If you’re not a Radiolab listener, you should be

Today, while fighting to eradicating ranunculus from my garden and free-basing Radiolab podcasts (and yes, I did borrow that phrase from another Radiolab listener because there is simply no better way to describe it) I found a sweet spot.  The place where things I love overlap in a way that makes each one more perfect for the connection and, essentially, hits it out of the park.

Radiolab Podcast: Tell Me a Story

Robert Krulwich talks about the place where science and story over lap and the ramifications of his ideas travel far beyond the Cal Tech graduates he’s speaking to.  It resonates in teaching, science, writing and story-telling, all of which are wrapped around my heart and soul like … well, like that freaking ranunculus that sneaks in roots and runners every time I blink.  It does, however, have pretty flowers.  As does this particular podcast, and I think the ideas in it may be just as tenacious in taking root.

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A surprising edorsement of shopping and television

The clothing you wear has a lot to say.  I’ve hated that sentiment, even tried to deny it, but we are a visual species, evolved over millions of years to use our eyes first to case an open field and make snap decisions.  So it follows that we continue judge by our first opinions–hair, clothes, carriage–all those first impressions speak volumes whether we are intentional about what we want to say or not.

What I find more interesting, is that what we wear also speaks to the wearer.  These past two days I had to opportunity to watch copious amounts of cable television all hours of the day and night. There are so many products I didn’t know anyone needed being sold at 3 AM and yes, I will watch anything when the other option is staring off into the feverish and nightmarish dark anticipating the next opportunity to throw up on my own hair.  Stomach flu has no shame.

In that time, drifting in and out of attentiveness, I took in far to many episodes of people choosing their own clothes (Say Yes to the Dress, What Not to Wear, some sort of wonderbra infomercial….).  Aside from the obvious–that we’re a society so fascinated by clothing we’ve made it into television–what struck me is that it’s not just a superficial thing.  I know it’s just television, but there were moments where those women (and it was always women) would smile and you could just tell, the clothes made a difference in more than just the way they looked in the mirror.  They look proud, they look pleased, the suddenly look as it doesn’t matter what they’re wearing anymore, which is an utter contradiction because when they were badly dressed, the clothing was all you saw.

Now, I don’t think it’s actually the clothes that made the difference.  For a woman, the way you look is a big deal but at the same time, taking the time to look good is an exercise in vanity.  I think it’s one of those subtle things you pick up in the high school hallways, that grace, beauty and style are supposed to be easy.  No one says it, you can just tell, all the so-called “pretty girls” are just…pretty.  What I failed to realize at sixteen was that everyone is beautiful at 16, it’s just that no one has a clue.  But that left me with this struggle, this belief that people who have that magnificent package of beauty and confidence come by it the same way they come by breathing.  They just naturally have it.

Turns out, it’s about the clothes.  Okay, it’s far more than that, but clothes are a piece.

When you make the time to care for yourself, think about yourself and make space for yourself, it shows.  That’s what all these women did in the process of shopping, which was not so much shopping but therapy.  They were forced to look and listen rather than passing themselves over.  They had to worry about themselves.  They had to look and like that image in the mirror.  Once they saw themselves and liked what was there, and yes, I’m sure they liked the clothes they were wearing as well, they were beautiful.

So, clothes do make a difference and they do say things, they say things to the women who put them on and know they are wearing something they feel beautiful in.

All that said, my clothes currently says something about me, too. After 48 hours, I have graduated to wearing actual pants and a shirt that doesn’t also double as a bathrobe.  I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for a thousand channels of weird and fascinating television for buoying me through a horrid summer virus.  That and children’s Tylenol.

Damn, I feel better.

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Family Reunion Part II: Barefoot

My sub-branch of the Smith family is clearly from way out West because while so many others were doing civilized things–golfing, sitting by the pool, sleeping off the night before–we found ourselves doing this.

There was a sweet little trail leading to a waterfall of minute proportions but it dead ended into a stream.  Those of us from out West, however, are undaunted by water and we detected extreme hints of trail on the other side of the stream.  There was only one answer for it.  Shoes off.  Feet wet.  Go forth.

Now, hiking boots are an important part of one’s wardrobe but all that time they’re protecting your feet from things like sharp rocks and cold water and mud (and leaches) they’re preventing you from full connecting with the world and all its intricate details.  You miss out on experiences like practicing squeaky forms of Lamaze breathing to bear the bone numbing cold of the stream.  Or sinking ankle-deep in a mud puddle and willing your mind not to make guesses at what might comprise the hidden lumps beneath your feet (horse dung?  the decaying bits of small animals or missing hikers? giant toe sucking leeches?).  Or the forever summer feeling of trying to small, inordinately sharp stones repeatedly nestling into the same tender spot in the arch of your foot.

There is, however, nothing like squeezing mud between your toes to wake up your inner seven-year-old.  That alone is worth the rocks.

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Family Reunion 2011: Part I

My extended family is a sea of New Yorkers and other refugees of the Irish diaspora.  They’re loud, honest, numerous, generous and have no need of an actual bar to have a drinking party.  I knew this, academically anyway, before flying back East for the 2011 Smith (Rogers, Hennessy, and I’ve now automatically insulted new-found relatives because I’ve forgotten the other last name) family reunion, but I didn’t really know it until 12:30 last night when I decided to call it quits and the yellow shirts (my branch of this lanky tree) were still going strong in the bar and the blue and black shirts had overtaken the lobby.

They, of course, were the really hardy partiers, so it was okay for me to wuss out.  This is what I told myself.  Of course, I’d actually bailed on the drinking and the hoarse-making conversations yelled over music two hours before that and had been pretending to write in a corner, fending off the occasion invitation to “Come on and join us!  Pull up a chair!”.  Yes, I’m a recluse, that’s the truth of it.

But when I got back to the room I was sharing, thinking I’d need to slip in quietly to I didn’t wake anyone up, I discovered that I am the official family lightweight.  Sitting inside, sipping paper cups of wine at almost one AM were my mother, her sisters and their 90-year-old mother.  Apparently the sisters paid a visit to the bar after that.

So here’s what I’m thinking. If artists and writers are supposed to be notorious for boozing it up in veiled attempts to loosed their muses, I was clearly born into the right family and yet, I’ve missed a step.  Unless skipping the booze to write says something more flattering than “anti-social hermit”.

**Note: For all the family members who I have now discovered actually read this (and you’d think I wouldn’t be so surprised because, seriously, it’s the internet): Thanks for the rounds of drinks, I just couldn’t keep up.  You guys know how to have a good time. 🙂

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Begin Summer

I finally have time, acres of it spread out over a summer that appears to be only summer by the calendar (it’s raining outside), and I’m not using it.  Already it feels like I’m wasting it, letting the undedicated hours slide away.

Yesterday, instead of writing watched a public television painting show and the man admonished us novice painters not to fear the white page.  Just jump in and paint something.  It’s only paper, he said.  It’s only paint. You can’t break it.

Well, it’s only time.

Time has been getting faster, recently.  I might lose too much of it staring out the window, thinking, and watching rain fall, waiting for the right way to use what I have.

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Drafts (and some poems published)

The past few months I’ve been plagued by the this sense that I haven’t been getting anything done.  I’m running but I don’t feel like I’m getting any faster.  I sit down to write and nothing gets finished.  I pull weeds and dig out grass but the beds aren’t done.  There’s more and more and more.  And of course, I go to work and hustle.  I skip lunch, I multi-task, I get the kids to help grade their own junk so I don’t have to and by the end of the day I’m still farther behind than I was when I started.  I get the feeling that I’d catch up faster by not going into work at all.

I feel like I’d done all this work, but what do I have to show for it?  Everything is still a draft–the kids, the garden, novels, poems, my physical fitness.  Well, everything is still a draft except this: The Battered Suitcase, Summer 2011 edition.

I’d gotten the acceptance note months ago, so long ago that I’d (almost) forgotten I’d even sent these out.  When I read them in the electronic edition they were a satisfying two full pages of done.  It’s a feeling similar to weaving in ends on a knitting project, finishing a stack of grading or (you teachers out there will get this) doing the photocopying myself.  They’re also beautifully formatted on the page–well done Battered Suitcase!

These five poems are striking to me because each was seeded by very vivid image rather than a collage of image or a powerful emotion.  They certainly picked up those thing–the collage and the emotion–in the writing, but they didn’t begin there and so now, when I read them I see the story I tried to tell overlaid on the moment in time that seeded the idea.  Take, for example, “Two methods for eating a cherry cordial”.  I read this and I remember the morning I met up with my childhood best friend to re-acquaint and we ended up at a chocolate shop in Greenlake writing and eating gourmet chocolates.  I’m sure you can figure out what I had.  I’ve always liked this poem but had a hard time getting it published and I wonder if part of my love for it is not the poem itself but this memory of sitting with Megan who was the absolutely intimate stranger to me.  Someone I loved because swaths of my childhood were built on her, but honestly now know very little about.  She’s not in the poem, but she’s forever sitting next to it.

Each of these has a back story like that.  Several of them are pieces I’ve worked on for a while, some are new, though they all went through that stage of feeling like they were steeped in work and yet not done.  Drafts that were longing to be called final.  And then I sent them off and forgot about them and here they are again, all grown up and published.

So, one small thing done.  Now, back to the drafts.


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Shades of Mediocrity

At a workshop a few weeks ago, the presenters opened with a quote that I keep forgetting to bring home, but went something to the effect of: “The only people who feel successful are those who are willing to put up with mediocrity.”  I’m pretty sure their point was that none of us was supposed to feel successful because we’re saving children for God’s sake!  We must push onward and upward and do it better next time!  With lots of positive statements about how the only thing standing between now and the world where all children are happy Harvard graduates is how hard we work!  The teachers, not the kids.

What bothered me about the quote, though, was not the words themselves, or even the message–because, come on, why else would I go into teaching unless I actually thought, deep down that my effort alone could actually save children.  No, what bothered me was my immediate reaction.  I read the quote and the first though that showed up, happily sitting on the front stoop waiting to come on in, was “Yes!  Mediocrity = feelings of success!  Sign me up for some of that!”

Now that I think about it, the ONLY thing I took away from that hour-long presentation was that I could feel successful in what I do if I lower my personal expectation.  Clearly, my expectations for myself are currently way too high if I need to work 10 hour days (and feel like I should work 12) in order to do all the things I envision.  And it’s become obvious that they’re way too high for the people around me because I keep expecting kids to turn in all their work and administrators to actually show up at the lunch time meetings they planned. Details.

The trouble is, I have no idea how to go about working toward mediocrity.  Is that something someone can even work toward?  Do I have to study?  Should I make a list of all the things I could let slide, or perhaps rank order them and then find a reasonable cut off?  Is it possible to work too hard at trying to be mediocre?  Is that still mediocrity?

It has been pointed out to me that I could also try just walking out the door at 4:30 in the afternoon and then come back again the next day, but I don’t think that will work because who will grade all the papers and plan fabulous lessons with lots of bad white board drawings and arm waiving?  And if no one grades the papers, won’t the kids all suffer dire consequences?  Or at least get a paper cut?

I’m still having trouble with this theory, but I’m working on it.  And once I get it all figured out, I’ll let you know in thorough detail.  It’ll be perfect. 🙂

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This morning, we were treated to a staff meeting.  My students know I am not a fan of staff meetings. I have to sit still, look like I’m paying attention and no one ever understands my questions, which is probably fine because I’m the only idiot who still raises their hand to speak.  This meeting was about schedules.  Teachers are obsessed with schedules, possibly because it’s something we can actually exert control over, thus must be micro managed to insanity.

So today–because we can’t control the steady retraction of money, the impending news that someone on staff will be asked to leave by the end of the year, the knowledge that it’s more likely that we’ll be able to stop time than get all kids to pass all tests under all circumstances–we talked about the schedule.  The discussion ran circles around this central purpose: We need to implement RTI which requires that we organize our schedule such that SWAT teams can use AIMS WEB to gather data so that the PLCs can ensure all students can AYP on the PEs and GLEs, as established by OSPI and measured annually on the MSP.  And yes, I only remember what half of those acronyms mean.

Acronyms, along with generally meaningless pop-culturey buzz phrases like “value-added” and “power standard”, seem to be another way for us educators to stay one step ahead of the avalanche.  But instead of meticulously managing the only things we can control, these words are like landmines.  They leave the listener stuck in a parallel universe of almost grasping what was said, only to have sense slip away like steam.  It’s a complete inhibitor to understanding and communication.

Sadly, that never stops me from asking.  Usually, I manage to keep the questions to myself but every once in a while I make the mistake of asking for clarification on some badly jumbled concept and or destroyed-in-the-process-of-communication idea.  I’ve been told that there are certain staff members who love that moment when my hand goes up, just waiting to hear me try to understand, at the level we all talk about wanting the kids to understand, what’s really going on.

But to understand, we have to deeply know the words.  And not just the denotation, we have to know the connotation, the bringing together of all the associations and experiences and lifetimes of each word until it is a tapestry of meaning with shining surfaces and dark underbellies and multiplicities of meaning.  We have to expand the words, not crunch them all together into acronyms or strip them into buzzwords.  And to get to know all the facets of a word, or the ideas built out of those words, we have to slow down.

Maybe we should revise the schedule and see if we can plan the time to slow down, but we’ll have to squeeze it in, because there’s a hell of a lot to do.


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Joseph Kaufman is my hero

There is nothing quite like having an editor quote your own work back to you as an example of quality writing.  Especially, when the comments are prefaced with the phrase “This line is amazing”.  I’m ready to spit shine this guy’s shoes (among other things) just for putting something about my writing and the word “amazing” in the same vicinity, much less the same paragraph.

Fortunately, the light-headed delight of such is quickly pulled right back down to earth by the standard closing line of “We look forward to reading more of your work” which opens the floodgates of panic.

Because, I will never be able to write anything like that every again.  In fact, I’m already doubting that I was capable of writing the first piece they liked and have to check to make sure I recognize the title.

But it is mine.  To be published in Every Day Fiction some day soon.

Posted in Prose, Publication, Writing | 1 Comment


Tonight, sparrows and bats crisscrossed the sky failing sky.  I thought they were all bats at first but the stealth arrow of the sparrows set them apart from the frantic flutter flutter of the bats, never able to glide with grace through the night.  Watching them, an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon found its way out of memory.  In silhouette, bats really do look a bit like the giant bugs Calvin decreed them to be, their pudgy little bodies suspended between undersized wings, as if a caterpillar or stubby little grub were allowed to fly.  I recalled that one of my 5th graders reported that bats were sleeping in the eaves of our school; she saw them snugly wrapped in their wings on her return from recess.  I’ve had all these passing experiences with bats and they’ve come tumbling back to me, pried out of unlit corners and frayed synapses.  It seems like there should be some kind of meaning in this but I can only list all the times bats have flown past.

The human brain is built to make connections, to build meaning.  I give this lecture at least once every few weeks.  Our brains are designed to see the patterns and even when they’re not actually present, we draw the lines.  We can create constellations from even the most disorganized points of light, s I feel like there must be something that can be sifted from all these fluttery bat thoughts.  Something greater than the mundane theme of bats, that is.

At 5th grade camp this year, we played a game called bat and moth to demonstrate why bats fly to erratically to catch their prey and when I was in Nicaragua we toured a bat cave originally formed by the nearby volcano but I saw absolutely nothing because I wore my sunglasses in to the cave.  And without a prescription, I’m blind.  As a bat.  Is that the connection?


I ran the treadmill today while listening to the guys on Rabiolab discuss the limits of human bodies and human memory (during which I reached my pathetic limit for running).  They followed a man who appeared to have no limit to his memory–digits, experiences, the entirely of Dante’s Inferno in Italian, all stored impeccably in his neural circuitry.

It seemed inconceivable that he could have a limitless memory because there are only a finite number of neural connections, at some point he would have to run out, wouldn’t he?  When they finally found his limit, it was not where you’d expect it to be.  This man had made a trade, one that most of us do in the other direction.  While he could remember millions of individual pieces of data, he could build no meaning from them.  His brain had sacrificed making meaning for quantity so he could remember the bats and every time he’d ever encountered bats in his lifetime but he could find nothing greater in the sum of the parts.  No theme, to message, no sublime sum of the parts, only the mundane label that all of these things were about bats.

It seems that the human brain intentionally filters out those things which seem to have no meaning in order to save space for creating greater meaning.  It saves space for seeing the thread that ties all the pieces together into a story that is not just about remembering bats.  But what happens when we try to hold on to the shards of information we’re bombarded with these days?  The shrapnel in thirty emails a day, ten of which are correcting other emails with misinformation.  The memos and phone messages and advertisements and requests and meetings like bombing raids, explosive with things to be recalled and followed through on.  This there a point at which we become like this man, remembering so much we no longer have the mental space for meaningful thought?

Maybe that’s why I’m still stuck in retrieval mode, making lists, lining up all the bat snippets and looking for the edge pieces that will fill in the frame.

When I was a kid, we used to sleep out in the orchard with our cousins and tell vampire bat stories until we could scare Bob inside.  Then we’d lie awake and watch the stars be sporadically blotted out by a body in flight and wonder at the truth in our own stories.  Is that what this is about? Telling stories?


I believe writing, or anything that employs the creative process, is about building new things out of the ideas already out there.  It’s about lining up all the little stories, the seed moments, and teasing out the thread that stitches them into a greater idea.  That means writing is about exactly what our brains are created to do.  Writing is seeking meaning, creating connectivity and divining patterns.  Writing is exactly what stops happening when I clutter my mind with GLEs and testing schedules and competition results and curricular plans, layered on top of vacation itineraries and television shows, garden plans and the hours of operation at the Y.  My head has become a dumping ground.  There’s no space left to create something new because the old crap keeps falling off the top self of the closet and burying me alive.

If writing requires a reduction of mental clutter then I need to find a way to focus in and grow a blind to all the distractions that take up space.  Like television.  And GLEs (seriously, does anyone else even know what that stands for?).  And meetings.  I need to find away to see past the ever present clouds, the telephone wires, the Japanese maple, the neighbor’s giant dog that insists on peeing on my garden and the endless flocks of sparrows.  I need to focus in and dwell only on the black outline of bats, frantically beating their wings in a bold denial of gravity as they zigzag through the endless empty space of a twilight sky.

Posted in Nicaragua, Prose, Teaching, Writing | Leave a comment