Last night I read a CNN article written by a therapist — John Duffy — that described people who weren’t all that anxious to return to “normal” life after the pandemic was over. “These people thrived in pandemic isolation — and aren’t ready to return to ‘normal’ socializing.”

The writer essentially labeled such people as “socially anxious” and described it as a kind of pathology. Personally, I don’t think being reluctant to wander around in a world in which a deadly pandemic is flying around is pathological but definitively sane. I know that social avoidance CAN be a problem for people, but not all people who are not super eager to return to “normal” life are struggling with a mental health issue. One thing the article never mentioned was people like me who do things — enjoy things — that you just don’t do with a bunch of friends or out in the world.

I remember very well the night I typed the last word on the finished rough draft of my first novel, Martin of Gfenn. I had little time to work on it — an hour or so in the evening which made the finished (ha ha) draft very repetitive because I had to catch up where I’d left off. Anyhoo I shut down my computer (an old Apple) stood up and wondered where everybody was. I’d spent so much time with all these interesting people, the characters in my book, and now my house was completely empty. It was one of those moment in life when you think there should be champagne and a big celebration but my house was empty (except for six dogs). That’s when I realized that to write I’d have to accept a kind of solitude most people might never even know.

At the same time, I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision, for Martin (the character) into real life. I’d done the work, the immense research, all of it, the library time (back then). Because of my book, I KNEW people who’d lived in the 13th century. The experience catapulted me into a different Martha, but I couldn’t share that, either. I remember sitting in my living room thinking, “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to accept solitude.”

My mom had social anxiety and she was always afraid her kids would, too. It was one of the reasons she didn’t want her two artistic kids to be artists. “You’ll always be alone.” But she didn’t know. Maybe the great designer puts each of us together exactly right for who we are.

I don’t dispute that there are people with social anxiety and that maybe it’s a problem for them (it was for my mom because she wasn’t happy). But not all people who are less than eager for a return to “normal” life fit into that slot. I came to understand this when I was teaching. There were meetings in which NOTHING happened. Problems weren’t solved. Some people talked and some people didn’t. I seldom did. Then someone would end the meeting and invariably say, “This was a good meeting. Thank you so much for sharing your concerns.” They would point to a list they’d written while the talkers were talking.

Two things went through my mind. First, only the concerns of the people who’d spoken up were on that list. Second, the REAL reason for the meeting had nothing to do with solving problems. These people just needed to get in a room together and yammer at each other. The act itself was meaningful to them. For me it was a complete waste of time. When I felt something needed to be changed I’d go find the person who could change it and talk to them or write them so they could share my thoughts clearly and compellingly laid out rather than in an emotion-laden rambling rant.

Social anxiety or not, we’re stuck in the world with each other and extroversion is “normal.” Many an introvert (like me) has no particular social anxiety, it’s just that “out there” is tiring and requires effort that being alone probably requires for the extroverted. I have friends who’ve had significant stress during the past year because they have been precluded from doing the things that they love to do. They’ve engaged socially much more than I would (or did). For them the risk of NOT engaging was worse than the risk of getting ill.

“A year ago, most of us could not imagine a world in which we not only didn’t have to go to work, school, restaurants, concerts and churches, much less that any such activity would be forbidden. And my socially anxious clients have now been basking in a wholly false sense of security for the better part of a year.”


In other words, the world in which the socially anxious are comfortable can’t last. They don’t own the world.

And then…in reality when I was 12, and had to give a prayer at church, in front of the congregation, I passed out, fell on the floor, humiliated myself and my mom. I was THAT afraid of public speaking. I knew even then that I could not live the life I wanted if I was that afraid to stand and say my say. I worked hard to overcome that. The moment I knew I HAD overcome that happened almost 40 years later, when, at the invitation of one of my students, I gave a lecture (one I’d given to this student’s class) on overcoming the fear of public speaking. There were 300 students in that room waiting to hear me. Some were there because it was required or extra credit for their communication class; some were there because they wanted some hope. They, too, knew they couldn’t go forward in their lives without overcoming that. I had a good slide show and a good speech. I also wore clothes in which my armpit sweat wouldn’t show because yes. I was terrified. But what’s the point of terror like that? There is none. It was a bit of an operation to set up and prepare, but…

I gave my speech. It was well accepted, applauded. Then, afterward, when nearly everyone had left and I was packing up my stuff, a young woman came to talk to me. She was so nervous her face was shaking, her hands were damp and shaky, too.

“Can I ask you something?” she ventured.


“Did you REALLY get over being afraid?”

“No.” I slipped off my jacket. My pit stains went to my waist.

“How do you do it? I never imagined you were nervous.”

“I had something important to say,” I told her. “More important than how I felt when I started to speak. That’s my secret. I think of what I have to say and who needs to hear it. And, I prepare. And I know that whatever happens, it’s not going to kill me.”

She wrote all this down, no longer shaking. Then, “Thank you, thank you so much. I think you helped me.”

ONE person in that room NEEDED that message. Was her personality a pathology? No.

But after that…I gave several papers at conferences and all the normal things that were part of my life and job, but I was (with the exception of my book reading in 2019) never nervous again. Social anxiety — which I believe everyone has — is not “abnormal.” It’s human.

Post-Adolescent Expressionism

“I don’t know how you can be so patient.”


“I’d have lost it.”

“Hmm.” You don’t talk about student A with student B, but the comment stuck with me. When had that happened? When had I become patient? Or had I always been? Is patience the ability to calmly put up with shit or the ability to wait?

It’s been a great gift wherever it came from. Teaching post-adolescents definitely helped me develop patience. People between the ages of 17 and 20/21 are categorically out of their minds but they’re also wonderfully entertaining, reckless, enthusiastic and consummately confused without knowing it. I happened to like them – having spent my life around them from the time I was 25 they were my “peer group” in a way.

It wasn’t patience that made them copable for me; it was my sense of humor and perspective. I “got” them. The day one of my students told me to “fuck off” I looked at him and thought, “You just shot yourself in the foot, kid. I sill like you. I get where that came from, but you’re going to be in a world of hurt until you sort that out and apologize to me.”

Unlike the kid, I could see into the future — two or three days of missed class, an embarrassed meeting in the hallway before class, “I’m sorry, prof. I really like you. I don’t know why I said that.”

“You were angry, kid. Watch your temper in the future, and you won’t have to miss class or meet up with your teacher in the hallway to apologize.” Did I say that? Yeah, but I used his name.

I don’t recall if he then tried to defend his anger, but it’s likely. Something like, “I don’t know why you gave me a B.” It’s probable, but not certain.

They were never easy to deal with. That joke about herding cats more-or-less applies to teaching several classes of post-adolescents, but not really. The thing that makes the herd of cats joke funny is that the cats aren’t paying attention to the herdsman, but my “cats” paid attention to me. They were just driven by forces more powerful than the teacher in the front of the room. Their emotional intensity and impatience with life and the future, their raging hormones, their search for identity. the sudden experience of contradiction in a world that was never what they expected it to be. The more sheltered kids experienced culture shock suddenly living in a dorm at a university with more than 30k students with teachers of every hue and philosophy.

I used to eat my lunch on a shady bench near the bookstore and often watched the parade during the first few weeks of school. I could identify the freshman and the type of freshman by what they came out of the bookstore with. There were invariably the tousled hair kid who emerged with a Bob Marley black light poster and the three blond girls clinging to each other in a mixture of friendship and need. Every year. Thinking about it this morning, I’m a little surprised at how similar it was to watching the birds at the Refuge.

I loved it when I taught the lower and upper divisions of the same basic course, though, of course, the content wasn’t the same. Sometimes I got to teach the freshman version of a kid then, two or three years later, the senior. They were often two different people.

It is very difficult to persuade a nineteen year old, though, that all he or she has to do is wait. Patience is an uncommon attribute of that moment of life. I sure didn’t have it.


P.S. As of today I am allegedly immune to Covid 19. I’m still picking up my groceries at the store. It was strange to think that I COULD mask up, run in and get a gallon of milk.

Hey Teach!

I’m finding that it’s going to take getting used to having a president again. OK, it’s only been a little over one day. So far Biden has done many of the things I wanted him to do. We’re back in the Paris Accord. We’re back in WHO. Dr. Fauci gave a press briefing. There’s clearer direction on dealing with the virus. All this is wonderful but what I like most is Dr. Biden. I like her a LOT.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those people who objected to Melamine’s nude modeling or anything else she did. None of that bothered me at all.

Education in our country has suffered for decades and I believe a dedicated teacher who is actually TEACHING — COLLEGE ENGLISH teacher no less ❤ — might be able to turn this around.

One of the most troubling things in the Education system in the US is its focus on testing vs. actual learning. Maybe she will see what I have seen and others have seen. Then, another troubling thing is the attitude toward education in many rural areas, that it’s something they don’t need. Maybe that can change, too.

Ignorance has had too high a place in this culture from the beginning. I can understand it in early days when the idea of a democratic system vs. monarchy was first floated then put into effect. The lucky people who had money and education had to persuade those who didn’t have those things that their vote was every bit as good as the vote of a ore privileged person. Except for excluding women and blacks, this country didn’t set itself up to be an elitist republic like Rome or Greece. It had a different idea.

But after having had my nose in American literature of the 19th century for years, I also know that the other part of the idea was to educate the electorate. I read so many essays and articles and short stories where that was the underlying (and sometimes not underlying) message.

The movement for mandatory public school had some ugly origins (populism and racism) but it also set the stage for more kids going to school. It didn’t become a law until fairly recently, and, as we all know, it’s still debated and the last secretary of education was pushing the idea that public education wasn’t such a great idea and that charter schools, church schools and home schools were better.

I don’t really care WHERE kids go to school, I just care that they do. And, when they are there, I want them to be excited to learn new things. I want their curiosity to be encouraged and the development of skills to be regarded as a great and wonderful thing (by the kids). My little foray into teaching children this past fall wasn’t, by my terms, a success at all, but the kids thought it was. I think it takes particular gifts to teach children, different gifts to teach young adults and, most wonderful of all, special gifts to teach adults.

Teaching is a wonderful, rewarding, and stimulating profession that — at the college and university level, anyway — offers little job security and a lousy wage. As a person more interested in intrinsic rewards than in money (silly me) that was all fine, but it really isn’t fine. Dr. Biden seems to understand this and it is one of the goals toward which she has promised to work. We’ll see how all this pans out in time, but I’m happy she’s there.


Run away! Run away!!!

When I first retired from teaching in 2014 and moved to Monte Vista, I had the idea of becoming a substitute English teacher at the high school. When I looked into it, and imagined walking into another classroom, I shuddered. That wasn’t happening. The whole idea gave me chills. I wondered how I could be THAT done with something I’d loved for the bigger part of 35 years?

I recently read — and reviewed — a novel that another reviewer called a “coming of age” novel. That’s kind of an important “tag” for a book, so I gave it some thought and decided the book Blind Turn is not a coming of age novel, not really, though the teenage character DOES a lot of growing up. The “mom” character in the book “grows up” every bit as much as her daughter does. “Coming of age” normally refers to that turning point between immaturity and maturity, something that happens in the late teen years, but in real life we do it all the time at all different stages of our lives.

I’ve done a few of those just in the past 10 years. The life I left behind 7 years ago seems very unreal to me. I have tried to identify the moment when that life ended (it was before I moved here) and I can’t pinpoint a precise moment. It was just a long process of discovering that it didn’t fit me any more. It had become too difficult and the rewards too few. What’s more, I saw it.

Why cling to one life
till it is soiled and ragged?
The sun dies and dies
squandering a hundred lived
every instant
God has decreed life for you
and He will give 
another and another and another”

Rumi, The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi, Vol 5, Persian Text

Or, in Goethe’s words: “Hold your powers together for something good, and let everything go that is for you without result and is not suited to you.”

But, I did end up spending a lot of time at the high school. It’s truly Bear’s favorite place to walk.


Hey, Kiddo!

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc. (Joseph Epstein WSJ Op Ed Piece)

Some guy named Joseph Epstien published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday essentially saying that Dr. Biden shouldn’t refer to herself as “doctor” because she isn’t a doctor. There is so much wrong with his point of view that the diatribe I would write (am writing?) here might earn me a PhD. But the essential fallacy of his argument hinges on the fact that a medical doctor has a different degree. She or he would have an MD, Medical Doctor, following her/his name. The PhD has always been called “doctor,” a term that has been historically reserved for teachers.

The second point in the diatribe I WOULD write is Epstein’s diminution of Dr. Biden’s status as an individual by calling her “kiddo” and mocking her dissertation topic. Good god. She’s an elderly woman with a long career as a community college teacher. Somehow that identity resonates with me.

The author of this opinion piece taught at Northwestern for many years with a BA. His nasty little point was that if a BA is good enough for NW, it’s good enough for community college, which, as we all know, is vastly inferior to NW. The reality is that anyone admitted to NW already knows how to go to college and probably always has had the support of her/his community. People going to community college — most of which have open enrollment — can be anyone from an extremely bright high school kid on an accelerated program to a 40 year old mom who had no chance at school until her kids grew up. I taught lots of young women whose culture was strongly biased against women getting an education; some of these girls had to move out of their parents’ homes in order to attend college! Many community college kids come from immigrant groups whose parents do not speak ANY of the “normal” language of the dominant culture(s). Helping those students remain in school long enough to have a shot at fulfilling their potential is a big job. By demeaning Dr. Biden and her dissertation, he insults every aspiring community college student.

Looks to me like Epstein’s just a bitter old guy. One of his big claims is that with a “only” a BA he taught at NW. I don’t know how old the guy is, but I’m guessing in his 80s. “I have only a B.A. in absentia from the University of Chicago—in absentia because I took my final examination on a pool table at Headquarters Company, Fort Hood, Texas, while serving in the peacetime Army in the late 1950s.” What he doesn’t seem to understand is that there were a few changes in academia between his time and this one. While they may not have been changes for the better, but they happened, good or bad.

In Epstein’s day, most people didn’t go to college. There were no community colleges. High school was a high-powered institution of learning that prepared people for work. That hasn’t been the case since the 1970s. Community colleges emerged in the 70s offering open enrollment, GEDs and various other gap-filling opportunities for students who had missed out on their chance to get on a college track. Courses and training that could have (IMO should have) stayed in high school — auto shop, business/office practices, etc.) moved to community college. Community college became a way for a student to get into a university without having had the grades in high school, the argument being that a lot of kids don’t know what they want until they’re in their early 20s — or later. This, however, is the ONE and ONLY point on which I agree with 45: I think high schools should go back to training kids for work. It’s absurd to go to college to learn office practices, to take out a ginormous student loan. I taught a lot of students at university who graduated to work in an office at Enterprise Car Rental. Nothing wrong with the job, but to be in debt to their eyeballs to have it? I have a problem with that.

The first time I realized the difference between university degrees back in Epstein’s day and the one in which I was teaching (early 2000s) was in the library at San Diego State. My students were working on a project, and I was wandering around. I happened on the shelves that held SDSU university dissertations through all time. Until the 90s there were only a handful every year. After that? They began doubling in number every few years. More students had access to higher education. More PhDs were offered across more disciplines. Back in Epstein’s day, PhDs were rare and BAs were valuable degrees. Here in 2020, as I’m sitting here writing this, the BA is a way to get at job in a car rental agency. I think it’s a pity that students can no longer get many jobs without a BA is, but I’m not in charge of the world. There are way too many problems and issues in academia for me to go into here and I don’t work there any more. I’m past that stage. (waaa-HOOO).

Another point about the PhD is privilege. Those suckers are expensive. You read about, hear about, the work that goes into one and I’m not here to dispute that, but… At one point in my career I decided that a PhD would help me professionally and might be fun academically. I applied at the only university in driving distance offering them, University of California San Diego, and took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) as required. I’d taken it years before to get my MA, but too may years to count for the PhD application. I showed up at 8 am, took my seat, got my materials, commenced the test and then the proctor said to all of us, “You don’t think an objective test on literature is kind of stupid?” Well, yeah, I did, but? What was his angle? Throughout the exam he made similar remarks. Maybe he was an adjunct prof somewhere and didn’t want more competition? No idea, but the problem was, I agreed with everything he said. Not long before I finished the math section (yeah, right?) I thought, “Do I really want to sit in a bunch of seminars and discuss deconstructiveism?” I didn’t. I got up, turned in my exam and walked out without finishing it. I still passed. UCSD admitted me but with no financial aid, I couldn’t possibly go.

Years later, one of my good bosses read a paper I’d written for a conference and said, “Why in the world don’t you have a doctorate?” I explained I just hadn’t had the money. I imagine if I’d had $100k lying around I would have pursued it. “Yeah,” said my boss. “We don’t think of that, you know? That a lot of talented people stop their education because it’s too expensive.” An aspect of ANY PhD is that somehow the person found the money to do it. Yeah, there is privilege based on skin color — but there is also privilege based on $$$. So what ARE my creds? MA, English, 1979, University of Denver, 35 years teaching college and university writing (University of Denver; South China Teachers University, Guangzhou; Southwestern College, Cuyamaca College, San Diego State), all levels, critical thinking, intro to Lit and business communication — lower and upper division.

And finally, kiddo, there’s that “kiddo.” I’m still trying to figure out an equivalently demeaning term to casually toss at a well-educated professional who happens to be a man. If there’s one thing a lot of old guys hate it’s a woman with skills, abilities and a degree they don’t have. I know this from my own life. For my own part? I voted for Dr. Biden when I cast my vote for her husband. I still get a little teary thinking there’s a community college teacher about to live in the White House.




I got my second email this morning from The Washington Post about how to cope with the mental challenges brought by our time in history. There is a lot of stuff there, but one thing I know from my own life is right on:

“…lots of small practices can help you move forward and recover a sense of time … Alvord (clinical psychologist) said, you accept what’s out of your control and look for what’s in your control, even if it’s as small as taking a walk.”

I think I learned as a little kid that if I just take a walk (bike ride, run) things will improve, whatever things are. There was another good thing in this morning’s email regarding mental habits that deepen peoples’ depression and feelings of hopelessness:

  • The “I can’t” habit. You automatically decide you can’t meet a new challenge. You give up before even trying.
  • The catastrophizing habit. You see disaster everywhere, and fall into what ifs. You spend a lot of energy panicking.
  • The all-or-nothing habit. If something doesn’t go just one way, it’s wrong. You’re irritated with yourself and others.

    These are countered with challenge questions:
  • The “I can’t” habit: “What is the evidence that I can’t do it?”
  • The catastrophizing habit: “What are five other things more likely to happen?”
  • The all-or-nothing habit: “What are some possibilities that fall between the extremes?”

Today’s newsletter thing was great — I guess I’m a fan of behavioral psychology which this whole thing illustrates. When I was having counseling myself, that was my therapist’s approach. She was perfect for me because I’m one of those, “That’s all very interesting, but what do I DO???” kind of people. Deep down I believe that we are what we do, the culmination of our choices and actions. I just wanted to make choices that worked. I wasn’t trying to expunge any deeply buried demons or get to the bottom of anything. I knew that dark icky stuff wasn’t going away. I wanted to learn how to live with it.

Still…I dunno. I think “sinking spells” are a normal part of life in any moment, “normal” or whatever this is. Maybe it’s all how we feel about our sinking spells, how well we’re able to ride them out and move forward. Some time ago — when I was still teaching Business Communication — I had an epiphany about the word “positive.” The text book talked about “good news” and “bad news” messages. Simply good news is what the audience wants to read/hear and bad news what the audience doesn’t want to read/hear.

It was challenging for my students to get that simple point, that good or bad depended on the audience’ desires, not theirs. A good news message started out with good news, ‘Yay! You get a refund!” a bad news message started with goodwill, an acknowledgement of the humanity of the audience, “We appreciate your business” or “Thank you for your inquiry” — something like that. Students had this idea of “justice” (“They want something they can’t have! They read the signs! Off with their heads!”) so it was challenging to teach this. Shouldn’t have been, but it was there I learned that we can’t take empathy for granted. Some people need to be taught.

The closing of both types of messages was supposed to be positive, and positive meant something that pointed to a future relationship. Positive didn’t mean up-beat or cheery, but something that pointed to a future that was better than the present, essentially the “light at the end of the tunnel.” In a business message like those my students were learning it might be, “Here’s a coupon for 10% off a future purchase” or “We hope to do business with you in the future.” Basically saying, “This, too, shall pass.”

Featured photo: For various reasons, I had a bad day yesterday. At one point, I started to cry. Teddy and Bear were very worried and Bear stayed worried (as is her nature) until I went to bed. The photo is Bear taking care of me in the evening. She can’t make me soup when I’m sick, drive me to the doc if I’m hurt, or offer any other concrete help, but when it comes to moral support, faith and affection, it’s pretty hard to beat a livestock guardian dog.


News Flash from the San Luis Valley: More of the Same and that’s OK

Yesterday I sought refuge with Bear and there was a whiff of fall in the air, the fragrance of damp fallen leaves by the pond. Fall was more apparent in the colors of the landscape which here, in the high valley, are universally golden except for the wild currant bush that turns bright red.

None of these out at the refuge.

I saw “my” cows, but Beautiful Bessie was no where in sight. Not that these are ugly cows.

The girls outstanding in their field

The big fire in northwestern Colorado is keeping the mountains out of sight.

The cranes have arrived in their autumn numbers, different from spring when tens of thousands converge on the refuge more or less at once. In fall they kind of straggle in and head off at some point for New Mexico where they’ll stay until March. That’s the story, anyway, but my life here has shown me that they are around all year in limited numbers.

Today is a “school” day, and Hallowe’en is on the horizon. We’ll be making these little guys:

This is Megan, a prototype that we will take apart so the kids know how to put her together again. I will put her together again so at the end of the film I can add in the credits, “No paper and pipe-cleaner spiders were permanently damaged in the making of this film.”

And once more, I tip my hat to elementary school teachers. I don’t know how you do it. I just have two who like me and want to learn and it’s WAY more than I can deal with (in truth). And how do you do it now that recess doesn’t exist any more? I remember elementary school, and by the time recess came around I was so wound up it wasn’t funny and I was one of the calm ones…


Art School?

I’ve now “taught” art to the kids for a whole month. Yesterday was our worst class so far, but I think that’s due to two things. First, they had a BIG change in their lives over the weekend. They went to Denver (and back). They liked it. Second, their parents are very involved in a project right now — they repair cars in their garage at home — and they have a classic (1978, sigh) Oldsmobile to work on. They are nearing their deadline. I don’t think kids thrive on variety and change. I think it messes them up.

They were desperate for undivided attention from an adult. They were less interested in doing an art project than telling me their stuff. I probably should have given up and just listened to them, but a little voice inside says to me, “You’re here for this purpose and it’s a good idea to pursue that. It’s teaching, too.” I’m serious about teaching. Never in my whole career did I doubt its importance, and I don’t now. At one point I said, “C’mon you guys. We hang out all the time. This is art time, OK?”


Our little task yesterday had a couple of lessons. One was symmetry. The other was that water doesn’t move wax. I got the lesson plan from a website about teaching art to 3rd graders. It seemed like a good idea because it fit with my goal which is helping the little girl get a little more small muscle control in her hands.

In anticipation for the class, I cut up a sheet of water color paper into fourths, and drew the outlines of butterflies on two of them. I outlined butterflies on the paper in yellow so the color would disappear when the kids worked on their projects.

First, I taught them about symmetry by showing them how it exists on their own bodies. They loved that. Then I showed them how butter floats on water. That blew them away. They really expected it to dissolve. I had them feel their crayons and they did get that they felt kind of greasy. “So what’s going to happen when we put water on them?”

I suddenly felt the terrible overwhelming burden of knowledge and how fucking much of it is there is and how intricate and complicated it is. I felt a rush of gratitude to my own parents and my childhood. My mom might not have liked me, but she was a good teacher. And I followed my dad everywhere just because he taught me things. The little boy would follow me everywhere for the same reason.

So they outlined their butterflies in black and then they were supposed to draw the same pattern on each wing so the butterflies were symmetrical. I drew with them. In my mind, of course, were the thousands of butterflies I’ve seen in my life and all I know about them. That was NOT in the kids’ minds. I don’t think they’ve ever looked closely at a butterfly. I’d predicated this whole exercise on their love of butterflies and an erroneous assumption that they’d actually ever SEEN one. The little boy looked at the pictures I’d brought and attempted to make symmetrical wings, and the little girl started out good, but ultimately lost track. That’s all fine. Learning is not the same as mastery and, between us, learning is more interesting.

Then we painted over the crayon. I had brought my paints and though they have their own paints, they used mine which made me happy, actually. Since I started this, I’ve begun to believe that, except for drawing, kids should have the best materials there are to learn with. Good paint is much less frustrating than cheap paint.

I headed back down the alley afterward thinking that it’s just like university. If ONE thing penetrates it’s a good day.

I then thought about the purpose of school. One purpose — I’ve come to realize — is to give kids a place to go away from their home as a demarcation of “this is our learning place” and “this is our family place.” As it was for me, school is also a place where kids can get away from their parents’ preoccupations. I think kids should go to school. Maybe not this year, but in normal times. Yeah, there are a lot of problems with our current educational system, but I believe that anyone who wants to learn will.

Ahead are the holidays which means crafts. I don’t enjoy that at all, but a good teacher meets his/her students where they are and next week we’ll make spiders with pipe cleaners and construction paper. What I LOVE is the kids’ parents are so in love with what we’re doing. It’s amazing.


Quotidian Update 305.a.iii

Well, here I am almost 2 hours earlier than normal because there was a draconian thunderstorm at 5:30 am. Thunderstorms are hard on Bear because she is afraid of thunder AND she feels she has to protect me. For Bear, that’s Gordian knot. I was fine until the power went off. If you’ve lived through a California wildfire, you might also be traumatized when the power goes off. To me it means, “Things are majorly fucked and you’d better get out.” Then there’s added terror of “what if I can’t make coffee?” When the power comes on, it’s “Thank you Whomever,” and the added gratitude for first world problems like scared dogs and no coffee.

Yesterday Teddy and I took off for the river, a shady trail I like in summer, but can only walk from July 15 to March 1. Last time I was there it was February. It’s in a wildlife area and, this year, Colorado is requiring a hunting or fishing license for people who use these areas just for walking. I bought my fishing license a while back. The Rio Grande is very low. I saw a gold finch catching bugs above the river and a hawk took flight in front of me. Otherwise, it was a path between immense cottonwoods and the tired undergrowth of the end of summer. I told Teddy I like the Refuge better. I like being able to SEE. That might be part of why I like winter when the trees are bare.

In other news, a few months ago I bought a book for the kids, a book of “general knowledge.” It’s really cool with beautiful pictures and little flaps you lift to learn more. Around 5 o’clock I took it to their house because school starts tomorrow, and I wanted to make a big deal out of it.

They loved it. C helped me walk Bear to the end of the fence and Bear and I finished our walk. On the way back, the kids were waiting. We all went into the alley so M could keep working on her “courage” merit badge. There’s not really a badge, but one of the statements in the book Bear and Teddy — wrote for her is, “Smart people are brave. They get to pet and hug us.” She was a little scared as always, but Bear sat calmly and before long, all was well.

Their world is really small right now so even the alley behind their house is a kind of adventure. C has all kinds of questions about the house behind theirs — the blue house I came to Monte Vista to see so long ago. Then he noticed something unusual in the alley. “What is that?”

“Pottery, I think,” I said.

He got a stick and pried it out “like a jack,” he said using the stick as a lever. He got the two pieces of pottery loose. They were glazed dark brown and had two circles and some lines on them. I believe they are ancient (meaning maybe 60 years old) sewer pipes but I didn’t say that. I showed him how they fit together and he was amazed. He wanted to know how it was made, so I explained it.

“Maybe there used to be a pottery place here.”

“Could be. This is a pretty old place.”

“I’m going to take some of that clay you gave us and press it on this and maybe I can find out what the letters are.” He’s 7.

“Perfect,” I said. “Let me know what you find out.

“If mom would let us, we could walk Bear all the way to your house,” he said. “I don’t know why she won’t let us.”

“She loves you,” I said. I thought of the absurdity. They could walk with me to my house but I’d have to walk them back home. It would be an infinite loop.

“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe she thinks someone would steal us like they tried to steal our trailer and they stole your wood. Do you think it’s the same people?”

“Could be.” In fact NOT having that faded cedar fencing is kind of a hardship to the furthering of my garden sign business.

I headed home on cloud 8 or maybe higher, thinking of that adage, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” But ME?

Then I thought of my first student ever. Ramon Hurtado who wanted to learn to read so he could read to his daughter. He came to the then-new Adult Education Tutorial Program. I’d never taught anyone. It was the summer before I started grad school. We started with the alphabet! He wanted what I had; literacy. Just like Ramon, these kids want what I have and it means a lot in our Covid circumscribed lives. They want the world.



I’m the head honcho of Martha, Bear and Teddy, but what that actually means in the grand scheme is less than negligible. I was talking to a friend on the phone last night trying to explain that since I retired, I know a LOT less than I did when I was “holding up the sky” and teaching everyone in the world how to write and communicate in a businesslike fashion. Both Socrates and Lao Tzu said (in their later years?) that knowing that you don’t know is 1) wisdom 2) the Tao. Or something… I was trying to explain to my friend that when we’re working our world depends on our expertise, and we have to KNOW what we’re spending 8+ hours a day doing, thinking, talking about.

The competence imperative is removed from our lives when we’re not holding up the sky any more. It’s really difficult to change gears or even KNOW we need to change gears; a lot of people don’t. I did, but godnose how I managed that.

I remember in my 30s getting together with another teacher (in her 30s) and marching to the boss’ (in her late 40s) office with a solution to the problem of students being unhappy in the level in which they had been placed at our language school. The students believed they’d been put in a low (in their opinion) level so that the school could make more money by making the students take more time to be ready to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). My colleague said the students should be placed in groups that they wouldn’t recognize as levels, “Blue birds, robins, what not,” she said, “instead of numbers like 102, 103, 104.” Students especially hated 104 — intermediate. It WAS hard to progress past that.

The boss agreed that a lot of students came to her wanting to be placed in a higher level, but that our testing was accurate and placement was almost always correct. If it wasn’t, students were given a chance to change levels. My contention was that there were students who would learn if they were slightly misplaced and had to reach. It got to be a pretty loud argument and you are probably reading this thinking, “Who CARES????”

As I got older I became a lot less polemical. The last episode like this I remember was between me (50 something) and some young teachers (30 something) over my syllabus. My syllabus evolved into this horrible thing, four pages long and covering every possible nightmare I’d confronted in my years teaching. I’d learned that a syllabus is a legal document and also a teaching tool. The more I spelled out about how a student could succeed (or fail) in my class, the more useful it would be for me and them. Students got it and liked it. It usually went in the front of their notebooks and they used it to gain direction in the classes I taught. But my 30 something colleagues complained that it didn’t “reflect the temper of the times” and was “snarky” and not “supportive.”

I didn’t even know what “snarky” meant, but I knew where I was in this business of holding up the sky. I explained WHY my syllabus was like it was and asked them to send me a sample ideal syllabus. Their response was how, after I had taught so long, didn’t I KNOW what a syllabus “should” be?

They were picking a fight, and I wasn’t having it. Aside from certain information a syllabus MUST contain, I didn’t think my syllabus was their business, but they were at the “We KNOW things” stage of their career, and I was at the “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” stage of my career.

When my mom died, an older friend described life as a “wave.” “Now you’re on the crest of the wave,” she said. I’ve thought about that often, even to the point of imagining waves and how strange it must be for the wave, who’s spent all its life out there in the ocean, to find itself suddenly on the alien world of the shore, all shallow and stuff, where water is no longer the WHOLE WORLD but, rather, sand, rocks, and — ewww — dryness. “Wow,” thinks the wave, “I don’t know ANYTHING about this.”

It has to be like this. In our middle years, the “productive years,” we’re doing the hard work of raising kids, earning a living and all that entails. A certain amount of aggressive certainty is absolutely necessary and part of human progress. BUT life’s REAL luxury, the earned reward of survival, might be not having to know everything any more. ❤