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Category Archives: Writers & Books

Be a teacher and change lives: the only reason worth doing it, including summers off

Mainly I’m a volunteer, supported by tech dollars. So many teachers are, is my guess, especially in science and technology, where getting a better paying job is pretty easy. It would be an interesting study, to see how teachers’ families make it, and how many family members are really supported these days on teachers’ pay. I brought home less than $900 last month–thought there must be some mistake, until I realized I had to take two sick days. Good medical insurance, though, for the whole family, for a few hundred dollars less, too.

Still, I love my job, and am thankful that my husband had parents who both made a huge impact as teachers, and so his heart is in this endeavor too, despite the long hours beyond the four and a half per day in my contract. As if a half an hour before and a half after could be enough for any sort of decent planning, even if I wasn’t in my first year on the job.

My husband’s dad grew up in a logging town, learned everything mechanical, worked as a machinist until he was injured, then got a teaching credential. He had the tough kids in the shop and on the football field, and related to them, being a dyslexic, having moved out of home at sixteen, encouraged to do so by his dad, who had a new, young wife only a few years older than the stepson. Was insecure around the other teachers, got teased even as an adult at not being able to spell words correctly on the blackboard. He had a temper too, but a soft heart for the boys he taught, and he taught them well. Died early, probably from shop fumes plus a botched esophagus operation, and decades later his widow still hears from students whose lives he helped set on a firm foundation, both as a teacher and as a man with an open door policy toward his sons’ friends at home.

My husband’s mother went back to school and then work at Head Start, on her husband’s insistence, in case anything happened to him and he couldn’t work. Proved to be a good move, as a few years later he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and it was a long haul through which his wife cared for him, and had that other space in which to succeed and have a change of scene, as well as be in community. She came to be an administrator, not the usual kind, but a person known for always believing that the caregivers in the child development centers did their best work when believed in and supported rather than checked up on and scolded.

I’m putting away that thought that it takes more now than caring for kids and an interest in helping them learn, more than a desire to make a living sharing what you know while learning more than you could possibly guess about yourself, the subject, the clients, the community, the meaning of existence, more than all that to choose teaching as a profession. Now it’s also about finding something that will pay the bills, keeping up with the rate of inflation, procreation, and non working vacation. And the strain of being so many new things to those kids, doing the impossible or letting it go a little every day.

There seems to be a growing correlation between the growth of a populace poorly educated, easily swayed voters and that failure to fund and design education, and otherwise inspire and support new generations of teachers. Serves us right, I guess, though I don’t know if I’m ready to turn the show over to either the mob, the moneyed, or the intellectual elite just yet.

I’m reading Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed–a nice, slick library copy, and got so fired up I ordered my own copy, all the way from Georgia to my local independednt bookstore, who hadn’t had a copy in the store in the thirty years it has existed.

I feel it–tha tacit go ahead from my fellow workers at the school to make a difference in any way I can, and there’s this articulation in Friere of what I’m hoping to do in some or other semblance. Yes, even as a science teacher. I’ve only read the preface and a few paragraphs of the introduction, and already I have enough burning inside to start working on communicating that choice all these young people have to be a Subject working to transform this world, rather than a victim. First awareness, then criticism, then action. I guess there will have to be a continual influx of hope and idealism, too, cause when life gets ’em down, there’s the why not just smoke some weed and make out some more in the car with the dark windows method, feelin’ good for this moment seems like a good compromise to stressing out or acting out. Been shut down a few times already for getting on my high horse about the evils of weed. My humbler approach will me a mere appeal to come to class mentally alert at least, for the advantage conferred on efforts to learn enough to graduate.

Yesterday we were chatting in my last period class–a remarkable atmosphere there, with some truly cool and very positive people whose attitudes spread to almost everybody when there’s a group project or discussion or tough assignment to do, even though it’s my largest class at eighteen when full. Anyway, the point was to fill in the newer students on the story of how there had been a new science teacher before me who had had to leave…

“Not ‘had‘ to leave, chose to leave,” said one, that hurt still showing.

“It was hard on everyone,” I said, “and I came in new, and the students were like, ‘Oh you, you’re just the new teacher–whatever..’ with this sour attitude.”

“They were sulking, and wouldn’t give you a chance,” said the same student who had spoken before. She hasn’t any patience for anyone’s bad attitude, doesn’t yet see that a lack of empathy can be a problem, too. Though she’s always had my back, for some reason of her own. “Did you know when we found out your name, we FaceBooked you?”

“Yeah, the principal mentioned it. You didn’t Google me, too, did you? What comes up there might have been keeping me from getting a job at all.” Collective gab for the smart phones, eyes lit up in anticipation. “It’s not what you think…” Not a conviction or former career as a stripper or anything,really. But they were hooked.

“There’s a whole article here!” said Mister positive, and he quoted the title.

“Yeah, that’s me.” He starts reading.

“This is awesome!” They perceived the ant-establishment stance, were feeling the support I was trying to give in that letter to the editor, that opposition to the way “socioeconomically disadvantaged” students are forced through loopholes that only cut them down and make them less likely to succeed. And I was starting to think, what was I thinking, mentioning that? Asked them to keep it quiet, at least until I get a permanent job, and the word was, “Sure thing,” so I’m hoping. Still, that search result hasn’t barred me any way from this position sticking up for kids who got diverted here from the mainstream, so be it as it may, whether forgotten or not.

 

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It’s never too late for a literature virgin

What a fine thing that I never studied English literature beyond high school. It was a slog just to get through that, and after tenth grade I refused to take honors English, because there, not only was one told what to read and write and by when, but there was a greater quantity of both!

And so when I went to university, formal English Lit had made very little impression on me. All that lingered was a few Shakespeare soliloquies and the definition (and spelling) of soliloquy. In college I had a few friends who were majoring in English, but I really couldn’t understand why, at the time. It turned out that one became an actor and the other an English teacher. So I really can’t blame them. And I understand now that they were ready and willing at that young age, while it took me another twenty years to want to take college English. I even managed to side-step the college first year “writing requirement” class—usually English—by taking a German class with a once-a-month off-the-top-of-your-head one hour essay on one’s choice of a list of topics. My favorite kind! I’m sure you couldn’t get away with that now.

It’s not that I didn’t like to read or write. On the contrary, I did so voraciously, since my love for the Word survived those few years of formal study intact. I’d go to the college bookstore and pick things out of stacks for courses I wasn’t takingnot being required to read them made them even more attractive. I went to second hand bookstores, book fairs and tables, wandered outside of my major’s zone in the library stacks. I read with attention, to enjoy and learn, not to highlight, memorize, critique or dissect. I sometimes neglected my lab write ups, stayed up too late reading other things, and spend too much on books. On holidays I started to pay more attention to my parents’ library, beyond stringing the titles together to make funny sentences, and asked Dad for recommendations.

It was a happy alternative to the kind of analysis English majors have to do. Seems now to me that most are too young then to have much of the life experience to really see what’s there, what themes one lives and conflicts arise worthy of literary interpretation. They should just be absorbing, offering commentary only when they feel like it.

I still enjoy a sense of wonder, sometimes warming, sometimes joyful, sometimes piercing, in reading. Especially when I rediscover thoughts penned decades (Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan), centuries (George Eliot’s Romola), even millennia (Plato’s Republic) ago that are so timely, fresh, and relevant they could have been written yesterday. When I think of this generation missing that because of much readier and more entrapping entertainments, I want to stand on a high school cafeteria table and exhort everyone to Repent and Return to the Word!

My ignorance has often led me in interesting directions. Other than following up on recommendations that arise from a great conversation or a previous book, one of my favorite methods for finding new material is to randomly peruse the library stack. Bookstores are great, but expensive, and are intent on moving the product, so have to get a bit “in your face” with displays of the newest stuff, the best sellers. I guess there’s some validity to choosing from best seller lists, a bit more than in the realm of grocery shopping or Christmas gifts, but I’ve never been keen on trusting Most People, even Most Readers.

I’m not really against studying English literature–all this is meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Somewhat. One ought to do formal studies carefully, especially when young, preserving one’s sense of wonder, one’s right to enjoy and learn from and share independent of course requirements.

It occurs to me that this sounds lie the warning on-fire believers give to seminary students–don’t let the love become merely academic. Also of the envy “believers from birth” feel at the wonder they see in those encountering the Word for the first time.

Maybe there’s hope in that thought—that some day there will be a longing, a Word-shaped vacuum waiting to be filled, in this generation as they grow older and sense a gnawing emptiness in a lifestyle of regurgitation of online content where nothing turns out to be new under the sun. Might they rediscover of how smart writers of old were, how beautiful their language and enjoyable to decipher, and how enriching for the soul, for the mind, for the community to become a self-motivated student of those literary arts once again?

 

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In some countries my birth date ends with 666

My unfinished drafts have now reached the number of the last two digits of the year of my birth. And I am reminded by a writing friend not to be too perfectionist in this medium, and so I’ll try to get the posts flowing down the pipeline again.

I subbed in my two youngest children’s school yesterday. My eleven year old stopped in to say a cheerful hello, but I was careful to avoid crossing paths with my teen daughter, as she was very clear that I was not to make any maternal moves. I understand, and wouldn’t have anyway, but it bothers me that she feels tense about me being around. I don’t take it personally, but I’d hoped we could find a way around the awkwardness of teen individuation from mother. There was no awkwardness, or not much, with the older two, a boy and a girl, as they went through this stage, but I can’t help think that a homeschooling lifestyle had a lot to do with that. When a young person is not peer dependent, then peer loyalty competes much less with honor and affection toward one’s family, I’ve noticed. Still, my daughter told me she is proud that I am no longer just a stay at home mother, but a professional, which is why she does not object to my subbing in her school.

In reading, I’m listening to Alex Haley’s Roots on audiobook. So well told, pacing just right, and it describes scenes familiar to me from my stay in a Togolese village almost thirty years ago–the kinds of huts, clothing, farms and foods were the same, as were the seasons and even the name of the dry wind before the rainy season. I was also struck by Haley’s descriptions of the stages of a young man’s training, each five year cohort being a special stage, planned and led by the fathers and elders, teachers and history keepers and holy men, including literacy education, skills training, learning proper relationship patterns,  daily routines and duties and privileges appropriate to each stage. So so well adapted for survival and success in traditional West Africa, designed to foster responsibility, respect for elders, a knowledge of history and religious teachings, leadership, and the fruitfulness of the clan. Can’t help but contrast this with my own culture’s groping for meaningful traditions in the absence of real faith, of connections with revered elders and ancestors, and dependence the fruits of the local landscape earned by one’s own labor. By what authority do our political and economic leaders construct such an artificial sense of progress as we have today in these overdeveloped nations of ours? Can we educators and parents and community members come up with a vision that isn’t rootlessly striving to catch up to what has already happened seemingly without anyone’s intention or consent? I get so tired of the rhetoric in my field about an “education for the twenty-first century”. How about an education for all the centuries, world without self-destructive end?

Painfully riveting to listen to the part about Kounta’s capture as a seventeen year old man, the pain and suffering immense from the very beginning, but his manhood training allowing him to fist fight fiercely, then focus and endure, as he is packed into a ship’s hold. One thing to be horrified by the treatment and conditions in the ship of the Toubab (whites), but after getting to know the main character’s story, his family, village, hopes and plans, it’s unthinkable. I’m so ashamed by that part of humanity, that can be so depraved and yet project that less-than-humanness on others.

There’s a waning gibbous moon tonight, lightly blanketed by a thin corduroy layer of gray cloud, I expect. I think I’ll go out and say goodnight.

 

 
 

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The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards

I picked up a The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards after hearing about it on CBC, and just finished. It’s pretty amazing. Based near where my mother grew up in New Brunswick, in the time when logging was by horse team. The teamsters were incredibly strong men, in so many senses of the word, though uneducated and completely cut off from the urbane existence of those who lived in the mansions and used the furniture constructed of the trees they cut. The story tells of Owen, the brother of a deceased lumber baron, coming home after the war to help the business survive as he carries around the awareness of a prophesy that spells his failure and demise. Though wounded and not the woodsman his brother was, nor as respected by local men except as a war hero, Owen decides to cut and haul out the huge trees on Good Friday Mountain, where no one else had the guts to work because of the steepness of the trails that had to be made and used. The story tells of the kindling of rumors that grow and fester about the man and a young woman of the village whose husband has gone away, how the folks of the town feed their own “inner famine” by condemning and judging others, how corruption enters the camp, and how the kind and simple minded cook, named Meager Fortune, keeps the men alive until their final loads come crashing down. One gets the impression that the story is based on actual events, even in how it leads to the narrator’s origin (not the author) and attempts to understand his heritage. It ends in his wandering through those woods and finding the decayed implements of those lumber operations, and through the graveyard containing the crumbling stones of those who lived and died in that era.

It’s not romance, not cliche, but a kind of honoring of that way of work, which required a kind of strength that has passed away with those times. At the same time the workings out of the “inner famine” of those seeking importance in the community, revenge, or justification leave a pall on the memory of that life, from which Owen failed to escape.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2014 in Culture & Society, Writers & Books

 

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The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon, with Erica Reinheimer

The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon, with Erica Reinheimer

As described in my gardening blog, this spring my husband and I built some nice, tidy raised beds and put up a greenhouse (see post here). I supplemented the clay with sandy soil for better drainage and amended with partially composted horse manure/sawdust from the local riding arena, and figured that with the addition of the right compost and some rotation, the beds would be good for the duration. The garden grew great into the summer, then my dad gave me a copy of Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts (2006). I learned that I had set up an unnecessarily water-hungry system that would give me more individual vegetables but of less health and quality for the same biomass than if I had everything more spaced out, and that I needed way more land since seasons of fallow were essential for soil regeneration. I also got advice on growing better seedlings, creating high quality compost (doesn’t just happen) without adding excess CO2 to the air, mixing a complete fertilizer, “fertigating” with fish emulsion, and opening up the clay soil with gypsum. So there was hope for the next five years or so, when our neighbor’s cedar trees (planted while we were overseas, without consulting with us about impacts) would shade our garden so much that vegetables would be out for us anyway. More reason to move out into the county.

Back at home I ran into JW, co-owner of our local urban farm/nursery/local produce market and former next door neighbor. Told him what I was reading. Of course JW knew Solomon’s work, being an eager, lifelong student of farming knowledge, but he asked if I’d read his latest, The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food (2013). Said the author had learned a whole lot more and had discounted some of his earlier teachings. He grabbed a copy  off a display and put it in my hands–“Here, read this one.” Wanted me to take it free. I protested, said I’d buy one when I was finished the other, but he insisted and so I thanked him, let him get back to the field, and paid for my fruit and potting mix. Not the first time JW has refused to accept payment over the years of our friendship.

Solomon wrote about what he’d learned about the way soil mineral content affects health, based on old studies of dental health and old military draft medical records  (when people still ate from their regionally grown foods). He linked this with the way minerals become available to plants and are depleted over time, affecting produce quality. Areas where rainfall (or irrigation) is highest experience the most leaching of minerals, and land continuously farmed further loses minerals, noticeably affecting plant health (and dependence on agriproducts). Farmland constantly sends plant and animal products and the waste materials (humanure and urine) of those that consume them off the land, never to return, and nothing, not even all the composted materials left over, can replenish the minerals in them–even the compost is depleted, because it’s grown on the same land. So farming and gardening is not a closed system. Today I read the proud statement of a local organic CSA that their farm was nourished completely by on-farm materials, and I have a mind to warn them of the error of their ways so they won’t run into trouble in the long term (how long depends on the mineral reserves of that particular land).

The historic response to this mineral depletion was to move west and start again in newly cleared land. The modern response is to go for overall productivity in terms of sellable biomass by using fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and industrial scale machinery, and add whatever minerals keep the land producing. Food grows, but with ever decreasing resistence to disease and pests, ever decreasing nutrient values, and sometimes, in the case of organic farming, harmful buildup of certain elements in the manure and compost added. It’s not about organic versus non-organic products, Solomon explains, because many organic farms and gardens fail to remineralize their soil too, and so consumers get low nutrient food. As in high carb combined with, low protein, vitamins and minerals.

Hence the need to bring in minerals from sources downstream in the form of sea products, seaweed, and slow release mineral deposits that include trace minerals only lately recognized as essential to plant and human health. And hence the hope that humans can come to their senses about composting their own manure, urine and bodies instead of wasting all those accumulated minerals.

On the home gardening scale, this means mixing up a custom fertilizer with all essential plant nutrients, including trace minerals and enough nitrate nitrogen (originally derived from atmospheric nitrogen gas) to drive rapid plant growth. Compost is also important for opening up the soil, feeding plant flora and fauna that create good soil tilth, and moisture retention in sandy soils. But it’s not the be-all and end-all that gardeners have been led to believe. There’s even such a thing in some regions as too much compost, as I found out by ignoring Steve Solomon’s warnings that it could harbor seedling-eating pests.

I just mixed up Solomon’s latest version of Cascadian Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF), and yesterday I fed my broccoli seedlings with a dose of fish emulsion. They grew over a half inch overnight–that’s about 20%, at their size! I expect that once the COF is taken up by my other crops, I’ll see improvements in flavor, disease resistance, and nutritional value. I told my dentist today that this checkup would be the baseline and that he should see improvement. Hard to believe, but a person can grow leaf lettuce that’s 20% protein!

 

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2014 in Beautiful Earth, How to, Writers & Books

 

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The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin: “The Revolution is in the individual spirit or it is nowhere. It is for all, or it is nothing.”

Was impacted by this book twenty odd years ago when I first read it, and the ideas kept coming to mind, though I could only remember the outline of the story–two planets, a habitable moon colonized by anarchist revolutionaries from the home planet, as a compromise so they can build a new society without destabilizing the home one. And the contrast between an anarchist society, which seemed strange but also beautiful in a way, with a market-driven, government-led one.

More: several hundred years later, when the new anarchist society is well established and the propertarian one has evolved further along its lines, one anarchist, Shevek, whose primary work is physics, returns “to unbuild walls.” He learns about the beauties, accomplishments, and dark side of the home planet, about his role in this exchange of ideas, and about the ways in which his own society must be renewed. In parallel, he works out, in order to share equally with all the known worlds, a theory of time–the ways cyclical time, linear time , timelessness, and eternity interact. Amazing book, amazing author. So many writers can put together as  compelling a story, but not many can create such a rich landscape of profound ideas and complex development of characters. One of those books I need to go out and buy in order to reread and underline. A few quotes:

“Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice–the power of change, the essential function of life…revolution begins in the thinking mind.”

“If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone. His duty and his right.”

“The thing about working with time, instead of against it…is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.”

These quotes are particularly striking to me and I’m thinking a lot about why… what is my work, my essential work, and as I work with time and not against it, when will I really get underway, how will I overcome obstacles, and since I do not live in a society without possessions, family structure, or a need for money, how do these things apply?

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2014 in Writers & Books

 

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De-camping, fairly tired

We’ve been camping this past week at the regional fair and just got back tonight, the finale having been mucking out horse stalls and then walking across the night fair in its last hour to buy a butter pecan ice cream cone for my daughter. Crowds of locals strolling in couples young and old, groups of friends, 4-H and FFA veterans, families with kids, old folks.  Past the food vendors, livestock barns, strains of Latino music from the field stage, funk from the DJ set up at the crossroads, the Ferris wheel lit up in a succession of colors.

I was marooned without internet all week, but I’d brought along The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the perfect literature to lend an air of strangeness to my first all week stay at the Fair. There were elements that reminded me of both dystopic stories, of course, but I had my sandals firmly planted in the barn area all week, which to me is the backbone of the Fair, something to be preserved, celebrated, thoughtfully nurtured. Not to let the commercialism of the nomadic vendors or the decadence of setting down big bucks to line up for fifteen minutes for a five minute thrill curated by laughing, leather skinned, toothless ride operators set the tone.

More on this later, and thoughts on the readings, in between getting caught up on household stuff. The cucumbers and squash will have to be dealt with, and places found for the fall crop seedlings.

 

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