Friday, January 29, 2010

My Favorite Teacher

When our daughter was in the second grade, my parents sold the house they had lived in for fifty plus years in the Spokane Valley and bought a house around the corner from us. It was a hard move for them to make but one that, in the end, we were all grateful for. We saw each other daily, ran errands for one another and had dinner together nearly every night, sometimes at their place but more often than not at ours. As Katie got older, the after dinner activities increased – soccer games, piano recitals, school programs. But in the early days, one of the most frequent after dinner activities was “school” played out around the dining room table with Miss Katie, in her orange frame glasses as teacher and the four of us as her class. Despite our advanced ages and degrees, I think we formed a pretty representative mix.

Her unbridled enthusiasm for school has always been something of a mystery to me; I suspect that the only person at the table who might have shared her passion for school was her grandmother. “Ruthie” as grandma was referred to in class, was the star pupil. She always had her work done on time and neatly done at that. Naturally, if extra credit was on option, she did that as well. At the end of the year, Ruthie presented the class gift to Miss Katie; a ceramic coffee mug, adorned with an apple and blue forget me nots, and inscribed with the words “A hug for my favorite teacher!”

Grandpa and I were kind of middle of the pack students, both of us failing to complete our assignments from time to time or missing the mark when we did. My excuses about being too busy with dinner or picking up kids after school or taking pets to the vet fell on deaf ears. “Next time, try harder and start earlier!” It was an admonition that though kindly delivered didn’t leave much room for negotiation. By contrast, she was very gentle with Grandpa, and encouraged him by writing positive notes on his papers and giving him additional problems to solve as well as tutoring outside of class. I suspect he was her favorite.

Of all her students, however, her father posed the greatest challenge. Anyone who has ever taught has ultimately confronted him-the bright kid who could easily be top of the class but is satisfied to just get by. The one who directs his energy to reconstructing the problem rather than solving it. “Freddie” had a knack of coming up with an answer that was technically correct but clearly not the one the teacher had in mind. Still, she never gave up on him though he tested and tried her patience on a regular basis.

On these evenings, we adults assumed that we were playing a game with Katie; something guaranteed to entertain her and amuse us. In truth, when she donned her glasses and stood before us, it was all business for her and an initial step in what would ultimately lead to a career choice. She wrote out lesson plans and prepared work sheets. She corrected our papers, returning them with stars (Ruthie’s papers always) or comments and suggestions for revision. She provided us with a robust curriculum, including mathematics, literature and social studies. Spelling and penmanship were also important to her and yet another area at which some of us excelled and others fell behind.

If you count kindergarten, when Kate, as she is now known, finishes her current residency in anesthesiology, she will have spent the past twenty-five years in school or training of one sort or another. In the fall she will begin a two year fellowship in pediatric anesthesia. Along the way, she has been blessed with wonderful teachers who have inspired and challenged her to pick up the mantle and raise the bar. One in particular, she calls “the catalyst” for introducing her to biology. The past eight years have included medical school and residency where her teachers are commonly referred to as “attendings.” Her assessment of these individuals most often begins with an observation of whether or not they are effective as teachers.

She recently presented the research she is currently engaged in at “grand rounds” – a weekly educational presentation common to training in the medical environment. It was an important and exciting morning for her and when she told me about it afterwards, her enthusiasm was palpable with the most appreciated comments relating to her skill as a teacher. As intellectually interesting as “the immune reaction in patients with chronic pain” may have been, the kudos that made her day went to her ability to explain and clarify the topic.

Great teachers are a gift. They engage us, inform us and if we are receptive, they form us as well. They not only light the fire but provide us with the tools to fan the flame and keep the fire going, often in unexpected places. Like many young professionals, Kate will have an array of career options open to her and I fully expect her to explore several of them. Some will involve extensive travel and work in developing countries; many come with the promise of significant financial reward; still others will involve research in an academic setting. No matter the venue, there is one thing I am sure of: she will gauge her success in large part by her performance as a teacher; in how well she is able to pass along the gift.

So “A hug for my favorite teacher!” As one of her first pupils ever, I raise the coffee mug in salute, happy to know that I won’t be the last!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Morning Person

I love the early morning. It is so serene, it's almost silky. Sneaking out of bed, I dress in the dark, careful to not wake my husband. Dressing in the dark produces some amusing results: backward facing turtle necks, inside out undies, and unrelated socks. I admit up front that tiptoeing around like this is motivated less by altruism than by a desire to have the house to myself - at least for an hour or two.

Once downstairs, I fill the tea kettle and feed the cat, take the dog out while I pick up the newspapers - he knows his assignment at this point. Back in the house, I make the tea, build a fire, give Barley his ration of kibbles, and sink into "the chair" with a book, The Economist, or something equally meaty. Quiet and cozy, it is the perfect time of day to become lost in thought. The dog that has slept for the past eight hours like - well a dog - seems intent on logging another two or three. I have a full pot of tea and toast at my elbow – now let the day begin!

Right before dawn, a pair of bald eagles flies over, nattering to one another about their sleep last night and the fishing prospects for the day ahead. My early morning read has produced ample fodder to occupy my mind for the next few hours. It is pure magic and I wouldn't miss out this ritual for the world. Rising early manages to not only extend the day but to enhance it as well.

Not everyone in my family is a morning person. My mother certainly wasn't. As a small child I knew better than to attempt to engage her in conversation at first light. Mornings were preternaturally quiet in the kitchen as we all followed some unarticulated edict that speech would be confined to single syllable utterances in low modulated tones; for the most part, speech was unnecessary. Nods and looks generally sufficed.

Mother sat beside the wood stove on the bench in her flannel bathrobe, drinking coffee and eating an orange. To this day the combined smell of coffee and oranges evokes my mother’s image. I sat on a low stool at her feet contemplating my shoe laces while she brushed and braided my hair. Tying my shoelaces so that they would stay tied was somehow a daunting task for me as a child. Even then I realized that on a daily basis I was failing some sort of domestic intelligence test; still, I am not sure that I ever really put my heart into it. If dad was around, he could be counted on to bail me out. Cuddling up with my father while he showed me how to tie my shoes “just one more time” outweighed any pride of accomplishment that might have accompanied “getting it right.”

Morning people are smug – justifiably so by my lights. By the time the caffeine craving slugabeds make an appearance, morning people have accomplished more than the other folks will by quitting time. Though the topic has never come up explicitly, for years I have assumed that EVERYONE recognized that “morning person” was simply code for superior! I mean really, what could night owls possibly accomplish banging around in the middle of the night?

With this background, you can imagine my chagrin when I recently read some medical report that “confirmed” that as people age, they need less sleep and consequently rise earlier in the day. These nosy parker research types assume that news of this sort will provide some sort of comfort to folks who find themselves awake at 3:00 a.m. Balderdash – as someone who has often intentionally risen at 3:00 a.m. to finish a particularly great book, I certainly do not find it comforting to now be lumped together with a lot of other old farts! Really, give me a break!

Oh I know that eventually we all must bid farewell to the accoutrements of youth– looks, stamina, muscle tone, brain cells. But to have to kiss the central core of my identity good bye, well that is asking a lot and will take some work. For the time being, I will find comfort in short term memory loss about the above study to help me move on. Who needs bad news, after all? In the meantime, see you in the morning. First guy up gets dibs on the chair!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Farewell Double Black Diamonds

Today, as predicted, I showed up for the one year follow up visit with the orthopedic surgeon. Together we looked at the photos of my hip - too bad I couldn't include them in the Christmas letter. "Looks good!" smiles Dr. McKay. "No reason you can't resume your regular activities." That's good, I say to myself, since I have been pretty 'regular' for the past eleven months. "What about skiing?" I ask, as that is the one 'regular' activity that I haven't resumed. This guy trained in Salt Lake, so I think he knows from skiing. "For the next year, you need to be cautious - no jumps, no bumps, no ( by now I am holding my breath) BLACK DIAMONDS! Ski the groomed trails only and we will talk about this again in a year." I suspect he thinks I will be dead by that time and the conversation will never take place! "I'm sorry" he adds as an afterthought.

Little does he know, this is music to my ears. For years, I have been following Fred and Kate down vertical slopes, over moguls, and into the woods in powder up to my arse, often with my eyes closed and a rosary in my glove, alternating between terror and focused fury. Well, never again! "See you at the bottom" I will wave as I get off the lift and head for the recently groomed trail marked with the pretty blue squares.

We are planning a ski trip in March and I can hardly wait. No more knees knocking as I perch at the top of something called "Execution" or "Mach Five." If you make it down the hill and into the bar, I should be pretty easy to spot. I'll be the one smiling and looking smug with a glass of something red in my hand recalling things of the past and those double black diamonds. Sometimes "bad news" isn't all that bad!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An Anniversary, of sorts

Today marks the one year anniversary of what might be termed "my fall from gracefulness" off the bulkhead and onto the beach. An occurrence that triggered a series of events that found me a couple of hours later bumping along in the ambulance to the emergency room. In case you haven't shared that ride, you should know that they ain't wasting money on springs in those rigs! All week long, Barley and I have been debating how best to observe today - napping by the fire was an option one of us raised. We have gone back and forth - do we play it safe and not tempt fate, as in "paranoid, superstitious wuss" or do we "get back on the horse" "bite the bullet" "throw caution to the wind and the stick in the water?" Well, at least I think that was the gist of Barley's argument as he stood at the door with the float in his mouth.

So, we took ourselves off to the beach where by the way the stairs have been repaired. We have returned as full of sand as we are of ourselves! Barley is now having nap by the fire he shunned an hour ago and I have had a shower and made a pot of tea. Tomorrow, I see Dr. McKay who I hope will give me permission to do all the things I have been doing for the past several months. In the meantime, I am republishing the piece I wrote to assuage the wild and crazy stories that circulated around this event. "Defining Moments" was written before blogging. I tried to insert a picture of Barley who figures so prominently in all of this but I will need a little more coaching before that happens.

Defining Moments

Life is filled with defining moments common to most of us – birth, graduation, and marriage. A few of us, experience even more stratospheric occurrences: Pulitzers, summiting on K-2, tracing the human genome. And then, there are folks like yours truly, for whom these defining moments are decidedly more “down to earth.”This is a terra firma story, if ever there was one.

Tuesday, January 13, began much as any other “guilt driven day” in my life when I realized that ohmygosh it had been over a month since I had taken Barley, our not quite 2 year old golden retriever to the beach for swim and a stick toss. Our house sits about ninety feet up from the beach which we access via a series of stairs and switch back trails. The sun was up and the tide was out and our morning errands to town were behind us. Mr. Fun had left a phone message en route to Belize for diving with friends. Kate had promised to call that afternoon – an event that rivals an audience with the Pope.

When Barley and I got down to the bulkhead, we discovered that the last section of stairs from the top of the bulkhead to the beach was missing, a distance of about four feet. Barley easily resolved this by leaping to the beach but I opted for a more cautious approach –sliding backwards down over the logs, confident I would find footing on the second log. Well, I didn’t! Logs that hang out in water are slicker than snot in the winter and I hit the ground like the proverbial ton of bricks.

The sand I landed on was not the stuff that destination weddings or sand castles are made of; this was the bag of cement left out in the rain variety. I spent a fair amount of time in that crumpled position wiggling my toes and considering my options. They were neither many nor great. At this point in the story, you probably expect me to tell you that Barley came over, licked me in the face and then ran off to find help, ala Lassie of “Timmy’s in the well” fame. In truth he was growing more impatient with me by the minute, bringing the stick ever closer to my throwing arm. He had come to play so what on earth was I waiting for? What indeed? I pulled myself up and threw the stick which made us both feel better – I think. Though I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg, eventually I could stay upright without feeling faint. At this point, with the tide coming in and Barley satisfied that our time had not been wasted, we began the trek up the stairs.

The most frequently asked question as I tell this story is how I managed to do just that, given the nature of my injury and the number of stairs. I really don’t know – though I credit ignorance, shock, and luck for my success. When I got to the house, I did the things that any reasonable person might do - swept the floor, built a fire, filled a bag with ice and called a friend. Actually, I called a couple of friends and after debating the pros and cons of doing nothing or doing something, doing something won and 911 was called. I was moving in this direction myself when I realized that I couldn’t get from the family room into the kitchen to put the kettle on for a cup of tea – life without tea is just not worth contemplating.

On the 14th, I had surgery to replace the ball which had broken off of my femur and was free floating in my hip. Kate was there with me for the surgery and Fred made it back from Belize in time to stop by the hospital around midnight for a visit. The two of them organized the house for my homecoming and Kate put together a spread sheet for “Mary Care”, then they went out to dinner to commiserate on their lot and what in the world they were going to do with the “old lady.” Truly the scariest moment for me was when the surgeon told me prior to surgery that I should anticipate 4 – 6 days in the hospital followed by a week in a rehab facility! Yikes – fortunately, for everyone that wasn’t necessary and I came home on Saturday January 17th. I sleep on a “pea princess” bed in the computer room (two mattresses to give it height) walk every day, sometimes with a cane if I can find it. I have physical therapy twice a week and drive myself to my appointments. My pain, which in the ER was a 15 on a scale of 1 – 10, is now minimal.

People are fond of telling me that “this is what happens when you get to be my age” – but I am not buying that. Don’t you believe it either. Maybe thirty years from now, but not today! It was a freak accident and I continue to lead a charmed life and celebrate my great bones.

We have been told that it takes a village to raise a child. When Kate and Micaiah got married, I realized that it took a village and then some to run off a wedding. I can now affirm that when you fall on your fanny, only a village of extraordinary family and friends can bail you out!

I am counting my blessings and you are among them!


Monday, January 11, 2010


Yesterday I spent most of the afternoon pruning rhododendrons and viburnum.The pile at my feet kept growing as I found one more branch that just didn't seem to belong. Before you ask if it is the right time of year to prune, let me tell you that any day in January in the Puget Sound when the rain is not coming down in sheets, is a very good day to prune. I love to prune - it is so decisive and final and yet not forever final, if you know what I mean. In our climate, put a broom stick in the ground and within a few weeks, green shoots start to show up. So with rare exceptions, you can prune with impunity. Yesterday's undertaking was especially sweet, knowing that Kevin - the new gardener in my life- would be here in a couple of days and haul everything to the compost pile. What a joy - comparable to having a helper in the kitchen doing the wash up and the put away while you create some complicated dish requiring nearly every pot and utensil.

Kevin is a minor miracle in my life who came to me totally unbidden - perhaps that is the way all miracles arrive. One can hardly log on to and order one up . A friend called just before Christmas to tell me that she had the most wonderful gardener who knew plants, worked hard, and was looking for a couple more clients. There is always lots to be done in my yard requiring various talents. Some tasks are best considered "grunt work" while others require skill and experience, particularly if the helper is going to work without supervision.

Through the years, I have worked with all sorts of yard helpers, most of whom eventually moved on for a variety of reasons. Often, their decision to return to school or "try something different" saved me the uncomfortable task of sacking them. Some treated the job as if they were family members -working at their convenience rather than mine! Nearly all of them misplaced or lost tools, dug up plants I had been nurturing leaving the weeds to flourish. A few flat out refused to do what I asked them to, as if the task were subject to discussion! Ultimately I was back to doing things on my own again and much relieved to be rid of them.

So far, Kevin has shown himself to be different in every way. Gardening is what he does and what he likes to do, so he isn't looking for greener pastures with less work and more pay. When he says that he will be here on Thursday morning at 8:30 he arrives at 8:15. Four hours later, he is gone with the tools cleaned and put away and the yard and my disposition much improved thanks to his ministrations.

Gardening is very satisfying work but like many things, it is most pleasurable when you get to do the things you want to do and somebody else takes care of the other stuff. That's what I've got these days and if that's not a miracle, I don't know what is!

Getting Started

It is the little stuff that interests me. Wry or wistful, it is the small stuff that grabs my attention and inspires my writing. This is true of the nuances of relationships as well as the surprises I find in my garden. This blog will meander through the homely stuff of my life; with luck its very ordinariness will resonate with others.

Let us begin with "self improvement." A topic that is near and dear to my heart and one that I assumed I had the corner on, at least as far as my family - well, at least, my husband was concerned. I have embraced projects of all magnitude for years: running, remodeling, and reorganization. From the larger more amorphous goal of trying to be a better person to cleaning off my desk, I have led the charge with or without followers. Generally speaking, my husband has "kept his distance" from such endeavors. Well, no more.

A week ago, he brought home a DVD lecture series- The Nature of the Earth: An Introduction to Geology and announced that we would watch one a night until we completed the thirty-six lectures! It is true that we have talked about taking a geology course for years, generally inspired by a hike in the Cascades or the Olympics, or during a foray into the southwest. Nonetheless, I just assumed that we would continue to dither along in this fashion, satisfied to talk about our ignorance rather than do anything about it.

Clearly I was wrong and didn't even see it coming. We have just completed the first five lectures and the fifth one on the formation of minerals, laced as it was with terms like "neutral system of negatively charged electrons," "multi-isotope elements",certainly separated the wheat from the chaff! I'd like to think that my inability to follow the professor was due to the wine I had consumed rather than a systematic synapse failure. I am giving serious thought to sneaking a repeat on that last lesson.On the bright side, Fred has sworn off Jeopardy until we finish this series, so struggling with the difference between ionic and covalent bonding is not without its rewards.

The specific impetus for this particular self-improvement program is the float trip we are taking in May on the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. We took this same trip in 2004 and there's a lot of "rock talk" when you are in the canyon!

I don't know if this is an aberrant occurrence or if my role as improvement coordinator has been permanently co-opted. That will require revisiting.In the meantime, I had better get after the floors - so far there is very little competition for that role!