Pages

Friday, March 21, 2014

Bloglovin

Want an easy way to follow Is This the Middle?

Bloglovin is the way to go!

I follow an obscene number of blogs there because they make it so easy to read my favorites. They even suggest blogs based on your history. (Totally un-sponsored plug.)

http://www.bloglovin.com/

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Me and Joe Went to the Store: And an English Teacher Weeps

Me and Joe went to the store.

This line in a student essay sent me freefalling over the edge today. I’d only finished grading a short stack of essays, but all of them had too many basic errors like this one.

Most of my community college students this semester don’t know that it should be “Joe and I went to the store.”

The thought hit me hard and made me angry. Steam-out-of-the-ears angry. Then, sad, very sad.

How could these students think “Me and Joe went” was a proper construction?

I want to blame someone for shortchanging my students, for not teaching them the basics that were drilled into me at school so young that I don’t even remember learning them. Even at home, Grandmother, Mother, Dad, and older siblings automatically corrected my grammar. I was lucky.

But my students apparently didn’t get that instruction at school and at home. Or, if they did, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t listen.

These students range in age from 17 to 45, and because we are in a military town, they were schooled at different places, at different times, all over the country and sometimes in other countries. They are not a homogenous group of local 18 year-olds, so the local public school system can’t be scapegoated here.

Yet they were robbed if their education did not teach them the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment, a comma splice and a coordinating conjunction. We had devoted 2 full class periods to a review, with in-class exercises and homework to these particular basics. I called it a review, since I was sure this was information they already knew, and they looked bored. They should have looked scared.

Now that I’ve read their essays, I wonder if there is enough time left in the semester to bring their grammar up to a passable college level. I’m not really supposed to be teaching grammar and punctuation. Students who arrive in this class are presumed to have these basics mastered—it says so in the state-mandated course description-- and to be ready for me to teach them how to write a college level essay. This is the essay writing class.

Well, ha and double ha.

Of course I never find all my students equally prepared, but this semester is different. They are just as bright as always, but they are going to have to struggle more than any class I’ve seen in my twelve years teaching. To bring their basic grammar and punctuation skills up to a level that will allow them to pass any curriculum classes that involve written assignments will be a challenge. They will have to scramble, to work their butts off.

Further, do I tell them they were robbed? Do I ask them if they slept through middle school and high school? Do I read them the riot act about listening more carefully to my grammar advice?

Do I exhort them to become community leaders, state senators, members of the U.S. Congress so they can work to make an American education something to be proud of? (I’ve been known to go off on this topic in class before, but hadn’t got around to it yet this semester.)

Some of these students are hanging by a piece of dental floss already.  They tend to be fragile. They are not the golden boys and girls of America, for the most part—not many silver spoons at our school. They are the ones coming back to school after having children young, or who had dropped out of college previously, or who’ve recently left an abusive relationship, or who are wounded combat veterans trying their damndest to ease back into civilian life.  Some of my students don’t even have much food in the house. Some work two jobs. My students are not overflowing with confidence that they will make it to the end of the semester, much less to the end of their degree or program.

Some days I have to remind myself that I’m an English teacher, not a psychologist or a social worker, although our dedicated campus counselors know me by my first name. I want to make it right for my students. I don’t want to make them feel any “less-than” they already do. Some of them are skittish as rabbits, looking for any reason to bolt from school. So I favor the gentle approach. I want them to do well. I don’t want them to feel ashamed. Or blamed. Or heaven forbid… dumb.

But the time we will now have to spend on basic grammar will take away from the time normally spent on some of the finer points of transitioning from high school to college writing. This first college English class is really considered a “service class” to the other, non-English college classes students will take that require writing papers. They aren’t taking this class because they want be English majors. That doesn’t mean I will expect any less of them, but realistically I keep reminding them that what I teach will help them write better papers for sociology, history, biology—any class.

We’ll try to make the most of the weeks we have left. I will do what I can to help them, to prod them, to get the ones who aren’t afraid to work hard ready for the next level English class.


They won’t all make it; even the ones that pass will have much more catching up to do. And that makes me angry all over again.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Am I Radical Enough For the Challenge?

Some nice person over at Healthline.com keeps nominating me for “Health Blog of the Year” and “Menopause Blog of the Year.” Guilty after not having posted anything since September of 2013, I shall try to revive my blogging muse. Thank you, kind anonymous reader, for the prod.

My last post was gloomy, followed by months of gloom. While I haven’t shied away from writing about some of the sadder parts of midlife, the past months didn’t seem like anything I wanted to impose upon my readers. For me, sometimes writing about depression doesn’t do anything but make the depression more real and makes it harder for me to masquerade as a healthy, happy person. Not that anyone seems particularly fooled into thinking I’m in the best mood EVER.

There’s also that little voice that says, it could be worse, you don’t have the right to be sad. Schmutzie does a good job of refuting this notion here. If I’m sad, I’m sad, even if there is food in the pantry and the electric bill has been paid and I have a job. I can still be sad, even if I have a good credit score.
It’s not just me being moody for no reason. 

People I care about keep getting sick, people keep dying. Friends are being hurt and abandoned by their partners. My husband and I are basically alone in caring for both of our elderly mothers. Then the Menopause-from-hell, teaching for a living, and tight finances don’t lower my stress level at all. Although I have been known to have a gallow-ish sense of humor, humor can only take you so far in the face of some of life’s tougher months and years.

The stress is really getting to me. It takes a lot to admit this.

In a recent article about Anne Lamott, long one of my mentors, she said she was going to practice “radical self-care.” Geeky me started researching this term. Is this what I need? What exactly is it? Radical. Self-care. Would I allow myself some radical self-care? This feels like a life preserver thrown to me by Anne Lamott.

Meanwhile, a routine visit to the dentist revealed I’d been walking around for at least a month with a wisdom tooth that was broken in half. Could a stress injury be any more symbolic? A wisdom tooth, cracked from stress-clenching my jaw so tightly that I broke one of my own body parts?

“Stress can kill” is such a cliché. No woman wants to think that stress can kill her. That if she doesn’t, no really, if she DOESN'T take care of herself in a BIG way, in a RADICAL way, she may die from stress. The needs of my body and soul are calling, pleading, screaming, for change. I’m afraid.  I’m afraid that I don’t know what self-care is. I’m afraid I don’t know how to make radical self-care a priority.

I did manage a half hour walk tonight, I ate black-eyed peas and collards for dinner, and here I am writing about self-care.

Maybe these are the first steps to making it happen.



Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Trying to understand

Sometimes a series of events seizes you, shakes you hard, bewilders you. You search for words to comfort those who have lost a loved one, but words sound hollow. Like a snake chasing its tail, your thoughts circle, with no resolution and little rest.

It started with a pet, a sweet, companionable, blue-eyed cat who was losing weight. No problem, I’ll intensify my efforts, take him back to the vet, try this, try that; I’ll nurse him back to health. 

I know how to give TLC to a cat. 

Instead, he continued to decline over weeks before my disbelieving eyes. On a Friday another trip to the vet reassured us that his blood work was okay, but over the weekend he spiraled downhill. By Monday we tearfully made the decision to end his struggle.

Helpless. I was sure I could mend him, but I was powerless to save him. Some would say he was just a cat, but when he looked into your face, there seemed to be a soul behind those eyes. I stroked him for the last time as the vet put the needle in Blue’s leg, and his big round blue eyes closed.

A friend of over 15 years, Jim, who sometimes picks up a day’s work with my husband, dug Blue’s grave while we took the kitty for his last trip to the doctor. Jim is empathetic that way, and was glad to help out.

Days later, Jim’s wife, Lillian, took her own life with a shotgun blast to her head. The scene was so awful that seasoned police officers cried. Lillian left behind children, grandchildren, and a shell-shocked husband.

Words come out of your mouth, but you know they are no comfort. Or pitifully inadequate comfort. But you say them anyway. Jim’s previous wife had died of cancer, and now this.

A few more days passed, and a neighbor, 36, went out alone on her paddleboard in the afternoon. Extremely physically fit, she somehow met with an accident. Sheriff’s deputies and another neighbor in his boat found her body floating in the creek hours later. She had drowned. A phys-ed teacher, she was a wife and a mother of two children under six-years of age.

A week passed, and a former student, Frank, who visits about once a year, stopped by to see me. He’d lost a lot of weight, and told me he had bad news. Oh, no, the cancer, I thought, knowing from his last visit that he’d had a biopsy. But the shocking news was that he had lost his wife of 35 years to a botched routine surgery at the end of June.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” he said. “I was supposed to go first. Why am I still here?”

We chatted for a while, and as we talked about religion and the possibility of life after death, Frank mentioned that he’d read Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, by Eben Alexander.

Strangely enough, I had also purchased that same title, but hadn’t worked up the courage to read it—I thought it would undoubtedly make me cry, thinking about my own lost loved ones, even if it gave me hope to think that a formerly disbelieving doctor had experienced death and returned convinced of an afterlife.

I did my best to comfort Frank—he’s a “no b.s.” kind of guy, so the normal platitudes were quickly dispensed with as we talked about death, and how a healthy woman can die with a careless slip of a surgeon’s blade for the simplest of procedures. Frank blames himself, too, for not listening when his wife said she didn’t like the doctor.

Frank has grown children and a couple of grandchildren who have rallied around and give him emotional support. I was impressed that he had come to school to tell me what had happened; it seemed to be a difficult mission he’d worked himself up to perform. Perhaps it was a station on his road of grief.

My heart ached for him in his sorrow, but after all the other recent deaths, I was also somewhat numb. My midlife wisdom, often a comfort, let me down.  My efforts to understand why all these tragedies were happening to people in our circle were futile.

Intellectually I know that difficulties do converge at times, but it’s hard not to feel broken when so many are suffering in every direction. Just like when I was trying to nurse Blue back to health, I want to make it all better, to mend the broken friends, to mend myself. I used to have much more confidence that I could make it all better. Part of the lesson here seems to be that not even a smart, capable midlife lady with all the good will and determination a woman can muster, has the power to fix broken hearts. The owner of each heart must fix his or her own. 

No one else can do the work.And it can be slow, hard, messy, lengthy work.



Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Giving Thanks for Students

Have I told you lately about the best part of my job as a community college teacher? No?

The students.

Thank God for the students.

This summer semester I taught a 2/3 instead of a full time load for the first time in many years, thinking that a lighter load would help with some health issues and a mild case of burnout. Instead, I learned that the lighter load still brought with it the stress of being a faculty member in the state of North Carolina.

Have you heard the news about us lately? We had a pretty good reputation in our institutions of higher education, but funding has been cut to the bone, and in some cases the bone was amputated. My persecution complex has gone into overdrive—the depth of the hatred some people have toward teachers is finally getting to me. The state legislature, along with a rampant mice and roach infestation in my moldy, windowless office building made the “lighter load” of the summer semester seem not as “light” as I’d hoped.

My morale has been in the toilet. The basement toilet.

Then today as I was scrambling to complete the long end-of-semester checklist in time to take a short break before “Fall” semester starts next week, yes, on August 13th, a student knocked on my door.

Oh, no.

In she came, in search of academic advising for Fall semester classes. The advising period had ended two weeks ago. A silent inward groan raised bile in my throat. She did not have an appointment. I did not want to take time from grading papers, posting final grades, and filling out official paperwork in quadruplicate to assist her. Usually advising for a full load of classes can take an hour, and I had hoped to be finished for the day in a hour. My head was pounding.

But I gestured to the comfy upholstered chair I brought from home to make students feel welcome in my cave of an office, and asked her how I could help. 

She sat. Caroline is in her sixties, African American, a pretty lady with high cheekbones and a self-effacing manner. While I was pulling out her file, I asked her to remind me what her major was.

“What do I want to be when I grow up? I don’t know. I really don’t know why I’m even taking classes. I guess I just want to improve myself.” She chuckled lightly.

We talked a bit about the differences between an Associate of Arts and an Associate of Science degree, and Caroline said she wasn’t sure if she would be seeking a degree, but she wanted to keep taking classes.

“I take care of my mother and my nephew,” she said, “so I don’t have a lot of time for my studies.”

“Oh, I take care of my mom, too,” I piped in. “She still lives on her own, but I try to help her out with groceries and doctors’ appointments.”

“My mom has dementia,” Caroline said, so softly I could barely hear her.

Oh, damn.

“Taking classes helps me to get out of the house for a little bit, and think about something else besides my own troubles. Being around the younger people helps me. They’re fun to be with. I need to take an 8:00 class, though, so I can get back home to take care of Mom.” She smiled.

She had taken a developmental math course over the summer semester, and wanted to continue with the next math course in her sequence.

That was it—she only wanted to take the one class.

“That’s all I have time for, but I want to keep taking classes. I don’t know where it will lead me, but I want to keep using my brain.” Courage, I thought, and tenacity. Sacrifice. Strength.

We filled out her registration form, chatted for a few more minutes, and shook hands. She left my office to stand in line at the registrar's for her fall class.

Yes, it’s the students that are the best part of my job. Thank God for the students.



Monday, June 24, 2013

Wick my (sweaty) troubles away: Cool-jams to the rescue!

Companies are not showering me with free stuff. That’s okay, I’m not hurt. Pass the vodka, please.

So when Cool-jams sleepwear contacted me inquiring if I wanted to try a nightgown—for FREE and review it on my blog—I jumped up and down and did the happy dance. 

Yes, I am occasionally that shallow. I like pretty things, so sue me. And hey, the idea that a company knew my blog existed and wanted me to test drive their product was a stroke to my wild and hungry ego. Come on, those of you who are regular readers know that I do not normally endorse products, and I’ve been blogging for 3 years.

Even though I had decided long ago that my blog was not going to be a source of filthy lucre, that my motives were of a higher, more pure cause than mere pecuniary rewards could hope to match, (ha-ha) I snatched at the chance of a new nightgown and a better night’s sleep. Yep, I snatched that nightgown faster than a duck on a June bug.

The ugly truth is that since the tendrils of perimenopause first began twining around my fair neck, yay, those many years ago, I have sweated EVERY night. I was 35 when I first noted that sensation of mild night sweats. No biggy at the time, and I certainly didn’t associate it with the oncoming tidal wave of warmth. Believe me, sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.

As the years passed, regardless of the season, the level of air conditioning, the speed of the ceiling fan, the size of the window open to the frosty air, or the type of night clothes or covers, I … well, there is no delicate way to put this. If horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow, I glowed enough to light up a medium-sized city.

Sleep is elusive enough through perimenopause, menopause, and beyond, without the added discomfort of damp night clothes. Some women even find they need to get up to change their p.j.’s and sheets before they have any hope of returning to a fitful rest.

Enter Cool-jams.

However, color me skeptical. I’d heard about wicking sleepwear for years, but frankly did not believe the hype. No one I knew had tried the products. The idea that merely changing to a different fabrication of pajama would make a difference seemed ludicrous.

Raised during the years when polyester and other man-made fabrics first became mainstream, I had a built-in prejudice against poly that was hard to overcome. I couldn’t imagine that a poly fabric would be anything other than sweat-inducing, somewhat like sleeping in a plastic bag.

My lovely violet Cool-jams “Julia” gown and Cool-jams pillowcase arrived lickety-split once I agreed to test the products. I washed them both according to directions, and embarked on my nighttime adventure, still not expecting much, if any positive results.

I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

I do not say this lightly, but Cool-jams wicking sleepwear is a game changer. I wish I had tried this product 15 years ago. I don’t know how it works; I don’t care. But when I woke up several times during the night, as is my norm, I was dry. No sweat. Nowhere. No how.

Bliss.

The pillowcase was an added bonus for my hot head, but the night gown was the key to making my dreams of a dry night’s sleep come true.

Cool-jams are not cheap—they run about $40-$60, sometimes less, but would make an excellent gift suggestion for those times when a baffled friend or family member asks you what you want for your birthday, holiday, or other occasion. Cool-jams do have sales; they come in a full range of sizes. I’ve had my nightgown for several months and it has washed and worn well. This product is high quality.

Normally I do not spend this much on sleepwear, but after suffering through years of night sweats, I would gladly save up my greenbacks to purchase this product. They are that good. In fact, I hate taking my gown off in the morning to put "real" clothes on. 

Test results: Cool Jams Sleepwear: 4 out of 4 stars.

Verdict: Worth the price for the comfort of sleeping dry. Don’t suffer one more night in a puddle. 
Really. If something so simple can improve the quality of our lives, we need to do it.



Cool-Jams provided me with a nightgown and pillowcase but did not otherwise pay for this review. The views expressed are my own. They also have bedding and men’s p.j.’s.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

For the Love of Old Houses


I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by houses.

Mostly it was old houses, especially if they had old stuff in them.

There was a Victorian brick ruin near my elementary school; naturally, my sister and I explored it. We scared ourselves silly imagining ghostly women in long skirts. We climbed rickety, mahogany-trimmed stairs; peeling, flowery, wallpaper fluttered as we ran, giggling, startled by our own reflections in cracked window glass.

So many houses, so little time. The occasional trespass. But the houses! The stuff!

A yard sale with my parents, at a farmhouse with a detached kitchen, complete with a top- of- the-line chromed wood-burning cook stove. In a corner stood a Hoosier cabinet with a well-cared for porcelain top, though concealed under a layer of dust. How I lusted for the house, the kitchen, the woodstove, the Hoosier. Dad bought the Hoosier for $5.00. He and Mom gave it to me when I got married. I still mourn the house and the cook stove.

As a twelve year old, I read the real estate section of the newspaper regularly. At that time “urban renewal” was a new concept. Our city, in an effort to curtail the razing of historic houses, offered them for $1.00 (yes, $1.00!) to buyers who pledged to fix them up and live in them.

“Look, Mom, this one is from 1810, and it has the original wide-plank oak floors. Check out the crown moldings!” l called from the breakfast table.

Was there ever such a strange child? These houses needed to be saved, and I wanted to bring them back from the brink. Once they were gone, they were gone forever.

Mom politely read the piece, and while appreciating my interest in historic structures, threw cold water on my plans to use my babysitting money to buy a brick townhouse in the inner city. It would cost too much to fix it up, she explained, as kindly as she could.

“But, Mom, the tax credits!” Are you surprised that I later became a real estate broker? If there is such a thing as a real estate nerd, then I was one before Trump was a gleam in his daddy’s eye.

Contributing to my old house delinquency was my grandmother, Dorothy. Although we didn’t get to visit her very often, my Gran lived in an 1880 white elephant on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, during the 1960s.

This seemed completely typical to me. Didn’t everyone’s granny operate a “guest house?” A guest house was an early version of the bed and breakfast, without the breakfast. Gran and her husband catered to city folk escaping the heat of the summer, and skiers looking for bargain accommodations in the winter. The house had nine guest rooms that, gulp, shared one hall bath. Times have changed, eh?

Gran married her third husband, Bert Sawyer, in 1960, having met him while staying at the guest house he ran on the lakeshore. He was much older; she was a hard worker, with a resume as a fine cook and housekeeper for the wealthy.

Bert was always kind to me, his odd, house-obsessed step-granddaughter. I shyly returned his affection, and then fell head-over-heels in love… with his house, his basement, his attics, his barn, his numerous and varied outbuildings, his boathouse, his tenant houses, and his boat dock. Yes, dear Bert was house poor, but that was not a concept I had yet learned in my study of the real estate pages. The upkeep--think of it! Merely keeping a coat of paint on the structures would have been expensive and exhausting.

The Sawyer House, as it was known, was full, from basement to attics, with the accumulation of over eighty years of Bert’s collecting and ingrained New England thriftiness. Very little had been thrown out. In the basement, a dirt-floored room was full of salt-glazed earthenware crocks of every size, shape, design, and description. The hulking coal-furnace had been converted to oil, and cost “the earth” to run each winter, so Gran said. Closets in the house were stuffed with 1920s raccoon coats, tattered flapper dresses, galoshes with rusty metal buckles, ladies’ hat boxes, skis, and ice skates in every size for those long winters.

The house attic boasted a buffalo hide, trunks full of old linens, dusty rugs. Books were everywhere; for a bookworm like me, it was heaven, even if some of the books were a bit musty. The barn attic was accessed by one of my favorite features—a cast iron spiral staircase! I swooned over that stair, imagining that one day I would have a cast iron spiral staircase in my own house, somehow, someway. The barn basement was brightly lit by many mullions and smelled of sweet hay, even though the chickens, cows, and horses were long gone. I pictured the barn cellar converted to an artist’s studio, with the eastern light bouncing in off Lake Sunapee, and grownup me, in a smock, standing at my easel.

Gran showed me old platters, feathered with age, taught me what “flow blue” china was, told me the romantic legend that goes along with the Blue Willow plates, and instructed me that fine crystal made a  musical “ping” when flicked with a finger. Her domain, the sunny, high-ceilinged kitchen, ran the full width of the house. The brightly windowed butler’s pantry with its tomato-red pots of geraniums faced west. On the sun porch, I napped on the ratty bench seat removed from an old Chevrolet.

Crackled cobalt blue vases and ruby glass pitchers gleamed in the window over the broad front stairs that wound up from the large foyer. Pocket doors led to parlors with faded upholstered furniture. Bert let me rummage in the cubbies of his roll-top desk. When I found a turquoise ring, he insisted I have it as a keepsake. I have treasured it all these years, and will never forget his unfailing kindness to a gangly girl.

We were sad when gentle Bert passed away in 1970. Gran sold the house to settle the estate with Bert’s grown daughters. We kept a precious few items as mementos. I asked Mother if she could buy the house for Gran and us. She explained that Dad’s job wasn’t in Sunapee, the old house took a lot of money to maintain, and that it wasn’t practical. It just wasn’t in the budget. The Sawyer House and contents sold for $30,000.

I can’t resist looking at old houses, and dreaming. Sites like oldhousedreams.com, historicproperties.com, and various preservation society’s web pages are my regular haunts. I imagine the people who lived in old homes in years past, and the ones who might move in and keep the houses alive in the future.

In fact, there’s a ramshackle ship captain’s house from the 1700s not too far from here that overlooks a saltwater creek. The floor is totally rotted away, but the ceiling beams are heart pine… just imagine what those beams have seen.

The houses, the stuff, and the stories will always hold me captive.