Current/Recent Reading List

29 June 2009

Bathroom Humor, or Gotta Love the K&W Crowd

So yesterday we picked my son up from his grandparents at the usual hand-off spot, one of the ubiquitous K&W Cafeterias here in the Old North State, filled with the ubiquitous cafeteria demographic (uh, that would be old people for those of you not versed in the ways of K&W lore).

Since we had just driven in from out of town, I took the first opportunity I could to use the facilities. When walking down the little hallway to the restrooms, I had to make way for several women coming out of their adjacent restroom before I entered the men's room. Apparently an older fellow was right on my heels, because just as I'd settled in to my urinal stall, he sidled in to the one beside me and made a comment about not being sure at first that he was heading for the correct restroom, since so many women were exiting the same area.

Now, I have to say I'm not used to urinal conversations, and I'll confess it is particularly difficult to maintain respectful eye contact in such a situation. But my new-found friend carried on, and let me know about two times in his life when he accidentally found himself in the wrong powder room. It seems that the Cracker Barrell he frequents in Mechanicsville, Virginia has the men's room on the left, and the women's room on the right, but once at a Cracker Barrell in Kentucky he made the mistake of assuming the same configuration, with regrettable consequences. And then there was something about walking into the wrong dressing room at a hotel gala one time.

About all I could manage to get in as a response was, "Well, I think you've got two strikes against you already, huh?" But I'm not sure he heard me, as he had completed his stories and his main task, and had already shuffled off to the sink. Meanwhile I, who had gotten there first, had been to distracted and still hadn't completed my main task - hell, my only task - in there. Never was much good at paying attention to two things at once.

But I do love a good story...

25 June 2009

Summer Vacation Angst - Who Knew?

There are a couple of good essays over at Front Porch Republic, first by Mark Mitchell and then by Jeffrey Pollet regarding the current crop of young'uns we are raising and their senses of gratitude, as opposed to their senses of entitlement.

It's interesting that the spark for both authors is how either their kids, or their friends' kids, are spending time during summer break. Though they are mostly writing about adolescents or college kids, we've been doing a lot of thinking along these lines at our house in relation to our seven year-old. Unlike many we know, we do have choices. He has the luxury/curse of having me around as "House-Dad" all summer. But for about half of the summers over the last three years we still sent him off to YMCA day camp, just so he could have some interaction with other kids, and have some structure to his day. But this year he's been adamant about not wanting to go to camp, and listening to his reasoning, I think I basically get his point: hanging out with other kids is fun for him (except for the bully types), but he finds the activities and structure at camp dull, and he has little control over how he gets to spend his time.

Yes, I could mention to him times not-so-long-ago when he might have been spending his summer working with his parents in the mill, but nonetheless I can sympathize. I loved my wide-open summers as a kid, even as a teenager, and wanted minimum interference. Yes, we belonged to a pool we could go to any day, though I often found that boring after an hour or two. Being home was mostly what I wanted, and like dear old Dad, the boy is probably a bit of a home body.

The problem, of course, is that if he could, he would choose to spend all his free time at home watching Johnny Test or other cartoons, and/or playing video games. The other problem is that I am not a "hey, here are eight fun, structured activities for us to participate in today, son!" kind of Dad. And truth be told, Johnny Test is kind of mesmerizingly funny...

So, what we've worked out thus far is this: he's going to attend an evening Vacation Bible School with a few of his buddies one week, and evening basketball camp for two weeks after that. He's also in the midst of splitting a week at both sets of grandparents' homes. When he's home with me, he has mandatory reading time 2-3 times a day, and he has to do a little writing once a day (The Horror! The Horror! - we've already had a couple of knock-down drag-outs on those latter activities), plus do some minimal chores. Other than this, he can go to friends' houses, or they can come to his. That's about it right now.

What I want to avoid is encouraging the sense of entitlement and sloth mentioned in the essays above, but also forcing the kid into too many activities he doesn't want to (and doesn't have to) participate in. I guess my aim is, to paraphrase Polonius, "Neither a spoiled couch potato nor an organization kid be."

23 June 2009

Summer Sketch #1

A man who has lived a life of rot has been death’s companion day by day, and yet finds a way still open to him. He knows he can take it, and follow it back towards those he has blown apart. They see him, have known him, looming there all along, even as miles and mountains and widest rivers separate them. He will come, and they sense it, because a way is still open to him, and like all but the truly damned, he still glories in life.

Small talk will be his only possession until he earns something better, but he may use it as a weapon, they know, or as endless shelter. For a time it will be his only means of saying what he can’t say - they know this too, but know it may end up being all he can say, and the hidden words may never spring to the surface, so that all may remain dry, and worse than that, dry with no promise of hope. His daughters , for this, will shun him and accept the moments they cross his shadow only as discomfort to be endured. His sons, for this, will spy him as he walks across distant hills or passes them on county roads, but will mention him not at all.

So he knows what he must one day speak , but it is long past the time he can approach such words as empty gestures, simply means to get by. There also lies death. If there is a last start at such speech, then the words will hold him to the course, to the open way. To cut the words from the way, this time, will close it forever; to start down the way is to realize it will never offer itself again, that the words and the way are one - for his children will not listen, will not wait anymore for a ghost of a man. Is it not better to keep off of the open way, to let it tantalize a little longer so that he will at least know it is still there?

He packs his belongings, meager though they are. He looks like hell, he notices, with a quick glance in the mirror, but even amidst the gray hair and sallow cheeks he sees a hint of the boyishness he‘s always recognized. Death has been his companion for so many years, and will always welcome him back with open arms. That is not the embrace he seeks, but why go, only to fall again? For a brief moment, the words flash at him - that is a boy’s question, a boy’s thought, a boy forever a boy. The open way offers nothing but a chance that depends on the strictures of truth, but it is a chance. And he knows they see him, and have known he is coming all along.

17 June 2009

"As School Year Comes To End, Civilization Hangs by Ever-Fraying Thread"

In an alternate universe where I would somehow have anything to do with publishing a local newspaper, I'd make sure headlines like the title for this blog entry were the order of the day. And if you are of my ilk (i.e. neurotically concerned about the ongoing decline of America - which is to say, a normal and rational person) and would have witnessed my school's graduation last Friday, you'd know how such a headline would be appropriate.

It's not that anything completely awful happened at our ceremony, which took place last Friday in the traditional small (er, medium)-town way, on the football field under a baking June sun. But it does strike me how much has changed so quickly. What would have been considered totally inappropriate for graduates or attendees twenty years ago has become de rigueur. It used to be that if a principal asked the attendees to remain quiet until the last graduate's name was called, they did. And if graduates were threatened with not receiving their diplomas due to poor behavior during the ceremony, they knew to tread lightly. Ah, such days of innocence!

When I first started teaching seven years ago, I quickly realized that compliance was no longer universal, but those family members/friends who broke propriety by whooping it up when their special cupcake's name was called were still the exception, and were easy to dismiss (sad to say) with the use of that fine old condemnatory Southernism, "trashy". In the intervening years, now, trashy has apparently become the new appropriate. On Friday I could count on one hand the number of graduates, out of 390 or so walking the stage, who didn't receive a "Whoo! Whoo!" or "Yeeeeaaaahhh-uhhh! That's my baaaay-bee!!" from somewhere in the crowd. It quickly got to the point that: a) I started feeling sorry for the very few who didn't receive loud applause (had no one under 90 come to see them graduate, I wondered?) and b) I became grateful toward those who let out minimalist "whooping" that didn't run over into the next graduate's name; sure they were rude, but not as rude as the worst offenders.

While most of the graduates did walk the stage with dignity, there were quite a few who either struck poses or found distracting ways to acknowledge the clannish adulation they received - little pretend celebrity punks and punkettes, playing out their fondest awards show fantasies.

Speaking of fantasies, it is no wonder that many teachers express the following as a perfect commencement scenario: Everyone is gathered in place, the graduates march and file into their seats, and, just after the opening invocation, a massive thunderstorm suddenly rushes onto the scene, leaving the principal no choice but to pronounce everyone a graduate and send us all running off to our cars.

Sad, huh?

Hear that creaking noise, fellow Westerners...?

07 June 2009

Glad Tidings

On Friday morning at 9 a.m., I silently sat forward in a darkened room, my face bathed in sweat, watching a video monitor, and heard the technician say, "Everything looks really clear today. It looks really good." The doctor came in and confirmed this news for us soon thereafter, and though he wanted one more follow-up just to really play it safe, he said, "Really, I think you can put this out of your minds now." Those words ended one of the most difficult, trying months of our lives.

I struggled for quite a while about when, and how, to write about this, but if you read the Wyfe's blog you know about the ultrasound finding of an echogenic bowel we received back on May 8th. In short, this means the baby's bowel showed up more brightly than normal on the sonogram, and this is a "soft marker" which usually, by itself, indicates nothing. Usually it resolves itself over a few weeks. But that word usually (or often, or most of the time, or frequently) indicates wiggle room, and wiggle room exists because this marker is also associated with Downs syndrome, cystic fibrosis, blockages, and other worrisome scenarios. Though the odds were low, they were about half as low as before, and of course nothing guarantees worry like the phrase, "It's probably nothing; I wouldn't worry about it." So even though we were told that there was no need to drive ourselves crazy over this in the weeks until our follow-up ultrasound, we drove ourselves crazy about it.

It was a month of terrible emotional fluctuations, of internet searches that were more like pleas, of prayers both hesitant and (on a good day) bold, and of many a broken night's sleep. There were days when all I wanted to do was talk out my worries, the way a child keeps picking at a scab; then, especially over the last week, there were days when I couldn't bring myself to mention them even once. A legitimate point we always made to each other was, "Look, it's not like we would love the child any less, and we know people with Downs who are happy and well-adjusted, and whose families have perfectly normal lives." This was all true, absolutely so. But I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of hollowness behind these statements. Many people deal with birth defects, and do so with all the love in their hearts, working through the extra burdens and complications. God bless them. No one, however, wishes for such a scenario.

Certainly, though, there are those who can face uncertainty with a stouter spirit than I can. I managed my way through the last month because I had no choice, and no control. But I did so with white knuckles. It's a hell of a thing to have someone ask you how the baby's doing, or how the pregnancy's going, and to feel you can't offer a convincing smile and a full-fledged "Just fine, thanks!" Then again, who ever promised certainty in this world, either before, during, or after birth? (I know of those who have had much, much worse situations)

We intend now, however, to assume everything is fine, just fine - thank you, Jesus.

And, oh by the way, did I mention it's a girl?