try to meet impossible expectations, be everything to everyone. Go to staff meetings that might be less than relevant, less than efficiently run, less than democratic, discussing ideas about things other than ways to improve our service to the children in our classrooms.

And so, while I continue to work on the projects that engage my attention and time at home and try to be a good mother and spouse, I try to find that opening, both in the field and in my own mind. Read all I can, try to get enthused and not discouraged or outraged, try not to create castles in the clouds with my ideas about itinerant teaching in the classical style, offering students after-school classes in the history, politics and economics of American public education, creating useful skills classes, converting school lawns into gardens and jackhammering paved play yards and strewing them with logs, boulders, digging mud holes then letting children jump in them, planting trees and letting them climb.

I think I just might become an emotional wreck if I go back. The beautiful moments–and there always will be those–would stand in such stark contrast to what I perceive to be the soul-grinding conditions of the modern public school teacher who wants to do his or her best for the students, I would be bursting into tears at the end of each day, and sometimes in the middle.

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Education


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