A Tribute

Every so often, Bob Hubbard would remind me that I have the choice to get grumpy or get silly as I journey through life. He always suggested I choose silly. It was more than a reminder to have a positive attitude; it was a call to find the humor in life. To go out of my way to be funny and promote funny with others. He (like Bob Rentschler before him who preached making a fool of myself daily) advocated for that narrow band of humor called silliness. I’ve done my best to ask the silly question, make the silly observation, and do the silliest thing I can think of at any given moment. It hasn’t been easy in certain contexts, but I survived over 25 years in education without getting fired and 58 years in church environments so I must have learned something along the way.

Bob’s body succumbed to the ravages of a Parkinsons-like illness yesterday. I was honored to be with him moments before he died. Jim Coty, Allan Martling, and I sat with Bob and sang songs for him, not knowing it would for the last time. JoAnn, Bob’s wife and another of my mentors, was with us at times also. Here’s an impromptu set list from that time:

“It’s in Every One of Us”
“Joy to the World”
“Secret of Life”
“How Can I Keep from Singing?”
“Walk Together Children”

I first met Bob in the bass section of the Edgewood United Church of Christ choir in 1983 or so. He began his silliness training during those choir practices. We would make each other laugh and ask far-out questions of Paul Schultz, the director.

I didn’t know him as an MSU professor or really grasp the importance of his work on the HANS Device (His work inventing the HANS device was highlighted in his obituary published on Autosport,. Check out the video on that link) Over the years, my wife, Judy and I, were blest to live with Bob and JoAnn two different times (once JUST before children…nudge, nudge, you know what I mean…in the basement and once with two children as I completed my Masters Degree in Special Education at MSU). Both generous invitations were catalysts to most of the success I have enjoyed in my life. I was fortunate to work with JoAnn for years, worked as the youth leader at Edgewood when his children, Matt and Cristin, were in the group; we went on an epic mission trip working on the Appalachian Trail that I’ll never forget. They invited us to their amazing cottage up north and we saw Cristin marry Billy in a fairy tale of a wedding. Matt gifted me with juggling lessons that I used as a teacher and for my own enjoyment for years. Bob was my third father and he made me feel a part of his family.

Our families traveled together to Grand Rapids, Chicago, New York City, and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (more than once). The last destination was to work with Re-Member, attempting to mend relationships with the Lakota people. His dedication to that cause inspired and challenged me regularly. We shared a love of James Taylor’s music (and the wide variety of musical types) and attended a JT concert together years ago.

I was blessed again to sing with Bob a few years ago with the Earl Nelson Singers choir. We were a subdued version of our earlier silliness, but still found ways to have fun while singing the tragic and joyful story of the Negro spirituals.

His relationship with JoAnn has always intrigued me. They have been models of the most independent, yet loving, couple I’ve known. He and JoAnn taught me the Personal Property rule (clean up after yourself…though I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it), the kids-should-know-how-to-play-the-piano-and-swim-if-nothing-else rule, and about acceptance and generosity as a way of life. Here are a few photos from all of those memories living life together (you may need to log in to icloud).

Gone, but not forgotten. Love you, Bob.

This is not the greatest blog entry in the world, it’s just a tribute.

Memoirs & Memory

I’m reading Donald Hall’s last book, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. His poetry and essays have impressed me for years and his recollections and insights in this memoir are surprising. (Sidenote: I didn’t know he died last year until after I had started the book.) Page after page, he recalls incidents from much earlier in his life when he knew Steinbeck, Faulkner, Roethke, Wright (who he called Jim), and many other famous authors. He is frank and specific in his recollections. I’ve heard that long-term memory is sharper later in life; that could be how he remembers things so clearly or maybe he was like that all along. Or, I suppose, he could be using poetic license to fill in the blanks. Whatever the cause, I recommend the book to anyone who is interested in the lives of literary figures from the last century.

Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs have always been a curiosity of mine. On one level, I am fascinated to learn about the lives of people, famous or ordinary, just because our life experiences are so amazingly varied. The more I read about the particular contexts in which people grew up, the more I appreciate the complexity of being human. And (hopefully) the less my default reaction is to jump to certain conclusions (stereotypes) when reading the news or Facebook. There’s almost always more to the story than we initially realize. The more we read (and travel) the more our minds are open and informed.

Beyond that fascination, though, I am constantly wondering if what I’m reading is true. Just because it’s in print (or online), just because someone “remembers” it, does not make it factual. While it is the best representation of what the person remembers, as I read a memoir like Hall’s, I am aware that the mind plays tricks on us and our memories distort what truly happened years ago. I have been journaling for over 30 years and looking back at my words, I sometimes don’t remember events the way I wrote about them. Listening to my wife or my mother talk about events from 10 years ago, I begin to wonder if I was really there…the differences in our memories of the same event are quite pronounced.

Here’s an example of me writing about a particular time from early in my life:

In seventh grade, my mom suggested I make new friends. I was hesistant, but started hanging out with a guy named Chris who lived about a quarter mile from our house. Between our houses was a grassy field with little pockets of trees and bushes. When Chris and I hung out, I usually went to his house because I enjoyed walking through the field and he wasn’t much of an outdoor person. We would play cards (War and Go Fish mostly), watch Batman and Columbo (when his mom was in a good mood), and annoy his older sister, Madonna. I had never met anyone named Madonna and, being Catholic, felt that maybe we should be nice to her. Instead, we would kick her bedroom door open as we passed and yell random things into her space. She would always scream back at us and turn up her music (often “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” by Cher), as if that would keep us out. Years later, after Chris and I stopped spending time together, Madonna became almost as big of a household name as her namesake.

That’s the sort of thing I would write if I had exceptional recall. It holds a person’s attention and seems plausible.

Some of it is even true.
Chris and I hung out. We bugged Madonna (yes, THAT Madonna). We were over at his house more often than my house. Madonna did play her music loudly.

Besides that, it’s all a blur. But isn’t my first rendition more interesting than ‘just the facts’? And all the detail that Hall puts in his memoir makes me wonder about how much and what parts are poetic license (otherwise known as fiction or pretend).

I enjoy a telling story. I think we all do. Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but if there are colorful characters, intriguing elements, and a genuine point or lesson, I want to hear it. Yes, I read Hall’s work and other memoirs critically — wondering about truth — part of the enjoyment, though, is in the remembered anecdotes, the individual moments that give life pizzazz and flavor. It’s a gift I wish my memory granted more often than it does…and so I read memoirs and other people’s memories to fill the void.


Suggested Memoirs, Biographies, and Autobiographies

* A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall

* Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian (an Armenian-American’s memoir…I have an extra copy if you want it)

* dreams in the mirror by Richard Kennedy (about E.E. Cummings)

* Born Standing Steve Martin’s autobiography

* The Life and Wisdom of Gwen Frostic by Sheryl James

* Kiss Me Like a Stranger Gene Wilder’s autobiography

* It’s Always Something Gilda Radner’s autobiography (includes much about Gene Wilder)

* I Wonder As I Wander Lansgston Hughes’ autobiography

* The Love of Many Things: A Life of Vincent Van Gogh by David Sweetman

* A Memoir by John Hannah (former president of MSU)

Thoughts

Just because I haven’t been posting on this blog lately, that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything on my mind. The cause is more related to having so much to say that I can’t get it all into one, concise article. I actually write quite often — in my personal journal, for a book I’m writing, on Facebook, in text messages, for tasks on committees at church, and even blog entries that I never finish. What I’m finding difficult is choosing which things to share in this space; these entries need to balance being honest with being relevant and topical with being clear and meaningful. I feel the need to add a bit of edginess too.

I.
For example, I recently read an article, written last year, called “Are You Ready to Consider that Capitalism is the Problem?” I appreciate how it points out how Capitalism works against many things that are important to me: the environment, sharing resources, animal rights, living life in balance, and respecting each person’s rights, for example. I think, as the article states, that when things aren’t going the way we think they should, we have the responsibility to consider other ways of living. That doesn’t mean I support Socialism necessarily — it means, “Let’s look at our options and how our actions affect the world instead of living our lives like sheep bent on one goal, ignoring the rest of the world.” Change is threatening to many people but I would hope the world doesn’t have to get to the brink of destruction before we consider alternative lifestyles.

II.
I’ve been giving some thought to how I can help make the Lansing area more community-focused. I have noticed that young people and older citizens often feel left out of conversations that affect change. These two groups often have much to contribute — insights from wisdom or options from open-minded connection-making, seeing humor in the routine or commonplace, stories from real or imagined situations — but are under-valued or ignored. Too often, also, the ideas of other groups like people of color, the LGBTQ community, the deaf community, and people with disabilities are not seen and heard in widely distributed media. One organization that has had success at breaking this cycle is Dave Egger’s 826 movement.

Their national programs focus mainly on two ideas: “that every student has the potential to succeed with the right opportunities and support; and that celebrating creativity is key to engaging and assisting youth.” They offer “free and engaging writing programs” and work to “help students become proficient writers and confident thinkers.” That’s really what I was about as an English teacher and I’ve been wondering if such a place might be able to blossom in our community (as it is in Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, as well as several other cities). Each person has a story to tell and a program like this would give more young people a chance to share their voices; I believe, also, that the stories of the older generation can be lifted up in a space like this — maybe with the young people being the catalysts.

The problem is that no one that I’ve talked with about this has jumped aboard with enthusiasm. I am realistic enough to know that I could never do this alone. I haven’t given up yet, but I’m beginning to feel that there isn’t enough interest or need for this type of a program here. Most people I talk with are already pulled in so many directions that adding one sizeable commitment to the mix must seem too much. However, if we were able to assemble a few dedicated (paid) folks and a large group of volunteers, as well as some generous sponsors and get a few grants, I’m sure this type of program could work in the greater Lansing area.

If you are interested and able to help in someway, please contact me. I’m at akabodian@gmail.com or you can comment at the bottom of this post.

III.
Another issue that’s been on my mind is when the hell is President Trump going to be impeached? How many times can one public official put his foot in his mouth, use the moral compass of an evil toddler, and poison the culture before his sorry ass is kicked out of office? I appreciated former FBI Director James Comey’s comments recently that reminded us again that the emperor is naked and challenged someone in Congress to stand up and do something about it. Another promising development is New York’s Attorney General recently announcing that the Trump Foundation will dissolve due to being accused of a ‘shocking pattern of illegality.’ Defense Secretary James Mattis and special presidential envoy Brett McGurk both resigned due to his ill-advised withdrawal from Syria. More and more people are not letting Trump’s evasion of the law and bizarre decision-making go unchecked. And then, recently, he throws a temper tantrum to get his ridiculous wall and forces a partial shutdown of the government.


Thanks to Jon, a friend of a friend, for the doodle.

When will it end? His presidency is like a choose-your-own-adventure book’s wacky adventure combined with a Russian roulette wheel for decision-making. He’s made life so unpredictable and disturbing.

Thanks for listening. I needed to vent.

IV.
Books I’m reading now
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
When by Daniel Pink
Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloane
A Sense of Wonder: the world’s best writers on the sacred, the profane, and the ordinary edited by Brian Doyle

Books I plan to read soon
Listen to the Marriage by John Jay Osborn
Two poetry books by local poets that I bought recently:
By the Time You Read This by Mark Ritzenhein and
Fall Ball by Alan Harris
Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone, (the ninth Outlander book scheduled for publication probably in 2019) by Diana Gabaldon

Here are some promising lists of books if you are on the hunt for a good read
30 Best Young Adult Novels of 2018
Black Male Writers for Our Time

NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2018

New York Times current bestsellers list

A Mighty Girl’s 2018 Best Books of the Year list

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to All!

We Are Done With the LSJ

Getting the morning paper delivered to our doorstep has been part of our routine for many years. Starting Monday, though, we will be finding other things to do while drinking our first cup of coffee. This decision has been in the works for months, but an upcoming increase of $7 a month (to $41) helped push us over the edge. Over the years, the paper has become mostly advertisements and the few articles are written mostly by outsourced writers. While the actual delivery of the paper has been quite good (only a few missing or late papers), the customer service has been ridiculous, bordering on non-existent. Though I could go into depth about our reasons for cancelling our subscription, my most pressing issue is how hard it was to actually cancel the paper.

I first called the Lansing State Journal’s (LSJ) Customer Service phone line over a week ago. Within a few moments, the recorded message let me know that my wait time would be one hour and thirty minutes. As I recovered from the shock of that statement, I listened to the recorded message’s reassuring, upbeat communications: if I didn’t want to wait, I could “simply” head over to their website and chat with someone about my concerns; it was “easy” to access my account online; and emailing the office was an option too.

I took their advice. No one ever responded to the chat. I tried it many times over the course of the last week. I received messages similar to this one.

Then, I tried to access my account on their website. It looked promising but upon clicking on every imaginable link, I was not able to cancel my account or find/change my automatic withdrawal option. I always got this message in red at the top of the page ——

I tried the poorly-named Customer Service phone line again. I waited for awhile this time. NOTE: When I wait on the phone, I always have a cold beverage, a snack of some kind, often my own music playing in the background, and I usually have a book to read…for sanity’s sake. Even all of those passing-time distraction methods didn’t work, however, and I hung up after a time.

Next was an attempt at email communication. I shared the following email and received no response (it’s been more than a week). No “Thanks for the email…we’ll get right back to you.” No confirmation that my account had been canceled. Not even a “Hey, we want you to stick with the paper so we are going to offer you 25 cents off a week.” Nothing.

About this time, I was considering just stopping payment on our automatic withdrawal. Instead, I decided to go the Lansing State Journal office and talk with someone. Surely, the old-fashioned route — face-to-face human contact — would be the best remedy. Like some sort of 20th century robot, I went to the only place I associated with the Lansing State Journal — the building that says their name on it on Lenawee Street in Lansing across from the CATA bus station. As I stood outside the building I noticed how dark it was inside and then that the door was padlocked. I checked my phone, but didn’t see the new address that was on the contact page (maybe subconsciously I didn’t want to see it…I don’t know). I walked across the street to an office building and asked the first secretary I met where the LSJ had moved to. She said she heard that they were in the old Knapp’s Department Store building on Washington Avenue.

(photo from http://www.grangerconstruction.com/project/knapps-centre-historic-rehabilitation/ )

It’s a beautiful, retro space and I found them on the third floor. (if you ever want to cancel your subscription, here’s the address: 300 S. Washington Square, Suite #300)

The woman I spoke with at the desk was quite polite and friendly. Within two minutes, she canceled my account. It was quick and not-so dirty. I felt a great weight lift from my life. She asked why I wanted to cancel.

Pausing, I came up with “The cost…and we get our news other places.” But I could have gone on for an hour. I did, though, ask to share a complaint. I told her this story of trying to cancel but being thwarted at every turn. She said she would pass it on.

I celebrated with a delicious sausage, egg, and cheese bagel at the New Daily Bagel across the street. I recommend the Everfresh Pineapple juice too. When you get around to ending your relationship with the LSJ, I hope you skip right to the end of this blog and avoid all the frustration, time, and customer disservice. Go see Penny at the front desk. I hope your experience is both easy and simple.

P.S. Here’s where I will be getting my news:
* the New York Times app on my phone (I purchased their digital service)
* East Lansing Info (we have financially supported this online, local news source for awhile)
* CNN online And occasionally on TV
* Fox News online And occasionally on TV (though admittedly quite infrequently)
* listening to what my friends are talking about and then checking other news sources or blogs of varying credibility
* once in a great while, we’ll get the Sunday Lansing State Journal (heck, the coupons are good, Judy needs to check the obituaries, and I like to do the Sudoku).

Potpourri

This collection of thoughts is what’s on my mind these days. I could have called it ‘hodgepodge’ instead. It was going to be several posts (at some future date), but here they all are in a sort of fruit salad potpourri.

Either I’ve been preoccupied by death lately or death has been preoccupied with me. I’m not sure which. In July, I was reading They Said She Was Crazy, about how a mother deals with the suicide of her son. It was a fiction, but based on the life of the author, Kristine Brickey, a teacher friend of mine — a gripping, challenging read. Then, I felt the loss of the recent death of Judy’s Aunt Betty and my friend, Scott’s brother, David; the tragic death of a family friend, Corrina Van Hamlin Also hit me hard. In August, it occured to me that another friend, Nancy, had recommended the Joan Didion book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which deals with the author’s ongoing reaction to her husband’s death; Nancy’s husband, Jim, died a year ago and his loss is still on my mind and on my heart.

Then, there are so many car-related deaths in the paper. And weather related deaths across the world. And then a few celebrities died in the past weeks (see below). It’s just so pervasive. Death won’t go away. I can’t seem to get used to its presence. The Armenian Church has a tradition of commemorating the deaths of loved ones, so earlier this month I attended that ceremony where I felt close to my father and the many other beautiful family members we have lost over the years.

I was saddened by the news of Neil Simon’s death. I admired his writing for its wit and insight. Here’s an article about him if you didn’t see it already — I recommend the video on this link, too (a tad long, but a fine tribute).


Here’s one of the best tributes to Aretha Franklin out there. It’s Fantasia singing “Rock Steady” with Aretha looking on.

Senator John McCain stood up for what he believed in and I admired that also. Though I didn’t often share his beliefs, he was a man of integrity. I especially appreciated this photo (below) from the last page of his last book, The Restless Wave.

———

Alton Road Update

East Lansing residents who are getting tired of the city being under construction may be interested in an update of one of the construction projects. We live on Alton Road. It connects Saginaw Road and Burcham Road. Bus line 24 has a couple stops on Alton and it’s getting re-paved with new pipes and sidewalks. This is good news of course. The road was lousy. This project is also a pain in the butt in many ways.

Here are some photos from the tiresome part of the project, which may last for another month. I’ll try to remember to post a photo of the finished product.

This is Saginaw under construction, but our road is connected to it on the right.

Sometimes we can’t get out of our driveway for hours. Arrgg.

Check out the City of East Lansing’s construction update page for more information.

————

“I’m going to 8th grade today”

It was fun to say that to Gabi when I bought my ticket to the movie, 8th Grade, recently. Especially since she’s a former student of mine. It made her smile.

This movie portrays what one 8th grade girl is feeling during the last weeks of 8th grade. I was reminded how difficult it is to be a teen these days. Her constant use (addiction?) of her phone leads her to several emotional and social tests including a ramped up disconnect with her father. This movie could be a perfect conversation starter in families and schools.

————

Some articles I’ve read recently that I enjoyed:

* “My Armenia” in the New York Times by Peter Balakian

* “Why Trump Supporters Think He Is Not Corrupt” in the Atlantic by Peter Beinart

* “What If Trump Actually Did Shoot Someone On Fifth Avenue?” in the New York Times by Thomas L. Friedman

Joys, Challenges, & Revelations from Traveling

I grew up traveling. Our family went places together. Sometimes my Baboo and Grandma Godoshian came along (I can still hear Baboo cracking jokes on that trip to Syracuse; Grandma didn’t think he was funny, but she laughed under her breath anyway). My mom had our Green-Go (green & gold, paneled station wagon) tooling down one highway or another toward Walt Disney World or Gettysburg or Boston relatives most summers. I have to say it was mostly about the destination and less about the journey…but then again, I was a pre-teen and then a teen.

This recent vacation started off focused on a wedding at a distant destination (for us. More later about how fantastic that turned out to be.) Our first day in Stockholm, we realized that each day would bring surprising, enjoyable moments. Arriving at Central Station on the train from the airport, we bought a T-ban transportation pass that would be good for a week. Though it seemed pricey at the time, that investment opened up the city to us. We felt comfortable getting on any subway, bus, tram, or ferry that we needed because of the ease of access the pass card gave us. And that, in turn, ended up making the trips relatively freeing and inexpensive. We used it within 15 minutes of purchasing it to take a ferry across the bay to our hotel (and I didn’t ‘drive’ anything for two weeks).


The boat hotel where we stayed a couple days is in this photo on the left. I didn’t know it was in the photo when I took the shot.


“Self portrait after days of travel on planes, trains, and automobiles. Adventure wins over checking the mirror, every time.” CVH, RIP

Rick Steves had prepared us well. We watched his video about the areas we would travel. We perused his book on the city. He mentioned a floating youth hostel as a possibility and, though we didn’t find the exact one, Rygerfjord Hotel and Hostel had comfortable rooms and priceless views for affordable prices. Soaking this place in was one of our first joys. It is true, though, that it was one of our first challenges, too; I had it in my mind that it was docked to our right when we got off the ferry and we pulled our luggage a couple hundred yards out of the way before we realized it had been 50 feet to our left off the ferry. A sobering laugh at ourselves to start. While we were staying there, Sweden played in the World Cup. We experienced the popularity of soccer/football firsthand: every time Sweden scored, we could hear the fans cheer from the outside viewing venues around the city —— we were on the boat and could hear the cheers across the water in the downtown area a mile away.

Weddings exude joy and hope regardless of location, but being in such a bustling, novel place with friends did ratchet up the excitement. As a matter of fact, we had a small herd of people carrying flowers on the subway to the wedding, which was fun. Hallie Reed, formerly of East Lansing but now teaching and residing in Stockholm, Sweden, married Joakim Slettengren in an ornate church; they then had us transported (via bus and ferry) to an island for the reception. I kid you not. Swedish custom involves sharing many toasts at the reception. I bet there were over a dozen toasts (Rachel gave a very sweet one) sprinkled throughout the night. It didn’t seem like too much —— we all felt closer to the couple after hearing from a diverse group of familiy and friends. Another Swedish custom was to split up parties at the reception; we sat next to people we didn’t know and thus made new friends. One more way Hallie and Joakim personalized the experience: Each person at the wedding had a few sentences written up about him or her in the program explaining his or her relationship to the couple. Pretty damn cool. A friend asked what they served and not until I was writing this did I notice that they had the menu at the front of the program.

The second place we stayed was the same as the myriad American guests: Hellstens Malmgard. It was Queen Christina’s Hunting Palace back in the 18th century. Our room was carved out of the attic space but was still plenty of room for the three of us (though the bathroom was hard to stand up in and a bit of an obstacle course). The breakfasts were buffet of deliciousness: soft & hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurts, salami and other meats, croissants and other breads/crackers, jellies, at least one fish (usually herring or salmon), and always coffee and tea.

Our third spot (and first airbnb of the trip) was in Hagersten-Liljeholmen, right outside of downtown Stockholm. Since Rachel (and later Courtney) would be staying with us for part of the time, this space was larger. And just grand. On two floors and with a gorgeous view from the balcony, this was my favorite of all the places we stayed.

It was very helpful that most everyone we met knew how to speak English. It’s so accomodating that it could make one feel inadequate. We did have a couple incidents, though, where language issues made life interesting. At a Thai restaurant, since the menu was just in Swedish, our waiter/cook asked us (in English) what we liked and made each of our meals to order. The food was so delicious (especially the spring rolls), that we went back a couple days later to order more spring rolls. The previous waiter wasn’t there and the woman who helped us didn’t know much English. Judy pointed to the spot on the menu and asked for two orders of spring rolls. We clarified with her and she seemed to understand. However, when she brought out the spring rolls, there were 14 of them. She brought us two large orders instead of the small. We decided that it was a happy accident and ate as many as we could and saved the rest for the next day at the train station.

One of our frustrations was that our train to Oslo had been canceled and the train company had neglected to email us. Many people were in the same holding pattern as we waited four hours for a train traveling the five hours to Oslo.
Our Oslo airbnb was minimalistic, but just enough. It was in the Grunerlokka neighborhood, which had a hip, international feel to it. We heard many languages spoken as we searched for coffee in the mornings and slept with the windows open (no screens) each night; it was only semi-dark from 11:30 PM to 3:30 AM and blackout curtains were a must. We visited the Nobel Peace Center and it was enlightening (follow the link for a quick look). From Oslo, we took trains, a bus, and a boat on our Norway in a Nutshell fjord cruise. Basically, breath-taking views in every direction for most of a full day.


This bathroom was extremely efficient use of space —— the shower walls folded in to give just enough room to stretch out when you brushed your teeth.

The one night we were in Bergen, Norway, our airbnb turned out to be somewhat hard to find, despite being very close to the train station. We passed it once and then circled back, partly because the “street” it was on was more like an alley. It was very clean and comfortable though, and within walking distance to everything we needed (coffee, Indian food, the funicular up the mountain, a salad & wraps place for lunch & ice cream).

On past trips overseas, we have exchanged some of our American dollars for the country’s monetary unit (in this case, krona). This time, though, both Sweden and Norway seemed virtually cashless. A few places actually had signs that read “cashless.” We didn’t need krona on us. It helped to know the exchange rate, so that we had a general idea of how much we were spending; I had it written down for awhile, then moved to just dividing (in Sweden by 9, in Norway by 8). Though it seems a long way from happening here, one thing did occur to me: if the American business community could be shown that people spend more money when it’s digital, then it may happen sooner (as a tourist, especially, the amount sometimes doesn’t “matter” as much when it’s not tangible).

We struck up conversations with many delightful people on trains and in restaurants. We met Janne from Bergen on her way to her cottage; Kenneth from Oslo who worked for a tech company; we met Eesa from Stockholm while we all watched a World Cup game (Eesa asked me point blank what I thought of our President and the first word that came to mind was an “embarassment” and he agreed saying that our other recent Presidents had at least been gentlemen); I talked with a lawyer named John from Oslo getting away to the mountains to hike for the weekend (he was exceedingly taken with puns, idioms, and sayings from the English language and how understanding them could help him in his job); and we met Lorne and Audra from the San Francisco, CA, area — as a matter of fact, we kept running into them so much that we hung out with them several times after that, enjoying their company enough to exchange contact information. So many wonderful memories that the fact that Aaron, Judy, and I were starting to get on each other’s nerves by the end of the trip seems almost insignificant.

Each person had their own story. Traveling does that for me. It reminds me of the diversity of the human experience and that I should never try to make someone’s lived experience smaller by stereotyping them based on one attribute. We are all so much more than we seem. If you need a song that supports that notion, check out May Erlewine’s “Never One Thing” from her new Mother Lion CD.

Peace and joy on your journey,
Aram

Success is Tricky and Elusive

Over a dozen parents have thanked me
for coming back to teach this year.
It’s been rather shocking.
And gratifying.

It’s happened so many times that I was beginning to wonder if the Parent Council included it in their minutes with an “ask” that parents participate. These parents have made my day by appreciating that I chose part-time teaching over the relative ease of retirement (our administration and a few colleagues have thanked me, too). The students don’t seem as appreciative, but that’s asking too much and I realize that. What I didn’t realize was how much I would need some ‘thanks’ to balance out the other side of this decision.

Never before have I had more students failing than getting A’s. And never before have those failing students seemed to care so little about passing. Even the A/B students ask me often “what’s the least I can do on this assignment?” and still pass. Sure, I have a few parents getting after their kids to get their grades up, but the numbers are low; like their kids, many seem to have started summer break a month early. There’s an extreme apathy that is discouraging.

Never before have I had to explain what common sense means. The concept seems foreign to a great many students. Thinking about a situation and figuring it out for oneself is practically extinct. It’s exasperating. I find myself shaking my head and walking away from students so that I don’t say something I’ll regret.

Never before have so many students acted as if the rules don’t apply to them. They have their phones in their pockets (in 7th grade) when they know phones belong in their lockers. They sneak looks at their phones when teachers aren’t looking. They expect to get their phone back at the end of the hour when it’s taken (though their parent is supposed to pick it up from the office). A few slip out of class to go to the bathroom/locker/office without asking, without their planner/pass, without guilt. They leave trash around the school like it’s their bedroom. They bring food or drinks (other than water) to class when they know it’s against the rules. We enforce consequences for these rule breakers, but they repeat the behaviors with the certainty of a revolving door.

And all of this may lead to…

Never before have I seen teacher morale so low. Money is even less a motivator than it was years ago. Unless a teacher made it to the top of the salary schedule before times got bad, the money is quite mediocre and not improving. I’m thinking of teachers in the profession less than 10 years. Health care costs (which used to be one of the few perks of the job) are rising steadily and what’s covered is decreasing steadily. Most teachers are passionate about their content and about finding ways to entice/engage students about that content; when you have increasing numbers of students unwilling to bite at any engaging pieces of curricular bait, that passion starts to fade. Teachers are asked to do more and more every year — back in 2012, I made a middle school teacher’s to-do list and it keeps getting longer (though admittedly, since I’ve been part time this year, I haven’t had as long of a list). The teachers I know are swamped: teaching long days that go well past the time students leave; planning and correcting hours each night; meeting with students whose special needs require accomodations; making time to meet with many other parents who have unique concerns; juggling their job with hectic home lives; not feeling supported by the Education Secretary or strongly by their own unions. Yes, Teacher Appreciation Week was nice, but most feel like the other 35 weeks of the school year they are treading water with lead weights on their ankles.

The world is changing. Sometimes we don’t notice it when we’re in the midst of it, but being gone a year has tuned me in to changes in the attitudes of students. It may seem unfair to lump students into categories, but if you’ve taught for awhile, you’ll know what I’m talking about: there’s always an upper group in terms of effort and skills; there’s always a middle group that seems to go through the motions but does okay; and there’s always a group that no matter what I do, I can’t get much work out of them at all. This year (and the years before I retired, to some extent) the top group is shrinking and the apathetic, disengaged, in-it-for-the-grade-if-my-parents-are-watching group has ballooned. One of the reasons I came back was that I enjoyed working with students. Well, students seem much more concerned about the right answer than about learning. They are much more concerned about how their grade “looks” than about the reality of their engagement, curiosity, or challenge. Failure is a swear word to these kids and that bothers me. They think adults are just appeasing them when we talk about failure as a part of learning…as essential even. And they’re getting pressure from somewhere to succeed no matter what.

Success, though, comes from struggle. From making mistakes and learning from them.

I’m not saying, by the way, that part-time teaching this year has been a mistake for me. I have enjoyed reconnecting with colleagues. I have loved getting to know the creative, open-minded, curious students I see daily. Our class discussions about the 7th grade texts we’ve read have been thought-provoking on many occasions. We’ve laughed, sang, did a bit of dancing, shared high fives and hugs, had a couple amazing poetry readings, and went outside for a few walks. But it has been a struggle. If I’ve had success this year, it’s come from many a failure. Not reaching so many of my students seems like I’ve let them down. At the same time, though, I haven’t seen as much an effort from their side as I had hoped I would see.

Maybe those parents who thanked me realize that all of this is going on and so they were thanking me for coming back in spite of it all.

It all makes me wonder about my role in this change. Have I been too lax, too harsh, not shared enough of myself as a person, shared too much, asked too much or too little parent involvement, not made the curriculum engaging enough, moved too quickly or slowly from one unit to another…? There’s really not an objective way to know.

I went to a teacher friend’s retirement party today. People spoke about how she was a beacon of consistent, loving instruction to her elementary school age students. She spoke with great emotion about her appreciation for her colleagues and how she cared for every student through her 38 years of teaching. She also seemed proud that she had spoke her mind, even when it wasn’t popular or easy. My hope is that teachers will be able to say the same things years down the road. And that those future, retiring teachers will have seen a renewal in student motivation and purpose, as well as a willingness to learn from their mistakes.

Why I Enjoy the Outlander Series

Once in awhile, a book doesn’t hold my attention and I stop reading it. The book may have too much or too little of one thing or another — too much politics or swearing or war or too little humor or reality or adventure. Looking for Alaska by John Green was like that. I didn’t like the main character, so I stopped reading.

The Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, has held my interest for each of the eight books — well over 7,000 pages. I just finished the eighth book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and I must say the books are an artful mix of all those elements I mentioned above…with several dashes of time travel added which make it even more intriguing. Gabaldon wonderfully balances all the elements of story-telling and keeps me (and millions of others) anticipating the next book. For those who like comparisons and haven’t read the series, think Barbara Kingsolver (for writing about nature & science and for story telling) meets Dr. Who (for his tardis) meets Ann Rinaldi (for historical fiction) meets Dr. Ruth (for spice), though that’s still not the whole picture.

I’ve always been a curious person and I learn new words on practically every other page in Gabaldon’s books. The photo, below, has just a few examples of the breadth of her vocabulary. She mixes in jargon from traditional and herbal medicine, gardening and mountain life, and a vast amount of Gaelic (Starz has several Youtube videos on how to speak Gaelic that are fun). She throws in quite a bit of French, Mohawk, and some German along the way, too. Each book is a lesson in language.

I’ve never read a novel that had so much romance in it until the novels of this series. Our daughter, Rachel, suggested I read the first book. She may have realized I needed a bit of spicy, dicey literature because it turns out that those are the scenes I reread most often. Go figure.

The term Outlander is a connection for me too. An Outlander is an outsider. The term Sassenach is a synonym for outlander in the books. We’re talking about foreigners and more specifically, an English person, which Claire is in the books (though the term sassenach can be used in an endearing way at times). Growing up Armenian, we had a similar word that meant “non-Armenian.” I always thought it was odd, but I’ve come to see that most languages have this type of term. The thing is, though, that we are all outlanders. Anytime we step out of our normal routine into another environment or culture we become an outlander. So I see the book as a reminder to welcome and learn from the “other” or different people in our experience. Claire, as an outlander, has much to offer the new communities she encounters and so do we in our travels and so do immigrants to this country.

(SPOILER: Stop reading (or skip the next paragraph) if you don’t want to know a vague telling of the end of the eighth book)

The eighth novel focused mostly on the Frasers and Greys as they made their way in the late 18th century in our newly emerging America (though the 20th century travels of Briana were of much interest at times). In a glorious, eventful way, Claire and Jamie end up back on Fraser’s Ridge and as the book comes to a close, Gabaldon re-introduces characters from several hundred pages earlier in an unexpected, triumphant, subtle, masterful manner that actually made me tear up. Her writing is a testimony to the power of story. To the intricacies of living. To the inventive imaginings of hopeful time travelers. To the richness of history and its potential power in the living of our days.

While it’s true that I’ve skimmed a couple chapters here and there and second-guessed Gabaldon’s overuse of time traveling, part of me feels like starting over from book one tomorrow. And I recommend you go to your local bookstore or library and jump into the series yourself. As diversions from life’s craziness go, it’s a winner.

Outlander news:

Gabaldon hopes to finish book nine by the end of the year, but a publication date has not been set.

Starz says that Season 4 of the television show should be out by September of this year. (There’s also a slideshow of 10 Reasons You Should Watch Outlander on this link; the slideshow says the series is based on a Doctor Who episode, which I did not know.)

If you’ve read the series and want a (relatively) quick skim back through a timeline of events for the whole series, check out this timeline.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #10

Did you ever get so busy at the end of National Poetry month that you forgot to post poem #10 of your top ten poems until May? Well, here we are in May and I want to share a collection of creative writing that I go to for insight and inspiration. I’ve never seen it in the Poetry section in a library or bookstore, but these small, personified qualities are poetic in the the most beautiful sense of the word.

– – – – –
The Book of Qualities By J. Ruth Gendler

Here’s the section/poem called

Joy

Joy drinks pure water. She has sat with the dying and attended many births. She denies nothing. She is in love with life, all of it, the sun and the rain and the rainbow. She rides horses at Half Moon Bay under the October moon. She climbs mountains. She sings in the hills. She jumps from the hot spring to the cold stream without hestitation.

Although Joy is spontaneous, she is immensely patient. She does not need to rush. She knows that there are obstacles on every path and that every moment is the perfect moment. She is not concerned with success or failure or how to make things permanent.

At times Joy is elusive — she seems to disappear even as we approach her. I see her standing on a ridge covered with oak trees, and suddenly the distance between us feels enormous. I am overwhelmed and wonder if the effort to reach her is worth it. Yet, she waits for us. Her desire to walk with us is as great as our longing to accompany her.

– – – – –
Here’s a list of all the qualities in the book.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #9

Taylor Mali’s poetry makes me smile, shake my head, wonder, question, and feel a whole myriad emotions. Enjoy his reading of his poem “Like Lilly Like Wilson.”

I’m writing the poem that will change the world, and it’s Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly Wilson, the recovering like addict,
the worst I’ve ever seen.
So, like, bad the whole eighth grade
started calling her Like Lilly Like Wilson Like.
‘Until I declared my classroom a Like‐Free Zone,
and she could not speak for days.

But when she finally did, it was to say,
Mr. Mali, this is . . . so hard.
Now I have to think before I . . . say anything.

Imagine that, Lilly.

It’s for your own good.
Even if you don’t like . . .
it.

I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly is writing a research paper for me
about how homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed
to adopt children.
I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Like Lilly Like Wilson at my office door.

She’s having trouble finding sources,
which is to say, ones that back her up.
They all argue in favor of what I thought I was against.

And it took four years of college,
three years of graduate school,
and every incidental teaching experience I have ever had
to let out only,

Well, that’s a real interesting problem, Lilly.
But what do you propose to do about it?

That’s what I want to know.

And the eighth-­‐grade mind is a beautiful thing;
Like a new-­‐born baby’s face, you can often see it
change before your very eyes.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I’d like to switch sides.

And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it!
That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn’t matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
O God, Lilly, I want to say
you make me feel like a teacher,
and who could ask to feel more than that?
I want to say all this but manage only,
Lilly, I am like so impressed with you!

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.

– – – – –

I wonder what students think about his poem. I know teachers appreciate it. His reading adds quite a bit to it, but even a quick read conveys that ‘thinking person’ mentality that I love in Mali’s work. We can only do so much as teachers and it’s oh so rewarding when a student’s mind is opened, when a light bulb goes off right in front of us.