Monday, December 12, 2011

Signs and Wonders

(Cleveland Post December 15, 2011)

The children - literate, middle class, mostly elementary age - gathered around the teacher. The teacher held up a poster with a symbol on it and said, "I bet you all can tell me what this is."

The symbol was a circle, line down the middle with two additional lines sprouting symmetrically from the center in the direction (roughly) of five and seven o'clock. It looks enough like a bird's foot to give credence to one of it's names I had been taught as a child.

With the satisfaction of people who know what they are talking about, the children shouted out in unison "The hippie sign!"

All the grown-ups laughed.

It was, of course, the peace sign.

Peace signs do not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by their response. These children have grown up during a war, live in a time when the peace sign is a fashion statement, particularly on girl's clothes. How could they not know its proper name?

Maybe they did know it and forgot it. Maybe they didn't know. Whatever the reason, the symbol showed up enough to need a name. Maybe they used context clues to give it their own label: the hippie sign.

In reading, context clues are an example of what teachers call a reading strategy. When you encounter a word you don't recognize, look at the words around it to see what they can tell you. It can take you far, but isn't perfect. I remember trying to make 'menstruation' into 'administration' in fifth grade.

The reaction of these children made me wonder: what other symbols have they labeled using context clues?

Do the Stars and Stripes, red, white and blue make them think of "Liberty and justice for all" or the July 4th cookout display at the grocery store? Does Santa Claus make them think of sharing a joyous Christmas morning with their families or of how much loot they expect to rack up? Is the swastika a Nazi symbol or a German symbol and do they know the difference?

What comes to mind when they see religious symbols?

The children are not entirely wrong in labeling the peace sign "The hippie sign." Their answer is a reminder that nothing is obvious to eyes that haven't been taught to see.

It is up to us to teach them to see. For one thing, symbols often give meaning to the things surrounding them, rather than taking meaning from them. A cross on the steeple of a white clapboard church states the building has been set aside for Christian purposes, not that only white clapboard buildings with steeples are churches.

For another, the nature of symbols is such that there is nothing to keep their meaning from changing over time or at the hands of different groups. The hooked cross was used in positive ways by a broad range of cultures before the Nazis adopted it and we came to know it as a swastika. Do our children know there are multiple meanings? Do they know which meanings we ascribe to, which ones we reject?

Ultimately, it comes down to teaching our children about our symbols before someone else does it for us. Peace signs were defined for me by someone who held them and their bearers in contempt. Over time, I met people whom I respected who also aligned themselves with with the peace movement. My perspective enlarged and shifted to the point I was as disgusted seeing peace signs reduced to the "in" fashion accessory as I had been when crosses went through the same craze. Respect, not affection.

The holidays are full of "Look! See! Wow!" moments with children. They are also full of symbols. Take advantage of these teachable moments. Talk with your children, find out what they think they see. Laugh. Read stories together. Sing songs. Learn. Love.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas Peace (Cleveland Post, December 1, 2011)

I opened the cabinet door to put away the plastic container, only to have five other lids cascade onto my head. Argghhhhhhhh! Why, in the season that points to that time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, am I not given a reprieve from gravity, an arguably similar natural law that stands in the way of my household peace and harmony?

And why does it bother me now, when it was just something I dealt with in the preceding eleven months of the year?

Deep breath. Count to ten. Perspective. Patience, patience.

This may be the message we need to hear this time of year, but in order to hear it you pretty much have to go into seclusion, turn off the radio, television, web, phone, and have somebody else sort the mail.


Given the condition of my kitchen cabinets, it may seem odd that Martha Stewart is a hero of mine. She has made a successful career of taking homemaking and homekeeping as the serious charge it is. It is work, sometimes even drudgery, but done for people you love and with the understanding that it will make life run more smoothly. As I tell my children, we clean bathrooms because we like clean bathrooms, not because we like cleaning them.

I bet Martha Stewart isn't hit with an avalanche of plastic lids when she opens a cabinet. And that is as it should be: she has accepted the fallen (gravitationally and otherwise) nature of the world, created systems to meet it head on and committed to implementing them. Perfect, no. But organization can head off the bad words and snitty moods by limiting the damage when the unexpected occurs. This is particularly helpful during the holidays. Assuming, of course, that "organize" actually gets checked off one's to-do list.


It is absurd, all this craziness around Christmas. After all, this baby Jesus grew up to be the one who said to another Martha, "You worry too much."

According to the Gospels of Luke and John, Jesus was a friend of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. He often stayed at their home in Bethany. One day, he arrived with his disciples and Martha went straight to work. Mary didn't. She followed the other disciples and settled in to listen to Jesus teach.

I think most of us can imagine the hurt, the bitterness, the frustration Martha felt. Here she wants everything to be nice for Jesus and his disciples, and Mary has screwed it up by refusing to help.

Not one to take such things lying down, Martha goes to Jesus and demands he make Mary help her in the kitchen. But Jesus says something like "Martha! Chill! We came for the conversation and company, not to be waited on. We can eat any time. Mary gets that."

Oh, the women's Bible study discussions that story brings up! They don't want to argue with Jesus, but, really, doesn't he realize that for folks to eat work must be done? Just like a man!

I like to think he added something akin to "Come join us, Martha. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are really all we need," but Luke's gospel doesn't record that.

What it does say is that worry, hurt, anger, and lack of balance are nothing new. It says that all of us - even women - need to realign our priorities from time to time to make sure we are getting the things that nourish the spirit as well as the body. And in the wondrously screwy way of humanity, that might mean some of us need to get up from the desk and cook something delicious for someone special.


The booby-trapped cabinets convict me of being more like Mary than Martha. I intend to sort them out but the time gets away from me. Kind of the way folks intend to share the Christmas spirit all through the year and start shopping early so they have time to enjoy the season.

We think we can catch up to all of it, the housekeeping and the kindness, in a month. There is something ominous about blowing this particular deadline, that justifies a short temper.

Deep breaths. Patience. Sleep. Perspective.

The cabinets can wait. The deadline is more than met if my children remember love as laughter and fun and peace, not stress, not impatience. That is no small contribution towards peace on earth, good will towards men.

Family Holidays (Cleveland Post, November 17, 2011)

With the holidays on the way, I have been thinking about family and cooking and hospitality. And Joe Lee's thirty odd relatives bedded down in a mill house. The tale of that visit, as recorded in a recent "My Southern Expressions" column, has stuck with me and peeps out when I encounter Thanksgiving-themed ads and articles.

Magazines and advertisements are full of perfectly roasted turkeys and recipes for cranberry and pumpkin treats. Costco has had peppermint bark for over a month. Carpet cleaning and furniture are on sale to help fix up the house in preparation for all the guests.

I also read somewhere that real estate experts say that new houses are shrinking, down from over 2,500 square feet to a little over 2,100 square feet. You could fit at least two mill houses in one of the new ones, if not three. To reduce the square footage, they are getting rid of living rooms, formal dining rooms and mud rooms. I'd give a lot for a mud room.

(For those unfamiliar with mill houses: In the early days of industrialization in North Carolina, building a cotton mill meant building houses for the workers, as there were no towns with a housing market large enough to accommodate them. Mill houses were small, but often - when they were new - a lot nicer than what the mill hands were used to.).

We've got bigger houses now, but you don't hear of folks being as hospitable as Joe's family. Relatives over the age of twelve sleeping on the floor, well, there is just something unseemly about that. And these days, we are more likely to strengthen families ties by keeping a safe distance.

We make jokes about our families, or at least laugh hard enough at the comedians to keep them coming. Not all the jokes are heartwarming.

Troubled family questions keep the advice columnists in business: "Dear Addy, My sister has invited our father for Thanksgiving and he wants to bring the hussy who ruined our family and our mother says she won't come if he does. Help!" Tragic, comic, all at one time.

There is something special about immediate family, but that is also where any problems tend to reside. And even if there are no problems, the mix can get stale. Same folks, same jokes. The smaller the family, the fewer opportunities to hide or change the subject.

Even the turkey and pumpkin pie get old, if the number of recipes for new twists on old favorites that appear this time of year are any indication. So, maybe folks should take an idea from the cooks: add some new ingredients, rearrange the old ones.

It is amazing the change one new adult guest can work on a family gathering. For one thing, it adds new topics of conversation. For another, it can make people mind their manners, and reduce the chance of family laundry getting drug out. And if it doesn't, it might change the fireworks. But sometimes it changes the whole dynamic and fond memories are made.

If you've got thirty relatives, there are lots of conversations and stories - and opportunities to avoid the painful ones. But it's hard to rustle up that many relatives these days. Even if you have them and you love them, the chances they live close enough to come for Thanksgiving are likely slim. (Yet we do travel - Thanksgiving is the worst --oops, I mean busiest --travel time of the year).

I wonder if food only appears to be the center of Thanksgiving because its the one thing we have control over. We may be able to influence the other things for which we are grateful--family, friends, employment--but they are not under our control. That is why they are called blessings.

So, if the holidays have gotten predictable or problematic, maybe the thing to do is to invite some new "ingredients". My mom has this year and I am looking forward to it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

If There's Enough, It's About the Money (Cleveland Post, November 3, 2011)

So, a couple of years ago I informed my husband he could give me gold hoop earrings for Christmas. I hadn't lost a cheap pair in years and deemed I could now be trusted with the real thing.

He obliged. He gave me a lovely pair made of twisted wire, sort of a filigree pattern.

I lost the first one within the hour. Fortunately, we were in the house and it was soon found. Even so, I was not happy.

You see, funny things can happen when you mix women and manufacturing engineering experience. "Pretty" just doesn't cut it any more, not when trouble-shooting inspection reveals how "pretty" will fail way before it should.

The design of the earrings was defective. The clasp was flimsy. The earring easily became tangled in long hair such that, something like tucking a loose strand of hair behind the ear would cause the clasp to come undone. Gravity takes over from there.

I ask you: what idiot would put a cheap clasp on an expensive pair of earrings? Do they not know that such things are often given as gifts, have sentimental value, are expected to be treasured for years? Do they not know that hoops are favored by women with long hair? Do they expect people to shrug off the loss of a Benjamin or two as easily as they would a George?

Or do they just think girls won't notice as long as its shiny and pretty?

Not this girl. Customer complaints are a professional obligation: no continuous improvement without feedback. I collected the receipt and the box and was off to the department store to return them.

In congenial but no-nonsense terms, I explained the defect to the sales associate.

She did not see the problem, did not politely pretend to see the problem or even breathe an insincere "So lucky you found it!" in sisterly commiseration. Not at all interested in this opportunity to improve quality and customer satisfaction, she terminated the debate by rapidly processing the return. She was even less interested in preventing future dissatisfaction, for she tucked the earrings back into the display to sell to the next unsuspecting customer. And her bearing seemed to say, "If you can only afford the low end of the fine jewelry department, then maybe you should stick to the cheap stuff."

I should have used that one economic power I had to register my disgust and walked out, but sometimes I'm a little slow. I picked out a new, more substantially constructed pair of earrings, and left.


The earrings were not the only annoyingly defective gift. Finished with them, I turned to the tape measure. It broke the first time I tried to use it, so I was off to hold them to their lifetime guarantee.

Again, I was prepared to show the sales associate how it was broken. But, like the woman in the jewelry department, he wasn't interested. Like her, he seemed to find my presence annoying, perhaps thinking "Must be nice to have time to worry about such small stuff. He directed me to the shelf where I could find a replacement and that was that.

Strictly speaking, I suppose you could call these "no hassle returns." And, to be fair, it was only a week or so after Christmas, a time when the patience of even the best sales associates have been severely depleted.

But I think that, on a very small scale, they point to the same things that get under the skin of both the Occupy protestors and the Tea Party folks: money talks, but not in the denominations ordinary people carry.

As for my new earrings? The pair didn't survive the summer. I'm back to wearing cheap ones. I don't lose those. And the tape measure still works. When I can find it.

Repeating History (Cleveland Post, October 20, 2011)

I have been fascinated by the past for as long as I can remember. It started out with the dresses - I wanted to live in "olden times" because I wanted to wear pretty dresses when I pretended I was Cinderella going to the ball. Contemporary fashion at this stage in my life was no help. It offered only the ugly present - loud colors, fake fibers, bell bottoms and mini skirts that couldn't twirl.

The desire for long dresses lead me to read historical fiction, which lead to tales of adventure. And, as books for young people are generally written by adults who want youngsters to learn a thing or two, I came out with a respect for history, for education, for knowledge, and for truth (sneaky buggers!).


The past is all around us but usually keeps to itself. Not this week.

Innocently plowing through a book on my "should read" list, I was startled to read about Wall Street and bailing out the bankers. Occupying Wall Street wasn't an option for the people on the page, but the blame for the economic mess had a familiar ring.

A little further on, another zinger: "First it proceeded to save most of the bankers who were not already wholly liquidated, dead or in jail. Usually, that was accomplished, indeed, by having the depositors agree to lose a more or less great part of their savings."

"It" was the New Deal, and the economic disaster being blamed on Wall Street was the Great Depression. The book hiding such electric connections between past and present was The Mind of the South by W. J. Cash It was published in 1941, before 'Great Depression" had earned its capitalization and when there was only the World War.

We've been here before.

Yeah, yeah. Everybody knows "those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it." Or something like that.

That sounds good. But for what purpose do we study history? What do we hope to learn?

How to avoid wars tops the list for me, followed by how to govern justly, and provide citizens with the framework for all to live and prosper.

Just because we learn it, does it mean we have to implement it? I think that, for some things, some folks - with much fidgeting and sweating and embarrassment, answer "no."

Again from The Mind of the South: "The Democratic politicians in Washington who managed the practical distribution of relief funds, observing cannily that money spent in a section which was certain to be Democratic anyhow could have no effect for political purposes...these politicians dealt with Dixie with a striking niggardliness."

According to Cash, Works Progress Administration wages in the South were as little as half of what was paid in other areas less certain to deliver Democratic votes. Surely we know better than to play those games?

And on the subject of fears of political favoritism at the University of North Carolina, William Powell writes in North Carolina Over Four Centuries: "Republicans charged that non-Federalists were dismissed from the faculty, that anti-Republican books were used, and that the young men of the state lost their Republican principles after a stay in Chapel Hill." The Republican legislature took steps against the university, only to draw criticism from around the country.

Of course, this legislature was acting at the opening of the 19th century, and these Republicans were Democratic Republicans, evolutionary forebears of Democrats as we know them. Last week's elections show some (on both sides) still see monkeying with education as a partisan tool.


Back when the past mainly held my interest with satin and petticoats, it offered one other attraction. Security. Watching your parents watch the evening news in the late 60s was a scary thing. Society was changing in a very disorderly and disrespectful manner. There was a sense that "back then," society had been orderly, that folks knew what things were proper and how to properly do them, and all those other problems could be worked out politely if people would just be patient.

That perception is not history. It is nostalgia.

As a culture, we've been here before. As individuals in this place and time, this is new territory. We haven't got everything worked out the way it ought to be, and even things that are settled don't stay that way.

There's still lots of adventure to go around.

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You (Cleveland Post, October 6, 2011)

Parent -child communication is a truly fascinating thing, if you stop and think about it.

When they are babies, the conversation revolves around food, comfort, security. They fuss, we check to see which end needs attention. Fed, snuggled or freshly diapered, the fussing stops, everybody's happy. Words are not necessary, but Mama and Daddy talk anyway because, well, that's what humans do.

And, miraculously, children learn those words. "Mama," "Daddy," "blankie," "cookie." As their bodies learn to toddle, their mouths and brains develop, and they learn to say them in a manner increasingly recognizable to the general population.

At first, children seem truly delighted to have figured out how communication works. Daddy says "Bring me the ball" and daughter excitedly picks it up and carries it to him. Daddy says, "Thank you!" Daughter claps and laughs. She is on the same page as Daddy, they have had a complete interaction, carried out to everybody's satisfaction.

Life is good.

But it is not linear, at least from a parent's perspective. Mama and Daddy want the lessons to proceed such that more complex instructions are given, more complicated tasks are completed with everybody laughing and clapping at the end. Ha.

Because it seems that the next lesson learned has more to do with binary logic, those ones and zeros of our digital age: yes or no. Having demonstrated to themselves they can do what Mama or Daddy ask, doing it is no longer that much fun. They learn to say "no."

Mama and Daddy make funny faces and noises when that happens!

Children want to learn logic? Mama and Daddy are glad to oblige. "You may have desert, but you have to finish your peas first."

It is not always pleasant but progress advances on this front, too. The stubbornness and disobedience get boring - or, at least, unprofitable- and they move on to something else.

In my experience, there are occasional phases in which children really want to help. And they are helpful. They are learning what its like to be part of a team and it's fun. (Enjoy them while they last!)

If a child has heard any lectures about setting an example for their younger siblings, opportunities that involve helping Mama while showing up said siblings have particular appeal.

But somewhere along the line what I call the Lawyer Function of the brain begins to develop in earnest. Communication deteriorates. Maybe it has something to do with going to school, with all those behavior rules and classroom procedures to learn. And there are all those reminders, "Follow instructions carefully."

Maybe its just that after more than eight hours of being cooperative, attentive, and obedient, the child has had it. Or maybe its just a coincidence.

Whatever the reason, chores down proudly by a toddler become just too much for an older child.

Mama: "Pick up those shoes!"

Child: (groans and picks up shoes, moves them randomly - perhaps even to the proper room, then puts them down.)

Thirty minutes later, Mama trips over the shoes again.

Mama: Come pick up these shoes!

Child: "I did pick them up!"

Mama: "Put them away!"

Child: "Jeez, why didn't you say that?"

Jeez, indeed.

So, as all parents must do, you adjust.

Mama: "Pick up your shoes. Very good. Now, take them to your room and put them in your closet. Don't forget to close the closet door."

Child: "Quit telling me what to do!"


The thing is, the solution is really quite simple.

Mama: "If you did what I told you to the first time, then the four reminders it usually takes to get the job done would go away! That's an 80% reduction in nagging!"

And, if you sense the presence of a "teachable moment," you can kick it up to the next level and really blow their minds:

Mama: "Of course, if you do your chores without being reminded, I won't have to tell you what to do at all. Isn't that what you want?"

Child: (stunned silence).

So obvious.


The Home Team (Cleveland Post, September 22, 2011)

Sometime in our first year of marriage, my husband gave me the most wonderful gift.

I was on my high horse about something, something that seemed important at the time. I proceeded to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that I was going to do what I was going to do. My tone said quite plainly that he had just better like it because I would fight for it if necessary.

When I stopped to catch my breath, he looked at me, a little puzzled, and said, "I am on your side, you know."

That shut my mouth.

Courtship being over, I had assumed I would face opposition. I expected my judgment to be questioned. I expected a preemptive strike to expose as-yet-to-be-identified threats to him or his honor lying hidden in my idea. Such was my experience.

Not his. His default assumption was that I would look after his interests no less than I would look after my own. There was no opposition. He trusted me. Wow.

On the one hand, this should be a "Well, duh!" moment. After all, marriage is supposed to be about two becoming one, "gettin' hitched" to pull as a team.

But as I got to thinking about it, I realized how loudly the teamwork message got drowned out in popular culture. Marital conflict is fertile ground for comedy, and comedy sells way better than earnest romance.

It is, after all, 'the battle of the sexes." On TV, it was Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, Fred and Wilma Flintstone, Archie and Edith Bunker. The battle grinds on in the long-running comic strips, like Hagar the Horrible and Beetle Bailey.

Sneakiness was a key plot element. One spouse was always trying to get away with something behind the other's back. I guess children can relate to wanting something they are told they can't have, presumably by someone who knows best.

Cartoons taught me that the wife always had a frying pan with which to beat her husband over the head when he came home late. The animated clanging and warping of the frying pan was hilarious. So, when my oldest brother and I played house, I procured my mother's 10" cast iron frying pan to use as demonstrated on TV. No, I never actually hit him with it. At least, I don't think I did. If I did, it wasn't that hard.

Marriage stereotypes show up in advertising, too. There are the ads where the wife saves the oblivious husband from a trip to the store and nasty computer viruses, or the dad only gets his family's attention when he buys them new phones.

Then there are the ones about money, where the wife comes home from a shopping spree, hidden by all the packages. These female fiscal irresponsibilities are often pitched as payback for the male transgressions: new, cool, expensive, unnecessary, and (if the guy's on a roll) totally useless gadget.

Over and over again, on television and on the radio. They are meant to sell products to adults, but they unconsciously convey ideas to children. And they wouldn't work if they didn't hold an element of truth.

Selfishness. Suspicion. Distrust. Superiority. There was no doubt that Ricky and Lucy loved each other, but for some reason, love didn't lead to trust. And it sure didn't lead Ricky to help Lucy pursue her dreams.

"I'm on your side." Wow.

Recently, I have realized this is an important message for children to hear, too. There is a parent-child version of the conflict. With the start of school, we've been going through a difficult spell. The first couple of weeks it seemed like every conversation, every reminder turned into a battle.

Son: "I want to wear my camo shorts on Friday."

Mama: "Okay, put them in the laundry so I can wash them."

Son: "Gahhhhhhhhh! I hate putting things in the laundry! That's too hard! Why do I have to everything?"

Poor kid. Precious time taken up with things he hates to do, no time to do the stuff he wants to do. It's enough to make a child think the whole world is against him.

Realizing this, I took him aside one afternoon and reminded him that I was, in fact, on his side. And I pointed out how my reminders and discipline were there to help him learn how to make time and space to do the stuff he wanted to do.

I don't know if he heard me. I'll keep trying.

Back to School -- As A Parent (Cleveland Post September 8, 2011)

Everybody who went to school has an opinion about education.

It may go off the radar after graduation. As fast as they can, graduates turn their backs on childhood and look to the start of 'real' life, and a chance to earn some money. Perhaps they journey to far off lands, over to the next county, or just down the road.

They take on more responsibilities, maybe get married and start a family. That leads to worrying about the future, the economy, taxes, and right on up to attention to politics. The day comes when they start listening to the news, and education is right there in the middle of it.

The loudest education news is rarely good. In the last sixty or so years, alarms have been raised about students who can't read, teachers who can't teach, 'new math', social promotion, falling standards, political correctness, revisionist history, violence. Popular wisdom is convinced American education is crumbling and has only to point to the education majors on The Tonight Show's 'Jaywalking' segment to prove its point.

Many find themselves thinking, 'They wouldn't have put up with that mess when I was in school!' Or "They knew better than that where I went to school."

For some of us, this is what's in our heads the day we show up to register our child for kindergarten.

And so, a couple of misspelled words later, a counter-intuitive request for information becomes Evidence: Evidence that Education is Going to Pot in a Picnic Basket.

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

By taking deep breaths and listening more than opining (not an easy thing for me!), I have found a lot to praise in my six years' experience with the teachers and administrators in our school.

The teachers and administrators are professionals. They know their stuff. They work in partnership with parents. They are doing creative, informative and exciting things in the classroom that build a solid foundation for subjects to come.

As someone who hated math, the most exciting things I have seen are in math. Teachers show students a variety of ways to come at a problem in order to solve it. They are challenging the myth that "word" people can not be "math" people. This is a good thing.

Discipline and behavior can be particularly sore points when it comes to children and school. I have seen kindergarten teachers bring their classes from enthusiastic cutting and pasting to silent attentiveness in a count of three. I have seen students come into class, put away their belongings and settle into morning work without a word from the teacher. I have seen students who understand they are there to learn and who do their part maintain an environment that makes learning possible.

I have found that schools in North Carolina have significant local control. While the state sets the curriculum and counties have fundamental policies, there are many things handled differently at each school. As an example, one school may allow homemade cupcakes for birthdays, while the one down the road may require store-bought foods to prevent food-borne illness or allergies. Specific discipline procedures also vary. One size does not fit all.

School officials operate under the huge number of constraints we as a society have placed upon them. Everybody knows this. But knowing doesn't always prepare one for how crazy some requirements can be. They may or may not have anything to do with learning. They are frequently at cross purposes.

Legal requirements govern things from the length of the school day to the quantity of peanut butter on a school-provided PB & J. Fiscal constraints reach their tentacles into issues far beyond the availability of technology in the classroom or the cost of more buses. As Johnston County's Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Ed Croom, said during his Kitchen Table Discussions earlier this year, if Federal law states money must be spent on red pens and only red pens, it can't be used on anything else, even if you don't need red pens.

These obstacles leave lots of room for decisions to look, well, less than brilliant. I still, on occasion, wonder what the world is coming to.

But the fact is that I am quite pleased with the things my children have learned and they ways they have grown through attending Johnston County Schools. That first hand experience and personal satisfaction has to be the foundation of any opinion I hold on education. No matter what they say in the news.

They Didn't Do It That Way When I Was in School! (Cleveland Post, August 25, 2011)

"They didn't do it that way when I was in school." This thought passed through my mind over and over again the first year or two my daughter was in school.

It started with kindergarten orientation and a question on the information form about toilet training. Hidden in the institutional jargon was the question "Can your child go to the bathroom by herself and wipe her own bottom?"

I knew potty training was a controversial issue with some parents, but what, I thought, is the world coming to when there are children entering kindergarten who can't go to the bathroom by themselves?

The arrival of the 'Welcome to School' letter from the teacher and assistant didn't ease my fears: it was informative, cheerful, inviting, but sprinkled with bad grammar and improper punctuation. Educational rigor begins in kindergarten, and if the teachers were not rigorous in their own writing, it could only go downhill from there.

But the letter turned out to be a fluke, not at all representative of the conditions in the classroom. The teacher was great, the TA genuinely loving and supportive in the way that builds character, not ego. The classroom was pleasant, my daughter liked school. I took a deep breath, closed my mouth and concentrated on inputs from my eyes and ears.

I did ask questions, but tried to ask them non-judgmentally. That's not easy.

The crux of the matter is that school is something we all know something about. Everybody spent at least nine years and more likely twelve or thirteen years of their life under the direct influence of a school system. It is something we all feel we can speak on with some authority.

But: what is it that we really know?

For starters, we know what it was like at our school, when we were in it -- how many years ago?

Somewhere into my daughter's third or fourth year in school, it occurred to me to calculate how long it had been since I was in school. Yikes.

And then there was location. Reading, writing and arithmetic may be universal, but the schools instituted to teach them are governed by local ideals. Rural, suburban, and suburbanizing school systems each come at education with different experiences. Further, each principal adds his or her own stamp, for better or worse.

Its mind-boggling to think how much the world has changed since my generation started school. Back then, my parents rented black telephones from the telephone company. The phones had curly cords and rotary dials.

Kindergarten was a half day. We had a real piano in the classroom and my teacher played it while we sang. I didn't learn to read until first grade, when I met Dick and Jane. "New math" came along in third or fourth grade.

Our elementary school averaged between two and three classes per grade and went from kindergarten through sixth grade.

We had safety patrols - older students selected by their teachers to receive special training from the county police and deputized to enforce proper behavior on the bus. They got to wear cool dayglo orange belts and badges, and served as color guards for the school flags.

On the bus, the only kids with assigned seats were those who caused trouble.

Junior high school covered seventh through ninth grade. My year was first to attend the brand-new one. It had a "media center" (not a library) and was air conditioned. It was built with "open" classrooms - movable partitions, few solid walls,-- to make the learning experience more flexible and open.

By ninth grade, they were adding walls.


A school system reflects the world around it. Outside the classroom, we had landed on the moon, resisted Communism by sending young men to bleed and die in Vietnam, and integrated classrooms. We watched Richard Nixon create the Environmental Protection Agency, go to China, and resign in disgrace. We had reacted in horror and outrage as the Arabs embargoed oil, gasoline prices rose and Japan addressed the problem better than Detroit, with small, fuel efficient cars they gladly exported for our use. And, with much pride and many worries about the future, we celebrated our Bicentennial in 1976.

And that was all before I graduated high school.


How were your school years different? I'd love to hear about it. Send me an email at

Talkin' Trash (Cleveland Post, August 11, 2011)

I saw 'em do it. I did. But what to do about it?

I was driving through Garner yesterday and noticed three young men, walking along the sidewalk. I had enough time to decide they were old enough to be in high school but not old enough to drive and to guess they had probably been playing basketball or soccer (shirts off, all sweaty), when the middle one did it. He tossed an empty soda bottle into the woods next to the sidewalk.

I was a little stunned, as I usually am when I see somebody do something particularly stupid. What was this kid thinking? Or not thinking? Has he no sense of responsibility, of civic pride?

I thought about circling around and being part of the village it takes to raise a child. I had room, I had time. But I didn't have the words.

It's one thing to report littering on the highway. When a plastic bag flies out of the back of a truck hauling trash and wraps itself around your right side mirror, and you can see at least part of the vehicle's license plate, you have something to tell the Highway Patrol. They have the language and authority of the law to communicate the point.

And when one is only steps away from a person and she, say, rips the cellophane off her pack of cigarettes and tosses it on the ground, one can politely pick it up and say, "Excuse me, you dropped this."

I have done both.

But this situation flummoxed me.

There were lots of things I could say. I could yell at them, "Hey, don't be a jerk. Pick up your trash." Except I don't respond too well when strangers yell at me, and my goal was for him to change his attitude, not for me to vent my anger.

I could say, in a sweet, non-confrontational, coaxing voice, "Excuse me, but I saw you littering. Please go pick up your trash and dispose of it properly. Thanks, hon."

Except that his bottle was not the first thing to be discarded in those woods, as they were less than a block from a convenience mart. If he thought I was a fool for asking him to retrieve one bottle while ignoring the trash bag's worth of other litter surrounding it, I wouldn't have entirely disagreed with him.

Speaking off the cuff wasn't really an option. I try to be respectful of other people. I try to look at each person and see him or her, not the stereotype indicated by their choice of hat or hairstyle. I try to build rapport, try to point to connections , not differences. Try to be constructive.

This can be a lot for me to manage and I get nervous, so when I open my mouth what comes out is something like, "Hey how are you all don'? Listen, I saw you throw a bottle in the woods back there that's really uncool just 'cause other people did it before you doesn't make it right this is your neighborhood take some pride in it and responsibility for yourself and if its nothing to be proud of well then you can...."

Roll your eyes if you feel you must. I don't blame you. This is why I prefer to write: "quick and to the point" isn't what comes out the first time around.

Still, the question remains: What words could come out of the mouth of an unknown mom in a minivan and make an impression on cool teenage boys in their own world?

I know they care. In a discussion with some young people last year, we talked about what it means to be "from" some where, and about the beauty of a landscape. I asked them what they thought about this place they call home. The first thing mentioned was all the trash on the sides of the roads and that pre-empted any beauty they might have found. There was a vocal contingent that wished they were "from" somewhere else.

So much for instilling civic pride.

I still haven't come up with a constructive but pithy line for those boys.

What would you say?

Road Trips in Time (Cleveland Post, July 28, 2011)

Old Drug Store Road. Cleveland School Road. The old Apex-Macedonia Church Road and Holly Springs Road, widened and upgraded (pun intended!) into Tryon Road, connecting Garner and Cary. Road names fascinate me because they are a key to history. I have been pondering them quite a bit the last several months.

It all started with the puzzle of Cornwallis Road. The name didn't register as an anomaly at first. Growing up in a land of subdivisions and numbered highways, road names were about as meaningful as hexadecimal IP addresses. They needed to name a street in the subdivision so they slapped on girl's names or the names of powerboat manufacturers. Useful, but not significant.

At some point, I had a "duh" moment and made the connection to the Revolutionary War. General Charles Cornwallis crossed from South Carolina into North Carolina in September of 1780, lead his troops up to Guilford Courthouse in Alamance County where he fought the Americans in March of 1781(It was one of those battlefield triumphs that leads to the ultimate loss of the war). After that battle, he made his way down to Wilmington.

Could it be that his route had passed through this part of Johnston County, leaving his name on the road he traveled?

Nope. At least that is the resounding answer given by his well-documented campaign. To get from Alamance County to Wilmington, he went west of us, down to Fayetteville and through Bladen County. When he left Wilmington for Virginia, he stayed to the east, going through Goldsboro and on up to Rocky Mount on a route approximated by present-day US 117 to US 301.

So, why the name? And how long has this road been known by this name?

A historian trying to put together pieces of another historical puzzle may have left a bit of an answer to the second question. Armies weren't the only ones on the move in 1780. Between 1771 and 1816, the man referred to as the father of American Methodism traveled over 300,000 miles (yes, I counted the zeroes correctly). Bishop Francis Asbury diligently recorded his preaching and his journeys in his journal, which was published after his death.

Now, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church on NC 50 near the intersection of NC 42 was founded in 1809, built by John and Susan Leach on land they donated. A history of the church refers to Asbury's journal and states, "he mentions that in 1812 on his way from near Fayetteville to New Bern, he went by Mt. Zion Chapel to preach. Since the old "Cornwallis Trail", which was a much-traveled thoroughfare in those days, ran near the church, this "Mt. Zion Chapel" could have been our Mt. Zion."

So, maybe it has been around a while.

There are other roads named after Cornwallis. A search on "Cornwallis in NC" brings up a number of roads to the west and a few to the east. In addition to the one in Durham and one in Kinston, there is a Cornwallis Drive in Greensboro and one in Mocksville.

As I pondered this question, I have pored over what old maps I can find, and looked closely along any road I happen to be on. One of the things I have noticed is that the roads quite often bear the name of the place to which they lead. New Bethel Church, Cleveland School, Apex-Macedonia Church, Benson Highway, Old Garner Road.

And I wonder: what if some of these Cornwallis Roads were so named because they were the roads that lead to General Cornwallis' encampments, or to the encampments of the American forces opposing him? Were these the roads to follow if you wanted to get in on the fight? Were they used by messengers, or to transport supplies, or by reinforcements from other areas?

I don't know. But I would love to hear from any one who does.


Note on General Cornwallis's troop movments: I found a neat website. is focused on "visualizing and quantifying history." Under the web application heading, there is an interactive map "American Revolution Sites, Events, and Troop Movements" that shows exactly that for dates from May 1780 through April 1781. Information is still being added and there are some limitations, but this is history for a digital age.

Note on history of Mt. Zion Methodist Church: The quotation included above is from a photocopy I found in the Heritage Center in Smithfield. Neither the author or title of the book from which it was taken were included on the photocopy. Any information on this book would be gratefully appreciated.

Actions Speak Loudest (From the Cleveland Post July 14, 2011)

Have you heard about the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools?

It wasn't the students. In 44 schools, going back as many as 10 years, principals and teachers have changed answers on high stakes standardized tests to improve their schools' performance numbers. Of 178 principals and teachers identified as having participated in 2009, 82 have confessed.

The report was released July 5 and is available through the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at Outrageous only begins to describe it.

The report opens with the obvious, "Thousands of school children were harmed..." The discussion of the harm seems to have been limited to those quantifiable pedagogical and regulatory items: deprived of access to additional help for academic weaknesses that likely would have been revealed by untainted results; deprived of effective teaching because it wasn't necessary to achieve the necessary scores; the cumulative damage of experiencing these deprivations over successive years.

Those things point to the curriculum and what the children didn't learn. But to my mind, the greater damage comes from what they did learn.

School is the first official place embryonic citizens are sent to learn about our society. Through the instruction of the teachers and the management of the principal, they are supposed to learn the things they need to succeed in life.

The best traditions of our civilization have determined that these start with reading, writing, arithmetic, and science. These are the tools of thinking, problem solving, exploration, and discovery. They are activated by personal curiosity and motivation, and lead to the kind of competence, confidence, self-reliance and ingenuity that set the United States apart early on. Education is something the student participates in and contributes to, not something that is done to him.

Competent, confident, self-reliant people can find jobs and feed their families. At the bare minimum, they're good for the economy.

Maybe the teachers and principals in Atlanta believe this in theory, or did believe it at one time. It is possible they never believed it, never bought into it because they never had anyone model it for them. And there is evidence that they had to choose between cheat or get fired.

However they came to participate in this betrayal, they have taught their students something quite different. Worse, they have gone a long way towards keeping them from every learning it.

I can imagine the thoughts of a perceptive Atlanta elementary student, particularly given the contemporary emphasis on self-esteem: "My teachers and principal lied to me. They told me I was smart and could do the work. They told me to be honest. They told me they loved me. But behind my back they changed my test answers. They don't think I'm smart. They don't believe I can do the work. And they're teachers, so they must be right."

I imagine that the thoughts of even the most well-behaved middle school students would require some editing for a family newspaper. Their cynical suspicions have been confirmed: "They say success is about education but its not. Its all about money and not what you know but who you know, and whose butt you kiss. Its all a crock."

If I believed that, I'd want to tax the daylights out of rich people, too.

Why does this story matter to us, to anybody outside of Atlanta? There are actually a number of wonky public policy and statistical reasons, including the fact that school systems compare themselves to each other to get a better handle on performance or efficacy of various teaching methods.

And there's the fact that there are discussions in our state about tying teacher pay to performance. Here is evidence that such a relationship creates an incentive to cheat.

But ultimately, I think this mess serves as a cautionary reminder of the role school plays in our society. Schools convey the values of the communities that establish them and the people who run them. Children hear the actions of those adults far more clearly than they do their words. The older they get, the better they get at detecting the discrepancies, and the less tolerant of them they become.

It makes me wonder: if today's students detect lots of discrepancies, how supportive of the public school system will they be when it comes time to educate their children?

And could it be that those uninvolved parents educators worry about so much just learned the wrong lesson when they were in school?

Demon Television...Or Not (From the Cleveland Post, June 30, 3022)

"Nothing but junk on TV these days, kids watch way too much of it and it rots their brains." This is one of the most prized tenets of Curmudgeon-dom.

Which means my License to Curmudge might be in jeopardy, because I'm not too sure of that any more. Sort of.

Don't misunderstand me: I still have a hate-like relationship with television. I like watching history unfold in real time, like the Florida court proceedings in the 2000 election and, of course, the events of 9/11. And there are programs my husband and I watch together and talk about in a way you can't do with books.

But make no mistake: television will suck your brain out and steal your life if you aren't careful. Sitting over there, quietly talking to itself, it is not harmless. Even when you aren't listening, it plants ideas and images in your brain, and it rarely has your best interests at heart. Talk about environmental toxins.

TV is always trying to sell you something, and that, in my opinion, is especially insidious in the case of children. No good can come of the programs they create just to sell toys. No, sirree.


Pokemon cards entered our house this past school year. In case you are not familiar with them, they are the trading and game cards spun off a video game created by Nintendo in 1996. Pokemon (pronounced po-kay-mon) means "pocket monster." Cute name, but definitely monsters.

Our children's interest in the game was followed by desire to watch the TV show, which lead to interest in another franchise marketing show, Bakugon Battle Brawlers. "Bakugon" means "exploding sphere" in Japanese. These toys had come into our lives earlier and are really pretty neat - spheres the size of golf balls that pop open into dragon-like creatures when they come in contact with a magnet.

Now, maybe its just that these TV shows are created according to a different aesthetic. Or maybe they are just really cheap: making the characters' mouths move when they speak just cuts into profits.

Our children's excitement in anticipation of a new episode is matched only by our powerful distaste for anime and bad stereotypes and desire to get as far from the TV as possible.

Yeah, well.

Then I started noticing what happened after the television was turned off.

First, the games. They are creative, unpredictable and encourage the development of logic and strategy. They are not electronic, so all the scoring and rule-keeping is done the old fashioned way. No brain rot or anti-social encouragement here.

Then, kids being kids, there are the unofficial games, the ones that they make up themselves peopled with characters and events from the toy franchises. Children don't limit themselves to cards or toys. Parents may need to limit them to the outside, however.

And then there is the artwork. My daughter began drawing stock characters from the game cards. Now she has ventured out to create her own characters with their own names and stories. And our son, like many before him, discovered his inner artist at the hands of tyranny: drawing these characters (after finishing his class work, of course) was the only way he could play with them in school.

And so I have to reconsider.

At this point, it seems to me that TV only reinforces the values children have already been taught by the humans in their lives. If the adults in the house are curious and like to learn, television will become a tool for learning and exploring. But if a family pays more attention to the people on the screen than they do to each other, then that lesson will far outweigh the value of even the most tedious PBS documentary.

Family relationships come first. And maybe this recognition points to the root and purpose of the best Curmudgeoning: the need to be reminded of the boring stuff we should already know.

I Spy (from the Cleveland Post June 16, 2011)

Summer vacation is here! Time to pack the young 'uns in the car and hit the road for adventure, fun and a visit to Grandma's.

And to while away the time, a challenging game of "I Spy," the most life-shaping game I ever played.

I was not always very good at it. In fact, I was routinely whomped by my oldest brother, never mind that he was two years younger than I.

That boy had the keenest eyesight of anyone I have ever known. "I spy something blue" never referred to something so obvious as the sky. Oh, no. More likely it was the tiny blue dot indicating 'cooling' on the air conditioning control on the dash of the car. It was maddening.

His most impressive feat occurred after our "I spy" days had past. We were driving along a country highway and passed an overgrown back yard with a tarp-covered lump up against the fence. The lump had an exposed tail light that caught his eye. That was enough for him to ID it as a 1966 Dodge Charger, without letting up on the accelerator.

His eye didn't just catch mechanical details. Even as a kid, he was a gifted naturalist. Shark's teeth seemed to materialize on the beach exclusively before his eyes, even though my eyes scanned the same stretch of sand. Wading through the creek together, he could pick out frogs and lizards from the vegetation they sought for protection. Literally close enough to bite me, I would never have seen them if he hadn't pointed them out.

He'd show me, and then I would see. Don't just look for the frog but for the places the frog likes to be. I would keep that in mind and look some more, but by then he'd be on to something else: while I was looking for frogs, he'd have spotted a crayfish. I could not keep up.

But I wanted to. Rivalry is not the only thread binding sibling relationships. Yes, I wanted to hold my own in "I Spy" and find as many sharks' teeth on the beach. But there was more to it than that. Our relationship made his curiosity contagious and gave his interests clout. My attachment to him meant his interests had a claim on me.

I see this in my own children. My son isn't particularly fond of horses but he knows his sister is and so keeps an eye out on her behalf. Similarly, she doesn't like trains but he does and so she notices rail cars on a siding and can be counted on to make disdainful remarks about Thomas merchandise they see in a store (he has outgrown Thomas, you see, and doesn't like to be reminded of his childish past).

This kind of relationship changes how you see the world. Not only does it expand the number of things you see when you look, it broadens the nature of those things. The search for wildlife comes to include the search for signs of wildlife.

But even before that, it modifies your attitude. Yours is not the only self on your mind as you peer out at the world. If that other self sees the world differently, that will change what you see. That is the first step away from accepting the world as described by others and towards letting world reveal itself to you.

Even as a kid, I was a heavy reader, so this was a big (if unnoticed) step. To fairy tales, fantasy and history (fiction and non), I added muscle cars and fishing and bluegrass (that one took a while) and various branches of marine science.

Interestingly, bluegrass lead me to my husband. We have been adding to each other's perspective for a number of years now.

So, if you find yourself stuck in the car on a long trip, try a game of "I spy" to pass the time. It could change your life.

Red, White and Blue, Past, Present and Future (Cleveland Post June 2, 2011)

Stepping Back, Looking Closer: Red, White and Blue, Past, Present and Future


K. S. Volcjak

The holidays are upon us. No, I am not referring to some indecently early Christmas sale. The red, white and blue holidays: Memorial Day, The Last Day of School, Flag Day, Juneteenth, Independence Day.

If we let them, these days can show us the intersection of our past, present and future. We look back, because it is important to remember and consider where we have come from. Just as it takes two points to construct a line, connecting that point from the past to the present can show us where we are going. Connecting that point from the past to where we want to be in the future can tell us something about where we are in the present. And sometimes where we are in the present can yield new understandings of the past which we can use to plot the future.

Independence Day is the lodestar. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Declaration begat the surrender of the British in 1781, the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the disastrous Articles of Confederation and then the Bill of Rights which made the Constitution palatable to the states and so brought into being our present form of government.

But the Constitution had a few blind spots. Something was amiss for it to stand silent and allow a man like John Chavis, a Revolutionary War veteran, Presbyterian minister, and highly regarded educator, to die impoverished in the 1830s because the country he had fought to establish rescinded his right to vote and teach in the aftermath of the actions of another educated black preacher, a man named Nat Turner.

Both North and South looked back to the Declaration and to the Constitution and plotted a course forward, courses that intersected in the Civil War. The victors of the Civil War gave us May 30 as Memorial Day because it was not the anniversary of any battle. Also known as Decoration Day, it took a while to filter south and, in the early days, competed with other dates, such as Jefferson Davis' birthday (June 3).

The Civil War also gave us Juneteenth, a holiday I didn't learn about until recently. It commemorates the events of June 18 and 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, in which the last remaining slaves learned of their emancipation. Although the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863, for obvious reasons it was not recognized by the Confederacy. General Gordon Granger and his Federal troops remedied that upon their arrival in Galveston June 18. On June 19, General Gordon read "General Order No. 3," which begins, "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."

One more step towards the truths we hold to be self-evident. Juneteenth was made an official state holiday in Texas in 1980, and is recognized in 39 other states, including North Carolina.

The Last Day of School is a sort of civic holiday (as is The First Day of School!). As a society, we agreed that education was important enough to be compulsory. A solid public education system is the foundation of a solid democracy. An excellent public education system ought to yield an exceptional democracy. Looking back, looking forward, where are we at present?

And in the midst of these days is Flag Day. On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the United States of America. It wasn't until the Civil War loomed that anyone thought to honor the flag with a day of its own. School teachers in the 1880s provided some momentum for this holiday, but it wasn't until 1916 (in the shadow of the Great War across the Atlantic) that President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 to be Flag Day. In 1949 (in the dropping temperatures of the Cold War) an act of Congress made it National Flag Day.

The flag was not a rallying point in the '60s and '70s. Americans burned American flags in protest and people who didn't agree with the government were branded "un-American."

What rubbish.

One of our greatest accomplishments in the years following 9/11 was learning to recognize the loyalty of the opposition. We may not agree, may think they are war mongering fools or ivory tower dreamers, but we don't label them "un-American."

We have learned that the flag is not a symbol of the current administration, but of something much more powerful. It is the symbol of our hopes and dreams as Americans, for America. The present and the future.

We've come a long way.

Cuttin' Grass (From the Cleveland Post May 19, 2011)

Stepping Back, Looking Closer:

Cuttin' Grass

by K. S. Volcjak

I love to cut grass.


I hadn't done it in nearly eleven years: the division of labor that occurred after my daughter was born left that chore on my husband's list.

I got back to it this past week. I had forgotten how satisfying it was.

Consider: there is a clear, well-defined objective. There is unequivocal, non-judgmental feedback: you can't argue with that little strip you missed smack dab in the middle of the yard, but there's nothing personal in it, either.

Chaos is reduced to order. Calories are burned, muscles are strengthened. Mental equilibrium is re-established, as mowing requires just enough skill and brain activity to clear the mind and put worries in proper perspective. Personal space is created, as the drone of the mower dissuades folks from interupting someone who is so clearly working. All this, while completing a chore.

It is work, but not work as a four-letter word.

For me, taking on the chore of mowing the grass was a strike for self-determination. It was the act of someone who was tough and strong and capable and undeterred by physical discomfort.

I had every reason to never touch a lawn mower: severe allergies, asthma, and excema, all triggered by grass and heat and sweat. But I could not live with the idea of being too fragile, too delicate to venture into the 'real' world and take on this task. I most definitely had something to prove.

Starting the mower all by myself (cussing as necessary at the appropriate times, as I had observed my father do), I manhandled it around trees and up banks, watching ragged greenery fall in fresh windrows behind me. I made my contribution to the family.

And it was done when it was done. There was none of the project creep of "shoulds" and "oughts" that assaulted other tasks such as cleaning my room (I "should" clean out my dresser drawer and I "ought" to go through the junk in my closet). My job was with the mower, and when there was nothing left to mow, that was that.

Fortified with antihistamine and albuterol, I walked nearly every unwooded square foot of our family's yard in Maryland, and, later, of both my lots here in North Carolina.

In my experience, unexpected gifts often come with menial tasks. With mowing, it starts with the discovery of places on your property that you would otherwise never go. Chasing after ragged grass you become intimately acquainted with every bump, depression, and ant hill in your path. You note how the soil is sandy in the back yard but eroded down to the clay in the front. Over time, you note the changes, like how gravity is smoothing and settling sharp edges to flatten a slope. You see and feel the truth of what you know in your mind, that everything grows and changes and shifts with time.

The child in me loves rediscovering the cool, shady, out-of-the-way places. I get ideas - I could put a lovely little planting over here, or a little brick path and some monkey grass to define a sitting area over there. Maybe the children would like to claim a space as their own, to plant and build. Such planning is fun, and hopeful.

The idea of subduing nearly an acre of grass one lawn mower width at a time does seem nutty, even archaic. Surely we can come up with something more efficient. The thing is that this is really the nature of human endeavor: huge jobs, tedious jobs, taken one small step at a time. Long spaces between thinking an idea and bringing it into being.

Farmers have been walking the land like this for millenia. Back and forth, year after year. It yields an intimacy with one's land, a type of belonging, of ownership that has nothing to do with mortgages and deeds.

And that is a precious thing to me, well worth the sweat and discomfort.