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16 September 2014


My mother repeated a family expression in times of joyful confusion: “ ‘We’re lost!’ the captain shouted as he staggered down the stairs.” She always claimed she didn’t know what it meant. It was just an old family expression. She laughed every time she said it. 

There is a lot I do not know about my mother. I would like to tell it all, and I will fail. I will do my best to be accurate but I will fail to do that too.

A biography should be fair and truthful. It should explore facts and provide the truth about situations, contain howevers and on-the-other-hands. This is not a biography of my mother and it is not fair and I will not provide all the perspectives that are ideally or even theoretically available. My mother is not here to tell her side. My brother doesn’t speak to me because he writes that I ruined his life. My husband is on my side, so his support is not objective. I hop Alan and Ian have mostly happy memories of their grandmother. Kerris held my mother’s hand in the hospital for hours because my mother would not let go and because she is a good granddaughter-in-law. Emily and Ruby never knew her. Her friends were far away. I cannot promise that anyone who was not there, or even those who were, will recognize my version of events. 

I am biased. 

Mom was born in 1925, married in 1949 while she was a student at UC Berkeley. My mother quit college to support her husband through graduate school as women were much-inclined to do in those days. Soon enough my dad found work at Oregon State College in Corvallis, where I was born in 1952. My brother was born in 1955. 

But this isn’t a biography at all. This is the story of how my mother went crazy and took my husband and I with her. That is our version of events beginning more than a dozen years ago in 2001. It is my story to tell. 

This is really about my husband and me. 

This is really about me. 

I would like to think I am fair and accurate. I would like to paint myself as the good daughter who was there for my mother in the years she was slowly leaving the world. That isn’t the way I felt most of the time it was happening. It’s true I was there, my husband was there, and once in a while someone else was there for Mom. It’s true that we did everything we could manage to do. Sometimes it didn’t feel like enough, that I could never do enough for this woman who had born me and whom I loved and with whom had shared so much. 

The truth is that I often felt like a failure. I often felt despair and desperation. I lay awake and night and worried about all the things I could not do for Mom. I worried about how to do what I could better, about what would happen if I collapsed in a heap and could not do them any longer. And I resented her for taking up all my time and emotional energy. I felt angry that she ignored the advice of doctors and nurses and occupational therapists and the meals from the Meals on Wheels—all the people and support outside what I could give that she refused to accept. And I recognized that her stubbornness not only served her character one reason she survived, but also the reason she suffered sometimes more than she needed to, more than she should have. And sometimes that made me so angry I choked. Nevertheless, I carried on. I did everything I could. I spent much of my waking hours worrying and doing for my mother. I did that for years while my hair was turning gray and and that’s where my fifties went, in a flash of sometimes-agony and dark humor with my husband, driving home from the ER night after night, cleaning and shopping and carrying and sitting beside her in hospital rooms and waiting to go to bed until after she was settled at home, wishing for help and not finding it, changing doctors and having nurses and therapists tell me the truth the doctors mostly did not. 

Now I have had years to recover from all that. I am not recovered. Mom died more than seven years ago and I miss her still. I think about her life and our life together and about her dying and her death. None of it has left me, but what has returned, what I’d lost in those terrible seven years we shepherded my mother toward death, are the good times. 

Someone once told me that after losing a loved one, the pain never does leave, but eventually that suffering is overwritten by the return of the good memories. And that has happened. 

At the time of her death I could only think only of the sick woman. The woman who raised me was nearly lost—the woman who took me shopping—so much shopping!—the woman who advised me over and over to think of how the other person must feel, who made mosaics and sketches and who told funny stories about living at the beach, who warned that logical reasons often existed merely to provide an excuse for what we wanted to believe. The woman gave me novels and essays to read. The woman who took me places and whoever was driving, we always got lost and laughed. We laughed together over books and our pets and her grandsons and about movies and about getting lost while trying to get someplace because we were so involved in whatever we were talking and laughing about that we missed a turn. We’d be deep into something and look around and one of us would say, “I think we’re lost.” And the other would say, “Again.” And we would just roar with laughter. 

I want to believe I did the best I could for my mom. I hope that’s true. I want to retrace those terrible years so that I can construct a highway through them, a way to find my way back to the good times by clearing a path through the dark forest. 

13 September 2014


It is September, the start of a new school year, and as a retired colleague reminds me, this is the way my life has flowed for almost my entire life: I go back to school in September. I was a student and then a college student. I was a mother of sons who went back to school in the fall, and for most of my adult life—for most years since 1976—I have myself gone back into the classroom as a teacher each fall. 

It is a rhythm I anticipate and understand. My days feel planned and purposeful. I move myself indoors and spend most of my time looking at computer screens and paper. This is inevitable. This is necessary. I accept it. The irony that some of our sunniest weather in the Pacific Northwest comes at the end of summer after I return to school does not even bother me. I was born here and have lived all my life in Oregon and Washington. I like the climate. There were years in my teens when I yearned for autumn chills so that I could wear a new sweater, but mostly, I am used to the weather in the northwest. I appreciate the way the vine maples turn so dark they are almost purple. I enjoy the rain that is on its way. 

Every fall I am asked by friends and family: How is your year? 

My year is good. I always like my students. I am always glad to be back in the classroom and to be addressing the year fresh and new, like the coming fresh, cool weather. 

This year I have especially interesting students in all my classes. They mostly get their work done and use the time wisely. Even my Third Period class that I tease for being noisy seems to being doing a good job. No one has sneaked onto Google Earth while we are in the computer lab, and while I’ve collected one cell phone, the student wasn’t lying when he said his mother had texted. We had no staff reductions, last June I already knew what I would be teaching and I had the summer to prepare, and even my paycheck showed a full one percent raise, which doesn’t happen often. I’ve been for a walk every day, pretty much since June. Life is good. 

But the ask me, How is your year? and the first thing I think of is the student I didn’t know but seemed another interesting person but who died on the first day of school. Then I think of my mother and father and the other people I miss. The memorial I will attend this afternoon. Mistakes. I recall how I failed to show up to cover the second half of a period and left a colleague dangling. I remember the paperwork that needs attending to and the online short-courses I haven't completed and how the internet went out in the middle of trying to be a good soldier and post all my grades on the school computer instead of on my laptop. Death and absenteeism and software aren’t remotely on the same scale of life significance, but I’m in a downward spiral and in a flash everything feels awful. Terrible, terrible, everything a waste and disappointment. 

Then I look into the face of the person who started all this grief and guilt and self-pity and I understand they only asked me that question in order to seem interested. 

They only want to hear that I am back at work and still loving it. 

And that last is the truth, so I catch the moaning and whining back, smile, and I say, It’s going to be a great year, because, honestly, it is going to be a great year. 

Now I look for the balance in my life. I look for hope and purpose—and isn't that what most people want? Am I wrong to assume that everyone needs to find a balance between regret and reason? 

It's too easy to assume that others want all the things I want. We are different and have different priorities and needs. I have seen colleagues fall into the trap of assuming others have the same goals, but are pursuing them incorrectly. I understand that our priorities and sorrows and successes are personal and unique. My goals are my own, and my idea of success is my own, not yours. My happiness does not ride on the same chosen life experiences that yours does. 

I understand that. 

I also understand that everyone needs to choose. We share the need for some purpose even if the details of that are entirely personal. We each need to define success for ourselves. To be content, we must find where our purpose leads. We need to forge off in that direction. 

There is a balance here, this recognition of both loss and regret and also the pursuit and acceptance of the joy that settles in our path. 

I woke at four this morning and soon I will head out for a walk. I have no delusion that sorrow and joy create a balance or that what comes has a cosmic purpose I can understand. Hurt and confused or loved and honored, things happen we do not earn. There is not balance except what I can create within my own heart, moulding what comes to me—error and grief, regret and pain, laughter and love and joy—as best I can into something that resembles meaning.

This will be a good year.

08 September 2014


The literary journal, Willow Spring, posted a link to a Huffington Post blog that shows up in my feed as "Come on, Facebook friends. Did 1984 really change your life, or did you just misspell Harry Potter?" I've responded to the challenge of posting my favorites and found it a tough job. I was curious because in my experience most people are pretty honest about the books they list. So I clicked the link and found two lists, the one above is a screen shot. The author doesn't believe that anyone actually has such great taste. She offers her alternative "This is real life" below:

No, your favorite book is not "The Sound and the Fury." No, you did not finish "Infinite Jest." "One Hundred Years Of Solitude"? You read that in 10th grade. I know because I was in that English class with you.

This is real life:

1. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone
2. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
3. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
4. The Phantom Tollbooth
5. The Hunger Games
6. Fifty Shades Of Grey
7. Gossip Girl
8. A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One
9. The Lord Of The Rings
10. Where The Sidewalk Ends

Stop Lying About Your Favorite Books on Facebook
There's a new fad on Facebook: people are making lists of books that "changed their thinking." I'm impressed and pleased that people are publicly...

…but she thinks we're pretending to be affected by books we haven't even read.

First, the list was supposed to be the books that "changed your thinking", not the ones you want to crawl into bed with when you have the flu.

Second, some people do list the books you think everyone is reading, and others actually have discriminating taste. Some of them have even more discriminating taste than you or I do. And I would claim a couple of books from the first list and maybe only one from the second. While I've read most of the second list and liked several of them, maybe one changed my life, my thinking, or my world view. 

Okay, here's what I will say, personally, about the book that first hooked me into this: 1984. It's poorly written and sexist, but it's still an important novel. It never changed my thinking and I barely managed to get through the thing amidst much eye-rolling and irritation and mental revising of sentences and scenes. But it has been a perspective-altering novel for many students, in my experience.

Further, I'd argue that both lists are ridiculous. (Has anyone outside academia read Rawls? I mean I love the "Veil of Ignorance", but the book itself is a crawl. Still, if I could get through it, I'm sure it would be in my top ten.) And did you miss that the first list is all male authors? I mean, really? So I don't admire the list-maker's list all that much, but I do believe him that they might be the important books in his life. 

The second list is pathetic if it came from an adult over the age of 25. Seven of them are poorly written and by the mid-twenties a book should have more than entertainment value to change someone's thinking—what a sad commentary on the intelligence of readers if the second list is the only real one! But this is who the author of the article thinks we are—all of us. Perhaps this is more a reflection on her taste and maturity of mind than the taste of her Facebook friends. It's a worse list than any of my friends have posted, and many of them haven't read a book since school. 

But then, it takes all kinds, and all kinds of people have, genuinely, all kinds of lists. I might be inclined to judge, but people are moved by all sorts of books. Let them.

Here's my list for today: In addition to loving One Hundred Years of Solitude so much that I wanted to learn Spanish in order to read it in the original (and I, Claudius and the Raj Quartet too), there's all of Mark Twain and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Panshin's Rite of Passage, Gaudy Night, Things Fall Apart, The Bluest Eye, Nectar in a Sieve, Till We have Faces, Molly Gloss's novels, Hamilton's Disobedience, Shield's Unless, Housekeeping, Gilead, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water… these and many other books impacted me personally and changed my thinking beginning when I was in 7th grade. I didn't finish The Sound and the Fury, but As I Lay Dying was incredible. Mrs Dalloway was fantastic—when I figured out what she was doing with the novel, I went back to the beginning and reread it all. I laughed out loud at what Atwood accomplished as a writer in Alias Grace. I could go on for a long time about books that were game-changers for me. That's because I've read a lot of books. Different books at different stages of my life. And these are just the novels.

Books have impacted me deeply for a variety of very personal reasons. I suspect that's true of most people—Winnie the Pooh right up there with Ken Kesey. And why not?

I read all sorts of things. What I put on my list here and what I posted myself on Facebook the other day are different lists, I'm sure. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is excellent, for example, and the best of the rest of the books on my shelves are wonderful, fun, lovely, challenging, tragic, funny, sweet entertainment. There are lots of reasons to love a book, but if Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Fifty Shades of Gray are the only books that changed your thinking by the time you are out of school, I'd say you should keep reading…

07 September 2014


In April 2011, Mark Mizell told me I said in a meeting that I was fine with Standards so long as they didn’t interfere with what I know I should be doing in my classroom. I hope I said that. I agree with me. 

During our District In-Service week the week before last, we devoted our time to what we are required to document and test, but no time at all to what our students actually need to learn. 

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as I have noted elsewhere, was written by a very small group of non-educators, and while the claim is that teachers such as me (they do have me someplace on a list) offered input on the CCSS, the truth is that we didn't have any say at all. 

Over my professional career in public education, which began in 1979, I have worked hard to understand what my students need to know. Periodically I recognize something I should be teaching and my curriculum is continually in revision. The CCSS was not created over such a long period and it will not be in continuous revision; teachers have no say in the standards; but we will be teaching what we know will be tested. We have no choice. But there are skills, ideas, habits, and facts left out of the CCSS that teachers recognize are still essential. Thus I, like most teachers, have no great quarrel with what's in the CCSS, but serious concerns about what has been lost.  

One small example is the formal outline. In my college English class only one student knows what a formal outline looks like, and that's because his mother taught him how to write one. I don't know that this student appreciates having been taught outlining any more than I did as a student, but understanding how to organize from main ideas to supporting arguments and down to specific details is fundamental to logical thought. Our schools do not teach this anymore and I can't help wondering if this is one reason the logic of Algebra seems so difficult for students these days, not to mention organizing an essay. 

Perhaps the CCSS requires elementary teachers to cover such old school skills as sentence diagramming (which I loved), outlining (which I hated), and note-taking (which I learned to do on 3x5 cards in about 4th grade). Perhaps these basics are there someplace and I've just missed them. I fear someone else hated outlining and therefore didn't include it in the standards. As best I can tell those old reports on state birds and the exports of Brazil that I recall so vividly simply don't happen anymore. 

Little of that elementary writing from my childhood was fun, but I still recall details about coffee and birds and the topography of Chile from those grade school reports copied mostly out of a half dozen encyclopedias and children's texts in the local library. More important, I learned how to organize my thoughts on the page and aloud, of course, too. 

We have noted, as an English Department, that nearly every research paper in the past few years needed to be taken apart and reorganized because the information and arguments developed by the writer seemed to have no logical sequence. Even by the second or third draft, individuals required specific, personal direction on how to put information and argument into a logical sequence. For example, an essay might discuss the costs of a new policy on page two and then review other expenses at the top of page four with unrelated information about legals issue and safety placed in between. This has been true even in the papers of strong students. Despite practice writing essays each year in English, they did not seem to have a sense of how to organize a paper of any length. 

The reason for their structural weakness became apparent to me last year when I made a casual comment about outlining and only two members of my college writing class knew what I was talking about! They had both attended elementary schools outside Oregon. 

It should be noted that this is a skill (and concept) that used to be taught in my district. When my sons went through the school system they each learned to write outlines in seventh grade. I barely remembered how to create a sentence diagram, I prefer bullet points to 3x5 cards for taking notes, and I haven't written a formal outline since I was a teenager. Nevertheless, I know the parts of speech, my lecture notes are a picture of organization, and the concept at work in a formal outline is crystal clear to me. I can do it in my head and in a longer works I can create my own version of an outline on the page. 

It's ironic that the formal outline seems to have been lost. It's exactly the sort of rigid, formalized, unimaginative skill that is easy to test and might be expected to take a prominent place in the CCSS. It's also ironic, perhaps, that as much as I hated doing those outlines when I was a student, I'm shocked to find my students have never been taught how to use one. I am not one to force people to do something just "because we always have," but I have come far enough to appreciate what outlining did to my ability to organize my thoughts. As a rather chaotic thinker, and one who writes blog posts in an hour and without any of the normal prewriting and drafting I demand from my students, even I recognize that my thoughts must have some shape on the page. It's the only reason I can do what I do. 

This year we are teaching the formal outline at Seaside High School. I can't say I am happy about it because I find the structure too inflexible, something I wish my students could leave behind. But it was never put in place to begin with, and that lack of structure makes for a weak body. 

NOTE: I found the graphic above just a minute ago. It is strikingly similar to the sample I created to use in my classes. However, I want three parts to the introduction: A. hook, B. explain the issue, C. state the thesis. I also want three parts to the conclusion: A. restate thesis, B. review all main points, C. close and perhaps revisit the hook.

03 September 2014


I was asked why we last, my husband and me, after all these years.

I think you both have to want it. You have to be willing to feel ridiculous and wounded sometimes, because people are ridiculous and unkind sometimes—you have to have faith in the other person, and respect for the other person. You have to feel that the other person has faith in you and respect for you.

We are happy and we are very much a couple. This was always true. I can recall a guy saying to me that I was the "most married person" he'd ever met. I took that as a compliment. But that's not to say I didn't have doubts. We were a couple for five years and even as and after we married I knew I could leave if I needed to. That is to say, I don't think we have remained married because a divorce would be too much trouble.

We stayed married because we made the active choice to be together and we made that choice over and over again. And now, after so many years, we have a life in common and it feels good to have history with someone. We tried not to blame one another when things went wrong—and things do. And we actually took turns having a bad time. Doesn't that sound odd, but really, sometimes I would say to Gary or he would say to me, "No, you can't be depressed because it's my turn." It was a joke, but also not. We take care of one another.

It helps that I am married to a wonderful, kind, and open-hearted person. It helps that even though we have very different interests, our values and commitment to morality are absolutely in accord. We can tease one another about our failings because mostly we approve of one another.

We trust one another. We give equally to our relationship. We are not perfect people, but we can't hide our imperfections and we forgive them in ourselves and our partner. That partnership might even be the key—we work in harness together.

I should say that we take care of one another's physical needs as well as our emotional, moral, and political ones. 

And perhaps I should confess that we have been very, very lucky. This is something we talk about and acknowledge often. 

31 August 2014


It rained hard in the middle of the night, so hard that the sand above the tideline is pocked. Most mornings we walk the shore and we covered over three miles this morning and only came in because by 7:30 we wanted to avoid people with dogs.  

This morning Gary talked about his childhood in Arizona, the terrible things he did and felt guilt for even at the time—terrible kids stuff like caching bees by the wings until he was stung, driving a flicker from its nest and attempting to sell it to the bird farm where he liked to buy pigeons (he had to let it go because the bird man told him it was illegal to cage a flicker). He played with "water snakes" that seemed harmless and "water scorpions" that were not exactly the bugs I found in a Google search, "more of a Mutt than a Jeff" and looked scary. The water snakes were black, slow-moving, and shorter than a ruler, with a distinct head or mouth. Were they eels or leeches or something else? He doesn't know. 

He and his friends caught snakes and scorpions and horny toads bare-handed. They avoided rattlers, but kept bull snakes and tortoises as pets. His friends in those days were a snapshot of America—children of all sorts of backgrounds and religions. My manuscript Blond Indian, later renamed Living in Snakeland is built on the stories Gary has told me of his seven years in Arizona. My father denied my Indian great grandmother, but Gary's mother was proud of her Indian relatives, and that was the beginning of his fascination with Indians. It was the times, too, of course, those years of cowboy Westerns on TV. My husband always played the Indian.   

Once, years later after college, while working for the Woodland Park Zoo, he drove out in a pickup truck on some errand and discovered a group of Athabaskan men standing, soaking wet in the rain. They were from Tanacross, Alaska, above the Arctic Circle, down for a powwow at the Seattle Center. Their ride hadn't shown up and they were trying to decide what to do about that. Gary drove the pickup back and got a van to transport them. I'm sure the conversation was lively and funny on the ride. The men invited Gary to attend the powwow and he did. 

Neither of us remember whether I went to that one. I have no memory of it, so probably I was working. There were other powwows in Washington and Oregon and a naming ceremony up at Tulalip. Mostly these were in the years Gary was fluent in Puget Coast Salish in the 70s, working with the Tutalip Reservation to develop their language program, and later when he was tutoring Indian kids for a public school district before we moved to Oregon. 

It was a good walk recalling these old stories. The stories are old now, since tomorrow is his birthday and Gary will be 65. Some of his Arizona stories are sixty years old, and even our Seattle stories are more than 35 years behind us. 

Time passes, the tide swings in and out. It was a good summer with a lot of walks. 

30 August 2014


There is a very popular myth that sports are necessary to success in life. I've heard it all my life and despite overwhelming research to the contrary it persists. 

I enjoyed physical activity from childhood—running in the woods, biking for miles, volleyball, badminton, gymnastics, then later came running. Somehow, for some this healthy exercise becomes more than a game. It's a matter of perspective. 

It’s too bad the article below is written to suggest the school didn’t hire a teacher who could coach on the side, but a coach who would also be teaching. 

"A High School Hires Boys Basketball Coach

"The A High Athletic Department has recently hired AHS alum, Joe Shmo, to serve as Head Boys Basketball Coach. Mr. Shmo is a 1992 graduate of A High School and a 1997 graduate of A University where he earned his degree in Liberal Studies - General Science. His education also includes a Masters of Science in Curriculum and Instruction, which was earned in 2004 from A State University.

"Mr. Shmo was most recently an assistant varsity basketball coach at Central High School in A, State. Prior to this he served as the Head Boys Basketball Coach at A High (A, State) from 2011-2013. He also has head basketball coaching experience having served as the head coach at A High (A, State) from 2002-2007 and at BHigh (B, State) from 2000-2002.

" 'We are very pleased to announce Coach Shmo as our new boys basketball coach. His understanding of our school and community is certainly a huge advantage to a person in this important position. Whenever we have quality people that want to come back home and serve our community in teaching and in coaching, we've hit a home run. We would not have been able to find a coaching candidate that would have more pride working with S High student-athletes than Joe Shmo. What he will bring in leadership, to not only for our basketball players but also for our students in the academic wing, will be tremendous.' - AHS Athletic Director, B Teacher

"Joe is the son of Man and Woman Shmo, longtime educators of the A School District. Man served as a teacher and coach at AHigh and Woman served in elementary education, primarily at A Elementary. Man served as the Head Boys Basketball Coach for many years and was at the helm when the AHS Boys Basketball Team won the state championship. Joe's sister Jo, is also a graduate of A High School.

"Mr. Shmo will teach in the AHS Mathematics Department. His wife, has also recently accepted a position with the A School District working in special education. The Shmo's have two children: Little and Littler."

It's possible that the school district who hired the coach, did, in fact, hire the teacher first before considering whether he could coach, but I wouldn't count on it. It's also possible that the coach is an excellent teacher who puts classroom ahead of extra-curriculars, but that is also a long shot. Small districts need people who can do double-duty, and this usually means hiring the person with the best public (sports) face over other candidates. 

While athletics do not have to come at the expense of academics, the fact is that they often do. The student too busy with sports often has no time for reading. As one reader commented: "I feel that the problem with an over emphasis on sports in our schools lies in the extemely visible celebration of the athletes to the exclusion of the public acknowledgment of those students with high acheivement in academics. Let’s have assemblies that celebrate those who are working hard to obtain excellent grades rather than only those who excel on the field or the court. Maybe then our young people would strive for better grades instead of the largely unreachable goal of becoming top athletes."

In the mean time, beginning especially in college, athletes have an attitude of entitlement and a well-documented tendency to violence. Was this what we had in mind when we encouraged them to play sports?

And then there is the very real danger of injury and the pressure to be perfect

I wish only that we could keep sports in perspective. They are games. 

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