Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Smarty-pants, the quiz/ and now, the answers

By popular demand (okay, three people jokingly asked for it), here is the Smarty-pants quiz. Yes, you may use your books, internet searches, and your notes. But only after you think really hard about the possible answers. Since Halloween is just a few days away, we have a spooky theme.
Answers below.

1.       What was the name of the man that spawned the legend of Dracula?
2.       Where was Jim Morrison of The Doors buried?
3.       Name one of Henry VIII’s wives executed at the Tower of London.
4.       Name one edible vegetable related to deadly nightshade.
5.       In what U.S. state was the film version of Stephen King’s Firestarter filmed?
6.       What two articles were left on Edgar Allen Poe’s grave each year (until recently) on the anniversary of his birth?
7.       “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” was the first line of the what spooky novel?
8.       Victorian mourning jewelry was sometimes made of what from the deceased?
9.       What legendary liqueur with an eerie green color has wormwood as an ingredient?
10.   What poisonous mushroom is named for an unearthly creature?


1.       Vlad the Impaler (Prince Charles claims him as a cousin) or Bram Stoker. My question wasn’t clear, so either answer is correct!
2.       Paris, France
3.       Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. His six wives were remembered in this ditty: Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.
4.       Any of these: eggplant, tomato, potato, tomatillo, chile pepper, bell pepper, cayenne pepper
5.       North Carolina
6.       Bottle of cognac, roses
7.       Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier
8.       Human hair
9.       Absinthe
10.   Destroying angel

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pioneer Family: Childhood in the Land That Time Forgot

I never understood how strange, by many standards, my up-bringing was until a few years ago. In trying to give a brief description of my youth to a new friend, I began to see the stark oddness of my experiences.

My family had a nice, modest home in a suburban neighborhood in a university town. Nothing out-of-the ordinary. My parents were both children of the Great Depression, so they were proud to be able to purchase a single-family home after being married for 15 years.

The unusual part started when my parents purchased an old, run down farmhouse on 10 acres when I was about ten. That purchase sent our family on a unique journey. The farm became our home on weekends and over summer vacations.

The farm was on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, otherwise known as the “land that time forgot.” The structure had been built in the 1890s of heart pine, and was two rooms over two rooms with a rickety kitchen addition.

Originally the kitchen must have been in an outbuilding, but in the 1920s the back porch was enclosed to make a modest cooking area and dining room. The wide planked pine floors sloped and the peeling flowered wallpaper was at least fifty years old. My parents paid $2,500 for the house and ten acres. The farm was a three hour drive from our suburban home.

There was no indoor bathroom of any kind. Cold running water flowed to the kitchen sink from a well on the property. We sponge bathed with old porcelain wash basins, sometimes in a bigger galvanized washtub, or at the kitchen sink.

In one of my brighter moments, (I think I had been reading an old stack of Mother Earth News magazines), I hit upon a plan for a hot shower. I stretched the long garden across the yard, past the former pig wallow, to the outhouse / latrine.

In no time, the sun heated the water in the hose. With a bar of soap and the hose inside the outhouse, I managed to have a hot shower! The only drawback was when I burned my arm on the bare light-bulb hanging low on the john's ceiling. While rinsing my hair with the hose nozzle stretched up over my head, my arm made contact with the bulb for quite a few seconds before I realized I was being scorched. Of course, the thought of electrocution hadn't entered my enterprising little head.

The farm had electricity in only a couple of rooms (and the outhouse!), no phone, no television, and --the horror of it-- there were no home computers in the 1970s, no smart phones, no video games. We played checkers or cards and read at night. We spent half an hour killing mosquitoes before putting the lights out (if you've ever been to the Eastern Shore, you know it's the mosquito capital of the world). The family slept on beds and cots, dorm style, in the same downstairs room off the kitchen.

I brought a suburban girlfriend down to the farm with me one weekend, and we slept upstairs on a mattress on the floor. One of our cats curled up with us. In the middle of the night, we awoke to a crunching sound. Startled, we turned on the flashlight to see Little Boots eating a mouse. My friend was a good sport about it, but her parents were appalled when they heard the tale.

On the farm, we grew vegetables: corn, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, cantaloupes, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, onions, beets, turnips, and cabbage. A sweet cherry and a fig tree came with the house. My parents planted apple, pear, and peach trees. Mom planted annual and perennial flowers everywhere. From alyssum to zinnias, she had flowers in bloom nearly year-round. The soil must have been superior; nearly everything they planted, thrived.

I'm amazed as I look at that list of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. These days I'm lucky to keep a few herbs and cactus alive. Did my parents drink a lot of coffee? How did they grow all that on the weekends, work jobs, and keep five children alive, too?

The farm was about two miles from the Chesapeake Bay. We fished and caught croakers, spot, flounder, and bluefish. We fried them and had veggies from the garden. We dug clams, eating them raw, steamed, in chowder and in fritters. Using a chicken neck for bait, we caught blue crabs for steaming. Dang, we ate well!

We swam in the bay. Crabs nibbled our toes, and sometimes jellyfish stung us. We sunburned and Mom rubbed us down in Noxema from a cobalt blue glass jar. We slept with two portable fans trained on us and the windows wide open-- air-conditioning was not part of the farm's accoutrements. We heard the owls and whip-or-wills at night.

After the sun went down, it was rare for a car to pass on the narrow, blacktopped road in front of the farm. The silence was intoxicating. The stars were incredibly bright. Dad pointed out the constellations.

It's funny that it took me many decades to realize how different my upbringing was. Honestly, at the time I was a little embarrassed about how un-cool and primitive our farm was. I avoided mentioning the farm to all but a few close friends. I groaned about it, saying “We're going to the farm again?”

It didn't seem unique or special. It was just there; it was what we did on weekends and over summer vacation. When we talk about it now, we laugh and shake our heads. Living there was glorified camping, with the benefit of a roof that didn't leak.

I'm not ashamed anymore of growing up, at least part-time, on a farm. I can see what a blessing it was, and it's almost like being in a secret club when I occasionally meet someone else who was raised on a farm. Among many lessons, it taught me that most of the luxuries I enjoy these days are just that, luxuries and not necessities.

My heart is full of memories of the farm. That run-down place is part of who I am.

Do you have special memories of a place from your childhood? Please share!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Please read this post carefully; there will be a quiz next week.
“Seven billion.”
A student in the back row asked a friend how many people were in the world, and I blurted out the answer as I was writing the day’s schedule on the whiteboard. I couldn’t control myself!
“Three-hundred million,” I added when he inquired (still talking to his friend) how many people were in the U.S.
Keep in mind I’m an English teacher, not a statistics maven, social scientist, or delegate to the U.N. I’m not even very good with numbers. I routinely freeze, momentarily clueless, when asked for my zip code.
Regardless, I’m cruising into dangerous smarty-pants waters.
I so do not want to be that teacher-person who knows everything. No, no, no. Please, angels above, don’t let that happen! Don’t let me become an obnoxious jerk!
You know her: the legend-in-her-own-mind teacher. The one who throws around snippy, offhand remarks like “of course that quote’s from Macbeth” or an “obviously the bird symbol reflects the character’s need for freedom.”
Some teachers set themselves up as the expert, the authority, the last word on subjects that aren’t even in the realm they teach. They own the subject: Medieval daily life, wines of the ancient Egyptians, sexual habits of the opossum. The ozone layer, weaving llama wool, gems of South America. Television shows of the 1950s, ecological impacts of microwave ovens, what provisions to take on a sailboat trip to the Caribbean.
There is no end to the obscure corners of knowledge some teachers will stake claim as their own. No one is permitted to know more on the topic; a sneer, snide remark, or a hostile dressing-down are dealt anyone--student, fellow teacher, or innocent bystander--who shows a little knowledge in “their” specialty.
I understand only too well how this ugly character flaw develops. We teachers have power over students—I remember being surprised when rooms full of students actually did what I asked them to do! I knew stuff students didn’t, and I was the boss?! Yee-hah!
Standing in front of 20-30 college students at a time, their eyes (hopefully) trained on us, we get used to being the authority. They raise their hands; we want to give them the pithy, maybe even witty answer. First we may confine ourselves to our area of specialty. As a fledgling teacher, I felt fairly confident addressing questions about the writing process, most grammar, the symbolism in Coleridge’s “The Tiger.”
But then… the power, the knowledge… started to go to my head just a bit.
If I’m smart in English… why can’t I be smart in… how many threads per square inch make a good sheet? The top ten NBA players since 1980? The date Halley’s comet will next return?
If I’m not vigilant, I may start sliding down that slippery slope of know-it-all-ness until I’m completely insufferable.
By the way, Halley’s comet is expected to return in 2061.
Do you know anyone who’s a “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong?” Do you have strategies for gently putting her in her place? Have you ever been tempted into know-it-all-ness? How do you keep yourself under control?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Long, Long War

 Will* sits across from my desk, trembling from head to toe. He looks very young, but I figure he’s at least 23 since he says he’s been out of high school for five years. Will has an intelligent, devoted wife who’s applying to grad school and a 3-year old son. Tall and thin, he has thick, light brown hair and piercing blue eyes.
Will’s wife, Sandra, my former student, came by earlier in the week to tell me her husband is upset about his paper. He hasn’t slept in days.
He’s done two combat tours and survived, yet he’s worried about his response paper for British Lit.
Sandra says, “Mrs. Bruce, can you do something? I keep telling him he’s smart, he’s a good writer. He just needs to get a rough draft down on paper.”
Sandra and I discuss strategies to help her husband’s writer’s block. She says she’ll try to get him to come see me.
Will is in my office two days later. I’m glad he came; he’s motivated, sincere.  But he is in constant motion.  I’m trying to ignore it.
I can’t say I’ve ever seen a man so restless. I’m vaguely aware that I’m in denial about what is going on with Will.
I try to reassure him. His paper looks great; he’s done a fine job with Blake and Coleridge. I think: Why is he trembling? Is it espresso? Red Bull? Was he like this before the war? He is apologetic, saying that in high school he didn’t take so long, worry so much over his papers.
While I’m talking with Will, my officemate Amber* is finishing up her conversation with a muscular young student in a black t-shirt. A loud talker, Jake’s articulate, with an impressive vocabulary. They’re discussing the draft of his argument paper. Our office is small, and I can’t help listening a little, distracting me for a moment from Will’s jitters.
Jake must’ve written about his battles with the VA; Amber is telling him it’s good to be passionate in his paper, but maybe some of the language, the tone, is a bit too strong for a college argument. He shouldn’t use words like “idiotic,” or “foolish.”
Jake has hearing loss from the war, and the VA says the damage is not from his time in the military, despite all evidence to the contrary.
“I went into the military with perfect hearing, and I came out with hearing loss. They say it has nothing to do with the guns and the IED’s. I’m 24—where else did I get hearing loss?”
Jake is mad about the runaround he’s getting, but with effort, he’s contained. Amber is mad, but self-possessed, professional, making the best of a teachable moment. I’m getting mad, too, and not at the students in my office. There’s another emotion trying to escape from my chest. I’m not sure what the other emotion is. I clench my jaw.
Will glances at Jake, but without expression. Will talks a little louder, so I can hear him over the unintentionally loud guy with the hearing loss.
We continue our conversation about the poetry analysis paper. I may be repeating myself when I tell Will he’s a good writer, not to over-think the assignment. He rises to go. His hand is dry, warm as he shakes my hand, his grip strong but not overbearing. He’s still shaky.
He leaves, but my brain is roiling. Once again I have seen what few Americans ever see and rarely concern themselves with, even if they watch Brian Williams on NBC every night.
I’ve got to do something. So I plan a blog entry, trying to avoid a harsh feeling of futility. Of sinking, sucking, slippery despair.
Trying to find some way to be a witness, to give a tribute, to define and contain something that is amorphous, monstrous. Something that Will is working to conquer, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
I’ve proudly taught vets since 2003. I love what I do, and I’m doing what I can to help. I’m not being facetious, hard-hearted, or disrespectful. But by the time both Will and Jake leave my office, I need a therapy session.
Is it selfish to ask who’s going to help me?
Yes. It does seem incredibly selfish.
What can I know about what my students have gone through, are going through? The ones who have been to war, the ones who waited for them to come home, and the ones whose loved ones didn’t come home, or didn’t come home whole?
 It has been a long war for all of us.
So I get up and go teach another English class.
*Not their real names. I do not write about students who are currently in my classes. Will and Jake’s stories are used with permission.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Not to Wear: The Menopause Edition

No matter the weather, this woman is warm. Flushed. Burning up.
I don’t really get hot flashes, the way other women describe them. That counts for “lucky” in menopause. I do have three temperature stages: a warm, a warmer, and a heck no, you may not turn up the heat stage.
It’s in the 50s at night here; the windows are open, the curtains are fluttering. I’m in shorts and a tank top. I’m feeling fine!
I told a friend I fantasized about icebergs. I do! If I had an iceberg in my back yard, I would so throw down a faux fur blanket--don’t want my skin to stick to the ice--and lie down on that icy little bit of heaven. My heart races to think of it. Or is that just a menopausal palpitation?
Since there is no iceberg in my backyard, I do have my alternative. An industrial size ice gel pack. Yes, instead of the hot-water bottle or electric blanket of the non-menopausal, I cuddle up to my ice pack each night. Ahh, bliss.
Getting dressed for work has gotten complicated. I’m no exhibitionist, but how can I keep cool while maintaining my middle-aged school teacher fa├žade?
The best I can do in fall and winter is a sleeveless shell with a ¾ sleeve open cardigan, paired with loose cottony slacks. While I’m not thrilled with showing my upper arms (there is muscle in there, it just has a little padding on top), I don’t hesitate to whip off the cardigan and show my wings. If someone doesn’t like it, aye carumba, they can look the other way.
Clothing items and accessories that are on my “menopausal what-not-to-wear” list: turtlenecks of any neck style/sleeve length, blazers, boots, scarves, heavy winter coats, fluffy-heavy bath robes, flannel nighties, slankets, snuggies, anything wool.
I’m most sad about the boots and scarves. I love the look of boots on other people, but they are impossibly hot and confining for me. Scarves, so fashionable right now, would do wonders for disguising my middle-aged neck, but I would positively suffocate. As Nora Ephron said in the title of her funny treatise on women at mid-life, “I feel bad about my neck.” But not bad enough to choke myself in a scarf of any kind.
So I soldier on, as do millions of other menopausals, sleeveless through the fall and winter, hatless, coatless, with two spare sticks of Secret antiperspirant in the desk drawer. My portable fan lifting my locks, I soldier on.
That woman you see, running barefoot in the snow, skiing in her skivvies, snowshoeing wearing only a smile? That might be me. Please don’t call 911.
 I’m just having a menopause what-not-to-wear moment.
Do you have any tips for staying cool? Do you fight the battle of the thermostat? Suggestions gratefully accepted!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

East for a Cause: American Hitchhiker, American Heart, part 2

He held a sign that read, “East for a cause. Semper fi.”*
Patrick made it to from Iowa to Boston. He hitchhiked 1,300 miles last week, ate a lot of protein bars, lost 7 pounds.
Patrick Bohnenkamp, in case you missed my earlier post, is in his twenties, an Iraq war combat vet, single dad of two boys, and a former U. S. Marine. He works at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison as a guard. He was an extraordinary writer in my college English class a few semesters back.
Graciously, Patrick answered a few questions about his journey and gave permission to use his real name (he was the “Sean” of the earlier post).
Patrick got 14 rides. The people who picked him up were “eccentric and often flamboyant.” One couple’s car was pimped-out with harps and crystals. Another man, after seeing a police car nearby, revealed there was a warrant for his arrest, and the vehicle didn’t belong to him. They weren’t stopped, fortunately, since the man explained that he would not pull over for the police.
Eight police officers picked Patrick up along his route, mostly in Ohio. Once they checked that no outstanding warrants were pending, and saw his corrections officer’s i.d., they all released him without a ticket.
He spent a fair amount of time at intersections with his “East for a Cause” sign, “smiling and making eye contact.” That part was draining, he said.
The seminal moment of his journey came in a park on the Canadian border, near Niagara Falls. Daily life, full of lists, bills, chores, phone calls, and monotony, was far away. Blue sky overhead, sun so bright it hurt his eyes, he lay in the grass and just was.
Not entirely sure why he embarked on the trip, Patrick reminded me that he’d long had a fascination with hitchhiking. He believes the fear of hitchhikers has reached an irrational level, wanted to see if some people agreed with him, if they would pick up a tall guy with a backpack and a cardboard sign.
He lost a good friend in the war in Afghanistan a few months ago. Patrick had several sets of dog tags made up with his buddy’s name, birth and death dates. Each person who gave him a lift along the way received a dog tag. His friend’s death was at least part of the “cause” that sent him out on the road East.
“I dedicated the trip to him. I guess it helped with the grieving process,” Patrick said.
The prisoners in the Penitentiary where Patrick works kept track of his cross-country progress on a map. Being around guys who are locked up for a long, long time seems to have made Patrick even more aware of freedom, more curious about what freedom means.
With a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five under his arm, Patrick took a risk, opted out the mundane, “the striving for a steady level of positivity and good fortune” at least for a few days.
You’ve got to hear it in Patrick’s own words:
“…but when you get a ride and a hot meal from a husband and wife, or when someone opens their vehicle and subjects themselves to a complete stranger simply for the sake of being kind and benevolent, it hits your heart in way that can't be described. It moves you so deeply that it can change your core, fundamental outlook on humans. In a world that paints a picture of evil and cynicism and hate, it’s nice to see, firsthand, that we are wrong about ourselves. There is still plenty of kindness in the world.”
Patrick cancels out the babble of voices that say there’s no hope for our future. He, and other young men and women who are thought-filled, intentional, and action-oriented allay my worst fears about upcoming generations and the world they will make.
I’m so proud to know him.
*Semper fi (fidelis) is Latin for “always faithful”; the motto of the United States Marine Corps.


Tattoo Tragedy

CNN Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList recently tackled tattoos.
Apparently, some people are sporting misspelled slogans.
Examples abound. Cooper explained Hockey star Brad Marchand has” Starley” Cup “ChampiAns” in ink on his arm. A young woman wears “Sweet PEE” tatted across her lower back.
Um, “Sweat Pea,” the term of endearment/garden flower might have been what she was after. Unless she was having a “Say it out loud, I pee and I’m proud moment.”
A skinny young man has “EXREME” in lovely, elaborate gothic script on his chest. No “T.” Maybe he is a former “Reme?”
The tat needle does not have a spellchecker.
Now, please don’t jump on my head. I don’t mind if you tattoo whatever artwork, slogan, or Chinese character you’d like, anywhere on your body you’d like. You have that right; tattoo artists have a right to make a living. None of my business.
I will defend to death your right to tattoo. May the road rise up to meet you and may the wind be always at your back*, tickling the scales of the dragon tattoo you got in Cancun. Truly.
Further, just because I’m an English teacher doesn’t mean I’m on the Spelling Police squad. I misspell, too. Sometimes in letters 3 inches high on the (erasable) white board, in front of 25 students. Hey, it ain’t easy thinking, talking, writing, and wondering why that student in the front row is texting an order for a pizza on his cell phone. Yes, I just wrote ain’t. Spellcheck underlined it in red.
When that one sweet little student raises her hand to suggest I may have spelled in error, my pat response is “So glad you caught that! I was just checking to see if anyone was paying attention!” Administered with a smile, this tactic has gotten me out of several spelling mishaps.
But if a person goes through the pain, expense, pain, commitment,  and pain of getting a tattoo, wouldn’t it  be a good idea to take the time, pause a moment, and spell it correctly? Shouldn’t the tattoo artist care enough to check the spelling?
Because after all, in today’s competitive job market, an employer may not care about visible tats, but she may care deeply about the veracity of one’s claim to have “attention to detail.”
Especially when “I’M AWSOME” is blazoned across one’s forearm.
What do you think? Does spelling matter more in some situations than others? In the age of autocorrect and spell check, is spelling dead?

*From the Irish blessing:
May the road rise up to greet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, may the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again may God hold you in the palm of his hand.
Tattoo Tradgey (sic)