Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Post on Teaching

     Over my first cup of coffee, I caught up on my RSS feed. Responded to several of them - not just in the sense of commenting, but also in feeling a strong connection to the sentiments and comments expressed. Clio remarked on her frustrations and concerns with getting her students to work outside the web (and other things, of course). "I do actually have to teach them some history" she writes. Therein is the prompt for this post.
     I struggle with this all the time. Have for years. I know that I cannot teach them what they need to know, because we don't know what they will need to know in the way of factoids. What history is useful to them? What is worthwhile, and who decides that? As she notes:
I wonder if a whole course should be devoted to this [finding and evaluating information] -- a course with as much weight as the freshman composition and college algebra and introductory survey courses of all disciplines. I'm thinking of something like the course on reference work that I took in library school, except tailored for freshmen of the information age. This seems like something too important to be left to a class meeting or an orientation or anything that doesn't require some focused exercise and discipline on basic research skills taught by information specialists. It would provide a foundation upon which professors could build in order to teach students how to research for their particular discipline (or, so one assumes, given that one big problem we also face is the fact that our students aren't transferring skills like writing a sentence from one class to another).
     This is a great idea. One that's been bouncing around academia for a while, but which no one seems to know how to develop. Or is willing to fight for, to teach. Our students surely need this - witness the many blog entries and student comments bewailing the frustrations of writing, poor research skills, etc..  Lord knows, it was the dominating concern for my first 7 years at RNU, and throughout my teaching gigs before that. 
     In 2006, I got this fellowship that focused on creating better teaching among faculty. Faculty development in an environment that previously had not valued teaching despite the rhetoric. It was a life changer for me, as I discovered that I'd been teaching the wrong way. For years, I'd been focusing on trying to get students to 'learn' history; through lectures, tests, papers, exams, essays. And I'd been horrified for as many years at the inability of the majority of my students to create a coherent sentence, to recognize credible sources, to 'learn' history. The fellowship seminar on teaching showed me a better way, and encouraged us to try it out on a single class, once.
     I'm nothing if not a crazy person. I was so convinced that the way to do this new kind of teaching wasn't to try it on one class, once, but to jump in and do it in all of my classes, immediately. The other fellows were horrified that I'd take such a risk.
     What did I do? If you've read this blog, you've seen my 'new' approach (it's still 'new' after 4+ years). I rethought was History was and is. Down to the core, I forced self to reflect, what does it mean to study history? For myself, it had never been just about the stories of the past - the very things that had pulled me into the field. Sure, the stories are fun. They are instructive - if you're open to learning about how the past developed.
     Let's face it - most of our students aren't integrating their learning into their lives. This is why they can 'learn' something in Comp and still not be able to write a coherent sentence in another class outside of the English department. They simply don't see the connections that we assume they do and should. Increasingly, their reading is focused on tweet-length journalistic blurbs. Take a close look at your campus newspaper, created by the Mass Comm students studying Journalism. Single sentence paragraphs, designed and intended to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The kids working on the paper at RNU tell me that is the style their Mass Comm profs insist that they use. I cannot imagine any of the Comp professors I know teaching that crap. My students tell me they don't know how to read critically - because yes, I actually talk about how they read. Every term in every class, I ask how many students read for pleasure. In a class of 35, perhaps three will raise their hands. The others are a bit embarrassed, but acknowledge that they don't read. When I talk about the different kinds of reading, they are stunned. And I cannot count the number of times students have asked me to help them learn to read better. These are kids who come in with 25 ACTs. Or higher. They are making good grades. They are at a competitive university, many on academic or talent scholarships that require good grades. So what's happened? How can I 'teach' these kids history?
     As I said, I've rethought what history is, and what doing history means. What I've been working on the past four years is that history isn't about the factoids or recounting the constructed narratives that explain the past/present. It's not about the wars, kings, policies, lives of the peoples of the past. History is the study of those. How do we study those? Is teaching content teaching history?
     My answer is no (as I said, it's an ongoing issue for me, so subject to frequent change). Teaching history isn't about recounting somebody else's narrative reconstruction of the past. Teaching history is about helping our students use the various kinds of sources to interpret the past. This is nothing new - historians teaching frequently try to get the students to read primary sources. My problem was that since the students didn't know how to read those sources, they had no tools to use in structuring their own analysis so that they could [re]construct anything. 
     I'm not a teacher of reading. It's hard for me to know what problems they encounter, because I've read since I was 3, and have always been a voracious reader. I did learn how to read critically, but that I did mostly unconsciously. I don't know how to teach somebody who doesn't read to read critically. And it's certainly not my job.
     What I do is come at it from art. Visual art: paintings, sculpture, sketches, architecture. I'd love to use music, but I know very little about music (I know what I like, and I know what music came when, but that's about it).  Not that I'm an art historian, but I can see how the values, traditions and culture of societies appears in the work of their artists. Importantly, the students are less intimidated by art than they are by written texts. I begin with some basics of learning (Bloom's Taxonomy etc). I walk the class through how they do this kind of learning everyday, in every way. We take it step by step. I model the approach in the early weeks. The text uses art too, which really helps. We talk about how we analyze the given narrative (the textbook) to determine values, traditions & culture (VTC) (which is why they are in the class, it's a Gen Ed class) of a given society. Then I give them a piece of visual art that I've selected that illustrates those VTC. I show them how that art can be interpreted (good gad, they're using primary sources! They are synthesizing!). I do that a couple of times, slipping into letting them identify the elements and how they work within that piece. Soon, they are the ones doing the analysis, the synthesis of the art (as text) and the interpretation in the textbook. No, they're not doing it in writing, but they are doing it. And the more they do it, the better they get at doing it.
     Their assignments are to find a piece of art that reflects the VTC of the producing culture and then teach that to their peers. They have a rubric that tells them how to set it up, what they need to do. Right off the top, they have to connect their presentation work to a course learning objective. They have to have a strategy, an organization. They have to meet their objective. To get good grades they have to push beyond factoids, lead their peers into higher levels of learning and synthesis. 
     The first presentations are always painful, as they miss about 2/3 of what they know is there. But the second ones are astonishing - more importantly for me, they are getting better all the time. Each successive class has gotten so much better that they astonish me. Not even the same kids - but each term, the level of growth is just jaw-dropping. They do two presentations, each building on previous one. The first presentation is focused on a single piece of art; the second requires two pieces. They get extra points if they can push their work beyond a single culture - synthesizing and expanding by introducing comparatives with at least two other cultures. Their final project is to create an interpretation (good god, they're doing history!) of a society, demonstrate their own learning of the VTC of a culture of their choice in our time period.  This is all done orally - there are no papers or exams in my classes. What they have to do is be active in each and every class meeting. 
     So that's how I teach history: I show them the tools historians use instead of assuming they already have them. I show them how to use those tools. Model what they are to do. All this is very explicit - hardly elegant, but by the third week of any term they are actually doing history
     Know what? They love it. They tell me they are learning more than they have in any other class - in any department. That they used to hate history, and now they love it. They prove that by coming back for more, searching me out to tell me that they are seeing how this kind of learning has changed their lives.  That they see connections between our history class(es) and other classes, the news, their lives. That their travels have meant more, because now they know how to really see the world around them. They also tell me they've worked harder in my classes than in any other class - and that they've learned. They know what history is, and have actually done it. No, they haven't written a paper. They are reading - actively. They are critiquing sources they've found. They are doing history. 
     Am I comfortable with all this? Amazingly, yes. Mostly. I'm not happy that they aren't reading more, reading primary text sources, writing papers. I'm not happy with the assessment process, which doesn't seem to adapt very well to this kind of teaching/learning. The approach is a work in process; as am I.

Monday, February 21, 2011

So Exciting... and other mundane matters

I had a great weekend. Saturday, after a bout of rather intense cabin fever, I went out in search of garden sheds. I just wanted to see the space, get an idea of options and alternatives, prices and delivery.

At the first place, people were wandering around, in and out of the sheds - sheds from the size of oversized 2 car garages to small house to tool sheds. I was kind of astonished, because there were no sales types out answering questions and no prices posted anywhere. Very few had any signage at all - as in how big they were. And in the office? Two guys with their feet on their desks, shooting the bull, paying no attention to the potential customers on the lot or even coming into the office. The one guy who did? He didn't know anything about what they  had, what the prices were - all he was doing was handing out the business cards of the salesman... who wasn't there.

Second place was much better. I hadn't been feet on the ground more than 1 minute when he popped out and asked if he could help. He knew what was what, and showed me all kinds of options: basically built to specs. I told him what I wanted, and how I intended to use it. He showed me alternatives. I said I like the roof of that, but the size of that other. He said 'no problem. We can do any roof line you want.' So I asked about costs.

He went in, did some figuring: 8x10', ranch/saltbox roof, single door, install two windows. Super sturdy construction (16" on center vs the 24" PlaceOne), 5/8"exterior grade plywood siding vs 1/4" chipboard, 2x4 studs vs 2x3 studs, 4x6 floor joists vs 2x4, very strong door. We argy-bargied - I said I wasn't ready to purchase, just wanted to explore options. He said he could get me a good deal. I said how good? He explained Home Show pricing, said he was sure he could get me that. HS pricing, it seems, saves about 30%. I dithered. He said he'd work something... and he did. Basically, by buying it then, I got about $800 off the price. I'm very excited! I get a nice, new, sturdy shed for a play house: crafts, painting, putzing space! This is my inspiration:

See the shed? The blue/brown building behind the cushions? Here's the front view:
Mine's actually bigger than this looks. Once it's in (March 8!!) I have to paint the back side (dark gray, I'm thinking) and then they'll come back and slide it against the fence. In this picture, it's where the flower bed is:
Which, after this morning, looks like this:
The weed-cloth is 3' wide, so allowing for overlap, the shed will be just about the size of where the weed-cloth is widest in this picture. The new plan for the backyard is this:

Only the roses will go on the shed side of the yard instead of on the garage side. Flagstone stepping stone paths to garage and back veg garden. In this sketch, the house is on the right side (south on the ground); north is where the fruit trees are. Obviously, a multi-phase project. But right now, I'm just excited that something got started! Yay!

Now if the SoCal lawyer would get off his butt and get stuff done... I could put the next bit on the schedule: getting the plumber out to re-plumb the water heater and end the freezing pipe debacle.

On more mundane levels, I got to spend my morning class talking about patriarchy, and how it manifests. since the class has 2 guys, we spent most of our time talking about how it impacts women and how women are frequently the enforcers and perpetuators of patriarchy. I used two examples: foot binding and FGM. They were horrified and fascinated by the foot binding... and completely grossed out by FGM. Even the guys blanched at the rather clinical descriptions I offered. Then, because we meet in a computer lab, a couple went online and found illustrations. The guys weren't even going to look, they were so freaked. The women who did were aghast. So hey, I had an impact. They now can't say they've never heard of such a thing. Teaching moments.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Equanimity, More or less

Yeah, I'm still grumpy, but I'm not actively growling and snapping at people, so things are looking up.

I think it started on Wednesday, when I got an email from Contractor ASW (no, not ass-wipe, I kinda like these guys). When he'd presented his bid on project 2 (siding & windows), he'd recommended a certain product. I like the product a lot, so asked him what it would cost to do the garage in Product. He said "Oh, $36-3700." Which made it a no-brainer, and made me very happy. Wednesday, he sent me the real bid: $4980.

Holy crap! That's a huge difference!! More correspondence from the attorney in SoCal -or rather, his paralegal. Who, at the very best of times, is a major PITA. He sends bad news, drags his feet, and my mood plummets further.

I do nothing, head to bed. Wake Thursday morning, early so I can go to the gym, and think "crap, I can't go to the gym, I hurt all over! I've just been in a car wreck!" Because, you see, I'd had a dream that I'd been badly hurt in a wreck and was sore all over in the dream. I have very vivid dreams, so in the twilight of waking... I thought I had been hurt. Once I woke fully, I got up and realized that no, I didn't hurt. Went to the gym, felt better. Home again, shower, head back to campus. Great morning class, good afternoon class.

Then I raced home from my class to meet with landscape contractor J. Who was supposed to come at 4:30. I got home at 4:05 and there he was. Cool. No problem. We wandered around the yard, and I went over what I want: two trees taken out/moved, four bushes out, remove the existing bed, haul out the dirt, save the roses, iris and vine. This is phase 1: demolition. It has to be done soonest, so that everything is still dormant (and time is of the essence, as we've had 70-80 daytime temps). [Phase 2 will do the back side of the house, and the install of a new pergola. Phase 3 is the garage (demo the existing shade structure, install new siding/windows). Phase 4 is landscaping the "new" yard: new beds along the newly gorgeous pergola and garage, a new shed that will be craft/painting studio (a la this), flagstone patio and step-stones. ]

LCJ says: "No problem. I can do Phase 1 in one day (not that I believe that, but it's doable in 2). $500."But while we're talking, and I'm making sure he knows that he has to haul away the weed-filled dirt from the existing bed... he says "digging's hard work. That's what Mexicans are for." At the time, I just thought "that's nasty..." but the more I think about it, the angrier I get at him - his unthinking racism - and at self for not calling him on it. The principled part of me wants to not hire him. And to tell him and his company why I'm not hiring him: bigots need to know their attitudes are offensive. The practical part says "it's RNC. He'll only be here 2 days max." But it adds a layer of pissiness to the ASW bit.

LCJ leaves. I find another email from ASW, telling me I haven't read what I wrote in my previous email. Very pissy now, I go back and lo and behold, I did know what I was talking about. The door is now blown off of the temper - my happy little buzz that had been tripping along all week was gone. Realizing that, I get even angrier, grumpy as all hell and yeah, tres pissy.

And then I had to go back to campus, to meet with my seniors to read them the riot act. Third time driving to campus in one day - that added to the bad mood. The need to go back: another irritation. Being the hard-ass: another layer of truly pissy. A senior who was late to the meeting: we're now into Tasmanian Devil mode. Riot act read: you will take this seriously. You've blown me off too many times. From now on, we will meet weekly. Each week you will turn in what you've done. If you're on track and on schedule, we'll break early, go home as soon as we check in. If not, we stay. Are we clear??? "Yes" they assure me. Do I believe them? Hell no. Meanwhile, my Friday nights just got hellishly long: we meet Fridays 6-9. That means I'm in class from 3-9 without a break.

By the time I got home, I was in a rage. So much so that I was warning off both cats and dogs. With screeching, shrieks, waving arms, shrill 'gahhhh!!!' That's when I decided that I really needed to figure out what had happened, because this just wasn't good.

Luckily, we're having fabulous weather. I took the dogs outside, and sat on my back stoop, and dissected my past few days. The results are what you just waded through - I just hadn't realized it was all building and dumped at once. Once I did, I could let most of it go. What I couldn't let go, I could articulate. Now? Now I feel more peace, some balance. Equanimity, more or less.

The idiots continue to circle, tweaking my balance. Pissing me off. I've done what I can to de-toxify their impact on me. But I'm still more grumpy that I need to be. If people could just do their jobs, life would be easier for everybody, y'know?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Grrr. Argh.

Disaster did not strike. Grumpy did.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Teaching Moment

Lord, I seem to be on a roll. Disaster must be looming, and it's gonna be a doozie!

#1 Today I had another great class. We were going back over Hobbes, Locke & Rousseau. I wanted them to really understand the different visions of where governments come from, what they are based in, and who they serve according to these DWM. I made a point of saying these guys weren't the only ones, or even the first, to have such ideas, but that in our period (since 1500), they are some of the most well known and best articulated statements of these ideas.

They were right there with me. Engaged. Excited. Capable of seeing how these arguments appear in their own lives. I asked if Locke would support a democratic society as they understood democracy. One was conflicted; she wanted to say no. She hesitated, she said, because she knew he'd been influential in the creation of our own country.

So I said 'okay. That's okay. Just forget what comes after 1750. Would Locke's society have been democratic?'


'Why not?'

'It only served the people who had. Not the rest of society - those who didn't have.'

'Good. Right. Where did all those others fit, in Locke's view?'

'They didn't really matter. He said...' She got it out, even though she was really uncomfortable - she immediately knew the implications of his thinking. In its context, even! And she was really uncomfortable with the idea that his kind of society is so pervasive, even today.

Girl in the Back Row: 'Do you think the reason we - now - protect the interests of the rich is because we want to be rich someday? And we want that same kind of protection when we get there? Even when we know it's not really going to happen? Maybe if we accepted that - we could get real change?'

Belle nods. 'Good question.' Inside? Dancing around the room in complete glee.

#2: The article is finished. Yup. Done. All that's left is cleaning up the footnotes. And it can get sent off Friday!

Monday, February 14, 2011


Holy mackerel! I got the paper written! I swear, the thing is 90% written! It was good, hard, fun work. Slash, crunch, cut, build, expand, move, repeat. Polish, polish, edit. I still can't edit on-screen worth $hit; turns out I'd used the same 4 pages... twice and spliced in bits in a third spot. But it's down to 16 pages, which I can present in under 15 minutes easy (because I do NOT read my work at conferences, I present it).

God, that was fun.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Saturday: Phase II contractor #2 came and bid on siding, reframing and new windows for house and garage. Good discussion of options, probabilities, costs, etc.. BF helped by asking very good questions of the type that I typically forget to ask. But Phase II is now firmly in the groove - I've selected the contractor and defined the work. All I have to do is sign the contract (which must wait on IBDA and the courts). I'm very excited about getting this stuff started and finished.

Phase I is getting the existing trees, beds & bushes moved so that Phase II can begin. I haven't been doing nearly as well on Phase I contractors: they continue to not show up for appointments. There're two sub-bits in PI: demo and prep for Phase IV.

Phase III will be the bathroom re-do. I need to nudge the contractor on that, and pursue other contacts. Contractor made a great impression, but has largely vanished. Not happy about that either. You'd think these guys would want the work, eh?

Phase IV: landscaping. I have the plan and know what I want (this is a great gizmo). I just need the healthy backs to execute my plan.

Phase V is the closet makeover. I've had these people come out; they've yet to get back to me with a design or proposal. Again, I'm confused by the delay. Do they not want business?

Also done on Saturday: More Tomato Jam! OMG, is this batch fabulous. Totally swoony.

Writing!!! O. Dear. God. I've actually written stuff! First time in far too long, and I've done enough that I really can't do more until I get a hard copy of what I've just done. Like many others I know, I cannot edit coherently on the computer. I need the hard copies to keep track of what I've moved where, what I've added and how I've re-organized things. I'm trying to cobble two existing bits together, whack it all down to a conference length paper that I can then peddle to journals. It's... fun. Positively joyful to find that it's still relevant and interesting (to me at least). Anyway, I've done the first round, and find it good. Whether I go into the office to get a hard copy today or wait until tomorrow is yet to be determined. It is still early in the day, and I have laundry to do... I could go in, get the print out and get back while the laundry is going. Hmmmmm.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


In class yesterday, I was hoping to get through Natural Laws, Nature of Man and contesting views of sovereign power. We'd just made it through what a law of nature meant to people like Newton and I'd snuck up on sovereign power when:

Stu: 'Prof Belle? I hate to interrupt, but I just got a tweet that says Mubarak resigned....'

Belle leaps across the room, crowing with delight - 'What??!! Autocratic ruler down!' Then as we waited for the BBC site and video feed to load, I sped through concepts of sovereign power, explained that some rulers - Louis 14 - considered their power to be based in Divine Right and thus un-challengable. Talked a bit about patriarchal and paternalistic rulers, how they saw their role... and then....

The crowds in Tahrir Square! The appearance of Suleiman/Soliman announcing Mubarak's resignation, the power passing to the military! The jubilation of the Tahrir Square crowd! Belle, dancing around the room in joy! The students, grinning and joyful for the people of Egypt!

Instantly, they wanted to know what had happened. What, they asked, will happen now? What made him change his mind? What happened??

It was wonderful, one of those teaching moments that we don't get very often. Not only did we talk about Egypt, but the nature of history, the uncertainties and challenges of scholarship. They were astonished when I said we may never know what really changed M's mind - but the official documents won't even be available for years, even decades. I told them they'd hear different versions from many of the actors, that leaks and misinformation would be plentiful in the coming hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, but that the Truth might never be known. I noted that it would very likely not be known in my lifetime, although there might be a reasonable version known in theirs. Authoritative analyses, I said, will differ as they develop over the coming days/weeks/months/years/decades, but that Truth about who said what to whom will change. It was exhilarating, watching them absorb that, and come back with more questions, more demands for reliable information.

On my way back to my building I ran into the Head Librarian, and we talked about how information storage changes the landscape. She wondered if, when we finally do get the records, they'll be in a format we can access. Since I still think in terms of paper, I hadn't really thought that out - but immediately knew precisely what she's talking about. We talked about my research - the move from hand written diplomatic reports to typewritten letters to cables changed the speed, tone and nature of the information provided to policy makers. We talked of her research, and how changing technologies were reflected in the management and set-up of libraries and information storage/retention.

Going back to my office, and outside in the blazing (but icy) sunshine, I heard 'DR BELLE!!!' There, across the quad, is another student - racing toward me. His face is lit up with joy as he gets close - 'He's gone!' We hug, both laughing with joy. He is simply giddy as he recounts where he was when he'd heard, what they'd done, how they'd celebrated. He's already called his mother! She hadn't been paying attention, so he'd gone through it all, explained why it was important, how it affected them all.
'Why do you care?' Mom asked. 'What's going on? You never cared about-' 
'My history teacher - Dr Belle - she's great! She explained it! And it's so exciting! Don't you get it Mom? Mubarak's gone!!! Isn't it great?!'
He too wants to know what happened, when we'll know for sure what made Mubarak change his mind. His excitement and pleasure is like stepping into a fast creek - it bounces over rocks, splashes and burbles and rushes on.

So the students knew - and my efforts to make them care had them adding the Egypt feed to their twitter, gathering around televisions and computer screens, watching and waiting for news. But oddly, the professors around me didn't know. Dino1, the technophobe, didn't even have his radio on (he usually listens to NPR). Others hadn't been keeping up with the news once they'd gotten out of their cars or left home. So I spread the news, and we wondered what had happened, what would happen next. Would the Army serve as caretaker? Would Suleiman/Soliman stay - or was he too out? Where was Mubarak?

I went back to the 'net, found out that Mubarak had left Friday morning for Sharm el Sheik (as usual). Did he know he'd resigned, I wondered? Had he be informed he'd stepped down, or was it his idea? I can well envision that the generals meet, decide it's time for him to go and tell him 'It's that time President. You must go.' Or the people on the ground at SeS greet him with 'Um, sir? Egypt wishes to thank you for your services, and your resignation has been most respectfully accepted. Please, enjoy your stay.'

Less than 24 hours later, I'm still abuzz with joy. Hopeful that the Egyptian Military Council is making the right noises, that Mubarak hasn't (yet) staged a counter-revolution. Thrilled that there are demos called for Algeria, that they too want to free themselves from abusive leaders. Vive la revolution!!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I Am Officially Behind

Oh dear god, yes I am waaaaay behind.

This is the 5th day of classes that I've lost to this month's weather freakiness. Throw in my grabbing time to discuss and explain what's going on in Tunisia, Egypt and the Middle East - not good. I'm so far behind I am not sure how to catch up except by truncating all syllabi. Drastically. And I hate to do that. But... I'd built in a week for catch-up, that week is now long gone. So cutting looks like the only way.

I am down to the line on creating a paper for an international conference in March. March, people! That will get done today. To. Day. And polish over the weekend. So that it is finished and out to the panel by early next week.

Then there's the class I'm supposed to plan for June 2012. Yeah, 2012. It's a study abroad class, and while I have general ideas on how to do it, the PTB want more than that. And they want it now so that they can get all the planning for it done, get it priced out and start marketing it. I've not done the basic reading for it yet - because I've been putting off all this other $hit.

The good news: I have running water! Hot and cold! And the repair bill was under $400!!!

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Another death in the circle of friends & extended family. Fred was half of one of the few happily married couples I knew until I got to RNC. And I got here in my late forties! I could (and did) count the happily-marrieds I knew on the fingers of one hand - and Fred & Delia were always the first. Married more than 55 years, they were the only HMCs I knew as a kid - everybody else in my neighborhood fought, screamed, hollered, went days in icy silence.* Fred & Delia were open, caring, loving family types. Three kids and a never-ending parade of orphaned, abandoned & rescued pets. A wounded crow (Jim), an abandoned duck, rabbits... our neighborhood was one of those where city people would bring up animals to dump. Somehow they'd find their ways to D&F's door/yard, and be forever loved and cared for. Delia & Fred did it for family too - first her dad, then his uncle moved in and spent their last years in the loving family environment.  Fred would show us kids stuff - how to build things, fix things, be a man (ours were abusive and cruel). Delia always had a smile, a ready laugh, cookies. Milk. They tended their gardens - always a showplace of simple beauty. Bumper crops of veg were eagerly shared around the neighborhood, and they could always be counted on to help in any way they could. And we'd help them by watering their gardens, watching over the various animals when they'd take (rare) vacations, taking in the mail, running errands. It was just that type of place.

Some of my earliest memories are the neighborhood parties, where we'd all gather at somebody's house - outside or inside - and have tacos, or bar-b-que hot dogs & hamburgers, potato salad. I think Delia was the first one I ever knew who made & ate egg salad (my mom didn't like eggs, especially hard boiled ones; I shared that aversion). Jello salad, of course. I remember green jello w/fruit cocktail in it. (ewwww!) But always those memories are peopled by Delia, Fred, my mom, (my dad attended only a few) and involved lots of talking, laughing, hijinks and beer.  Fred was a practical joker kind of guy - harmless jokes, and never the kind that humiliated or hurt anyone's feelings. He was just a really good man. A gentle man.

Fred & Delia are integral parts of the best memories I have of childhood. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a few years back, and had gotten too much for Delia to handle alone. She has scoliosis - hasn't dimmed her smile. In late November, he was diagnosed with lung cancer - he'd smoked for probably 35 years before he quit, but it still came as a shock to those who loved him. So this death, like all the other's I've experienced in the last three months, wasn't unexpected or sudden. It was heralded by illness, dire prognosis, hospice care. His family was with him - he simply stopped breathing.

So this is death #5 for me, since August. Four since Thanksgiving.

Oddly, it does get easier. At least, I don't think I'm numb. I'm grateful that they didn't suffer any longer than they did, that they've found peace and release from their pain. I'm ever so grateful that I knew them, that their generosity permitted me to be a part of their extended family, of their lives. They've all enriched my life so much, just through knowing them. I am sorry that their families are facing a future without their living presence, and hope that those loved ones have some measure of some faith that comforts them. I wish them the kind of peace I have (apparently) with death as a process of life.

That's how I feel now. Today. Since August (death #1). Hopefully I can continue to develop this peace with something as natural and inevitable as death. That's my plan.

*I just counted HMC: counting the couples who lost a partner this year, I'm up to eight. Total, in my life.

Friday, February 4, 2011

From Ugh to ICK!

This killer storm? Yeah. Hit us Tuesday with double digit inch drifts and single digit temps. Took out my hot water, something I'm resigned to. Tuesday night, it took out the bathroom plumbing, cold or hot. Kitchen faucet had a pencil sized trickle until yesterday, when it went down by 1/2.

This morning, I stepped into the bathroom (with my bucket) and heard running water. Burst pipes. If one listens closely out the back door, one hears the merry splash of water under the house.

Plumber commiserated, but can't get here until Tuesday. City says they'll send somebody out to turn off the water at the street - in SoCal, we used to be able to do that ourselves. Here, it takes a 'water key.'

There's an icy pond forming under my house. Ick. Am I freaked? Nope. Nothing I can do at this point except worry, which is silly because there's nothing I can do about any of it. Except fill all containers with the mini-trickle of water from the kitchen faucet, and hope that the city gets here sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Teaching Moment

I'm enthralled by what is going on in Cairo. In my class yesterday, I offered to give some context to the headlines - and my students jumped at the chance. It was fun, exciting - enlightening for me. These are, by and large, a privileged few. Most are dance performance majors, and their worlds are rather narrow. They know musicals, music, dance. They don't know history, geography, politics, economics, business. So 'giving them context' had to be both broad and focused.

I started with a satellite map of Egypt - seeing the Nile snake through that vast desert landscape always gets people's attention. Pointed about major population centers: Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and how their siting makes them so important. Talked about the demographics of Egypt, Tunisia (also with satellite maps) and the Middle East in general: huge populations of young people, half of whom are stuck. Jobless. Either poorly educated or over-edcuated for their current situations. The bread and circuses approach to buying social apathy/silence. Talked of historical context: authoritarian regimes propped up by the US or whomever for their own interests (which got their attention, especially when I asked how they'd respond to $10/gal gasoline). Colonial and post-colonial experiences. Geo-strategic factors and importance of the region for all: US, Europe, Asia, Africa. Pushed the discussion out of the Red Sea and into the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates (they tend to think of pirates as Johnny Depp types), Persian Gulf, international shipping lanes & routes.

They listened intently. I had them pull up maps on the computers in front of them (we're meeting temporarily in a computer lab). They asked good questions. Eyes popped at the demographic problems, the age of Cairo, the complexity of it all. Were astonished that the US would at once maintain a pro-democracy rhetoric yet actively support authoritarian regimes (there is hope!). One wanted to know if a state based on Islam would provide stability, peace. Yes, I assured her. And there are states that operate under Islamist regimes - Iran. Saudi Arabia. We talked about the frustrations of their people, why those same rulers were so afraid of this democratic wave.

I wondered, briefly, if they'd learned anything. Their response was immediate and enthusiastic: YES! They said the felt ready to listen to the news and try to understand it, rather than shrug it off as not important to them. (That $10 gallon gas really got their attention.) At the end of class, several came up and thanked me - sincerely thanked me for explaining the news to them.

It's not that they were willfully ignorant or blissfully unaware. They had no context to make the news meaningful to them. More than once I heard "why don't we get this kind of information in the news??" I'd simply turn it back on them: "Good question - why don't you? Who is acting as your filter? Who has control of that information? Who is responsible for finding that kind of news?"

I walked out of that space... no, I floated out of there. The teaching high lasted all day. They got it.