One For the Road

Day 31

As so many slicers do, I decided to reflect on what this experience has been like. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed writing once I had an idea. It was very scary to think that I might find myself staring at the computer screen over and over throughout the month under pressure to produce something, and without any ideas at all. I found that keeping a list was helpful to me, and other people who knew that I was doing this challenge helped me by pointing out when something occurred that I could write about. I worked on my ideas as drafts when I had the time and surprised myself by often going back and adding more just because I wanted it to be the very best that I could do.

I felt pressure knowing that anyone could be reading what I wrote. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by putting something out in the world that wasn’t well constructed. I needed time to read and reread what I had written to polish it up. Also, I felt aware of the subject matter that I would choose to write about. Perhaps if I were already retired I wouldn’t feel constrained.

One of my favorite parts of the experience was reading other posts; I truly enjoyed that. They were funny, sad, beautiful and inspiring. Many times they took me down memory lane and I really enjoyed the process of then capturing my own slice in text. I was going to say capturing it on paper, but…. IS paper dead?

The technology gave me fits, but I suppose that is not surprising considering my age. The first time I ever saw a computer I was in a class at my Junior College and the teacher wheeled in a cart with some kind of machine on it. “This”, he announced, “Is a computer. One day it will be very important in your lives.” I gave a mental shrug and probably didn’t run into them again until a decade later when I had returned to University to finish my college degree.

Perhaps I should have started with this next part since it is the most important thing I have to say: “Thank you.” Thank you to all of you who happened upon my posts and read them and took the time to comment. It was heartwarming to see how many kind and sincere people there are in the world. That was the best thing about doing the Slice of Life, and if I could get over my fear of not having anything to write about and of not having a good product to publish, I would like to be a part of this experience again. Thank you for taking the time to read and I wish you all the best.

“May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

Traditional Gaelic blessing

Until next year!

The Contest

Day 30

Spring has arrived here in Northern Illinois as it always does, in fits and starts, and with it the welcome bird song. I don’t know enough about them to know if I am hearing birds that migrated away and have returned, or if these are the birds that over-wintered, now kicking up a ruckus as they stake out their territory and look for mates. But one call that I clearly recognize is the Redwing Blackbird. I had been hearing it for several weeks, but hadn’t yet spotted it, and I knew I would last weekend because my daughter and I had plans to go walking at the Morton Arboretum.

Back in 1991 I was a busy mother of two young children. My mother lived here in Illinois at that time, and she drove to Batavia to work at Mooseheart Lodge every day. We always had an informal competition to see who would spot the first Redwing Blackbird of the season. She had eagle eyes and could also reckon by the sun. She didn’t miss anything when it came to nature, her first love. She always beat me, and enjoyed gloating over her big win. One day she showed up at my house with her little award that she had made for herself.

Mom’s Award

Very cute, Mom! As you can see, when she won the next year as well, she gleefully updated it.

My mom died about 14 years ago, but I have never forgotten our contest, and I inherited the wonderful award after she passed. So this year I knew I would be seeing a Redwing Blackbird soon, and winning the contest, but it’s not much fun to play if there is only one person playing. I decided this year that I would include her in the contest. I told her that I was for sure going to win, but that I would concede the win to her if she was able to make me see some evidence that the bird sighting belonged to her. I would give her a day after I saw the bird to show up in some way. It could be her first name, her middle name, her house number on a license plate, or the name of any of the streets she had lived on. Basically, anything that I could relate to her. Well, I saw the bird, and I kept my eyes peeled looking for some sign that the bird sighting belonged to her and that she had won again. I really did want her to win. She was undefeated, having spotted the bird for years before the award showed up, and for many years afterward, even after moving to California, but there was no memory of her anywhere.

One week later I signed up with a Meetup group for a walk in the forest preserve that she used to take me to when I was a kid. When I arrived I saw that the organizer’s name was Elaine, the same name as my mother. What do you think? Does my mom get credit for another win, or was she too late?

Our Writing Process

Day 29

Kiwi, helping in my office.

Here I sit at my computer, wondering what to write for today’s slice. And of course, here comes my cat, Kiwi, meowing at me. She complains and complains, and works her way over to jumping up onto my lap. She makes a comment as she starts to slide off, due to not being much of a jumper, and I scoop her bottom, saving her, and gaining another cat sound; a throaty meow with a lot of vibrato. My lap is not her ultimate objective; oh no. She clambers awkwardly onto my desk with me struggling to keep her from stomping all over my keyboard. She makes a comment or two; her throaty meows and half muttered half meows and chirps, and she jumps across to the top of my low file cabinet, with yet another comment. This cat does not move without always making some comment. Her objective achieved, she starts chewing on the tall, thin, plastic grass that I have in a pot there, nam nam, nam. I ignore it for a minute and then start to worry about her ingesting some of it, and I get up to scoop her off. Of course she complains and tries to evade me with little muttered squeaks. I hold her for a minute, scritching her ears and hoping that this attention will be enough to make her happy and to not have to go through this process, lather, rinse, repeat, again and again. She complains a few more times and then wanders off, and I have a minute’s peace to contemplate what on earth I will write about today.

A Sense of Humor

Day 28

“Humor is one of life’s greatest blessings.” Mark Twain

I recently took an online survey at work from VIA Institute on Character Strengths and my highest score was in humor. I know that I have a sense of humor but I was surprised to see that it came out as my number one trait. I don’t remember any jokes, except for a couple from my childhood such as the “What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?” variety, but I do appreciate levity.  I like to exaggerate things for effect and draw them out to a ridiculous, and to what I hope, is a funny conclusion.  I can’t help it–my mind flies to the humorous extreme very often.  I like to joke with people.  I know that I do it as a means of self-defense.  Life can be pretty serious and difficult and for me, it is kind of like whistling in the dark; I’ll just hide my true feelings here with a sardonic comment, usually directed at myself. I don’t want to be stressed, or sad, or angry.  I’d rather make a little joke about a situation and diffuse it.

My whole family likes to joke around. Since I only have one family, I’m not sure if this is what other families do as well. Thinking about this subject has me smiling over the many fun times we have had. One memorable Christmas found my brother and I wrapping everything in my high school aged daughter’s bedroom in our old wrapping paper when she was away, starting with the door knob and door, and continuing on with everything, even fashioning a cute little pair of wrapping paper pants for one of her stuffed animals. That Christmas Eve, after my brother had been making jokes all day about the huge amount of gifts that he was expecting, and had left for left for his hotel, I made him a floor to ceiling sized wrapping paper stocking and threw his present into the bottom of it, and hung it from the ceiling. The next morning he entered into the fun, laying it down on the floor, and wriggling his way inside like a snake to retrieve his gift. Much hilarity ensued. I think this has been my favorite slice to write, and I am filled with the memory of a lifetime of fun and kidding around with my family!

One of my favorite authors is PG Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves, who was a masterful humorist.  Whenever I am going through a hard time I love to crawl into one of his books and forget my troubles in his sublime ridiculousness. He once said this about writing: “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.”  I like the musical comedy approach to life, to keep me from becoming too serious and overwhelmed.  It is a nice pressure valve.

I don’t use sarcasm very often, ever since I read that it is actually disguised anger. I’d rather try to be a positive person than vent sideways, passive-aggressive anger all over the place. When I was using dating websites I was always surprised by the number of guys who described themselves as being “fluent in sarcasm”. No thanks. Hard swipe left on that.

The survey from VIA gives you your top strengths, but it also gives you areas of weakness. I think it can be instructive to ponder on why some areas came up as a weakness and to think about if there is any truth to that and if there is something I should do to address that. I was not surprised to see that my top area of weakness is spirituality. And I can’t think of a single joke to make about that.

Family

Day 27

My brother called me and seemed to want to talk about the past.  He lives out in California and is married with one 12-year-old son.  He seemed puzzled and hurt by the fact that we never knew our cousins while we were growing up.  We grew up here in the Chicagoland area, and they lived in New Orleans.  It was a long way apart but he couldn’t understand how someone could have family and not seem to want to ever see them or to know anything about them.  On my mother’s side of the family, there was no extended family as she had been an only child. The aunt who lived in New Orleans was my father’s only sister, and their parents, who lived in Kentucky, would go to visit our cousins in New Orleans every year.  They never came to see us.  It was an odd situation, certainly one beyond the understanding of us children.  My father would go down to spend a week with his parents in Kentucky every summer, so it wasn’t as if they had an estranged relationship, and in later years after he retired he would visit his sister in New Orleans as well.  Perhaps my grandparents did not like my mother because she had converted to Catholicism after the birth of her 3rd child.  When I was older I felt sorry for my dad because I wondered if it hurt his feelings that his parents ignored his children.

My brother continued the conversation, saying that his own idea of a really wonderful retirement would be to be living in a small town with family all around.  I felt bad listening to the hurt in his voice.  A whole lifetime later and that pain of being unseen and unknown by people who loved their other grandchildren still exists.  I share my brother’s fondness for the idea of family living close and wonder if my three brothers and I will be able to do that in retirement.

Looking Back

Traveling to work this morning I heard an old song by a group called Industria del Amor.  They had some hits in the 90s when I was going to college, majoring in Spanish, and it took me right back.  I was remembering two of my old friends and fellow students with whom I lost touch after we graduated.  

The three of us were older students, ranging in age from 30 to 44, and returning to school for either a new direction in life or our first degree.  We were all majoring in Spanish and minoring in Secondary Education; we wanted to be high school Spanish teachers.  We were attending Benedictine University and the classes were very small and several of the upper-level Spanish courses only had 2 or 3 of us with the Professor in her office.  We bonded over our struggles with pesky grammar and difficult literary essays in Spanish.  We bonded, even more, when we went away for a Spanish immersion weekend several times.  In our efforts to become fluent in Spanish we used to listen to the radio.  One of my friends, Sue, used to tape the top forty countdown for us every week.  (I did mention that this was in the ’90s didn’t I?  How times have changed!)  We had great times together around school, and when we got together with our children they had a blast together as well. We enjoyed each other’s company and what we were doing so much that we even got together during the summers to read Spanish literature and have a Book Club.

Graduation time brought difficulties in some of our lives.  A divorce blew my life apart and one of the others of us struggled with the attitudes of the students in her new job, teaching.  We lost touch with each other in the real world, once we were outside of the all-consuming, but uniting struggle of academia.  

It’s almost impossible to believe that 27 years have passed since we graduated; 30 since we first met.  After hearing that song, I rummaged through my email and found an email address for one of my friends.  Hoping that she was still using it, I wrote to her.  I would love to reunite with my old friends at this time of our lives and am very hopeful to hear from her again.

Kiwi

Kiwi

I was teaching some fruit and vegetable names to some kids when we came across the picture of a kiwi.  As I gazed at the round, fuzzy fruit cut in half and showing its bright green insides, I told my class that I had a cat whose name was Kiwi.  I told them I named her that because she is round and fuzzy, and has green eyes.  But that is only half of the reason why she has that name.

I got Kiwi and her sister, Primrose, from a cage at Petsmart the day after Valentine’s Day two years ago.  I knew that I wanted to adopt a bonded pair of older cats because they would be harder to place in a home.  Everyone loves a kitten, but I also love grown cats.  They were about a year and a half old, black and white, and incredibly sweet and gentle.  They had been found in a shed and brought into care where they both gave birth to four kittens within a day.  They were only four months old. They were adopted out but were returned and had spent the holidays in the pet store.

I took them home and started trying to get a sense of who they were and what name would fit with them.  My poor chubby little girls were not the best of jumpers, perhaps because of having been living in cages.  My daughter was sitting on a bed and Kiwi tried to jump up onto it and failed miserably, face planting in the side of the bed.  We tried to control our giggles so as to not embarrass her, and I decided to name her after the Kiwi, the Australian flightless bird.

Thinking About Art

Wassily Kandinsky

Day 24

The other day I was working with a group of students with Autism.  One of the boys, a 3rd-grade student, loves to draw.  We were talking about birds and as a part of the activity, we were drawing a bird, following step-by-step instructions.  He followed his own vision and it was quite remarkable.  His drawing evenly filled all of the space that was given for it and incorporated theme and repetition.  Why were there sketches of eyes recurring in his picture?  Who knows, but the finished product was quite captivating and I could picture it as a mural on a wall.  I asked him if he wanted to add color to it, but he declined; that did not fit his artistic vision.  He said he wanted it to look more like a cartoon.  

As I walk up and down the halls in my elementary school, I admire the art by the children, hanging on the bulletin boards.  Some of it is quite arresting in color, form, and purity of vision.  It starts me wondering about abstract art in particular.  I recently discovered Wassily Kandinsky’s art and I love it, some more than others.  I discovered that I can almost see stories in some of the abstract art.  Some paintings hit me with their use of color and the composition of the piece which can sometimes be like music.

It is interesting to me how many different kinds of art there are and how it appeals to different people.  I just heard on the news that a painting by Andy Warhol of Marilyn Monroe is going to be priced at $200 million dollars, and I don’t care for it at all.  I would be most unhappy if I had to have that hanging in my house, and look at it every day!

They say that art is in the eye of the beholder, and it is true that we do like different styles, but there seems to be some level of sophistication or composition that people instinctively understand to be something special and transcendent.  As much as I admired my student’s abstract composition of the bird, I wouldn’t find any buyers for $200 million for it!

A-Hunting We Will Go

Day 23

This morning my cat Kiwi hopped up onto the coffee table.  I quickly realized that she was not interested in my cup of tea, but was trying to get as close to the ceiling as she could.  She meowed at me with little meows in quick succession and I understood; she had spotted another spider.  I looked up at the ceiling and spotted a large spider by the balcony doors.  She loves to hunt spiders with me.  She makes me laugh because any time I pick her up she is immediately scanning the ceiling with her bright eyes, convinced that the only reason Mom could have to pick her up must be because we are going on a spider hunt.

Now, I don’t kill the spiders in my house.  I practice a live and let live policy with them, appreciating the spiders’ efforts at reducing the bug population.  I always hope that they will catch any of those annoying fruit flies that may be around.  But Kiwi loves spider hunting so much that sometimes I boost her up and she balances well enough on my hands to try to swipe at the spider.  If she does make contact with the spider, it falls down and she can never find it again.  However, we do crawl around a bit, with her meowing, looking for the evasive spider.  If I call her name and point she comes running to look.  I feel a part of the cat pack when we are communicating and hunting together.

 Some people may have watchdogs that bark when there is someone by the house, but I have a watch cat that alerts me to every bug in my house.

Are They Crunchy or Chewy?

Casu marzu cheese and chapulines

The other day I learned something new from a 2nd-grade boy in one of my groups.  We were reading the book “No Monkeys, No Chocolate”, and after we read about the leaf cutter ants that have coffin flies come and lay their eggs in their heads that hatch out into maggots, he had something to tell me.

He told me about a cheese that people ate with maggots in it.  He explained that they had to chew it up carefully to avoid any problems.  I had never heard of this and later that night, I consulted my old friend Google.  Sure enough, on the island of Sardinia, they leave their goat milk cheeses outside so that cheese skipper flies can lay their eggs inside, which hatch out into maggots.  The maggots digest the cheese and turn it into a soft cheese which is eaten along with the wriggling maggots. It is actually illegal to sell this cheese.  I don’t know if I would ever be brave enough to try that, but it reminded me of the time when I did eat an insect so that I wouldn’t hurt a child’s feelings.

Years ago I had a group of 4th-graders who I worked with every day.  They all were of Mexican heritage.  There was one boy in the group who was a little different than the other kids.  Every day he would lament that he had no friends. I did my best to encourage him and everyone in the group was kind to him even though he was a little bit peculiar.  

One day he announced that his grandmother had come visiting from Mexico and that she had brought chapulines, and they were delicious.  Chapulines are grasshoppers and they are indeed eaten in Mexico.  

“Gross!”  the kids exclaimed, and “You eat bugs?”

I jumped to his rescue.  “It’s fine and normal to eat them”, I explained.  “People eat different things all over the world as a part of their culture and we need to respect them. I’m sure they are fine to eat.”  One by one, they began to admit that their families also ate chapulines. Difficult moment averted, we went on with our lesson.

The next day when I went to pick them up from their classrooms, they were whispering together and went to their lockers where they were surreptitiously putting something in their pockets.  I was filled with foreboding and thought “Oh no!  I’m going to have to eat a bug.  I’m going to have to put my money where my culturally tolerant mouth is, and eat a bug!”

Sure enough.  Arriving in my classroom they began to pull dried grasshoppers out of their pockets.  They had brought some for me to try!  I put on my bravest face and the most enthusiastic response that I could muster and asked them how to do it.  They explained that you pulled off the head and the little legs and ate it.  They watched enthralled as I followed their instructions.  In it went!  It actually wasn’t too bad, having a pleasant slightly smokey taste and reminding me of beef jerky a little. It would have been better with a beer, I’m sure.  They very happily had a chapulin eating party but I declined any further offers. One was quite enough!