Thursday, March 31, 2011

Joy 14

Nolie talks to nature.  We go on walks and she'll stop in the middle of the path.  I'll walk a few paces ahead and turn back.  "Nolie?"

"Shhh, mama."

"What is it?"

"Nature's trying to tell me something."


Then she whispers some things, presumably to nature, and we continue our walk.


Today, I dropped her off at school and a songbird was in the big spruce outside her classroom door.

It warbled.

She warbled back.

It warbled.

She warbled back.

They talked for a while, and then it was time to go in.


When I picked Nolie up from school, she sauntered up and told me that she and her buddy Santi had "decided to fall in love" and would be "marrying soon."  Her teacher suggested I talk to her about "appropriate" ways to show affection in the preschool classroom.

No way.

Joy 13

The first Wednesday in a long time that didn't have a meeting first thing in the morning, so I got to have a decently slow morning with my girls before school, walk my dog, and take a long, hot shower.

There was also an espresso brownie that happened somewhere around 3pm.

And, I got home before 9pm, and there was one of these left in the fridge:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Joy 12

"You may not remember the joy you once felt in a hobby or activity that has fallen off your radar....  In 1979, Harvard professor of psychology Ellen Langer conducted a fascinating study of how we can improve well-being by doing things we enjoyed in our younger years...."

--Joan Borysenko, Fried

Did you know I used to play volleyball?  Yep, I did.  I played in high school and then some in college.  In fact, here's a photo of a wee Jennifer Davies in the newspaper, whoring it out so the school could pull in some more scholarship cash:

I don't think you can get a sense from this picture of quite how big my hair was (very big) but this should give you a taste of my awesome Idaho lumberjack style.  Flannel plaid shirt?  Check.  Baggy jeans?  Check.  Big hoop earrings?  Check.  Uniform done and done.  But whatever, right?  Someone in the development office thought I was model scholarship material, so I went with it.

Anyway, I played those two years in college, and then went to France to study abroad and gained 25 pounds eating pain-au-chocolats, graduated early, and then went to graduate school, where I waitressed and dated my boss at the restaurant and wrecked my life and tried to get a PhD.

There was no time for volleyball.

I did try to play a little summer league ball after the girls were born, but my knees were wrecked and my shoulder was wrecked and I had a bladder the size of a cashew and had to run to the port-a-potty every five minutes.  Plus, I just didn't feel like I played well, and it stopped being fun.  I felt like I was too old and too busy.

I haven't got any younger or less busy, and I'm probably not joining a league any time soon, but my friend J. is in one, and he asked me to sub into his indoor co-ed team tonight.  Against my better judgment, I said yes.  And then spent the whole day worrying about it.  Will I hit the ball into the net?  What if I can't jump anymore?  What if I miss all my serves?  What if the team won't make eye contact with me because I'm so bad?  What if I pee my pants on the court?  What if I break something?

But I went anyway, despite my fear and misgivings.  Let me tell you, every muscle in my body is sore right now and my kneecaps look like cauliflowers, but you know what?  It was a blast.  I surely had my spasmodilicious moments, and I'm not a great volleyball player (never was), but I had a kill or two that felt fantastic, like it did when I was eighteen years old.  And I didn't pee my pants.

And that, my friends, was worth it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Joy 11

A long day, as expected.  But at least it began like this:

A light snow falling, but melted by dropping-kids-off time.

E is sick and snored like a bull all night, so I ended up in the studio bed.  But when I crawled back in our bed around 6, I found this:

And now, I'm ending the day with this bit of mindless indulgence:

and a hot bath.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Joy 10

Back from the mountains this morning.  Getting some chores done, reorienting before the three most brutal weeks of work I've looked down the barrel at in a long time, picking up the dog, giving the cat her meds, dropping off the one condo key we didn't lose, and this:

Listening to NPR while my big girl reads and I beef up our granola stores.

Then, time for drawing in the studio:

It's going to be a challenge these next few weeks to find moments of peace and joy in each day, and not be taken over by the busyness and the meeting-of-commitments.  But this is what it's all about, isn't it?  Taking the day you're given and doing the best you can and making sure you're approaching the life you live with your best and highest intentions?   So let's see how it goes.

Joy 9

Yesterday was our last day skiing for the season.  E and I have a bunch of travel coming up for work, and there are birthdays and deadlines and about a million papers and manuscripts to read or review for every which thing.  So.

It also happened to be our first day skiing as a family.  We had gone up before and the girls had lessons while E and I went off boarding ourselves,  then I took the girls by myself once, and E and I went by ourselves once while the girls were in school.  But yesterday was our only day getting out there, all four of us, and making a go of it.

And it was great.  We were mentally prepared for it to be a big pain in the you-know-what, and to knock off after a run or two.  Admittedly, we spent most of the day on the beginner's lift and run.  Still, it was so fun to be doing something like that as a family.  Everyone enjoyed themselves.

I'm still sort of amazed we pulled the whole thing off this season.  We didn't go very much, though we went enough that the passes paid for themselves.  But I'm most excited that we built the foundation for trying new things as a family.  So maybe we won't be stuck at home looking at each other like dumb fools every winter weekend for the rest of our lives.

There was one little exciting moment.  It was getting near the end of the day, and everyone was getting tired (it's waaaay more work to snowboard with little ones skiing, by the way.  You have to balance on your edges for excruciatingly long times; hike up hills to help them if they fall; control your movements exquisitely; and pick their little hineys up off the slopes).   But I wanted to go up the big lift with Addie before we left.  She had never done it before and, in the weeks leading up to this trip, she swore she would never do it.  EVER.  Even she was getting a little bored with the beginner hill, though, and so after lunch, to my surprise, she enthusiastically embraced the idea of hitting the big lift before going back to the condo.

Getting on the lift:  fine.  Riding the long lift up:  fine, uneventful, lovely.  Getting off the lift:  well.


She was such a pro at getting off the beginner lift.  And I hadn't done the big lift with her before so I didn't quite know what to expect.  She was all ready to get off.  The lift was ready for her to get off.  I was already off.

And she was not off.  I was dismounting from the chair and had her hand and she just stayed on the chair.  Not sure why, but she stayed on there.  But I didn't let go of her, and the chair kept going, and she made the decision to jump off the chair, even though she was about four feet above the ground and gaining.

I was immediately sure she had broken her leg, because I'm calm and optimistic in a crisis.

She was fine.  We skiied down.  She kicked butt on the green/blue run, only fell twice, and was brave and in control.

My heart pounded for a few more days.

Luckily, there was a puzzle at the condo for us to work on to calm me down.  It was the hardest puzzle I've ever seen.  It had this note on top of it:

I like to help.

So we finished that puzzle.

We stayed up really late, and we both need chiropractic work now, but we finished that ever-lovin' puzzle.

Then, we saw the backside of the note.

Then, we lost the spare key to the condo.

We are really good guests.

Joy 8

Friday was not the best day.  I was, um, cyclically grumpy, shall we say?  But at least I got to work from home, and then we got to head up to the mountains to say in our friends' condo.  So it's hard to complain, right?

That's snow blowing past the car window, there.  On our side of the Eisenhower tunnel and the continental divide, it was all sunshine and budding wildflowers.  Pop under that mountain, and come out the other side, and it's a blizzard.

I think that's probably a metaphor for something.  My attitude, maybe, which just got darker as the night wore on.  But I suppose we all have those moments, and what can you do?  You just go to bed, and get up the next morning, and see if things look different.

And they did.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Joy 7

Yesterday was something of a blur.  But you know something?  It was a pleasant blur.  Normally the fact of running from thing to thing would leave me feeling depleted.  But the task of looking for and documenting moments of joy lightens that load considerably.  It makes me approach things differently.  Interesting.

I could have posted many things for yesterday, as a result.  A picture of a free Starbucks frappucino--a luxury I don't indulge in very often but that came at JUST the right moment yesterday.  An unexpected snowstorm.  Meeting a new colleague and friend for lunch.  Making dinner.  A hot bath before bed.

But here was the best thing:

My mom sent down the next installment of her "Family Creative Workshop" collection.  These things tell you how to do everything from macrame to making your own wine to making burlap underwear.

Okay, maybe not that last thing.

But I can't wait to page through these things.  I LOVE stuff like this.  Deep, deep anticipatory joy.

She also sent a bunch of story books from my childhood for the girls (can I tell you, at this point, she has literally send hundreds of books to them from my childhood?  Totally remarkable).  But I absconded with this one almost immediately:

Yes, the McCall's Giant Golden Make-It Book, from the fifties, I think.  I don't think I can tell you how awesome this thing is, but I will try, briefly.  Because I have to go to Costco.  Because we are out of food.


it just has fun things to do, like how to make washcloth animals.  Which I did immediately, to get the girls into bath.  Awesome.

And, there are the usual hilarious gender splits, where the girls get to learn tatting and how to make an apron for mother, while the boys, who look to be about eight, get to paint furniture (?!?), use turpentine (?!?), and handle saws (?!?) in making their own playhouses (?!?).

I'm tempted to make a comment about how kids today are a bunch of wussy namby-pambies, but I know that would probably be incorrect, and conceal a whole bunch of unfortunate things about how the 50s went down.  Come to think of it, I kind of wrote my dissertation about that.

Finally, I leave you with this little video.  I took Nolie to the doctor in the morning, thinking she had a sinus infection (she doesn't--just seasonal allergies, like her mama).  My kids are in the habit of acting deathly ill until we get into the doctor's office, at which point they act like this:

It makes it very hard to explain to the doctor that they really are sick.  Thank you, children.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Joy 6

Sometimes, or every Wednesday, you just have one long beastly day and you have to just say to yourself, "Boy, I better just experience joy wherever I can find it."  Today was that kind of day.

No, I'm not going to show you a picture of a really nice stapler, or of me checking email.

In the middle of the day, I left work and went to Addie's dance recital at her school.  This gives you a sense of what went on:

Addie appears periodically, in the long green skirt and green top.

Watching all these spastic elementary school grand-jetes gave me the giggles.  Other parents looked at me disapprovingly, but I couldn't help it.

Thank you, spastic grand-jetes.

Then, I went back to school and taught class.  We moved classrooms because the room we were in was like a tightly packed torture chamber.  We are now in the very swanky newish computing lab building on campus.  Our new room is very nice.  Best of all, that new building has its own cat.

This is Buddy.

Or Buddy's butt, to be specific.  He came to visit us in our classroom.

Students let him in and out of the building, and faculty put out food for him.  I went to let him out at the end of the night, and the janitor told me not too because he hadn't let Buddy in to one of the offices yet to have his evening snack.

I'm not sure why, but this makes me like where I work a lot more.  That cat, that longboard...I don't know.  It almost makes it seem like a university and not just an engineerbot factory.

I'm reaching here, but I'm just being honest.  That's how Buddy made me feel.

Thank you, Buddy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Joy 5

Enjoying an old-school afterschool snack (pbj on ritz--I realize it looks like booger-crackers, but it's oh-so delicious) and my favorite--the second cup of coffee of the day--with the girls

while they did some homework, which for Nolie is doing puzzles while wearing her camo headband.

Then before bed we got to read from a fresh stack of library books

and after the kids went to bed I worked on some reJuJu'ed jewelry for my sister's 31st birthday, which is next week, and now I'm going to go catch up on The Biggest Loser.

That's right.  The Biggest Loser.

Shut your pie-hole.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Joy 4

First thing in the morning, finding out a journal article is accepted.

Last thing in the evening, ice cream.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Joy 3

Joy = Having time to journal this morning, on Mark Nepo's amazing daybook The Book of Awakening.  Key excerpt:

Feeling unworthy or insecure, we create a goal, in hopes that achieving this will make us feel good about ourselves.  Then we're off scheming for success, preparing against failure, stirring the water, hoping it will go clear.

All the while, the very deep resources of heart and spirit are being misapplied.  Isn't this how we launch into careers that don't really call us?  Isn't this how we enter relationships that really don't embrace us?  Isn't this how we sometimes bring children into the world, hoping they will help us go clear?

The mind is a spider that, if allowed, will tangle everything and then blame the things it clings to for the web it wants to be free of.  I have done this with dreams of greatness and hopes of love, wanting so badly to see myself clearly in the water, while I kept stirring and stirring.  Perhaps the hardest thing I've learned, and still struggle with, is that I don't have to be finished in order to be whole.

We spent the day in some leisurely spring cleaning, aided by strong coffee from the french press.  We finally tackled the garage and were able to take a carload to the thrift store.  Milo drove.

The girls can access their toys and bikes, the wood is piled neatly, and we both know where tools are.  It's not gorgeous, but man is it better.  I did the same in the studio, carting out some furniture that was just crowding things up and making me feel anxious.

This freed up some space to finish piecing my first quilt-ish item together:

It's not just the angle of the picture--the thing is pretty lopsided.  I didn't measure or plan.  I just cut up nearly all the rags in my rag bins into rectangles and sewed them together.  There was backing material at the thrift store for $3 today, and I had some batting, so it's together now and ready for some topstitching.  It's extra cozy and will make a good couch quilt for the girls' Saturday morning cartoons.

Nolie had a very big weekend with a sleepover last night at her best friend Sophie's house for Sophie's fifth birthday! (I've cropped Sophie out here in case her parents don't want her adorable image splattered all over the web without their permission.  I wish I could show it, because the side-by-side of them sleeping together is uber-adorable.  You'll have to take my word for it).

Amazingly, Nolie actually fell asleep there and was able to spend the whole night.  I was reasonably certain we would get the call to come get her at around 10 when she completely devolved into an emotional wreck, unable to sleep.  But it didn't happen.  She fell asleep late, but she fell asleep.

Big, big, big girl stuff.

Then, to cap her best day ever, today she got to go to another friend's birthday party at the Young Chef's Academy, where all the party-goers got to make and eat their own pizzas.

Not only did Nolie eat her pizza, but she didn't even pull the cheese off like she normally does.  She said she liked it because it tasted like her Uncle Chris's and Auntie TT's pizza, and not like Mama's.

Chef Nolie is very excited to be a chef, and made us all "banana dippers" for dessert when we got home (sliced bananas with a smidge of Hershey's for dipping).

The great thing was that this day didn't feel rushed or harried or crazed.  We did what we felt like, we took care of our business, we moved slow.  And look at what happened!  Amazing what can occur when you don't stir that water.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Joy 1: Screw Flowers for My Desk

Because E. had the day off (his boss is Irish, so he gets the Friday after St. Patrick's day off), we did this:

No kids, no deadlines, no rush, no traffic.  Just beautiful snow, a beautiful day.  Nothing but joy.

The flower was a lame way to start the joy project anyway.  Stay tuned for tomorrow!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Respect Mother

First of all, if you find yourself yelling, "Respect your mother!" to your children, you have probably already lost that battle.

Second, I have been in a funk.  I have had the blues.  There has been a dark cloud over my head.  I have been residing in sadsville.  I am riding a segway, slowly, toward downtown Depressionland.

You get the picture.

This is because of:  salary negotiations, nuclear freak-outs in Japan, a weird sleep cycle, a cosmic energy force field belief monster out of whack, I am almost 36, the world is round, there was a cloud in the sky, nothing at all.

It lifted a little the last few days, thankfully, but it was not a fun place to be, for me or those around me.  I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry.

But I don't want to go back there for a while.  I don't like it.  None of my mind-melding ninja tricks work when I am in that place.  I am not in that place very often, but when I'm in it, it is deep and it is lonely and I will do just about anything to crawl out of it.

That sort of desperation isn't pretty.  Just ask the cheese fries, milkshake, and three beers I met on Tuesday night.

So, we'll try a little experiment here.  You know how I like the experiments:  the year without fried food, the "veganism" (with lots of enchiladas snuck in, hence the scare quotes), the No Impact project.  This experiment will be a simplified version of The Happiness Project.  It's also similar to my efforts with the joy jar, which you might remember from this 2009 post, when Eric was being laid off:

I spent the morning trying to get our landline number switched over to Eric’s cell phone, canceling the cable and the newspaper, cutting our donations, and calling my gram to see if she would pay for Addie’s ballet lessons for a while (praise Ruby, she will).
I don’t think I’ll miss the t.v. too much yet, plus we can still watch stuff on the computer, and we kept Netflix for now, so that we have movies to watch.  The girls will miss Noggin, but tv wasn’t good for them anyway, right?  They’d rather spend the time with us.  When I canceled the paper, I was told I could retain online access for six months for free.  Golden.  Better for the environment anyway.

We haven’t made any decisions about our biggest expense–the kids’ school.  We’ll do that when we know more about when, exactly, Eric’s last day will be (which could be anywhere from two weeks to three months).  That will be the biggest change, and I’m only beginning to get used to it in my head.

An awesome book I’m reading suggests this:  fill a jar with lots of things that you would like to do, and that are in line with your goals for growth.  Like, my goals have to do with giving myself some love without spending on material possessions, and with feeling more connected to family and friends, and also feeling the love of spirit.  So my jar has little slips of paper with things like, “learn the words to a good song and practice singing it,” or, “call a friend,” or, “meditate for 15 minutes.”  Whenever I’m feeling anxious about stuff, I get to pull a paper from the jar and take a mini-break, practicing something that keeps me in line with where I envision my life going.  I was feeling pretty down last night, and pulled the song one.  I haven’t decided which one yet to learn, but I’m excited about learning a new song on the piano, and practicing singing it.  I have something to look forward that is free and makes me happy.  It’s a gift to myself.  Cool, huh?

Eric put my hand to his chest last night–it was vibrating like a drum with anxiety.  “We have to remember we’re on the same side,” he said, after I said some not-so-nice things about feeling freaked out about his finding a job.  How could I forget that he’s human?  That he feels this more deeply than I do, losing his livelihood?  Shit.  Shit.  That sweet heart, pounding in that chest.  The most important thing is to believe in him now, and to trust (see Nanny’s post for a truly awesome example of how this works).

“What you need the most right now is each other,” says Toni.

“You can freak out if you want to,” my friend Ellen reminds me.  “But really, it’s all good.”

Sue:  “You and Eric have created a very solid foundation. Plant yourself there. And thrive.”

And you all called, and gave us virtual hugs, and laugh and cry with us.  Thank you for this love (and also, Rose, for the cookies, which make many things better).  It’s all good.

Anyway, I'm thinking I need to go back to the Joy Jar for a few weeks.  30 days, in fact.  And everyday I'll post my joyful thing.  I'll send my love and light and some money to Japan, and will go to work everyday, and raise my family.  And maybe my joyful things will be there, and maybe they will come from the joy jar.

So, check back in and see what's up and we can graph my progress together.  And if you have joyful things, tell me about them, or post them on Facebook, and we can share in it together.

My joy jar is still full from last time I used it, so here's the first pull:

"Go to the florist and buy one beautiful flower for your desk."

Guess what I'll be doing tomorrow?

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Joke of the week:

My grandma just died.

[pause for effect and sympathy]

And then they brought her back to life four minutes later!

I've been getting people with that one all week.

Ruby seems to be doing better.  She's terrorizing the nursing staff at the hospital (including a woman I happened to go to junior high and high school with) and generally raising hell.  When I talked to Ruby on the phone yesterday she told me not to worry.  "I died on Saturday," she said.  "I won't be doing THAT again."

Mostly she's angry she didn't get to see the white light.

I want to comfort her on that but am having difficulty summoning my sympathetic voice.

I joke, I kid, I dance around it.  But her almost-dying was much more traumatic, for me, than I anticipated.  She seems to have dealt with it fine, but I had the realization during that whole event that I am an early-griever.  I get bad news--PruPru has cancer, Ruby is dying--and I freak out.  Totally and utterly.  System failure.  I get an upset stomach, I shake, I can't focus, I cry uncontrollably.  I'm unable to do anything but collapse on the bed and pass out until the whole thing blows over.

Then, I'm pretty much fine.  I can handle oozing tumors and open casket funerals and whatever other gruesome things come my way.  They don't bother me much.  But that first day, whoa.  I'm a mess.

This does not bode well for those around me.  First, it means I'm terrible in a crisis.  I always thought I was kind of good in a crisis, but now I see that I'm not.  I'm worthless.  At first, anyway.

Second, it is not very comforting to those around me, all this gnashing of teeth and wailing.  I mean, PruPru is still alive.  Ruby is still alive.  And I basically write them off for dead in the first instance.  I mean, how's that for optimism?

I don't know what all this means.  I think it is somehow connected to that panic attack I had about that half-dead mouse the cats brought into the house that one time.  I'd link to that old post but I'm too lazy.  Anyway, it's the same feeling, that doom is approaching and some action is required of me and I'm trapped.

Panic.  Freakout.

This is probably connected to my control-freak-ness.  You see it all clearly, don't you?  You understand me better than I understand myself?  If you do, please email me offline so that I can develop some self-awareness around my early grieving and quit being such a pain in the ass.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Death Always Rings

Death always rings us by telephone.
We have programmed an especially loud brrring-a-ding
into the handset
to mimic the wee-aah of the European siren.

The ring charges our adrenaline, jumps
us out of bed,
but we revel in its familiarity--
drink in its tones
cradling the plastic between ear and shoulder like
the lolling head of a newborn baby.

We prefer a few rings to compose
        a more rhythmic breath.
        some wisdom.

In this way, our panic remains private.
by the nine-number pad and breaths
crackling across space.

Death comes to us over the wires
from a hospital bed in Idaho
an abandoned mine shaft in Germany
catacombs in New York
labs in Colorado.
We wait for the ring

and toll in the years that way.

The Great and Terrible Ruby

My brother texted me last night that Ruby--my maternal grandmother, formally named June but nicknamed Ruby, for critical distance's sake--was sick and in the hospital again.  Her heart and lungs have been in bad shape for a while and she's been lugging around an oxygen tank.  This slowed her down some, but not much, and last time I was with her (when I was in Idaho for my other grandmother Muggs' funeral) she was still entertaining and terrorizing most everywhere she went.

At about 3 in the morning, my brother woke up wide awake, and shortly after received a call that Ruby's heart had stopped and that she was on a breathing machine.  She's alive now but still on the machine.  She has a DNR, so if her heart stops again, well, that's it.

Here we are again, in that liminal space between life and death.  A few weeks ago, I thought it was Pru's last day, and she's sitting on my bed now, winking at me in her wise way, and if it weren't for the grotesque tumor on her leg, I would not know she is sick.  But the vet tells us she could slide downhill tomorrow and, well, that's it.

Before hearing again from my brother this morning about the heart and the breathing tubes, I had finally decided to pick up the book about Muggs' family, the Browns, in The King's Pines of Idaho.

The author, Grace Edgington Jordan, published the book in 1961.  She writes about my great-grandparents and McCall,

Built at the south end of the larger of the two Payette Lakes, McCall would eventually have become a resort, at least in summer, without any Browns about.  The lake water is a fine sapphire, the air is high and clean, and the hills are spiked with cool evergreen timber.  But without the payroll of Carl Brown's lumber mill, operating many years, McCall would never have become much of a business place.  And without the cooperation, the willing hands and the brains of the Browns and those the Brown children married, the village would not have attained such things as its efficient community hospital and modern high school.  Aided and encouraged by the caring of the Browns, McCall has become a uniquely satisfactory place to live, self-dependent, spirited, and beautiful because it is natural and unaffected.

My chronicling has not been easy.  The Brown left hand doesn't even want to know what the right hand is doing.  If you confront a Brown concerning money or effort that he has given to some good local cause, he may finally admit that Yes, maybe he did do this or that.  And then he begins to play down whatever he did.  To get any of his goodness or charity on paper requires ingenuity and drudgery.

I admit to a little pride over this history, but there is more than that, too, as I read this book in 2011, after losing or about to lose most of my grandparents.  I think about how closely my family's fortunes have been tied to resource exploitation--the Brown's lumber mill and Boise Cascade's exploitation of public lands in the West fairly intimately connected.  My father's attempts to connect to the wealth of oil and gas, and the fact that I received a scholarship from the Western Petroleum Marketers' Association as a college kid, my face on the cover of their annual report.  And that McCall, mostly, has become mostly a resort for the very wealthy.  Most of us could not afford to live there, and even vacationing there is pricey now.

Also, that phrase, "the Brown left hand doesn't even want to know what the right hand is doing."  Jordan makes it sound as if that is all about humility.  And partly, it is.  The Browns and Davies are definitely humble about their accomplishments--pride is strongly discouraged.  But they are also intensely private and even exclusionary, whether they mean to be or not.  They're friendly and personable, definitely, but I don't know if they are embracing and connected beyond their nuclear families.  They seem to marry people who desire those connections, which may be the thing that holds them together at all.

In my own life, this has manifested as my not always feeling connected.  I have a tendency to hold friends and family at arm's distance, even though that is certainly not what I feel in my heart.  I see this with my dad, too.  From my vantage point, he was not much involved with the Browns/Davies, even though he was definitely proud of being one.  This meant I wasn't involved with them either.  I did not see him much, and since he did not see them much, I did not know them hardly at all.

Except, ironically, through Ruby, who made sure I had a copy of The King's Pines of Idaho.  Ruby, who made sure I knew I was related to the Browns.  Ruby, who drove me to McCall every summer and made sure we found a boat to take us by the Davies place so that I could know my other grandparents.

She was a huge pain about it--don't get me wrong.  She believed the Browns/Davies to be some kind of Idaho royalty, which is why she wanted me to know them.  She never forgave my mom for messing up her marriage and marrying someone who was not Idaho royalty, and she made their lives quite miserable at times.  I was also frequently embarrassed by Ruby when we visited the Davies--they seemed so normal, and followed the rules of politeness and distance, and she never did.  She never recognized boundaries and it caused no end of trouble and embarrassment.

But her transgressions at least meant I knew that part of my family, while their recognition of boundaries would have meant I never knew them.

Such a study in extremes.

Anyway, this is what I'm thinking about.  These liminal, boundary-crossing spaces in my head and in my heart and for my grandmother this morning.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ping Pong Playa

One of the hardest things about coming to Mines to teach was leading discussion.  At Scripps College, an all women's liberal arts school, I could get away with handing students an interesting text and saying, pithily, "What do you think?" and off they would go.  They were hungry to chew on ideas and to have discussions with one another and it was just in the air at that university--and maybe at most liberal arts universities--to give the text a go.  And, shoot, I thought I was a brilliant instructor.  Basically, they were making me look good just by being fabulous themselves.

Mines is an engineering university, though.  Some of my fellow scholars estimate that, by the time they graduate, students will have completed around 5,000 "problem sets"--they're given problems and asked to "plug and chug" on them.  Constraints are almost always determined and there is nearly always a "right" answer.  Furthermore, their technical classes are largely oriented around lectures, in which they feel they are given "the answers."

So then I show up here at Mines, 27 years old, cocky, thinking I'm a good teacher.  I'm hip, I wear a jean jacket, I crack wise.  I put my stuff down; I give them a good text; I sip my coffee; I ask them what they think.

Blank stares.


Me, panic.

75 minutes to fill.  I got nothing.

Eight years later, I almost never go into a classroom counting on open discussion about a text.  I carefully prepare "agendas" for each of my classes (these are for me, to remind myself what I have planned).  I craft discussion questions, devise pair-share activities, assign "quick-writes," make powerpoints, have video clips, sing, dance, cajole, facilitate, soothe, provoke.

It's exhausting.  But it usually works.  And it's sort of required.  Most of my fellow instructors do some version of all of this.  A lot of it is just good teaching.

But it can also look a lot like ping-pong.

A student pings a comment to me, I reformulate it, comment on it, repackage it, and...pong...throw it back out.  Another student picks it up and pings back to me and I pong.  I am the center of that discussion, the fulcrum, the ponger.  The ping pong makes things move and I meet objectives and things stay lively.  It's not always perfect--many of my coworkers are much better and more liked and more effective teachers than I am.  But it works better than the dead, ill silence, and I think students end up learning in my classes.  Which, after all, is the point.

Still, it makes me the focus, doesn't it?  And my students don't ever get the opportunity to really talk to one another, seminar style.  Which was my fave part of school.

Other than the keggers.

But that's for a different post.

So, today, I bailed on all my fancy, controlling pedagogical tricks and went into class asking them why they couldn't just ping pong with each other while I watched.  They said they preferred for me to give them the answers.  I said that, for today, I wouldn't.  I sipped my tea and stood back.

And you know what?  They ping ponged each other.  They made very smart points.  They participated.  They discussed with one another.  And it was good.

For about 40 minutes.  And then some began to dominate the conversation and we ran out of steam.  I took over and wrote things on the board and ponged and I think it ended okay.

Still, it felt like a victory.  Or at least an interesting experiment.

Could I have done that on the first day of class?  No way.  Could I have done it in my other class, where there is an undercurrent of angst and, dare I say, a seething anger about the grades they got on their last assignment?  Maybe not.

But I'll be experimenting with ye olde ping ponging again soon.

Pong to you.