Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to Ruin Your Life in Three Easy Steps

The neighborhood we live in is bounded on two sides by rather large apartment complexes. While our small neighborhood is very stable—families move in and like to stay—the apartments attract a more transient population.

Lately, within the past year, the foot traffic through our neighborhood has increased dramatically. It seemed to pick up when one of the neighbors, whose house backs on the one apartment parking lot, cut down a paper bark willow tree. The tree had blocked a direct line of sight—when it was standing, you could not look through to see the apartments. After the tree was down, you can look right through and actually see an apartment balcony. Maybe that clear shot view has encouraged local teens to walk through.

Where we live is within one mile of the local high school, which means at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, quite of few teens are walking through our neighborhood.

So what, you might say. To answer, let me take you back to last winter. Two doors down from our house is our neighborhood’s Good Neighbor Sam. He is the one who breaks the curve for the neighbors. He mows his lawn twice in one week, he clips his shrubbery meticulously. He is seemingly not happy unless he has a project of some sort going. He came out on a winter morning, started his car and went back in his house briefly. In that flash of a moment, a teen walking through the neighborhood saw the running car, and decided to “borrow” it. The car was quickly found by local police, in the high school parking lot. But there was no way of telling who took it.

Until yesterday. Yesterday was a non-teaching day for me, so I was sleeping in, a bit, when I was awakened by my furiously barking dog. She was on our sun porch looking out the window and up the street. So, I looked too. There were two police cars, my neighbor Good Neighbor Sam and his dog, and another neighbor. With them was a young man, sitting on the curb. Shortly three more local police cars drove up.

It seems the kid—because that’s what he is—had taken the car back last winter, kept the keys, then decided to take it again two days ago. Good Neighbor Sam found it at the high school again, and went out and bought a club. Then yesterday morning, the kid walked through again, decided to jump in the car, saw the club, promptly jumped out—but this time he was seen by Good Neighbor Sam, and another neighbor. Case solved.

Except for the kid who has totally screwed up his life. Sadly, it was even someone I had seen in the neighborhood several times before and talked to, trying to be friendly. And, ironically, he was not an apartment resident, not a transient, but someone whose family has lived nearby for many years. Life ruined.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mea Culpa*

*mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Every semester, I make a really big deal about cell phones in class. I put a statement in my syllabus. I tell students to mute cell phones on coming to class. I tell them if they have a home emergency pending to tell me ahead of time so if they get buzzed, I don't get nasty. I have even called out students who surreptitiously text down below the desktop, thinking perhaps that I can't see.

I throw out an additional precaution before an exam--I tell students if I see you so much as touch your cellphone, you are out of here and your exam will be scored as a 0. Oh, I am one mean teacher.

So, imagine my surprise in my morning class when a cell phone started ringing. I looked around expecting to see some student dive for her purse or his book bag. No one moved. So I waited--I stopped talking. All the while, the cell phone merrily warbled its call. Finally, it stopped.

Well, I said, just a reminder to please put your cell phone on vibrate, or mute them. I was feeling very smug--what a great way to remind them. Someone's cell phone rings, everyone is too intimidated to answer it, and I make my point about SILENCING YOUR CELL PHONES.

After class, I got back in my office, and looked at my cell phone. GULP. It was MY cell phone that had rung. I had forgotten to silence my own cell phone. There was the message: ONE MISSED CALL.

Oh dear. But, if you think I am going to own up to the students that it was my cell phone, think again. In fact, I chuckled on the way home--point made. Now everyone will think---sheeese--don't let your cell phone ring in her class.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Infinite Variety

When I was in graduate school and took the obligatory Shakespeare course, each student had to select one of the plays to concentrate upon. I chose Anthony and Cleopatra. I still love this play, for many reasons. One of the reasons I love it so is because of the shimmering phrases various characters utter to describe Cleopatra.

In an early scene, Enobarbus, who is Anthony's lieutenant, says of Cleopatra:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies. . .

Anthony and Cleopatra, Act II, scene ii, lines 271-274

That phrase--infinite variety--applies to one person in the context of the play, but I can't help but think of this phrase and apply it to all humanity.

Today, my husband and I sat at our customary Saturday morning breakfast in our local diner. I was casually looking around, and suddenly said--I am constantly amazed at the infinite variety of the human face. My husband--who is a seasoned people watcher--agreed. He remarked that he recently spent time sitting and watching the parade of people that passed by him while he was at a conference.

People's faces. Think about it--the raw materials are relatively limited. Two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth--all assembled within the frame of a face, but within those limitations, so many variations. I find it just plain astounding.

It reminds me of two questions our daughter asked when she was a growing girl. She was pondering infinite variety in these questions. One time she asked me if there was any place in the United States that had never had a human walk upon it. What a wonderful (and unanswerable) question.

She topped that question when she asked one day whether or not we would run out of music. I wasn't quite sure what she meant, so she explained--there are only so many musical notes, and only so many ways of putting them together. When will we run out of new songs? Rather like my wondering about the endless variety of human faces.

One of my favorite painters is Thomas Eakins. I have read quite a bit about him, including his somewhat misanthropic life. He was not a warm and fuzzy person. One of the things that made him particularly controversial was his insistence on studying the human body, and on painting full nudes. The prudishness of America found his penchant for nudes, well, scandalous.

Eakins was known as a portraitist, although he was out-shone by his contemporary John Singer Sargeant who was widely regarded as the best portrait painter of his era. When I look at Sargeant's portraits, however, there is something cloying and too sweet about them. Oh, they are charming enough, but there is no humanity in them. They are just pretty paintings.

Eakins knew how to paint a portrait in such a way that all the infinite variety of humanity is caught therein. Years ago, I saw Eakins' painting of his wife, an artist in her own right, Susan Hannah MacDowell, which was on display in the then newly opened Hirshhorn Gallery. I loved the painting on first viewing it, and still love it. This painting is a PORTRAIT.

So much humanity in this lovely face. In her eyes there is a knowing weariness; she has seen much. There is triumph, there is resignation. There is beauty, there is decay. Infinite variety indeed.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Call to Write

I shamelessly have appropriated the title of a wonderful writing text as my blog title. This text, which is NOT currently on the list of approved texts that I may choose for my writing class, underscores the ways in which we write and need to write--even though many of us feel we are not writers. It is this message that I hope to convey to my students this semester.

But, it doesn't appear that this semester will be marked with no crises. In fact, day one brought the first crisis. My early class begins at 8:00 a.m. Since I am by personal tendency a late riser, it will take me a bit of time until my body kicks into early-mode. Day one events in this section brought me to full attention. I began class as I usually do--taking attendance (noting a higher than usual number of day one no-shows); handing out syllabi; reviewing course expectations; indicating what materials are required of students. . .WAIT--is that a different textbook I see on every student's desk?

It would be! How did that happen? After about 30 seconds of personal panic--which includes me briefly entertaining that thought that maybe I will have to re-work the course (again)--I decide to break the awful news to the students. YOU ALL HAVE THE WRONG TEXTBOOK. When I ask if that's what the college bookstore sold them, they all mutely nod.

I then quickly review mentally the book ordering process. Oh, I remember. By late June, I had not gotten any inquiry from the writing coordinator as to which text I planned to use. So I sent her an email. Her response--I just put in an order for the texts you used last year. No problem, I thought. I like those texts and am happy to continue using them. The only explanation, then, for the wrong textbooks being ordered is that either the writing coordinator DIDN'T really know which texts I used OR the bookstore goofed. Whatever the reason, the students should be made whole in their purchases.

So I fired off an email to the bookstore, indicating which courses I taught, indicating the name of the correct textbooks, and that my students would be returning the wrong one so they could get the correct ones. Crisis averted--although it wreaks havoc on my course calendar.

Back to day one of class. After I go over the stuff that is (frankly) boring, but essential, I had the students working in small groups on an opening exercise. I ask students to write out a shopping list--that's what I said in the first section. By the time I had the second section, I had amended the instruction to say what I really intended--a grocery list. Then I ask students to come up with two ways to organize the list. The point of the exercise is to get them thinking about how they gather information and then organize it.

What is fun about this exercise is the ITEMS students put on the list. Well, this year a new item appeared on the list--condoms! I have long ago learned not to blanch when students say (or write) something that they think may shock or surprise me. Of course, since part of the point of the exercise is to see how they organize their lists, I asked the condom group their organizational pattern. Not surprisingly, this group had no organizational pattern. I think they were just titillated about the prospect of seeing how I would react that they forgot to organize.

A quick point of reference--other groups organized their lists alphabetically, or by perishables/non-perishables, or by food groups, or by solids/liquids. Yes, one group did use solids/liquids as their organization. Since they had bread on the list, I was curious where they placed that item. Um, they said, on liquids. I did have to laugh at that.

Well, the semester has begun. And I am hoping the textbook fiasco is the only major crisis. I have been teaching long enough, though, to know it might not be. But, crisis or no, I hope to inspire just one or two students to want to write and write well.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Oh, I Give Up!

Try as I might, I am simply no match for those of you who are nature experts: Julie, Tom, Nina, Laura, Mary, Ruth and countless others whose blogs I read with great fascination.

Really, I do love nature. I love watching the seasons change--a wonderful benefit from living in central PA--I love watching birds, and all manner of outdoor creatures, I love the animals living with us. I love tending to my flower gardens.

So, it was a thrill to spot a lovely butterfly as we returned home from a brief shopping trip today. I dashed downstairs (dog hot on my trail wondering where I was going) to grab my camera. The butterfly was first spotted on red zinnias, and then flitted away to some pink zinnias and some dianthus. She (or he?) was not too cooperative in maintaining an open wing stance so I could photograph the lovely design clearly.

I was convinced that all I needed to do was download the photos, type "butterfly" and maybe even "eastern U.S." into Google, and I would find a quick ID. No such luck.

So, I give up. I have a series of photos of a lovely unidentified butterfly. Anyone able to help me?
UPDATE: here's a great site for photos to ID butterflies.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

It's Show Time

Did you, by any chance, see the movie "All That Jazz"? In the opening sequence, Roy Scheider, who plays the lead character based on director/choreographer Bob Fosse, starts his day. After he gets up, he goes through morning ablutions--he puts on a classical music tape, puts eyedrops in his eyes, downs a glass of Alka-seltzer, opens a bottle of amphetamines, pops a couple, slaps his cheeks, then opens his eyes wide looking in the mirror and pronounces "It's show time!"

Well, folks, it's show time. In less than a week, classes resume at my community college. For the past several weeks, I have been poring over textbooks, once again retooling my course. I don't quite know why I do this--I could practically teach this course with my eyes (and textbooks) closed. But I don't. Every so often, I try to reconfigure the basic approach to the course.

Partly, I do this to keep the material fresh for me, but also I do this because the students deserve to have an instructor who is fully engaged with her material.

You might think this is only appropriate--and what every instructor would do. And you would be wrong if you thought that.

I have heard stories to the contrary. Three instances come to mind.

First, several years ago, as I walked down the hall of the building where I teach, I passed a classroom. The professor holding class was using an overheard projector, and had a PURPLE copy of a document projecting on the screen. So, you ask. Well, purple copies can only mean one thing. The document had to be at least 30 years old, produced by a spirit duplicator process long abandoned. If the document was so good, why on earth not have it retyped by word processing and printed anew? I'll let you draw your own conclusion as to why.

Second, I have been told of a professor who tends to do his course introduction by showing a video tape of himself giving the course intro. OK. But, this particular video was made when he first started teaching, more than 30 years ago. He even jokes to current classes about how young he looked then. Really! Wow. I am speechless--how can a course NOT change in 30 years?

Finally, a student I know remarked that the professor she had for a course, that included using maps, had outdated maps. How did the student know? The maps featured the OLD names for countries. And, no, this was not a history course where knowing that once a place was called Asia Minor, and is now called Turkey. Or once this area was part of the Ottoman Empire and is now independent. This was a course about current issues. Yet the professor used outdated maps. When that fact was called to his attention, his response was to be hostile to the student who had pointed this out. You would think that a course on current issues would NEED to have CURRENT material, wouldn't you?

Now, before any of you thinks this post is a rant against tenured faculty, let me stop you. I am wholeheartedly in favor of tenure. Education needs to be independent of the political whims that toss public thinking back and forth. A teacher in the classroom should not be bullied by a parent who happens to sit on the school board, or who might belong to the same country club as the college president, or who may have more money to give to the college than someone else. A teacher should not be harassed because she belongs to a particular political party.

But I do fault fellow faculty for being lazy, or insufficiently devoted to their chosen profession that they do not do all they can to give students a quality education.

Next week, I will open my eyes, blink a couple of times , eschew the pills Bob Fosse used, and head to the classroom. I will announce my name, inform students this is English Comp, in case they have wandered into the wrong classroom, and the show will begin.

Monday, August 11, 2008


I have introduced you to Allie--our sweet female cat who lolls lazily on the highest ledge of the cat tree.

Now meet Cassidy. Cassidy is now 12 years old, and is showing his age.

My daughter and I went to the local humane society 12 years ago, intent on getting two kittens. We saw quite a few very young (and somewhat sickly looking) kittens. And then we saw two brother kittens, about 10 weeks old, playing together in one cage, completely ignoring us. We walked over to the cage--they stopped playing briefly, sniffed our hands, then went back to tussling just like two little rambunctious boys. Of course, we picked them!

On the way home, we talked about names. For some reason, my daughter wanted to name them Frank and Jesse (as in the James brothers) or Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. I wasn't wild about those names, so I suggested--if it's western quasi-outlaw names you want, how about Sundance and Cassidy. So that's what they were named.

Sundance was a gorgeous lovable cat. But after a couple of years, he began peeing almost anywhere except the litter box. In desperation, I tried putting every imaginable barrier--such as metal shelving--on the floor to keep him directed to the litter box. After a bit of time, we took him to the vet (duh!). Turns out he had chronic renal failure. He lived only 4 years; it was very hard to leave him go.

Now Cassidy is beginning to slow down some. You know the crazy things we do for our pets? Well, at some point I began giving him a small dish of food and water on my bathroom counter. And now that's his favorite place to eat. BUT. . .he can't quite make the jump these days.

So, what do I do? I build a stairway for him!

And since he can't jump up on our bed--one of his favorite sleeping places--we ordered a pet staircase. (I know, I know!)

Now our house is handi-cat-accessible!

That look proves the old saying: dogs have masters; cats have staff!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer Interrupted

I was all of 15 years old. Since my parents had returned to their missionary work in Africa while I remained in the U.S., living with relatives, I was visiting an uncle and aunt, on my mother's side of the family, who lived in Ohio.

It was a quintessential summer--sun filled days that leave your skin smelling fresh. My uncle was a pastor at a church in south-west Ohio, about 50 miles north of Cincinnati. I loved visiting them because my uncle and aunt had 4 daughters who were close to my age. Talk about a teenager's dream--being with 4 cousins in high summer. The dream went into overdrive when one of the members of my uncle's congregation asked if we wanted to help bale hay.

Well, sure--especially since there were several teenage boys involved. I can recall the smell of that newly mown hay--with all its tangy sweetness.

This summer reverie was interrupted when the telephone rang. News from central Pennsylvania where my father's parents were living. My paternal grandmother had died somewhat unexpectedly. She and my grandfather were visiting relatives in southern Ontario, when her heart--which had been very weak for many years--simply gave out.

At first, I thought it all an awful joke--but it was most certainly real. Another uncle, my father's brother, came to get me so we could return to central Pennsylvania for the funeral.

Years later, I caught a scent of fresh mown hay--and the recollection of my grandmother's death came flooding back. So, I wrote a poem, shared here with you.

Photo from

Age Born

The smell of hay hurts
With its sweetsharp tang
Ohio evenings—
Riding high
Doing no work
But slyly flirting with
Smooth brown farm boys.

Sky turning on an amber cloud
Brings twilight
In that musty clapboard
Church balcony
We sit pondering
Fine details of morality
Long gone.

Ritual of school ended
Our lemonaded night
Uncurls to distant lights
Golden girls giggling
At reveries of youth—
Of him who gently glanced
Awkwardly away.

Slight steaming morning
With sticky sheet sloughed
In a cousin’s home awake
Quick clanging brings hard news
Your grandmother has died
Swift cleavage from a past
As brittle pain sets in—

by KGMom © written c. 1975

Friday, August 08, 2008

And Now, A Word from Our Sponsor

You all know this blog is written by an English teacher--classes start in LESS THAN TWO WEEKS (help).

So, it was with great dismay that I read this story from the BBC: Bad spelling should be accepted.

I sent an email to my daughter with this story attached (she and I share many things including a love of good writing). Her response: This is silly. What about frequently made math errors? Or geography errors?

Oh, I so agree. What's a little mistake in addition? No problem--just consider it a variant. A small geography misplacement? No problem--just a variant. PLEASE.

But, there is still hope. Here's a story about a man who READ the Oxford English Dictionary. For particular enjoyment, note the list of words the man found that were his favorites. Example: gymnologize--to dispute naked, like an Indian philosopher.

Ahhhh--I can relax; there's still hope as long as someone cares enough about words to read the w-h-o-l-e dictionary. All 22,000 pages of it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Garden Whimsy

Christine asked what garden whimsy we found at the Boateak, so I thought I'd update a view of our garden. Last year, I wrote about our copper garden--I know, it's a bit weird. I am concerned that we not begin to look like those folks who "cultivate" bottle trees. I think we are stopping JUST short of that.

Our newest garden whimsy contributes to the copper collection. It dances in the breeze, sparkling and tinkling softly.

We have wind catchers, light catchers, and sound makers hanging all around. The breeze throughout the day sets the various items in motion, and the sun sparkles through the stained glass.

Of course, every garden needs flowers. We have those in profusion this year--lots of rain and sunshine.

One thing I have done for several years that brings the summer garden almost indoors--I arrange an array of flower pots just outside our glassed-in porch and plant flowers in increasing height. So when we look out the window we see first short bushy plants, then taller plants in profusion.

So, how are all your summer gardens? Full of flowers? Touched by whimsy?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Gathering at the River

We have friends who have a summer cottage along the St. Lawrence River, and this last weekend we drove up to spend a couple of days with them.

The St. Lawrence is a magnificent and amazing river. It is completely navigable by deep sea-going vessels, from the estuary entrance at Quebec City, all the way to Lake Ontario, where it links ocean-going vessels to the Great Lakes.

We have visited the Thousand Islands area (where our friends have their cottage) off and on for many years. When our daughter was little, and we were on a family vacation with her and our son, she wanted to see a real castle. So we went to see Boldt Castle (not a castle by European standards, but enough for a four year old, at the time).

About 7 years ago, when we were also visiting our friends, we went into the little town of Clayton, NY--and encountered a woman walking a puppy that needed a new home. VOILA--our dog Tipper (so named because of TIP=Thousand Island Park. . .and for the white tip on her nose!).

So, to get to our destination, we cross the Thousand Island Bridge, which is a treat all in itself. From the top of this bridge, you can begin to see the charm of the Thousand Islands area--where individual cottages are built on tiny islands.

We arrive at our destination--our friends' cottage. The above photo of Tipper (and her master) is taken on the front porch of this cottage.

Our first evening meal--a cookout eaten on this lovely picnic table.

And then, our evening entertainment--a boat ride on the St. Lawrence to view the lovely sunset.

The soft pastel hues of the St. Lawrence are famous--and local pottery features these peachy, bluesy sunset hues. You bet I am going to make a large print of the photo immediately above and frame it.

Waiting for us at the cottage--our friends' new kitten (held by a little neighbor girl), and our friends' dog--Ada.

On our second day, we headed out to a local gift shop on an island. The shop is cleverly named The Boateak! We always find some whimsy there that we buy and bring back home.

The house is immediately next to the gift shop, and is the residence of the shop owner.

These crested white ducks were part of a flock that the shop owner had. Domestic ducks, they were reluctant to swim in the little pond next to their pen!

The loon planter is the type of item the shop might sell. This one, with the iridescent begonias, was NOT for sale.

A frequent sight on the St. Lawrence--a freighter passing by, as we shopped.

The dock at the shop.

And then, the weather began to turn--as it does shockingly fast along the St. Lawrence. We zoomed back to our dock--with us heading LEFT out of the photo! The rain held off until we got back.

The summer has been rainy there, and the flowers are thriving.

A few other sights--an osprey nest, seen on our first evening out.

An American kestrel has been visiting the island this summer.

Finally, on Sunday--our last day there--we headed to the Tabernacle where services are held: first Catholic and then Protestant. The Thousand Island Park was originally a Methodist community, established at the end of the 19th century.

A favorite hymn for Sunday services is "Shall We Gather at the River"--hence my title.