Saturday, May 31, 2014

Five Things I Will Never Take for Granted:

Ten Five Things I Will Never Take for Granted:

1.       The tires on my car. I remember being taught by my driving instructor to inspect the tires before driving every time. How many of us do that, honestly? I don’t. Most of us only think about our tires when they are flat, or we notice a screw in them. However, I do often think about them while driving. When I have successfully navigated a debris field without any damage to my tires, when they maintain traction on the road despite it raining just enough to mix with oil and make super-slick streets, and when I accidentally clip a curb and they maintain their form, I am thankful that they are as rugged and reliable as they are. Are they perfect? No; I’ve been halted by a small screw or piece of glass before, but the fact that we wake up expecting them to be in working order says a lot.

2.       Telephones. By the time I was born, telephones were everywhere. Rotary phones were still in use by many, and I remember dialing phone numbers that contained a lot of zeroes or nines and waiting for the dial to return to the start position so I could dial the next digit. I remember touch-tone phones becoming increasingly popular as phone menus required picking up on the different tones that each digit produced. I remember trying to make music by punching different number combinations and accidentally calling random strangers sometimes because of it. I used pay phones more times than I can count to inform my mom of a change of plans, call for a taxi when a friend’s car broke down, or phone a friend and ask her to meet me at the mall. My wealthier classmates had their own lines with their own phone numbers. That was so cool! Like most of my friends, we had one central phone in the house with a long spiraled cord that made mobility possible and somewhat less limited. I could list untangling phone cords as one of my proficiencies. My mom once had a $200 phone bill after my friend moved to the next town; such were the “long-distance” rates at the time for what amounted to a 15-minute drive. When my high school sweetheart joined the military and moved away, we quickly learned that phone calls were too expensive and resorted to old-fashioned letter-writing. It must have worked; we’ve been married for 23 years. Now, each member of my family has a cell phone: no cord, its own number, the ability to call or text or send pictures and files, GPS, voicemail, and lots of other functions that I’m sure I haven’t discovered. The fact that I can contact people anywhere in the world at any time is amazing, and I will never take that for granted.

3.       Rain. It makes life possible; it’s as simple as that. While too much or too little is problematic, the right amount keeps plants and animals alive and my home’s foundation level. Grumbling about slick roads, wet hair, and ruined outdoor plans are often heard when it rains, but its importance cannot be underestimated.

4.       Television. How many negative sayings can you think of that apply to TV? How about “TV rots your brain” or the “boob tube”? Television, like any technology, largely depends on how people use it in terms of its positive and negative effects. My parents were largely absent from my childhood, and my grandmother raised me. One of my warmest memories involves snuggling on her couch under a chevron-patterned afghan she crocheted while watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. We watched all the major series and mini-series together, including Shogun and Roots. Watching these characters and stories with my grandmother gave me a chance to ask questions about life spawned from situations on the screen, and I learned from a combination of the shows’ themes and my grandmother’s wisdom. Conversations seemed natural, authentic, and because we were watching situations unfold together, I asked questions more unreservedly than I might have otherwise. Even when alone (I was also an only child, so this happened a lot), I learned a great deal via TV shows. I watched Little House on the Prairie, which taught me about family units that stayed together. I watched Wonder Woman, and Linda Carter’s character made me feel empowered. Of course, she also influenced me to jump off of ever-higher surfaces, but I never broke anything. I watched Star Trek and, later, Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Gene Roddenberry taught me that despite all the apocalyptic visions of the future, there was also a hopeful vision in which racial and gender equality existed and learning and discovery were key to the human existence. After despising history in school – largely due to how certain coaches “taught” it with worksheets and map-coloring, I learned from the history channel and its sister-stations just how interesting the world’s peoples, past and present, are. That prompted me to turn to books to learn even more. When I homeschooled my daughter, Bill Nye (the science guy), Reading Rainbow, Wishbone, and The Magic School Bus were there to reinforce what we studied and offer visual and auditory stimulation. My point is: TV has enriched my life from an early age. I hear people proudly proclaim “I don’t own a TV” as if it’s some badge of superiority or sophistication. I just don’t get it. Owning and enjoying a TV doesn’t mean one is obliged to have it on all the time, or watch the Kardashians’ latest drama. It does mean that its owner can witness important world events as they unfold, view eye-opening documentaries, and select entertainment that matches the viewer’s interests and values. Far from being mind-numbing, I have always found it intellectually and spiritually stimulating. As I write this, ‘80s music emanates from my TV’s speakers, and that makes me happy.

5.       Hugs from my family. I’m a hugger. Hugs stem from different situations. There’s the hug that says “I’ve missed you, and I’m so happy to see you again.” Hugs that students give to teachers because they know that there’s an adult who cares for them are indispensable in good educational practice. There’s the hug that means one or both of the huggers are in pain. The passionate embrace represents a different level of hugging. In high school, my current husband and I broke up for about 2 weeks once. It was the “one last hug” he asked for that culminated in us deciding to date again. Hugs are that powerful. When I hug my grandmothers, I always think about how much they have cared for me, shaped me into who I am today, and the vast amount of love shared between us. I would give almost anything to be able to hug my dad once more. When I hug my children, the feelings are almost indescribable. Of course I will try. You’ve probably noticed that I have a lot to say despite the blog format – desperately teetering on the verge of verbosity and the reason this “Ten” list turned into a list of “Five…” – so of course I will try to describe these feelings anyway. Hugging my children represents all you would expect: they are loved; they are of my flesh and my union with my husband whom I love; their very smell is soothing in some instinctive way. There are few years during which a parent can hug children at will, and I am thankful for every such moment. More than anything, the fact that I can hug my children means they are safe in as much as they are here and they feel loved, and I will never take one second of that for granted.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

My Six Word Memoir

These aren't the [books] you're looking for.

As often happens when I enter a book store, usually under the guise of purchasing a text as a gift or one for classroom use, I find myself unable to ignore the novels whispering "read me" as I pass. Though I try to navigate the shelved corridors as though with blinders on, focused on the sole purpose for my excursion, the temptation to look upon old familiar friends and new, unexplored pages proves too irresistible, and my eyes inevitably linger overlong on books that make their way into my arms and through the checkout line.

Such was the case today, when a small table boldly titled: "Books Everyone Should Read" grabbed my attention. The first thing I noticed was that many of the novels stacked five-deep are books I have recommended to my AP Literature students as having "literary merit" and, more importantly, as thought-provoking and beautifully crafted texts. Then, snuggled in between such masters as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, I saw an old friend. Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has offered me inspiration and hope since my grandmother pulled her tattered copy down from her wall of books and offered it to me to read. Francie (the novel's young protagonist) and I shared quite a few traits and challenges, and though teaching English was nowhere on my radar as a middle-schooler, reading and writing would ultimately alter the course of my life and offer purpose and direction - just as they did for Francie. I wish I still had the copy that my grandmother lent me with its tattered cover full of character and memories, but I could not pass up the opportunity to purchase a new copy. At some point, a student will ask me what book I think he or she would like, and I will take this new copy from my classroom bookshelf, knowingly saying, "Read this. It is a great story of perseverance, resourcefulness, and hope - traits each of us needs to navigate life."

As for my second find, I cannot offer a testimonial about its merits...yet. I have read (and loved) other titles by Erik Larson: Isaac's Storm, The Devil in the White City, and half of In the Garden of Beasts (which I interrupted to read Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I'm also halfway through and am enjoying immensely...). I find Larson's writing style intriguing; he writes nonfiction in a narrative way about situations and people that already seem surreal. The result is the feeling of reading a good fictional novel but actually learning a great deal about history in the process. What more could any reader ask for?

Please feel free to leave me a message about any good literary finds you've recently made.