Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Once Upon a Time Without a Happily Ever After: How the Eternal Sequel has Ruined Artful Storytelling

I mentioned in my last post about starting to binge-watch Once Upon a Time. It took me until two days ago to catch up to Netflix and will now wait until sometime in August or September for the next season to load. It isn't particularly great, and good performances are spotty. The premise is clever, however, and might have been quite good as a single season's effort. There is enough time to tell the story (stories) of Snow White that you have a lot of empathy for each character. In fact, by the end of Season Five or whatever it is on now, I find myself wishing that Snow White would just go away and we could focus more on the Evil Queen.

That being said, I have had some thoughts in the past few months about the never-ending sequel. This has hit me quite powerfully in two franchise-movie blockbusters as well as the aforementioned television show. How do characters ever reach resolution and closure if they must be placed in mortal peril every week? And if stories help us escape reality, does this new model effectively do that, or only mirror our own chaotic and roller coaster lives?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Disclaimer first. I am a huge geek. I loved this movie. I have probably seen it three or four times, and fully expect it to become a fantastic addition to the Star Wars Universe created initially by Lucas. Episodes I, II and III are already fading to unpleasant memories.

Having said as much, however, even as I sat in the movie I had several unhappy thoughts. "What??? Han and Leia did not stay together???" "What??? After the whole return-of-the-Jedi-thing they didn't really return after all???" "Are you kidding me??? After all the efforts of the Rebellion they succeeded in accomplishing exactly nothing???"

I remember going to see Return of the Jedi, after growing up for years on those films, and crying my eyes out through the ending (it happens nearly every time I watch it, honestly). Leia and Han were going to live happily ever after. Peace would now reign in the galaxy. Jedi would begin to grow up and train again. This was the happy fan-fiction I lived with in my brain for 30 years.

From a characterization standpoint, many of the choices made in the new film make perfect sense. There is a great line about how Leia and Han just went back to what they did best after their lives fell apart. But splitting up--divorce, troubled children and irreconcilable differences are so . . . well . . . NORMAL. So real-world. I wanted more for these characters I had invested so many hours in. I want to believe in happily ever after.


Captain America: Civil War. Hey, I already gave the geek disclaimer above. Go with it. I'm a big fan of the Avengers franchise. I've seen all of the films--usually when they come out in theater--and I'm happy to talk about them to anyone who won't look at me like I'm a little bit off. But when you choose to do a dozen films about the same collective of people, stuff is going to happen that isn't always pretty. Civil War severs loyalties and raises deep, philosophical questions about the nature of war, government and security that is deeply unsettling. It also erases so much of the fun of earlier movies when questions about the destruction wreaked by the Avengers as they "save" the planet; with the argument that their very presence creates the threat to begin with.

Congressional oversight of the Avengers??? It is like the first few minutes of Disney's The Incredibles when Mr. Incredible is subject to a lawsuit after causing horrific property damage to a train he was supposed to be "saving," among other things.


I already spoke above about Once Upon a Time. This isn't a phenomenon limited to television and movies, nor is it a recent problem. (Watch any procedural drama from any era and you'll wonder how the cops/detectives/analysts/doctors don't have PTSD for all the terrible things that happen to them.) It is much easier to publish a second novel than a first, and if a first novel has any degree of success, there is much clamor to find out what happens to those characters. Stories don't really end anymore, and, like a drug, the situations in which characters are placed must continue to escalate to continue to give the reader the same "high" they got the first time their favorite characters were put into mortal peril.

Some series get it right. Hunger Games, at three books, is very nearly perfect (though the first installment is a brilliant stand-alone). Seven Harry Potter books, particularly knowing from the beginning there would be one for each year, was likewise wonderful, with Rowling cognizant of the effects of Harry's experiences on his psyche and personality and writing it as such. And while, yes, I will read the sequel/screenplay, I cannot help but think. Really? After all he did, doesn't Harry just get a break with some well-deserved happiness??

I just fear that really great storytelling has been reduced to whatever pays the bills.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In Which I Get a Hug From God

Two weeks ago, my husband and boys went on the annual Fathers' and Sons' campout. It may potentially be my favorite weekend of the year to only have boys. Not really, but, admittedly, by-myself time is sort of awesome. I put a lot of things on the to-do list, including a temple trip for the Saturday.

I waved the boys goodbye on Friday night and the started in on my list. It included some working. Stupid on my night to myself, yes, but I love working when I can just get EVERYthing done without having to keep somebody else's agenda. Then there was a trip to the mall where I bought shoes and sat in the food court and read cheesy chick lit and ate fries. I cleaned the house and started in on my girlie movie WAY too late. After the girlie movie, the first season of Once Upon a Time beckoned to me from my library DVD rentals.

It was one o'clock in the morning, but what is the harm in just ONE episode, right? Wrong! Three episodes . . . or was it four? later it was nearing 3:30 in the morning. The temple wasn't looking so good (nor was the series, by the way, but I'm pretty much completely hooked on it now), and I fell asleep on the couch, disliking myself. For the late night and the fact that popcorn after fries might be too much.

Alarm goes off. I can't sleep anyway because I'm too warm and uncomfortable, so I lay there a long time debating whether or not I was even safe to take the three hour plus round trip in the car to get there and back. Duty won out and I hit the road about two hours later than my original intention.

On the way I decided that initiatories would need to be the order of the day, as there was no possible way I could stay awake in a session. As I pulled into the last parking lot available in the entire lot of the Portland temple, I noted that I was right next to our visitor center. It is pretty small potatoes, but still lovely, and manned (womaned?) by the sister missionaries in the Portland mission. My lovely friend from Texas, SarahB, who was present for the birth of Padawan, has a daughter that was called to the Portland mission a year or so ago. I have inquired after her a few times in the visitor's center but haven't had any luck. I considered stopping that day, but decided not to as I was already running so far behind.

And then, it happened, on my way up the stairs, I saw SisterB, whom I've only seen in photos for eleven years. She is lovely and grown up, and so like her mother that I nearly cried. I introduced myself and she had a vague recollection of our living down there. I gushed a bit about how much I love her mom and what it meant for me to have SarahB there when Padawan was born. Bless her sister missionary heart, she took the crazy lady in stride, and I walked into the temple feeling unexpectedly overcome by emotion.

The feeling persisted, niggling in around the edges, when I saw one of the sisters I served my mission with. This was not a huge coincidence, incidentally. SistaT works in our temple on Saturdays and I often see her there--what is crazy, however, is that she is actually from Tonga and moved to this area years after our mission service. She is the only one from my mission days that I see regularly, oddly enough.  And yet, despite seeing this lovely, huggable sister regularly, there was something more meaningful about it that day.

The initiatory room was a little backed up, so I sat and waiting. As I waited and listened to the soft murmuring of priesthood blessings given in women's voices, that feeling around the edges just crept into my heart and the tears started pouring. I thought of SarahB's strong voice and hands the night of Padawan's birth. I thought of those lovely sisters from my mission from whom I learned so much about heartache and trial and lasting joy. I let the murmured blessings of the priesthood pour over me--and I felt myself to be an integral part of them. Birth as sacrament. Mission as consecration. Priesthood as the shared gift to men and women. Power. Glory. Dominion without end.

At that moment, my former relief society president walked into the room and did a double take as she saw me crying. No doubt she felt compelled to comfort but was unsure if I wanted to be left in peace. It was really a lot of crying. But crying for such happiness that I couldn't contain it. When I saw Sister RS my mind turned to all those powerful women in my life who have blessed me--if not with their hands directly, then with their sincere service, abiding love and powerful examples.

I felt the love of my Father, and, dare I say it? My Mother. It was a feeling profound and deep and special. It was not an entirely unfamiliar feeling, but it has been a long time since the Spirit has overcome me so. In that sacred place of women, I felt an enveloping love of feminine divine--my own, and Something so much larger than myself that I wept for trying to hold it. In the hour afterward I tried to write about it and couldn't express what I wanted to say; the following Sunday I bore testimony, and powerfully, but still missed the heart of what I was trying to get at. Even now, I find myself clumsy and awkward and without adequate words for describing what it was that I knew down into my very cells in that moment. She is real. We are Her daughters. We will see Her lovely face one day.

The love of thousands of generations of women was held in my heart for a brief time--and it was such a awesome blend of gratitude and humility and power that I went forward changed. The experience has lingered in my mind and heart for these many days, and it has compelled me to say thank you. To any woman reading here. Thank you. In both small and large ways you have touched and changed me. The love that women have is powerful, profound, priestly. It sanctifies and blesses all that we touch. It makes us like Her. And oh, how I want to be.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Finding the Center

Just before Plantboy and I got engaged, he and I traveled from Utah to Colorado to spend a couple of days with his family over Christmas break from school. I had never met his family before. At the time, six of his nine siblings were married and there were several grandchildren ranging from 12 down. I spent the long car ride poring over a large-group family photo taken at a reunion the previous summer, memorizing names and grouping people together correctly. I was nervous, scared even. I knew that our relationship was serious; I also knew that he had said all manner of nice things about me to his parents over his Thanksgiving Break. We were 24 years old--really getting "up there" by LDS cultural standards--and I felt a lot of pressure to be really, really wonderful. His family wanted me to be "the one" almost as much as I wanted to be. 

Going to Plantboy's family was like finding sisters that I never knew I had. I was warmly welcomed by everyone and kept most of the names straight. Mostly, I found a warm and kind welcome from his mother, whom I had been most afraid of letting down. Despite not knowing me, at all, and finding a veritable stranger in her house for Christmas, she had put gifts under the tree for me. One of these tender presents was a little ceramic nativity set. The figures in are fat and cute and childlike. It was a gift I have long cherished, and my first Christmas decoration that was all my own. 

Even when the kids were little I always put out this set. Perhaps because the characters look not entirely unlike "Little People" characters, my littlies always had a hard time keeping their little mitts off the set. This was disastrous for the sweet angel in the set, but the rest have survived their sometimes rough treatment.

A thing I noticed, however, is that regardless of how I arranged the set, inevitably, my children would always rearrange it. And when they did, each figurine was in a circle surrounding the happy little Christ-child, as close as they can be. The little manger is crowded with smiling well wishers, all wanting to be right there.

This odd fact has always brought a bit of a smile to my face as I rearrange the figures in a more artistic and traditional way. The wisemen grouped and spread out as if traveling; the shepherds together with the animals respectively grouped near them; Mary and Joseph keeping watch, Mary slightly closer to her babe. the child and manger, of course, is front and center, slightly forward with other figures turned toward but at a respectful distance and making a nice tableaux for onlookers. 

Last week when I taught my little primary class full of happy six year olds, I brought the nativity. Each piece was wrapped in a little present that the kids would open. When each piece was pulled from the bag we sang a song or read a scripture and talked about the nativity. as each new piece was added, the nativity changed and took shape as kids arranged and rearranged the figures. I deliberately put the sleeping babe in a very nondescript bag, banking on my kidlets picking Him last. I was not disappointed. When Jesus finally arrived on the scene, there was a quick scramble and bustle of activity from my class, as they sought to rearrange the set to best suit this new arrival.

As they backed away, there it was again. That circling of the proverbial wagons around the Babe of Bethlehem. For protection. For worship. For eternal friendship and family. For each child of God to have an equal share in gazing on His face. Again, I laughed inwardly at the predictability of children.

Two nights later I did the same activity with my own family, taking a little more time with each piece and testifying frequently as I went. We discussed the realities of having a baby in a stable, Mary not being married, and the great distance the wise kings of the east must have traveled. It was a lovely night. My youngest, eight, was the last to choose his piece for the nativity. I had been arranging as we went, saving room for the arrival of the younger stranger so that it was artistic and lovely to look on when we finished. 

After he chose his figurine, he turned his back to me and bent over the nativity as I prepared to introduce our last song--Away in a Manger. He came back to join his brothers, smiling. As we sang, I glanced at the nativity to find the childlike familiarity I had seen so many times. Each figurine arranged in a perfect circle around the manger, each vying for equal time in gazing on the face of God. Mary's serene little features pondered in her heart, and this time I did too.

I was no longer laughing at the consistency and silliness of little children, instead I marveled mightily at their innocent insight. Of course this is the way the creche is meant to be arranged. 

From that evening until Christmas, whenever I happened to glance at the earnest circle of admirers--the humble and poor shepherds, the great and wealthy kings, the mother who loved Him most, the dad who sacrificed his reputation to guide this Boy through childhood and the animals of creation--I felt to rejoice in the simple lesson my sons have been trying to teach me all these years. 

The creche isn't some interesting artifact to decorate my home. It isn't merely culturally significant. It isn't even really art. It is a representation of something deeper and far more profound. It is the very thing I should center my life on. If we could all stand as equals, shoulder to shoulder, gazing on the face or our Savior, what might we accomplish?

I often speak of "finding my center." This Christmas I think I did.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

This Post Should Have Been Written in March

For Spring Break this year we went to Southern California. The trip was a long time coming. We spent time with my parents at a resort-type place they own a share in that is basically next door to Lego Land. We dodged the Disney bullet, but Lego Land was pretty great. We also spent a day at SeaWorld, right at the heart of the controversy over the captivity of large cetaceans at such places. Shamu was still appearing then, but in the spirit of things-my-grandchildren-will-never-do, I'm glad I saw them one last time. Sort of. Even then my feelings were fairly mixed. Still, that is another story.

The two things I want to journal about from the trip were definitely lesser moments and certainly not expected, though their profundity has stayed with me through all these months. Both experiences were while we were traveling home.

Though March, southern California had a beastly hot spring and summer. We'd had lovely weather the whole time we were gone, and spent the last morning on the beach in San Diego. We drove through some really terrible traffic as we crawled our way north. Tired and stressed, we finally cleared the mountains north of Los Angeles on I-5, hours behind schedule. As we drove, late in the afternoon, finally making time toward our destination, we passed a stranded car.

A young man was standing with a sign reading, "Please, we just need a jack." I am not sure who suggested first that we stop, but it was only seconds later that we crawled to a stop. Plantboy and I looked at one another. The stranded motorists were certainly young. And brown. We nodded to one another, Plantboy turned on the hazards, grabbed the jack, waited for a gap in traffic and sprinted back to the car. I watched in the rearview mirror with a prayer in my heart that we had done the right thing.

After several minutes I could tell there was some conversation taking place on the side of the road. At the very least confident that there was no ploy to rob and murder my dear, generous-hearted husband, I grabbed a bag of oranges we had purchased that morning in San Diego and walked back to the car.

It wasn't a jack problem after all, the car was high-centered and the young men had done everything they could think of to extricate themselves from the problem and change the tire. Plantboy's broader experience, handy and creative thinking, and added muscle finally did the trick and the tire was changed. While working, one of the young men told me that they had been standing out there for three hours . . . two of them with the sign. They were from Arizona and road tripping to San Francisco when their tire blew.

Grateful for Plantboy's kindness, they offered us $20 for our help. The young man seemed apologetic that it wasn't more, but I'm sure it was nearly all they could spare. Plantboy said "no" and I told them to drive safe for the sake of their mothers and to help the next person they found in need. There was much friendliness and camaraderie all around. I've seldom seen such gratitude in teenage boys.

Three hours. Because they were young? Brown? People are busy? Afraid?

Fast-forward 24 hours. We went to Muir Woods in San Francisco. On a Saturday. If you you know this place you know why the Saturday thing is significant. I've never seen a national monument so crowded. For years, Plantboy has touted this place as one of his favorites, and our timing worked out to go there. However, as we battled difficult traffic for some miles and waited in a traffic jamb on a winding road to get into the park, only to have to park nearly a mile away . . . well, admittedly there were many times I re-thought our decision.

And then we got into the park.

To say it is lovely is a gross understatement. It is sacred, touching, vast. Its founding was a hat trick of conservationism, private ownership, and federal governmental power. For a couple of amazing hours I could almost imagine what parts of the west would have looked like before people came to it. There is one particularly remarkable stand of trees called Cathedral Grove. Signs on the trail ask for quiet within that particular stand of trees where people might meditate, ponder, and experience a degree of reverence.

What I didn't realize until I read the plaque in Cathedral Grove is that the UN charter was actually signed in that spot. Delegates had met in SF to hammer out the charter and then culminated their conference with a visit to Muir Woods.

Here is the text on the plaque commemorating the event:

Here in this grove of enduring redwoods, preserved for posterity, members of the United Nations Conference on International Organization met on May 19, 1945 to honor the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thirty-first President of the United States, Chief Architect of the United Nations, and Apostle of Lasting Peace for all Mankind

Roosevelt had died just weeks before the delegation met, and the event was meant to both honor him, and for those who met to pledge their sacred honor to a world where peace might be possible.

I read the plaque and cried. It had been a long week, and a very long 24 hours. As I stared at the large, overhead, monochromatic picture of the delegates--weary from war and desperate for hope--I felt overwhelmed by emotion I couldn't explain. "And in despair, I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said."

I thought of those boys waiting three hours on a hot and dusty highway. A thousand cars must have passed them. Those delegates had hoped and prayed that the horror of the Second World War would not soon be forgotten, that we would find a way to be global citizens and to understand that damage and pain to one is a blight on all the rest of us. But they have failed. Miserably.

We have all failed miserably.

This is not about a UN thing. It is about a humanity thing. Our capacity to love and give is balanced in a most unsavory way by our capacity to inflict pain and act selfishly. In that moment, I despaired of the dark side of human nature winning.

I don't always feel this way. In July I spent a week at girls camp. For part of their week they spend an hour in our camp that is designated as "The Sacred Grove." The girls read scriptures, journal, pray and read a letter from their parents there. Near the end of our hour in the grove, some of the girls got a little bit restless and I felt impressed to speak. I told them about my experience at Muir Woods in halting words, the feelings of that day are still raw and painful when I think of them.

And then I told that that for all that many good men and women had tried to use the institutions of the world to make change, it could be that they were looking to the wrong grove. The grove of Joseph Smith is the place where we learn that God is personal--that He knows us as His children. In that other sacred grove we learn that the Savior died for us, and that peace only comes by knowing him and seeking truth. I knew in that moment, that if more people would go to the sacred places--in nature or those built by man, and truly seek to know God and do His will--the world would be really different.

I know this post should have been written in March; or at least July. But all these months out, it still stays with me. Particularly in this season of such joy mingled with such heartache. My Christmas lights and keeping my family huddled close are helping to keep darkness at bay. But I sense it, just outside my safe circle I have built for myself. There are those that would flaunt the rule of law and reject their Father in exchange for watching the world burn in a silacrum of true worship. As they do so, they wreak havoc and destruction on the children of the world, marking generations with their vilification of freedom and peace.

I want to act. I want to pull my car over and offer assistance without fear. I don't want to be one of the ones that just drives by while others suffer. But there are just such big problems--problems that cannot be fixed with the loan of a jack, a handy husband and a bag of oranges. The bit I can do seems so small compared to the scope of the thing.

My gratitude for the life I've been gifted with overwhelms me, even as I seek to understand how the inequities in the world can ever be made right.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Defining our Times

Satirical news, new technologies, gay rights, convenience products, women's rights, violence in global governments and local communities . . . it all sounds very, depressingly, 2015, doesn't it?

Or maybe it sounds very 1975.

I have mentioned that I turned 40 this year. To this end, I have been especially attuned to things celebrating their own 40th anniversaries this year. Two have stood out to me more dramatically, but my research has uncovered a few others as well. I think that many of these things helped to define my generation.

If you are 40 this year, your lifetime has been punctuated by dramatic changes in technology. You probably remember owning a cabinet-sized radio, 8-tracks, and even a black and white television. What you many not realize is that the first VCR was made, as well as the seeds for a little company known as Apple were sown. By the time we entered elementary school, the VCR was dramatically changing the way we consumed and watch movies. As for Apple? Well, you know how different your life is because of that company.

If you are 40 this year, you probably feel slightly cynical toward the government, and to other things. We were born the year the US pulled out of Vietnam, suddenly showing the world that we were not, in fact, invincible, and that we were capable of grave and costly mistakes. the highest ranking officials connected to the Watergate Scandal were sentenced that year.  Not coincidentally, 1975 is the year that Saturday Night Live went on the air. A weekly reminder about just how absurd life could be. And that the only way to deal with the absurdity was to laugh, even when you felt like crying. We are not so much the children of American exceptionalism, the way our parents are . . . we are the children of skepticism. This skepticism hasn't just affected us in terms of politics. My generation is far less likely to be religious (and to teach our children to be so) than our parents. I think the children of my generation must fight to find the good in things, people and situations when our default mode might be toward hopelessness and cynicism.





The 1970's, of which us 40 year olds are smack in the middle, is punctuated by people pushing back against government interference into personal lives. The result is that we are raising the most liberal group of young people ever born in America. Some will say this is good, others aren't sure, and still others find this shocking. Again, a sign of the times. The beginnings of an outspoken gay rights movement were in the 1970's. Several states began overturning sodomy laws in the name of privacy.

Ironically, some of the change came in the from of more government intervention. The civil service overturned a decade's old rule that insisted on mandatory firing for homosexuals. The military was sued for the first time for dismissing an openly gay officer. In other pushback, there were the Watergate sentences, free and fair education for handicapped people was mandated, and the House Comittee on Un-American Activities was disbanded. Free speech and privacy were valued over towing the line. It can be argued, fairly convincingly, that for a broad swath of Americans these two values are still paramount.

Women made gains in 1975. Margaret Thatcher became the head of her party in England, the first woman to do so. This election would eventually lead her to become Prime Minister. A glass ceiling that a young Hilary Rodham would have watched with interest. A Japanese climber was the first woman to scale Mt. Everest. Women's could be named as Rhodes' Scholars for the first time in 1975. These gains, naturally, weren't enough for some. An organization started that year whose stated mission was to see women ordained to the Catholic Priesthood.

In 1975, bioethics became a powerfully important conversation. Karen Ann Quinlan was comatose after a pill cocktail and kept on life support for many years as we argued the ethics of "pulling the plug." Peter Singer wrote a great manifesto for animal rights, asserting that they may have as much right to life as we do, and suggesting that the consciousness of all living things is a very large spectrum where one species is not necessarily "higher" than another.

Fear of violence both domestic and abroad is not unique to our time. At least five of Ted Bundy's victims went missing in 1975, along with countless other mysterious and disgusting kidnappings. There were skirmishes across the Middle East and great unrest in Southeast Asia--besides the horrible ending of the Vietnam War, Cambodia also fell that year to a Khmer Rouge, plunging the country into decades of poverty and ignorance. Parts of Africa succumbed to dictatorship in 1975 and widespread corruption was present in India and China.

Like today in Europe, the world was suddenly flooded with refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia as their countries collapsed and fell. Many Americans felt as helpless then as we do today. My generation is sadly realizing as we grow older that human nature doesn't change. The same problems will continue to plague and shock the world. We must dig deep and find ways to help that don't just involve us laughing at the problems, or checking out when finding out information makes us uncomfortable.

Not all was bad news: smallpox was eradicated in India in 1975. The first patents for Stove Top Stuffing and Pringles were filed. (Okay, maybe that isn't great news. Through the 60's, 70's and 80's our worship of convenience products creates an obesity epidemic!) Iconic movies were made--the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Godfather II, Jaws and the inception of Rocky. On television Gunsmoke ended, but the old guard gave way to WKRP in Cincinnati,Welcome Back Kotter, Wonderwoman and the Jeffersons. Don't forget that Wheel of Fortune is also 40 this year. Our great songs included O Mandy, the Best of My Love, I Honestly Love You, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Being 40 seems weird. I feel like I should feel older. More mature. And yet, at the drop of a hat I can remember embarrassing moments from when I was 12. The anxiety and excitement I felt entering high school. Going to college. Putting in my mission papers. Having my first baby . . . it is getting to be a long time now that these milestones have been a part of my life. But I feel like I live them simultaneously to the life I live now. The things that shape us never really leave us.

In an age of cynicism, satire and too much information, I want to live deliberately. I want to live kindly. I want to know myself. I want to leave a world for my children where problems finally seems solved. Yet, I can't help but think that my own mother once wanted the same, perhaps as she looked out at the troubles of 1975 while she waited for me to make an appearance. But here we are, 40 years on, and acting as though we haven't learned a thing.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Trepidation

Today feels a bit like my last day of freedom. I begin a series of professional development classes tomorrow, have inservice week next week and will have kids back at school the following week. I know that most of you have sent your kids back to school already, but teaching is a funny sort of a job in that every year you feel like you get to start over.

Not from scratch, certainly, but whereas most jobs have a learning curve in the beginning and then you get your groove and move forward, every September feels like this to me. While many things I'm teaching will be the same, each new collection of kids brings it own set of challenges.

What will stay the same:

* Administration. This is good because it means that there won't be that awkward adjustment period to the new boss.
* Professional development. I have mixed thoughts here. The emphasis on teamwork from last year had many positives, but also tied my hands regarding other things. Additionally, the "proof" we need to demonstrate that our kids are actually learning something is very rigorous and number-based. It is a thing that creates hours of extra work for very little value.
* Teachers. I'm on essentially the same teams of teachers as last year and already have an effective, or even good, working relationship with all of these colleagues. I sincerely look forward to continued collaboration and am grateful not to have unknown quantities in this direction.

What will change

* New Building. This has been ongoing, but my classroom (I saw it today) is really mostly finished and very lovely and exciting. Shared lab space will be an interesting challenge to navigate, but my classroom is enormous with delicious amounts of storage. This is very exciting. Dollar store (for containers) here I come!
* Redesigned Class. My Foundations class (basically 9th grade physical science) is being redesigned this year, though not too much. We are in the process of redesigning all our core science classes to better reflect NGSS standards, but cannot really make the change until textbooks are adopted . . . probably around 2017. (What a weird date to write; it sounds so futuristic. What the hell are we adopting textbooks for???)
* Three preps. This is probably driving the title of this post more than anything. Last year I taught Foundations and English 12. This year I'm also picking up biology. To anyone who has ever taught, you will understand the ramifications of three preps at the high school level. And remember, I'm part time. Everybody, apparently, loves me, but they are hoping to kill me at the same time. Ironically, biology is the thing I went to college for, and what I always saw myself teaching, though I haven't done so since 1999. It has taken me a very long time to get back to this place of doing what I love the most . . . and it is vitally important that I hit a homerun here. Our teacher with the most bio sections is retiring next year or the year after and if I'm good, then I'm well-positioned to take his place. Though I only teach ONE section this year (and will put in an extra 5-10 hours a week to make it happen), I have to be fantastic. Trepidation is right.
* Family schedule. I had hoped all would be the same this year, and it will, mostly except for the fact that my boys' twice weekly ride to karate (which I used in lieu of babysitting on those days, basically funding karate tuition with the savings), will no longer be available. This change seems little, but what it means is that, at least until Christmas, I will spend 3 more hours a week in the car and spend an extra $100/month on babysitting.
* Students. They are always so unknown--some amazing and delightful, some difficult beyond all reason, and most in the vast middle. I struggle to inspire the Amazings on to greater things, the Difficults to some semblance of discipline and desire, and the Middles? Mostly I struggle to know them and show them I care for them so that they aren't forgotten. But you never know what you are going to get, and I always struggle to know how to motivate and help them. It is a job where perfect is never really a choice. Knowing that you truly helped a handful is sometimes the best you can do.

But to quote the always great Tom Hanks from A League of Their Own, "If it was easy, everyone would do it. It's the hard that makes it great!"

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Passing on The Lessons From Girls' Camp

I shared some thoughts from my last post with the committee on Wednesday. I was careful to preface my remarks with praise for their powerful efforts and time in behalf of our children. Then I basically put it to the brothers like this:

As moms we loan our children to you for a weekend a month and every Wednesday night, hoping that they will come home a little better each time. We pray that the young men's program will give them something that we are unable to, while encouraging their growth as men and as priesthood holders at the same time. Please don't squander that time with them. Take opportunities to share your love of the gospel, your best and most faith promoting mission stories and your love of your families.

I felt emotional when I spoke, but this was a roomful of men here, so I kept it together pretty well and felt the spirit. Even in a little calling/assignment you can have a stewardship for which you get inspiration.

My comments were well-received, particularly because some of this very thing was done just a couple of weeks ago at Scout camp, a thing I also acknowledged and expressed gratitude for. It was agreed that, by and large, it was one of the better scout camp experiences the boys from this ward have ever had. The boys had greater unity and more fun than ever before.

A few years ago, I sat in a parent and leader meeting with two wards as we discussed the possibilities of combining our programs. Numbers of youth in both wards were low and many of the kids attended school together. We were looking for a way to make it possible to staff cubs, YM and YW as well as create larger groups of kids so that they might be more encouraged to attend. It was an emotional evening, with the vast majority of adults present in agreement that despite any logistical challenges to combining the programs, it was up to the grown ups to figure it out and get along for the sake of the kids.

One brother, in particular, was very emotional as he basically begged for something, anything, that might help encourage his son to want to be at church. This man is a perpetual joker and generally laid back, so and I'll never forget the tenderness of that plea, nor the overwhelming Spirit I felt as I knew this was the right path for our ward and stake. That this choice had marvelous potential to bless the lives of our children.

In our small and rather inactive ward, this brother and his wife were key in helping run many of our programs. They are also our very good friends. Three months later he came across some anti-Mormon literature, for really the first time, unbelievably, and three weeks later he and his wife asked to have their names removed from the church records. It was literally that fast.

As they sat in our home and told us of their decision, I couldn't help but remember that just three months previous he would have given anything to have his son be a believing member. I know their decision to leave was based on many things, but I have sometimes wondered if the family stress alleviation was part of that choice.

Many prayers and soul-searching were given by many upon their leaving. I think some probably followed suit in their own way and time, but I think the Lord is also merciful. Our ward has exploded with families in the intervening time and it is a different place now than it was when they left. Our programs are running well and strong; there are plenty of people to accept and admirably fulfill callings. Our primary has doubled in size in the past 2-3 years. All of our auxiliaries are fully staffed and functioning in a way I've never seen before in this ward.  I'm grateful and humbled that the Lord would see fit to bless our ward family in this way, when so many of us were hurting so badly.

Church administration and running the programs can be such a hassle sometimes. It can seem that we are serving the church itself rather than the people. But now and then there are moments of complete clarity when I really get it. I know that the Church is imperfect and run by imperfect people trying, and succeeding on balance, to know the Lord's will for helping to move us forward as a people. The Church is merely a simulacrum for the kingdom of Heaven. It is where we learn to serve strangers, and come to love them. It is where we learn to sit side-by-side and work with people that we might not choose to be friends with. It is a means for us to forget self, sacrifice and serve others. I'm grateful for it. Even when it is messy. I'm sure I'd be a lot messier on my own.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Girls' Camp

I spent last with the teenagers from our church at their annual girls' camp. Though I have spent many years, off and on, working with the young women from our church, I have never had life circumstances that would allow me to spend a week at camp with them. But circumstances change and children get older and easier to farm out to friends, and this year I decided it was time to say "yes" to this unique experience.

First and foremost, it was fun. I had a really good time. The girls are mostly delightful and funny and well-behaved. There was plenty to do--skits, activities, devotionals, service, certifying in camping skills, crafts, water games, etc. Our theme was "The Girl on Fire" and a lot of Hunger Games kitsch went into creating the structure for the camp. I was skeptical, as the books and films are fairly dark, but it was well-done and not overdone. So well done, in fact, that if anybody is looking for a camp theme next year I am happy to private message and give details. There is one more movie to go, I think the popularity of the series will linger for at least another year or two.

All in all it was a great experience and my poor husband spent what was probably a miserable 90 minutes over the course of the weekend listening to me give details. I will spare you here as most of the experiences are really of the you-had-to-be-there variety. Pranks, stupid skits, running jokes and gags are all so much better when you are sleep deprived and without other forms of entertainment. (Is that Channing Tatum riding on a donkey?? I nearly wet my pants at the time . . . as of this writing I can only muster a wan smile to what seemed so hilarious just seven days ago.)

Still, there is much that is memorable and worth bringing home that translates better into broader audiences. And, oddly enough, the thing I am thinking about is scouting. BOY scouting.

My current "official" calling in our ward is to be the advancement chair on the scout committee. I say official because I'm also working with the cub scouts and until not too many weeks ago was teaching Sunday School when I cried "uncle" with girls' camp approaching and got released from many obligations. I don't think this lay-low period will last long, but my work on the committee has been eye opening and, particularly in light of the press release from the Church this week, has given me much time to reflect on the nature of scouting and its unique role in the LDS church.

At a committee meeting earlier this year, one very earnest brother asked about how to motivate kids. This led to some interesting fall out that I have thought about often, and even more often this week. The first thing that happened is an older brother, whose primary contact with church IS scouting, left angry. This very thing had been discussed in the monthly Round Table meeting the week previous, and, once again, our troop had a very pitiful leadership showing at the meeting. This brother's anger was awkward, but not entirely without foundation. LDS troops don't run the way troops outside the church do. In some ways this is by design (handbook), but mostly it is in response to a "calling" not exactly being the same as something you "volunteer" for. All of those other scouters are volunteers and want to be there. Many LDS scouters are going through the minimum number of motions to feel that they are doing their calling adequately. It is harder to find ones that have strong testimonies of the merits of scouting and who love both it and the kids. This additional level of interest is really required if a person called into scouting is going to take the initiative to get the requisite training to be a really great scout leader.

That was Brother A's response; once he left the room, there was an actual discussion, albeit rather subdued. Brother Bishop (actually our bishop) said the key was to do Duty to God. This left me all kinds of skeptical. The Duty to God award is such an afterthought in American Young Men's programs. Most of the boys that end up earning it only do so after they receive their Eagle Scout and are already fairly motivated types.

Brother C, a member of our bishopric and a long time scouter (at least 40 years in scouting) shook his head vociferously at the bishop's comment and insisted: you have to get them outside. The more you sit around the more they will hate it. He then waxed poetic about an old time scout leader that engaged the boys by using his Dutch oven every week, ensuring that something delicious came out of it at the end of every scout meeting.

I've rolled these responses over in my head as possible motivators or barriers to motivation:

A--Dismissive anger for the lack of integrity among LDS scouting units.
B--The key to successful scout program is focusing on spirituality.
C--More guy stuff. And food.

I may not be the best person to speak to this. My oldest son, 13, is a gung-ho scout. He likes everything about it: the military aspects, the camaraderie, the uniforms, the patriotism, the memorizing, the bazillion merit badges, the awards. I think in many ways he came this way, but we have done some things. I will speak quickly to some things that we have done that have been successful with our boys (one Scout, one in the Webelos den and one in the Wolf den) before getting back to my thoughts on lessons we can learn from girls' camp.

We have . . .

1--NEVER implied that scouting is something you do if you like the activity going on that night. Scouting is part of being active in the church.

2--Been super involved. I have been cub master (now my husband's calling), primary counselor over cubs, on both the cub and scout committees. I have volunteered at cub camp, as well as keep up to date with district activities. The committee jobs were not things I was called to--I asked to assume those roles to keep the program running smoothly.

3--Made sure that we know the program. I have never once made it a leader's responsibility to earn an award for my kid. This doesn't mean that I've done it myself either, but knowing the program and the expectations can help you plan family activities (lots of cub things can be done in the normal course of family life with a little bit of organization) as well as help guide your child into ideas they can suggest for scout activities that might help them progress.

Okay, so we are definitely a scout family. At least for my oldest, he will remain so, regardless of the Church's decision whether or not to stick with BSA. This is a thing I also have strong opinions about, but it is a bit off-topic. Maybe another day. I have strong motivation with three boys for learning the program and helping it to be smoothly executed. I want my kids to want to be there. So back to my meeting with the committee all those weeks back.

A--Brother A is right. If scouting is going to continue to be a part of the church and our YM culture, then we need to be doing it properly. That includes attending the training that is quite good and presented at least every month, if not more often. We cannot complain that scouting is too complicated and hard to run if we won't avail ourselves of every resource available to us.

B--Our bishop is right. We are not connected with the scouts because the world needs more Eagle Scouts (though maybe it does); we are connected with scouts because scouting, for 100 years, has been seen as an incredible vehicle for teaching things that allow boys to become successful missionaries. The church's own research shows that boys that earn their Eagle Scout are far more likely to go on missions. The church isn't trying to churn out Eagles, they are trying to turn boys into Elders who can effectively and with conviction teach the gospel. The most important thing a boy can do is gain a testimony of the Savior. His love. His atonement. His sacrifice. The restored church. Scouting alone cannot do this. It isn't even intended to do this beyond some vague devotional gestures. If boys feel the spirit, they will come back for more. If they come back often enough, they can gain a testimony. If scouting is to fulfill its purpose within the church, leaders must more effectively integrate the principles in Duty to God, as well as look for ways to spontaneously share testimony and teach the gospel. Camping experiences must be more than a boys-will-be-boys melee where the only prayer is that everyone makes it back alive. And with all their fingers.

C--Our lifetime Scouter is right. Boys do need to be active. They don't do well when they sit for a long time. Tempering sitting and learning with standing up and doing is essential (not just for boys, by the by). Scout leaders, when they accept the call, must understand that in addition to training, those monthly campouts are a must if they are going to keep the boys working toward goals--intrinsic and extrinsic. Without these aspects, it will be very hard to get the boys to focus on the spiritual because being outside, away from electronics, eating food you had to make yourself, teaches you to really internalize.

I would like to take a moment more on the Bishop's comments. Because this is what I precisely saw at Girls' Camp. There was this awesome blend of spirituality and fun that was delightful. Perfect. As the girls shut off their devices, they could really look at one another, and at their leaders. They could more effectively feel the pull of the spirit the longer they spent in the woods. Thoreau was onto something, certainly. There was a certain deliberateness of action both from me as a leader, and in what the girls understood by week's end. Their hearts were soft, open, receptive.

Boys are girls are different, sure. But we are all children of the God and Goddess of this creation. They have endowed us with divine attributes that more clearly shine through when we spend time in Their creation. I have to believe that after a day or two in the woods, the same thing happens to boy-hearts that happens to girl-hearts. This is when a leader can step in and tell a story from his mission (and, no, thanks very much, that story should have nothing to do with something gross you ate) and touch hearts, change lives. He might tell a story about his own conversion to the gospel, the joy he felt in taking his wife to the temple, how he loves his kids, how he discovered his career path.

This is possible.

When scouting celebrated its 100th anniversary of its partnership with the LDS church, there were some great articles in both the Ensign and the New Era. One of these was called "Why I love the 50 miler." This is what it was all about. Taking boys to the brink of their capabilities so that they are humble, grateful and teachable. In this moment, when you are stretched to your limit of doing hard things, you find your truth.

Yes, Brother A, if the church continues with scouting then there must be a renewed emphasis on proper training integrity in completing the steps of scouting. Yes, Bishop B, there must be a spiritual awakening within the scouting program and the vision caught of how Duty to God might be married to the pursuit of skills. And yes, Brother C, the boys need to get outside more and not only learn but practice the skills outlined in the scouting program.

I don't know if the BSA/LDS relationship will last. There has been rumbling for some time that it won't be. But if the men will open their eyes and take some cues from the women for how the practical and the spiritual might be married, then young men doing scouting can truly begin to be blessed by their association with it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Growing Up Mormon (Hashtag)

There was a meme headed around Twitter in recent weeks that begin #growingup . . .  and it included designations like "Albanian," "Black," "Hispanic," "Scottish" etc. The news story I heard about this (because I do NPR, not twitter--I'm in my middle years like that) was extremely positive and reported little negativity in the exercise until a group of really classy rednecks used "growingupwhite" as a way to promote hate speech.

Awesome.

White means certain things, of course, as well as being American. But, for me, I can honestly say that the primary cultural group I identify with is Mormon. I honestly think I'd be more comfortable being dropped into he middle of an LDS congregation in West Africa or Tonga than attending a demolition derby in Kansas or a cocktail party in New York. Both of the latter being "white folk" type events. Years ago, the New Yorker ran a piece on Mitt Romney. His Mormonism was addressed by an avid scholar of Mormonism (who is, by the way, not LDS). She said, "Mitt Romney isn't Mormon the way Harry Reid is a Mormon . . . he is Mormon the way Joe Leiberman is Jewish." Her point was that Romney's Mormonism went back for generations and generations. Unlike Reid, a convert, Mormonism was fundamentally tied to Romney's reality and understanding of everything in the world.

I am Mormon the way Romney is Mormon.

Generations and generations on both sides. When people leave the church, they report that this cultural disconnect is the hardest piece. The bottom of the world literally drops out when it is has been who you are for generations.

So, for fun here today, I am going to (#) growingupmormon. Some of these will be based on my experiences. Others on the experience my children are having.

1. Spending a day or more each summer working at a church farm--pruning or picking grapes was our crop of choice when I was a child.

2. You think canning your food is something that everybody does.

3. All grownups wear white underwear that goes to their knees, don't they?

4. Toiletpapering is something you do to your friends, or a boy you like, or your favorite teacher who probably happens to live in your neighborhood.

5. The Word of Wisdom is only observed correctly in your own family; all your friends seem to have their own version of it.

6. You eat before you go to the potluck because you have no idea what kind of weirdness Sisters Smith, Johnson, Peterson, et. al. have concocted in their kitchen.

7. You have been served Jell-O as a main dish. Or, at the very least, your mother owns a ward cookbook with a recipe in it that involves shrimp, Jell-O and tartar sauce.

8. Said Jell-O might also be a side dish and Thanksgiving doesn't seem quite complete unless your fancy Jell-O is running into your mashed potatoes.

9. Jell-O, oddly enough, is rarely a dessert, despite the fact that it is about 75% sugar and often covered in whipped cream.

10. On your mission you become shocked to discover that there are MTCs that are NOT in Provo.

11.  Being modest means that your garments cannot show. Even if you don't wear garments. And only if you are a girl. And even if that isn't at all what modesty means.

12. You remember the old incarnation of For Strength of Youth that said no rated R movies . . .and rejoiced when the current version was so specific, so now you can watch whatever you want.

13.  You mom owned cake pans and maybe Jell-O molds in a variety of shapes.

14. Before Pinterest, mom had her own way of sharing crazy craft ideas with other women. It was called Homemaking night. Remember that year all of your clothes were sewn from patterns inspired by the movie Annie?

15. You danced to YMCA at every church dance before you even KNEW anybody that was gay.

16. Seminary meant a sluff-off class that was hopefully right after lunch and with all your friends.

17. Homemade apricot leather was your favorite taste of summer.

18. You have a "family" picture buried somewhere that has 75 people in it.

19. The largest room in the temple of your choice was standing room only at your wedding or sealing.

20. As a kid, one of your bucket list items was to visit all the temples . . . probably 25 at the time!

21. You have a favorite apostle that you are secretly rooting for to be prophet.

22. Two weekends a year, you spend two days in front of the TV in your jammies dozing off to conference. Yeah! Follow the prophet.

23. You know there is a fourth verse to "We'll Bring the World His Truth."

24. Until you were eight you really didn't understand the popcorn song at all. Heck, if you KNOW what the popcorn song is then you probably grew up Mormon! (Heck, if you use the word "heck" you probably grew up Mormon!)

25. When you were fifteen your dad looked at your mom across the table and said, "You know dear, I really hate Jell-O." Suddenly EVERYone comes out of the closet.

I'm sure I could go on all day . . . I'm sure that you could too. Leave a comment below if there is anything that you feel like is uniquely Mormon that could be added.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Just Another Day in English Class. In 1950.

After doing Hamlet with my English classes some weeks back, we followed it by reading the short story titled Stone Mattress. The story is brilliant and modern and pairs nicely with the play. Using both pieces springboarded us into conversations about the difference between justice and revenge, as well as a discussion about the degree to which people are responsible for their choices. As Laertes declares at the end of the play, "the king is to blame!" Shakespeare is tantalizingly unclear about what all the king is to blame for. Hamlet's actions, heinous as they are, would not have been done had his uncle not killed his father in order to gin succession. Likewise in Stone Mattress, the story's protagonist seems justified in committing a carefully planned murder when you realize the extent to which her "victim" once victimized her.

In conjunction with our reading I had students read three different versions of the same story. In the story the main character is stranded far from home in the middle of the night, which is only accessible by ferry. The character has forgotten their money and, despite pleas to former friends as well as the boat captain, nobody will help the person. Desperate, the character goes home on foot across a crime-riddled bridge, knowing it is dangerous but feeling out of choices. The character is murdered when the highwayman realizes they have no money to steal. 

In the first version, the protagonist is a woman who is having an affair (a series of affairs), and is trying to get home so that her husband doesn't catch her. Those who refuse to help are former, jilted lovers, as well as the boat captain.

In the second version, the story is identical except for the genders. The husband is the adulterer who is desperate not to be caught.

In the third version, it is a woman again, but she is a single, widowed, mom working across the river and desperate to get home before her children wake up. The outcome, however is the same.

At the end of the story (they only saw their version) students were asked to determine which of the characters was most responsible for the death of the main character.

Over two classes of reasonably enlightened, modern 18 year olds, here were the results:

75% of respondents in the first story primarily blamed the woman for her own death....the second choice was the man who actually killed her. 

This result is not actually unexpected. I pulled the story from a psychology lesson plan about the just world hypothesis--it is human nature to expect that people will get what we think they deserve. I really stirred everybody up when I said, "so you guys think that the penalty for adultery should be death?"  There was plenty of backpedaling after that! They asserted that they just were trying to say that our actions have consequences and that we cannot escape the results of our choices.

It was a good conversation, and I can get behind a lot of what they are saying. Our actions do have consequences, and we do have to be careful. Except....

There is a glaring problem when we look at scenario two. An identical case except for gender, remember. Only 25% of respondents blamed the man for his own death. Most blamed the highwayman and a few blamed the boat captain. 

So when we look at all their high principles about karma and a belief in a just world, it all really melts away. Even in 2015, women are still held to a higher standard. Men who have affairs are just not as responsible. The discrepancy shocked me. And maybe horrified me a bit too.

As for the third result? 95% said single mom not responsible...even though she too forgot her money, the mistake most directly related to the outcome.

The funny part was that the students seemed pretty chagrined by the outcome. Most voting students insisted that their vote would have been the same regardless of if it had been about a man or a woman, but I have my doubts. They squirmed hard when their own biases were revealed. 

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Turning 40

I had two big goals for this big year:

1. Run a 10K with my husband.
2. Finish my fairytale novel and submit for publication.

I didn't mis-type the first sentence. I said "had."

Wait?! You say. It is only JULY. Why the glum forecast for accomplishment?

As a school teacher, I was really counting on the summer to help me with these plans. The first, the race, was something I had hoped to do the end of summer and train through the spring and summer for. Then the realities of summer caught up to us and, boy howdy, we have been almost as busy as during the school year. I was asked to do girls' camp for our church after I set that initial goal, which has really thrown a monkey wrench into the best laid plans. Not a terrible monkey wrench, I'm looking very much forward to girls' camp, but to say that it is without complications is a gross understatement.

The second goal. *sigh* The second goal. Again, summer was the time for this . . . though not as much time as I had once hoped. To my horrible, horrible chagrin, however, I found that the thumb drive I had been working off of for this particular piece has quit working. I have an old PDF copy of a manuscript that has had extensive revisions made to it. I have recently and stupidly discovered that all said revisions are on the bad drive, nor do I have capability to convert the PDF to a working file format. When I think of all my great revisions, however, I'm horrified at the thought of going back to the PDF, particularly with the formatting issues created by converting one to the other.

It isn't to say that my fortieth year hasn't been without its perks. The weekend of mother's day/birthday, we took the boys backpacking for the first time. Professionally I've never been in a better place: I will begin my third year of teaching at the same school this fall, which is a record for me! I feel like I have a career finally instead of just a job. I am recognized as being very effective and doing well and have two departments arguing over who gets me for more time. I received a grant this year to expand technology in my classroom and will finally get to teach biology, my favorite subject, this school year. The kids are doing great and we love our new home that we've been in less than a year. Plantboy and I are doing well; I love him more than ever. I have come to terms with a lot of doubts that have plagued me in recent years about a variety of things.

Yes, we are in a very good place. As to my goals, however, that is another story.

The first goal was really in response to trying to exercise more. I have actually done fairly well this summer and am getting out to the gym more often. I would love to lose 15 pounds . . . mostly so the clothes aren't so snug and so I have more energy. As short as I am, it only takes a few pounds to really feel bulky. The energy piece is huge; I'm hoping that better exercise will help me beat that slump I get between 3-5 every afternoon that makes me crave junk food and naps. The reality is that I just hate running. As much as I admire my amazing friends who complete marathons et. al., I find myself completely miserable when I even attempt two miles. I will choose nearly any form of exercise over running. The merits of planning for a race are, of course, in the fact that you have a deadline. The downside, however, is that when the deadline comes you actually have to go RUNNING. Outside. Sometimes in the heat.

The second goal. *sigh* The second goal. This is just something I really, really want. Or is at least a simulacrum of what I really want. You see, my fondest desire is to write the next great American novel. You know the one I mean--the one that all the book group women want to read and talk about. The one that makes people stop and think and perhaps even influences their actions. The one that makes you call your best friend or sister and say, "Ohmygosh, I just read. The. Best. Book." Sure, sure a novel like that brings you money, but to me, such considerations are really secondary. I just can't imagine the buzz that would come from knowing that people are talking about and considering something I created.

But this bad drive thing, with no back up copy (who does that??? I have like a bazillion copies of everything else in 8 different spots!!!), has me feeling sick at heart. Discouraged. Wondering if it is a sign that it is time to just put away childish dreams.

I have publishing envy. I will just admit it.

Maybe it is just time to embrace the many gifts and blessings that have been mine, be grateful for my limited writing abilities, such as they are, and accept that this thing I want so badly really isn't within my reach.

I know. I know. It sounds so defeatist. But I admit, I'm feeling a bit defeated today as I ponder whether or not to pursue my dreams or just find something else on the bucket list. After all, I'm sure that going to New Zealand would make me feel MUCH better!

Friday, May 08, 2015

Room

The last book my seniors are reading for the year is called Room. Many of you probably get a chance to actually read for leisure and have already had the pleasure of this book. I'm a little bit late to the party. Still, I would like to add my resounding accolades for this fine piece of work.

No spoilers here, the jacket cover says as much, but Room is narrated, brilliantly, from the viewpoint of a five year-old boy. A barely five year-old boy. His experience is very limited because his mother happens to be enslaved by a man who kidnapped her when she was just 20 years old from her university campus and has held her in captivity for seven years. Her son is five. He knows nothing beyond the room in which they live. To him there is no Outside.

The novel is a fascinating look at the psychology of the first few years of life and how important that time is formatively, but even more so for what it says about the intense strength of the mother-son bond. It is the story of a remarkably remarkable woman exposed to the most prurient evil and the purest innocence at the same time and her heartbreaking effort to keep the two apart.

I remember that when my oldest was born, until he was about five, we only had ONE car. When I stayed at home, I very literally stayed at home. Of course, I could go on a walk, and I could use all the rooms of my house. But if you have ever been cooped up for days on end with a cranky toddler, you know how quickly the walls feel like they are closing in. I cannot even imagine. 

One of our other teachers, whose own tastes have always seemed less reserved than mine as we choose selections, emphases, etc. for for our seniors, says he finds the book rather appalling because of the subject matter. And yes, when you ponder this woman's existence, it is appalling--a crime of the darkest evil imaginable--but when you see her and their life through the eyes of her boy, you see only love and wonder and strangeness. Even smack in the middle of the most evil situation imaginable, he is innocent, perfect . . . a child.

The women who survived a ten year enslavement ordeal in the home of a Cincinnati man published their collective memoir recently and have been all over the news. I say the topic is timely and worth discussing; Room makes it possible to do so from this remarkably innocent viewpoint.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Four Hundred Years of History

For the first time ever, I taught Shakespeare this year. Oh, I've read Shakespeare, both in and out of classes. (Yes, that's right, I've read Shakespeare just FOR FUN, what about it?) But teaching it was a new thing entirely. I couldn't just read it, I had to be prepared to explain it, and, gulp make it INTERESTING.

Believe it or not, some people, actually lots of people, don't find literature just inherently wonderful or read just for reading's sake. They have to be encouraged. Enter the English teacher.

I think the others in my department didn't quite know what to make of me this year. I would sit in our preliminary meetings discussing literature and lesson plans and ideas with them, while all the time they are thinking I'm a science teacher. And some days, when the English classes are really going great, I think, "I can't believe I'm paid to do this!"

But toward Hamlet I didn't feel quite so confident . . . Shakespeare is the holy grail of English teaching, and Hamlet is the holy grail of Shakespeare. I didn't want to do what Mrs. Forsberg did to Romeo and Juliet when I was in the ninth grade (can you say butchered?); I wanted to bring all the subtlety and complexity and beauty to it that Mrs. Reed did with Othello. I read and studied and forced my husband to watch varying versions on Friday nights for movie night. I agonized.

For four-hundred years these plays have been taught because they are just so good. So many other plots are based on Shakespeare stories; indeed, there are few original stories left. Shakespeare is foundational to our culture and to refining your language and understanding. We celebrate this man because he was, truly, a genius. Oh, how I agonized.

And then I got some good advice.

That I actually listened to.

A wise English teacher (I hesitate to say "old" as she might be younger than I am) shrugged at my dilemma and said, "Don't get caught up in the symbolism and the imagery and the making it GREAT LITERATURE, just let the kids play with it. It is a performance piece, after all. Just engage them in the greatest revenge story of all time with a protagonist that is just an emo teenager." Prince Hamlet is actually 30, but like, whatever, he seems more like an angsty 17 year-old. Believe me, I know what angsty 17 looks like.

And it worked. The kids, not all of them, but by in large, they understood it and connected with it. They grumbled at Ophelia's brother and father who thought it was their business to tell her whom to love and could see that it was their interference that set certain events in motion. They argued about whether revenge and justice were the same thing and which Hamlet was really seeking. They empathized with his actions, even as they didn't condone them. They saw that truly dark path that revenge takes you on. They discussed mental illness and suicidal thoughts and how sometimes really hard things happen in your life that make you wish you didn't have to deal with them. They laughed at Polonius' famous advice and brilliantly translated it into modern English. The played the final scene for laughs, even as they recognized the waste and irony of it all.

It wasn't glorious. But it worked . . . and they connected in some small measure as so many English students have before. And, I hope, as they will for generations to come.

Science fascinates me because it explains the how of life. But literature . . . literature gets us closer to the why.


Where Have You Been?

Right here. Really. You know, when I'm not at work or running my children around or doing church stuff or home but working too. And I do blog very regularly. I appear monthly over at Aspiring Mormon Women, which is kind of awesome and the deadline thing really helps. I think it has also boosted my readership here. Why else would I have nearly 100 hits on posts that are months old? And in an almost impossibly tiny font? Yeah . . . I've got to fix that. I also keep two blogs for my students--one for my English classes and the other for my science classes. My science blog, in particular, is nearly always up-to-date and my class can just about be taken on-line for all the content that is there.

Anyway, I have some unusual "free" time tonight and decided to forgo my 85th round of Trivia Crack in exchange for something useful. What is this "free time" I speak of? Well, you may not be aware of it, but sometimes people actually get discretionary time in order to do things they enjoy. Or to recharge their batteries. It is probably good for me to get on board with that. I've been trying to use tacos, Dr. Pepper and chocolate to recharge my batteries. Newsflash: it just makes your butt bigger.

So I'm dealing with that too. The bigger butt thing. That will be in an upcoming post about the fact that I turn 40 this year. Free Geritol for everyone!

The thing is that I've really learned so much this year. About myself. About teaching. About living. Maybe it is the getting older thing, but I feel that I know less than I used to. I have more doubts and less surety about all kinds of things. . . but oddly enough I also am a lot less bothered by it than I used to be.

Anyway, while I have a space for doing so tonight, I am going to jot down some of these musings and schedule them to go out once a week or so . . . it might appear that I'm blogging that way.

In truth, though I blog regularly and really write all the time (curriculum creation), it just isn't the same. I miss both this format and my novel writing. I miss sharing my musings in a way that feels private (just me and my 100 closest friends, eh?) and I miss writing what I think so that my thinking gets better.

I know that to everything there is a season. At least I know it intellectually. But in truth, I want the season for everything to be now. I have a really hard time deciding how to spend my time and what to "focus" on. Yeah, I understand "focus" about as well as I understand "free" time. As I contemplate my upcoming birthday, the first milestone for which you can buy black balloons, I realize that I'm about halfway through this life--maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Is there time for all I want to do? See? Experience? Become?

Monday, December 15, 2014

The End of an Era

Yesterday in church I leaned over to my 7 year (and 7 months) old and mentioned something about Santa and Christmas . . . .you know, the rigamarole we feed our kids this time a year in the hopes that they will learn something about magic and joy and anticipation and innocence.

He looks over his glasses at me in a way that only he (and supercilious college professors) can. "Mom, there's no Santa."

At that moment, I'm backpedaling like crazy. It is church; it is quiet; my baby has grown up. "Who told you sweetie,"

"Mom (again, in THAT tone), I just figured it out. No Tooth Fairy. No Santa. No magic."

And just like that my last little one passed a terrible milestone, without a regret or backward glance. I wanted him to at least rage and cry and question so that we could have a real talk . . . one of the few talks I get right with my kids, the way my dad got it right with me. But, no, he is a practical and logical little fellow and facts are facts.

But, by golly, I needed the speech. So I whispered something to him about the real magic of Christmas being about love and sharing and at this rambling, hastily whispered point I know I am botching the speech and motherhood and all the rest.

He shrugs in response, not noticing the very real tears that are somehow leaking out my eyes, "I know how it works. You and dad just get up in the middle of the night and go shopping. You're Santa."

I smiled, relieved to know that he doesn't quite have everything figured out. I also understood in that moment one reason why people have big families--when one loses some measure of innocence and delight, there is always another coming along behind who will see the world with fresh eyes. When it is the baby . . . there is no one. And when your family is small, there are a lot of long, child-free years before the grandchildren come with their delight and faith and wonder.

I've read arguments against teaching Santa. I like some of those arguments and I can understand why some families choose these more factual and realistic approach to Christmas. But I'm like my little boy: practical and logical to a fault. Once a year I need to believe in a little bit of magic. I hope he understands that too when he has littlies of his own.

Having been outed, I feel like Christmas has certainly lost something special. I have a beautiful new home this year, turned out for Christmas in a way that has defied all my expectations and makes me so happy, but something will be missing too.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Remember?

Do you remember when I used to post regularly?

Yeah . . . me neither. 

Although I'm finding lately that NOT writing for myself, either fiction or blogging, is really affecting my psyche. I feel like I'm holding everything together but myself. I'm starting to realize that it was probably the writing the kept me sane (happy, even) during those long years home with little ones and during those sleepless nights of newspaper delivering. 

I still write plenty now, but it is lesson planning (for Sunday School too) and e-mail and Scouting related work. It isn't exactly what I'm talking about. My work with Aspiring Mormon Women helps, but even that is on a fairly tight deadline and for a very specific purpose. 

Long walks and hours to write--this sounds like heaven to me. 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Yeah. It is a Rant.

A few years ago in the state of Oregon, a law was passed that essentially said that school grades had to be tied to actually learning skills and demonstrating knowledge. The bill, in part, reads as follows:

The bill said, "Each district shall adopt a grading system ... that shall ... be based on the student's progress toward becoming proficient in a continuum of knowledge and skills."

The purpose was to a) help encourage districts to stop allowing teachers to give grades based on things like: extra credit that was totally unrelated to the class; allowing students to still pass grades (and even earn A's) without ever having to pass a test, when many of those point heavy class projects and homework assignments were completed by somebody else; never missing class all semester and getting 100 bonus points, etc. 

The second purpose was to allow districts already strictly adopting a proficiency-style grade system (in other words, you have to really prove what you know) the leeway and backing to do so without people raising a stink.

The bill was meant to be interpreted very narrowly.

Then it was sent to the Oregon Department of Education, where it was interpreted very broadly.

The ODE handed down new rules to the district three years ago regarding grading practices. Teachers were forbidden for giving points related to behavior. Oh, and homework was regarded as behavior. In fact, no more than 10% of any students grade could be related to anything that was considered "proof" of learning. Daily assignments became called "practice" and lumped into that 10%. Quizzes generally too. Some lab work. All homework. If the work is not done independently (by, by group work for points), in class and after sufficient practice, it cannot be given points. In addition, students may continue to retake-rewrite-redo this scored work indefinitely with an eye to continually improving their learning and therefore their scores.

I am all for a high school diploma meaning something. Absolutely. I think it is ludicrous for a teacher-coach to award 50 bonus points in a math class to students who come help at games. I think students should get second chances to demonstrate learning, particularly on things like writing assignments. I think schools should be more demonstrated-skills based than rote memorization. Absolutely.

But there are realities, too. And students see points as currency in the classroom. If you can't "pay" students, then there are very few (particularly among young teenagers) that are motivated to do the work required to pass the tests. By not awarding the process, you inadvertently downplay it as well. I may take hours to carefully craft a test that adequately reflects all that we learned in class . . . students doing retakes need a test that is different. And so I might spend hours writing that one too.

In the first year after implementation, teachers balked at all these things: the time commitment (so much of which is never paid for); the pounds of re-grading; our inability to reward the process as a valuable part of learning; the scorn for any question that isn't a written answer or a hands-on type of task despite what those types of tests mean for grading load; the very expensive administrative position added to our district staff to oversee implementation; the edicts coming time and again from people who have never had boots on the ground in a classroom.

Proficiency practice expectations have coincided with huge increases in class sizes. I teach five classes. Twenty years ago, this meant 100 students. A decade ago it meant 150. In 2014 it means 180 . . . though I'm supposed to bite my tongue and be grateful it isn't 200. Proficiency practice has also coincided with the adoption of the Common Core which will result in vast changes to our classes, much of which is good, but all of which is very, very new. This year it also coinciding with new professional standards that are causing lots and lots of extra work, but cannot possibly set out to prove what they think they can.

After tens of millions to implement these proficiency rules--money from the districts, not the state-- not to mention tens of thousands of frustrated parents and teachers, the Oregonian released this report last spring:

Oregon Schools' Big Switch is Kaput

The politician who passed the bill, and the nearly 100% majority who agreed with, realized what the ODE was doing and said, "WAIT!! THAT ISN'T WHAT WE MEANT!!!"

And yet, in spite of everything, our district decided to go ahead because they are so ridiculously invested at this point. And they aren't just going ahead, they are expanding--even to the point of introducing an even more rigorous grading standard that puts everything on a 5-point scale. This whole post is the result of, six weeks into the school year, is that my middle school-er has a C in history based on one assignment that he got 3/5 on. He has no math grade, just a test tomorrow that will also be worth 5 points. His English grade is a B based on the fact that he seems to be earning more 4's than 5's on his assignments. At the high school our heads exploded over the 5-point scale when we pointed out that our grading program will ONLY do total points; that a 3/5 cannot in any way be a C, but only a D-. On a five point scale, in fact, there is no way to earn a C at all. 

They have also taken alignment (horizontal and vertical) so far that they are not only going to specify what should be taught in each grade, but mandate that we teach it on nearly precisely the same schedule. In other words, not only do I need to be teaching the same things that the teacher next door to me teachers, but we need to be within two days of one another when we do it. This is nearly impossible, and it looks a helluva lot like Texas: the place I left teaching in order to get more freedom.

I love kids. I have moments of perfect clarity when I love my job and know I'm in exactly the right place. But I will say it, flat out, the expectations and paperwork and the constant changing of systems and approaches and on and on and on is sucking the joy out of what I do. And, there is no way around it, it is hindering my ability to do it well and to focus on my students' needs. At this fledgling end of my career I can honestly say that I don't see how I could survive 20 or 30 years as a classroom teacher.

Education is a trendy field. Today's proficiency is tomorrow's debunked idea. Legislators pass laws and throw money around like it is no big deal. But everything they do affects my job in real ways that are painful. All of this legislated and mandated pain is happily coinciding with our district digging in its heels over a modest raise despite running a huge surplus this year. Not only are we expected to do a better job under worse conditions than ever, they expect us to do it on a food stamp budget. 

So while I hate the big government stupidity that handed down these enormous problems, I'm still going to gladly march with my union. How is that for being a conflicted democrat with five weeks until election day?

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

On Miracles

Every few years I feel like I re-examine what it means to have faith. I'm not talking about whether or not to be a part of a Faith . . . using the word in a way that it makes it synonymous with religion, or insert the name of a certain church. No, I believe that your relationship to a church, while certainly being an element of faith, is separate from the question of faith as an expression of deep belief that inspires you to action. 

Two events have unfolded in the last few months in my life that have cause this re-examination to take place. The first is that a friend of mine was recently diagnosed with colon cancer. Despite symptoms of major colon issues, she spent several months praying and believing that whatever she had going on would just clear up. I don't see her as a person who believes in faith healing, per se, but she did spend several weeks with whooping cough last summer before her very practical teenage son insisted she go to the doctor. I think she is busy . . . she has seven children and a hundred things she enjoys doing. I think she puts off such visits, as many of us do, thinking we'll eventually get better on our own. 

Anyway, by the time she was diagnosed, she had a malignant tumor the size of a golf ball obstructing her bowel. It obstruction was discovered Friday and they had the surgery scheduled by Monday. While hospitalized, all of her lymph nodes were checked and cleared as cancer free. The tumor was completely excised and she won't even undergo chemo or radiation. 

And yet, despite my very real gratitude for her clean bill of health, I have had a hard time getting my head around the language of miracles she and her husband have so freely spoken of in the last few weeks. You see, many years ago, my family likewise fasted and prayed for a miracle and my aunt died of colon cancer anyway. She had a family of young children and was just 34 years old. Our lives are in God's hand and we are subject to natural processes. We cannot change His mind nor erase the fact that we are born to eventually die. 

I am not the best at prayer, or maybe faith, but as I get older I have come to believe, as CS Lewis once spoke, that we don't pray to change God, we pray to change ourselves. And yet, of the many prayers uttered in my friend's behalf the Sunday before she went to her surgery, I heard very little thy-will-be-done type prayers and very many of those other types. Please Lord, give us exactly what we want.

From my friend's Facebook page,  "My heart is so full of deep gratitude for the results I learned today. . . To deny the reality of a divine creator, a merciful God and a loving Savior would deem me an ignorant fool in not recognizing to whom the power of the prayers of so many has blessed the preservation of my life and the ability to continue to love and serve and raise my children and others upon this earth for some while longer. I'm very grateful for all the love and support our family has been given and received during such a challenging time. Faith precedes the miracle. I love you all."

This is a lovely, public expression of gratitude and her faith, already very strong, is clearly stronger now. 

But what about when faith does NOT come before a miracle? My thoughts of my aunt have been very heavy in the last few weeks. I will not deny that her family has indeed experienced miracles, and I know that her daughters have at times felt their mother very near as they have grown. But it has been a very, very hard road for them in many ways. They dealt with trials as children (related to their mother's death and their father's subsequent, disastrous re-marriage) that I can hardly even begin to comprehend. I don't think I could ever say that any child is better off without their loving, and lovely mother. I know that God is in charge of the universe, but I also know that he wouldn't be God if he intervened every time we were uncomfortable. Part of what makes Him God is that He allows the world to proceed as it will, so that we can learn and grow from this experience. Even when it means we suffer. Especially when it means we suffer.

My friend's faith is lovely. Beautiful. Almost childlike in its simplicity and trust. 

It is not a faith that works for me. And when I read her piece I felt strongly that such simple expression belittles those who have prayed in great faith . . . with the greatest faith they knew and still not received the hoped for blessing. I hope that I would not imply to another that if they just had a little more faith they would see a few more miracles. For nothing is more personal than faith.

The second thing that has happened is the process of selling our home and buying another. It has been a ride. In June, after bidding on two homes, I was practically ready to give up and just chuck it all in for a while, continuing to endure the small house. I had begun praying for patience, humility and most of all, gratitude for all that I'd been given rather than discontent for what I didn't have. 

And then the house we wanted came through. Not luck or even coincidence. It was an empty short sale and we hounded the neighbors until we got the needed information and put the process in to play. That process was much shorter than expected (as noted in an earlier post) and we have spent many hours in the last few weeks making sure our financing was in place--a tricky proposition because we had no contract on the home in which we currently live.

In the past weeks, many have told me to pray that the new house would come through and the old one would sell. You've earned this! You deserve it! You do the right things, God will bless you! I have heard each of these and more from my delightfully sweet friends who have more faith in general, and certainly more faith in me than I have in myself.

But I couldn't do it. Not once have I been able to bring myself to my knees to pray specifically for this particular blessing. I just couldn't. The world is such a hot mess right now. There is actual suffering and pain and . . . well, I'm sure you can watch the news as well as I can. About three weeks ago, I was on my knees, knowing we needed a blessing. We nearly ran to the point of bankruptcy with a house nine years ago; I am deeply fearful to go through that again. 

I found there were things I could pray about. I prayed that if it was a bad idea then our loan wouldn't come through. I prayed that whatever happened we would not be foolish enough to clean out the boys' mission fund. I prayed that we would continue to be generous with our time and talents despite our greater obligations.

And then I had a moment of inspiration during my jumbled prayer of desperation. This scripture came to mind from Luke:

27 Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
 28 If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?

 29 And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind.

 30 For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.

 31 ¶But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you.

And I finally knew what to pray for.

I spent a happy fortnight praying for experiences that would allow me to serve others. Oh, I still did all the things necessary to work on getting the house, etc. And I still worried. I can't help it; it is my nature to do so. But little by little I was able to let go of really caring if it went one way or the other. I felt the joy of spontaneous chances to serve and was able to sleep. I felt at peace with whatever happened next.

We fasted 9 days ago, but I was in a better place to do so. Our fasting was about gratitude and a desire to serve and give our boys a place to grow and gather with their friends. I was finally able to approach my question with proper humility and in the right frame of mind, but with trust that it would all proceed as it must.

Four days ago, We got a perfect offer on our house the same day our new one was recorded in our name.

Getting the new house feels like a LOT of hard work over the past year. Selling the house we are in? That feels like a miracle. The scriptures tell us that faith precedes the miracle. I don't doubt it. But in my case, I had to learn a lesson in faith first. The miracle isn't selling the house. The miracle is the change in heart. Maybe the miracles are not what others see, but what we come to understand as we learn to exercise faith.

I didn't pray about the house, though I've expressed much gratitude since. I am coming to see more and more that my prayer needs to be a supplication to the Father of the Universe that he will find a way to use me. I don't think it is fair for me to ask anything else. God will bless us as he will, but I am going to try to focus less on the the blessings I think I need and more on how I might be a blessing to others and recognize more miracles as they come, while allowing others to see what miracles they see as well. 

Oh, I'm still the girl that would go get checked out right away, if I was dealing with the symptoms my friend had, but it doesn't mean I have to be a skeptic either. By seeing the world as it is maybe I'm better able to help it. Maybe my leap of faith, my gift, is to feel the doubt about so many different things and still behave as though there is no doubt. To not know of a surety, but to still plead that the Lord will help mine unbelief.