Writing to Winston

As I write this on my laptop, I am listening to George Winston’s album December via Spotify. While not actually December, it is ibm selectricthe dead of winter here in the northeast, a brisk and cold 39°, on a cloudy Saturday afternoon. The first time I heard George Winston was back in the mid-80’s, at a friend’s house. Her boyfriend was playing this very album and it was love at first note. He made me a cassette and I listened to it constantly.

This particular time in my history is also an earlier time in my life when I declared I would be a writer. I was living alone in an adorable little dollhouse of a home, the last house on the dead-end of a neighborhood street. I was working as a real estate paralegal by day, managing apartment complexes by night, and doing community theatre on the weekends. Still, somehow, I did not feel fulfilled. I was yearning for some creative outlet that I had not yet found for myself. So, I decided to become a writer.

I went to the town’s one and only thrift store (more of a junkyard, really) and bought myself a small, student desk. I cleared out the walk-in linen closet in my hallway and furnished it with the desk, a small chair, my IBM Selectric, and a table lamp. I filled the shelves, designed for towels and sheets, with literary classics, books on writing, style manuals, and an enormous red hardback copy of the 1973 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a high school graduation gift from a family that I regularly babysat for all throughout middle school and high school. I went room by room and collected artistic knickknacks and eccentric tchotchkes to decorate my writing space. I stocked the desk with paper, pens, and various other office supplies pilfered from my desk at work. I was ready for my transformation. I was ready to become a writer.

So, on Saturday mornings, after sleeping late (unless I had to show an apartment or answer to an emergency call of a clogged toilet or broken garbage disposal), I would make coffee, pop December into my cassette player and go to my walk-in closet/office to write. I have vivid and visceral memories of the experience, especially on sunny, brisk days when I had the windows open. Even from the interior of my new “walk-in office”, I could feel the cool breeze and hear George Winston’s melodic piano wafting through the whole house. I loved that walk-in office. It was perfect, bliss. Even now, thirty years later, hearing December brings back such lovely memories of my time in that little house.

One of the positives of turning a walk-in closet into an office is that you can close the door and hide it from the rest of the world. No fear of someone reading a rough draft of something that has not been put through the editing and revising process. No pressure to perform or display signs of success at this new activity because no one knows anything about it.

On the other hand, one of the negatives of turning a walk-in closet into an office is that you can close the door and hide it from yourself. The transformation simply did not take place. I remember sitting at that little desk and I remember typing, but I have no idea what I actually wrote while in there. I have no tangible evidence of it, either. I didn’t save anything that I produced from that walk-in office, if I ever produced anything at all.

George Winston is still a favorite of mine, and I have been fortunate enough to see him in concert twice. I love how he has concert-goers bring canned goods to the concert, which he then donates to a local shelter near the concert venue. I love his new work but his older pieces, specifically the songs from December, still speak to me. They have a calming effect on me and they awaken in me that same yearning from many years ago, to be creative, to become a writer.

The little student desk now serves as a vanity where I put on makeup and do my hair. The IBM Selectric is long gone. Today I write from my laptop in our home office, shared space with my husband and daughters. I play George Winston on my laptop, my phone, or tablet. I have embraced social media, actively posting about literature and writing on Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook. I write articles for a small regional newspaper. I have a binder filled with tangible evidence of my work, mostly essays but some fiction, too. I have been published as a guest blogger on two websites as well as in an alumni publication. I have my own website where my writing is out in the open for all to see and read. I’m still on track for my goal of writing and publishing an essay a week for one year. Is the transformation complete? Am I writer yet? I don’t know. For now, I will keep plugging away at my goal, keep writing to Winston.

The Eyes Have It

I had a bit ocropped eyesf a scare this past week. The week in general was not great. My husband was away visiting his brother who had had open heart surgery. The DC area experienced one of its “wintry mixes” which means complete and utter chaos on the highways, multiple car pileups in multiple locations, and either a two-hour delay at school or no school at all. I woke up on Monday with a stomach virus and a fever which meant no school for me, two-hour delay or not. I returned to school on Wednesday, feeling poorly still, to give mid-term exams to 8th graders. On Thursday, my “bad” knee was acting up, and to make matters worse, I kept thinking I could see a dark spot on my nose, as though I had dry erase marker on there. On Friday morning, things escalated. I called the eye doctor at my earliest chance.

Friday morning things seemed somewhat blurry in my right eye. I kept cleaning my glasses and rubbing my eye, to no avail. Then I began to see things floating in and out of my peripheral vision in my right eye. Dark, black, feathery things. The eye doctor’s tech said I needed to come in right away, that my eye doctor was leaving at 2:30, and put me on hold for the doctor. This can’t be good was all I could think. The doctor came on and asked what time I could get there. I explained that I was a teacher and that the school day ended at 3:00 pm. I told him I could leave right at 3:00. He said he would wait for me. While nice of him to wait, I took that as a sign that it was some kind of serious problem. A co-worker assured me that she has those “floaters” all the time and that it was nothing serious. I still wasn’t sure, and steadfastly refused to “google” it for fear of seeing something horrifying on the internet.

Long story short, it was not horrifyingly bad news but it would need to be monitored for five to six weeks to ensure that something really bad did not develop. So, I let out a big sigh and tried to calm down. It did make me think about my eyes and their history, however.

My eyes have an interesting history to say the least. When I was six years old, a boy punched me in the left eye by accident, or so my “baby book” recounts. I believe he and another boy were fighting over crayons and I got in the way. Wham! I had to wear an eye patch for several weeks and see an eye specialist in New Orleans until the injury healed.

In high school, I was having trouble reading the board and sometimes my left eye would cross when I was tired or had been reading too long. The eye doctor attributed this to repeated kidney infections with accompanying high fever I had had as a young child and prescribed my first pair of eyeglasses.

During junior year of college the fraternity I served as “little sister” sent me a vase of roses. One of my suitemates bumped my arm holding the vase while I was leaning over to smell them and a piece of the fern in the vase went up under my eye lid and scratched my cornea. The next morning my eye was so swollen I couldn’t open it. My suitemate took me to the health clinic on campus who called my parents immediately to come and take me to the eye doctor. The scratch on my cornea was infected, so along with ointments, eye drops, and antibiotics, another patch! Argh, ship ahoy, mate!

Eventually I migrated to contact lenses and boy, did I love them. My vision was so much better and of course, I felt that I looked better without the glasses. I took great care in cleaning them and monitored my wearing times closely. But, my eye problems did not stop there. While on my very first visit to New York City, I had an interesting encounter with the steel tip of an umbrella. Not just any umbrella, mind you, but the umbrella of Maria Shriver. My friend, Ann, and I were walking down the streets of New York in the rain after a full day of sightseeing, heading back to the apartment we were staying at to change for dinner. It was rush hour and the sidewalks were jammed with people bustling about. Visibility was poor due to the rain and dark skies. The clump of people in front of me stopped short and I didn’t. And, that’s when Maria Shriver’s umbrella poked me in the eye. I screamed and she turned around and when I saw it was her, I screamed again. I had my hand over my eye and she grabbed at it to see if I was bleeding or if maybe my eyeball was missing or something. I assured her I was fine and we parted ways. It was a bit “bloodshot” the next morning but otherwise okay. Later the next day Ann and I were walking up the steps of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to take a look at the lobby and down the steps came Maria Shriver. She actually recognized me and stopped to ask how my eye was.

Marriage, two children, and a very demanding job all followed, and with that, a bit of carelessness in the care and wearing of the contact lenses. One day, I just couldn’t get them in, it simply hurt too much. The eye doctor said that repeatedly wearing contacts too long each day had left little scars on my cornea under my upper eye lids. No more contact lenses for you, he said. I was devastated. It’s my own fault, of course, but I hate wearing glasses, and now there is nothing I can do about it.

Since then the little scars on my cornea have been diagnosed as something slightly different, nodules that will eventually have to be removed. The bottom line is that those nodules and their location eliminate my chance at vision correction via laser surgery. I’m not sure if I would be brave enough for laser surgery, but I don’t like having the option stripped away from me.

Naturally you can imagine my distress this week when I have yet another eye condition to add to my list. No one wants to lose their eyesight, but for someone who reads as much as I do, and who teaches language arts with all those papers to grade, I am thankful this episode wasn’t more serious. My eyeglasses are dreadfully expensive with my three different prescriptions to correct my vision, and they are uncomfortable to wear 24/7, but I am counting my blessings this weekend nonetheless.

Buttered Toast

toastButtered toast.  Buttered toast and a cup of steaming café au lait.  Buttered toast and a cup of English Breakfast tea, with a paper-thin slice of lemon floating delicately on top.  Buttered toast and a cup of homemade chicken noodle soup.  Heck, buttered toast all by itself.  Two ingredients.  Simplicity in itself. Comforting.  Delicious.

For years my dad’s breakfast was a cup of coffee and two slices of Sunbeam white sandwich bread, lightly toasted in the toaster oven (not a pop-up, never) and buttered…stacked one on top of the other, laid upon a folded paper towel and cut in half.  At some point after he had retired early to care for my mom, he switched to canned biscuits, and then to frozen biscuits that he could heat up one or two at a time, again in the toaster oven.  My mom loved her buttered toast and for years joined my dad in the customary breakfast but after a triple bypass in 1993 it was recommended to her that she switch to Cheerios instead.

When I was young and stayed home from school sick, my mom would make me buttered toast in the morning.  At lunch I would get a special treat of a frozen chicken pot pie or a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle or Chicken and Rice.  And when I was just home from the hospital after delivering by c-section my first child, a beautiful baby girl, my mom served me, yes, you guessed it, a cup of tea and buttered toast. I was exhausted just riding in the car home and that cup of tea and buttered toast is still a vivid memory for me. The restorative values aside, it was the absolutely perfect welcome home snack. Boy, do I miss my mother.

Buttered toast is ubiquitous all over the world.  In India, what is naan if not thin bread that has been “toasted” on a hot slab of rock and coated in ghee (clarified butter).  In Italy, ciabatta sliced thinly and grilled with a little butter (or maybe it would be olive oil instead) is the perfect appetizer when topped with chopped tomatoes, garlic and basil.  Admittedly, toast is not de rigueur in France, where you should expect a crisp on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside baguette or warm and still crackly croissant.  But anywhere in the British Isles, you will absolutely get the message loud and clear that buttered toast is the bread product of preference. If you watch any British sitcom with a breakfast scene I can assure you that you will see how important buttered toast is to the British.  Toast must be served in a toast rack, never laid on a paper towel or stacked on a saucer…this would cause steam from the heat of the bottom slice to eek up into the next slice causing it to become SOGGY, which by definition is not what toast is all about.

The toast rack is a strange little houseware item that looks like a letter holder for your outgoing mail, except that instead of bills and birthday cards standing between the slots, you have slice after slice of toast.  Mostly made out of stainless steel, these are on every table in every bed and breakfast in Great Britain.  My dear husband bought me an antique sterling silver Art Deco one at the famous street flea market on Portobello Road in London for our 15th wedding anniversary.  The whole raison d’être for a toast rack is that air circulates between the slices so there is no way it can steam itself and get soggy.  Remember, steam is the enemy of toast.  Each perfectly toasted slice is then cut or torn into smaller pieces where upon copious amounts of marmalade or preserves are then applied.  Or, maybe a drizzle of honey.  My mom (daughter of Scottish immigrants) always put grape jelly on top of buttered toast and on top of this she placed either two strips of crispy bacon or a slice of fried until it’s almost black Oscar Mayer bologna.  Yummmmmmy.  Did I mention the triple bypass?

But, back to the British and their buttered toast, which is washed down with vast quantities of properly made hot tea from a proper tea pot with proper loose tea leaves, not a Lipton’s bag in a mug with the string hanging over the edge.  When we vacationed in Scotland, visiting my mom’s relatives and staying in a bed and breakfast inn, I swear they would have brought out rack after rack of toast until lunch time, as long as we kept eating it!  In Ireland, visiting friends and a retired priest we know, same thing, even on the buffet in the Americanized chain hotel we stayed in, industrial size toast racks with row after row of perfectly toasted white (and wheat) bread.

But here in the good ole US of A, there is little consideration to be given as to what kind of bread the toast is actually made of . . . white sandwich bread, from either a bag with primary colored dots on it or the one with the adorable-if-not-dated little girl with the blonde curls.  I am fully aware of the health benefits of whole grain, but when it comes to buttered toast, well, why in the world are you going to mess around with sticks and twigs?  Then, of course, comes the other ingredient of the buttered toast recipe, the “buttered” part.  You can begin with the top of the food chain, sweet creamery butter, unsalted of course, and work your way down from there.  I personally grew up on Fleishmann’s margarine, in the sticks, the original flavor.  It’s made of corn oil and is supposed to be healthier for you than real butter.  The best thing I can say for it is this; it is always the perfect consistency for spreading on toast, unlike a stick of butter straight from the fridge.  Of course, we could leave it out on the counter like they do all over Europe (and in some reckless homes in the US too) but the food police would be on us in a minute.

Another British invention for buttered toast is a variation called “toast soldiers”.  This is just buttered toast cut into strips; say maybe three evenly sized strips out of each slice of toast.  These are then dunked into a soft-boiled egg that has had its top cut off.  I’m not much of an egg person, so to me, this is just a waste of a good piece of buttered toast, but it seems to be viewed as somewhat of a religious experience in Great Britain.

So next time you are feeling a wee bit peckish, a little bit blue, or maybe just under the weather, give yourself a boost with a couple of slices of toasted white bread, slathered with sweet butter, and wash it down with a cup of tea, or coffee, or even hot chocolate.  You will not be sorry, I promise you.  And remember, you are just one ingredient and a skillet away from that other all-powerful comfort food, the grilled cheese sandwich, but that’s another story altogether!

Snow Day: Who Loves One More, Students or Their Teachers?

Happy Snow Day!Yesterday we returned to school after a two-week break for the Christmas holiday. The day went well, albeit somewhat slowly, as first days back after break tend to do so. But, with mid-term exams looming in the very near future, students worked hard to get back up to speed. And, then, today? Snow day! First a two-hour delay, followed by a subsequent announcement that schools were closed. That blissful feeling of a free day off (even if it comes on the heels of a two-week break) brought to mind something I had written during my second year of teaching, so I thought I would share that with you today!

Yippee! A Snow Day (from January, 2009)

I woke up with a smile on my face today.  Not exactly an earth shattering feat, right?  Wrong.  I NEVER wake up with a smile on my face.  I am not a morning person, and that is a gross understatement.  I hate to wake up.  I love to stay up late.  I start 6-hour projects at 9 pm and fully expect to be able to finish them before I go to bed and I have done so in the past.  Before I married and had children, I used to stay up all night all the time.  I always made it to work no matter what, and I always made it through the day.  You would think I would rush home from work and crash, but by then I had gotten my second wind and would piddle around until very late into the night AGAIN.

But, today, I woke up with a smile on my face!  Why you ask?  Well, my husband crept into our dark bedroom and stood over me as I lay snuggled up in my warm, cozy cocoon and whispered “Turn off your alarm, it’s a snow day!”  I smiled, without opening my eyes, and turned off my alarm.  YES!  FINALLY! A SNOW DAY!

What’s the big deal you ask?  To a student, a snow day is huge.  No school.  No stress.  Lay around in your pj’s all day and eat junk and watch TV.  Play on the computer, talk on the phone, play a video game, or maybe, just maybe, layer on a bunch of clothes and go sled down the hill at the top of your neighborhood.

Well, to a teacher, a snow day is ENORMOUS.  No school.  No stress.  Lay around in your pj’s all day and eat junk and watch TV.  Play on the computer, talk on the phone, or maybe, just maybe, grade a few papers.

Students are always amazed when teachers are as excited as they are when the weather man says “snow predicted for early tomorrow morning.”  They have actually said to me “You want it to snow, too?”  I guess they think we love getting up early and teaching all day and collecting homework and dispensing harsh statements like “spit out your gum”, “please stop talking”, or my personal favorite “Where is your textbook?  How can you be prepared for class without your textbook?”  And then, at the end of the school day, we escort them to the parking lot, clean up our classroom, pack up our stack of ungraded papers, rush out, pick up our own children, rush home, start dinner, check the mail and the voice mail, pet the cat, walk the dog, eat dinner, clean the kitchen, and drop exhausted into bed.

Oh, no, wait, that’s when we start our second work shift, the grading of the papers.  So, by now it is 8:00 pm, when we unload our bag, assemble our equipment (calculator, grade book, computer, red pen, post it notes, paper clips) and go to work AGAIN.  Four hours later, we pile it all back up into our bag, walk the dog, pet the cat, drag ourselves upstairs, turn off all the lights, check on our children, and drop exhausted into bed.  So is the life of the middle school language arts teacher, the one responsible for the shaping of disorganized and muddled young minds into good writers and good readers, ready for high school and the rigors of A/P English.

So, the next time you hear the weatherman say “snow predicted for early tomorrow morning”, say a little prayer for all the teachers you know, put your pj’s on inside out, and go to bed.  Hopefully, I will get to wake up with a smile on my face, hearing the ever so lovely words “Turn off your alarm, it’s a snow day!”

Clicking My Way through the Bermuda Triangle

First, let me just state for the record: I love the internet. I do, really. I also love beignets hot from the bubbling deep fryer, covered in an avalanche of powdered sugar. And, taking long naps. And, a really dry, really cold, slightly dirty, gin martini, straight up, like Ian Fleming’s superhero, James Bond (more Batman than Superman, no real superpowers, just fancy gadgets and lightening sharp reflexes). Yeah, so, what do these things have in common? Well, for starters, let’s apply the old adage “everything in moderation”.  Beignets aren’t commonly found here and when found they do not taste like the famous beignets of the Café du Monde in the French Quarter of New Orleans, land of my birth. So, using moderation on beignets, easy. Naps are confined to Sunday afternoons, between Sunday lunch after Mass and the start of lesson planning and doing laundry. No problem there. Martinis? Well, the first one is always infinitely better than the second, and the third, well, there really shouldn’t be a third.

That just leaves us with the internet, and in today’s technology-driven world, it’s really hard to apply moderation to the internet, a/k/a the digital Bermuda Triangle. For a girl who begged for a set of encyclopedias as a child, Wikipedia is unbelievable. Yes, I know, it is open content and subject to error, both those made with the best of intentions and those made otherwise, but seriously, you can find out just about anything in a matter of seconds. And, what thirst is not quenched from a few clicks on Wikipedia surely will be sated by a simple Google search. Knowledge is power, right? By the way, that famous quote is by Frances Bacon, 16th century British philosopher. Thank you,  Wikipedia, Google, and www.BrainyQuote.com.

The Bermuda Triangle is a well-known travel myth. Planes fly within the air space of three prominent tropical destinations, and, well, they don’t fly out. People who write for a living (or at least try to) often compare the social media heavy hitters as the Bermuda Triangle for writers. It all started with Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped upon humanity the mother of all time-wasters, Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Facebook. Facebook has re-connected me with countless people from my hometown, torn apart and scattered across the south by Hurricane Katrina. None of the schools I ever attended were left standing. Kind of hard to have a high school reunion when there is no high school, let alone no town where the high school used to be. My entire family lives in the south, either Louisiana or Texas, as does my husband’s family. Facebook has made it so much easier to share photos, holidays, and celebrations of good news, as well as warm thoughts in time of sad news.

However, there’s a lot more to Facebook these days, BuzzFeed and their interminable quizzes, for starters. What color is your karma? What literary character would you most likely be? What country are you really from? Next up from the “time-sucker” category is the endless stream of kittens and puppies. You know you shouldn’t click on them, you try to scroll past them, but eventually you cave. Sure, they are hilarious, who doesn’t like to watch a cat torment a dog, or listen to the pleading and whining of the husky who does not want to go into his crate. Tick tock, tick tock. Time slips by as you watch one after another. “I’ll just be a minute, I’m just checking Facebook,” said no one ever.

Facebook is not alone in helping procrastinators procrastinate since Twitter flew into our lives with its cute little logo. Not going to be a problem, I thought, how much time can you waste when you can only read or write in snippets of 140 characters or less? WRONG. Twitter is amazing. Late breaking news is only one thing that I love about Twitter. If you follow one or two major news outlets, you can guarantee there is someone tweeting away when something major happens.  Being a foodie and avid home cook, I love following famous chefs on twitter, as well as the cooking magazines and food networks. Connecting to authors, publishers, librarians, and other teachers is another significant draw for me. Come on, admit it, it feels pretty good to have someone famous “favorite” one of your tweets or better yet, retweet it for all of their own followers to see. Six degrees of separation is indeed possible (Kevin Bacon this time, not Francis Bacon).

The third side of the digital Bermuda Triangle is more recent. A digital bulletin board or an electronic three-ring binder, complete with tabbed dividers, Pinterest is the place to go if you are planning a wedding, researching a future vacation, looking for a recipe, or better yet, mining for a craft idea.  At least for me, instead of being the springboard of inspiration, Pinterest is simply the graveyard. I “pin” like crazy. I have “boards” set up for things I actually like to do, such as cooking, knitting and crocheting, reading, and teaching. I also have boards set up for the things that I would love to try, like mosaic art projects, wine cork projects, rock painting (who knew?), necktie sewing projects, trash to treasure furniture projects, and more. But, that’s as far as it goes. I can count on one hand the actual projects or recipes I have made from Pinterest.

All of these things, these social media digital Venus flytraps, lure me into wasting time, world-class procrastinating. I should be grading papers but instead I am on Facebook. I should be working on lesson plans, but instead I am tweeting and reading tweets. I should be cleaning my house but instead I am pinning housekeeping tips on my boards on Pinterest. Once you enter the Bermuda Triangle of the internet, it is very, very difficult to extricate yourself. I understand: everything in moderation. I’m working on it, really.