First, Label Three Piles           

Spring, too long a rumor, has finally established itself in the Yampa Valley. Snow decorates only the highest peaks; birds reproduce willy-nilly; bare toes sally forth in sandals; and cleaning experts ruin our fun by telling us its time to de-clutter our homes.

The other day a professional organizer on TV offered the following helpful tips: We should get rid of junk mail the day it arrives, store extra toilet paper where it’s handy and throw away pens that no longer work. She also said clearing the clutter from our dinner tables would benefit us socially.

I suppose without her expert help we’d paste junk mail in scrapbooks, put toilet paper under the coffee table and use defunct pens to stir our coffee. And I don’t know about your entertaining habits, but I almost never seat dinner guests among piles of unfolded laundry and unpaid bills.

While I dread housecleaning — moving dirt and dust about on a weekly basis — I enjoy sorting and organizing. I feel virtuous as I recycle books, alphabetize spices and discard the plastic pitcher the hospital sent home as a souvenir of Joel’s shoulder surgery.

Most experts advocate sorting clutter into three piles: recycle, discard and keep. I recommend an additional group: give to loved ones. This category enlivens my family reunions; folks scatter, running like the ten-year-olds they once were, when I approach with my treasures: “Look, Barbara, my high school pompoms! Remember how I wouldn’t let you play with them? Well now you can.”

Professional organizers also tell us to make decisions without hesitation and to never second-guess ourselves. I disagree. I enjoy debating with myself while I sort: “This charred hot pad was my first 4-H project; I can’t abandon it. Maybe I could work it into a quilt.” “You never know; we might decide to eat fondue again. The pot stays.”

I also recommend a practice I adopted to prevent my clothes from bulging out of my closet like bread dough left to rise too long: when I buy a new article of clothing, I get rid of an old one. At first, I cheated: “Let’s see, I bought new jeans. Hmm. Well, I haven’t worn this mate-less sock in ages. Out it goes.”

So now I make myself choose something similar. Recently when I brought home a new fleece hoodie, I recycled the down jacket I made from an REI kit in 1977, burned a hole in ten years later while camping and haven’t worn since.

Another strategy I propose: don’t involve the man in your life. One look at his collection of ball caps should tell you why not. Too often, as soon as I discard something and it’s irretrievably gone, Joel needs it. When we combined our households in 1996, I threw away the multitude of coffee-stained styrofoam cups he had dragged home from every meeting he attended since 1990. Twenty-two years later, he still asks for them.

Sometimes I get discouraged. Recently, I worked hard to clean and organize my kitchen cupboards. A month later, I’d crammed everything into the handiest spaces again. Perhaps a niece of mine has the best method for de-cluttering: pursue a lucrative career and hire an expert to sort and organize for you. An added bonus: you’ll be certain your toilet paper is in a handy place.

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For National Teachers’ Day, May 8

At forty-five, dumbfounded and dismayed, I thought, “This guy expects me to write in the first five minutes of a class designed to help me improve my students’ writing? He has to be kidding!”

The instructor, a six-foot man burdened with unreasonable expectations and a teddy-bear body, introduced himself as Neil then announced we had five minutes to write a description of a time we were unhappy with a parent. “After that, you’ll all share what you wrote,” he said and beamed at us as though we’d be thrilled by the opportunity.

As my classmates scribbled away as if they were hell-bent on winning a Pulitzer, I wasted three minutes feeling put-upon before squeezing out four sentences. “It was a hot day in August. My mother and I were working in the garden. She was tired and disappointed by my behavior; and I was being belligerent because I thought she was picking on me.”

Neil then told us to reread our writing and circle each verb of being we’d used. For those of us a bit fuzzy about the verbs in question, he turned to the board and wrote “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, being.”

I smiled smugly as I circled six of the verbs; then Neil said, “Now, I want you to rewrite your piece without using the verbs you circled. Keep your situation, but get rid of every verb of being you can. You’ll probably have to add details and think of livelier verbs. It’s an interesting task, like a puzzle. I think you’ll enjoy solving it and the results you’ll get.”

Oh.

The assignment intrigued me; so I willingly went to work and felt pleased with the result: “My mother and I pulled weeds in our vegetable garden under a hot August sun. Mom, tired from a new baby and canning peaches all day in a hot kitchen, looked at me with disappointment. But I continued to complain, “Why do I have to weed the garden? You expect me to work for free while Bob and Carolyn go earn money for themselves hoeing sugar beets. I hate doing their work.”

Next, Neil asked us to read both drafts to one another. In every case, the version written without verbs of being allowed our listeners to better visualize the characters, actions and emotions in our writing.

So, of course, that night when we did our homework assignment, a description of a childhood illness or accident, we over-reacted. Reading to one another the next day, we realized we’d written rambling sentences stuffed with excessive verbs and overblown details. Verbs of being couldn’t be found, but neither could simplicity, ease of reading or a clear story line.

The teacher we now trusted next led a three-pronged class discussion about the traditional belief of moderation in all things, the effective use of verbs of being and the understanding that any writing technique can became problematic when overdone.

During two fifty-minute classes, an extraordinary teacher had strengthened my writing and informed my teaching without assigning a worksheet or delivering a lecture.

Neil died recently. When I heard, I remembered telling him on the last day of class how his meaningful instruction had changed me as a writer and a teacher; and then I remembered the way  he beamed —  as though he had been thrilled by the opportunity.

What Runner’s High?

I used to run for exercise; though, toward the end, shuffling quickly would have been a better description of my movement. As a young adult, I read Dr. Kennet Cooper’s book, “Aerobics,” purchased running shoes, loaded up the dog and drove to the old railroad grade between Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada.

From Dr. Cooper’s research, I knew cardio conditioning requires continuous movement, so I decided I’d run for thirty minutes. Having no idea how to pace myself, I sprinted along the grade, then lurched along the grade, then vomited on the grade.

Miraculously, I didn’t give up, and though I added other cardio activities over the years, I always preferred running. I can’t brag about my speed or my distance, but I’m proud of my consistency: a minimum of thirty minutes, five days a week, year in and year out.

Like brushing my teeth, exercising is an engrained habit for me: I feel something’s amiss when I don’t do it. Dread keeps me moving as well. I’m afraid if I quit for any length of time, I could never make myself go through the agony of starting again.

Over the years, friends and family have teased me about my persistence. A brother told me he’d read an article about the impact of cardio exercise on longevity: consistent exercisers lived only a few months longer than non-exercisers. With ill-concealed glee, he said: “You drip sweat and jar your joints to  live eighty-five years and nine months instead of eighty-five years and seven months. Seems like a low return on your investment to me.”

Even my dad piled on, telling me he never saw runners with smiles on their faces and asking for my thoughts on why they look so grim. “Well, Dad, they’re concentrating on avoiding the old guy in the careening pickup who seems oblivious to traffic lanes and regulations.”

I love my family, but sometimes they try my patience.

I exercise not for longevity, but because I enjoy its day-to-day benefits  — increased energy, sound sleep, no dieting. But exercising has never been easy for me. Recently NPR aired a program on running. The panel discussed endorphins and the fabled runner’s high. I was cheered by a bit of research they shared: five to eight percent of runners experience no high —  other than a feeling of relief when they stop.

I identify.

One of my fondest memories of my dad involves running through an airport. Joel and I had flown with my eighty-eight-year-old father to Nashville to visit my brother. Our flight home had a close connection in Houston, where we arrived late.

While Joel ran ahead to try to hold our flight, I linked arms with Dad, and we scooted as quickly as possible, counting down gates. We were at twenty, on our way to twelve, when Dad reassured me, “Don’t worry, Janet; we’ll make it in plenty of time. I’m saving my kick for the finish.”

I remember our dash through the airport and Dad’s laughter at his own remark whenever I’m struggling through a fast, steep walk or a brisk workout. The memory helps me continue.

And some days, I need all the help I can get.

An Easter Dress to Die For

I liked to sit on the floor and watch Mom’s feet rock the treadle as she sewed. Sometimes I played; other times she told me stories; always she worked: creating curtains, dresses, shirts and flannel nightgowns for babies.

I have a faded photograph of Carolyn and me at three and seven holding hands, standing next to Mom, who ignores the camera and looks at us. We wear winter coats sewn on the treadle machine and accessorized with rabbit fur from a thrift-store find. Fur collars frame our faces; our hands snuggle inside fur muffs; and hats decorated with fur balls sit on our heads. As a child, I studied the photograph and assumed Mom’s smiling face reflected pride in her handiwork. My older eyes recognize the look of love.

When Mom and Dad came home with a new Singer sewing machine, the family gathered to admire the electric foot-control that replaced the swinging treadle. With this modern marvel, Mom more efficiently clothed a family richer in children than in dollars. When I was twelve, she created an Easter dress for me I’ll never forget.

I crawled into my top bunk, tired and sunburned from a glorious Saturday on West Mountain chucking dyed eggs at the heads of my classmates—an Easter tradition in Lake Shore. As I fell asleep, I replayed my victorious egg shots and pictured my entry into church the next morning in my Easter dress.

Each year Mom made dresses that shot her daughters to the head of the Easter parade. This year, however, I insisted on choosing the fabric and pattern myself, thinking I had better fashion sense than my mother, who was getting old.

I had poured over pattern books and materials at Christenson’s until I found the perfect combination: a snug, red corduroy sheath. I disregarded Mom’s opinion that I didn’t have the years or curves to fill out such a tightly fitted dress, so she made me the dress I wanted; and I loved it.

On Easter morning, my red sunburn a-glow, I sashayed into church in my bright red dress. As I entered a pew, Lehi Smith, who had lobbed enough eggs at my head the day before to make me think he liked me, leaned forward from the bench behind and whispered, “Wow, Janet, you look like a skinny glass of tomato juice.”

I flounced by without answering, shot a threatening glance at Barbara, and forgave Mom’s stifled snorts, thinking they were sounds of sympathy. Lehi, I wrote off as a numbskull, not worthy of my attention.

I wore my tomato-juice sheath for years, and every time I put it on, I felt beautiful and loved in a dress my mother made for me.

At One With Aunt Bertha 

When I glanced at my wrist, the girl seated next to me said, “You still tell time on a watch?” When I asked a fresh-faced nurse to call my home phone with my test results, she raised her eyebrows, ”You still have a landline?” “Don’t bother with Snapchat,” a nephew advised, “It’s for young people.”

I’m annoyed when others assume I’m technologically inept because I’m old. But I’m also amused. Their comments remind me of the fun my family had when the telephone reached the rural community where I was raised, and older folks acted like a dangerous stranger had come to town.

Because of Lake Shore’s sparse population and remote location, Mountain Bell took its time finding us. My siblings and I watched the slow progress of the line crews and thought if we got a phone, we’d be too old and deaf to use it. Our cousins who lived in Provo increased our anticipation by demonstrating their telephone’s entertainment value. We took turns calling random numbers and burping at length in the ear of anyone who answered.

After weeks of waiting, the summer day arrived when a lineman, whose tool belt dragged his pants dangerously low, entered our yard and perched atop a pole to connect us. Bob and I, in a frenzy of excitement, provided a demolition derby for his amusement: Bob rushed at me pushing a wheelbarrow with a flat tire; I defended myself with an abandoned baby buggy loaded with Barbara. The lineman looked alarmed and quickened his pace.

After the phone was installed, we stampeded when it rang, hoping to be the one to answer, then stayed to listen to the conversation. When no one else was around, I dialed the operator over and over, disguising my voice each time I said, “Time, please.” My fun ended when an operator replied, “Little girl! Stop it!! Right Now!!!”

Quickly recognizing the possibilities of a two-party line, Barbara and I quietly lifted the receiver and listened when we heard Anderson’s ring. Then Mrs. Anderson stopped by our pew at church and said, “Little pitchers have big ears, don’t they, girls?” She must have been disappointed when we looked puzzled rather than abashed.

Dad said we could not call anyone without permission. Mom explained a new monthly bill made him nervous; he thought we should limit the phone’s use until we knew how much it would cost. She felt certain he’d settle down eventually. But for years, by the time we said the second syllable of hello, Dad yelled, “You’ve been on that phone long enough. Hang up.”

Aunt Bertha

We didn’t bother to stifle our giggles when we visited our great aunt Bertha and she used her phone. She held it away from her ear so her hearing wouldn’t be harmed, then complained that people mumbled. She also spoke tersely and hung up without saying goodbye when she deemed the conversation finished. Eventually, Mom discovered our thrifty aunt thought she’d be charged by the word — like a telegram.

Once, after giving me ice cream and cake to “satisfy my sweet tooth,” Aunt Bertha confided she often ignored her ringing phone, because she refused to be interrupted by an “irksome nuisance people use for no good reason at all.”

Now, sixty-five years later, I drive to Steamboat, ignore the sparkly tune I programmed for my ringtone and feel a close kinship with Great Aunt Bertha.

Confessions of a Foodie

I’m an eager eater. Growing up with Dad as a role model and six pace-setting siblings, I was neither fussy about taste nor shy about consumption. Mom once described her hungry children at the dinner table as piglets at a trough: squeals of excitement, jostling for position and dedication to the task.

My love of all things edible has never faltered. I remember restaurants where I ate outstanding food like others remember the names of their children. Though I’m a bit more refined than a brother who claims he’s never eaten a bad meal in a restaurant, I can find something I can enjoy on any menu. When traveling, I order the most unusual item offered: sautéed squid, braised armadillo, chitlins, a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Graceland.

I never find a dessert too sweet or gooey. When others complain, “My, I can’t eat this; it’s too rich,” I wonder how they’d react if I snatched the offending item from their plate and ate it.

Those who don’t share my passion for food puzzle me: An acquaintance once stopped the happy buzz of party guests around the appetizer table by announcing she didn’t live to eat. She ate to live. Overwhelmed by pity for her dire situation, I choked on a chocolate-covered strawberry.

I also have no patience with fussy eaters who spend more time picking their food apart than eating it. I keep my opinion to myself, though, after an experience I had as a rooky teacher.

Female staff members went out to dinner once a month to celebrate birthdays. The first time I attended, I sat next to Trudy, a stern-looking lady rumored to be uppity. When I ordered peanut-butter pie for desert, she sniffed, “Obviously, Janet has yet to outgrow her juvenile taste in food.”

Though embarrassed by her put-down, I stifled my response: “It’s also obvious, Snooty Trudy, that we could hang Christmas decorations on your enormous nose and stand you in the school’s lobby as our tree.”

So when a friend picked the pepperoni from a pizza and another ordered a hamburger without mustard, onion, lettuce or pickle and with the tomato chopped rather than sliced, I didn’t comment. And when a relative spent five minutes removing the raisins from a piece of raisin cake, I said not a word.

I love comfort food and believe in its power. Whenever misfortune struck a member of my family — not making the basketball team, a baby-sitting job from hell, acne — Mom assured us we’d feel better after we ate. And she was right.

Funeral food is comfort food at its best. After my paternal grandmother’s services, I sat with Dad on the steps to the upstairs bedroom in her pioneer-era home. We juggled plates of food and observed the crowd in silence.

I didn’t know how to console my Dad: I wasn’t sure how he felt about his mother, who left the raising of him to his grandmother and didn’t seem interested in his life when we visited. But he seemed melancholy and withdrawn. Not knowing what to say, I kept quiet, but slid close.

As we munched on potato-and-cheese casserole, pot roast, Jell-O salad, green beans with bits of bacon, homemade rolls, and apple pie, we began to talk. Dad told me he’d never met a piece of pie he didn’t like, and I made him laugh with a story about my college roommate who wouldn’t go to bed without eating a bowl of Raisin Bran and five jelly beans.

We felt better after we ate.

The Roles We Play

Growing up in a rural area in the years following World War II, my friends and I quickly absorbed the behaviors deemed appropriate for boys and girls; behaviors we learned from picture books, movies, parents, peers and siblings.

Boys misbehaved, threw rocks and amused themselves by making odd noises. They roughhoused, excelled at math and hated to bathe. They worked outside: cutting the lawn, milking cows, delivering papers and shoveling snow. They weren’t supposed to cry, show fear or play dress-up. And all of them would become athletes or presidents.

Girls, on the other hand, quietly complied, won spelling bees, chatted and shared. They wore pink, wept over dead sparrows and hummed happily as they dressed and undressed dolls. They did housework: washing dishes, ironing, vacuuming, tending babies. They weren’t supposed to rebel, spit or wrestle in the dirt. And all of them would become wives.

For the most part, my siblings and I played our assigned roles. I remember putting my dolls to bed on a pillow in a cardboard box. As I carefully tucked a towel around the disreputable lot, Bob came along, kidnapped Shirley Temple, and attempted to strangle her with a slinky. I was indignantly appalled, but not surprised.

Years later, when my algebra teacher told me he was glad I wasn’t like my older brother, I thought, “What’s he talking about? Bob’s way better at math.” Then I realized he was comparing our behavior, which made all kinds of sense.

However, as I observed others, I sometimes questioned my assumptions about the roles men and women played. Dad made all the money, but Mom made most of the decisions. My brothers lived to play sports, but Carolyn was the best athlete. We girls helped Mom with the cooking, but JL was the one who learned to cook from her.

One of my grade school friends, a boy, showed more interest in reading, insects and bird watching than in scuffling and ball games. Another, a girl, chased boys then tackled them and kissed them — not because she liked them but because she knew they hated it. A friend’s dad knitted scarves, hats and mittens for his family; and a neighbor lady handled a tractor better than most men. Rumor had it she out-cursed them as well.

Today, the gender expectations of the 1940s and 50’s seem antiquated to me and unbelievable to my grandchildren: teenagers and young adults who debunk and challenge the gender roles I learned and imitated in my childhood.

The youngest two grandchildren — ninth-grade cousins, a boy and a girl — are best friends who move easily together from shooting hoops to video games to making music. Three granddaughters play sports aggressively, passionately and successfully. Another was recently deployed in Dubai. One grandson possesses exceptional verbal and networking skills once thought impossible for boys. Another is in the Air Force ROTC but also capable of giving  fashion advice: “Baggy, below-the-knee shorts aren’t the thing anymore, Grandpa.”

All are wonderful. All see possibilities I didn’t.

I pondered these thoughts yesterday morning and at the same time played my feminine role: watching Joel assemble a piece of furniture, admiring his efforts and shining the flashlight in all the wrong places.