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08 February 2016


(Joaquín Sorolla, Walk on the Beach (Paseo a orillas del mar), 1909, Sorolla Museum: Madrid)
Poems come to me via email each day from three sources. One of those sources, to which I have donated in the past, is Writer's Almanac, which also provides me with historical events of the day and literary birthdays. This morning the message opened with a poem from Dorianne Laux, and then noted birthdays and brief bios of Elizabeth Bishop, John Grisham, Kate Chopin, and Neal Cassady.

Kate Chopin's biography [spoiler in the second paragraph]:
It's the birthday of Kate Chopin (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850. She came from a wealthy family - her father was a successful businessman and her mother was a beautiful socialite from one of the city's oldest Creole families. Kate was a Southern belle, a devoted wife, and the mother of six children.

But then her husband died, and soon after that her mother died. Chopin was depressed. Her family doctor thought she was a very good letter-writer, so he encouraged her to try writing fiction as a way to stay occupied. Over the next 15 years, Kate Chopin wrote almost 100 short stories and sketches, and two novels, At Fault (1890) and The Awakening (1899). The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, who gives up her roles as wife and mother, has an affair, and eventually walks into the sea, perhaps committing suicide. And when it was published, Kate Chopin was censored and criticized. But now she is considered an important early feminist author, and The Awakening is considered a classic of American fiction.

I taught her short stories and also her short novel or novella, The Awakening, for a few years in the 90s. The first time I tried to read this book, I threw it across the room only a few pages in. I guessed where it was going. Nevertheless, this is not the work of a Creole belle looking for a way to occupy herself and stave off depression. That is not an accurate story of this great author's life.

Here's what the brief biography above missed: 

Catherine (Kate) O'Flaherty was born to an affluent Irish Catholic family in St. Louis and, because the man was charming and spoke French as she did, she married against her family's wishes at the age of twenty. Oscar Chopin was a business man, but an unlucky and probably not a very good one. When he died of malaria in 1882, he left a bankrupt business and Kate with six young children, an estranged family, and no means of support. By the mid 1880s, Chopin had reconciled with her parents, returned to St. Louis, and become a writer as one of the few occupations open to her. She published short stories in various journals including The Atlantic Monthly and Vogue. Her first novel, At Fault (1890) was privately published, but when she could find no publisher willing to consider publishing her second novel, Young Dr. Grosse and Théo, she destroyed the manuscript. Her stories were collected in two books: Bayou Folks (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1895) and were enormously successful, though occasionally controversial. In 1899, her stories were still appearing in national magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, and her second novel, The Awakening (originally titled A Solitary Soul), was published. 

From The Kate Chopin Society:
It took decades before critics fully grasped what Chopin had accomplished. In 1969 Norwegian critic Per Seyersted finally did her justice. Kate Chopin, he wrote, “broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.”

This short novel, with a look at what it means to be a woman, the constraints and limited lifestyles open to women in that day, and the need to create an identity, was met with enormous resistance by (male) reviewers of the time who judged it "poison." Chopin's contract for a third collection of short stories was cancelled, and her work over the next few years was met with resistance by publishers. She would see few in print.  

In many ways she was ahead of her time—certainly as a writer and also as a person. Some actions reveal that she was well aware of and admired the women who wrote before her time. She certainly had enough self-respect and independence to call herself a feminist, had that term been available. Her stories were what today would be classed "flash fiction" because she accomplishes a world in a couple of pages—and with less of the sweetness perhaps associated with her contemporary, O. Henry. She was neither cynical nor sentimental. She did not write in order to keep "occupied" as the biographical summary at top suggests. She may have written stories because she needed to support her family and certainly, most important, she wrote because she had something meaningful to say. 

Chopin died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1904. Today is her birthday. For many years, her work was published and celebrated, only to become controversial later in her life. Today she is recognized as one of the great authors of the 20th century. 

Chopin's work remains in print, but is in the public domain so it is also widely available online. I recommend reading the brief "flash" fiction "The Story of an Hour" and "Desirée's Baby" for an introduction to her work. 

07 February 2016


I found this on Facebook and the comments were all supportive of the meme. I wasn't sure I believed he had actually said it, but Fox was all over the story and posted a video. It is pretty much what he said. Just because a few people ruin their own lives, he chooses to condemn a generation. The person he sites is 42 years old. What generation is he talking about, and what does this say about Dr. Phil's judgment? 

Perhaps an alternative view. I think he is kind of a jerk. From my experience, the suggestion to "kick people to the curb" is advice from spoiled and entitled people. You give a hand up, you ask for more, you help people to discover what they are capable of doing. You give hope. Does he want this done to spoiled kids? What a terrible parent he must be! Or is he merely promoting the absurd notion that all those who work minimum deserve our disdain? 

"Get a damn job," he says.  

Well, I would not disagree with the idea of employment being a good thing, but nearly all Americans work (94.5%), and we work harder and longer hours, and we are more productive than any other industrialized nation. The statistics vary slightly. Teenagers are more likely to be unemployed. Almost 10% of those 20-24 are unemployed, but by the time they enter their later twenties, that number falls in half. Perhaps Dr. Phil should talk to more people. Perhaps a little compassion. Perhaps he only caters to a demographic that can afford to "spoil" their children with over a million dollars?

It is popular just now to attack the younger generation as spoiled and entitled. I do not see that much. While there are probably spoiled children in America, it is "Dr. Phil" I want to kick about now. He represents an entitled and smug attitude that is both unkind and unprofessional. He is taking little heat for these comments from Fox, but his words and public conduct have been called into question many times in the past. His professional organization called for investigation into his practices in 2004. It would not be that last time. 

Further, among the unemployed (and homeless) these days are a disproportionate number of veterans. Are they spoiled too? Many mentally ill are on the street because they have no place else. Should we kick veterans and the mentally ill to the curb? These people have already been kicked. 

The United States is a great nation, we should do better by the least of these, by those who are sick, by those who are homeless, by those in prison even of their own minds and their painful pasts. 

And because Dr. Phil claims to be a Christian:

"Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." 

Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."

They also will answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" 
Matthew 25:40-45, NIV

He will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." NIV

06 February 2016


Sometimes, I have to wonder what people are thinking. 

A recent CDC poster emphasizing the danger of too many drinks/day and binge drinking has a number of issues, such as implying that how much a woman drinks leads directly to pregnancy or STDs. An op-ed in the Washington Post, comments wryly that it's a wonder that the author didn't catch something, alone in her apartment with only alcohol for company. 

It may also be why, on a recent health-care visit, I was asked (three times!) how many times I had drunk four or more drinks in one day in the past 30 days? (none, btw) I feel health care has increasingly become a matter of checking off boxes. Aside from shaking my hand because it was our first meeting, my new doctor did not touch me at all. And this was how we "established care."

The medical system sent me an email request to complete a survey about my office visit, and I did my best to be candid and useful, but I have doubts about whether anyone really looks at those things. After my mother died in the local hospital, I received several letters requesting that she complete a survey about her care. Several requests came after I called the hospital and explained that my mother had died there and could not complete a survey. I was assured there would be no further requests, but there were at least three more. I wish I could say the arrival of these surveys addressed to my dead mother became funny, but in fact they did not. Maybe eventually I will appreciate the humor in the situation. After providing care and emotional support to my dying mother for five years, my funny bone merely hurt. 

There is too much rush, too much technology, too many pills. Establishing care meant I waited forty minutes and had less than twenty minutes with the doctor. Doctors are pressured to see too many patients in a day. Most office visits with my mother, my husband  or myself in the past fifteen years or so have involved technicians, nurses, and doctors staring at a computer screen more than their patients. My mother had dozens of different prescriptions in her possession when she died. (The painkillers helped, but nearly a hundred doses of narcotic pain relievers disappeared the last time my mother went to the hospital. The hospital would not have allowed her to use them anyway. They want every dose to come from their own pharmacy. I understand why, of course.) 

Other issues contribute to the sometimes-poor quality of care. We are short of doctors (thank the AMA for that) and insurance and pharmaceutical companies have manipulated care. Some blame oversight. I do not know that my frustration is entirely or mostly the result of EMR mandates. I am merely a patient. It took me six months to get the appointment to establish care, and one reason for that is that many local doctors will not see me because I am too close to Medicare. 

It seems to me that needs to change. It seems to me that many things need to change about the way we provide medical care in our nation. We pay too much and receive a poor return on our dollar. We rely too much on drugs and not enough on a healthy lifestyle. Every other ad on television is for a prescription drug I am told to ask my doctor about.

A few days ago, my husband went in for a post-check-up about DVT in his leg, and he learned that the kale salad we had a few days before (healthy for me) was a Very Bad Thing for him. Also, that day's appointment would have been better scheduled while he was still on both meds a few days earlier. (Not his choice—he took the earliest date available.) Also, that he should have attended a clot clinic before then. (Again, not his choice. He took the first available opening.) The pamphlets were helpful and my husband and I are both grateful he is not dead, but timeliness was not integral to his care, and that was mostly out of our control.  

I know many fine health care providers—nurses and doctors and other professionals—on the coast. Nevertheless, in my experience, there are sometimes issues. 

A former student commented that I was being diplomatic when I posted that last line on Facebook. Perhaps I am, but I also recognize that what I have experienced is not unusual. Healthcare in my area is especially prone to understaffing, but this is also a national problem, and it is likely to become a worse problem as the Baby Boomers age out of their work life. 

In arguably the richest and most powerful nation in the world and after a lifetime of professional work, I would like to assume I could manage to find and pay for decent health care. It is clear that private insurance companies, including the one I had as a teacher, are more interested in a lot of things before giving me the best service available. My insurance company spent an estimated 40 million dollars to rename a sports stadium in Portland a couple of years ago. Now they have admitted they are in financial difficulty and may not be able to meet their obligations to their customers. I am paying them over $500/month and they do not cover most of my meager medical expenses. Forbes says the impact of insurance companies' profit on costs is negligible, but Fortune magazine offers a different perspective and claims the insurance companies are doomed because of their own ineptitude. Today I am inclined to believe Fortune.

Local small businesses cannot afford to compete with the perks offered by larger competitors. This often influences the pool of potential hires. As a teacher I received excellent benefits, and while many have complained—and sometimes angrily—about the perks of teachers, it is worth mentioning that in my community schools often benefit from far more skilled labor at every level than we might otherwise attract because families need insurance, and few local businesses can afford to offer it. 

I do not trust drug companies to put my needs above their bottom line. I do not trust insurance companies to put my needs first. Experience allows me to trust most nurses and doctors and other health care professionals, but not all, because I have also known those who would rather be doing something else but want the money they can earn in medicine, and others who despite their training are not qualified for their work, or who really do not like people all that much. Things need to change. 

We Americans pay as much as twice what other advanced countries do for medical care, and we are not healthier for all that money spent. Even Forbes admits that. "The U.S. ranks last overall with poor scores on all three indicators of healthy lives—mortality amenable to medical care, infant mortality, and healthy life expectancy at age 60." Oh yes, we eat badly, and more people are poor in the United States. We do not take good care of our children, or support parents as we should. There are many problems, but it is clear that our medical care is one failing factor. The system is sick and the cure will be painful.

This is one area where I would like to see someone stronger and with my interests in mind designing a system that works better for us all. I think it is possible to design such a system, one to serves us all better than the one we overpay for, and which too often underserves us. It is time for nationalized health care. It is time to develop a reasonable work schedule for health care professionals and a reasonable rate of pay for them, technology, and medication that do not break the bank. It is time to change the way we look at both the poor and middle class, and to recognize the right to quality health care.

03 February 2016


I read a post on a former student's blog about creating visual intentions—a series of drawings that illustrate her plans for the year. I like the sound of that, drawing or mapping or diagramming my goals for the coming period of time.

Most people who set goals call them New Year's resolutions. This doesn't just happen in the United States. I found an article with recommendations about how to set and keep New Year's resolutions in The Daily Mail. The author warn against overly ambitious goals regardless of whether your goals are health- or career-oriented—choose small things you realistically can manage. 

The most common American resolutions remain consistent: lose weight, drink/smoke less, spend more time with people we care about. I know these well.

Instead of "resolutions," I set "goals" for this year. My page of goals amounts to the same thing, except I mostly listed things I both want and expect to accomplish this year. For example, I did not read as much last year as I have and I wanted to step up my reading a bit. My goal is to read at least forty books in 2016. In my head, that means reading four books each month. I have a chart and I am tracking my progress on the chart. It is a safe goal because this is something pleasurable and something I know absolutely that I can accomplish. I also have goals for writing, weaving, and quilting. And I have a weight goal. That last one is tricky. 

Like many American women, my weight is a touchy subject. I know women who would rather expose their income or naked butt than their actual real weight. My weight as an adult has ranged from 114 pounds when I started college to 169 at the time of my mother's death (and 129 a few months after her death). I weighed 119 when I graduated from college. After the birth of my first child, weighing 130 and wearing a size S, a taller, leaner friend called me "pudgy." I first noticed I had cellulite when I was still in my thirties. As a runner I usually weighed around 130 to 140. I weight about 155 now and I would like to lose about twenty pounds by December. That is the goal. Two pounds down in January. Two pounds a month. 

In the mean time, I need more calcium and vitamin D, more salads. Less salt. I drink alcohol no more than is recommended for a woman, but probably too much even so. I drink a cup of coffee in the morning. Just one cup. I am vegetarian, but the easy sort since I eat dairy and the occasional egg and wild fish. 

All of this concern about health is not exactly new. But I am aging, no point pretending I am not, and I have bone issues, exacerbated foot issues that I take pains to protect. My use of medication is limited to aspirin, but there are so many things to be careful of now that I am no longer young. Healing takes longer, falling is a more treacherous threat. My husband and I are well aware of falling into the old-person habit of discussing our health overmuch. 

Near the end my mother expressed regret that she "never really did anything important" with her life. As her daughter, I thanked her for what she had done for mine. But Mom wanted to have made something. Her sister had encouraged her to complete her college education, but typical of Mom, she resisted her sister's path. She rarely did what anyone suggested when it made her a follower. She was a good mother, a kind and thoughtful person who reminded me throughout my life to consider how other people must feel. That is important. 

It might be the most important thing of all. 

There are famous people who leave monuments of some sort—buildings or books, political or social change flowing out behind them like a wake. 

Most of us leave behind only the family and friends who loved us. My husband and I have said to one another throughout our relationship: "You have to take care of yourself; you have to last a long time." 

That is true now. I will leave no monuments of any sort, only the people I cared for. 

I resolve to be humble in my askings. To relax. I promise to take care of myself. I promise to take care of others. My goal is to be thoughtful and purposeful. Like my mother, I want to leave something behind. I want to make things. I want to give something of myself to others. I am still teaching and I have jury duty this summer, at least a weekend of family visitors this summer, and a series of projects. I try to walk each day. That is one of the goals on my list. Yesterday I finished warping my loom and I have begun weaving my second warp of the year. That is on my list too. 

A friend from my writing program has had more than her share of setbacks to an ordinary life, and yet . . . most would recognize immediately that her life is an example of how to live meaningfully and with purpose and intention. She does what she can and make good of it, shares her journey in a way that is meaningful to the rest of us. 

In the end, I have little control over large things. I vote because I am a citizen. I write because I want to help keep others from despair. I make because creation keeps me hopeful. They are little-small things. I try to be kind. In the end, the little things are what I have and all that matter.

30 January 2016


I was raised with guns, kept dismantled in a locked room. My father served in WW2, and he was part of the troops liberating a German concentration camp in 1945. He respected the military. He respected firearms. He taught me to handle guns safely and to determine, safely, if they were loaded. I sat on his shoulder at the gun range. 

By the mid-1970s, I also knew three people, unconnected in any other way, shot through the spine and permanently disabled by handguns. They were the first boy I dated, the boyfriend of my first roommate, and a fellow dog fancier. I favored gun regulation. My father was absolutely opposed. We debated this for years. 

One day, he unaccountably changed his mind. He announced he would turn his guns over to the police, and he supported licensing all the rest of his days. He was not an emotional person, but logical and pragmatic. I assume he changed his mind in the face of evidence, but he was intensely private, not one to allow questions of his motives, so I never knew his reasons.  

Luck or logic? In many ways I trust to luck, but in this I respect logic. 

It is not guns per se that worry me, but those people who most hysterically and virulently defend them. I do not hate guns, but I distrust this aspect of gun culture—those few who most fear having their guns taken strike me as the only ones who would do better if their guns were taken. They don't feel safe without guns and I would feel safer if they did not have them. It is a paradox. Those many responsible, measured people who hunt in the season and go to target practice do not cause me an instant of concern. It is the others. I distrust people who are so afraid that they must walk around armed. 

My armor has always been ordinary caution and luck. I am a small person and as a high school student I often walked in the darkness to work off stress and teenage angst. A few years later I walked across the University of Washington at least twice a week in the dark for several years. I weighed less than 120 pounds and would not have been able to fight off a male attacker unless he was similarly slight. My studio was miles away and most often I walked there alone. I walked downtown and throughout the University District. I walked through neighborhoods just to stretch my legs, mostly wealthy and deserted ones.

I also routinely walked past the home of serial killer Ted Bundy, though I would not know that until years later. Rarely, I had my dog with me. Sometimes Gary escorted me. More often I walked alone. I was careful. I was purposeful. I rarely felt the pinch of fear. I was never under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I stuck to lighted areas when I could. I carried my home and studio keys on a leather lanyard and fanned the keys between my fingers. I also carried a French policeman's whistle on the lanyard. People often called it a "rape whistle" and wanted to try it out. I never had occasion to use it. 

I was careful walking alone at night. I carried no weapon. I recognized that I was vulnerable, but I also had a purpose—to get from point A to point B. I have experienced those terrible instants of stabbing, lurching terror when the body recognizes it might die and sparks of fear shatter the brain. None of these painful flashes of fear occurred while walking city streets alone. 

All these years later, I realize I was safer than those armed and trembling folks waving a gun into shadows. 

I was not looking for trouble. Maybe that is part of the reason I never found it. 

28 January 2016


The brain likes a story.

When I was a six I kicked over an ordinary rock on the playground. I crouched on the wet ground and turned over the heavy stone and found a knob of deep pink quartz crystals on the other side. The pink color did not wipe away, “Oh!” I grinned all the way home with my treasure. I have been watching for sparkly rocks ever since.

In case it made you smile, that is a true story. We believe in our own experiences and make decisions based on what happens in our lives, but research in neuropsychology finds we respond even to stories we know are invented with genuine emotion and in ways similar to personal experience. So if I told you I made up that bit about the crystals, you might still imagine me looking for more. We can be persuaded by fiction.

Psychologists Timothy C. Brock and Melanie C. Green, authors of Persuasion (2005), looked at how participants were “transported” in response to a fictional story, influencing their opinions of what is right and just, prudent and safe. Their story about a mentally ill person stabbing someone seemed to result in increased belief that mentally ill people should be better supervised. In other words, reading fiction had a similar impact on views that real experience would have, even when the reader knows the story is invention. Why is this even surprising?

We call them lies and propaganda when fiction is used to deliberately and unreasonably influence our perspective, but something else when the goal is a warning and the story is presented as fiction. Novels such as The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and 1984 by George Orwell have influenced the viewpoints of many readers. Such dystopian novels deliberately project current trends into an imaginary nightmarish future. We look around for real world examples of abuse. Big Brother is watching.

Of course even ordinary realist fiction, the accurate depiction of our world today, expands our understanding of life. Invented characters living made-up lives take us to places and people and events and even history we will never know in person. That is the work of fiction.

Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, transformed the way I look at culture, including my own. It reminded me that the way America works is not inevitable, but the result of choices. It reminded me that the way things work can change. Though I could see his tragic end coming, I felt compassion for the main character, Okonkwo, because despite what I disliked about him I came to understand him as a man. I knew his story. Their Eyes Were Watching God, the stories of Alice Munro, Unless by Carol Shields, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Rite of Passage by Alexie Panshin, Disobedience by Jane Hamilton, Huck Finn by Mark Twain, The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss . . . each allows me to understand people and motivation and to see possibility in myself and in others. I like to think these reading experiences make me more compassionate and tolerant. I do not think I am unfairly influenced. I think about what I read. I think about what I choose to read. 

The work of good fiction is to transport us inside the lives and minds and experiences of people other than ourselves. By labeling a story “fiction” we send out notice: What you are reading is invention, not lies meant to deceive. But the really good stuff, the best fiction (or perhaps only the good reader), makes that imaginary experience so true that we do believe it, at least while we are reading it. Once we willingly suspend disbelief, it is our own investment in story that fools us.

It is this process that Brock and Green are researching. The trick might not be whether readers are influenced immediately after reading compared to their views weeks before, which they studied, but whether the transformation persists, becoming a permanent part of readers’ identity, which would suggest we incorporate the reading experience into our world view just as we do a life experience, as opposed to being momentarily shifted while temporarily caught up by the story. Research suggests the brain does not care about the difference between fiction and reality. 

If you have ever know someone who lies with such conviction that they seem to believe their inventions themselves, you have witnessed something that psychologists have long known about memory. The unreliability of memory is well documented. Tell a story over and over and we will come to accept its truth. What we fully imagine is as “true” in our memory as what we actually experience.

For example, I know I almost drowned when I was about two years old only because I was told by my parents about being rescued. I have no actual memory of the drowning, though I can picture a great deal of that event from having been told the story. What I do actually remember is looking through the water at the sky glimmering overhead. It is not a frightening image and no one told me this so it probably is true. I can not be absolutely sure it happened, and even if I had made it up, I would still love the irony of this traumatic event as beautiful.

What does this mean for us as readers? Fiction can be believed. It enriches our lives in precisely the same way experiences do because the mind experiences stories. It suggests that fiction is more valuable and more powerful than some of us recognize. Perhaps it is even more dangerous than we would like to admit. A good work of fiction can tell us how to behave, give us goals, and help us believe in our ambitions. The more recent study about transportation cited above suggests that the fiction we choose can expand our understanding of the world and our place in it in the same way that actual experience can. But that also means it can inhibit, polarize, and establish or reinforce prejudice. Even with slim regard to morality or fact, fiction teaches.

We are our choices, including our choices about what to read. Both the stories we tell and the ones we are told become true in our memory. Often we cannot tell the difference and this might suggest something more serious. What stories do we choose? In an interview will Bill Moyers, Toni Morrison talks about the master narrative, the story our culture tells us. It is not reality, but what we have come to believe about reality. Racism was once part of the American master narrative, and sexism still is. Do we choose to read fiction that reinforces our beliefs about the world, or to counter them with other possibilities? Do we choose or simply accept what comes to us? What are we trying to learn?

This is the historic role of fiction—to teach. The ancient fables, parables, and scripture across the world validate the power of fiction. Fiction teaches us about our own culture and allows us to understand others. It gives us history and the future. It can help us to overcome the prejudices and fears of our culture or be used to illustrate them. Thus, while I have always admired what fiction can do to expand my world, I believe I am right to consider how fiction might limit my point of view. The sword of words cuts both ways.

Another true story: I was running a trail on the south side of Tillamook Head and kicked a leaf, which turned out to be a root, and I went sprawling. The wind was knocked out of me, I was scraped and bruised and the view was different from the ground, and I still had to get up and run another two miles to get to my ride home. That is all true. But that experience and the time I rubbed my thumb across rosy quartz crystals are no more vivid in my memory than dozens of novels I have read. I have been tripped and knocked down by fiction, and I have felt the truth of it in my gut. And each time I looked up, the world had changed because the story forced me to see something new.

27 January 2016


Every fall I must take a series of short standardized tests about safety, mandatory reporting and so forth in order to continue teaching. These tests are based on videos that few teachers actually watch. Most of us go straight to the test itself. We only need 70% to pass. The test questions are badly written and sometimes do not reflect current research or even what was shown in the videos they are supposed to cover. The process of retaking these tests is only a minor inconvenience and in no way changes my life. 

I think in my six years at the University of Washington, I might have had a half dozen classes that used multiple choice exams. I was always good at such tests, but when I had options I deliberately selected classes that had a more meaningful form of grading—essays or projects. When I needed the Miller Analogy Test for grad school, that was fun. I even recall questions that I reasoned through on that test and tests that earned me my subject endorsements in Social Studies and English, but none of these tests changed my life. I took a standardized test to qualify for my driver's license. I took a lengthy standardized test to get into college. Passing these tests made a difference in my life. But it wasn't the test that changed my life, it was knowing what I know. It was not filling in bubbles, but the skill and knowledge that allowed me to fill in the bubbles correctly. The test was merely . . . a measure of something more important.

People have changed my life. Travel. Dogs. Cats. Art and friendships changed my life. Galleries, and reading many books. Seeing The Fiddler on the Roof live when I was a girl. Some classes and certainly many professors from Bob Sperry to Gustav Pundt to Professor Watson offered me experiences, ideas, and images that have stayed. Reading science fiction novels and Things Fall Apart in college changed me. The examples provided by the lives and later the deaths of my parents changed my life. My brother's illness. Having children. My husband! Walking on the beach. Running. Anti-war rallies. Quitting my first job on principle—discovering I could act on principle changed my life! Many art projects over the past 40-odd years. Living in Seattle on my own. Taking the bus. Shopping at Farmers' Markets in Seattle and Portland. Traveling across the United States with my grandmother. Flying and driving around the country to dog shows and field trials and Board meetings for ASFA. Visiting the churches and temples of friends. Moving to a rural place from Seattle. Donations to PIH, Southern Poverty Law Center, and other charities didn't just change the lives of others, they changed mine. They made me aware. They made me pay attention. 

I hear a great deal about huge college classes. My students are alarmed: Hundreds of students! how awful! how impersonal! the terrible multiple choice tests! 

Such classes did exist when I was in college, but mostly I avoided them. I looked at the room a class was scheduled to be held in and knew the campus well enough to avoid classes in Kane Hall when I could. I took classes at night because evening sections of Intro classes were smaller and more diverse. Once in a while I took a large lecture class—because someone like Bill Holm was teaching it, for example, or I could not avoid Art History 202 required for my major—and sometimes such a huge class was impersonal and had terrible tests, but I would have stood in the rain, I think, for Bill Holm or Professor Watson. I had choices. Classes in my major were usually small—sometimes less than a dozen people—but in a larger class of 60 or even 200, I have been around long enough to know how to ensure I gain something, regardless of the grading regimen and regardless of the class size. I have come to love even "bad" teachers who were knowledgable and helpful during office hours. 

Stepping off a sidewalk into traffic can end a life, or irrevocably change it. A missed flight, meeting someone at a party, filling a form out wrong and thus forcing an unplanned career choice—these are instants that can change a life. 

I spent many frantic hours writing essays and taking essay exams, and even hours filling in bubbles. Testing was generally stressful, sometimes interesting, rarely it was fun. The testing experience did not change my life. More important experiences did that. 

College is not about accumulating credits any more than a meaningful life is about accumulating holidays. We are here to learn, to make connections, to become better people. 

The test is not accomplishment, but only an arbitrary and often unreliable measure of accomplishment. 

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