But Wilt Thou Woo This Wild Cat?

She’s doing her nightly thing: listening to music; checking her social media, chipping away at homework. When a favorite song comes on, the volume goes up. When a new text comes in, her fingers tap. When a page of Spanish is memorized, I hear it flip.

I’m standing eight feet away, folding laundry. She has no idea I’m engaging in one of my most-successful strategies for parenting a teenager. From where she sits, I’m pairing socks, folding sheets, making stacks of shirts. From where I stand, I’m conveniently nearby in case my fourteen-year-old cares to share. Although the patent is still pending, this strategy is known as Catching the Conversational Crumb, or C3.

Fourteen is not an age that responds well to direct questions. If I ask, “So how was your day? Anything up in your world?” she’s apt to stare silently at me for a beat and then bend her head over her backpack and start rustling around, in search of an important pencil. If she’s in a chatty mood, she might allow, “What would be up in my world? I’m fourteen. I went to school. Now I’m home.”

I actually enjoy such answers. They give me a chance to spout nonsense: “Yea, but what if one day Selena Gomez stopped by gym class and taught you all how to gaze mournfully into a camera while singing about ex-boyfriends? And what if you forgot to tell me unless I asked?”

Her terse answers also let me appreciate that the girl who was once labeled a “no-bullshit baby” is growing up true to self.  Even more, her unwillingness to let conversations with her parents become interviews is, in its I-Will-Shut-You-Down fashion, somehow charming. Indeed, while teenagers may strike adults as close-lipped or stubbornly removed, there’s another way to view it.  If I flip the dynamic and consider being greeted at the door with “How was your day? Anything new happen? Learn anything interesting? What’s up with your friends? Are you hungry? Do you have anything due tomorrow?”–the whole scenario makes me screamy because FOR THE LOVE OF BIEBER, A LITTLE SPACE, PLEASE.

Teenagers are cats, not dogs. I get that.

Thus, my  C3 laundry-folding strategy is feline. I’m not in the room because of her. I don’t need to look at or talk to her. I’m just there, doing my thing. I can take or leave her.

Naturally, my indifference is attractive. Like a prickly Siamese, she crawls–figuratively–into my lap, kneading her paws and claws into my thigh before settling in. I keep my back to her, and she offers, “I love this new song,” turning it up.

Still not looking at her, I ask, “Is it off a new album?” She tells me about tour dates and opening acts. On the heels of that, she tells me how her friend Amy stumbled across a really great cover of this one awesome song on YouTube.

“Can I hear it?” I dare.

Nothing would give her more pleasure, in fact. While the cover of the really awesome song plays, she tells me something corny her geometry teacher said. Still not looking at her, still folding clothes, I do not ask a question; instead I note, “I really liked Mrs. Peterson when we went to the open house at the start of the school year. She seemed like someone I would have enjoyed as an English teacher–very in touch, in love with books, down-to-earth…”

And with that, my kitten becomes a puppy. The light inside her flips on, and she bounces in her chair. “Oh my God, that reminds me of something that happened in English! It was so funny!”

Now that she’s in dog mode, I can pet her. Turning, looking at her, I give her my full attention and demand, “Do tell.”

Sitting with one foot tucked under her, spinning around in the desk chair, she recaps, “When we were reading Romeo and Juliet out loud today, there was this moment at the ball when a couple of the characters announced they were going off into another room to have some drinks. After we read that part, a boy in my class goes, ‘My mom calls that book group.’

I hoot. She giggles. We repeat her classmate’s line and agree: that’s hilarious.

Apparently, Mrs. Peterson thought so, too. After snorting with laughter, she told the wise-cracking student, “I don’t know your mom, but I think I like her.”

And then. My teenager, who sometimes can’t be bothered to say “Fine” when asked about her day, makes mine.

She tells me, “When he said that about his mom, I immediately thought of you, too. In a good way.”

Flattered to have been a thought in my fourteen-year-old’s mind, I acknowledge, “I surely do love to go into a room with friends and have some drinks.”

“I know. I mean, you’re not a crazy lady who has to drink all the time, but you’re a lady who is crazy for her drinks.”

With that subtle, accurate parsing of her mother’s controlled but passionate love of a cocktail, my girl confirmed it: between her observational skills and her ability to make connections, she’d make one hell of an English major.

Actually, she’ll make one hell of an anything.

Even though she’s currently in the feline teenage years, all of her everything is there, inside her, ripening. Sometimes I know what’s in there. Many days, I don’t.

However, no matter how much or little she feels like sharing, one thing is certain: tumbling around with her music and her friends and her skiing and her running and her homework and her classmates and her love of travel and her passion for chocolate, I am inside her, too–fermenting more than ripening, but I’m there.

And being there is one of the greatest honors of my life.



I could type more about my teenager and her astute observations, but she’s on the floor next to me right now, having crawled into the living room on her knees, holding open a book of cities around the world, propping it on my lap while reading aloud about super cool island cities that she wants to visit.

All it took to get her there, on her knees beside me, was this:

I left her in the kitchen alone and ignored her.

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They Delight Me

I sat in the stylist’s chair, getting my mane snipped.  As another tuft of hair floated to the floor, the stylist made conversation, asking, “So what’s it like, parenting a 14-year-old girl?”

It was a nominal question, meant to fill time, to keep us from silence. Even before I responded, the stylist anticipated the tone and content of my answer; she knew it would strike a note of exasperation before veering into a rant and closing with a sentiment of “Thanks for letting me vent. I guess I needed that.” Instinctively, the stylist knew I would roll my eyes while detailing the

Indeed, much has been made of the difficulty of adolescence and adolescents. Stereotypes and lore have it that teenagers are difficult, snotty, full of attitude. With a box of Kleenex and a bottle of vodka at the ready, we treat parents of teens with something like pity, asking about their daily lives with careful concern, anticipating responses of

However, at the risk of sounding smug, this mother of a (nearly) 12-year-old and a full-on-14-year-old had to break it to the stylist that

she’s not feeling the pain.

Unquestionably, I’ve never liked my kids more than I do currently. Some of this has to do with me:

I wasn’t cut out for the quirkiness of infancy;

I didn’t always excel at the unrelenting physical demands of toddlerhood;

I often longed for the hours to pass more quickly when they were preschoolers;

I happily stuffed them onto the school bus during the elementary years;

and somewhere along the way, they became interesting individuals who surprise me with their competency, intelligence, and humor.

Because I like interesting individuals and being surprised, their adolescence thus far has been great fun. As well, perhaps because I’m an arrested juvenile myself–and aren’t we ripe with jokes about “arrested juvenile”?–I gravitate towards teenagers. At family or holiday gatherings, I’d just as soon sit in the corner with the high schoolers as the adults. Maybe it’s that I’ve taught college students for so long, or maybe it’s that teenagers are a flossy batter of bright-eyed possibility stirred with dawning potential coated with a sifting of goofy energy. It also helps that they very much like talking about themselves and I, despite this blog’s massive evidence to the contrary, have very little desire to talk about myself. Every social interaction is blessedly less exhausting if I can ask a question and then settle in to listening to the answer with little threat of equal self-disclosure expected in return. Teenagers are masters of this dynamic, and I love them for their complete lack of interest beyond the toes of their Uggs.

Then again, I’m being unfair. My kids, while appropriately self-absorbed, display significant interest in the world outside of themselves. The girl has always been fascinated by how those in other countries live. She enjoys books because of the people watching they allow her.  Frequently, she asks, “So how was your day?”

Also (because I’ve decided to truly commit to the GIFtravaganza that is this post), here’s evidence of an external awareness. First, she is all teen: playing cute, looking to garner attention while the camera is on. Out of nowhere, she bombs the video:

In performing her elfin leap, however, she manages to whack Byron. A mere nanosecond after she thunks his back, she is sorry. It’s so sweet, so indicative of her true character; I could watch her apologetic hand pat a thousand times.

Oh, wait, I have.

Similarly, Paco breaks the stereotype of adolescence. Yes, he can be moody, even sullen, but I’m proud to say those traits will always be with him–they are not a phase that will fade away once his body is fully washed with hormones. Primarily, and this too will accompany him throughout life, he is kind. For example, if I mention to him that my back is sore from unaccustomed swimming yesterday, I know he will offer to give me a massage. He is unflaggingly lovely to his peers; we continue to marvel at how safe and secure all kids feel with him. He notes when his teachers have had a tough day and wonders what might have caused that. He is interested to hear about the foibles of my students, mostly because the stories make his jaw drop. Like his sister, he is already aware that people’s lives exist outside his.

It’s an endless source of gratitude for me, being able to like my kids so cleanly and deeply.

In recent weeks, they have given me even more fodder for The Liking of Them.

Allegra currently loooooves Taylor Swift. We’ll not hear a word against T-Swizzle in our household, in fact. Once ticket sales opened for Swift’s upcoming concert (9 months from now), we went through a day-long emotional journey, as tickets sold out immediately but then became available through the racket that is a ticket outlet seller. There are few things our girl wants, but seeing Taylor Swift in concert is one of them. Although the outlet had marked each ticket up by about 50%, Allegra was undeterred in her desire to get. to. that. concert. Ultimately, even though we’re paying for a bit of her ticket as her Christmas present, she is still shelling out the equivalent of 28 hours of babysitting to cover the rest.

In addition to that, there was the matter of Taylor Swift’s birthday. On that day, Swift’s website generously offered up free shipping on all merchandise. Since Allegra lives in a state of perma-fangirl, she could not ignore this opportunity and snapped up another 14 hours of babysitting’s worth of goods.

What’s more, Superfan Allegra also spent the afternoon of Taylor’s birthday baking brownies for her idol. She went through minor agonies when it came time to spell out “Happy Bday” in M & Ms and “Taylor” in sprinkles.

Taylor Swift Brownies

The entire Taylor-based production took me back to my own years of fangirling (Oh, Steve Perry, that replacement front man for Journey is serviceable enough, but his vocals are thin trickles of water compared to your rich creme brulee), years which, to be honest, continue because Jimmy Carter, Willie Nelson, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg already.

At any rate, to have a daughter who baked brownies for Taylor Swift’s birthday is a source of great delight to me.

I am similarly delighted by Paco’s passion for narwhals. They’ve really been a “thing” for him the past year or two, and his love continues to grow.  Appreciating soft buddies, he would respond excitedly to a plush narwhal, but those I’ve found online aren’t worthy. Fortunately, we have a talented friend who is into sewing small creatures, and she allowed me to commission her skills for the narwhal you see at the top of this post. Paco has yet to see it, as it’s tucked away until his birthday next week. With great confidence, I can tell you that this narwhal will have a most-excellent life.

Thanks to  Paco, a real-life narwhal will also benefit from greater protection. You see, before the holidays, the kid got really quiet one day, the sure sign of a brain at work. Then he asked, “Don’t Oma and Grandpa Jay usually make some sort of donation for everyone as a gift, like buying chickens or a goat for a less-fortunate family?”


“How much do they usually donate?”

Not sure. Maybe $25?

“Oh, that’s PERFECT. I’ve been doing some research, and for that amount, they could make a donation and adopt a narwhal in my name. Could I ask them to do that?”

Hell, yea.

“And if I get to name the narwhal they adopt, I was thinking Rutherford sounds perfect.”

Without question, kid. What narwhal wouldn’t want to be named Rutherford? Heck, I want to be named Rutherford.

And so it happened that on Christmas morning, young Paco’s delightful wish came true. After opening his gifts, he laid them out, proudly displaying photos and cards from the World Wildlife Fund of Rutherford, the planet’s most-beloved narwhal.


I didn’t tell the stylist about adopted narwhals or birthday brownies for Taylor Swift. Even though she would have heard those stories and thought my kids were “cute,” they are so much more than that.

They are human beings in the midst of one of life’s most difficult stages, yet they are grand. For that, I not only like them; I respect them.

Whimsical, silly, bright, healthy, thoughtful, unexpected, they are my boon companions.

They make me want to sit in the kitchen and watch them forever.

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Live & Learn

These past few months, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the online magazine Mamalode publish a few of my essays. Every month, Mamalode announces a theme and then accepts submissions; this month, the theme is “Live & Learn.” In response, I recalled our family’s year in Turkey–a time of intense living and learning–and, specifically, a day on the bus as we headed out of the village.

If you’re interested, you can read the piece here:

Compulsory Ignorance

Compulsory Ignorance

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Axe Attacks

My brother’s Christmas gift to Paco arrived yesterday.

It’s almost as though my brother understands boys–

because the Gil Hibben Generation 2 Pro Thrower Axe is a dream come true for our lad.

And three of his friends.

Even though an arctic front swept through last night, and it’s a few frozen nostril hairs past frigid on the thermometer, there was no deterring the middle schoolers from their hurling. Paco’s friends hadn’t been prepared for outdoor activity when they came over to hang out today, but despite the -10 degree temperatures and -30 degree windchill, they hucked that axe for a good half hour.

No fair-weather axers amongst my son’s friends. Hardcore all the way.

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Cranky Broads

Upon learning of my career as a teacher of writing, a former college professor wryly noted, “Composition is the armpit of the university.” As had also been the case when he commended Wallace Stegner as the United States’ greatest author, the former professor’s judgment was keen.

Certainly, teaching composition can be inspirational and gratifying. At the same time, it’s a profession of back aches, headaches, exasperation, and drudgery. However, composition courses are the substance of our department, and without them, we don’t exist. To put an even finer point on it, without the money generated by composition classes, a few other degrees and programs at our college would also cease to exist. Because we English faculty each carry a load of 150+ students and bend our necks over non-spell-checked essays for myriad hours each semester, smaller programs–say, welding or machining–benefit from the tuition dollars we generate.

Few things highlight the tight miserliness of my character more effectively than the look on my face when I consider a trades instructor whose entire teaching load comprises a two-student cohort.

Fortunately, I manage to right my attitude when I admit I couldn’t do what the trades instructor does, even with a mere two students (‘tho I daresay our college would get significant coverage in the local newspaper–“Finger Severed on College Campus!”–were I to become an instructor in the machining program. I’d create a one-woman publicity blitz, really). Nor could the trades instructor do what I do, for it’s a rare individual who can employ the subjunctive mood with the precision of a Swiss-style lathe. We each work to our personal strengths.

Also: I chose my profession, and I stay in it willingly, so I don’t have a right to kvetch.

I don’t always stay within my rights. Indeedy, I do kvetch, complain, and snark. These activities clear the professional sinuses. After a metaphorical horking out of the snot, I get back to cleanly inhaling my good fortune.

I do best at appreciating my job when I focus on the heart-moving students; every semester there are at least a handful of them whose personal stories make me cry in the kitchen as I debrief with my husband. I do best at appreciating my job when I remind myself of the autonomy and flexible schedule, two things that are instrumental to my happiness. I do best at appreciating my job when I take a break from marking essays, stretch a crick out of my spine, and think, “I am so damn lucky. I get to live a life of the mind, not the mines. Sure, it’s a life of the mind peppered with strippers and addicts and dealers, but doesn’t every inflated aesthete need that sort of counterbalance? It’s like I’m Valjean, my students are Fantine, and only a genius state employer could assign a salary to that kind of dynamic.”

And I do best at appreciating my job when I get to teach a literature class.

In our department, we generally offer three or four literature classes each semester. Since there are nine full-time faculty and five or six adjunct instructors, there’s not enough lit to go around. Thus, when it comes time to create schedules, we try to give each full-time faculty one literature class each calendar year. It doesn’t shake out perfectly, but for the most part, those without “release credits” (for doing other kinds of work for the college, in addition to teaching) will end up with nine sections of writing and one section of literature during the course of the year. In short, literature classes are the cherry on top of a towering sundae of cause/effect essays.

Even better is the fact that I have been able to teach literature courses online in recent years. Although many justifiably take issue with the online platform, I can make a firm case for the effectiveness of lit classes offered remotely, as there is no back of the room in cyberspace, which creates a class teeming with equal participation from all students; moreover, every contribution students make online must be supported with textual evidence–something that doesn’t happen in a traditional classroom, a place where three students do all the talking, and no one addresses the text when responding orally. Online literature classes are terrific, and they feed my teacherly soul.

But then. Both in traditional and online literature classrooms, sometimes students balk. Some students, usually of a fundamentalist or evangelical strain, refuse to read certain books because their perceived contents run counter to the student’s faith.

You can hear the echoing grate of my gnashing teeth here, yes? It’s fortunate I have a job that provides dental insurance.

I have had a student refuse to read The Red Tent because Anita Diamant had the audacity to re-imagine a biblically based story (“I will take a zero on all the assignments related to this book before I will pollute my mind with a fictionalized account of the Bible!”). One of my colleagues has had students in his Adolescent Literature class refuse to read Harry Potter due to the looming threat of Satan in those pages. These are but two representative examples of a larger trend.

It’s terribly difficult to respond to such students. If I were able to reel out my real self, the response would involve a skull-rattling shake of their shoulders, perhaps followed by a “Snap out of it!” slap across the face à la Cher in Moonstruck. After that, the offending student would be subjected to a three-minute finger wave about how true faith can withstand tests; how belief is strengthened when it considers conflicting ideas; how JesuseffingChrist the Bible as an historical text is already a work of fiction; how fantastical stories of wizards don’t create the black magic that lives in our hearts; how learning to think requires dancing with a capacious variety of viewpoints; how the whole point of college is to push our brains and values out of insulated walls and into challenging wilds.

I reel in my real self, though, because today’s community college students, shored up by righteous indignation and dislike of authority, do love to make an appointment with the dean. Instead, I give them a watered-down version of my reaction to their objections and then, with sadness in my psyche, type zeroes into the grade book or come up with alternate assignments.

In addition to the objecting fundamentalists, there are also the students of literature whose every analysis is rooted in “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” To a certain extent, I’m okay with those reactions because, at the very least, they indicate a connection to the text, and for students who have never read a book in their lives (which is often the case), being able to express “I didn’t like it, and here’s why” is significant. As the semester progresses, I urge students to stop using the first person pronoun in their discussions, for a move to third person point of view immediately boosts the quality of their responses. However, the majority of students aren’t ready to let go of “I”–they literally can’t see it unless it’s pointed out, which is a phenomenon ripe for psychological analysis (“So you can’t see yourself unless someone else notices you?”) and continue with “I think…” and “I liked…” all the way through the final exam.

Most important to me is that they justify their reactions and learn to examine and support their emotional responses. This is the toughest task of all. What I’ve discovered over the years, and I know I’m wielding a brush so broad I could paint a house with a single stroke, is this: retention and graduation rates at community colleges are abysmal compared to those at four-year universities and private liberal arts colleges. The primary reason drop-out rates are so high is that the backgrounds of many community college students make it so they crumple in the face of personal life crises. If an aunt dies, a student might go missing from an online class for two weeks. Last semester, I had a student get a gel shot in her hip, thus necessitating a ten-day hiatus from all online class work–during the days when her research paper’s rough draft, peer reviewing, final draft, and final exam were due. After not completing any of those major assignments in any appreciable fashion, she launched a barrage of messages, telling me how much she needed to pass the class. Apparently, she was able to work at the computer when it came to writing emails. She also was able to post a cute photo of her dog in the “Random Things” folder on the day she was to be critiquing her classmates’ papers. More than anything, she created in me a feeling of gratitude that she’s not my wife because I can’t afford the speeding ticket I’d get as I gunned my way to divorce court.

Both as an individual and a teacher, I find it important to acknowledge that the class continues regardless of what’s going on in the personal life, and if grief or health or meds or bad boyfriends or car troubles or nasty best friends or former addictions or video games or double shifts or evil roommates or tender stomachs or social anxiety or chronic procrastination or lost backpacks or getting fired get in the way, and the student can’t participate in class, then the student should withdraw from the class. If one’s personal life is melting down to the point of incapacitation, then the added stress of knowing one is failing classes should be removed so that focus can remain on handling the personal crises.

More often than not, though, the crises in students’ personal lives are actually just cases of “life happening,” and if they were better equipped to examine and support their emotional responses–skills that come from being students in a literature class, ironically enough–they could arrive at this realization: “My aunt died, and I will miss her forever, and I have a test tomorrow and a paper due Friday, so I can work on the paper in the car while we drive to Indiana, and I can ask my instructor if I can take the test early, after the memorial service, because it’s an online exam, and there’s Wi-Fi at the hotel in Indianapolis. Once I’m done with the test, I can go out to dinner with the family and reminisce about Aunt Mabel’s wigs.”

Truly, I realize compartmentalization isn’t that easy. It’s a skill learned over decades. To a startling extent, reading and responding to literature can help with the process. First, there is an emotional reaction. Beyond that, though, there is a moment of stopping, looking at the larger context, and asking oneself, “Why do I feel this way? Is my reaction valid? Are there other possible reactions? Would it make sense for me to adjust my thinking, given what’s on the page in front of me?”

Beyond the life skills that can be learned from literature classes, students also gain a deeper understanding of human beings and the human condition when they read stories and novels. Woefully often, though, they approach works with very limited criteria for what is “good.” They want happy endings. They want action. They don’t want long descriptive passages. They want likable characters. Were they to read blogs, I’d wager they’d say, “This post is too long. It needs more pictures. Maybe a numbered list.”

It’s my aim to ignore their criteria–gleefully–and assign to them works that are sad, slow, lyrical, full of prickly characters.

Right here, Gentle Readers, I am finally getting to the original intent of this essay. When I started, my plan was to crank out a short, quick post about a few books I’ve enjoyed, notable for their choleric characters. Approximately 2,000 words later, I’m still getting there. Ain’t that the thing about reading and writing, though? It starts with a word and an intention, and before we know what’s happened, we’re somewhere else entirely?

You know what else I never intended to do in this post? Get all meta on your asses.

Quickly, then, let me roll all my previous points about teaching and students and literature into a quick summary: I am never happier than when readers and writers embrace difficult.

Whether it be plot, setting, structure, or character, the best writing is like life: demanding, confusing, flawed, well-intentioned, untidy, and surprising.

Poor dead, bewigged Aunt Mabel never tolerated pap, nor should we.

Aunt Mabel’s wig would have been bobbing madly had she read the article “Novels Don’t Need to be ‘Nice'” in The Guardian, a piece that sums up everything I want students to know about reading fiction: “Why bother to engage with difficult, demanding characters when we don’t have to? This [attitude] is a great shame: it’s reductive, and antithetical to what literature is about … Literature, after all, is not some cosy textual coffee morning populated solely with friends we haven’t met yet: rather, it is a site where the full panoply of human activity may scrutinised – and this isn’t always pretty.”

It is with a gleam in my eye, therefore, that I present to you a tidy list of three books featuring nettlesome female protagonists. They are tough, reclusive, cynical, sardonic, unpleasant, charming, and exceedingly human. If you’ve been on a Nicholas Sparks kick in recent months, I recommend these reads as a counterpoint to the dreck you’ve been consuming.

1. Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett: When I randomly picked up this book at the library, I had no idea it was a sequel. In fact, I read the entire book as though it was a stand-alone, completely taken by the crochety protagonist from the first scene when she slips in her yard and hits her head on a birdbath. Once I became aware of the book’s predecessor, I went back and read The Writing Class and Willett’s other novels. But Amy Falls Down is the best. The New York Times notes,”Essentially, Amy is a character who lives inside her head, and she needs to get out more.” That’s my kind of gal. Crusty. Solitary.

2. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The Boston Globe review deems this book’s heroine, Aaliya, “an utterly beguiling misanthrope” while The Wall Street Journal describes her as “affectionate, urbane, vulnerable and fractiously opinionated.” All I know is that I loved to read her.

3. Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: The New York Times describes Florence as a “congenitally difficult protagonist–so caustic and cold she even walks out of her own surprise birthday party…” While the book as a whole could do more, in terms of establishing Florence as the thinker and feminist she is purported to be, it still effectively portrays a no-bullshit woman who is unwilling to suffer nonsense.


So there you have it: a quick list of three books I’ve enjoyed! Yay! LOL! Thx 4 reading!

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The Worst Gifts

With so many opportunities for gift-giving in our fortunate lives, nearly everyone has a story of receiving a terrible, terrible gift. An informal survey of friends recently yielded stories of some real corkers. Settle in with a cup of rose hip tea that your husband’s cousin gave you, even though she knows you spend your days mainlining coffee, and enjoy this list of:

The Worst Gifts

1. One year, a friend received a red polyester turtleneck dickie as a gift and was not able to formulate a gracious response because she honestly had no idea what the hell it was. She thought it was a dog sweater. Since then, the friend’s family is able to compliment all other gifts by noting: “At least it’s not a dickie.”

2. Another friend recalls the “worst I ever got was a mesh crop t-shirt my gram thought was super trendy”; significantly, it cost only $2 on sale at Lord and Taylor. Thanks to Grandma’s thrift, that mesh crop top went from adorning the clearance rack to barely covering her grandaughter’s.

3. Yet another friend, a retired teacher who taught writing for 30 years, reports that this year her mother is bestowing upon her a Groupon so she can take a $19.99 writing course. Although my friend has two degrees in writing, her mom apparently thinks it’s time she learned the craft. One idea: this friend could use her time in the writing class to crank out stories about her mother.

4. Then there’s the friend who never could quite figure out what to do when presented with ancient, dusty book bags emblazoned with logos from computing conferences held in the Eighties. Perhaps she could cut them up and use them as wrapping paper for a stack of 5 1/4″ floppy discs–a fitting present for the original gifter of the dusty book bags.

5. When one of my friends was in college–18 or 19 years old–her mom bought her a green-and-black lace bra with matching thong. There’s nothing that says “I love you, sweetie” more effectively than a gift that smacks of washed-up stripper. Even worse, the bra looked like something my friend’s mom would have bought for herself.

6. One of my students was given half a roll of cheap toilet paper (the other half had been used). In this case, the giver decided that she simply didn’t like the tissue yet didn’t want it to go to waste. Personally, I’d have been tempted to string that half roll of paper on a prominent tree in the front yard of the gifter’s house.

7. This one’s from the “When the State of the Marriage Is Reflected in the Gift” files: a friend reports,”The first year I was married, my husband got me an umbrella and a Lord of the Rings calendar.” When she burst into tears, he was befuddled: “WHAT? I thought you liked Lord of the Rings!”

8. Sometimes, the gifter is punting, as in this story: “My husband’s aunt gave a new member of the family a jar of green olives for Christmas. She just couldn’t find anything else around the house on short notice and didn’t want him to feel left out of the gift exchange.” Here’s how the situation could truly have been salvaged: the aunt could also have handed him a bottle of gin and a martini shaker.

9. One friend, a retired mail carrier, recalls the year she received a “normal” gift from a customer (cash, candy, cookies), and as she accepted it, a grumpy old man noticed, with alarm, and realized he should offer her something, too. The next day he handed her a half a can of clams.

10. This year, one lucky 13-year-old in Massachusetts will be getting a pair of leather pants from Grandma for Christmas. When the mother of the 13-year-old heard of this plan and protested, Grandmother explained, “But they’re beautiful. I would wear them myself.” “Exactly,” said the teenager’s mother. The best part is that the teen’s mother is choosing not to warn her Superintendent of Schools husband–because she wants to see the look on his face when their daughter opens them.

11. One friend often visits her sister in Canada over the holidays; they get together with her sister’s in-laws as part of the celebration. One year, unsure of what to give Friend, the in-laws presented her with a pair of house slippers dripping with strands of fur. Canadians. They think everyone wants feet that look like a yeti’s.


12. Actually, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between Canadians and Texans, especially when it comes to loving creatures of the wild. A friend in Texas reports: “My cousin is an avid hunter…and one year I got a deer hoof; bone showing, freshly cut. He thought I might want to make a key chain out of it.”

Certainly, some of these gifts are breath-taking in their lack of thought, challenging the recipients as they attempt to gurgle out a “thank you.”

However, I daresay this gift, reported on the website Why Did You Buy Me That, wins Chanukah, Christmas, Easter, and Birthdays:


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Wedding Needle to Fabric

The history of quilts as utilitarian items stretches back thousands of years. In fact, the word quilt is adapted from the French cuilte, which grows out of the Latin culcita (“a stuffed sack”).
Originally, when just getting through a day entailed dawn-to-dusk work, quilts were entirely functional, made for warmth in the bed or to cover doorways or windows that were inadequate against the cold. As the centuries progressed, and life got easier, quilts began to marry function and art. On one hand, they were a practical repository for scraps of worn-out clothing; beyond that, though, they provided a canvas for personal expression, most remarkably amongst women who had been denied the opportunity to learn to read and write. Handiwork is its own kind of literacy. The resulting folk art tells their stories visually; without command of letters, they used fabric to create representations of their experience.
Taken together, all these folk art quilts present a unique version of history that words could never capture. We can look at a quilt, its fabrics, its stitches, its details, and be transported into the life of a woman who lived hundreds of years ago, feeling an intimate connection with the maker. We can touch what she touched. We can learn about her from her quilting choices. We get a sense of the texture of her days.
The website Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics sums up the lasting power of quilts:
…you won’t find an object more central to the history of women than the quilt. [We should consider] the quilt’s historical and current roles as (among others) an avenue of personal expression, a sly medium of social and political opinion, and a building block of financial security. Unique among objects, quilts are both lowly “women’s work” and great art. They are something made from nothing; they are both nurturing and inspiring. They can communicate both intimate memories and great societal truths, and they have throughout history.
For me, I am not only taken by the quilt as an historical artifact, as craft become art, as political statement, I am fascinated by its ability to tell a story. Thanks to the gifts and willingness of my mother and her sister, Byron and I have just such a quilt, a document of our wedding weekend, a piece of folk art that captures the support and community that surrounded us on the day we made a public commitment to each other.


Byron and I married at an environmental learning center in Northern Minnesota; due to the generosity of its founder, we had the run of the campus for our wedding weekend, so most guests came Friday through Sunday so as to enjoy the rock climbing wall, ropes course, hiking, and canoeing. We also were able to ask them to take some time to create blocks for our wedding quilt. There was a room set aside for the project, and my mom and Aunt Geri not only brought material and implements, they also kindly dedicated six hours that Saturday, guiding guests in their creations.
Byron’s mom and dad, with their home on the edge of Big Woods State Park, lived surrounded by trees. Also, his mom painted banners with these tree images on them; we stood in front of the banners during the ceremony.
I have long called my beloved friend Virginia by the nickname “chicken butt.” No reason, really. I just like it. So she made us a chicken, pecking up hugs and kisses.
My family name, in Finnish, means “Mountain Ash Tree.” These are the berries of the Mountain Ash, made by my mom.
After the wedding, my mom started work on the quilting. Her notes reveal that it took 25 hours to machine applique 46 of the 48 blocks. At one point, she asked for input from Byron and me for the placement or order of the blocks. We laid out all the blocks on friend Virginia’s living room floor and decided which piece should go where. A few months later, Mom pieced the top by machine, including borders, for 16 hours. She washed the batting by hand in a bath tub and let it air dry. The hand quilting took one-and-a-half years. Those with discerning eyes will note that each block has white-on-white quilting and a repeat of what is already in the block–like a bird or a tree. She sums up: “As usual–I enjoyed doing every step and every little stitch.”
Here are pals Timmy (a devoted skiier), Mary Beth, and Siena. In the years since our marriage, they’ve added daughter Paloma to the line-up. In its way, this quilt block represents their family as it was at a very specific point in time.
This block, which my brother made, also represents a specific moment in his family’s life: when they were about to wing off from New Mexico to Japan (his next post in the military).
My cousin Kurt is an odonatologist (dragonfly expert). Here’s his book: http://www.amazon.com/Dragonflies-North-Woods-Kurt-Mead/dp/0979200652
Byron’s aunt, great-aunt and great-uncle made this block before they were eaten by wolves.


When Byron biked from Seattle to Minneapolis, as one does, he hooked up with a traveling group of biking kids and their leaders. One of the leaders, Julie, made this block.
After finishing college, I nannied in the Twin Cities for a year. The family came to the wedding, and their son rocked the talent show with his mad yo-yo skillz. I used to change his diapers, and then he made a block for our quilt.

The blocks go on and on, each one telling a story or representing the connection between maker and bride or groom. Absolutely, this quilt is one of my most-treasured possessions, something I would be devastated to lose.

It’s more than a personal treasure, of course. It’s the story of a weekend, of a community, of the woman who stitched it, of the individuals who expressed themselves through cutting and arranging fabrics.

I hope one day my great-great-great-great grandchildren run their fingertips over the nearly invisible white-on-white stars, moons, dragonflies, suns, and berries

and feel each stitch as a legacy of love.

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Dresden Plates

My grandmother, Mildred, was born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1902. She died in Windom, Minnesota, in 1974.

During the 71 years of her life, Grandma moved frequently, particularly during her youth, as she was the daughter of a Methodist pastor. Moving within Iowa and then to South Dakota, the family uprooted in 1904, 1905, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1915, 1917, 1920; three younger siblings were added to the family at various points in the geographical shifting. Because of childhood illnesses, Grandma’s schooling took longer than it might have. After graduating from high school in 1922, she attended Drake University for four years. In that time, her parents moved twice. Once she had her degree, my grandma taught, took more courses, and traveled, in the process relocating at least seven more times. Eventually, in 1933, she married my grandfather, Julian, and they started their own family, living out the rest of their years in small-town southern Minnesota.

Sitting here, decades later, I try to imagine her life, as it must have felt to her. It’s impossible to know anyone else’s experience, of course; even as we live out our own days, it’s often incogitable to understand events as they’re happening. In the moment, it just is what it is, with perspective being the benefit of time and a larger sprawl of context. For my grandmother, frequently changing house for the first part of her life was the norm. She was a kid. When her parents announced, “We’re moving to Smithland (or Castana, Presho, Tripp, Armour, Henry, Salem, Doland, etc.),” Mildred most likely shrugged, looked for her favorite doll, and strapped on her shoes.

Later in her life, after she married and therefore stopped moving every year or two, how did that feel? Again, was it just “what it was”? Or was there a sense of shifting gears, of enjoying being settled, of chafing at being settled? Did she ever find it dull to wake up, year after year, in the same rooms, talking to the same people? Or was that something she’d always craved? Then again, even when her family moved frequently, she was always surrounded by the same people: her parents and siblings. Thus, in a way, she’d had stability in the midst of change. In that way, perhaps being settled felt the same as moving.

Even in the recordings of Grandma’s life events and in the notes my mom and Aunt Geri took when they questioned her about her memories, the emphasis is on dates and places, with anecdotes mixed in–undoubtedly, the focus is on the what more than the why and how. We know such-and-such happened, but we don’t necessarily know how my grandmother felt about it or what the motivating factors were. Why, for example, did Mildred’s mom and dad take a claim 15 miles outside Presho, South Dakota, in 1907, live in a tent and tar-paper shack for 16 months while building their “house to retire in,” and then move to Tripp, South Dakota, in 1908? I can’t help but wish for the story behind those numbers and place names.

Because I am fascinated by emotion and psychology, the moments in Mildred’s recollections when she does note her feelings are highlights. For example, it makes me grin to know she was a youngster who was proud of her sunbonnet–before she dropped it down the hole being dug for a new outdoor toilet:


Ultimately, when we look back on the lives of our forebears, at history in general, it’s all piecework–taking this tidbit and that chunk and laying them out in a pattern that makes sense, given what’s at hand. We stitch the names and dates together with words, speculation, recollection, and possibility. Then, when all the tidbits and chunks have been stitched together, there is a story. Someone else might look at the same tidbits and chunks and, in the creative process of making decisions, stitch them together into an entirely different story.

Again, my grandmother provides an illustrative example. After she died in 1974, when her children were sorting through her effects, they found a quilting project she had started: a stack of circles in the classic quilt block pattern known as Dresden Plates. The fabric in the quilt blocks and rectangles she had cut for borders were scraps of Mildred’s old house dresses–as my mom explains, “That is, dresses for staying at home and doing household chores or going down the alley to visit a neighbor lady and taking a few cookies or whatever–often with an apron over the dress. There are no Sunday-go-to-meetin’ fabrics” in the quilt. Supplementing the material from her house dresses were bits from blouses, aprons, soft toys, and fabric from a church rummage sale.


Before she died, Grandma had drawn the pattern, cut and sewed the plates (29 of them), and joined together the rectangles for the quilt’s border. After she was gone, the promise of her project remained, for she had laid out a basic framework, enough that another quilter could pick up the pieces and carry on.

Fittingly, the project passed from mother to daughter. My mom, busy living her own life, racking up the names, places, and dates that are the scaffolding upon which a life story is hung, carried those Dresden Plates with her for decades, from one house to the next, from city to the next, from one state to the next. Eventually, she turned her attention to creating four wall hangings out of the plates, one for each of her four grandchildren.

In this way, in this manner of fashioning a tangible legacy, women’s handiwork has profound power.

In the early 1900s, a girl named Mildred in the American Midwest learned from her mother how to make stitches. That girl grew up and had her own children, one of whom was my mother, Maxine. In 1939, Mildred taught Maxine the basics when they made a doll bed quilt alternating rectangles of colored and off-white fabric. Maxine hand pieced most of it, and Mildred tied it. In the 1970s, Mildred began assembling Dresden Plates for a quilt. In the 2000s, four decades later, Maxine picked up her mother’s start and carried it forward. In 2007, my mother gifted each of my children with one of these:

Although these glorious wall-hangings don’t tell the story of a life–in the finished product, there is no indication of the tears, heartache, joys, confusions, and devastations of the maker’s days–they tell a story nevertheless. My children can look at their wall-hangings and picture each patterned fabric on a house dress as it walked down the alley, its wearer carrying a plate of cookies to a neighbor. As well, my children can look at their wall-hangings and picture the hours and energy their grandmother devoted to creating a symbol of her love for them. According to her notes, for each little quilt, my mom spent four hours on the hand applique of the plates, two hours (plus) embroidering around each plate, two hours straightening rows of rectangles that Mildred had sewn, plus an hour attaching them. After that she spent two hours marking the grid for the quilting, four hours quilting the background or grid, and three hours making and adding the binding. Finally, she spent, on each of the four wall-hangings, two hours cutting off the ends of threads. If those numbers don’t register as love to my kids, they can simply read the back of the quilt and let words achieve what numbers don’t:
Indeed, what doesn’t come through in our handiwork is the why or the how of a life. Someone looking at the quilt can’t see all the years when my mom had the Dresden Plates in storage and felt caught in a marriage that made her miserable. The viewer can’t see how she took a leap toward finding her own happiness when she divorced my dad after almost forty years. There is no evidence of the ripples that decision set off in our family, many of which are still being felt today. A person in the future admiring her tiny stitches will never know that the quilter worked for years in a career that challenged and delighted her at the same time it exhausted and stressed her. Those considering the fabrics used will never know that the quilter used to turn somersaults in the hallway with her three young children. As they admire the contrast between circles and rectangles, they will have no sense that the quilter was not a sports fan but, nevertheless, worked as scorekeeper at her son’s baseball games. She loved donuts, sometimes to the point of hating herself. She loved to travel, to talk about books, to ring bells. She wished her hair weren’t so thin. She discovered, when she was 79, that she could do push-ups.
All of those small moments of life can’t be seen in a quilt. All we can see is the work, the craft, the diligence and creativity.
However, In the same way my grandmother mingled occasional emotional disclosures into her memories–pride over a sunbonnet!–my mom does the same. As she passes on the details of how many hours each part of the quilting process took, she also notes,
“I loved doing every stitch.”
And there it is.
In a single, short, declarative sentence,
she tells her story.


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Woodworking. Jewelry making. Embroidery. Felting. Pottery. Knitting. Gardening.
I am fascinated by handiwork, as art, as personal pursuit, and as cultural artifact. Just as much, I am fascinated by the psychological benefits of creating something with the hands. Certainly, there’s pride that comes from making something beautiful. There’s learning that comes from the challenge. Science even tells us that making things with our hands can help counter depression. Indeed, as the article “DIY Therapy: How Handiwork Can Treat Depression” reports:
… multigenerational surveys have shown that people born later in the 20th century, after the dawn of modern conveniences, suffer more bouts of depression than those born before World War II. Studies have also found low rates of depression among members of Old Order Amish communities — one-fifth to one-tenth those of the general population … the Amish, who sew their own clothes, tap their own syrup, and drive handheld plows through dry furrows, could be getting a serious neurobiological lift from all of their effort.
I can corroborate this theory anecdotally. When I started teaching college students 24 years ago, the biggest problems they brought to class were hard-won hangovers. Nowadays, though, in these times of tablets, smartphones, and online socializing, at least a third of every class suffers from anxiety, depression, or both. Tied in to these issues is often a resulting problem with addiction. Again massively anecdotally, I’d say less than three percent of my students make things with their hands. Even those who are into Pinterest are more about looking at the pictures than completing the crafts.
Mind you, I’m not drawing a clean line between lack of handiwork and troubled mental state. Of course, of course, of course, depression and anxiety have myriad causes. It is, however, interesting to contemplate the therapeutic benefits of creating with one’s hands. Just ask the next occupational therapist you run into.
Personally, I don’t necessarily have a handicraft-based hobby outside of baking and gardening (and including these might push the strictest definition of handiwork). In previous decades, I would make some of my own clothes–badly and inexpertly–and I also went through a few spates of cross-stitching. What I find therapeutic are writing, hacking away at the piano, reading, and jigsaw puzzling. Perhaps each of these, in its own way, is a kind of handiwork.
So I’m in a mulling kind of mood, when it comes to the activities we pick up for three minutes here, a half hour there. My mulling comes partially from living in a house with a guy who occupies his spare minutes like this:
SONY DSC Somehow, I don’t think Ma Ingalls had a tumbler of vodka on the rocks nearby when she sewed Laura’s gingham dresses. It’s well documented, however, that Ma wore a black wool hat when she sewed. Pa always did build drafty houses.

Figuring out embroidery as an extension of his drawing has absorbed Byron’s attention these past few months. When he draws, he is all about black ink on white paper–and lines.

Telephone Wires

Now he’s seeing how he can translate black and white lines to a textile, and he’s having ever so much fun with it, particularly because he can stitch in the car, in front of the tv, while hanging out on the bed–places where an open bottle of ink and super-fine-motor control aren’t always possible. You can check out some of his blackwork embroidery on his blog, Laying Fallow, by clicking on this: Lake Superior Blackwork Series.

Part of my mulling, when it comes to what this handiwork is doing for Byron, focuses on the intersection of gender and hobby. Traditionally, when males work with their hands, tools like saws, hammers, and blowtorches are involved. The kind of handiwork Byron’s engaged in has generally been the purview of women.

Relatedly, I’ve always said Byron’s the closest thing to a woman But With Male Private Bits that I could find. Had I frequented more transgender night clubs, though, I could’ve ended up with a version of Byron who brought dresses to the marriage, and what a bonus that would have been. Maybe next time.

I like watching a man embroider, the same way I like watching a woman (not me) open the hood of a car with an eye towards fiddling with the carburetor. In essence, I like it when people find what they like to do and then do it.

Underlying my musings about gender and making things with our hands are thoughts of those who came before me and how their handiwork is a powerful legacy. Because I am a woman, I tend to look back at the women in my family and consider what they made and why they made it. My brain tries to weave my greats- and grandmothers and aunts and mother into the larger fabric of women throughout history who moved from making purely functional things into making functional things of beauty…and then into making non-functional things of beauty. My brain conjures up images of straight-backed wooden chairs, fire light, and tiny silver needles flashing up and down. My brain floats to contemporary times, and I recall my aunt Geri, an accomplished seamstress, teaching my children how to sew themselves pairs of denim shorts. I think about how Geri knits mittens for the poor every year; how she blows young girls’ minds with the gorgeous dresses she makes for their Barbies; how she sewed the wool vest that Byron wore when we married; how she has sewed, knitted, crocheted, cross-stitched, embroidered, tatted, quilted and amassed huge stashes of material all throughout her life.

And then I think about Geri’s sister, my mother, and how she, too, has provided me with an example of what a seamstress, knitter, crocheter, cross-stitcher, embroiderer, tatter, quilter, and fabric collector looks like.

When I think of these women who came before me, who practice their arts still, I am not only full of admiration; I am also full of wonder. I wonder at the energy, the hours, the thought that go into every piece. I wonder, awe-struck, at how they continue to grow as artists because they try one thing–nope, didn’t work–so the next time they try a different thing, thus refining their talents over decades.

I wonder if their handmade creations have provided therapy during the tough times. I wonder if their projects are, in some ways, their most steady friends. I wonder if my mother knows how much I love the quilts she’s made. She can read and hear a “thank you.” But I wonder if those words can convey how much I treasure her stitches.

Perhaps the words in my next blog post will deepen the thank you–because next I want to write about a couple of her quilts. Stay tuned, chums.


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Mommy, Why Is One of My Quads So Much Bigger Than the Other?

Sidenote: I was just updating some past posts that were missing their titles, and when I clicked “update” for this one, it did a whole new “publish.” Anyhow, enjoy video of the kiddles when they were younger, back during our year in Turkey when they took pottery lessons!

Paco Pottery from Jocelyn Blog on Vimeo.

Girl at Wheel from Jocelyn Blog on Vimeo.

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