Sunday, October 28, 2007

Me and my laptop~

I was reading Mridu Khullar's blog
yesterday when I saw that I'd been tagged. That means I have to write a meme (which I assume is pronounced mee mee) about my strengths as a writer.

I will do it, but my natural tendency is to chronicle my weaknesses. I am built that way, very hard on myself.

I stay out of the spotlight; if it finds me, I smile and bow, squinting into the glare, and shrug with that palms up gesture. Nice, thank you, but I really don't belong here.

So to document my strengths-- as I see them-- makes me uncomfortable. But I will do it, and I will not add any disclaimers, another of my tendencies.

I write from the heart. My essays, I've been told, resonate with readers who identify with the experience I've put on the page. My daughter tells me I have "no filter," meaning I share too much. I am comfortable sharing a fair amount, but what I don't share would make for some damn good reading-- a "steamah," as we say in Boston.

I have learned to cut out the crap. I write, and go back and "kill my babies"-- a writing term. I start out including all the important details, and then say, "Oh please. Who cares? Who needs to know?" Then I delete my intro, and bring readers right into my living room, bypassing the foyer. Actually, I don't kill my babies; I save them for another day. They are way too good to kill. If you only knew!

I love details. I am a close observer of people and nature. An eavesdropper extraordinaire! This helps me bring authentic details into my writing. I've been told that my dialogue rings true. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, or have had a glass of wine, I can add a touch of humor. And one friend tells me I have an "edge." He says that's a good thing.

My writing is a work in progress, and the fact that I can think of a couple more things to add to this list in the near future is encouraging. It's also good to be forced to say something positive about myself. I write from the heart. I cut the crap. I add authentic detail.

So I will give this opportunity to other writing friends of mine if they would like to take it.

Sarah M.

Bob S.

Gary P.

Read my essay at The Painted Door

If you'd like a writer's workshop check The Internet Writing Workshop

Friday, October 26, 2007

Welcome to my world~

My alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. and I pulled my black pants from the dryer. They looked weird, crumply and misshapen. The lining was hanging below the cuff. A peek at the tag-- "dry clean only." Oh, well. A little creative ironing and they were wearable thank goodness, because they were necessary for my Secret Service look.

Today was "Harvest Fest" at Hanover Middle School, an annual event that goes back probably as long as my career. It combines a Halloween theme with special activities for the kids to choose from. Each activity, be it face painting, shooting hockey puck at a goal, or throwing darts at pictures of teachers has a small fee. The proceeds go to the Visiting Nurse.

Students wear costumes, and so do teachers. This year the fifth grade teachers had a Secret Service theme. Miss McKenna was the first woman President. Of course all the kids thought her First Man was president; he didn't go out of his way to dispel the mistake.

It's not easy to keep a class full of ten year-olds focused on rounding decimals to the nearest thousandth under the best of circumstances, but when they're dressed in costume, and can't wait for the afternoon events to begin, it is next to impossible. Still, they did an admirable job of getting through the "business before pleasure" part of the day.

I told them that if they worked very hard to keep their self-control, I'd work just as hard to keep my patience. They understood. They weren't perfect; neither was I.

In math we worked with batting averages which involved decimals, division, averaging and percentages, and most importantly, the Red Sox our local team and strong contender for the second World Series win in three years.

In social studies we took a look at the geography of Denver, home of our rivals, the Colorado Rockies. A discussion of elevation and its effects upon people with lots of tie ins to how it could affect the game. There were minor distractions: the boy in the cheerleader outfit asked if I could fix the clip in his hair. Another was annoyed at being hit by the wings of the student next to him. We made it through.

It was the kind of fun day that I am always so glad to have end. I drove home yawning, and took a nap-- a long one-- on the couch.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tug of war~

Right now I'm living with one foot in the working world and one foot in retirement, caught in a tug of war. I'm the rope of course, feeling pretty stretched.

To use another metaphor, I feel like a butterfly that's nearly grown, but still compressed in its chrysalis-- cramped and squeezed. I want to fly, but it's not quite time.

I love my class the way a mother loves the baby she knows will be her last. This school year is one to cherish. And I'm not missing a beat when it comes to teaching-- powers and exponents right now.

But I also love writing, and photography and the other little irons I have in the fire, and I have several. (See below)

Doing what I must, and doing what I want make a hearty meal on my plate. It gives me heartburn, but I want to have my cake and eat it too.

I began writing for a local paper more than a year ago. Right now, I'm listening to the Town Fathers talk about Town Meeting warrant articles: zoning bylaws, 40-B housing requirements, business development. . . .I'm watching the meeting on cable TV tonight, not in person, as I should be where I could follow up with questions and get quotes.

But really, I put down my pen minutes ago, and started writing this.

The Selectmen are now discussing article #15, submitted by the water and sewer commission . . . something is in dire need of being painted and refurbished, some tower has rusty rivets, and I am going to quit stringing for the paper tomorrow. You heard it first.

All those in favor say aye.


It's unanimous.

I forgot to second the motion that I quit. I second it, and I'm still in favor.

Aye aye!

Any other discussion?
Associate editor of the Internet Review of Books

Practice list administrator at Internet Writing Workshop

*Photo of me taken by Lisa Ruokis, a friend found on Flickr who turned out to live three miles from me. Another story for another day.
Words I am sick of hearing: statute, respectfully request, feasible, maintain, RFP, town counsel, interested party, best use, do a study, hold off, concrete plan of evidence, ducks in a row, initial concept, withdraw the article, (article 20! I do not want to go to a town meeting with more than ten articles on the warrant.) reiterate, bring the article forward for discussion, lessen the burden (this is sheer crap.)
Middle age is when work is a lot less fun and fun is a lot more work. ~Author Unknown

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Just a spot~

Yesterday was an A+ glowing autumn day. Instead of crashing on the couch after school, I decided to take my camera for a walk. But I wanted someplace different, so I hopped in the truck and headed for the nature trails at the college. Instead I followed the sunlight, and drove from one photo-op to another.

A sign caught my eye--Stiles and Hart Brick Company-- and I did one of those break-slamming, squealing, last minute right turns.

In the early 1900's, Stiles and Hart mined clay and produced bricks. Brick production stopped in 1938 when a hurricane damaged the buildings, but clay was mined until after WWII. That site is now a park. This sign led me to the new location of the business.

The building was in beautiful spot on the Taunton River, perfect for picture taking, but it had signs: No trespassing. Stop at this point.

I entered the office, camera hanging from my shoulder, and asked a man behind a desk if he'd allow me to take pictures on the property.

"For who?" he asked.

"Just for me."

"Of what?" he wanted to know.

Just . . . nature, autumn, the river, the beauty." I gestured out the window.

"No." He shook his head. "This is a private business."

"Okay. That's fine," I said. "But why would it be a problem?"

He sited safety reasons. I nodded, and turned to go.

"Wait," he said. "Since you're so passionate about it, I know a great spot to take pictures. You'll love it. I take my kids there."

He was transformed from stuffy businessman-- fourth-generation, he told me-- to director of photography.

He pulled out a Sharpie, and proceeded to draw a map. I could understand most of where he was describing, although I interrupted once to say, "I have a GPS. You could just give me the address."

But he couldn't, because this place didn't have an address, it was "just a spot."

Then he tossed down the marker and said, "I live right near there. I'm done for the day. I'll show you the way. Follow me."

He led me six or seven miles through two towns to "the spot," stopping now and then to jump out of his car and run back to tell me of another pretty place down a street we were passing.

His "spot" was beautiful. I shook his hand and thanked him for going out of his way for me.

"Not a problem," he said. "People do things for each other."

He made my day, and many other days as well, for I'll return to this spot of his.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Fall frenzy~

When the people in the car next to me at the gas station asked me if I knew how to get to Smith Farm I said, "Yes. You go out the driveway and turn . . .," I pause and tap my right thigh, " . . . right."

I squint my eyes as I try to think beyond the right turn out of the gas station.

I stare at them blankly. They look expectant. "You know what? Follow me," I say. "I can get you there, but I can't explain how." The woman in the back seat nods understandingly.

I had my camera and was planning to take some fall photos. Smith Farm would be perfect.

Once there, I found myself in a throng of parents and grandparents lugging pumpkins and toddlers.

Unencumbered, I'm alone in the crowd, not part of the fall frenzy. I wander, mostly unobserved, like the hen that's scratching amidst the fading perennials for sale.

I used to bring my kids here. We'd spend an afternoon picking out perfect pumpkins to take home and carve. Things look different now that I'm not absorbed in my kids' delight.

This pumpkin fest is a business. And not even a very friendly one despite the samples of cider, and hayride to the pumpkin fields.

There are signs everywhere-- grouchy ones with sloppy handwriting and spelling mistakes. Words are underlined and exclamation points abound.

Don't. Don't! Don't!!!

I understand the owners are trying to make a living, capitalizing on the season before they shutter for the winter. But still.

"Don't feed the horses ANY thing, not even an apple or you will be fined $100.00!! (I checked the decimal point. They do mean one hundred.)

Don't walk to the pumpkin field. You MUST take the hayride. ($3.50 per person) No walking beyond this point!!

Do NOT TOUCH, clap or wave to activate the displays. Most items are for sale. Ask a farm employee if interested. Again, do not touch. Strictly enforced!!

And apparently all the signage still didn't do the trick. Another sign said: There are no excepted (sic) excuses for not reading all the signs and rules.

I got some great pictures, bought a jar of honey, and marveled that it didn't seem so contrived when the kids were young.
"It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life." P.D. James~

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Today is my someday~

Some days I get tired of myself, my thoughts. I just want to turn them off and drift in an empty headed haze, lie down with a book and get lost in someone else's thoughts for a change. Lately between writing and taking pictures, I've been living too closely to my own thoughts, too intensely involved.

I take a walk, and I see pictures everywhere-- in a wide-open scene of trees and sky, or a small spot of sunlit color in a hidden berries. I stop and snap and move on always seeing more, more, more.

I used to walk with no other purpose than to exercise-- fast-paced, sweaty and cathartic-- but I can't do that anymore for some reason. There is beauty everywhere. I want to capture it. Need to.

I used to go to bed with a book. I wandered in another world until I fell asleep, and the book slipped aside. Now I stay up later than I should, focused on my own inner world, writing down my thoughts and observations. For some reason, I need to do this, and I want to, but I miss the time away from myself I got from a book.

I took a walk on the college campus the other day. It's a beautiful campus, more expansive than when I attended. New buildings, new dorms, and a new wall-- more decorative than functional -- caught my eye.

Engraved in the concrete was a saying by Horace Mann, an early education reformer: "Coiled up in this institution as in a spring, there is a vigor whose uncoiling may wheel the spheres."

It struck a chord in me. I love the language, and the image-- a vigorous student body coiled together, ready to move the planets.

But it spoke to me in a different way. "There is a vigor within you, too," it said. "A spring is uncoiling and prodding from within, making you restless, keeping you awake, keeping you wired, when you'd rather drift.

I always had vigor. I didn't squander it; I merely used it to survive. Now I can use it for something else. For my "someday" plans: someday I'll write, someday I'll travel, someday I'll . . .

I stopped after school at the Better Bean, the family owned coffee shop in the center of town. There is a small back room where local artists display their work.

"Is there a schedule for the back room," I asked the owner.

"Are you an artist?" he asked.

"No," I said. "Well, I . . . I'm a photographer. That's an artist of sorts."

"It is," he said.

He'll schedule the back room for me next time I go in, when he has his book.

This is my "someday." When I let the spring uncoil, who knows what spheres I'll wheel.
"The future has a way of arriving unannounced." George Will

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Monarch magic~

If it weren't for the unseasonable warmth, I wouldn't have eaten my lunch on the patio. I wouldn't have spotted a monarch at the marigolds. I wouldn't have put down my sandwich and gone for my camera.

The monarch flew, but as I sat again, I saw that there were several fluttering around the yard: one at the butterfly bush, one on the nasturtiums, and others fluttering with no special destination that I could tell-- just following the whim of the wind.

Toward evening I walked on the college campus, camera in tow, waiting for the sun to point out pictures for me.

I don't ever remember ever seeing monarchs in October, but they were everywhere. They crossed my path, zigzagged high, fluttered low. They were harder to photograph than falling leaves. They flew high beside two swallows and a dragonfly. I didn't have the patience to sit and try for a shot so I walked on just happy to have seen them.

I rounded a corner and stopped short. There were monarchs at a nectar bar-- a gift from nature to them, and me-- and while they drank their fill of sweet aster juice, I snapped my fill of photos.

These monarchs must be making their fall migration to New Mexico. Thanks to summer weather, they found a nectar source and thanks to the warmth I was there to see it.

This beauty was right under the noses of the students who'd stayed on campus for the long weekend, but they were oblivious to it. Snatches of conversation told me they had other things on their minds. I think maybe most people do.
See more monarchs by clicking "My Flickr" icon in the left margin.
This is a great site on monarch migration: Journey North

“Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower” Albert Camus

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

More questions than answers~

What sets teaching apart from most jobs, besides motherhood, is the amount of questions teachers get asked during the day. I can think of few jobs designed to be so question oriented. Kids are supposed to ask questions. Teachers encourage this.

"Are there any questions?" we prompt.

We tell students that there is no such thing as a stupid question.

"How are you going to learn if you don't ask?" we say.

And I love questions--both asking and answering them.

I encourage my students to be curious. "I hope you always have more questions, than answers," I say. "Being inquisitive is what leads to new discoveries."

Today after reading about natural resources, we discussed wind power. One boy asked about the turbines. How heavy were they? Did they have to be light so the wind would turn them?

This brought on a discussion of aerodynamics and force and airborne things. I ended up demonstrating Bernoulli's principle. Later the boy who posed the question asked if he could do some research on the computer. I love that kind of curiosity.

But then there are all the other questions. The ones I seem to answer over and over until I want to bang my head against my desk.

All of these questions have been addressed many times, answered in detail, explained as part of the class routine to be followed from day one. Why do they persist in asking again and again as if my answer will change?

Student: Do we have to write in cursive?
Me: What do I always say?

Student: I'm done. Where do I put my paper?"
Me: Where do you always put your papers?

Student: Can I use the other side of my paper if I need more space?
Me: (silence) I stare with raised eyebrows.

I get asked umpteen thousand nonsense questions every day. I answer with questions of my own. Kids need to be reminded to stop and think, to look around, to remember. To see that they can answer most of their own questions with a little common sense and thought.

I've taped a sign to my desk-- a rule. "Ask 3 before you ask me. I'm not the only human resource in this room I tell them. Ask others first."

Student: Mrs. D, where are the scissors? (This from a child who is sitting between two friends who are using scissors.)
Me: Who did you ask before you asked me?

Sometimes not answering is best. But woe to the poor kid who places the straw on my back with a question I've asked "ten thousand times already."
It is not every question that deserves an answer. Publius Syrus