The best laid plans…

I had a rough map of a cat and photo related post that I wanted to write, and I was planning to finish off the entire month with it. However, as I was collecting images and collating writing ideas, my son shrieked “Assistance needed right now!” from the shower. This is never a good sign, but sometimes just means that he is feeling little and wants someone else to shampoo his hair. No such luck. I lifted my hands slightly from the keyboard as I shouted back “Why?” and broke into a flat out run when he yelled back “Nosebleed! Bad one!”

In my family, at least for me and my son, a bad nosebleed can mean 45 minutes of undiminished bleeding. Usually, ice is required to restrict the blood vessels enough to eventually stop. At the very least, it is imperative to get the bleeder out from under the hot water in the shower, because the warmth just accelerates the bleeding. Unfortunately, Exhibit A, my bleeding son, had not yet managed to rinse all (or even most) of the shampoo from his hair, nor had he managed to soap any part of his body. While he clutched an increasingly blood-soaked cloth to his face, I dove in and out of the shower, trying to accomplish the most basic level of hygiene acceptable without getting unduly soaked. Then, a semblance of cleanliness and the cessation of bleeding both accomplished, I wandered, dripping around the edges, back to my laptop and realized that my plan and my timing was derailed, and I would need to write something else. Fortunately, a slice had just happened.

In many ways, my post’s title applies not just to my emergency induced slicing detour, but also to much of my writing in this, my third Slice of Life Story Challenge. I started with high hopes and excitement. I always enjoy this outlet for my writing, and find myself more successful at writing daily than I ever do on the Tuesday SOL challenge during the year. I am back in the classroom, so I felt that I would have many more stories about teaching, which might resonate with more participants in the challenge. (Although there does not seem to be a shortage of participants who are teacher moms and own silly pets!) My sister had re-joined the challenge this year, so I had one built in reader and some moral support. But, my best laid plans gang aft a-gley, as the poet says. The announcement of budget shortfalls and massive pending teacher layoffs in my district led directly to my contract not being renewed, with no one able or willing to lay odds on me being re-hired for the job I love, or even within the district, and threw me for a loop. Naturally, I found it harder to write, let alone write anything not whiny and grumpy, while fighting off the paired demons of shock and panic. Then, as I began to at least adjust to the new reality, my entire family was all felled by two weeks of ghastly influenza, and although I wrote something each day, none of it was focused or planned or possibly coherent. (Was there a second weekend challenge this year? I have a hazy recollection of some sort of announcement, but whatever it was, I missed it completely!) Limping, weaving, and blowing, I rounded the last corner of this writing steeplechase and found myself facing the 31st. Rather than galloping triumphantly, or at least proudly, across that finish line, I am staggering over it and toppling in relief on the other side.

Difficulties aside, I am proud to have finished, and I am appreciative of the support and positive comments from you, my virtual friends, that helped keep me going on some dark days. I will once again try to keep posting on Tuesdays – every year I make it a little bit further before being steamrolled into silence until the following March. And I will definitely return next year, hopefully employed, hopefully in the gifted program with the students I love, and ready to once again embrace our month of writing.

Thank you all for being here this March, and opening your hearts and souls and creativity and sharing your own moments, dark, light, heavy, silly, angry, amused, frustrated or thoughtful. Keep on slicing!

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Nothing to slice

Well, it finally happened. On the next to last day of March in my third year of slicing, I finally hit that brick wall and have nothing to say. Nada. Zilch. No-thing. My brain is empty.

I tried writing a 6 word story, and only got “Oh vacation, you cannot be ending.” Blah.

I thought about writing a 100 word story about the adventures of my cats (or better yet, the adventures of my son and his imaginary cats), then checked the time and my energy levels and realized that I did not have enough of either to get that done tonight.

I thought about writing a “they would see, but they would not know” post and discovered that all anyone suddenly arriving at my house would see is a tremendous mess and then they would decide that I am a lousy housekeeper. This just made me feel bad and guilty, and who wants to write about that?

I attempted a 3 things I cannot live without post and it said “Books. Tea. And even more books.” Not very informative. Hey, maybe that can be my 6 word story?

I pondered writing a summation of writing for this month of the challenge, but then what on earth would I write tomorrow?

I even attempted a 31 things to know about me slice, because hey, if I don’t introduce myself to everyone today, when am I going to let people get to know me? But I am not in a very self-reflective place at the moment, so that did not go well. I could not even decide what to make for dinner tonight, and that was only one decision, so how could I possibly decide which 31 things about me were important? Or even if there are 31 one things about me?

So, nope, no ideas for writing today. Move along, people. Nothing to see here.

Panic Attack

Thoughts circle,
crowding and jostling.
Ideas fixate.
Brain vibrates,
writhes,
attempts to escape the onslaught –

Unsuccessfully.

Nests of snakes
unfurl in my stomach,
slithering.

Shoulders
knot
and 
hunch
and 
rise
ever higher.

Back
tenses and spasms.

Teeth
clench,
lock…
even crack.

Heart races
in place, 
making no progress
other than using up
my allotted beats.

Breathing shallows,
speeds,
pants.

Eyes jink and jerk
never to settle and focus.

Nothing can focus.

Attention shatters.

Thoughts circle
and close in,
vultures sensing
the death of reason,
ready to gorge themselves
on wild unfettered emotion.

All else is 
flooded.
Washed away.

Drowned

in 

panic.

Boy vs. Mom

Spring Break to my son…

Sleeping late
iPad time
Drawing for hours
C'mon, Mom, let's go outside!
I'm the king of cutting things down off this bush!
Can we go to the park to drive my RC car?
Let's have a picnic lunch.
Mom, make me some bubbles.

Are you STILL cooking?
Can I invite a friend over?
Stop reading and do something active now.
Come and blow bubbles with me.

Spring Break to me…

Quiet time in the morning
Longer stretches of reading time
Cats on my lap
No rushed nagging to get out the door
Gardening in the sun
Popsicles on the porch
Picnic lunches
Conversations that start, "Pretend you are carrying a panda 160 miles..."
Baking in the afternoon
Daydreaming
Leafing through my knitting magazines
Time to unwind

Unexpected Adventure

Today, we decided to walk to the library after lunch. It was raining, so my son needed a little persuasion to go, since his plan was to ride his bike to the library, and he does not like to ride in the rain. When I pointed out that I would be walking, so he could walk with me, rather than leaving me in the dust on his bike (as he usually does) AND that I would let him carry the new umbrella, he readily agreed that it was a good afternoon for a walk after all.

Off we went, at our usual slow and meandering pace. We inspected the three plumbing trucks at the neighbors’ house, and Miles, who had played with their son over the weekend, gave me the update on all their remodeling news. Around the corner, we watched a team of city workers grind out the stump of a tree that they had removed. Further down the street, a perfect pine cone flung itself from its tree and bounced to our feet. It was duly appreciated for its undamaged form and carefully placed in the bag with the library books. We compared what was blooming with the early spring blooms we inspected a few weeks ago, and stopped to smell most of the different types of flowers. Miles’ verdict: viburnum smell yummy, euphorbia should be called “the smelly plant,” and tulips tickle if they go up your nose when you are sniffing. Closer to the library, we inspected the fairy village which had received a fresh pot of gentian flowers next to it, paused to spin the handles on the music boxes at the music box fence, wondered about the collapsed fairy house down the block and mused on Miles’ strong landlord-tenant relationship with the fairies who moved into the village he built in our yard, read a long Langston Hughes poem at the poetry post, and lured and petted five cats that all seem to make the adjacent house their headquarters.

At the library, we talked to the friendly librarian about collecting some very important car books that we looked up before we came, checked out the prized DVD of Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons that Miles must reserve at least 4 times as year, and ran into his school friend’s mom, who also happens to be the school nurse.

On the way home, laden with heavy books that I was required to sherpa up the hill while someone attacked the rain and air relentlessly with my brand new umbrella, my bad knee started to play up and my back started to cramp. Miles solicitously asked which way we should go home – the shorter way or the less steep way. Today, I opted for the shorter, more direct route, even though it goes up a steeper hill on a busy and noisy street. It also passes MeowHaus, the luxurious cat boarding facility, so we stopped and peered at the vacationing cats through the large windows. Toward the top of the hill, we pass the fire station, which always requires us to peer through the clear garage door to see if the engine is visible. Today, the fire fighters were in their side area outside, where one was inexplicably climbing a completely vertical ladder over and over in the rain. Miles, of course, waved to the fire fighters. (Okay, so did I. They’re fire fighters. You have to wave!) The one who was spotting the ladder climbing cadet came over and asked us if we would like to see the fire truck. Surprised, we agreed, and by agreed, I mean that I limped after my sprinting 8 year old, who was already halfway to the engine. We met the ladder climber (a cadet-in-training who wanted some additional ladder practice) and got the full detailed tour of the fire engine. No compartments went un-inspected, no lights were un-tested, no seats were un-sat-upon, no tools were un-examined. I have, of course, seen fire engines up close before – no mom of a small American boy hasn’t – but I had never had such a thorough tour. Having exhausted the engine, and even tested out the smaller hoses, and having explored the many purposes of cat litter in firefighting, we moved inside to tour the equipment bay (i.e. garage) and the rest of the station. We saw photos of the historic station when it was first built in 1913, and learned that it was the last station in Portland that had horses to pull the fire wagon. The floors are the same as they once were, though now there is a front desk and fire memorabilia in what was once a stable. We also saw the actual fire pole (did you know fire fighters still really slide down the fire pole) and discovered that it is the highest one in the entire city. Miles even got to go upstairs to see the fire fighters’ living and sleeping quarters and meet another slightly surprised fire fighter. By the time we left, Miles was beaming from ear to ear and chatting happily to “our” fire fighter about the merits of his kid sized Boggs boots versus the official fire fighter boots. After thanking the fire fighter for his kind and unexpected tour, we walked the last couple of blocks home.

An unplanned excursion with no set time limits can yield unexpected surprises, and my kiddo went to bed full of excited stories about the day. What more can one ask of spring break?

The Mythical Work-Life Balance

Today, on my second day of spring break, I am pondering the always just beyond my reach balance between work and life. Although this may slightly be me using my slicing to procrastinate doing anything else, it is an ongoing ponder and a real struggle for me.

When I started working from home, my son had just turned two. I worked half time, and easily fit the 20 hours a week into his nap times and before he woke up in the mornings, with occasional forays into my online classes while he watched “Sesame Street” or played. As he got older, my job and working around his schedule got a bit more complicated and my hours got longer, but still, I generally worked around his needs, and I was always there – volunteering in his classroom, attending his daytime performances, walking him to and from school, running his lunch in if he forgot it, and so on. On occasion, I needed to attend a meeting when he was home, and I usually worked in the early evening while my husband cooked dinner, but my nights and weekends were free, and while Miles knew I worked, it was fairly abstract and did not impact his life.

When I left my online job and returned to the classroom, he was just about to start 3rd grade, and had no recollection of Mom ever working outside the home. I lured him in with the promise that we would now get to spend winter break and snow days and spring break and summer vacation together without me having to go back to the computer and work. (There may also have been the enticement of saving money to take cool vacations in there too! Someone wants to go back to Disneyland and back to Hawaii. My son likes those places too. 😉) Mostly, he has adapted well. He likes the after care program at his school and gets to play with many of his friends there. He gets to spend a little more time with his dad (and time at Dad’s office, where there are colored pencils, a kid sized nook behind the drawing table, and the promise of lunches “out”) on the few days when I work but he is off school. I am indeed home during vacations and not tied to six hours a day on my computer and hundreds of virtual students. On paper, it sounds like the perfect transition.

But, there are cracks. For the first time, I missed a performance – mainly because he told me the day of the performance, and I could not get a sub to cover an hour and a half in the middle of the day on that short of notice. I had to leave school during my prep period to get to his Learning Celebration for the trimester that just ended, and that meant that I was late enough that I missed some of the presentations. He misses being able to play on the playground after school with his friends. By the time I arrive to pick him up after my school day ends, playtime is over and everyone has gone home, and we need to get home to start dinner. My husband (who owns his own architecture firm, and thus has no boss to whom he must answer) has started taking some time off work to make sure Miles gets to the occasional doctor or dentist appointment. While Miles certainly copes with these little things and takes most of them in stride, I feel guilty, because it is different and I am not there, when for years and years and years, I was.

Then there is the problem of my own work. People reading the SOLC blogs are all involved in education, so I don’t have to preach to the choir about teaching not being a 40 hour a week position. I am luckier than many, because I only have 86 students, and only one class for which I need to prep. The fact that the class encompasses reading, writing, literature, grammar, vocabulary, geography and history (both of which I have never taught) at a new grade level in a new district with new software with which I am not familiar and on which I received no training just makes things more complicated. Even working flat out, using every minute of non-meeting filled prep time during the school day and all of my before and after school time, it is a struggle just to stay prepared for the next day’s lessons, let alone grade anything. I am generally home just before 6 and try to spend some time playing with my son and talking to my husband, and then it is the whirlwind of dinner and bath and bedtime and no, I really mean it, you are supposed to be in bed now time, and it is usually 8:30 or 9:00 before I surface for air. At that point, I have about an hour that I can spend with my husband before he conks out, morning person that he is, and I am mentally drained and physically exhausted myself. Although I am usually up by 5:30 in the morning, I am decidedly not a morning person, so I generally eat breakfast groggily and read a bit or watch a tiny bit of “my” TV shows before getting Miles up at 6:15. So, in theory, this could be a time that I did a little bit of work. In practice, though, even when I worked from home, I saved the heavy lifting of grading for later in the day, when I felt alive and my brain worked.

This leaves the weekend. Along with soccer and kid activities and play dates and birthday parties and grocery shopping and trips to the library and stabs at keeping the house marginally clean and marginally organized and laundry and time to do occasional fun things as a family, I have to also squeeze in time to prep for classes and time to grade. There simply are not enough hours in the day. I find myself nostalgic for pre-child days when I could – and did – put in 16 hours on the weekend, despite the fact that I know what that did to my health and my temperament.(Bad things!) That’s the only model for keeping semi on top of teaching responsibilities that I know, and it is not one that works for my life now; nor do I really want to return to that type of life. So I am just left floundering, wondering how I am supposed to manage all of it, with no clue how to move forward without hurting someone, missing something, or leaving responsibilities unmet.

And now, pondering time over, I need to work on grading for a couple of hours while my son is out of the house. It won’t be enough, but it’s what I can do. Tomorrow marks the first day of break that he does not have organized activities, and I have promised that we will do fun things together. Although I may feel guilty about work, that it is still a promise I intend to keep.

Me: By the Book – Part 2

I started writing answers to the classic “By the Book” questions from The New York Times earlier this month, but got hung up on the first question, since it took me way too many paragraphs to answer “What books are on your nightstand?” Now that I have read a number of them and lowered the overall stack (and, alas, returned a few to the library unread), here is part 2 of my attempt to explain bits of my life via books.

How do you organize your books?
In my house, books are about reading, never about design. Luckily, my architect husband agrees with me and we never have to have ridiculous conversations about books being tacky or not integrated into the design of the room or, God help me, about buying books by the yard or pound to fake erudition or gain the appropriate color scheme for a room. With that said, when you have nearly 2000 books in the house (not counting hundreds of children’s books for my son), you need SOME system of organization or you can never find anything. My husband has an entire bookcase of architecture and design books, and we have a small, two shelf bookcase of gardening and plant books. The cookbooks live in the kitchen, of course, because they are strictly for cooking. I am not a person who reads cookbooks for pleasure, because what is there to read, really?

For everything else, largely fiction in our house, my normal system is to take everything down and organize it alphabetically by author, then title, except keeping series books in order. Then I add books to bookcases and add new bookcases and remember where books are by shapes and color and what they were next to, until everything is all mixed up and I cannot find anything and discover that I have been buying duplicates of books I already have, but cannot find. Then it is time to take them all down and resort again. However, I have recently refined my system and sorted all the books into two categories: read, and unread. I listened to one too many podcasts people talking about book collections and got ambitious. Practically speaking, my plan was to put all the books I had not read on the main floor, where they were easy to get to and visible all the time, and the ones I had read in the finished basement, where they were accessible, but not blocking my view of all the tantalizing unread books that I could be reading next. I still kept them alphabetized by author and then title, with series books in order of publication, rather than alphabetical.

Yes, I let my paperbacks and my hardbacks mingle freely on the shelves, and I do not care that the colors are all over the map. (It brightens up the room!) People who say they sort their books by taking off the covers and matching by spine color, or who need everything on a shelf to be the same height freak me out a little bit. (Sorry, super organized readers of my slice!)

What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like and didn’t?
The Russian classics. I was an English literature major in a very strongly liberal arts college, and we read nearly everything in the Western canon from time immemorial, and then I earned both a Masters in British and American Literature and a Masters in Teaching Secondary English. You can say that I am quite well read. I just hate slogging through the Russian classics – novels, plays, short stories, different authors…I just hate them. Also, I am not big on very early American fiction. I don’t enjoy reading Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Reading Moby Dick made me feel like I had just survived a crash course in whaling and could probably now survive on a whaling ship, but failed to move me emotionally in any way. (The fact that I read the entire thing in 5 days while burning up with feverish influenza probably did not help though.)

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I think my go to genres are always going to be science fiction and fantasy, both of which I discovered in 5th grade, and both of which I delved into very deeply in my early teens, when I had read my way through the children’s section, was not interested in the topics of many adult books, and YA had not yet been invented. I love diving deeply into other worlds and exploring big ideas that way, and I love rip-roaring adventures. I am choosy though, because there is a lot that is pulpy and derivative. I like stories that are well-written and have characters that I care about, rather than just the standard genre tropes stuck together formulaically. With that said, though, I also read extensively in most every fiction genre. I love mysteries – ranging from Agatha Christie and similar “cozy” and not gruesome mysteries to dark Scandi Noir that sometimes scares the socks off me. I read some “contemporary fiction,” which seems to be a catch-all category for a lot of different things, and I also read a select few authors who probably technically fall into the romance category. I have a weakness for some types of chick lit, and will devour anything by Sophie Kinsella immediately when it comes out. Yes, I know it is silly, but it is charming and fun silly. I also read lots of YA, which is useful now that I teach middle school but is absolutely not driven by that.

I don’t really read Westerns, but I am not sure what really falls into that category any more. I loved Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and went around forcing it one people for years, and that, to me, feels about as Western as you can get. If there are other books like his, then I do want to read them. I don’t read much nonfiction, because I get bored unless it has a really strong driving force in it, and I do not like memoirs. I have tried a few with recommendations from friends, but I just find them to be too self-serving and not interesting. There are exceptions to my general disinterest in nonfiction and memoir (Jon Krakauer, Truman Capote, and David Sedaris immediately spring to mind), but if I have to say I avoid a genre, those two categories are the least represented in my personal library and my reading history.

When do you read?
When do I not read is probably a better question. If I don’t read at least some every day, I turn into a horrible, cranky person and my world is off kilter. I try to get up early and read a bit with breakfast. I often read at lunch at school. I read with my students during our SSR time. I always have a book on me, and, now that I am making some forays into online reading, a couple sitting on Kindle or Libby to be read in case I am left alone somewhere for more than three seconds and have finished my book. It saves me from having to keep reading the receipts in my purse and the backs of my credit cards. (Yes, I have actually read those, back in the bad old low tech days.) I read in waiting rooms and in lines if I am not with someone else. If I am awake, there’s probably a book nearby, if not already in my hand.

Sometimes, I even read in my dreams.

Censoring student reading

Back in October, I had the first round of parent teacher conferences with the parents of my middle schoolers. They are highly gifted kids, and have very involved, and sometimes, intense, parents. When I was in the classroom previously, I was a high school teacher in a semi-rural district with high levels of poverty and low-levels of parent engagement with the school. While they could be intense – I once had a drunken father threaten to kill me for failing his son – mostly, they were unable or unwilling to come in, and I only ever saw a handful of parents at conference time.

This particular middle school program is different, and all of the parents showed up. 86 students, and every single parent showed up – and sometimes in two separate shifts, in the case of divorced parents who do not wish to appear together. No one was going to miss out on the opportunity to meet and grill the new Humanities teacher – the third in three years. It was trial by fire a la the Inquisition.

Many of the parents – in fact, most of them – were very supportive, knowing that I had been hired at the last possible moment a mere six weeks before the conferences, and expressed their satisfaction at what I had done so far and their opinions that their children liked me and were enjoying my class. Some were inquisitive about what else I would teach, in a combination of simple curiosity and acute parental oversight to make sure that their children were going to be sufficiently and appropriately challenged, with the balance of the two shifting depending on the personalities involved. So many parents came to conferences that we were nearly immediately behind on our tight time schedule, despite the fact that we started early and stayed late on our evening conference day and on the dreaded 12 hour shift day, worked straight through our designated lunch, dinner, break, and prep times and an hour past the end of the last scheduled conference in order to see everyone.

Two parents in particular stood out for their terrifying intensity, and bearing in mind the aforementioned death threats, know that I do not terrify easily. One mother, on apparent Tiger Mother overdrive, was so intense about her hatred for her autistic and creative daughter’s desire to read, the quality of her reading choices (lots of fantasy) and her wish to ban her daughter from ever reading at all in her home, that she sent her daughter into stress induced behaviors that I never see in my classroom and me into a state of shock. The other mother, in a tumult of Russian fury, spent 25 minutes of her scheduled 8 minute conference berating me about her daughter’s choice to be in the Oregon Battle of the Books, the quality of that reading material, her insistence that her daughter would never again be allowed to compete since the material was all such trash, and then a final 5 minutes cross-examining me about the upcoming curriculum in Humanities. It was an unusual experience all around.

I encountered this last mother again yesterday when she sent me an angry email demanding my justification for using a 69 year old Ray Bradbury short story, “The Veldt,” in my unit on dystopian literature. She wanted to know where I got off exposing 11-12 year old children to such a terrible story, in which it is implied that the children use their virtual reality playground to create lions who eventually eat the parents at whom they are angry. Her sense of the story was that I was teaching violence was the way to solve problems, and that children can act violently with no consequences. (To everyone else, including many, many teachers, our district curriculum committee, who have reviewed this text before when challenged, and all my students, who are in mingled classes of 6th-8th graders who range in age from barely 11-14, the story was about the dangers of unfettered technological development and the risk of replacing social interaction and familial bonds with technology that does everything for you, but ok, whatever.) Of course, she has a right to object to material that she does not think is appropriate for her daughter, and I explained the origins of this story, why I chose it, what I felt the message was and how I taught that, and how and why the district had defended it in the past. I was polite and professional and will find out after spring break if that was sufficient, or if I will be dragged through a formal challenge.

Both experiences, though, left me with a profound gratitude that I was raised by a mother who did NOT restrict my reading. I was allowed to read whatever and whenever I wanted, including at meals in restaurants, at every possibly odd moment at home, and in all of my “down” time. My mother stood up to her own domineering mother’s insistence that I should not read at the table because it was rude. My mother took on the scary librarians who challenged my right to have a library card when I was four, despite the fact that I could read and write, challenged every single book I read when I out-read everyone else in the summer reading contest that year (by more than 100 books), because a four year old could not possibly read that much or those books, and who would not let me cross the foyer to the grown-up section of the library to select adult books when I was seven, although I had read every book in the children’s section and had been reading grown-up books for a year already. Mom held firm and won each battle. She took me to the library every few days, and although she would not take me to the bookstore to buy books every time I asked, always took me when she had extra money to spend and never let me leave empty-handed. I did not realize how much of a gift that was, because it did not occur to me that there were parents in this world who would limit their children’s reading choices or take away their books altogether.

So thank you, Mom, for never standing in my way or blocking my access to books. Thank you for fighting Grandma and skeptical librarians, and introducing me to 19th century classics and gentle comedies and memoirs from the 20s and 30s which did not contain content that would overwhelm a small child. Thank you for introducing me to the “banned in Boston” and “banned by the Church” novel that I spent a semester reading in my Catholic high school’s library the year that I was exempted from English class because they did not know what to do with me. Thank you for always buying me books in the bookstore, even now, when I have spent all my book money buying books for my own child. You and my books made me who I am, and that person will keep teaching what she thinks is right and valuable, even if it ruffles some feathers.

An attentive observer

Today, on the way to bus duty after school, one of my students popped up in front of me and exclaimed, in apparent shock, “Mrs. Karp! You’re wearing pants!!!”

Bemused, I said “Yes, I was wearing them all during class too. What did you think I was wearing?”

He replied, “That’s a bold sartorial choice for you; moving in a new direction!”

I told him, “Just because I like skirts does not mean I can’t wear pants sometimes.” He smiled and bopped off to his bus and spring break.

Children are weird.