Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Letter, Blog Style

So high everyone I never seem to have time to write actual cards and letters to:

Merry Christmas and every other day of the year.

What is the Jensen family up to these days? Well, let me tell you, it's a fantastical, fun, and immenently dull life we live, so I'll try to spice it up a little.

Okay: Kids first.

Melissa is a junior at Boise State (yes the football place, go Broncos!). She is majoring in history. You're shocked, I can tell. Who would have thought history freak would actually major in her favorite subject? She seems quite enthralled with it, and she hopes to minor in art history. Melissa was thinking of teaching, but when faced with the incredibly banal curriculum ed majors have to endure, she opted to forgo that option. She is thinking of going to graduate school, but still has gobs of time to figure that out. I encourage her to stay in school as long as possible, since there are no jobs out here in the real world anyway. Melissa moved into her own apartment where she happily lives with herself. No sharing, no scheduling the showers, no having other people eat the food in the refrigerator. Her only burden is an intense fear of the smoke detector being ignited by any and all smells, temperatures, and steam from showers/stoves.

Emily graduated from Boise High last spring with something like a 4.2 GPA and with AP Scholar with Honors distinction. (Graduation night: below.)During a whirlwind of changing plans, she was planning at first to go to New Mexico Tech this fall, but then decided she needed a year off. So then an exchange program was plan B. She was all lined up to travel to Belgium and perfect her French, but opted out of that as well. So plan C, current version, is what she is currently doing: hanging out in Boise and working while trying to finish up her pilot's license, which she started working on a while back. She thinks she might attend BSU for a year or two to learn more languages before heading to New Mexico to major in astrophysics. Having goals is important, don't you think? Setting them awfully high means being in school for the rest of her life, but hey, no jobs in the real world, etc. Emily has a boyfriend named Isaac who is very sweet, smart, and fun to be around. Which is why she spends most of her time with him.

Peter is a certified band geek, chess geek, Boy Scout geek. He is also a choir nerd. As an 8th grader this year, he is learning all the joys of digital media, video broadcasting, along with European history (they're on the Renaissance right now), accelerated algebra, earth science, and English. Plus, did I mention, band? He is a percussionist and also plays in jazz band. He earned his Star level in Scouts, did a 50 mile backpack scout trip, camped in the winter in snow qunizies, and spent a week in the Black Hills at scout camp. He is emerging as quite an effective leader in scouts, which is very good for him. He likes that role. Most nights, you can find Peter in front of the tv, with his iPod in his ears, and working on algebra problems for at least an hour. He is totally into comedians: We've seen Brian Regan and will see Jeff Dunham in January. Peter's next adventure? In six months, he'll be old enough for driver's ed. Yay!?

Okay, enough with the kids already. Now onto what's really important: the dogs. Just kidding. All three dogs are still kicking, barking, leaping, pooping, and shedding. 'Nuf said.

David is always our quick summary. Still at the same firm for 20 years, for which he received a lovely...clock. He's extremely active in scouts with Peter's troop and also mentoring Webelos as they transition up. The troop camps once a month all year long, and I think it's nice for David to get that time away--albeit with 20 teenaged boys. He also ushers at church, which involves hanging out in the back of the church chatting with his buddies.

Neysa, sigh, alas, did not get hired as a teacher. Which is probably for the best, since as you know, I'm not big on mornings. It has all worked out pretty well, however, because I went back to freelancing and have more work than I really have time for. I also am working part time in my favorite indie bookstore, which is totally fun. Writing lots, making lots of music with lots of different people, and working on losing weight. So far, 35 pounds gone. (Melissa has lost 50. You wouldn't recognize her.)

In other life events, all of us except Emily traveled to New York to participate in a performance at Carnegie Hall, conducted by our good friend Paul Aitken. Melissa and Peter both sang in Carnegie (photo, above), plus we saw a Broadway show, played tourist, and had a great time. (Lest you think we were mean to Emily, the reason she wasn't booked into the trip was because she had been planning on being in Belgium at the time.) David and I had our 30th high school reunion--yes, we really are that old. Sigh. We've gotten out into Idaho and played in the snow, the water, and the mountains. (That's us snowshoeing below. Okay, actually we're standing in the snow, but we were snowshoeing just seconds before.)

Oh, I'm sure there are lots of other details you'd like to know about us, but are afraid to ask. So I'll answer them for you:

1. No, we don't quite know what happened to Boise State at Nevada. They messed up. Thank goodness, the bowl game they'll be in will at least have a worthy opponent in Univ. of Utah.

2. Yes, I did forget to mention that Peter played tennis this fall. He has improved quite a bit over last year.

3. You're right, seven hours in the Met is just not enough time, but hey, you take what you can get. On the up side, the Shake Shack near the Natural History Museum.

4. It's true: David likes to sleep with the window open, and I like it closed. Somehow, we are still married after 26 years.

5. Empty nest is just a myth. Even when kids move out, they come over a lot: to do laundry, get money, complain, and sometimes even to just hang out.

6. We are so lucky to have a warm place to sleep, food to eat, clean water to keep us alive, and a loving family to support us. We wish this for all the inhabitants of the world. Yes, we CAN make it happen if we all dig our heads out of the sand, take an interest besides ourselves, and give a little of our incredible wealth to see these goals through. Sorry to go all serious on you, but that's how I roll.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


With all the different suicides in the news lately, mostly gay teens who have been treated horribly, the subject of bullying is on everyone's mind, and rightly so. Our newspaper ran an article on how to protect your kids from cyberbullying.

And here's my response:

Why not run an article on how to know if your kid is one of the bullies. Nobody wants to think about that, do they? We all assume that we are the good ones, the ones who don't bully, would never treat someone that way, would never shun, spread rumors, out someone online, etc. And certainly our kids would never do that.

Oftentimes, when bullying takes place, the very people to whom one turns for help--teachers, principles, councilors, parents--do not believe the kid being bullied. "How could Janie be bullying you? She's a very nice girl. You must be misinterpreting her intentions."

Uh, no. Very often, it's the "nice" kids who are the worst bullies. They achieve their bullying in very subtle, but pervasive ways. They spread rumors, they shun you, they give you evil stares, they treat you like a nobody. And when you complain, they act like abusive spouses act in front of the authorities: they are all nice and pleasant. And so the victim is the one who ends up being blamed.

Look to the board in your own eye first. Do not be in denial that your kids are the "good ones" who would never treat someone this way. They probably do on more than one occasion. Yes, they've probably also been on the receiving end as well, but that just means they know how it all works, and are just as happy to dish it out when the chance presents itself.

In other words, we are all capable and culpable. We all have the capacity to treat others as lesser than ourselves.

We need to teach and learn empathy. And we need to face the ugly in ourselves. This is the only way episodes will stop. Parents and teachers especially need to make ourselves familiar with the ways "nice kids" bully, and let them know it is completely unacceptable. Teach them how to do better, be better.

To learn more about this subject, I recommend the book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons. It is a fabulous study in the way girls bully.

Obviously, this is a big issue, and one that has multiple solutions and actions we can take. My first action is to look inward and to my own children to make sure we are not contributing to the problem.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Life, the Universe, and Everything

No, this post isn't about Douglas Adams, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry. Someday you will.

This is about my life. To sum up briefly, I have spent the last 21 years being a mom, a writer, and a volunteer. A few years ago, I had the urge to go out into the workplace and add more money to our family income. I began substitute teaching. That was okay, somewhat fun, and at least intellectually stimulating. I love teaching, love kids, love the idea of helping them make their way in the world. I've worked with kids for years and years. I love being part of their lives.

After a while of that, I thought I'd much rather be a permanent teacher with my own classroom and in charge of my own teaching. So I got my teaching certificate. For two school years now, I have tried to find a teaching job to no avail. There just aren't that many openings for secondary English teachers here. If I were in special ed, science/math I might be having better luck. But I'm not going there.

For the last several months, I've applied for other kinds of job as well, mostly writing jobs for which I at least have the necessary skills. Again, to no avail.

I realize there's a recession on, so I am not so much dejected at not getting a job. Sometimes I am, but mostly, lately, I am of the opinion that the universe is telling me that I am not here for that kind of work. Sigh.

Okay, universe, you win. I accept the closed doors as verification that I am here for other work. Whatever that might be. And thank goodness, someone else in our household has steady, secure, income-producing work so we can remain housed, fed, and clothed.

Just for fun, here are a few of the ways the universe has been communicating with me, aside from the lack of job offers:

1. a sudden increase in available freelance jobs coming my way, which indicates to me that working at home is where I still need to be.

2. a massive creative surge with numerous new book ideas, writing events, opportunities, etc. that indicates to me my writing is the best way I have to help kids make their way in this world.

3. a blog post by a teacher detailing her horrific experiences with an administration that did not support her worthy, innovative, and effective teaching techniques and instead copped out when parents suggested the literature she was using should be banned, which reminded me that I don't do well in situations where I have to do what the authorities say even if I disagree.

4. the still small voice within reminding me that I have much to offer the world but that I will not be paid for it, indicating to me that I have the unique position of being financially supported so that I can offer my time to those in need. And indeed, the most rewarding pieces of my life are in service without pay, again indicating that my work may not be paid, but pays great dividends.

5. dozens of articles, horoscopes, quotes, and reminders that come my way through serendipity to remind me that a job would only deaden the impact of the gifts I have been given and should be embracing and using.

So, universe, I am starting to listen and pay attention, okay? I realize you have been bashing me over the head with messages, and I have been too stubborn to heed them. I realize I don't always like to hear the truth about my life. But I get it now. I'm here. I'm trying to open my heart and mind to the work I am here to do. (It seems I have to go through this about every ten years or so.)

Which is to say, I'm focusing on writing and helping out those in need wherever I can. I'm still not totally comfortable giving up the idea of getting a job. I still look at all the job boards I was on. They still have nothing for me. It's going to take time to refocus and get to work. I'm going to have to re-accept that my position in this world is one in which I am a helper, a guide. And I am called to that in whatever capacity it comes for me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Whether Writer's Block is Real

Yesterday I had a job interview for a writing position. During the interview, one of the people asked me what I do when I have writer's block. I said, "I don't get writer's block." He gave me the most incredulous look and implied that everybody gets writer's block. I reiterated that I don't. I said that if something is just not coming out the way I want, I just write "gobble-di-gook" until something good happens. He nodded knowingly, like he was thinking "see, you DO get writer's block."

Truly, I don't believe in writer's block. Maybe this is just me. My brain has so many thoughts and ideas zinging around at warp speed that, if anything, I have writing overload. I can't possibly write fast enough to get it all down.

Now, I will confess that I suffer from my own self-imposed writer's procrastination syndrome, in which I sometimes avoid the butt-in-chair action of sitting down and physically writing. I also have this life that doesn't always mean I have the time on any given day to make it to the butt-in-chair mode.

However, I feel that I am always writing, in my head if nothing else. I'm always going over scenes in my head, thinking up little phrases that I might use somewhere in ten years, pondering why a character seems flat.

Even when I have to write to a specific assignment and on a deadline, I don't usually have a problem with coming up with stuff to write. I almost always end up writing about twice as much as I need, and then have to cut most of it out.

So I was kind of appalled that this guy implied that I was lying about not having writer's block. Maybe I just don't call it that. Or maybe we define it differently. But even when I'm pondering, pondering, thinking, thinking, staring out the window, figuring out what words need to go on paper, I consider that writing. That is a very important part of my writing process. I have to think a long time about something before it gets put down. I don't think of that as writer's block. I think of that as the process.

I'd be curious to hear what other people experience. Because I'm willing to concede I might be wrong. (Although I'm sure I'm not. I mean, I should know what my own experience has been, right? But that might just be only me.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Trying to Find a Teaching Job

I realize the economy sucks right now, and has virtually since the moment I started trying to find a job. Lucky for me. But this goes beyond finding a job for me. It goes to what I want to do with my time at this point in my life.

I've been applying for every teaching job that I feel even remotely qualified for or interested in. That's a lot of jobs. Not a nibble. School starts in two days and I have nada. I've applied for other relevant jobs that have nothing to do with teaching but that sounded fun or at least interesting. Nada.

My friend Paul suggests I should focus on writing and give up this crazy notion of working at a job. I want to agree with him. I love writing. I want to spend all my time writing.

Here's the thing, though. I also want to work, to feel that I'm making a difference to other people. Yes, I know writing makes a difference. How many books can I name that impacted me? One for every day of my life. But until my books are published, I also feel the need to be of use right now.

I love working with kids. I adore them. Especially teenagers. They are awesome. That's why I decided teaching was the thing for me. But evidently, teaching doesn't agree. Or at least potential employers don't agree. Or the economy doesn't agree.

This has caused me to spend the summer pondering my place in the universe and other big thoughts like that. In a big way, not just a small way. I seem to go through this kind of upheaval every ten years or so.

I also really want to contribute to the income and financial stability of my family. Sometimes, especially in the current economy with one child in college and one about to be, with one still coming up, I feel the need to earn actual money. (As opposed to the projected sort of money that I might earn when I get my books published.)

I suppose all artists go through this kind of thing. How to earn a living while still working on your art.

So my ponderings and ramblings have left me with this: I want to be of use to the world, I want to work with and teach teenagers, I want to write, I want to earn some money. There you have it. And that brings to mind my mantra from the Rolling Stones: "you can't always get what you want." Sigh.

This morning I had the freeing thought that what if I just quit trying so dang hard? What if I just acknowledge that there is nothing out there for me at the moment, and in the meantime I can do what my heart desires with the trust that if and when something appears, I will be here waiting for it? That is scary. That requires letting go and not trying to control the situation. That requires that I allow God, the universe, and whatever fates affect the state of education and the economy to work while I throw up my hands. Can it be done? Should it be done?

Well, I have always believed that if you put out into the universe what you want, somehow it will materialize. (I don't mean lottery winnings or stuff like that. I mean intangible things.) So this is me, putting it out there. Universe, it is in your hands now.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ah, Children and Their Choices

As parents, I think one of the things we wish for is to spare our children from making poor choices. I mean, we've made many of our own poor choices, right? So we know what to avoid. Right? So if we could just convince our children that they should avoid making all the dumb mistakes we've made, their lives would be much better, right?

Alas, one of my most important ideals of parenting has been to let my children make their own choices. Even when they were 2 1/2 years old and wanted to dress in horrendous outfits, I let them. When they chose friends who were obviously not good for them, I didn't say anything. When they want to drop three classes, spend four months sitting around, go out with a jerk, or quit baseball, I don't say anything. (Well, so maybe I say something, but I don't judge.)

It's a dichotomy of ideals. I want them to be themselves. But I want to let them learn from my mistakes. But they really have to learn from their mistakes. And really, most of those things they choose aren't mistakes, to be accurate. They're just choices that maybe didn't work out so well. Some of them actually do work out pretty well. But it's really hard to sit back and watch while the turning out happens, because as a parent, you have no idea it the final outcome will be good or not so good.

So what brings all this philosophizing on? Daughter number two, Emily, was all scheduled to spend the coming school year in Belgium on an exchange program. That was actually a pretty recent decision. I think she announced it in March or so that she'd like to take a year and do something besides head right off to college. (She just graduated from Boise High School, top 20% of her class, 4.1 something GPA, AP scholar, thank you.) You see, several years ago, Emily skipped 8th grade, so she has this sort of "free" year she can use and still come out at the end of college at the same age as her peers.

But now, Emily informs us she's changed her mind. Doesn't want to go away after all. Still doesn't want to go right off to college, either. (For the record, she is very excited about her chosen college: New Mexico Tech, where she plans to study astrophysics.) What she wants to do this coming year is finish her pilot's license, which she has been working on. Plus she wants to do some other things she's always wanted to try but never had time for, like learning to draw. She plans to get a job--thank goodness. Probably still take more piano lessons--yay. Probably write five or six novels while she's at it. I'm sure she'll keep busy. And I have no problem with this choice. I don't think it's a mistake.

But, come on. Giving up a year in Belgium? Would you? I told her the story she's heard before. (All parental stories must be retold several hundred times before a child reaches 18. It's in the Parenting Handbook.) When I was in college, I had an opportunity to go to a program in London and attend dozens of theatre performances while otherwise partying with my friends. And get credit for it. What was I thinking? Why did I not go? It's one of the great regrets of my life. What I wouldn't give to spend ten weeks in London studying theatre..... Sigh. But even after a moving rendition of that story, she still chose to spend her year her way.

It's taken me a few days to adjust. I think the main thing was I had emotionally prepared for both my daughters to be out of the house in a couple of months. Not that I'm in a big hurry, mind you, but you prepare yourself for these things. Now she will still be here. Frodo, her dog, is most happy, I think. He would sorely miss Emily, and he still will when she goes to college. In the meantime, he has another year. Peter was not so happy at the news. He wanted the Xbox to himself. Somehow he got the crazy idea that I was going to let him have it in his room. Right.

Well, this post was supposed to be about choices. Emily's graduation speakers talked about following your dreams, not necessarily doing the expected thing. I guess Emily took that to heart, because flying is one of her loves, and she hopes the possession of a pilot's license will be one step toward her ultimate dream of becoming an astronaut. Gotta love those independent thinkers. That's how I raised 'em.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Crosswords and Comedy

In our family, summers usually seem to end up having some kind of theme, completely unintentionally. For example, years ago, Emily and Melissa played a game they invented, which they called Dark Volleyball. A few years back, the kids and I got hooked on "Whose Line is it Anyway?"--a funny improv show that aired late at night, causing us all to go to bed late and sleep in late. Like we needed an excuse, right? After Emily's freshman year, she and her friends roamed and slept at one another's houses. I dubbed them the nomads. Some years, it's the vacation theme: the Oregon coast, the family reunion.

So this summer appears to be developing the theme of Comedy Central Presents, to which Peter is now addicted. He's watching all 200+ episodes, alphabetically, and is currently on the D's. I watch one now and then with him. Then, too, there is my present fling with crossword puzzles. I'm not a big crossword puzzle fanatic, mind you. They usually irritate me--I end up feeling either stupid or annoyed at their cryptic clues. But so far, I have done several in the past week or two, mostly because I am procrastinating all the stuff I'm really supposed to be doing. Hey, it's summer.

Of course, this summer could also be themed Moving Out, since both Melissa and Emily appear to be doing just that. No physical signs yet, but the chatter confirms it. Or it could be Desperately Seeking Employment, which is where I've been for over a year and a half now. The weather seems to be going for the Coldest Summer on Record. (Mind you, I'm not unhappy with soft breezes and temperatures below 80.)

I guess if I wanted to, I could make this the Summer of the WIP Completion. Or the Summer I Lost 20 pounds. Both well within my reach. Hmmmm. What about the Summer the Backyard Gets Transformed? Too much. Gotta keep those goals within realistic reach. Maybe the Summer I Convince David to Get Rid of All His Unnecessary Stuff. Right....

Okay, crosswords and comedy it is.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tribute to Paul Aitken

We just returned from a trip to New York to participate in and be audience members for the New York premiere of Paul's work "And None Shall Be Afraid." This is a five-movement piece of music, the text of which is from five different religious traditions' prayers for peace. It is stunning musically, spiritually, emotionally--every way possible.

I've heard this piece many, many times. I never tire of it. It always lifts me up and inspires me. It makes me want to be a peacemaker.

All throughout rehearsals, Paul kept telling his choir members (two of which we children of mine)that his main goal was for the text, the words, to really come through. He really wants this piece to advocate for peace in the world. Even up through the dress rehearsal, his constant direction was "more text." The singers like to tease Paul about his "more text" admonitions. He takes it well. That's the kind of guy Paul is. He doesn't mind being teased, and he gives as much as he gets.

When performance time came, the text shone through loud and clear. I was transported. Really. Some music is so familiar, so common now that it has to be extra special in performance to transform me as a listener. And even though I've heard this peace so many times I can almost sing it through to myself in my head, this performance was transporting. It lifts my heart. It makes me want to stand up with a loud "Amen." (Which I am happy to report, I did not do in the middle of Carnegie Hall.)

And here's the thing about the music: it came from the soul of Paul Aitken. I pondered this for some time during our trip. What is it about the music that truly takes one to another level? Paul put everything of himself into this music, that's what. It contains all of his theology, all of his world view, all of his life and love. I know I'm sounding pretty cheesy and corny here, but it's true. What else would make hundreds of singers and their families pay tons of money and time to go to New York to sing this piece? It is something about Paul that makes people want to participate in these adventures with him. It is his ferocious fearlessness to put all of himself out there in order to create a musical experience that will inspire others to do the same. He lives his life with constant conviction that we can each make a difference.

And just so you don't think this is all groupie worship, let me just say I've been friends with Paul for a number of years now, and he is no saint. He has plenty of human faults and failings, which I won't go into, because anyone who knows him is well aware of all these. But his soul is full of good. His music is, as I recently described to my brother-in-law, fresh, classic, and global all at once.

I want to thank my friend for bringing this music into being. For being willing to put it all out there. For lifting up the hearts of so many. And for daring to make a difference. My daughter Melissa has said that music is my religion. I don't deny it. It is how the highest of spiritual experiences can best be expressed. "And None Shall Be Afraid" would be the statement of faith for my music-based religion. Thanks, Paul.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Life in the Slow Lane

Something I've learned about myself in recent years is that I'm slow. And I like it that way.

Now, I realize slow has many connotations, so let me try to add some lucidity to my statement. I don't mean slow as in stupid, although my 17 year old might tend to disagree. I don't mean slow as in I move slowly. Sometimes I move very quickly.

What I really mean is that I do not embrace change quickly. Not quite right. I embrace change almost instantaneously, but making the actual changes, that takes me a long time. There, that's what I mean.

Let's take weight loss, for example. I have been following the Weight Watchers plan for a little over 5 months now. I have lost almost 25 pounds. I have a LOT more to lose, believe me. I have several acquaintances who have taken different routes to weight loss and have achieved their goals much more quickly. But I'm okay with the slow way. Here's why: I will not give up cheese, bread, pie, chocolate chip cookies, or french fries. I haven't and I don't plan to in the future. Weight Watchers is a program that helps me to enjoy all my favorite things while making healthier choices and giving me wiggle room to enjoy celebrating Mother's Day with some strawberry shortcake or eating a big juicy burger at my favorite restaurant. Granted, I'm not gonna lose my 100+ pounds by my birthday, but that's okay with me. I am taking the long view. I plan on living around 40-50 more years. I don't want to spend those years eating tiny helpings of carrots or baked potatoes with nothing on them. I want to be able to enjoy my food while being healthy. So I'm going slowly. I'm learning many things about myself, and I'm happy to be making progress.

Here's another example. I have had my fair share of medical headaches to deal with. Low thyroid function. High cholesterol. Depression. Migraines. Etc. My kids laugh at me and the other similarly aged friends of mine as we discuss our various aches and pains, our need for bifocals, and the best chiropractors. I'm a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I've always known that I have the power within myself to deal with my medical issues. I know I am a very, very strong person who has enough will power to shatter a skyscraper if I want to. But I have spent the last twenty years basically using that strength to raise my kids. As many of you know, this is a hard job, parenting. Hard doesn't even touch it. It's enormously taxing. It's outrageously exhausting. You get the picture. So even though I had it in me, 'it' got zapped out of me. This infuriates and frustrates my health care professionals who have preached and preached about the importance of taking care of yourself, meeting your own needs, blah, blah, blah.

I felt all kinds of guilt for a while. Then I realized, I'm slow. I'll make the changes I know I need to make when I'm darn good and ready, thank you very much. In the meantime, better living through chemistry is nothing to balk at. It has kept me going for the last ten years, and I'm have no shame in doing what I needed to do to make it through. Now I find myself motivated to get moving on these changes. Weight loss is one thing. I'm also working on weaning off my meds. It's exciting, really. And it feels empowering. And I'm doing it slowly. I'm in no rush. I'll get there eventually.

Writing is another thing I'm slow about. I don't write 1,000 words a day most days. I do write often, and I love it, and if I had absolutely nothing else going on, I probably would write more, but I probably would still be going slowly. It's just how I am. I have to let my stories percolate in my head for a long time. Then I write scene by scene, thinking a lot as I go. I get there eventually. But I'm slow.

There's been a lot of press in the last few years about the powerful benefits of living slow. Slow food. Slow lifestyle. Slow everything. I'm on it. I've never been a big fan of instant meals. I do utilize them when I need to, but I would much rather eat real food that took me time to make. Slow. I have never fit into the corporate fast track, preferring instead the slow life of daily diaper changing, writing, weeding, and growing. Even now, as I contemplate going into the full-time workforce, I don't want something fast-paced and go-go-go. I want to teach literature and writing, slowly. I want to delve deeply into a subject. We'll see how well that works out. I know from experience that today's classrooms are all about fast and furious.

Slow is I. (That is, by the way, grammatically correct. Even I typed 'me' originally, though.) I am slow. It's a content way to live. If you can ignore the fast movers around you. Thank goodness the world has Type A folks to get stuff done, NOW. But I think it also needs those like myself, who will take a thoughtful, long view of things. It's about balance.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Real Life in the 6th Grade

Well, I've had several post ideas in recent weeks, but nary time to write them. You see, I've been spending my days as a long-term sub for a 6th grade classroom. So let me enlighten you as to life in elementary school, whether you are still there, or whether it's been several decades.

The first thing, and this is a comment mostly directed at our legislators, is that teachers DO NOT GET PAID NEARLY ENOUGH. They get to school usually before 8:00 a.m. (more like 6:00 if they teach jr. high or high school) and some are still there at 6:00 p.m. And they take tons of papers home to grade every day. Plus they have to deal with these students suffering from "life entitlement syndrome" (a term I just coined). They get a measly lunch half-hour, which they often spend grading papers or planning lessons, or catching up on their personal issues. And most of them spend their summers taking additional teaching credits often required by the district or the state.

Second, there is not nearly enough time to really teach students in the course of an elementary school day. First, we have to take roll, lunch count, say the pledge, deal with 25 questions about forms that were sent home, book orders, bathroom requests and pencil sharpening. Once the students finally settle down to work, you've got maybe one good hour to cover math, science, health, and also deal with the boy who never stays in his seat, the girl who really only cares about how short her shorts are, and the IEP student who won't be doing any of those lessons.

Then it's off to recess, AKA, a really good way to get the kids all worked up again so that it takes them another 15 minutes to get settled down. After recess, you've got maybe another good hour to cover spelling, grammar, and writing, which is likely to be interrupted by the art teacher, an announcement by the track coach, papers that must be put in backpacks NOW, and the inevitable discussion called "Why do we have to do this?" Then the kids go off to band/orchestra or study hall (where they listen to their iPods).

They rush to lunch, snarf down maybe a teaspoon of food, then outside to get all excitable again. After lunch, they're tired of being told to be quiet, but they are now going to computer lab, where they are supposed to be looking up information about Bosnia, but instead, they have games, google earth, and other distractions. I have to go around the room a hundred times to keep them on task--a truly impossible feat. After computer lab, we have a few minutes for reading and social studies, then we have to leave 15 minutes at the end of the day for them to gather up all their homework, write their assignments down, and pass out papers.

Somehow, during this mad dash of a day, I am supposed to prepare them for standardized tests, assessments of 1,000 kinds, and bring enriching, meaningful significance to learning about pronouns. Which I can do, IF the students were up for it.

But they're not. They feel entitled to put in their time doing worksheets in exchange for 100% scores. These kids have checked out. They listen to a math lesson, nodding when asked if it makes sense, chatting through the entire time they have allotted to complete the 20 easy problems they are assigned, and then still proceed to get only one problem correct.

Some of the students, I grant you, work diligently all day, completing their work in quiet, while the rest of the room echoes with sounds. The sounds of the boys who think their every thought deserves verbal expression. The sounds of the kid who has to drum on everything. The sound of the kid who insists "I'm not talking" every three seconds. Even when it's quiet, it's loud.

They whine about everything, from where they sit to the classmate who farts to the injustice of my calling on someone who has only spoken once all day. They whine when they don't hear my instructions because none of them will shut up, including the ones whining. They whine that they're hungry at 9:00, because they don't eat breakfast at home. They whine that they have to go to band, when it is actually an optional class. They whine that the principal makes them adhere to the dress code. They whine when I insist they turn work in on time. They whine that they didn't know about the test posted on the board for the last six days. They whine when asked to do work that requires actual thinking.

And yet, they want to grow up, go to a good college, earn a good living, and of course be rich and famous. They have no idea how privileged they are, nor how sad it is that they are wasting the precious education that comes to them for free.

Still, I go everyday, ready to make a fresh start of it. Hoping that today there will be some light bulbs that go off. Hoping that somehow the students will find it in themselves to actually care. Hoping that anything I do makes any difference to anyone.

I sound like someone who's been at this for 30 years and is ready to retire. But I've been in this particular 6th grade room for a whole 4 weeks. If I had to spend every day for 30 years in an elementary classroom, I would go stark, raving, mad.

And I LOVE kids. LOVE them. If all I had to do was BE with these students, they would be delightful. And they are delightful some of the time. Like when the one student gets so excited about basketball that it's the only time I really enjoy hearing him talk non-stop. Or the student who will do almost anything for a piece of candy. Or the troublemaker who really gets into art.

But if those legislators think for one second that they can cut funding and cram more 6th graders into each classroom, I challenge them to spend a day doing what I do. They will run screaming for the hills, raise teachers' salaries three-fold, and stop their bellyaching about how far behind education is in this country.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stalagmites of Snot and other book notes

I just finished M.T. Anderson's The Game of Sunken Places. Stalagmites of snot is the best phrase in the book, which did not have much to offer besides that. Now, I know M.T. Anderson is a great writer. I loved FEED. LOVED IT. That's why I bought this book. I had reasonably high hopes and high expectations. But...I guess it's proof that not everyone makes a hit every time up to bat.

The basic premise of this novel is two friends, Brian and Gregory, who visit an ancient uncle "Max" at his mysterious Gothic home. The adventure ensues. The problem is, the reader can never really be sure what the adventure is. We don't know who the enemy is, whether the seemingly life-threatening moments really are life-threatening (they aren't, which is actually quite disappointing, because you soon realize none of them will be, which deadens any suspense for the rest of the book), or indeed, what the exact point of the 'game' is.

And then, it's as if Anderson decided that he would break all the normal rules of good writing. We get long, boring, hard to follow descriptions of the sort of alternate world the boys explore. Readers tend to hate that. A nice map or view of the gameboard would have sufficed. We get virtually no insight into the boys' persona's: Brian spends most of the book in a funk and we have no idea why. Gregory gets a nasty cold at one point, which takes him out of the game for a day, but then he's right back into the mix with nary a mention of his horrible illness again. What? The prologue is completely unnecessary and not illuminating at all. Extraneous. Should have been cut. Anderson throws in the adverbs liberally (pun intended), and many events happen "abruptly." He also uses auxiliary verbs often, as in "there was." It's as if he turned in his first draft and they published it as is. Ick.

There are some fun moments and characters. The troll is the best of the bunch. Then there is this little funny man who made all these machine creatures. He's hilarious. Anderson could have made far more use of them.

The main problem I had with this mysterious adventure is that the reader is not given enough clues to have a hope of figuring things out before the characters do. In fact, the deux ex machina ending is completely unsatisfying. There never was a threat or a real danger at all. Cousin Prudence, who seemed throughout the book to be all fluff and ditz, turns out to be the mastermind of it all. If she had been more of a presence throughout, that would have been more interesting.

I've read the reviews on, which all give the book glowing reports and thought it was fabulous, so obviously someone liked it. I won't say I hated this book, because if that were the case I never would have kept reading. I did keep reading mostly because I kept hoping some clues and suspense would develop. They didn't, and by that time I was at the end. I'm sorry I wasted my money on this lackluster non-adventure. Sigh.

Feel free to disagree with me.

On another note: I read Alane Ferguson's The Dying Breath. Now there's a book with suspense. Alane knows how to write a mystery, that's for sure. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, always suspicious of the deputy that she falls in love with. At one point I had a sneaky suspicion that the killer, Kyle, was going to turn out to be a vampire, and I was prepared to be really mad at Alane for that. Fortunately, he did not, and she gets big kudos in my book for keeping it real. (Not a big fan of the vampire trend.)


Monday, February 1, 2010

Random Thoughts

My daughters don't seem in the posting mood lately, but I will keep going. Here are some random things based on my current state of mind. It is currently 11:40 p.m., so please keep that in mind.

For starters, my son Peter decided this week NOT to play baseball this spring. He has been playing baseball since he was 6 years old, so this is weird. He's always loved baseball. To the point where he did not play sports at school because baseball was 'his sport.' So I have mixed feelings on this. I'm glad for him that he understands what he wants to do. He wants more time to focus on Boy Scouts and chess and jazz band. On the other hand, I actually really like to watch baseball. On the other hand, I don't like sitting out in freezing April rain huddled up in blankets and sleeping bags for three hours to watch his games. But I will miss watching him play ball. He is thinking about being an umpire, so he'll still get to be involved. I think there comes a time in each kid's life where they realize what things they're good at and not so good at, and they tend to go with what they're good at. Sigh. But I think there's a plot idea there.

Wouldn't it be refreshing if politicians could see themselves as they really are? I mean, from where I sit, most of Washington D.C. is focused on self-preservation and winning the next election. It's crazy. They get virtually nothing done, they talk and talk and talk, but they don't actually seem to be working for the common good. They don't seem to care that there are real people out here suffering, trying to make ends meet, choking on life. Stupid politicians. Can we have a new revolution?

And the Idaho legislature is no better. The governor is cutting everything left and right in order to avoid raising taxes, because God forbid we actually ask the people to pay for programs. Geez. So let's cut education budgets, eliminate agencies for the most vulnerable folks, and hope the people are willing to pay out of pocket for the stuff the state won't. Oh, and the legislators think they will be here until May, and even then might not get everything done. Yikes. We have to pay for that. I have an idea. Let's make them pay out of pocket for their own presence in Boise, and then we can use the money the state saves to bolster up the budget. Take that stupid fools.

I think one reason our family stays mostly pretty healthy throughout the year is the vast quantities of garlic we use. Even just breathing the fumes probably helps. Almost every day the smell of garlic in oil starts out the dinner preparations. I can't prove it, and probably as soon as I post this, we'll all come down with something horrible. But I think the garlic does help.

I wrote a new opening to my latest WIP tonight, and the thrill of being in the revision phase is so nice. Maybe now we can really get somewhere with that.

Spend Valentine's Day with your loved one(s) helping the earthquake victims in Haiti by attending a concert at Cathedral of the Rockies at 2:00 p.m. Every dollar collected at the concert will go directly to Haiti relief. I'll be performing on flute. So come and enjoy.

Okay, I've just emptied my brain. So there you go. The random thoughts of an average American mom and author. Late at night. Listening to Broadway show tunes on Sirius radio.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Helping Haiti

Disasters always have a way of bringing the best and worst in people. I've been impressed this last week with the best. All kinds of people are helping in ways big and small. It's heartwarming really, despite the horror of the earthquake and the aftermath. Here are some sweet ways people I know are using their skills to hold benefits and raise money:

--a friend of Peter's, Emma, who is having a birthday party today asked that her friends not bring presents, but rather money to donate to Haiti relief.

--a chess playing kid named Luke Velotti is challenging other chess players to play him--he's a champion chess player. They pay for the challenge, and the money goes to Haiti relief.

--my brother Pat, who has a coffee roasting business, has found a supply of Haitian coffee beans that he can purchase. He's gathering donations from family and friends to buy the beans so he can roast them. All sales of these beans will benefit an orphanage that was damaged in the earthquake.

--my friend and fellow musician, Paul, is arranging a benefit concert at Cathedral of the Rockies on Feb. 14. All proceeds will be sent to help Haiti.

There are more like this. I hear of schools in the area holding bake sales, gathering coins, and more. Artists, musicians, writers are all doing what they can.

My question for everyone is this: (And this applies to myself as much as anybody. I fall way short of my ideals on a daily basis.) Why do we wait for disasters to spur us on to do what we should be doing all the time? It's not like we didn't know that Haiti is tragically poor, so much so that the people eat dirt patties because they have no food. It's not like other places on our planet don't suffer every moment. Every 15 seconds, a child dies in this world because of lack of clean drinking water.

I'm proud of all the people helping in this crisis. But there are crises times ten every single day in our world. Let's vow to keep working this hard all the time.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

15 Minutes of Fame

Today was an incredible day for me as a writer. So often, writers work in isolation, and mostly I prefer it that way. Although I like people--well, at least my friends--well enough, I really do enjoy as much alone time as I can get. I think that's part of why I write. Even when people do read my writing, I am not usually present. They are reading somewhere else, often months or years after I wrote the words they read. Very, very rarely (whoa, I just used three adverbs in a row!) someone will contact me and tell me they liked a piece I wrote. That is so gratifying. Of course, it's not why I write, but it is nice to hear from a reader that they liked it. At least I know someone read it.

Today, my words were sung by hundreds of choir members in front of thousands of people, and even broadcast on TV. And I was present. And I had to go up and take a bow.

The story behind this event starts several months ago. Our state capitol has been undergoing renovation, remodeling, and restoration for the past few years, under the direction of a special commission. Part of that commission had to put together a rededication ceremony, and they asked my friend Paul to compose a special musical work for it. Paul is an incredible composer, and will be conducting one of his new works at Carnegie Hall this May. He and I collaborated on a piece at summer camp this past summer. In 2008, organist Sam Porter commissioned a piece from Paul for Sam and me to play for Boise Music Week. (For those of you who don't know, I play flute.)I could go on and on about Paul and his talents, but maybe another time. Suffice it to say, when he called me to ask if I would like to write the lyrics for this work, I was honored and humbled. (Okay, the fact that I was going to get paid for it didn't hurt. Don't tell anyone, but I would have done it for free, just because it's Paul.)

I started writing a poem focusing on what I love about Idaho: sawtooth craggled peaks, canyons, lakes, rivers, wildlife, star garnets, and the strong, friendly people here. Paul and I sat down and worked that poem into some usable lyrics with a chorus. Then he composed the most amazing music around that.

Today was the rededication ceremony, and my words were coming out of the mouths of hundreds of singers as I looked on. Hearing it all with the incredible music and accompaniment of the 25th Army band was something I cannot really describe. I was in awe. Hardly able to believe that my words, the ones I wrote from my heart, about a place I love so much, were up there, in public. They were so beautiful coming out musically.

That was my 15 minutes of fame--which was really more like 5 minutes. But it was so cool. People told me several times today how much they liked the words. It made me feel great. But it really was a combination of those words with that music that made it so wonderful. I just have no words (ironically) to describe how it felt. So thank you to all who heard it. And thank you so much to Paul for asking me to be a part of this and for writing incredible music.