Perils of modern living

I’ve just gotten off of the phone with my credit union after having dinner interrupted by an automated call from Fraud Detection Services that someone was trying to prepay nearly $800 for a hotel in my name. After doing a quick mental check (Yep! I am, in fact, here in my messy dining room; this is not just a dream!) and a physical check (Yes, my credit card is still in my wallet.), I poked the button that rang all the alarm klaxons and broadcast “Alert! Alert! Alert! Fraud detected.” Ok, not really. But wouldn’t it be gratifying if it did? I just selected “1” to say that the charge was not mine and then hung up and called the credit union directly myself to verify the information and freeze my card. After all, in this day and age, it seems like the only things guaranteed any more are that your credit card number will be lifted from anyplace you might use it – in person or online or written down on a bill and mailed in for a payment – and that hucksters will use autodialers to call you to steal your credit card information. I’m not entirely certain why a thief would call me to say that my credit card had been stolen as a method to steal my credit card details, but you never know. I routinely have people call me from fake phone numbers to inform me that I am about to be arrested for various mysterious crimes, such as “you in bad payment of Federal Tax Department,” so you never know. (Spoiler alert: Not true! I am not slicing from prison!)

I checked my records, and this is the eighth time since 2008 that I have had to have my card stopped and reissued. At no point in those 11 years has my credit card itself actually been removed from my possession, and yet still, the number keeps getting out there. I repeat, in none of those instances had my physical card been out of my possession. I only have one copy of the card and no authorized users. I don’t lend my card to my 8 year old son, my husband, my friends, relatives, students, or random people on the street. I do not use sketchy internet sites for purchases, or hang out at sleazy dives, charging…whatever it is one charges at sleazy dives. I shop locally at reputable stores and online at well established and secure sites. I have not been mugged, burgled, or had my mail stolen from the mailbox. I take letters and bills into the post office to be mailed and I shred my statements and any receipts with even a part of a credit card number on them. And yet, here we are again. The world is going digital, and crime is going with it. While I could, in theory, pay everything in cash; in practice I would have to cancel many things and probably give up my job so I could drive all around the country paying all my bills in cash. Not even all of my basic utility bills are sent to local addresses! I think the only option to avoid the routine irritations of reporting fraud, replacing cards, and re-scheduling all the automatic payments is to go all Thoreau and live simply in the woods. Apparently, the cure for peculiarly 21st century first world problems is the 19th century.

S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G! Go Team!

Today, I went to the statewide spelling bee. As I mentioned yesterday, one of my students had made it to the state level, and it happened to be held within walking distance of my house. (I mean, I have a car and everything, but somehow it felt like a sign, that if I could walk to the venue, I should go to the bee.) Let me tell you, watching kids spell is very intense. I flinched. I winced. I covered my face. I groaned. I cheered. I held my breath. I think if I had had more than one student in the bee, I might have keeled right over.

The bee was held in a restored 1926 movie palace, chock full of ambience (and today, also the media, parents, grandparents, siblings, and teachers). Despite the fact that spellers can ask a number of questions, including for the word to be repeated, defined, or used in a sentence; for the language of origin; or for alternate pronunciations, it is a rapid fire event. These kids are focused and concentrating so hard that you can hear it. As a teacher, I can tell by their expressions when they hear the word if they can spell it, have no idea what the word is but think they can spell it, or know that they have no clue and are in over their heads. They gamely spell on, and we are awash in a variety of words, mundane, exotic, obscure, or deceptively simple.

      Speller: Language of origin, please.
      Moderator: Algonquin
      Speller: WHAT??!!?
Polterg…("eeeeeeeeee" thinks the audience as hard as it can)…eist (Phew!)
     Speller: C- (Every person over 35 flinched.)
                        (No one under 35 looked like they knew the word.)

On and on it went. These children, fierce spellers all, looked out at the audience blankly while they spelled in their mind’s eye, seeing only the dancing letters, or focused on their hands as they invisible wrote on their palms before committing the letters to sound. Contestants and audience alike applauded the success of each speller as he or she fell to a complicated word. No one gloated, and all were celebrated for what they had accomplished. After all, the nature of a bee means that many will lose, and only one will be chosen. There, but for the grace of Webster’s, go I. So much drama and suspense. So much excitement, and nary a shove, foul, or word of trash talk.

You can keep your football, and baseball, and basketball. I’m Team Spelling all the way!

Academic challenge weekend

I work with highly gifted 6th-8th grade students in a program that has been created especially to meet their needs. It’s a terrific program, with very interesting kids who are a joy – and a substantial challenge – to teach. They all have a variety of interests and activities. While some of these are non-academic (LEGO, Fortnite, challenging each other to dance offs for all the Fortnite dances, competitive level tennis or gymnastics, ballet, drama, band, etc.), these are students who also tend to naturally gravitate to academic competitions too. In addition to surprisingly cutthroat finals for my Oregon Battle of the Books teams, who are fighting for the school title and a coveted spot in the regional competition, and my 6th grader who just made it through the regional geography bee and is preparing for the state level bee, which is the qualifier for the national National Geographic Geography Bee, this weekend is a huge one for our many academically competitive kids. We have a team of students competing in the state level of the Math Counts competition, after placing regionally in team and individual events. Then we have about half of the 40 kids competing at the regional judged science fair (the level that qualifies you for those astonishing industry led state and national science fairs with the types of kids who are doing doctoral level work and earning patents before they are 18). Also, one of our 6th grade girls is competing in our state level spelling bee – the qualifier for the Scripps National Spelling Bee that they air on TV. And all of that is just on Saturday! Our team’s math teacher will be with her Math Counts teams, our science teacher, who organized the judged science fair, will be with all our budding scientists, and I will be cheering on our speller. We’re spread a little thin, but so, so, so proud of our students!

Mommy-Miles Time

My husband is away at a business function tonight, being wined and dined by a high end architecture magazine, so I decided to take the evening for a mom and boy dinner date. After school, he had a hair cut and color. He is very clear on how his “swoop” should look, and loves the blue. Today, my stylist let him help mix the colors, too, so my blue haired dinner date was in hog heaven. Plus, I let him choose the restaurant. We sat down with our plates and he said “The universe is in favor of you.” No explanation, just a random non sequitur, but said with the kind of solemnity only gurus and small children can muster. Then, getting down to business, he said, “You should put me in your blog. Write a poem. Here is one I just thought up –

Blue Hair

He has blue hair.
Now I'm jealous.

Write that down now, Mom.” When I pointed out that I have purple stripes in my hair, with which I am quite pleased, he was unimpressed. Clearly, blue is a much better hair color.

“Write about me, Mom.” So I did.

The meeting you don’t want to attend

Wednesdays are minimum days in my school district, with professional development after school. It is usually pretty cool and fun, especially for someone who is new in the district and still learning how all the software works and so on. This week, we were told there would be a budget message from the district office at the end of the meeting. Last night after dinner, when I finally got a chance to read my email, I had one from the principal that said “Hey, Whitney, I need you to stop by my office because I want to talk to you before the budget announcement. Well, shit. (Pardon my French.)

The thing is, I was hired on a temporary contract. Not that someone is coming back to the job – in fact, I am the third Humanities teacher in three years. But because I was hired on the Friday before inservice started, district policy required that I be placed on a temporary contract, rather than a regular one. I’m one of two teachers in my building this year on a temporary contract. I won’t leave you in suspense. My temporary contract will come to an end, and principals have been told that they may not roll a temporary teacher into a permanent contract. The district will be cutting 200 teachers from next year’s staff (and that’s after they don’t fill the positions of people retiring). This means that people will be bumped and moved all over the place, generally against their will. If, after all the lay offs and staffing shifts, there is still a Humanities position in our Summa program available, then I can apply for it. The principal says that the likelihood of that happening is next to nothing. The fact that he wants to keep me in this job, my team teachers want to keep me, and the parents and the students want to keep me has nothing to do with anything. The district will move people around based on licensing and seniority – whether the person is genuinely qualified for this fairly specialized program or not.

I love this job, and I don’t want to leave it. I love the kids, and in our program we mingle all three grade levels together at all times and run a three year curriculum, which means that I would have 2/3 of the same students next year. I love the program and working with the highly gifted kids, and I love the school and the staff. The schedule even works well with my other responsibilities. There is a possibility that I may be able to get hired at one of the other schools, maybe going back to teach high school again. But I want to keep this job, and politics and bureaucracy make it impossible.

Nothing upbeat or clever from me tonight. I have to go plan for tomorrow while my laptop blurs through my tears. The kids deserve my best in the morning.

Me: By the Book (Part 1)

This morning I thought I would write something interesting, clever, or funny that my students did or said, but alas, they let me down. We had a perfectly ordinary school day with nothing interesting, clever, or funny happening. I am tackling the “By the Book” format today, as stolen from the dirigible plum, who apparently stole it from my hyphenated life, who stole it from her friend, Kim, who, in her turn, lifted it from The New York Times. Whoo! How’s that for a citation? Anyway, it means I am writing about books, because I would much rather be reading right now than writing, worrying about tomorrow’s lesson plans, pretending I am going tackle that grading, or, frankly, talking to my family. (I love you guys, but, sorry, the introvert is overloaded. No more sounds please.)

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I assume that I get to include all the ones that are stacked into wobbly towers on the floor, getting ever more precarious as the cats rub them to show they are the boss of the books. If you mean what am I actually reading right now, there are several. I am halfway through Vox by Christina Dalcher, and it is utterly terrifying. A future America where women cannot work or hold money or property, and are limited by technology and passive or acquiescent husbands and fathers to only speaking 100 words per day. If you overshoot by 1- you get a shock. The more extra words, the stronger the electrical jolt, right up to something that causes seizures and unconsciousness. These restrictions are even on small girls! To add insult to injury, computers, pens, papers, cell phones, and all books are locked up in secure rooms in the house to which only the menfolk have access.

Sometimes this one is a bit hard to read, but it is interesting. It also intersected incredibly well with my reading workshop today, because a lot of students were struggling with the idea of how a setting could be more than just the images that describe where the action takes place, and that a setting can be much broader and can also impact a character’s decisions and actions. Furthermore, I was bridging from “what pressures does the setting exert on the characters?” to “what is the difference between the characters inside thoughts and outside words and actions, and how can setting contribute to those competing pressures?” Sharing my reading about an angry, frustrated woman who can only speak a handful of words and be compliant made that juxtaposition pretty darn clear!

I am also reading Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead, which is one of her Three Pines novels. Oh, I love these so much. I’ve been rationing them out, but the last one ended on such a “Nooooooooooo!” note that I had to see what happened next. Of course, that guarantees that the library holds all come in simultaneously, and once I’m in the library, lots of other books draw my eye, and suddenly I have 15 books stacked up to read next.

Because I am a coach for Oregon Battle of the Books, I am also reading my way through all the books that my 6-8 graders are reading. Today I started Cryptid Hunters, which is a pretty odd topic, but interesting so far. A pair of twins with famous photojournalist parents lose their parents in a helicopter crash and suddenly find themselves being packed off to live with an uncle of whom they have never heard. Moreover, he spends his life looking for elusive cryptids, like Bigfoot.

Next up is The Winter of the Witch, the conclusion of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. The trilogy draws heavily on Russian folklore and is very captivating. This novel just came out, and I am the very first one to check it out from my library! (Hooray for pre-release library holds!)

Not content to just dash in to the library and pick up my hold, I also brought home four other books to read. I have Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay, which I am not entirely sure what it is about (a sort of family saga, maybe?), but I don’t care because I loved The Book Thief so much. I’m sure this will be great. Then I have The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown. I checked this one out to read to my son. He came home upset one day because he had a sub, and she started this book – the second in the series – and they had not read the first one yet. “Who starts with the SECOND book?” he wailed. Fortunately, we had an as-yet-unread copy of The Wild Robot, and are currently halfway through that one. Once the sub was gone, the second book was not continued, so obviously, I cannot pass this one up. Besides, I want to know what happens to Roz the robot and Brightbill, her gosling son. Who wouldn’t? In case that last one does not count, since I am going to read it out loud to someone else, I also checked out Swing, by Kwame Alexander. I hear about his books every March, reading many slices about his work, but I have never read any. I am always a sucker for a novel written in verse, so I am excited about this. Also, it is a novel written in verse, so it won’t take much time, right? Lastly, I checked out a random book called The Gates, by John Connolly. It has a blood red cover with a detailed drawing of stylized gates and the tagline “…of Hell are about to open. Want to peek?” written under the title. Apparently, I do.

Except for the Louise Penny and the Oregon Battle of the Books book, these are all library books. I have another tall stack of my own books snugged up the the bottom of the nightstand, and, of course, I want to read those right away too. I think I am set for reading material until summer. Or fall.

The weathermen are forecasting a potential snow storm for tomorrow morning, which just possibly will mean a couple of extra hours to read. Here’s to rare March storms!

Winter Wind

Winter wind –
breath of the tundra
funneled to a shriek
through the cataclysmic
Ice Age gash
in the landscape
and delivered to my door.
Clouds battered from the sky,
tearing forth a blue so vivid
you can taste it,
mingled with blood
as lips chap and split.
my eyes water and
my eardrums ache.
Trees thrash and
fight for balance
in the relentless clutch
of the invisible foe.
the wind howls and roars for entrance,
punching the windows
that bow and flex,
rattling the locks and
testing the doors, 
attempting to break and enter –

Burgling my peace.

Small list of “thankfuls” for today

My knee is bothering me, and I feel stressed out and anxious about my messy house and the upcoming work week, so I decided that I needed to write a list of today’s small bright spots to chase away the blues.

Waking up in an eerily quiet house because the family sneaked out to buy me doughnuts…

My husband bringing me a hot cup of tea…

Cozy flannel sheets, warm blankets, and the anchoring warmth of a pile of cats…

Fuzzy socks…

Sunshine, and being inside where the strong wind that brings winter sunshine cannot reach me…

Taking my son to the LEGO Expo instead of cleaning all day, and, as a result, feeling less nerdy that I asked for (and got) a giant Hogwarts castle LEGO set for Christmas…

A “To Read Next” pile that has spilled into three stacks…

I have shelter, health, warmth, love, food, happiness, and hobbies. Nothing else matters. I brush away the sticky cobwebs of worry and anxiety, pick up my cup of tea and my book, pet the cat in my lap, glance out the window at the sun, and smile.

Saturday in FebruMarch

My temperate valley section of Western Oregon has just come off of the coldest February in thirty years. I vividly remember that last very cold February. My husband and I were college students, living in a perennially student house (named Trespassers W) with no insulation and essentially no heat. We and our housemates huddled together under every blanket we had in the house, protected by an encircling ring of space heaters, and played Pictionary for hours. Whenever one of us thawed out enough to move, we went to the windows and added or subtracted coins from the collection we had embedded in the ice that formed on the inside of the windows. Occasionally we would brave the top steps of the terrifying basement to check the space heater aimed at our pipes so our water wouldn’t freeze. When it was my turn, I startled two feral cats who were sensibly sitting between the space heater and the not yet frozen pipes. To this day, I have no idea how they got inside. It was really cold weather. The pond and creek in the middle of our college campus froze solid, and, although I managed to get a severe break in my nose, the ER doctors did not want me to ice the injury because they were afraid that ice + the weather would give me frostbite. Really, really cold.

This year was not as bad as that. Possibly because I am now a real grown-up with a proper house and a fully functioning furnace. Even so, we’ve had measurable snow four times in the last two weeks, and in a city where a 1/2″ of snow causes panic and pandemonium, this is a really big deal. Today, though, dawned sunny, though substantially colder than normal for March and still with a cold wind blowing. It did not feel like spring (though my son insisted otherwise), but it did feel like one of those bright and clear days in early February when the sun comes out for a change and you begin to believe that spring will come again.

We bundled ourselves into lightweight coats or sweatshirts, and set out for a walk to the local pizza joint and the library, since the weather was a balmy 41. The early signs of spring were out, and my son decided that we needed to name every flower and flowering plant we saw. I convinced him that we would only count plants with actual flowers or buds, though I allowed a couple that had dried flower heads from the year before onto our list too. My husband rolled his eyes at our slow walking pace, but we persevered. (After all, the child was nibbling goldfish crackers on the walk, so who could possibly be feeling a need to get to the restaurant and eat, right?) Early spring flowers, even in a non-snowy climate, take a little patience to find, because they tend to be small. I was amazed at the list we accumulated. Crocus, of course. Light purple, dark purple, white, off-white, light purple with dark purple stripes, and off-white with dark red stripes by the time we looped back around to home. Hellebore in four different colors. Snowdrops. A few brave daffodils, and a lot of buds. Tulip and iris leaves peeping through the soil. The earliest camellias. Budding rhododendrons. Sweet violets. Viburnum- my favorite winter flower, because the flowers are tiny and the scent, especially during a cold clear twilight, trails you down the street and sucker punches you with the reminder that winter is fading. We saw euphorbia and vinca minor and marsh daisies, flowering stalks of heather and dried heads of lavender and hydrangea. Even the first flowering dandelion heads appeared, which my husband claims are not a flower, but a weed, and my son insists are flowers because “they are cheerful and beautiful.” I’m siding with my son on this one. Anyone who has even been brought a bouquet of “dandy lines” by an adoring child knows in their heart that these are flowers.

I am not a winter person. Even after spending my entire adult life in Oregon, my Southern California roots, twining back through five generations, run deep. If the sun is shining, I still expect that I can walk outside in shorts and bare feet, and I get tired of the cold and the mud and the dark and the rain rain rain. A day of sunshine and walking with close attention to the small signs of changing seasons refreshes my soul and revives my rain drenched spirit. I hope that I, and my son, never lose the ability to slow down and look around for the magic of growth and renewal.