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.

Advertisements

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’s for Dinner?

Dinners I prepare for company taste like braised cardboard.

As I plan, shop, and cook, I think I’m creating food destined for the culinary hall of fame; then I eat it. “Everything’s so delicious,” my guests say with straight faces. But to me, the food tastes edible rather than tasty. Could the stress of preparing company dinners cause my taste buds to run away from home?

First, I grapple with the menu. After  hours of anguish and indecision, I reluctantly decide on baked pesto chicken with potatoes au gratin, roasted asparagus, and a French bread roll; then the ensuing complications topple me into trauma. How do I coordinate four recipes that need the oven at the same time at three different temperatures?

So I switch from chicken to sautéed salmon and steamed asparagus. But do I really want to be in the kitchen frying fish and poking a fork into asparagus while the guests munch appetizers and laugh at my husband’s witticisms?

After I finalize the menu, shop for ingredients, then chop, mix, knead and spice until the food is under control, I focus on staging: Do I have the right bowls and platters for the dishes I’ve planned? Are they clean, chip-free, and color-coordinated? And do I have appropriate utensils? Then I serve the entree with my go-to spatula that has a melted lump instead of a handle.

While setting the table, I worry that the guests seated on the corners will be uncomfortable with no elbowroom and their knees jammed by the table legs; but maybe they’ll be merry from Joel’s pre-dinner comedy routine and won’t notice.

Giving up on a Martha-Stewart table, I hide the mystery stain on the tablecloth with a trivet and rush to the kitchen where my careful coordination of cooking times has gone awry. At last, a half-hour late and disheveled, I serve dinner. The guests make approving noises; I take my first bite; my taste buds pack their bags.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Family members and friends make company dinners look easy; and I’ve yet to see them choke on their own food.

A friend of mine once invited twelve guests for Thanksgiving dinner and refused offers of help. She welcomed us to a sparkling home, seated us at an attractive table and made a grand entrance with a crisply browned turkey — which slid from the platter, dropped on the floor and bounced.

As dismayed gasps escaped her guests, she sang out, “Oh, well, I’ll just pop back into the kitchen and get the other one.” Then she scooped up the bird, returned to the kitchen, brought back its knocked-awry carcass and served it to the laughter and enjoyment of all.

Later, she confessed she watched Julia Child’s cooking series on TV and saw the cooking queen drop a partially stuffed turkey on the floor, rinse it under the tap, and proceed.

I should watch more television.

I did hear an NPR interview with Julia several years ago. When asked if she ever cooked disasters, she replied, “Oh, my, yes. But I pour good wine, start an interesting conversation and nobody seems to notice — especially the female guests who appreciate any cooking they don’t have to do.”

I should have her advice tattooed on my arm.

In Search of Storybook Endings

As I looked at myself in the salon mirror, I expected to see a halo of soft brown curls imparting a youthful glow to my aging face; instead, I saw an orange-tinged strawstack perched on an old face filled with dismay. Once again, reality shattered my rose-colored glasses.

Many years before, when I quit my school-district position as the director of curriculum and staff development to become an independent consultant, I thought I had achieved the glamorous job of my dreams. Then reality intervened.

I remember huddling in the glacial entryway of an unlit city hall, waiting to facilitate the goal-setting session of a civic group in a small Colorado town. Two strangers crowded into the semi-protected corner with me. We couldn’t go inside because “Barb isn’t here, and only Barb knows the code.”

After twenty minutes of forced conversation about my white-knuckled drive over an icy mountain pass blurred by whirling snow, a breathless Barb arrived: “Oh, I don’t know the code. It’s only two digits, so I just punch numbers until it clicks. Sometimes I have to call the mayor.”

Eventually, we entered a small room filled with folding chairs, stained Styrofoam coffee cups and peculiar odors. Barb found the thermostat and soon the heater clanked in complaint and coughed out a cloud of dust-laden air. I found the easel I’d requested in an over-stuffed closet; one leg was jammed and incapable of fully extending; so I propped it up with my purse. When muffled thumps and angry voices reached us through a cinderblock wall, I was told to pay no mind; the jail was next door. “They’ve probably just arrested some drunk.”

In addition to Barb, four people and a large dog attended the meeting. No one claimed the dog, so it introduced itself by sniffing us with more enthusiasm than appropriateness. The leader of the group had a cold, which he shared during red-faced fits of coughing. An older gentleman with wiry hair springing from his ears methodically munched cookies and spoke not a word. Coffee arrived with a pony-tailed fellow who beamed with a benevolent attitude, and grandmotherly woman called me “Hon” and crocheted nonstop.

No one introduced me, so I pushed the dog’s head aside and began.

During the months of planning my move into the world of consulting, I thought I would lead a life of air travel, inspired audiences and standing ovations. Then I discovered, once again, that happily-ever-after is a myth.

When young, my mindset was different: I deliberately predicted worst-case scenarios because I believed thinking of bad things that might happen would prevent their occurrence. Because of this poorly-thought-out philosophy, I imagined my parents had run away when they were late getting home, decided I would faint during my piano recital and assumed I would end up in an iron lung every time I had a cold.

I can’t say dwelling on possible misfortunes made me a happier child any more than imagining bliss made me a bleaker adult. But I’m glad neither approach stopped me from learning, experimenting, changing — and reaping the benefits of doing so. My friends thought my short, slightly orange hairdo an improvement over my long, 80’s perm; and consulting changed my routines, introduced me to interesting people and spurred my creativity.

Stepping into the unfamiliar, not knowing how the story will end, has its rewards.

My Many Mentors

Clipart Panda

Great Uncle Henry taught me to pluck Thanksgiving turkeys, and cousin Carol taught me to pluck my eyebrows. When my bowling instructor told me to quit thinking so much and “just let ‘er rip,” my average rose from forty to fifty; and my brother Bob showed me how to increase the pain of those I beat when playing rock, paper and scissors by licking my fingers before viciously slapping their wrists.

Having learned such important life skills from the best, when I began writing, I realized I should try practicing the techniques I’d learned from specialists around the world. Most people call them authors. I call them mentors.

A.A. Milne’s “Winnie The Pooh” fascinated me as a child, and the words of Luis Alberto Urrea in “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” enthralled me last week. In between, a legion of authors enchanted me.

The authors of all those books became part of me, gave me a sense for paragraphs that pulse with rhythm, descriptions that usher readers into a scene and metaphors that surprise with their aptness. As I zipped through books in pursuit of compelling plots, I also developed an appreciation for dialogue that sounds real and for carefully edited works that give readers a sense of security. I was reading for pleasure, and, without realizing it, I was also learning from experts.

When I retired and began writing, my reading became more intent. Recently, though the plot of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” captured me, I read Urrea’s words slowly, savoring his mastery over them as much as I enjoyed his rich story. I recorded delicious bits of his writing, studied them and thought how I could do something similar within my voice and topics.

Urrea, like all my must-read authors, treats words like crown jewels, selecting each with care. In “A Hummingbird’s Daughter,” he wrote, “Tomas rode his wicked black stallion through the frosting of starlight that turned his ranch blue and pale gray as if powdered sugar had blown off the sky and sifted over the mangos and mesquites;” and I felt I rode with him. I would probably have written, “Tomas rode his black horse across his ranch through starlight as white as frosting,” and few would have hopped on for the ride. But because I studied the rhythms and word choices of his sentence, I might write a stronger description the next time I write.

As another of my mentors,  Mark Twain, said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I want to hurl lightening bolts like Twain and Urrea, but too often I propel tiddlywinks. For example, I know I overuse the tired twins, enjoy and like, but their alternatives rarely work. Value and appreciate are too refined, and the phrase, take pleasure in, seems a bit uppity. Casual use diminishes the compelling emotion of love. Treasure strikes me as over the top, and relish makes me think of hotdogs.

So yesterday, when I started “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” by the western writer Ivan Dog, I decided to watch for his use, or not, of like and enjoy. Does he sprinkle them liberally in his prose? Or does he have other techniques for describing or distinguishing the emotions they represent?

I’d like to discover his approach to my dilemma. In fact, I’d enjoy it.

Sound Advice?

Most of my writing workshop instructors etched write what you know on their foreheads. I believed them. Stephen King didn’t. Nor did the authors of Harry Potter, Cold Mountain, The Lord of the Flies and The Hobbit. So, unsure of the general applicability of the advice, I hesitated to share it with my students. Then Nathan Englander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for literature, addressed my incomplete understanding of the concept, resolved my conflict and informed my teaching:

“Write what you know isn’t about events. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Often, young writers in my classroom clutched their pencils and wore pained expressions as they struggled with an assignment; so I’d help them discover any knowledge, experience or emotional involvement they had with the topic. I used a technique I first tried with 4th graders who had to write about farm animals during a practice for district-wide testing. Some of my students lived on a farm. Many did not.

I wrote the topic on the board and added key words for my connections to it: “When I think about the assignment, farm animals, I remember visiting my uncle. His dark, smelly coop full of squawking chickens scared me. I picture horses running in a field and think of how I wanted one when I was your age. I also remember a talking cow on a TV commercial that made me laugh.

I told them I now had three ideas I knew I could write about and added, “I think I’ll write about cows. They still make me laugh. Can you tell me some funny things about cows I could use in my writing?” I heard about mooing cows, stubborn cows, drooling cows, cow patties, bucking cows and flies on cows. When Dix bellowed, “Yeah, and teats on cows,” I decided to move the lesson along: “Thanks for helping me. I have lots of ideas about cows for my writing.”

Next, I asked them to tell me about other farm animals and how they felt about them. I accepted and probed their responses before giving them time to write. They created vivid and lively stories, so we assembled them in a class book, which they read and reread all year. On occasion, I thumbed through it as well and always read my cow story.

As I continued to use the association technique, I noticed age and environment impacted the connections students made. When rural elementary children in Utah brainstormed ideas on the topic of light, they quickly offered sun, moon, stars, sunset, birthday candles, and Christmas tree lights. The first connections made by junior high students in Carson City, Nevada, included traffic lights, head lights, casino lights, and lighting a cigarette.

But, always, the best writing resulted when I asked my young writers how they felt about the associations they offered and why.

Soon, I, too, had write what you know etched on my forehead.

IMG_0341

Seventh-grader Dean allowed me to use his connections to the topic January in teacher workshops. His resulting piece was rated advanced on the district assessment. Can you guess what he wrote about?

Of Resolutions and Poetry

 Mark Twain

Mark Twain

 

“New Year’s Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”            Mark Twain

 

Two months have passed since 2016 began, and most of us have paved hell: We still bite our fingernails and neglect vegetables. We look through dirty windows we vowed to wash every month and wear bedraggled bathrobes we swore to replace. Our cupboards and garages are not organized; the dog is not trained; and our bathroom scales continue to lie.

I win few victories when I make resolutions disguised as a rule: I’ll write 500 words every day. But when I dream about possibilities, my success rate improves: I’d like to write a book.

Shortly after I first contemplated the possibility of a book, I read an anonymous poem that captured my apprehension about trying to create one.

Before I share the verse, I’d like you to identify a consuming interest or passion you have: sketching, skiing, genealogy, calligraphy, hot air balloons, playing the trombone. Next, think about a personally-fulfilling accomplishment you’d like to pursue with that interest: making a cherry wood table, entering a photography contest, completing a half-marathon, starting a book club, crocheting an afghan for every grandchild.

Then substitute that ahievement for the poem’s title.

Writing a Book
It’s
impossible,”
said Pride. “It’s
risky,” said Experience. “It’s
pointless,” said Reason. “Give it
a try,” whispered the
Heart.”

As the unknown author knew, pursuing our dreams brings risk. We suffer from self-doubt, setbacks, and the skepticism of others. I feared I would not live up to my expectations or those of my friends and family. I cringed at my vulnerability when strangers critiqued the work I had poured my heart into. Sometimes, not attempting a book seemed easier to live with than trying to write one and faiIing to do so.

Another poem rescued me: “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1997 and 2009. As a self-doubting college student, Merwin asked John Berryman, an established and important American poet, how writers know if what they write has any value. Later, Merwin recounted the advice he received in the following verse of his poem Berryman.

I asked how you can ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write.
W.S. Merwin

I’d like to recommend a resolution to you for the rest of this year and for all the years to come: Follow your dream wherever it leads you; follow it because it will fulfill you, not because it will be perfect.