Thursday, March 31, 2022

Numbers game - 3.31 #sol22 Story Challenge

On the last of 31 consecutive days of writing, I coached a high-school Ultimate Frisbee team in our first game this spring. After at least 3 weather-related postponements, we all felt excited to be outside finally, with sunshine and temperatures in the 60's. In attendance were 9 players, fewer than expected from a roster of about 20. These are all 9th- and 10th-graders as older, more experienced teammates were playing with a higher-level group. For the record, our numbers were bolstered by 4 family members and 1 dog cheering from the sideline. In an official game of ultimate, 7 players take the field at a time, with the object being to score a goal by completing a pass to a teammate in the end zone. Our opponents today managed that with relative ease while we struggled to complete many passes at all. Final score, 13-0. While that result indicated our tactics were often at 6s and 7s, the players never seemed daunted by the score, their enthusiasm unflagging. Now I've got roughly 19 hours until I reunite with the team, and I'm pondering which 1 or 2 of a 1,000,000 things we should focus on during tomorrow's practice. In the back of my mind, I'm also musing how 11 months might pass until I write my next slice, marveling at how much can happen over such an interval, how much already has since March 31, 2021.

Sending my gratitude to the 2 Writing Teachers site and its leaders for hosting this 15th Story Challenge and my congratulations to the warm, supportive writers -- too numerous to count -- for participating throughout March.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Pen ultimate - 3.30 #sol22 Story Challenge

Yeah, sure, I teach English. But that doesn't always mean I understand it.

At the end of this afternoon's ultimate frisbee club with middle-school students, I was playing catch with two kids while we awaited their rides.

One of them says to me, "Mr. Rozinsky, do you pyew-pyew or half a heart?"

"Wh-?" is the only fraction of a syllable I managed in response.

The student repeated himself: "You know, pyew-pyew or half a heart." Still befuddled, I most definitely did not know.

The student zipped an especially smooth, accurate forehand to the third corner of our triangle. Today was his first practice, and he was excited. "Pyew-pyew!" he called making a finger-pistol gesture with his throwing hand.

Ah, I realized. He's shooting lasers. Pyew-pyew.

He grinned at me, waggling his hand with quick flicks of the wrist as if tossing an invisible Frisbee. Then, he split his index and middle fingers that had formed the barrel of his imagined weapon. Now, those fingers made a V like a peace sign. Or the bottom half of a cartoon heart.

He'd been asking how I grip the disc when throwing forehands -- two fingers together or splayed apart.

"I go half cartoon heart," I told him, sending the Frisbee spinning his way. He hit me back with a tiny chin nod, like I was speaking his language.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

False start - 3.29 #sol22 Story Challenge

When writing slices, I get unexpected mileage -- pun definitely intended -- from commuting stories. In fact, my inner therapist speculates that I purposely convolute my trips to work for the express -- pun not intended that time -- purpose of having stories to tell. Here's what happened yesterday at sunrise...

For the first day back to school after spring break, I set off from home by electric bicycle. After my two-wheeled steed had been sedentary for winter's long stretch of months, opportunity was calling. The line went dead six miles later when I heard a loud pop. I felt the back of the bike start to wiggle, followed by a sound not unlike trying to tie a knot in a stubborn balloon, a kind of stretchy, floppy, rubbery assault on the senses.

I knew the drill. I even thought I was prepared for it, my hand reaching into my pannier for a bag with a spare tube, tire irons, and pump. Only, there was no spare tube. The last one had fixed some prior flat, long forgotten, and past-me had procrastinated on the responsible resupplying that would've gotten present-me out of my present jam.

I walked a few steps west, back toward home, awkwardly pushing my hobbled horse. "That's a stupid idea," I told myself, dismissing the impulsive goal of returning home since I was equidistant to school. Even as I considered whom I could call, my mind was zooming over a mental map for self-sufficient alternatives. It didn't take long, which I chalk up to prior experience with commuting puzzles.

A fraction of a mile east, I'd reach an intersection where I could catch a transit bus that would drop me an actually walkable distance from school. I locked my bike to a nearby fence and started jogging east, not sure when the next bus would pass my way. Best to find out at the bus stop, I figured. In fewer than 10 minutes, I reached the stop where I could check the schedule on my phone. I only had about five more minutes to wait. Thanks, fate.

Fast forward to the return journey: A bus brought me home. Despite my commuting quirks, I do have access to an automobile, which I drove back to where I parked my bike. Still where I left it, the bike could be rolled to my 'mobile, wheel-barrow-style on its intact front tire. Then, I had to take off both wheels in order to fit the bike in my car. That's when I saw the nail in the back tire, a nail big enough to end a vampire's life if my tire were his heart. By dinnertime, my car and most of my bike were safely stored, and the rear wheel was sitting in my apartment waiting for future-me to purchase a new tube eventually promptly.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Where there's smoke - 3.28 #sol22 Story Challenge

As Prometheus taught us,
fire's a two-sided substance.
I see farmers, on purpose,
dripping flames on stubbled fields--
prescribed-burn magic.

Flashback--downslope Chinook winds
stoke hungry tongues that lick 
and eat one-thousand houses.
Fast forward--ashy billows
signal more to burn.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Running man, part 2 - 3.27 #sol22 Story Challenge

I'm taking Red Emma's comment bait and extending Saturday's topic to remember my actual running (and walking) of 50 miles last September. Reader beware: In a fitting homage to the run itself, this might be the longest slice I've ever written.

The five of us are standing in predawn darkness at the base of a ski area in southern Vermont: me, my brother, two friends from his neighborhood, and my friend from college. Another 150 or so like-minded crazies huddle around us. The weather is cool, but not cold, about as ideal as we might've hoped. As I recall it's about six in the morning. We're shuffling forward to the starting line one moment; and the next, after months of preparation and anticipation, we're beginning an ultra-marathon.

We start on pavement, cruising down the ski area's driveway and along a rural road. There's just enough light to see, plus ambient glow from those in the pack wearing headlamps. I feel palpable excitement and remind myself to keep an easy pace because if ever the "It's a marathon-not-a-sprint" saying were true, that time is now.

Soon, we leave asphalt for dirt. Softer surfaces will remain underfoot for most of the journey, one-third graded gravel roads and two-thirds double- and single-track trails. Sometimes, we pass through forested tunnels. The member of our group who has finished this event once before institutes a game where anyone who catches a falling leaf before it hits the ground earns a point. (Spoiler alert: He will eventually win with 11 points. I will get shut out.)

The day now fully illuminated, except where pockets of fog remain to burn off, we navigate the first aid stop. A strategy for our group is to move purposefully through these breaks; don't dawdle. With 10 total aid tents, even 2-3 minutes at each would add up significantly, and we faced a 12-hour cutoff to finish the course. I'm carrying water in a slim backpack, so I try alternate beverages at aid stops -- sometimes sports drinks (including a local brew sweetened with maple syrup) and, during later miles, my first soda in years. Snacks are salty (pickle chunks, quartered grilled-cheese sandwiches, handfuls of potato chips) or sweet (brownie squares, cups of M&Ms, banana slices, orange wedges) or a combination (PBJ).

We continue through the rolling countryside, passing barn after archetypal barn. We're running most of the time, downshifting to a hustling walk when the going goes noticeably uphill. Our fivesome sticks together for most of the first 18 miles, with a gap starting to form during the first substantial climb. My brother, college friend, and I arrive together at the aid stop atop that hill. (In Vermont-speak, this might qualify as a mountain but, because I'm visiting from my home in Colorado, I have topographical and pulmonary advantages.) Our two other teammates jog in a couple of minutes later and need refreshments. We confirm with them the plan we had all hashed out in advance, that each of us proceeding at our own pace is still agreeable for all. With that, my brother, college friend, and I get back on the course.

Our trio covers another dozen miles uneventfully, with the bonus treat of a high-school acquaintance who lives in the area and has remained tenuously connected to my brother and me via Facebook showing up on the course by bicycle to encourage us. We pass the marathon mark, where my brother signals he's going to ease his pace for a bit. At about mile 32, the aid stop features drop bags that we staged the previous day. For me, that means fresh socks and shorts. For my college friend, he gets the slice of cold pepperoni pizza he had stashed for just this occasion. We finish our costume change and pizza scarfing, respectively, by the time my brother arrives. We're here in roughly six hours, which means we feel safe from the threat of that cutoff. The three of us head off together, once more communicating that each of us is entitled and encouraged to go at his own pace. That ends up meaning my college friend and I get to the next rest stop without my brother in tow. After a quick fuel-up, my friend says he's feeling good enough to take a shot at finishing in under 10 hours. As my brother's keeper, I say I'm going to wait to check in with him. My friend darts off while I cool my figurative jets under a shade tent, hopping lightly from foot to foot to avoid the peril of inertia. My brother appears in about 15 minutes. In his judgment, he's good enough, but not great. He has no doubt he'll keep going, but reassures me to -- as the cliché goes -- "run my race."

I scamper on. I feel two competing feelings at the same time: encouragement about how the event is going so far (the fact that I can still scamper mildly amazes me) and dread that the distance of a half marathon remains between me and the finish. Both sentiments are intensified by stretches of switchbacks through the woods that reveal other runners zigzagging ahead of me. I resist any temptation to beeline. My first experience with a run of this distance is there's far more camaraderie than competition. I encourage runners I pass, and runners who pass me do the same. As racers settle into comparable paces, aid stations become mini-reunions.

I cross a paved road that has landmarks I recognize from driving in the day before. Soon after, I'm at the last aid station. In a sign of desperation for me, I drink some Mountain Dew. Like a horse close to home, I am "smelling the barn," and a hit of caffeine and sugar is going to get me there faster. Except, as it turns out, for one last punishing climb to wrap around the flank of the ski area where we started this odyssey. I trudge up an interminable meadow, sometimes jogging, other times walking, knowing that any forward motion is to my advantage. The sun glares down, and there's a light headwind pressing my chest more like a gale. When the trail ducks back into the woods, it's a relief of both shade and blind corners. Mind games are in full effect: I just need to make it to that bend, then see what happens. When the next clearing turns out to be a ski run, I know the finish is just ahead and -- delightfully --below.

I discover I've got a little left, a 22nd wind maybe, so I fly through the roped section of the course that crisscrosses not too steeply down the ski run. "Looking strong!" someone shouts encouragingly. That's how I feel: strong. I cross the finish line a few minutes past 10 hours from when I started. My friend reached his goal, about 15 minutes ahead of me. My brother breaks the 11-hour mark, and his friends arrive well before the cutoff time.

Much to celebrate all around, including the next day when all of us prove we can still walk around.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Running man - 3.26 #sol22 Story Challenge

I suppose I'm a runner. I first dabbled in this identity as a member of my high-school's cross country team. (In my estimation, that was the lesser of the sports evils in which I was mandated to participate.) I found I liked time on trails, at my best moving swiftly and gracefully through the woods like just another one of the forest's denizens. Running with others was always fun, and running on my own proved unexpectedly fine as excellent head-clearing time.

That foundation of formative past experience plus present proclivity meant I didn't outright dismiss my brother's invitation when he asked about a year ago if I wanted to run 50 miles with him. We mulled the pros (limited) and cons (abundant), yet still kept staring into what felt like an abyss. With clearance from our families, we signed up last May for the event that had caught my brother's eye, managing to rope in three other friends as well. Birds of a feather, you know, or masochists.

We did cursory research and mapped out training plans, the puzzle of it all proving a source of ongoing fascination for us: how to prepare our bodies to do something they had never done before, what food and drink would provide the needed -- and tolerated -- fuel. From June to early August, I took full advantage of a teacher's schedule, running 5-6 days each week and stacking up progressively longer runs. I noticed that while I wasn't going with notable speed I was able to go and go. My fitness was changing, demonstrably. Running marathon distances became an attainable routine. Best of all, none in our group experienced any breaking down physically or fatiguing mentally as the mileage increased. Runs of five miles or fewer, a friend of my brother's dubbed "snacks." We did the math and concluded the ultra-marathon would amount to 10 snacks. No problem, we bluffed.  In our amateur judgment, we were on track for our goals -- even if I had to start tapering early, once the new school year started.

I'm writing about this today because my brother and I and our friends participated in the event exactly six months ago, on September 26. All five of us finished, feeling better than expected, and surpassing the times we had talked about as our ideals.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Love poem - 3.25 #sol22 Story Challenge

For fifteen years, watch me chase her,
a pedaling, schussing, hiking pair.

She's a wild rose--neither insane nor reckless,
but at her best outside false boundaries.

So I recommit as clear as crystal
on this day that marks our marital ritual.

Behind-the-scenes note... I drew inspiration for these lines from three symbols associated with this particular anniversary milestone: watches, roses, crystal.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Sandbagging word nerd - 3.24 #sol22 Story Challenge

I went for a haircut today, in a spot I'd never been before. The barber, who had little hair of his own, other than of the facial variety, asked what I do for work. A solid making-chitchat-with-strangers question, if ever there was one. I answered that I teach middle-school students English.

"Probably my worst subject," he said, scissors snicking with extra force in my judgment.

"Well, you're communicating great," I offered, "in my professional opinion." (For the record, I attempted adding air-quotes to that last phrase solely through my tone of voice as my hands were swaddled under a barbershop apron.)

"I've got a huge vocabulary," he said, "but I prefer the red-neck vernacular."

I savored his word choice. "Sounds to me like a winning combination."

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Service(able) economy - 3.23 #sol22 Story Challenge

Went out for dinner last night,
momentous in its own right.

First place darkened, prospects bleak;
restaurant on hiatus this entire week.

Second stop after a leisurely stroll:
Closed for remodeling. (We're on a bad roll!)

Asked the still-toiling tiler, "Where do you recommend?"
He suggested a pub. (Another dead-end?)

Chasing that tip, another spot caught our eye.
Tasty meal there confirmed the charm was our third try.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Negative capability - 3.22 #sol22 Story Challenge

I passed some drive time a few days ago listening to the audio version of Creative Quest by Questlove. This slice is about one idea that stuck with me.

Questlove credits fellow musician David Byrne with inspiring in him this counter-intuitive stance toward the future: Rather than define goals focusing on what one seeks to achieve or aims to become, articulate instead what one doesn't want. It's a way to narrow options and avoid missteps without needlessly foreclosing possibilities. Most people dislike being pigeonholed, but purposefully identifying for ourselves boxes in which we don't want to be put can create useful, still-spacious guardrails.

For example: "I don't want to be a teacher who feels suffocated by piles of grading." Reminding myself about that priority influences other decisions and course corrections. While I'm never completely free of the occupational hazard of responding to student work, there are many -- what I consider creative -- ways to conduct this business that avoid crushing metaphorical weight.

What if I phrased that sentiment in the affirmative? "I want to be a teacher who leaves schoolwork at school." (Decide for yourself if that's the same sentiment or an adjacent one...) That goal might get me to the same place as the first one, but I perceive its guardrails squeezing more tightly. The mindset behind it feels somehow parsimonious, demanding deprivations that the negative vision sidesteps or at least manages to elide.

Or maybe the Byrne/Questlove approach is just better aligned with my inner defensive pessimist who favors self-effacement over self-promotion. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Worlds not colliding - 3.21 #sol22 Story Challenge

Some trails for mountain-biking are directional. This designation typically applies where the single track -- picture a narrow dirt ribbon unspooling across the landscape -- has numerous twists and turns, ups and downs, creating blind spots that could prove problematic if riders were going both ways simultaneously. A directional trail is intended to be a one-way street.

Some trails are multi-use, meaning cyclists might share them with hikers, horse riders, and in some cases motorbikes.

Today, my wife and I pedaled on a multi-use trail that wasn't directional, and therein lies the slice.

On our mountain bikes, we had already negotiated a bumpy stretch of trail that appeared to be under construction for future use by all-terrain vehicles. That led us to several segments of sandy double-track; picture a jeep road, except with a surface more like your favorite beach. (For the record, this is not ideal for riding bicycles, but the wind puts the sand where the wind wants.) These efforts brought us to our actual objective: a dramatic trail meandering along a desert rim, looking down on a placid river at the canyon's bottom and across to snow-dusted peaks in the distance. This bit, we enjoyed thoroughly. We zipped along, taking in the majestic views.

The clattering and huffing of our own machinery were soon superseded by the drone of approaching motor bikes. In big, echoing landscapes, it can take a moment to pinpoint a sound's location. Is it behind us? In front of us? In a moment, we picked out the riders ahead, coming our way from afar. We kept pedaling since it would take time for our paths to converge. Less time than we expected, it turns out, because motor bikes, well, they motor.

Approaching a curve around which a boulder made seeing impossible, my wife at the front of our two-pack, stepped off her bike and scooted to the trail's edge. I did as she did. The whining motors were close.  In fact, they were right there, as the first rider darted around the boulder and stopped suddenly. Surprised to see two bike riders, he nearly fell over. He righted himself and started waving his hand up and down behind him, the universal signal for "Slow down." I wondered whether an accordion crash from the Keystone Kops playbook might be imminent, but the rival bike gang of five reassembled in uneventful fashion. They motored away from whence we came while we continued our (slower) forward progress in the opposite direction.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Slice of somebody else's life - 3.20 #sol22 Story Challenge

I opted for changes of both scenery and activity today, driving to warmer environs and going for a bike ride. My two-wheeled toodle unexpectedly took me past the abode pictured to the right.

It's a house -- and a garage! -- built into the base of a cliff. These structures occupy a fenced-off area, marked by ominous-sounding warning signs about any motor-vehicle use behind those demarcations demanding special permits. I suspect the residents (Bond villains? Retired Hobbits?) have filled out the necessary paperwork. 

While stopping to snap this photo, I had ample time for other wondering, such as: How dark is it in there? Is the visible chimney the only ventilation? What about water and electricity -- how on or off the grid is this pseudo-bunker?

All of these queries will remain unanswered because, as I mentioned, this is somebody else's life, and I was just pedaling through.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Borrowed time - 3.19 #sol22 Story Challenge

My school, among others, will be
on spring break next week.
My plans remain
shapeless, which is fine.
I'm still occupying
some pandemic limbo between doing
and not. For example, today I put a dent
in doing taxes, then little else.

For the record, no itemizing
on this household's forms, yet I did count
more than a few blessings.
Among them: that glow of
anticipation leading up to and through
a library visit, its only agenda,
being finding good things
to read during
the several days to come.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Learning vocabulary elaborately - 3.18 #sol22 Story Challenge

A sixth-grader and I are reading aloud together, taking turns, trading paragraphs. In the chunk that goes to him, he hits the word 'elaborate.' He stretches out the syllables, working to make sense of something new: eeee laaa boooh raaaay /t/, ee-la-boh-rayt.

"You got it," I tell him. "That's the verb, the action. If you start telling me a story, and then I say, 'Please, elaborate on the last part,' what am I asking you to do?"

The student thinks for a moment, then answers, "Add more to it, give details."

"Yes," I confirm. "But in the sentence you just read," I point at the book between us, "the word is used differently, and we pronounce it differently." The phrase under my finger is, the elaborate ice sculpture. "Here, the word's an adjective, describing the noun, the ice sculpture, not a verb. The adjective gets pronounced ee-la-boh-rit."

The student says the adjective aloud himself, almost tasting it. We swap guesses about its meaning now, how it's not the same as the verb form, but how it's similar. The ice sculpture must have a lot of details, my partner decides; it's not simple or plain.

"That makes sense," I say, and we proceed to read.

I know these iterations of 'elaborate' will deserve revisiting when we next see each other, after spring break. At that point, two weeks into the future from today, they'll merit elaboration, the vocabulary equivalent of a vaccination booster.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

A little corny - 3.17 #sol22 Story Challenge

Simmering in a pot on the stove sits a brisket.
Which cook might have first opted to risk it?
Submerged beef in brine,
Patiently cured for long time,
Then pronounced the result, "Just the ticket!" 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Mystery machine - 3.16 #sol22 Story Challenge

"There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear." -Buffalo Springfield
(Hat tip yet again, Kathleen Sokolowski. Once I start using song lyrics for inspiration, it's hard to stop.)

A few cars just like this park in an underground commercial garage near where live. I see them coming and going at all hours. Sometimes I notice them cruising around town, curious appendages (cameras?) sticking out of their grills or jutting above their rooflines. They have drivers -- or maybe those are failsafe passengers in a fingers-crossed-self-driving vehicle? Anyway, walking to fetch the mail tonight, I observed what might've been a changing of the guard. Or guinea pig.

A guy gets out of the car as another guy walks up.

"How'd it go out there, Donnie?" the walking-up guy says.

"All right," says Donnie. "It's going all right." He stretches out the last two vowels like he's somehow living large: Aaaaall riiiight.

And with that (not much!), Donnie walks off into the early evening. The second guy takes the wheel. Or at least gets into the car. Or at least sits in the thing that resembles a car, but might actually be some top-secret contraption performing unspeakable experiments on local streets.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Road to Wellville - 3.15 #sol22 Story Challenge

Stigmas around mental health, in my limited and second-hand experience, seem long-lived. And yet I've observed the grip of such pejorative attitudes loosening in recent years, at least a little. The topic has struck a less verboten note lately; acknowledgements of challenge and calls for support can find themselves touted as brave vulnerability and wise self-care, to be met with empathy. Knee-jerk feelings of shame about flaws or signs of weakness no longer represent the only accepted way to respond. While it's far from perfect, it's closer to better.

I'm unpacking that context about two hours after I had an exchange with a student that made part of me pause even as the rest of me went on leading a lesson. Students were working in self-selected groups to review their reading from The Odyssey, as part of preparing informal recaps for classmates. I noticed one student standing apart from the rest of one talkative group, so I slid nearby.

Unprompted, the student said, "This is so stressful."

I offered a few reassurances: "This is low-stakes, no grades. We're after first-draft thinking, practicing sharing what we know."

"I understand," said the student. "I just didn't take my medication this morning. That's probably why I'm feeling so stressed."


"What are some other ways you cope when you're feeling this way?" I asked.

"I separate myself from where the stress is."

"How's that going?"

"I'm okay."

"I'm glad. Thanks for sharing how you're doing."

A few minutes later, the group went on to deliver its run-through of the epic. The stressed student opted to play the part of Argos, Odysseus' dog. That meant the student could wander around our imagined Ithaca, still a little apart from others, wondering when his master might return.

Monday, March 14, 2022

I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence 10 - 3.14 #sol22 Story Challenge

While working on a laptop or desktop computer that has its display extended to the classroom's digital-projector screen, have you ever had the experience of trying to drag a browser window (perhaps containing -- fingers-crossed -- engaging and informative slides) from the former to the latter, only to have trouble first locating the arrow that pinpoints the mouse whereabouts on on one screen or the other, then complicating that trouble by momentarily confusing whether the dragging operation to which you aspire should proceed to the right or the left , until finally, after great struggle, you land the box you want in the precise spot you want, now leaving you with the unforeseen difficulty of needing to navigate with precision on that faraway screen -- go ahead, crane forward, squint your eyes, it won't help -- using only a postage-stamp-sized track pad that's feels disconcertingly close to you -- yes, that experience, that's the one -- except in this case you're trying to teach someone else how to execute this very maneuver I've been painstakingly describing with them "driving" and you coaching (as some say, I've heard, in IT circles) at the elbow?

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Marionette man - 3.13 #sol22 Story Challenge

While today started extra dark here, mild weather returned. So once the natural lights came on, I went running.

I brought along my (debatably) smart watch, acquired to support training for an ambitious adventure last summer -- one which I'm holding in reserve for a later slice. For this morning's foray, I was counting on my device for some faux extrinsic motivation. I dialed up an option called "Running Coach" and selected a program that would guide me through an accelerating sequence of paces. The watch face would update me on how I was doing in relation to the target, and a synthesized voice (coach!) would prompt me, too.

During the warm-up zone, the watch frequently told me to, "Slow down," or cautioned, "You're going too fast." I eventually reached a point where I heard, "Nice pace" and "Keep it up." From time to time, the watch asked a question that I presume must be rhetorical: "How are you feeling?" I did try answering out loud later in the run, wanting to see what would happen, and nothing did except momentary shortness of breath. (This particular Running Coach program did say I would have a hard time holding a conversation during the workout.)

One exchange left me convinced the watch was messing with me. It delivered this message: "Lengthening your stride can quicken your pace. Give it a try." Dutifully, I did. The next words out of the watch's speaker-mouth were, "Slow down a little." Thanks for nothing, backseat driver on my wrist. Once home, I muted the watch's sound. It'll stay that way until I feel the next urge to have my strings pulled.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Simple pleasures - 3.12 #sol22 Story Challenge

A musical epigraph, inspired by Kathleen Sokolowski
and her angle on this year's Story Challenge

Last night's popped bubble:
First time in two years that we
hosted dinner friends.

The whole.

Friday, March 11, 2022

On shooting your shot - 3.11 #sol22 Story Challenge

Among the hats I wear (and write slices about) is volunteer coach of high-school and middle-school ultimate frisbee teams. One of the high-school teams played its first game last week, with more to come through the soon-to-be spring. I say 'soon-to-be,' not just because of the clock change and equinox that are approaching as March continues its, um, march, but because it's been decidedly not spring for the bulk of the past four weeks.

Back in January, I joined a video call with other coaches where we proposed different starting dates for our season. Those lobbying for earlier felt urgency to maximize the time spent with young players in need of skills development. The more reps, the better, in other words. Those lobbying for a later or softer opening, including me, figured adequate weather would be at a premium, so either delaying in the hopes of warmer temperatures and snow-free fields or offering low-key optional events during this tenuous period would be preferable to staking a firm claim to dates that would likely become cancellations.

Consensus formed around the early-bird plan, and here's the score since we began on February 8: Events cancelled 8, Events held 8. We're all tied up! The pessimist in me says, "Told you so." The optimist in me looks at the eight events that happened on schedule and the progress that players made at those sessions and grudgingly dusts off an old saying from a different sport, attributed to Wayne Gretzky: "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The more (or less) things change - 3.10 #sol22 Story Challenge

During my time on the job, being online has increasingly become a part of being in school. The district in which I teach installed a single sign-on (SSO) service a few years ago, enabling access to frequently used software -- now cloud-based -- from one portal. That means, at its best, juggling a smaller number of passwords; not quite 'one password to rule them all' for school doings, but it's close. Of course, that puts a little extra pressure on getting right the SSO password itself.

In its first iteration, the system bolstered security by forcing a password change every 90 days. This year's version added dual verification, requiring users enter a numeric code sent by phone at least once every 30 days in order to confirm legitimate credentialing. That extra layer of protection extends the password's three-month lifespan to a full year. "Big win," I figured, shedding 4+ password changes per year.

My password's birthday rolled around this week, and I dutifully change is as prompted. No problem, right? Except, in the days since, out of well-oiled habit, I've entered my old and now invalid password more times than I can count, which has me weighing the trade-offs of familiarity versus flexibility. I mean, it feels like I'd only recently gotten accustomed to writing down 2022 reliably. (And I hear the clocks are coming for me next, this weekend...)

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Deadline edition - 3.09 #sol22 Story Challenge

I chatted with a handful of eighth graders today about a writing assignment due last week, but that they haven't turned in yet. I tried to play the conversation cool, neutral: "How's your progress? Anything I can help with? What's your plan to get to done?" I tend to trust in a version of standards-based grading that doesn't demand dishing out penalties for lateness (though I do make notes about timeliness in grade-book comments). Revising and resubmitting work are also acceptable moves, encouraging opportunities for students to keep learning (or scrounging for points, depending on whom you ask). Even with parameters that some might bemoan as lax, 64 of 75 students turned in drafts by the appointed deadline. In today's dialogues with students behind schedule, one through-line caught my attention. When I asked, "What's your plan to finish?", the responses varied from, "Dunno," to "I'm going to work on it." Specifics were glaringly lacking. I tried to guide the exchange to more actionable ground: "Give me an idea about when I can expect to receive your work." The most definitive answer I can recall was, "Pretty soon." I put in a plug for making plans, how setting precise goals can actually improve the likelihood of being successful. Without a degree of exactitude, though, accountability dissolves into flimsier aspirations, just adjacent to wishful thinking. None of those are words I said at the time; they're what I'm thinking now. In those moments earlier today, I settled for pressing insistently for a new student-set due date based on a simple choice: "Can you get the draft in by the end of the week? Or will you need to use the weekend, then turn in your work by Monday?" I could go on, but I've got a fast-approaching deadline of my own to honor.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Slice cream - 3.08 #sol22 Story Challenge

"Want an ice cream?"

That's a question I probably have been asked before in my life, but never when commuting home by bus.

My reading attention flickered as my left eye and ear detected a box being shaken in the periphery. It contained prewrapped ice-cream cones and was held in a hand at the end of an arm clad in a beige trench coat. The owner of the coat wore a backwards baseball cap atop stringy blond hair. He was grinning, and his other hand gripped a skateboard.

"Want an ice cream?" he asked again.

"No," I said, "thank you."

With a tilt of his head, he conveyed a silent, "Your loss." He proceeded along the aisle, inviting every other passenger to partake of a frozen treat. Most accepted. He made his way to the front of the bus where I heard him ask the driver if eating on board would be okay. All around the bus, satisfied lip smacks punctuated the question. The driver's eyes, I noticed, flashed to the rearview mirror. He acquiesced, just asking that people not leave trash behind. "Cool," the man said, then asked if the driver wanted ice cream, too. The driver declined.

The man passed me on the way back to his seat, tried once more: "Sure you don't want one?"

"Nah, I'm good," I said. And I was -- arguably better than I would've been had a stranger not boarded the bus on my way home from work and started handing out ice cream.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Mindfulness-ish - 3.07 #sol22 Story Challenge

Onscreen glows an illustration of a stately tree, wide of trunk, infinite of branches. My ears take in the even voice of the woman facilitating this meditative moment. She and I, along with a number of my colleagues, have filled the school cafeteria on an in-service day.

I am that tree, she is telling me: my roots reaching deep into the earth, an immovable grounding force; my strong limbs stretching expansively toward light above. I hear a curious whirring. My eyes are open, gazing at the projected tree, so I dart them in the direction of that unexpected noise.

A large bearded man wearing a baseball cap has climbed up a utility ladder and is wielding an electric screwdriver to fasten something to -- or unfasten something from -- a drop-ceiling panel. (That might be a camera bubble he's working on, I realize, a more intrusive kind of mindfulness.) The tool whines an extra beat, then cuts out, the man taking in the room's quiet vibe. Almost sheepishly, he tiptoes down from the ladder, and I can see his coworker still steadying the ladder shoot him an eyeroll. They stand opposite each other, miming patience, their respective hands folded on top of the table between them. They wait.

I notice the subtle lifting and falling of their chests. I sync my breathing with theirs. I'm not the tree anymore; I'm people with jobs to do whose work might feel more urgent than it actually is.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

My good name - 3.05 #sol22 Story Challenge

"I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial." --Cassio, Othello

In my email box  (e-mailbox?) this morning, I noticed a message from the local library. This in itself is not surprising. These days, nearly all borrowing business in the library system I frequent is conducted via digital platforms: online catalogs, self-checkouts, automatic renewal or return notices. While the books are -- or can be -- actual, everything else in the transaction leans virtual.

This particular bulletin contained the following chilling sentence: "Library item(s) checked out to your card have exceeded the due date by more than 7 days." Overdue book? Anathema to this responsible library citizen! I racked by brain about the title: Falling by T.J. Newman, a pulpy thriller about a plane hijacking, a "Lucky Day" non-holdable, non-renewable title that I had checked out as entertainment for my wife, then couldn't resist devouring myself. I had thumped that title into a book drop weeks ago, on a pre-dawn walk to catch the bus to school.

I needed to make a phone call. I needed to clear my at-least-in-this-context good name from further besmirchment. (Cue another Othello quote, via Iago: "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.") I navigated a pleasantly brief voicemail menu in order to reach an actual member of the library staff. The proffering of my library card number and an explanation of the circumstances was enough -- for now -- to erase the stain on my record and scramble minions in some biblio-bowels into searching for the wayward title. I hope they find it; my tenuous reputation hopes I don't.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Embracing musty TV - 3.04 #sol22 Story Challenge

When I lived in an outer borough of New York City in another era, my then roommate introduced me to the original Law & Order television show. At that point it had been airing on network television for years, and that run would continue for years more. We were mostly catching reruns in syndication, and I've since spottily maintained that tradition as rebroadcasting rights have flitted from TNT to WeTV and even BBC (America). After a dozen years with no new episodes -- not counting spin-off series -- I experienced a pang of unexpected delight when I learned the show was resuming. Not being much of a streamer, I embraced a return to appointment television. Even if that obligation lived only in my imagination, I tuned in last Thursday night.

There it was: a murder ripped from the headlines, albeit dusty ones. The partner detectives sorting out suspects and intertwining a few tidbits of their own character development, terse exchanges around race, questionable ethics in interrogation rooms. Then, law gave way to order, ushering in the staff from the district attorney's office to "prosecute the offenders." A bit more strife in the handling and mishandling of the case, a pivotal cameo from a past cast member, the grey-white shadow over the proceedings cast by Jack McCoy from the wings. And, finally, a verdict, a few minutes past the expected one-hour runtime; the title institutions doing their thing despite signs of crumbling at their foundations.

I've read commentary about the present as a time of "peak TV," with its surfeit of binge-able prestige projects, and I've missed a bunch of alleged must-sees. But last week, I got the peek I was after, from a vantage of nostalgia, edged with a few new twists.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Sometimes they get it - 3.03 #sol22 Story Challenge

[Scene: Middle-school hallway during a bustling passing period. Students pinball every which way; a teacher leans against a wall dividing two locker bays, observing entropy in action. Somewhere over his left shoulder, he hears rustling. He half turns and sees a pair of seventh graders, kneeling in front of an open locker, a plastic bag on the floor between them. One student is rifling through the contents. His hand comes into view holding four small chocolate chip cookies. He keeps two, gives two to his classmate who scampers off.]

Teacher [to remaining boy, as he closes locker]: You are a kind and generous friend.

Boy [smiles, slams locker, grabs bag with cookies, announces with satisfaction]: I'm bringing the rest to Health class!

[Teacher grins, amused by some inner knowledge.]

Boy [already several steps down hall, turns back to share his own sudden thought]: That's pretty ironic, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Neither Swiss nor trains - 3.02 #sol22 Story Challenge

Like many, I suspect, in the Two Writing Teachers community, I can easily lose myself in a book. That's the comfortable (oblivious?) position in which I found myself early Tuesday morning, rocking side to side with Kate DiCamillo's The Beatryce Prophecy in my hands, while the transit bus trundled me closer to school.

Even with the charming story holding me rapt, my internal clock kept ticking away. Thus, I punctually peeked up from the text thinking my stop must be approaching. My eyes swept the streetscape and didn't register any familiar landmarks. I felt my internal clock -- or some other part of my anatomy -- do its own fluttery version of arrhythmia. Where were we?

A second, more careful look confirmed the bus was a few blocks south of where I expected, having missed its usual turn toward my place of employment. I swiveled to look back at two siblings who are often the only passengers with me on the bus at this hour. One hadn't stopped staring down at his phone; the other showed wide eyes and a slightly slack jaw. She had noticed what had happened, but wasn't sure what to do about it.

I moved to the front of the bus, possibly violating one federal law by speaking with the driver and respecting another by remaining behind the yellow line. Turns out he was a fill-in on the route, didn't know it well. We arrived at the terminus station a few moments later and talked through the available solutions. (School lay about a mile away, so walking was an option, bolstered by the arrival of mild weather.)

In the end, I coached the driver through retracing our steps and returning to his appointed rounds. We still had a few hiccups, overshooting our stop by a few hundred feet. "Which stop do you want?" the driver asked. "This one," I said. "Which one?" he repeated. "The one right here," I said, as I watched it slide past. "Which one?" You get the picture. Before disembarking, I checked that the driver knew how to finish the route and return to the end of the line. He said he did. With that, the other two students and I disembarked from the bus, with sufficient time to spare before school started and a story to tell.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

First hurdle via Wordle - 3.01 #sol22 Story Challenge

Seven years ago, at the behest of Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Inviter-In-Chief, I submitted my first entry to the annual Story Challenge. The sweep of daily writing absorbed me as did the community that radiated warm, welcoming styleI could not help but slide right in. So, here I am, returning with my latest slice, eager to meet a new challenge and to connect with other writers over the next 31 days.