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.
Thursday, March 31, 2022
Wednesday, March 30, 2022
Tuesday, March 29, 2022
Monday, March 28, 2022
Sunday, March 27, 2022
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
Friday, March 25, 2022
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.
Thursday, March 24, 2022
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Wednesday, March 16, 2022
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
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 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
Sunday, March 13, 2022
Saturday, March 12, 2022
Friday, March 11, 2022
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
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
Tuesday, March 8, 2022
"Want an ice cream?"
Monday, March 7, 2022
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.
Sunday, March 6, 2022
Saturday, March 5, 2022
"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
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
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
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.