Book choice #SOL22 21/31

Sometimes during reading conferences I ask students “How do you choose your next book? How do you decide what to read?” My goal is to determine – and help them determine for themselves – if they are independent readers, people likely to read outside of the classroom. In my experience, people who identify themselves as readers may not know exactly where they get book ideas from, but they can usually answer “what will you read next?” with some ease. If they can’t, they can pretty much always tell me where they’ll get ideas.

While I occasionally go through dry spells, I rarely lack for ideas for my next book – this month’s Slice of Life Challenge alone has already yielded more titles than I could possibly read – though this impossibility won’t stop me from trying. As to how I decide what to read next, the truth is that my next book is often determined by what has come in at the library where my on hold list and my checked out list are in a constant battle for supremacy; I watch, bemused, from a distance as each list grows and shrinks, occasionally cheering on one book or another. Sometimes I let one go in disgust or despair. One way or another, what comes in is often what I read.

Letting the library decide on my next book has its downsides. For example, before March Break, two books came in from my holds list AND a friend loaned me two books. During March Break, I chose my reading poorly: the first book began so slowly that I took all week to finish it. Then, today, the first day after break, three more books came in. And now, I’m staring down this stack of books:

So many books, so little time

Which to choose? One came in remarkably early despite a *long* wait list – and I wasn’t near the top, so this is clearly luck. I won’t be able to renew it, so maybe start there? Or maybe start with the one that I checked out first since it’s due first? Or maybe buck the stifling due date system and read the one that is calling my name for no particular reason?

I have a feeling I know where I’ll go – but just in case I change my mind, I’ll probably need to keep these next to my bed. And then, if someone asks what I’m going to read next, I can pretend that I’m just working my way through the stack.

Deported #SOL22 20/31

Look, you need to understand that no matter how I tell this, Erin and Tanya are going to say that I got parts of it wrong. For example, Erin insists that those guns were serious; I maintain that they were more show than threat. And the last time we talked about it, Tanya was a little embarrassed about the tears in the translation part of the story, though when I get to that part, I can never quite suppress a smile. Honestly, I’m not sure any of us have a completely clear picture of what happened because there were a lot of languages involved. And emotions. And those guns.

And I might as well tell you right now that we were young. Stupid young, really, which is the only way to be young if you happen to be studying abroad in Europe for your junior year. Which we were. As a result, we thought we were worldly, but of course we weren’t because we were 20 and studying abroad. And if you’re paying any attention at all, by now you already know that we were ridiculously stunning because we were 20 and studying abroad and that’s how that goes.

One more thing: this is a Spring Break story – the kind that meant adventure and freedom, not minivans and visiting relatives – because of course it’s a Spring Break story. So, let’s recap: This is a hotly contested junior-year-abroad Spring Break story about three pretty 20-year-old girls traveling through Europe. And yes, there are guns and tears and beer.

Our trouble started not long after the train crossed the border into Czechoslovakia (that’s how old this story is). We were chattering away in our compartment when the money-changing guy came in. As we decided how much of one currency to change into the next, a handsome young Czech border guard appeared and asked for our passports. We handed them over and continued to change our money. The guard looked at our passports and returned both mine and Erin’s. He flipped through Tanya’s a second time, then left with it. Suddenly, we were on alert.

Moments later, the first guard returned with others, including an older man who seemed to be in charge. They said something, presumably in Czech. We couldn’t respond. They tried again in German. Between us, Erin, Tanya and I spoke four languages, but only Tanya spoke German even remotely fluently, and it was her passport they were holding.

The conversation was terse. Erin and I were American; Tanya was Canadian. Did she have a visa? No, she didn’t. Our guidebook – she pulled it out – said she didn’t need one. They shook their heads. There had been a change last week and now travelers from the Commonwealth needed a visa. She would have to go back to Vienna to get one.

In the corner of the compartment, the money changer, eyes wide, very slowly counted out bills.

Tanya translated everything. She was going to have to get off the train at the next stop. We were upset, but calm-ish. We started to gather our belongings. The guards stopped us; only Tanya was being deported. Erin and I should go on to Prague.

Maybe it was because we were, in fact, not worldly, or maybe because we were 20, or maybe simply because we were stubborn, but that was not our plan. At some point after being told she had to return alone, Tanya had started crying, but she was still the only one of us who really spoke German. Thus the translation fiasco began.

“Tell them we’re coming with you.”

Tanya turned to the guards and explained. They replied. The tears continued. She turned back to us and translated: “You can’t come with me. Your passports have already been stamped.” Then she added, “You don’t have to go back. We can meet up later.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re staying with you. Tell them we’re not leaving you.”

More tears – hers and ours – as she translated for the guards, who were looking quite uneasy possibly because of all the crying. Unsettled, the guards conferred in Czech. Then they spoke to Tanya in German then she spoke to us in English then we spoke in English and she explained to them in German and they spoke in Czech. This continued for quite a while. Our tears continued unabated.

In the corner of the compartment, the money changer watched.

We never wavered. Tanya would not be deported alone. I think I spoke directly to the captain at one point. We didn’t speak the same languages, but he knew what I meant, tears or no tears. The guards were unhappy, but eventually they gave up. We could stay together.

The money changer left the compartment and armed men took up their post outside our door. Soon enough, the train slowed to a stop, and border patrol herded us out onto the quai. Curious passengers poked their heads out of the windows and watched as the guards installed us on a bench and surrounded us. This was clearly not a passenger stop: aside from the empty quai with our one little bench, the tiny train station had only one room with several tables and a bar. Our bravado gone, the three of us huddled together with our backpacks at our feet.

The minute the train was out of sight, the guards relaxed and started chatting. Suddenly, they were handsome young men, not gun-toting soldiers. As they headed inside to the bar, one of them gestured to us. Did we want to come in?

Shocked, we exchanged glances. We were being deported. By them. And they had GUNS. We couldn’t go into the bar with them. Since she spoke German and was technically the one being deported, we deferred to Tanya. She declined their invitation. They shrugged and went inside for a beer.

Outside, we huddled. We whispered. We tried to be scared. Heck, we were scared, but we were also young. And the guards were having a really good time inside. Minutes passed. We huddled. Finally, Tanya said, “What are we doing?” We left our backpacks and went inside.

The table of guards erupted in cheers as guards raised their mugs. Huzzah! They were delighted. Suddenly brash, Tanya announced she was buying everyone a round – after all, what else was she going to do with that Czech money? – and they cheered us again. The total for all of us came to $7. We sat down and enormous steins of beer appeared. With that, we became what we truly were: a group of young people eager to know more about each other and the world. It wasn’t long before the men were laughing, we were laughing. We muddled through conversations in English, German and French. Questions flew; stories were told.

Some time later, the train back to Vienna finally arrived. The guards gathered themselves and us. They solemnly escorted us onto the train and into first class. They stationed two men outside of our door and appeared very serious all the way back to Austria. After we crossed the border, they turned and waved goodbye, then they left us. Minutes later, the Austrian ticket inspector came in. Obviously we had no tickets and we had to explain what we were doing in first class. As we talked, his face lit up, “Oh yes, I’ve heard all about you” he smile, and he left us in the first class compartment.

When we finally got back to Vienna, it was late – even by our standards – so we used Erin’s father’s emergency credit card. We stayed in a nice hotel and slept deeply. The next morning, Tanya went directly to the embassy and got a visa for entry into Czechoslovakia. That afternoon, we boarded the train to Prague for a second time.

Just as we were settling in, we saw an Australian girl who we had met at the hostel before leaving the first time. She got on the train, and we proceeded to practically shove her off once we found out that she didn’t have a visa. “Trust us! Go to the embassy!” And the train left the station.

This time, when the train stopped at the border, we stuck our heads out the window and waved to “our” squadron of guards. The captain came over to chat.

“You have your visa?” Tanya assured him she did. “Good! You’ll have fun in Prague.”

Only then, as we chatted through the window, did we learn that they had been deporting people regularly since the new visa regulations had come into effect. In the ten days since they had started, not a single group had stayed together – not one. The captain had a daughter about our age. “I hope,” he said, “that she has friends like you.”

Sadly, our border guards weren’t scheduled to be on this train, but they told the current patrol that we were the girls they’d been talking about and to take good care of us on the way to Prague. And they did.

(With gratitude to Erin, who’s been pestering me to write this story and who answered my texts this morning when I needed to double-check bits of pieces of my memory. Potts, Jaeger & White live on!)

Waiting #SOL22 19/31

We are sitting in our car – a minivan, naturally – at a rest stop in the middle of Pennsylvania. It’s beautiful here: a large lawn, squishy from rain and melt, surrounded by trees and sheltered from the highway. Picnic tables dot the slight slope; there’s a good rock for climbing; people are walking their dogs. The weather is perfect, too: sunny with a cool breeze.

I’ve even taken a nice walk because we’ve been sitting here for an hour. Waiting. To return to Canada, we need a negative covid test. We tried to book one at Walgreens but ran into trouble. CVS has tests but not for border crossing. We had assumed that at this point in the pandemic, testing would be easy to find. Apparently, we were wrong. For a few minutes we were stumped, then, delighted with our cleverness, we booked a video test. All we would need to do was buy our own tests and someone would watch our test via video. Perfect! (Plus we got to make jokes about how one advertises for this particular job: would you like to spend the day looking up people’s nostrils? Join our team!)

But here we are. Our drive home is looong. We were on the road day all day yesterday and had planned to be home early afternoon today. We did NOT plan to spend over an hour at a rest area in Pennsylvania – even a nice rest area.

I’ve called the testing service. Their phone lines were jammed, the poor receptionist audibly harried when she said “15 or 20 minutes” about 30 minutes ago.

And so we are waiting, knowing that more time here is more time before we’re home. And I thought I was writing this to complain bitterly, but now that I’ve laid it all out, I realize that no one is grumbling or whining; no one is grumpily sniping at someone who is simply nearby; no one is even generally harrumphing. The kids have (grudgingly) taken a walk; I’ve been knitting and writing; we’ve discussed the iconography of the US one dollar bill (not sure how that happened, but here we are). I tell my students all the time that one reason to write is to straighten out our thoughts, to find out what we’re really thinking. And that is what just happened: I think I’m writing to say that if I have to wait, I’m happy to wait with these people in this space. And that waiting really isn’t the worst thing, even though we are all a little annoyed. After all, there’s the sun and the trees and these people whom I love. And that feels like a lot.

(I still hope the testing site calls soon.)

Update: call ended; all covid tests are negative. We’re on our way home!

Hey, Siri #SOL22 18/31

(This memory came to me after reading Stacey’s slice about her son and Siri.)

He is maybe three when he discovers that the phone will converse with him. “Hey, Siri!” he says, and she always responds. Within minutes, they are best friends. She will answer any question, entertain any flight of fancy. “Would you like me to call you Alien?” she asks, and I swear her electronic voice sounds dubious. “Yes!” he agrees enthusiastically, so she does. (For years, my phone will continue to call my husband “Alien” because I can’t bring myself to change it.)

Phone in hand, Eric wanders away, chatting enthusiastically with the only one who is paying him any attention at all. We adults are in the other room, reminiscing about old times. The older kids are running about, screeching. The house is full: at least one dog, a cat, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, grandparents. And it’s noisy – so noisy that no one really hears a three-year-old having a chat with his new electronic best friend. In fact, none of us really even know where he is until we decide to go out on the pontoon boat. “Have you seen Eric?” we ask. No. No. No. No one knows where he is.

Andre heads towards the back of the house, searching. As he passes through the living room, he hears an argument behind the couch. It sounds as though Siri is telling Eric he is being unreasonable. Just as Andre starts to chuckle, Siri stops playing around: “Ok,” she says, still with that dubious tone, “Dialing Emergency in three… two… one…” Andre lunges for the phone, but Siri is already dialing, and Andre manages to hang up just as the call goes through.

Disaster averted, Andre begins to talk to Eric when the phone rings. It’s the emergency operator who informs this flustered father holding an unhappy toddler that she is supposed to send help to the address of the phone call if the call is terminated. Andre explains. He explains about Siri, about the crowd, the noise, the child. It’s early days with Siri, but the operator understands. She does not send an emergency vehicle. We scoop Eric up, change him into a swim diaper and whisk him away to the boat. He barely notices that his friend is gone.

To this day, Siri is disabled on my phone.

Magic Elixir #SOL22 17/31

I sneak quietly down the carpeted stairs into the basement and open the door to the bathroom. Creak. I freeze for a breath, then carefully close the door. Creak. I wince. I’m trying not to wake my eleven year old who is sleeping in the room next door. It doesn’t work: his tired face peers at me mere moments later.

“Hi, Mom,” he mumbles. “What time is it?”
Late. “Go back to sleep,” I murmur. “It’s just me.”
“I know.” He pauses. “But that door is so creepy.”
“Creaky?”
“No, creepy. It sounds like a haunted house. We need WD-40.”
“Remind me tomorrow,” I say as I take him back to his bedroom, tuck him back under his sheets and kiss his forehead.

In the morning, I find the tool chest in the corner of the pantry, then sift through hammers and pliers, twine and tape until the distinctive blue bottle appears.

Downstairs, I spray the door hinges and carefully wipe away the excess. When I test the door, it closes noiselessly. I feel the brief shimmer of domestic victory and catch the edge of a thought: armed with her magic elixir, Mom slays nightmares.

If only I could so easily vanquish other problems.

Oh, my love, my sleepless child, I’m not yet ready to tell you how much of our world is held together with duct tape and dental floss, WD-40 and willpower. You’ll know; you’ll know. For tonight, at least, let’s pretend that WD-40 will always keep the monsters away.

Delete #SOL22 16/22


A musical response to several hours of inbox tidying.
(to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”)

🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶
One the third day of March Break, my inbox called to me, “It’s time to delete some emails.’
12 million subscriptions
All kinds of updates
Old invitations
Attempts to sell things
Lots of premade lessons
Daily news roundups
Offers of translation

🎶 Messages I’ll never return 🎶

Articles about teaching
Missed webinars
Well-intentioned sharing
And hundreds of unread emails.

🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶

I’ve spent several hours on this project (hours which I could have spent more productively elsewhere, but whatever), and I feel a wonderful sense of lightness. I’ve read a few good articles and gotten past the melancholy of blog posts I’ve missed. I’ve cleaned up three – THREE – email accounts. One will be at zero when I finish commenting on today’s blogs; one is at two; and one we won’t discuss. Just perfect for a rainy day in the middle of March Break.

Alone #SOL22 15/31

“Now I am alone.”
Hamlet 2.2.1

I did not sleep well last night. My brain got all wound up and decided that it was a great time to plan a new unit or two, and my body decided that it was foolish to try to relax when we were just going to wake up sometime anyway. So this morning when everyone else was heading off on another adventure, I begged off.

I come from an all-for-one one-for-all kind of family, so staying behind was really hard. I felt terribly guilty – I kept saying, “I really want to go. It sounds like fun” – and my father, who has organized more outings that we can possibly squeeze into a week, dreamed up multiple ways to include me: “You could nap in the car” and “We can try to come back early.” Luckily, as I brushed my teeth, nearly resigned to joining in, my darling partner reminded me that I am allowed to want quiet. So here I am, alone.

When Hamlet declares “Now I am alone” the players have just left, the stage is empty, and he’s about to give his “O what a rogue” soliloquy in which, among other things, he spends a lot of time wondering what he should do. No one has murdered my father and married my mother (thank goodness!), so my “what next?” is considerably less pressing; I have spent the last hour or so letting go of my lingering guilt about staying home and wondering what on earth I should do.

I am a parent and a teacher during the time of Covid: I am rarely alone for any length of time. In fact, I cannot remember the last time that I was so thoroughly alone – it’s just me, the cat and the dog, and no one is going to interrupt for hours and hours. I’m not in my own house, so no one will call and my internal list of things that I “should” do is shockingly short. Despite that, I’ve needed about an hour of simply sitting to let go.

Now, I am alone. I’ve made a second pot of tea. I am listening to the clock tick and the birds call. Here in this quiet, in this moment of inaction, in a moment I chose for myself, my body is beginning to relax, my mind is starting to unspool. Now I am alone, to fill my time as I wish. Tonight, the players will return and I will be an enthusiastic, even participatory, audience when the stage is full and action inevitable. But for now, I am alone.

Vacation? #SOL22 14/22

Describe your ideal vacation. Does it involve going into a dark, wet, hand-carved, dead-end tunnel with a group of energetic pre-teen boys? If so, today would have been your day.

The last time my children and my nephews were together was July 2019, pre-pandemic. Their reunion during this week of March Break has been, well, loud. In two short days (and today isn’t even nearly over), they have done a “Polar Bear” dip in the lake (54F/12C) – then done it again because their aunt offered them $25 if they do it five times for five minutes and they love money, met their (adorable) baby cousin, convinced their grandfather to take them tubing even if the water is ridiculously cold, gone to (distanced) church, played Dungeons and Dragons (with my partner as their patient Dungeon Master), talked about D&D until we forced them to stop, exhausted their grandparents’ dog (who did not know this much non-stop action was possible), watched 40 gazillion episodes of The Simpsons, and gone on an adventure to Stumphouse Tunnel.

The Stumphouse Tunnel was carved into a mountain in the middle of nowhere South Carolina before the Civil War – apparently as a potential train tunnel. I would be able to tell you more about it, but we didn’t have time to stop and read the signs. We *did* have time to go to the end of the tunnel, climb over top of the tunnel to the peak of the “mountain,” have a picnic, and then go off-trail and clamber down the nearby Issaqueena Falls. The day was gloriously sunny and warm (at least for those of us from Ottawa).

After a few hours of climbing outdoors the kids were almost worn out – but not quite. They contemplated Laser Tag but opted to come home. We’ve played the family version of Cards Against Humanity and some of the adults (ahem – me) took a nap, but there’s still spaghetti pie to make (it’s pi day) and apple pie to eat and at least one movie to watch.

I’m exhausted and as happy as I’ve been for a while: writing on a couch with a cat curled up next to me, listening to boys laughing in the next room, to one boy and his grandfather cooking, to my partner and my stepmother deep in conversation.

Happiness sneaks up on us, doesn’t it? Even when your vacation day involves hiking in a cold, wet tunnel.

Make Writing #SOL22 13/31

I suspect that I found Angela Stockman through my knitting and reading (and all around awesome) friend Lisa Noble, though I honestly can no longer remember. I’ve lurked around Angela for a while – reading her emails, checking out her free units. Not only is she incredibly generous and thoughtful, her specific thinking and doing around writing intrigues me to no end.

Lately, I’ve been reading her work on using “loose parts” to teach writing. I find it fascinating, but each time I think about using it in the classroom I balk: I’m just not very spatial, I tell myself; I haven’t tried this myself, I worry, how will I explain it?

Angela writes, “Offer writers a variety of loose parts to build their ideas, responses, and drafts with.” In this phrase alone, I see all the reasons that loose parts fit with my writing pedagogy: play, multimedia thinking, draft, response… still, I couldn’t do it. Once I almost brought in a tray of thingamambobs, but then I didn’t.

On Friday, a student asked to conference with me about her personal narrative. She knew what she wanted to say, but she couldn’t figure out how to tell the story. She could articulate that the beginning was too long, “too much exposition”, but how could she tell the story without the background? She was stumped.

As we brainstormed, I found myself wanting to take scissors to her work – to physically move pieces around and see what might work where, but of course the writing was on the computer and somehow we couldn’t quite *play* with it. Play – PLAY! Of course!

I reached over to my desk and found some loose parts – a few pen caps, some paper clips; some random yarn (I have no idea – don’t ask) and a box of tacks. I plunked them down on the table where we were working. “Ok,” I said, “bear with me. What if these three pen caps were the aunties…”

We named parts, moved them, played around, and she ended up with this structure:

The final essay structure, minus a pen cap.

“This is great!” she said. “I can see exactly how to do it!”

I could, too, so I snapped a photo as the bell rang and thought, loose parts play. Got it.

Next step: figure out how to incorporate this on purpose. I have a feeling I won’t have much trouble with this now.

Many thanks to Angela Stockman, who doesn’t even know me, but who nevertheless just made my teaching better than it was before. Amazing. (And thanks to Lisa, too, for her neverending encouragement.)

Restaurants, masks & sausage biscuits #SOL22 12/31

Mr. 11 peered uncertainly through the windows, “I think about half of them are wearing masks, maybe a third. I’m taking mine just in case.” He stuffed his mask into his pocket as we got out of the car. The rest of us followed suit, but I doubted we would have a chance to put them on, and I was pretty sure no one was wearing a mask.

As we neared the front doors, another family was leaving. One child had a mask under her chin. “See?” he whispered. “She has one.”

I nodded grimly.

Then I opened the door and took the kids into a restaurant for the first time since the pandemic began. In the US. With no masks. Both boys stiffened a little, then settled as we were shown to a table in the half-full dining area.

I had to admit that it felt weird to me, too, so much so that Andre and I had considered skipping restaurants altogether, but this is our first road trip in two and a half years, and we have to eat.

We looked at our menus. “This feels weird,” the boys glanced around, “but also normal.” We ordered, the boys played the peg game on the table, and the food was out in no time. It was delicious.

Still, we didn’t order dessert and we didn’t linger. In the car afterwards, Mr 11 asked, “Does anyone in the US wear masks?”

His brother scoffed, “No.”

It’s been almost three years since our boys have been in the US. Despite the fact that they are half American, and despite my increasingly desperate desire to have them to know the US beyond the headlines, this place doesn’t feel like theirs right now, and sometimes I wonder if it ever will.

As we settled in for a little more driving, I did what I could: “Americans may not wear masks as much as Canadians, but I bet we’ll be able to get sausage biscuits with gravy for breakfast.”

They weighed these two truths. After a brief pause, one of them piped up, “Yeah, sausage biscuits are amazing.”

And for one night, the balance was restored.