Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas Musings

I love Christmas. I always have. As a kid Christmas meant decorating sugar cookies, twisting a perfect candy cane cookie, watching White Christmas, trips to my grandparents' farmhouse, for a couple years trips to Toronto to visit my other grandparents, time with family, and presents. As I got older not a lot changed. In my teen years I added gift exchanges with friends, Christmas dances, and plans for New Years gatherings. In college Christmas meant a break from school, a semester completed, and a 600 mile trip (1200 miles round trip) to see my boyfriend and my parents and sisters. In 1999 it meant a flight home from Europe on the eve of Y2K. And two years later it meant a wedding day complete with six inches of lake effect snow. Now it means watching my excited children unwrap the gifts they find under the Christmas tree.

I love Christmas, but as I get older I have to admit it has lost some of its "magic." What happened? I became an adult and suddenly the responsibilities of adulthood made much of the Christmas season feel like a chore. I don't get to go Christmas shopping; I have to finish a list and make sure that no one gets left out. Any decorations that I put up I have to put away. I don't get to just decorate cookies; I have to clean up the kitchen once it is all done. The end of the semester doesn't mean I just get a break; it means that I spend part of my break finishing up the last of grading and prepping for the new semester (and no, dear students past and present, I am not looking for empathy since I fully bring it on myself).

I love Christmas and maybe that is why I need to remind myself that the above isn't important. Christmas isn't about decorating, finding the perfect tree, buying and receiving presents, making cookies, eating a lot of yummy and really unhealthy food, and even time with family. That has become a part of our national Christmas tradition, but far too often we forget the Christ child at the center of Christmas. We forget that Advent isn't a countdown to gift opening but instead a preparation for the celebration of the "Word made Flesh." It is preparation for Christ's return. Christmas is about God's love demonstrated through the birth of His only son, a son who would be his mother's pride and joy, a son who would play with his siblings and eventually scare his earthly parents when he chose to stay behind in Jerusalem to learn in the temple. This son would ultimately suffer, die, and rise from the grave to save a world lost in the dark.

I love Christmas and therefore I am not saying we have to let go of the traditions. We don't need to throw out the tree, we don't need to stop listening to Christmas music, we don't need to stop buying and receiving gifts. But while we are doing all that let us remember that Christmas is not the end of a season but the beginning of a 33-year ministry leading to a crucified and risen Christ. Let your Christmas season be blessed with family and relaxation but don't forget the "Reason for the Season."

Monday, September 2, 2013

A House No Longer Home

We didn't buy the house with the intention of staying. It was a second starter home purchased as part of a move. The intention was to live in the house long enough to get our finances in really good shape so we could sell the house and move up. We would get a bigger house, a nicer neighborhood, and then stay in the new house until retirement.

In a good market that plan would have worked. We watched the market take a downturn and when we were informed of a possible job transfer that was most likely going to happen, we watched the market crash.

So much for our "investment."

We moved three years ago and our Indy house is still our house. We are thankful that, unlike many, we have managed to keep our house payments and financial credit mostly intact. There have been a couple missed payments which had to be made up along the way and we still have little to no room for error, but two renters into the three years and we are still making our payments and chipping away little by little on the principle.

That doesn't make the whole situation any less depressing.

This was our second house but really our first home. Our first house we enjoyed but between my husband commuting 120 miles a day and me driving into Chicago every day we didn't have much time there. We slept there, sometimes cooked there, and rarely entertained there, but that was pretty much it. While our Indy house was far from what we wanted, it was our first real home. We painted, tore up floors, tore down a wall, put up a new kitchen, and battled with the weeds in our front flowerbed. We gathered in the backyard around the fire pit we built, shared Easter and Thanksgiving dinners with family and friends, and brought our newborn daughter home there.

And then we had to move. We didn't put our house on the market because we wanted to move up to something bigger and better. We moved because we had to. Like many nationwide we were transferred and now we had the impossible task of selling a house that we needed to sell for more than people were willing to pay. Our second renter has just moved out and we are waiting (I'll admit rather nervously) for the third renter to sign this week. We returned to our old, empty house this weekend to see what kind of condition the house was left in. It's ok. They didn't abuse the house, at least it doesn't appear that way. There are a couple things they tried to cover up. Like that really bad patch job from what appears to be a pet door between our garage and family room. Yeah, they patched it, found matching paint, but I know that wall. I put one coat of primer and two coats of paint on that wall when we redid the kitchen and family room. That bump and the jacked up baseboards weren't there when the last renter moved out. And yeah, I noticed the fresh dirt in the weed and grass filled front flower bed next to the hostas I planted years ago. Hear that former renter? I noticed. But I know that it could be a lot worse. A lot worse.

On the bright side we did buy a new fridge to replace the fridge that started our kitchen renovation project. For the last three years, every time we would discuss getting a bigger deep freeze or looking on Craigslist for a "new" refrigerator we would think longingly about our old refrigerator. That fridge was still ours and was being used by total strangers instead of us. It was time to bring it home with us, where it belonged. Thanks to my awesome brother-in-law helping my husband move one fridge in and our fridge out we now have it at home. It was an "adventure." After arriving back at the house with the new fridge from the Sears outlet store we spent at least an hour trying to figure out how to get our fridge out. I hate the crawl space. I don't miss the crawl space at all, but into the crawl space I squatted through the cobwebs with my husband's cell phone flashlight and I found the refrigerator water line. Since no one could hear me through our screaming children who were enjoying the empty, echoy house, I managed to turn the water off, but not all of the way. After spending forever trying to figure out how to get our fridge out of the house, we went to my sister's house and then my husband and brother-in-law extraordinaire (who seriously injured himself the last time he tried to help us move something big) successfully changed everything out, although we did have to return to the house before bed so that we could make sure the water line was completely shut off.

There were other things to fix. We got parts, like a new kitchen faucet and caulk for the bathroom, but we finally decided that we couldn't deal with it anymore. We needed to get home, to our real home. We left the rest of the repair work for our realtor's handyman. Getting the fridge home continued the adventure. There was a moment when we were getting the fridge from the truck to the garage where I had a flashforward of the fridge careening off of the ramp and either falling backwards on my husband or crashing forwards into the garage door destroying both the fridge and our house. My husband had a flashforward of the fridge falling over on me. Needless to say it left both of us shaking for the next hour, but it is now safely in our utility room.

It's difficult to go back. I hate going back. I don't miss the house and the move was the right thing, but three years later I still struggle with the fact that we had to move. The move led us to a house with potential and brought me a Master's degree and a job that is closer to my dream job than I ever imagined. But there are still days it is difficult. Being back in the house that holds so many memories doesn't help. It's not even bittersweet anymore because it is so far from sweet. It is a tie that keeps me from being able to completely move on. Friendships remain, we still have family ties, but it's the stupid house that keeps us going back. It's a tie I wish we could sever, but it looks like we're still stuck with it.

Our rental experience hasn't been perfect. We've had our fair share of issues but at least the last two renters have left the house clean and mostly ready for the next renter (or buyer if we can ever get rid of the house). A short talk with old neighbors yesterday confirmed that our neighbors two down haven't been so lucky, and we know that before the house next door went to foreclosure the same was true there. Messy, destructive tenants leaving the property much worse than they found it. At least our house is still intact. I guess for now that is the best we can hope for.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Open Letter To My Daughter

To my precious little girl,

I am so thankful that you are still my little girl. I am thankful that you are too young to know the uproar that was caused last weekend when yet another starlet "shocked" fans and parents of fans. I am thankful that you are still too young to ask for permission to watch an awards show on television that I know will expose you to material that is too old for you, material that will challenge your innocence. I am thankful that you are too young to have witnessed a grown man singing about having sex while dancing with a young woman nearly half his age. And I am thankful that you did not have to witness the backlash against the young woman and the delayed response to the actions of the grown man who should have known better, who should have acted better.

I am thankful that you are too young to read and understand stories of judges who give less than a slap on a wrist to a grown man who takes advantage of a young woman. I am thankful that you are too young to understand that there are countries in this world where it is the norm to persecute women who behave immorally while winking at the men who were their partners. I am thankful that you are still too young to understand that there is a universal double-standard for purity.

You are too young to know these things, but I promise to teach you that:
  • You are incredibly special. You will hear this from many people, including your mom and dad. We don't just say it because we are your parents and you are a part of us. We say it because it is true. Do not let anyone take that knowledge away from you. You are better than that.
  • People need to earn your respect. Admire women who have earned that admiration, not girls who have yet to figure out who they are. I did it too. Candice Cameron was DJ Tanner. Keshia Knight-Pulliam was Rudy Huxtable. I grew up with them. I loved them. I admired them. But at some point fiction and reality separated. You may look up to the young women you grow up watching on television and listening to on your iPod, but make them earn your respect. Make them earn your admiration. They are imperfect people susceptible to very public mistakes. Learn from them but do not emulate them.
  • Sexy and beautiful are not synonymous. You are beautiful inside and out. To seek to be sexy is to want boys to love you for the wrong reasons. You will get tired of hearing me say this, especially when you get to high school, but seek boys who love you for the right reasons. Boys who see your beauty and praise it because they admire you, not because you are a prize to be won. Boys who are attracted to your intelligence, not your lack of it. Boys who encourage your creativity, not those who try to suppress it. Do not seek to be something you are not to get a boy to love you. That is not love. This is the model of love you will see from your celebrity peers so do not look to them for dating advice. Demand something better. You may have to wait for it. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.
  • I will always love you. We will fight. We are too much alike to not fight. But I love you. I will love you when you feel awkward. I will love you when the acne attacks. I will love you through the bad hair episodes. I will love you through the first crush. I will love you when that first crush breaks your heart. I will love you through all the storms. You may put up walls and try to shut the door and I will do my best to give you the space when I know you need it, but when you need your mom, you don't have to ask. I will tear those walls down.
  • I do understand you. I do remember what it is like to have younger siblings. I do remember what is like to get that first pair of glasses and be afraid that it will ruin you. I do remember what it is like to not get the part. I do remember what it is like to have your heart broken. I do remember what it is like to have zits show up at the worst possible moment. I do remember what it is to be young and in love with raging hormones. It gets better. I promise that it gets better.
  • Most importantly, you are a forgiven child of God. You are not perfect. You will make mistakes. But He loves you more than your mom and dad ever could and that is a lot. He sacrificed His son for a world estranged from Him. Never forget it. Live your life like you will never forget it.
I do not want to shelter you. I want to protect you. I don't want to pretend the world out there doesn't exist but I want you to grow to understand it. I want you to see the good through the smoky haze of the bad. You are growing up in a dangerous world, but it is possible that it is no more dangerous than the world your grandparents raised me in. I will pray for you and I will do everything I can to prepare you. I will walk with you and talk with you through the minefield, but at some point I will have to let go and believe that you are ready, that I have done everything I can. I will have to leave you in God's hands. You will stumble, but with God's help you will not fall. You are smart, you are strong, and you are beautiful. Don't let the Miley Cyrus's of this world make you forget that.


Your Mom

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Great Window Saga

It all started with a quiet crash. I was cleaning, the kids were quietly playing inside the house and my husband was outside mowing the lawn. Since the kids appeared to be ok and the dog was in her typical do nothing pose, I figured it was from our neighbors. Then Jeff came inside.

"I need you to come outside."


"Just come outside. Kids stay inside, ok?"

Somehow he had managed to hit a small rock with the riding mower that then flew up into our daughter's second story window. Thankfully the rock only went through the outside window, leaving the inside storm window intact. We cleaned up as much as we could and took stock of the situation.

Over the course of three years we had come to the conclusion that our old, wood Pella windows were not nearly as good as they had been when they were installed years ago. We knew we needed new windows but we were going to put it off as long as we could. There were other projects that we wanted to complete first. There were other things we wanted to spend money on instead.

Now our hand had been forced. Our daughter's window needed to be replaced before winter and so we got estimates from a couple places in early June. Window installation was not something we wanted to attempt on our own so we knew we would have to pay for the labor. We finally made the difficult decision that it was going to be more beneficial to replace all of the bedrooms windows and most of the dining and living area windows. Not only would it be an aesthetic improvement but we knew that our windows were far from energy efficient. We found a good deal, were told that they could be installed by the end of the July, and signed the paperwork.

Teachers try to pack as much into the summer months as possible. One glance through this blog should make that perfectly clear. We wanted the windows done before school started. We NEEDED the windows done before school started. We couldn't justify one of us taking time off of work when I had already had time away from work and was available right then.

We were told that the windows were in the store in early July and then we waited and waited, but we never got a call to schedule. When we finally got a hold of someone to schedule, they told me that they had more orders than expected and they wouldn't be able to schedule us until the end of the August. Angry and frustrated my husband and I both started a series of phone calls that finally ended in them finding subcontractors to do our windows for us before the official start of school.

Notice that I said the official start of school. I still had things to do. I had a classroom that needed to be prepped, papers to print and copy, meetings to attend, and colleagues to meet with so we could plan for the year in our respective common classes. It was the start of August, the kids were back at daycare and I was in full teacher mode. They said they could start the Wednesday before school started. I spent all day Wednesday at our house working on the computer and cleaning the house. First I had to wait for them to arrive and then I sat and worked while they spent nearly six hours installing two windows. That's right, two windows. We had a grand total of thirteen windows being installed. They were nice enough guys, appeared to be doing good work, but they were taking forever to do the work. It turns out that one of the two guys had never done replacement windows in old construction. He was used to doing windows for new construction, which explained some of the difficulty. I was assured that they had a pattern down and they would be able to get a lot done on the next day. Thursday morning I headed to my meeting while my husband worked from home all morning. I raced home early from my meeting so that he could go to his meeting and then again worked from home while they worked. By the end of the day all but four replacement windows had been installed. However, three of those windows were going to be the most complicated windows to replace because they were going into our bay window in the dining room.

My husband and I followed the same schedule that Friday, splitting the day in half. When I got back home around noon the bay window replacement still had not taken place and it appeared that little had been done. That afternoon the guy responsible for wrapping the outside of all the windows finally showed up and started wrapping the windows halfway through day three of the installation. By the time they left in the afternoon all the windows were replaced but the finish work still needed to be done. What we had been told would be a three day project was suddenly a four day project. So much for me spending Monday working in my classroom.

Several phone calls later to figure out what was going on with the windows, it was determined that all they had to do was exterior work so we should just be able to leave. The boss suggested that I could just leave the garage open so that they could have access to all their tools. Uh, no. That wasn't happening. When they showed up over half an hour late on Monday morning I asked them to empty their stuff out of the garage so that I could leave for school. That was supposed to be the end of it. It wasn't. As I was headed out to lunch with some of my colleagues I got a phone call saying they needed to get into the house so they could more easily reach the window off of our master bedroom deck. Yes, it would be easier to reach from the inside, but I needed to get work done!

I headed home and continued my work from home, panicking because once again I was spending time at home instead of in my classroom. By the end of the day two windows still needed to be wrapped, tools were placed back into the garage, and we were left to wonder if they were making a career out of our window replacement.

By the end of day five our window work was finally completed. The windows look good and I'm shocked at the difference they make to the aesthetic appearance of our bedrooms and living room. I really didn't think they would make that much of a difference. We'll know in a couple months how much of a difference they make in our heating and cooling bills as those start to come in. And for the first time since we moved into the house I can open ALL of our windows to let in the cooler air. That being said the whole process was way more complicated than we wanted it to be and I would say that I learned a couple things.

One, if we want contractors to do work that we cannot do ourselves we need to make those plans sometime in March or April if we want those tasks to be completed by the end of my summer vacation.

Two, having other people work on our house doesn't necessarily mean fewer headaches, it just means different headaches. If I'm being honest, we could not have done the task even in the time that they did it and it probably wouldn't have been done as well. And I know that there are future tasks at our house that will also need contractor work, but this whole process wasn't headache free.

But we have another home improvement project knocked off of our list and I am relieved that it is done. Now, on to painting and staining trim so I can get those curtains up.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Captured By the Imagination

As a kid I always had an overactive imagination. I loved dressing up, I would play games on my own that were often inspired by movies and television shows I had seen, and I had many conversations with people who were very real to me but could not be seen by the naked eye. I remember making up songs and picking flowers/weeds out of the grass in our Detroit backyard after watching Rumpelstiltskin with my family. For awhile my imaginary friends were Michael, John, and Wendy after watching Peter Pan. For years I was scared of our basement because my parents thought it was a brilliant idea to take their 3-year-old to a re-release of Snow White (sorry, but the Wicked Queen is SCARY). And many of my games for several years were inspired by my love for She-Ra.

It should be no surprise that my little girl, my little clone, operates much the same way, but her adult mother still finds herself confused, amused, flustered, and occasionally frustrated by the imagination that occupies my daughter's world. It's not that I've forgotten what it's like to have an imagination. I just mentioned remembering how much my imagination drove my childhood. It's just that we frequently find it impossible to break into our daughter's world. Once she's in the zone and the imagination has taken over, we have to move mountains to get her back into the real world. And where does this imagination take her (and sometimes us)?

  • When our daughter was two we let her watch Aladdin for the first time. Over the course of a couple weeks she watched it several times in a row and then didn't watch it for months, but her imagination was captured. Soon her imaginary friends became Aladdin, Jasmine, Genie, and occasionally Jafar (which we could never figure out). To her they were real, and we often had to go out of our way to make adjustments to plans, seating arrangements, and how we cleaned so as to not disturb the Aladdin universe. For awhile she carried these imaginary friends around the house and into public in plastic containers (usually an empty margarine container) because that was their home. She would lay blankets all over the floors of our bedroom and hers so that Aladdin, Jasmine, Genie, and Jafar all had their own beds to sleep on. She even worked to find them all their own pillows. We had to explain her obsession with her imaginary friends to caretakers so they would play along and not shatter her world. And two years later we are still dealing with these imaginary friends. She has been married to Aladdin and now Aladdin and Jasmine as her children. We had a near meltdown this weekend while we were camping because our daughter wanted us to pull out the couch in the camper so Aladdin had a place to sleep. Yes she was tired and yes we might have been indulging her, but it was easier to make up a couch for an imaginary friend than to fight her desire to go to sleep over something so small. Usually we are amused by these friends and our daughter's obsession with them. The occasional frustration with slight inconveniences, such as having to pull out a couch for no reason, are worth knowing that our daughter is genuinely happy with these "friends" who have evolved into her "children" as she gets older.
  • Her clothes determine what she is and what world she occupies. She loves to dress up and has worn her two princess dresses thin. We finally had to replace her purple princess dress from Halloween 2010 with a much bigger blue dress for Halloween 2012 so that she could continue to dress up as a princess. Yesterday she pretended she was Cinderella, telling me I had to be the mean step-mother and then quickly retreating to her imaginary world. We had slight drama trying to find a pair of dress shoes that fit her feet so she could have glass slippers and she finally settled for her white summer sandals. She happily played and ran ahead in her poofy dress while we walked our dog together yesterday evening. She ran in the grass, dress flouncing behind her, and was as happy as could be.
  • She is a mother with many children and those children have beds all over the house. We don't dare move those beds for fear that we may disturbed the delicate balance that is her world. That might explain why we still haven't moved the two babies that have been sleeping on the rocking chair ottoman in our bedroom for the last couple weeks. Last night we moved one of her babies from their play table so that we could have a family pizza party in the family room and experienced a near meltdown from our tired little camper. This would be an example of her imagination causing frustration, but it is really hard to be angry with a little girl who is just desperately trying to be a good mother to her many babies.
  • Even before we started camping together as a family she was camping inside and dragging her brother in to participate in the fun. Toys, books, blankets, and pillows have been moved between bedrooms many times this summer, and keeping their rooms remotely clean seems like a lost cause. They have so much fun together, giggling and playing and only occasionally fighting when they are lost together in their camping world. We have discovered that they are much the same when we are real camping. Of course she is still lost in her world. Just last week I had to explain to my daughter that she couldn't leave her brother locked in his room because he was frighted and couldn't get out. In her head he was in a "cave" protected from being attacked by an invisible monster. It caused momentary frustration as I tried to bring her out of "Lydia Land" and back into the land of the living. Adding the frustration was the many Cheerios (or "marshmallows") that littered her brother's floor. I continue to step on these "marshmallows" that were left in the initial clean-up.

I love my daughter and I love that she has such a vivid imagination, but she really is captured by the worlds she creates. So much so that sometimes we have to get down on her level and look her in the eye to bring her back to earth. But that's ok. I would rather she have a vivid imagination than no imagination at all.

People bemoan the loss of childhood and imagination and I have to admit that I dread our daughter growing up too soon. Stores that carry little girls clothing that is barely appropriate for my high school students, movies that celebrate teenage sexuality and dating at younger and younger ages, an Internet that exposes children to things that I didn't know anything about until I was well into high school or later: They all seem intent on making my job as a parent harder. But then I look at my imaginative little girl and I am thankful. For now her world is her world, often inspired by what she sees but carried off by her own thoughts, desires, and experiences. Does it sometimes complicate my life? Yes, but it also makes me laugh, gives me something to post on Facebook, and melts my heart. It gives me hope that the imagination is not lost and that childhood is not a lost cause. If we take away the TV for a little bit and just let them play, let them be, their imaginations will take flight. And I am also aware that it is individualistic. While our son is often carried off with his older sister's games, he is his own little person and his world of cars, books, and balls is not as driven by the imagination as it is by constant activity. It's just one more thing that highlights the differences between our two children, but that's ok. For now we will continue to be delighted, amazed, and occasionally disturbed by where our daughter takes us next.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Time for Honesty

We were living in Wyoming when OJ Simpson drove his white Bronco through southern California in a televised police chase that riveted the country. I was a teenage girl more interested in music, theatre, and boys than in football, so I was clueless as to the identity of the panicked driver. My parents, however, were shocked. Most of America was shocked. Here was a likable football player, loved and respected by his peers and fans, who was being chased down and arrested for the murder of his ex-wife and her male companion. The whole country watched the case unfold in an age before the Internet explosion, before Twitter and Facebook, before everyone with a computer or cell phone believed they had to the right to publicly comment on a case about which they knew nothing. And I sat in chemistry in a classroom full of my white classmates as we watched in shock and awe at the "not guilty" verdict that was announced in real time. It didn't seem right. It didn't seem real. All the evidence pointed at OJ's guilt. But he was acquitted by a jury of his peers in a trial and verdict that highlighted the racial tensions that continued to divide the country at the end of the 20th century. Many whites bemoaned the failure of a justice system that allowed a seemingly guilty man go free. Many blacks celebrated OJ's acquittal as justice for hundreds of years of injustice at the hands of the US government.

Nearly 20 years later we are faced with another case that appears to once again highlight racial tensions in the US, but I believe that the coverage and reactions to this case have made the race discussion far too simple. Because America's issues with race are deep, so very deep, and far from simple. This was a news story that was initially driven by grieving parents fighting for justice, but it was hijacked by a news media eager for a story. And what a story it became.

To my white, Caucasian friends: I realize that many of you don't understand why this is such a big deal, and in the world most of us have grown up in, the idea that deep racial hatred, bigotry, and injustice still exists seems foreign. But it's not foreign to those who still experience it. And those who were behind the driving force that brought George Zimmerman to trial were part of a civil rights movement that was full of violence. These are individuals who cannot forget being forced away from protests by dogs and firehoses. They can't forget being arrested and watching their friends and family be arrested because they were fighting for their constitutional rights. They were told stories in their childhoods about family members who were slaves and denied basic human rights. The Civil War (and slavery) ended 148 years ago, but that didn't end injustice. That didn't end the killing. That didn't end the abuse. For eight years of my childhood I lived an interracial experience in a city that was destroyed by the race riots of the 60s. Detroit never fully recovered. People have tried. People are still trying. I can see that from childhood friends that make their own Facebook posts about the changes being made in the Motor City. But it has a long road ahead of it. We whites like to believe we live in a "post-racial" society. We've grown up more enlightened than our grandparents and great-grandparents. We see interracial couples and wonder why people are making such a fuss about a Cheerios commercial. We have friends of different races and are sure to point it out. We rail against social injustice. We vote for a black president (or just accept him as our president after "our" guy lost) and proclaim it as progress. And yes, we've come a LONG way folks. But racism and injustice still exists. And it is that history that has many African-Americans, young and old, up in arms about the "not guilty" verdict passed down a week ago.

But my black friends, you are not off of the hook. This is going to sound harsh, but here it is. The people of African descent in this country do not hold a monopoly on discrimination, pain, and suffering caused by white America and the primarily white US government. During the 18th and 19th century, while black slaves were suffering at the hands of their owners and then trying to find a place for themselves after the Civil War, the US government was committing genocide (yeah, I said it, genocide) against the Native American people for the right to gain land for colonization and then westward expansion. The Chinese suffered at the hands of Big Business and the railroad as thousands were abused in the building of the railroad that stretched out west. Japanese citizens were imprisoned by their own government during WWII in an effort to "protect" the rest of the country from supposed espionage. A boat of Jewish refuges were sent back to Nazi Germany by the US government, most of them then dying in concentration camps, because we didn't want to take in more Jews than necessary. Arab Americans were arrested and held under suspicion everywhere they went, especially in airports, because of the actions of Muslim terrorists. Slavery was awful. Slavery was inexcusable. The abuses suffered by millions of black slaves for two hundred plus years are something that we continue to answer for. In many ways, the South is still recovering 148 years after slavery was done. Nothing can make up for that. But maybe it is time to start finding some way to move on. The problem is when someone tries to have an honest discussion in attempts to move on, they get blasted from all sides. Just ask Brad Paisley and L.L. Cool J.

Only two people REALLY know what happened the night Trayvon Martin was killed. One of them is dead and the other claims self defense. The teacher in me grieves for the loss of a teenager whose life was cut too short. The parent in me grieves with parents who lost their son way too soon. The truth is that Trayvon's parents reacted the way any reasonable grieving parents would. They fought to have their son's killer caught and arrested and they did everything they could to get him convicted. But it wasn't enough. The verdict wasn't about race, it was about reasonable doubt, and George Zimmerman's peers, who were sequestered from the media circus that the rest of us were subjected to, determined that they didn't have enough evidence to say that he shot in cold blood. Is it possible that Trayvon was a victim of racial profiling? Yep, absolutely, but George Zimmerman wasn't on trial for that; he was on trial for murder. And I would say that Trayvon's parents have an excellent case for a civil suit, especially if they start with the fact that if George Zimmerman had just listened to the 911 operator in the first place and stayed in his car, he might not be a household name and Trayvon's parents might still have their son. And for those of you who say racial profiling doesn't happen anymore, I beg to differ. I have a young woman from one of my AP classes last year who would beg to differ. Bright with a great future in front of her, this young woman stood up in a class full of white peers and talked about being profiled when she hangs out at the mall and other public places with her white friends. It happens, and unless we all become like Stephen Colbert who claims to not see race, it will continue to happen. We can just hope that it doesn't lead to another Trayvon Martin.

Race issues in America are far more complex than just black and white. Unfortunately, in this country (and I could probably argue in most countries worldwide) we discriminate against anyone who looks or sounds different from us. If we're really going to fix the issues between races in America it is time to start practicing a new type of Orwellian doublethink. We need to continue to hold on to our individual heritages and celebrate those differences while at the same time seeing each other as all belonging to the same group: the human race.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

When Bedtime Can Fly Out the Window

I remember when I was three or four. I know it had to be then because there were only two of us girls and my sister was really young. My parents, still young 20-somethings, decided it would be an awesome idea to drive to Windsor to watch the fireworks. And why not? We lived in Detroit and the Canadian border was still easily accessible to American citizens. No passport necessary. Just state your business (watching the fireworks and then returning home) and cross the bridge or tunnel to get to the other side. I don't remember much about the fireworks, but then I've seen many displays in my lifetime so it probably makes sense that this event doesn't stick out to me. But I do remember sleeping, or trying to sleep, in the car while my parents slowly made their way back across the border. I know we got home LATE, but I don't believe that I was any the worse for wear for the event. I'm sure I caught up on the sleep I missed and was back to myself in no time.

Yeah, I can be a judger, and this was especially true before I became a parent. But the longer I am a parent the more I let up on judging other parents when they are out in public. Sometimes I believe the judgements are justified, but I'm finding that I am more often than not feeling empathy for parents who are dealing with all sorts of things. I do have to wonder why some parents have their very small children out at places like Walmart at 11 PM any day of the week when their kids should be in bed. But I don't know their circumstances. They could have odd work schedules or their kids could be bad sleepers and they are trying to wear them out or use the "get into the car and drive" trick. There could be many, many reasons, so who am I to be their judge? They are the ones who have to deal with a tired kid the next day, not me.

Last night my husband and I decided to test the boundaries of bedtime when we took our 2 and 4-year-old to the drive in movie theater to watch Turbo and Despicable Me 2. (This wasn't our daughter's first drive-in movie. We took her a couple times when she was a baby, mostly so that we could watch movies. It worked, kind of. I did miss most of Half Blood Prince because our easy going baby who loved sleep decided to scream through the whole movie, but at least we tried.) We made a run to buy our daughter new PJs (all she had were nightgowns which we deemed inappropriate for this outing); bought a Themacell to keep bugs away (it mostly worked); and gathered drinks, sleeping bags, and pillows to put in the bed of the truck once we got there. The kids were free, so our whole family really got in for one very low price and then we set up the bed of the truck for viewing. Once we had PJs on and popcorn ready to go our kids were ready for a first time experience: watching a movie on a big screen outside as a whole family.

Can't wait for it to start!
It was a really great night. Our son spent most of Turbo climbing all over us, jumping up and down, rubbing his eyes, and then back to climbing all over us. It was an hour and a half of wrestling and violent hugs, but he was happy as could be. He finally crashed HARD minutes into Despicable Me 2 when HE decided that he had just had enough and needed to go to sleep. He slept through the rest of the movie.

Dead asleep
Our daughter stayed awake for both movies and loved each one. It was so much fun to hear her cheer loudly for Turbo when he won the race (with her little brother eagerly copying her every cheer) and comment on the fact that she could easily see the stars and the moon out there in the country. She laughed, she snuggled, and I believe that she had a night with her family that she will remember for the rest of her life.

Watching with Daddy
And that's when it's worth the risk of missed bedtimes. Our kids like their sleep. Our kids NEED their sleep. Both of our kids are fairly well-behaved, but when they are tired that behavior goes right out the window. But last night wasn't about preserving our Saturday sanity. It was about Friday family fun. It was about creating memories for us and for our kids in the midst of our busy lives. I go back to work in two weeks and I will honestly admit that while I'm not ready to start collecting stacks of papers, I am ready to start work on preparing for my best year of teaching yet. But this summer has been awesome. It has had its ups and downs, but the time with my kids and the time with my husband has been full of precious memories, and they are memories we need to keep building, even if it does lead to a little sleepiness.

So we'll see how today goes, once they finally wake up. If all goes well, we may be heading to the ballpark tonight for splash pad and fireworks. Hey, it's all about building memories, right?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Insights of an Introvert

The first indication that I am a true introvert probably came when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember my parents coming home from parent/teacher conferences and telling me that I was doing great (I figured my straight As were evidence of that but whatever). However, my English teacher had commented that while I turned in great work, I didn't talk much in class. This shocked my parents. After all, at home I wouldn't shut up. I had something to say to anyone in our family of six who would listen to me. And actually, I've always been talkative. I have a lot to say, when I'm comfortable in my surroundings. And there's the rub.

Personality tests in both high school and college continued to confirm a diagnosis that I have spent years working to understand and accept: I am an introvert. While I am more borderline than hardcore, I gravitate towards more introverted tendencies than extroverted. I prefer having a close group of friends, I don't like large crowds, I prefer smaller parties, and I HATE making the first move.

I remember my highly energetic psychology professor in college telling us that in his marriage, he was the introvert and his wife was the extrovert. He preferred to sit in a small group and his wife loved to be in big gatherings. It made absolutely no sense. Here was a man who could get up in front of a full lecture hall of college students and freely discuss a wide variety of subjects related to Psych 101 and he was telling us that he was an introvert. Weren't introverts supposed to be people who never talked to anyone? Who kept to themselves? Who were just plain boring? But here I am a high school teacher who willingly and happily gets up in front of over a hundred students a day. In my classroom I'm in my element. High schoolers don't terrify me. Usually they entertain me. And I get to spend all day every day talking about some of my favorite subjects with students who at the very least feign some kind of interest in what I have to say. It didn't make sense to me that a introvert could possibly be a college professor and get up on that teaching stage every day, but now I understand that when it is a stage on which one is completely at home, extrovert/introvert doesn't matter.

I keep hoping that my self-awareness will make me a better parent, especially to my little girl who, at least personality wise, is my near clone. Like me, she loves to play with other kids, she has good friends at school, and she thrives on controlled social interaction. And we know that she has many little friends at school because every time my husband or I drop her off she has several classmates clamoring to tell her hello. But that doesn't change the fact that several mornings she shyly clings to my hand as I drop her off in her classroom, waiting for one of her classmates to invite her over to play with them and join them in whatever activity they began before she arrived. Like me, she won't ask to join in the activity but eagerly does so when invited by her peers. She highlighted this point very recently on two occasions. The first example was when we saw one of her little classmates at the park one evening. She has been home with me all summer (except weekly gymnastics lessons) and so hasn't been around her school friends, but she took forever to warm up and play with this little friend. The second example was when we were camping last weekend. By some strange coincidence we ended up camping right behind their old babysitter and her family. Again, she was shy and took forever to say hello and talk. She just needed a little time to warm up in both situations. Oddly enough, she tends to be more open with strangers in the store than with people that she knows and sees on a regular basis. I will probably always worry about her social development, only because I don't want her to be devoid of any social life, but I know that as long we don't move her too often (or at all) she will be fine and will most likely grow into a highly functional introverted adult.

Being an introvert is not a curse. Often I see the advantages of my "condition," which I only put in quotation marks because there are those who see it as some kind of social disadvantage. Are there times that being an introvert has held me back? Absolutely. While growing up we moved at the most inopportune of times. When we moved in fourth grade I entered a classroom with a group of girls who readily reached out to me and offered me their friendship. I was even invited to a slumber party before the school year started. For two years I had a great core group of girlfriends and was happy as could be. And why not? They had made things easy for the introvert by inviting me into their circle. Then in sixth grade we moved again, at the beginning of those dreaded middle school years. This time making friends was difficult. Adolescents tend to stick to their group of friends and often don't reach out. In a period of mean girls, it is easier to stick with the devil you know than go with the devil you don't. It was a hard transition, not only because of my age but because I was not one to reach out. And the reality for me is that when I try too hard, it tends to blow up in my face. High school was an easier transition because we were all starting at the bottom of the heap and I made great friends with classmates as we learned and suffered together in our classes. Then we moved again my junior year and I was stuck with trying to make friends halfway through high school with people who already had friends they had known most of their life. The few good friends I had those last two years of high school were friendships that grew due to proximity (my locker partner) and activities (friends in choir). Once again I had a hard time stepping out of my comfort zone and initiating friendships, preferring instead to survive the next two years until I was once more a lowly college freshman.

This has crippled me in some ways as an adult as well. When I directed high school theatre I had a difficult time reaching out for help and making phone calls to different people and places when I needed it, and often had to bite the bullet and just do it for the sake of the department and my students. As a teacher I'm not a huge fan of calling parents and prefer to use email whenever possible (my career lifesaver). I tried doing direct sales when we first moved to FW to make money to help us break even but once my small group of contacts ran out my so-called home business dried up. And moving hasn't gotten any easier. I still have a hard time stepping out of myself to reach out, preferring to be invited in as opposed to doing the inviting. I find that when I have to do too much inviting I start to sound needy and desperate. Even as an adult my closest and best friendships are those that have just happened due to proximity and circumstances.

But there are advantages too. First, as a parent I have a frustrating yet keen insight into my daughter's behavior. Frustrating because I hate to watch her clam up, but good because I also know how to help and encourage her without pushing her to do things that will make her truly uncomfortable. She may need encouragement in making friends and inviting them over, and that will require me to step out of my comfort zone as well, but I'll look at it as a growing experience for both of us. Second, as a teacher I am aware that just because a student isn't speaking up it doesn't mean that they don't know what is going on. This does cause some difficulty in the grade department (especially since part of my grading system requires participation) but I know to give grades for things other than just talking in class and to give students a chance to discuss outside of the classroom as well, thanks to the wonders of the internet. Finally, on a personal level I feel it enhances rather than detracts from my own writing. I hate public speaking (which is slightly ironic considering I used to direct theatre) but I have spent nearly 30 years honing my writing skills because that has always been how I communicated best, which might be why I find writing a blog so therapeutic.

I really do try to avoid letting my introverted tendencies hold me back, but in a world that praises the extroverts for taking action I need others to take some time to appreciate and understand the introverts in their lives. I don't prefer to be at home because I am a recluse. I prefer to be at home because it is comfortable and intimate and where I can be most myself. I don't go around inviting people to various functions because I like my quiet time and time with my family, but I love to be included and don't want to be left out of the loop. I'm not usually going to corner you and spout off all of my problems (again, that might be why I blog) but that doesn't mean I don't have them. If something seems to be wrong, I might need to be asked because I tend to keep it to myself (unless, of course, I feel I can share it with the whole world via my blog). And if I don't have an immediate response it might be because I need time to process (maybe even time to write about it) before I can give an honest answer. Treasure the introverts in your life. If you take the time to ask and listen, you might learn that your assumptions were wrong all along.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

When Parking Lot Ultimatums Fail

It was supposed to be a fairly easy and productive day. On the unwritten to-do list for the day: workout, clean house some, fold laundry, work on small pieces of drywall in mudroom. Most of that went out the window with a single trip to Lowes.

The workout was complete and laundry was in the washer waiting to be dried. We headed to Lowes after our nearly daily trip to the Y. I had made sure that this morning we had snacks to hold off hunger until we got home from our "quick" trip. My first mistake had been an hour and a half earlier when I dropped the kids off at Childwatch. Several kids were already down at the indoor playground (it consists of a slide and some climbing nets but our kid love it in there) and my daughter wanted to go down there. I was initially going to take her, but then decided that since there was a group going down at the same time, she could just go with them. Oops! She wanted me to take her and instead of willingly going down (she cried the whole way to the gym because I wasn't the one taking her) she sadly played in the big playroom until I picked her up. It was one of those moments that you don't think is going to be a big deal but apparently becomes a very big deal before your eyes. I let her play in there for a couple minutes before we left the Y and then we piled into the car for our next stop.

You know what I really love about stores? They put eye catching material right there for people, including children, to see as soon as they walk into the store. And what caught my daughter's eye? A lawn decoration. A monarch butterfly on a metal stick.

"Mom, I want this butterfly."


"I like it and I want to buy it. We can put it in the garden." Yeah, ok, you mean our weed patch? Yeah, that's for another blog post.

"Honey, we're not buying it. It's not on sale." This is a current go to. It usually works. It's going to be hard on us when she finally figures out what sale tags really look like.

It didn't work. And thus began a discussion that included four-year-old logic and an adult trying to reason with a four-year-old why she couldn't have a metal monarch butterfly on a stick. During the course of the discussion I was chastised by an irritated looking older woman who wanted me to move out of the way of the other carts so she could get into the store. Yeah, I get it lady. You want to go into the store and I'm being rude. Sorry, but I'm in the middle of trying to avoid an epic meltdown.

My mission failed. I finally got frustrated and took the butterfly out of her little hands and returned it to the stand. She collapsed on the ground in front of the door. I stood there for a couple minutes with my son still waiting in the cart. He was ready to get going with the shopping. So was I. Finally I just came out with the ultimatum:

"If you don't get up now so we can go shopping we are just going home." I didn't want to go home. I wanted to get items for our mudroom project. I didn't want to waste a trip. I didn't want the time we spent on the road to be a waste. We could have been at home eating lunch and getting ready for naps. Instead I was standing in a doorway watching my daughter give other customers a show. She maintained her collapsed position. I finally gave up and walked out the door with my son, waiting for my daughter to follow me. She screamed at me as I left. She said "NO!" She turned heads. And I walked straight towards the tractors outside so my son could get some promised time playing on the tractors. She finally ran out after me, crying the whole way and trying to get me back inside. She continued to carry on as I played with my son. I then had the tricky task of getting them both to the car. She was clearly not ready to follow me to the car, but she has a fear of being left so after making sure there were no cars driving through the parking lot, I started crossing to the car. Thankfully she continued to follow me, crying, screaming, carrying on about the fact that she didn't want to leave and she still wanted that stupid butterfly.

Then she refused to get into her carseat. Physically forcing my daughter to do anything is no small task. She is tall and 45 pounds. She collapsed on the floor. I couldn't just leave without her buckled in, so in the 90 degree heat I turned the car on and we sat, and sat, and sat. She would break out into hysterics and cry loudly, then quiet down for a couple minutes, then she would be right back at it. Finally, more than 45 minutes after getting back to the car, we were on the road and on the way home. She was still crying, my son was falling asleep before I could get him home and into his bed for naptime, and I was hungry. No one was very happy.

Overall, I was shocked that I maintained my calm for as long as I did, although I did almost lose it there at the end. It wasn't about the butterfly; it was about trying to teach my four-year-old that we don't always get what we want and we can't act that way in public and expect to get something in return. Actions have consequences. I realize that she lives in the moment, but some lessons are better to learn sooner than later.

It brought out the mommy guilt, especially the working mom mommy guilt. Nine months out of the year I don't have to deal with this on a daily basis. In fact, she is better behaved at school than she is at home on most days (and let's be honest, she is usually well behaved at home too). When days like today happen I feel guilty because I'm glad that I don't have to deal with it all day, every day, all year round and I feel like I should be able to deal with it all day, every day, all year round. That's the job I signed up for four years ago, isn't it? To love and cherish this little human as I raise her to adulthood? I should treasure all moments, regardless of the difficulty, shouldn't I? My head knows that the quest for parenting perfection is unreasonable. I am a sinful human being in a sinful world raising a sinful child of God. But that doesn't make the desire to be a great parent able to handle everything thrown at me any less real. I shouldn't beat myself up, but I still do.

However, today's drama also showed me that I have more resolve than I thought I did. I thought this very public tantrum would embarrass me. I thought it would have me closing all the windows and sinking down in my seat. Instead I just listened to her scream and calmly told her that when she decided to get into her seat we could go home. I played with my phone, talked to my son, and every time she took a break from screaming sobs, I would ask my daughter if she was ready to go home now. She wasn't, and so I just continued to sit there. And I wasn't embarrassed. My kid wanted something that I wasn't willing to give her and she was throwing a tantrum. Honestly I felt I was in the right. It was a ridiculous thing to fight about, but I felt it was a lesson worth learning. Again, it was a freaking butterfly, but she didn't need it and I didn't want to spend the $10 on it. So we sat. I didn't yell, I didn't scream, I didn't threaten my daughter's well being with a spanking (but don't think that near the end of this ordeal it didn't cross my mind, which just added to my mommy guilt). Instead I calmly sat there silently stewing about all the things that weren't getting done because my daughter was throwing a parking lot tantrum.

Until we become parents we really don't understand these public tantrums. We judge parents based on how their kids behave in public. We judge parents based on how they respond to those tantrums. And then we have kids and our kids throw the tantrums in public. I'm not saying that some parents don't deserve judgement, but how many people at the store today listening to my daughter screaming from the car would know that I was just trying to teach her a lesson about not always getting what we want. I hadn't hurt her in any way but there's no way that an outside observer could know that. Quite frankly, she made it sound like I was beating her and I was nowhere near her. But there would be no way to know that from across the parking lot.

There are growing pains that come with being a parent. I love my kids and have thoroughly enjoyed the advantages of being a teacher so I can be with them all summer. But today was a challenge. It was hard to not feel defeated once we were finally home. Eventually she moved on. The butterfly is not forgotten (she's still asking for it) but at least she isn't throwing a tantrum. She is quietly sleeping in her bed. Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow I can face the public again. And maybe tomorrow we can actually get something done.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

History Lessons From the Field

As we stood in line at the George Spangler Farm in Gettysburg National Battlefield Park we listened to a local volunteer talk about giving tours to buses of school children during the month of May. About these children he said:

"Many of these kids don't even know when the Civil War happened. They think that it happened in the 20th century, not as long ago as the 19th century. But they leave here interested and asking questions."

I guess this paraphrased comment brings up a couple important points. One, depending on their age, kids have no concept of time. But that's just something that I know and realize as both a mom of a four and two-year-old and as a teacher of high school students who are just starting to realize time. And for me it is hard to remember that the older I get, the more likely it is that my students were either not alive when something happened or don't remember when something happened because they were too young at the time. In fact, when we were at the Flight 93 memorial my husband asked if any of my students were alive when 9/11 happened. It was 12 years ago and I teach juniors. The reality is that in four to five years, they will not have been alive when it happened and I am getting to the point where most of them will not remember the day at all even if they were alive. Two, the elderly volunteer inadvertently highlighted the importance of both knowing our history and experiencing history first hand.

Going through college there was a small core group of us girls who were both English and history majors. We supported each other through the excessive reading and writing that we all had to do to survive our four to five years in both programs. And English aside, those of us in the history department were pretty close because there really weren't that many of us. We all loved history, saw the importance of knowing our history, and we saw the direct relationship between literature study and historical knowledge. It is this belief in the importance of history that drives Sarah the English teacher. It drives my students crazy. "This is English class, Mrs. Styf. Why do we need to know all of this history?" Why? Because how can one read The Crucible without understanding both the impact of the McCarthy hearings on Miller's composition of the play and the background of the Puritan people who were responsible for the witchcraft trials in the first place? How can one read Night without understanding the background of the causes of the Holocaust and what was happening around Europe during WWII? How can one read Animal Farm without understanding the Russian Revolution and formation of communism that Orwell was allegorizing? Ok, so they can read them without the background, but when they have the background it makes more sense. The works have a purpose. The author's intent is clear. I have difficulty separating Sarah the historian and Sarah the English teacher because I feel that the former makes the latter better at her job. I don't want to separate the two.

I also don't see anything wrong with reiterating or expanding on what students have learned in their history classes, mostly because I believe that students need history, and the more they learn it the more likely they are to remember it. I also believe that when they see that what they have learned in their history classes relates to what they are studying in English it emphasizes the fact that they are not learning in a vacuum. Again, students need to know their history. I remember one of my college history professors once saying that he hated the saying "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." We hear that saying a lot, but he had a point. History doesn't exactly repeat itself. Each event has its own causes and no two events are the same. They can be similar, but they are not the same. However, there is a lot to be learned from history. Knowing our history helps us adjust strategies, question proposed plans, and see the potential for problems. History doesn't give us a crystal ball. It gives us a rough road map on how we should proceed if we want to avoid similar pitfalls.

History also helps us understand who we are as a people and where we come from. A friend and former colleague posted something on her Facebook page related to language that led to a long discussion about first "bad" language and then gradually, somehow, led to discussion of the "N-word". It was fascinating to see the discussion as it unfolded, and I was able to throw out some recent knowledge from taking History of the English Langauge. But this is where history is important. Much has been made of racism and the "N-word," a word that I personally have issue with anyone using, regardless of race. But that is because I know its history and its role in OUR history, the history of race relations in the United States. If people really understood it and the pain and suffering that has been caused by not only a word but an entire attitude surrounding the word then maybe we wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it. Maybe we wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Paula Dean as just being a product of the South and a specific time. And maybe we wouldn't be so quick to dismiss its use in a community that is trying to reclaim as acceptable when used solely in that community. This is only a relatively small example (as I feel this could be discussed when looking at many slurs in the English language), but it highlights why history lessons are so important.

The final point made by the volunteer at the National Park was the importance of experiencing history. When I was student teaching the school I taught at was using a program called History Alive. To be perfectly honest, I hated the program. It scratched the surface, focused on making history fun as opposed to really learning history, and didn't give the teacher much room for personal creativity. One of the lessons I was instructed to teach was a role play during which students created trenches with desks and I would read to them an excerpt from All's Quiet on the Western Front while they sat between their desks. It was supposed to teach them what it was like to fight in the trenches during WWI. I would have to grade the lesson an epic failure. Why? Because that isn't experiencing history. You want students to understand trench warfare? Show them pictures, have them read eyewitness accounts, and if you have the chance, take them to see an actual trench. If students are to really appreciate the importance of history, they need to experience history. The reason why students who visit Gettysburg leave asking questions and are suddenly interested is because they have seen it. They have seen the battlefields. They have seen the buildings that were hit by stray fire. They have heard stories from costumed experts who have studied and really know their stuff. Nothing was more powerful for me as a student of Holocaust studies than to hear two survivors tell their story while I was at a conference or to actually walk through the buildings in Dachau, Germany as I toured the very first concentration camp built by the Nazis. Maybe it's time we do everything possible to get kids out of the classroom and into the field.

It's not easy to get kids out. It costs money and takes resources, but we need kids who both know and understand the importance of their history, and from my own experience seeing it brings it to life. And we need to do this for more than just the select few who get to go on special school trips. Often it's the students who are either not financially capable or academically inclined who need the experience most. I don't have a solution for the problem, but once again I return from a trip back in time with a renewed sense of the importance of helping my students not just learn a lot of facts but experience it for themselves. Now I just have to figure out how to do that on a budget.

Here I am writing with a quill. I can't imagine writing long letters with ink and a quill, but people did it ALL the time.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Witnessing the Battle

My first real impression of reenactments came from Hollywood. Remember that scene in Sweet Home Alabama when Reese is walking across a chaotic field to find her father and then admit to her fiance who she really is and where she really came from? Yeah, that was my first impression. Keep that in mind as I tell you about yesterday.

It was a mostly lazy morning, but much to my husband's chagrin, I was still up and making bacon and eggs (my favorite camping breakfast) at 8 AM. Yesterday I wanted to go shopping and walking downtown while I wasn't dead on my feet from a long, hot bike ride and then go to the Eisenhower National Historical Site. Jeff wanted to go to the super huge reenactment they have had going all week and had no interest in Eisenhower. We compromised. I gave up my stamp and he went shopping and walking with me. It was fun to talk up the main drag in Gettysburg. While the shops are definitely there with tourists in mind, they have worked to maintain the integrity of the town. It is still a small town with it's historical charm mostly intact, something I definitely like to see. We finally ate lunch at a local restaurant, got our kids their gifts, and then managed to find a gift shop that was still selling reenactment tickets.

A quick trip at the campsite, water bottles filled (it was still hot with high humidity), sunscreen applied, and we were ready to head out to the reenactment. We went fully warned. The day before, the Fourth, had been crazy. There had been a two hour line to get tickets (we took care of that by getting our tickets ahead of time), but while there were a lot of people there, it wasn't nearly as crazy as advertised.

Just a taste of the parking. There were a lot of cars and even more people in attendance.
Our guess is that the Fourth was extra busy because people were off of work and celebrating the Fourth. We started to notice yesterday morning morning that there were spots slowly emptying out at the campground, so people were probably already heading home on Friday. Regardless, it was still big, Several million dollars were invested in this weeklong reenactment, and we were there to watch the reenactment of the Wheatfield, the bloodiest fighting of the Battle of Gettysburg. When we first got there we had two hours to kill, especially since we had been told that we needed to be there early to ensure parking and finding a place to watch the battle. We walked around, checked out the artist tent (where Jeff Shaara was signing books), got some typical fair food, and then headed up to the Living History village. We found several tents with all sorts of goods necessary for effective reenacting (clothing, guns, tents, other items necessary to maintain the illusion) and were tempted by a couple items, but we had already bought the kids their gifts and didn't need anything else, except for a graphic non-fiction book that discusses the history behind the Gettysburg Address. Yeah, I know, but the author had the teacher's attention and I have a hard time saying no to that kind of thing.

Ok, so back to my introduction. I mention my initial thoughts on reenactors only because it is the impression that many people have: a bunch of Rednecks running around trying to relive the glory of the mid-19th century and hanging on to the possibility that the South could have won the War. After an afternoon at a major reenactment, I have to admit that I was wrong. Reenactors know their stuff. There are people who have spent years studying the Civil War and everything related to the war. And different people specialize in different areas. Some are experts on medicine, some on weapons, some on clothing; you name it, there's an expert. We even went to a tent with a scholar who focuses on 19th century military chaplains. Then came the reenactment.

We had learned while touring the National Park that the NPS does not allow reenactments on NPS grounds. People are allowed to dress up and do encampments, but they are not allowed to fight on the actual battlefields. And that makes sense. There is something about those battlefields that is sacred. Men (and some women) died there to ensure the maintenance of the Union. To act on those fields, to replay what happened there does not seem right. So why do it at all? For these men it appears to be more than just playing dress-up. It is a way to honor the past and those who died. It was the most patriotic event I have attended in a long time, complete with the Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem (beautifully sung by a young adolescent), and a recognition of veterans.

Then the men took to the field. We watch a lot of war films. We like war films. We love history so it would make sense that we like to see history played out on the screen. A reenactment is not a war movie, but it brought the war to life. And it wasn't just a lot of men running around pretending to kill each other. There was an order, a method to the madness, and they even had an announcer who told those in attendance what was going on on the battlefield. It was entertaining and informative at the same time. It was big and grand and yes, there were "bodies" left of the field, but it also gave a visual for those in attendance. A visual with descriptions that helped the audience focus. The whole event lasted 40 minutes. It was good; I'm glad we braved the heat and crowds and went. In the end I can say it was worth it.

When it was over we raced out, got back to the campground, made some dinner, and then did not get done in time to hit the pool. As usual, when we camp on a sightseeing trip, our campsite was more base camp than anything, but we did get a campfire in.

There's the trip. We made it back through the mountains and hills of Pennsylvania to meet my in-laws at our house with the kids. There are more things I plan to reflect on in relation with the trip, but that's all for tonight.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Biking the Battlefields

Sixteen years ago I was introduced to a boy who asked me to attend the fireworks with him on the Fourth of July. We went to the beach on that cold Fourth, got separated just in time for the fireworks, and spent the next two hours walking up and down the beach waiting for the traffic to disappear so that he could take me home. We listened to the Eagles, laughed, he frightened me a little with his ridiculous knowledge of fireworks, and we dated the rest of the summer until we both headed off for college. It took a year for me to fall in love with him despite my best intentions not to, and two more years before I decided that he was definitely the guy I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but after eleven and half years of marriage I can see no more fitting date for our first date anniversary than the Fourth of July.

You see, my husband is a lot of things, and there are many things about him that lurk beneath the surface. Only those who really know him know how freaky smart he is, how much he reads, and that he is really a closet supernerd. And it is a good thing he is a supernerd, because I'm a not-so-closeted supernerd. I may have a B.A. in history, but he can put me to shame with his random historical trivia knowledge. An appreciation for reading and history have continued to draw us together the longer that we are married, whether it was reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy after seeing Fellowship in the theater just weeks after our wedding, fighting over who got to read the latest Harry Potter book first (at least for six and seven because we got into the game a little late) or planning a vacation. Like this one, for example. Today, on the sixteen anniversary of our first date and the beginning of a rocky courtship that I'm sure still confuses some of our high school classmates who wonder how we ended up together, we traveled the paths of thousands of men who fought to preserve the Union, and thousands of others who fought to preserve what they believed was their right as white American citizens.

The battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, but today has been a busy day for the NPS as they experienced larger than normal (and they are used to large crowds) for the 150th anniversary and the coinciding celebration of our nation's birthday. Today was our day in the park. When we finally got out of the campground this morning we headed to the "new" visitor center (at least it is new to us since it was built after we were here in 2006). The line of cars was ridiculous, so we headed to a far lot, got out our bikes, and biked to the center, speeding past the cars looking for a parking spot and the people walking from the far lots. We learned in 2006 that biking can be a great way to see the landscape. We learned this while speeding past the exhausted people walking to all the major monuments in D.C. We covered them all in an hour and a half and saw hot, sweaty pedestrians look longingly at our bicycles. On that same trip we also biked the incredibly hilly Valley Forge (you would think the name of the battlefield would be our clue), and we did this both weighing a considerable more weight and not in nearly as good of shape as we are now. But I'll get back to the biking in a little bit.

The new visitor center is gorgeous. We got information on the day's events (we are talking the Fourth, after all), got tickets for a 20 minute film, and then sat outside in the shade (it was already HOT) for our field trip style paper bag lunches, all the while trying to stay as hydrated as possible. The film was incredibly informative. Yes, I have a B.A. in history, and I know a lot of it, but something that people who don't study history don't understand about history (or probably any other field of study) is that there is A LOT of history to learn. When people go on for an M.A. or a PhD they have to specialize in an area of study. When finishing my English M.A. I was focusing on writing studies, not American or British Literature, and even that isn't narrow enough of a field. The Civil War, while fascinating to me, is not my area of expertise. As an English teacher I have chosen to focus my history studies on the Holocaust, World War II, and Vietnam, all areas that serve specific novels that I teach. I learned a lot about the Battle of Gettysburg in 20 minutes. (I also started to wonder what the world will do when Morgan Freeman is no longer around to do voice overs. The man just has the perfect voice over voice.) We then headed upstairs to view a cyclerama that was initially painted in the late 19th century by a French painter who then donated it to the city of Gettysburg for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was incredible and they spent five years restoring it before it got a place in the new visitor center. The pictures below only begin to give an idea of the awesomeness of a painting that covers an entire room.

After that came the museum, artifacts, and more information that reiterated or expanded on what we had learned in the film and the cyclerama room. We breezed through that, which was a little unusual because I married someone who has an obsessive need to read EVERYTHING in a museum. (When I was at the USHMM for a conference my husband actually got kicked out of the museum because it took him so long to get through it. I don't even want to know how long it will take us to get through museums in Europe if I ever convince him to leave the continent.) We road our bikes back up to the truck, walked from there to Cemetery Ridge (the place where the Union Army watched Pickett's Charge) and then road our bikes back to the visitor center where we caught a shuttle to the George Spangler Farm Civil War field hospital site.

This was the location of one of many field hospitals in the weeks and even months following the battle and it is a new acquisition for the Gettysburg Foundation, so they are working on restoring the site to look just as it did during the Civil War. Probably the most fascinating part of this site was listening to the descriptions of medical practices during the war, particularly the decent success rate of amputations (and there were a lot of these during the war). Free water from the American Red Cross continued to keep us hydrated but we were still hot. We headed back to the visitor center and our bikes, road back to the truck (by this time we had ridden four miles, I'm not sure how many miles we had walked) and prepped for a late afternoon bike ride.

Even with the heat and the fact that we were probably already feeling the symptoms of heat exhaustion despite the fact that we were constantly drinking water, we headed on a bike ride what was probably 11 more miles. I say probably because both of our phones (and therefore Endomondo) died before the ride was finished. It was a good ride. A hot and sweaty ride, but a good ride. And it was a great way to see the battlefields. There were a couple things that struck me the first time we visited Gettysburg. One, I had never really realized when I heard about the battle of Gettysburg that it happened IN the city of Gettysburg. Yes, most of the fighting took place in fields, but there was this sleepy little town that was suddenly in the middle of a battle that many consider to be the turning point of the war. Second, I didn't realize the scope of the battlefields, the vastness of the area that the Union had to defend and the Confederate army had to attack. I got some of that on our sunset drive-by seven years ago. I really got a sense of that with our bike ride. While there is a lot to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg from visiting the site, I think one of the more important lessons is really an understanding of the scope of the historical event. But that is really something to discuss in a later blog post.

Just one of many locations that shows the vast scope of the battlefield

We made it back to the truck, exhausted, sweaty, hungry, dehydrated even with the constant hydration of the day, and ready to crash. We drove past the one stop that we did not get to on our bikes, but we couldn't get ourselves out of the truck to climb the stairs to see the view from Culp's Hill, and began our quest for a place to eat,  We wanted to go local, as that is something we try to do at least once on a vacation, but found ourselves relaxing in an air conditioned Ruby Tuesdays instead. We didn't catch the fireworks on this July 4th. That rarely happens, but we had seen and experienced enough for one day. We did have a late fire, but that was all we did extra to celebrate our nation's birthday. Bed beacons and so I will edit tomorrow morning before posting.

This is us near the beginning of the ride, still looking fairly fresh.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Day For Rememberances

There are some moments in a relationship that you don't forget. I especially remember one fight that my husband and I had four months before our wedding. I had just returned to Nebraska for my last semester of college and student teaching. I was several weeks into my first eight week assignment and eagerly waiting to hear where I would be sent. The plan had always been to try to get an assignment close to home in Michigan so I could be near home as I finished the last of our wedding planning and we would be married a few weeks after I returned home. That was proving to be more difficult than imagined.

"So, the last proposal has been sending me to Las Vegas."

"But you're supposed to be coming closer to home, not farther away."

"I don't know what you want me to do. I don't have much control over this. Apparently all of the spots close to Michigan have been taken by schools in the area."

"Tell them that you are getting married and that you need to be close to home."

"I already did that and they told me that it didn't look like it would be possible."

We went around in circles, both of us getting increasingly frustrated with each other over a situation neither of us had much control over. We angrily got off the phone and continued the fight over email (in days before text that's what you had to do kids). The next day I was sitting in our secondary ed classroom, talking about methods before heading over to our initial student teaching assignments when another professor came next door to our room.

"A plane just crashed into the Twin Towers."

Suddenly where I was student teaching didn't matter so much as whether or not my family was safe. I wanted reassurance that my fiance was still ok and that we would still be able to get married in four months. I thought about my two friends and classmates who were planning their wedding for the same day. One of these friends was in the Reserves. Would their wedding still be going on as planned? On September 10, 2001 my biggest concern was that my fiance just could not understand that I didn't have control over where I was going to be sent. Less than 24 hours later my biggest concern was just seeing him again. He was 700 miles away and I had to wait until that night to hear his voice.

Today as we drove to Gettysburg we made two stops. The first stop was at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. The second Flight 93. I remember back in the days of my early adolescence when I was obsessed with poorly written historical romance novels I read a book about the Johnstown Flood. I didn't remember much about it, but since we were going to be in fairly close proximity to it and it would mean another stamp in our passport book I wanted to take the detour. The story of the Johnstown flood of 1889 (125th anniversary next year) is pretty incredible. In the second half of the 19th century the railroad built a natural dam outside of Johnstown that created a reservoir for use by the railroad. It was then purchased by a group of wealthy men (including Andrew Carnegie) who built a resort on the banks of the man made lake. They renovated the dam and assured the towns in the valley below that all was well. In the years since the flood there has been a significant amount of discussion and disagreement over responsibility for the disaster, the type of discussion that would make pundits on MSNBC and FOX News giddy, but it is still inconclusive. What we do know is that the Pennsylvania mountains got a unusual amount of rain (8-10 inches in one night), the banks of the dam flooded over and it eventually gave way, sending a wall of water down into the valley, eventually landing in the town of Johnstown and killing over 2000 people along the way. It was a disaster that equaled the Chicago fire and San Fransisco earthquake in scope. The Red Cross was heavily involved in relief efforts and nearly $4 million (a huge amount at that time) was collected from around the world to assist in relief efforts. It's an incredible story and I enjoyed hearing the accounts and seeing the lasting remnants of the dam.

We left the memorial and headed once again on the up and down rollercoaster that is the western Pennsylvania landscape. It was stressful for my husband as he drove the trailer. For me, I was wondering what was wrong with me that I chose to drive through the mountains in the dark, through the night, seven years ago. Less than an hour later we arrived at the Flight 93 National Memorial to see the field where 40 individuals worked together to prevent four terrorists from flying a plane into the Capital building. At the moment the memorial is still pretty bare bones but striking, nonetheless. I don't know when we will get to the memorial in New York, so for me this was about more than the stamp (although that was a selfish bonus). The reality is 9/11 changed my world. My kids will never know what life was like before 9/11, and perhaps as time passes that will be ok. But one of the things I have learned in the years that I taught the Holocaust is the mantra "Never Forget." We say this too often, and too easily we do forget. Events that are supposed to be significant become less significant as they lose their impact. Pearl Harbor happened long before I was ever born and while the historian in me recognizes the importance of December 6, it has very little emotional hold over me. But I remember where I was when I was told the Twin Towers were hit. I remember watching the news as information unfolded. I remember talking to my mom that night to check in, and then making up with my fiance over the phone. I remember what it was like to have my boyfriend waiting right at the gate when I returned from London just weeks before we discovered whether or not we had something to worry about with Y2K. Two years later, when my fiance dropped me off at the airport after I cam home for Thanksgiving from my student teaching assignment in Denver (a little closer than Las Vegas but not much) he had to drop me off almost in front of O'Hare, an airport that was not yet equipped to deal with the sudden security changes in place. While my own kids will never truly understand it, I want them to know that it is a part of my history and the impact that it has had on their lives today.

The words after her name say "and unborn child"

The field where the plan went down

Each panel has the name of one plane victim

It was a stressful drive the rest of the way to Gettysburg, but we made it and were able to fit our new camper on a site that we were not sure we would fit on. Tomorrow, on the birthday of our country, we will spend the day touring the battlefields that nearly witnessed the complete destruction of the Union. Until then, good night.