Saturday, November 30, 2013

Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Baculum

As I write these words, I am watching Emily Graslie dissect a wolf penis. While she had me at "penis bone," I was truly titillated when she dropped this pearl: the scientific name for a penis bone is baculum. Whoa. In Latin, baculum means "stick" or "staff," and it's the origin of the word "bachelor." Today, a bachelor is an unmarried man with a smelly apartment, but before the word traveled on over to English, an Old French bacheler was a squire, or a young man in training to become a knight. Until that young bacheler earned sufficient skills and medieval chivalric cred to warrant a real sword, he had to practice with a wooden training staff, or - yes, you guessed it - a baculum.

Isn't that just lovely? I mean come on. Anatomy, history, and etymology, all in one glorious melange.

I'll get back to the amazing Emily Graslie in a minute, but first, some background on why her lovely visage and linguistic know-how graces my blog this evening.

This has been one amazing, bizarre, kick-ass, dreamy year. For those of you new to my little ol' corner of the blogosphere, here's a quick recap: in the past twelve months, I was the subject of a New York Times piece, published my own New York Times piece, placed my first piece at the Atlantic, watched that article go viral, scored my agent, who then crafted my book deal with HarperCollins for The Gift of Failure. While I was teaching middle school full-time. And parenting two boys.

All of that amazing stuff happened so fast, I hardly had time to appreciate each new milestone along the way. Each one of those items was a big-deal, bucket-list, life-capper item, so my head has only recently stopped spinning.

Well, it didn't as much stop spinning as I traded the metaphorical, euphoric spinning for the much less enjoyable literal, nausea-inducing spinning of post-concussion syndrome.

Concussions stink. Seriously. Wear a helmet when doing dangerous things that take place more than a foot off the ground.

Because my brain needed a rest from activities involving the printed word or any kind of screen, I had a lot of time to think about all things I want to accomplish in the coming year, once my work on the book is done. The one thing I really wanted to learn how to do this year was podcasting, but that goal got lost in the many other to-do items that dominated my time.

I have been dying to do an audio or video podcast. I've even planned episodes in my head. I have guests, I have topics, and I know how and where I want to do the recording.

At a recent speaking engagement at The McDonogh School, someone even asked during the Q&A session if I make my talks available on the web or in the form of a podcast.

If only. So I'm back to my speculative scheming.

I have role models in mind, accomplished teachers whose style, smarts, and wit I hope to capture when I launch my own show. One of the very best of the lot is Emily Graslie. Her YouTube show, The Brain Scoop, embodies just about everything I admire in a webcast, and I hope to emulate just a small bit of what she accomplishes in her little corner of the educational world.

That said, there's one aspect of this whole YouTube channel/podcasting enterprise that gives me pause. As I've mentioned in the past, commenters are a bane and a boon, and I'm constantly wrestling with their weight and significance in my work as a writer and teacher. While I've been incredibly fortunate in that the comments I receive are generally intelligent and productive, the odd negative and insensitive feedback still leaves me a little untethered. So naturally, opening myself up to more of that kind of weirdness gives me pause.

But then I watched Emily Graslie respond to her commenters with grace and charm in the episode of The Brain Scoop embedded below. In this episode, she addresses the internet bullies who feel free to comment on her clothes, body, glasses, geek-cred, and facial features as if that has any bearing on the fact that she delivers some of the best STEM content on the web.

So heck, if Emily can carry on teaching with panache as she rises above the freaky-ass contents of her inbox, so can I.

Thank you, Emily, for your content and your class. Fear not, your ladies are out here, watching and listening.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Gym Class

This piece appeared in the Valley News a few years ago, on the first day of school. It remains one of my favorites, because even though Finn's love for Ellie has faded over the years, the memory of this moment embodies everything I love about our tiny community.

Gym Class

We attended a wonderful set of performances at the Elementary School last night. Benjamin stood on stage, dutifully singing holiday songs in the pink-cheeked, deadpan, third-grade style. Meanwhile, down on the gymnasium floor, Finnegan was manically twirling with tongue lolling and arms akimbo, all in pursuit of a glance, a smile, a flicker of interest, from his beloved gold-haired Ellie.

I’d like to say I enjoyed both performances equally (wouldn’t a good mother say as much?) but poor Benjamin’s holiday songs were all but ignored by the audience members within twenty feet of Finnegan’s preschool mating ritual. There were elaborate pauses, dramatic exhalations, jazz hands, and then, mercifully, Ellie giggled, and Finn was invited to sit with her on her mother’s lap to watch the remainder of the concert.

Nothing, not even the memorable rendition of “Wipe Out” as interpreted by the middle school band’s percussion section, could beat that moment.

Concerts, dances and the annual mud season town meetings all take place in this gymnasium. Finn will play dodge ball, dance his first slow dance, argue and vote in this room. However, my favorite event to grace this room, the moment I most look forward to each year, is the first day assembly.

Students, tanned and shining from a summer spent outdoors, race about in front of the school sporting new shoes and backpacks while their parents clutch coffee, visibly relieved by the arrival of new the school year. At exactly 8:10, our Principal ceremoniously rings the school’s bronze bell. Then, beginning with the kindergarten, each class processes into the school individually. Save for a couple of teary five-year-olds, it’s a moment full of happiness and pride.

The procession moves to the gym, where the Principal introduces the teachers, offers up words of inspiration to the students, and orchestrates the moment we have all been waiting for. Eighth graders line up at the front of the gym alongside the kindergarteners, still sniffling and clutching stuffed animals. The oldest students, who just moments ago seemed so little, so young and vulnerable, now appear as giants when matched up with the kindergarteners.

Then, solemnly and sincerely, each eighth grader pledges to mentor and guide the kindergartners as they make their way through their first school year. This exchange has taken place for so many years that the parents of the oldest children can remember when their giants were the sniffling babies. What’s most striking is the seriousness with which this pledge is undertaken by the teenagers. It’s tempting to think of this moment as playacting, a sentimental drama cooked up by the school for the benefit of the parents, but it’s not. It’s a real moment. The big kids really do look out for the little ones, and it shapes the day-to-day workings of the school.

As I watch Finnegan dance, tripping over his own feet in an attempt to find some vestige of a rhythm in the third grader's off-key rendition of “Any Dream Will Do,” I am grateful that this place, these people, will be witness to his soft landings.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Day in the Life

Reading through The Education of a Flatlander has been so much fun, because it's a chronicle of raising my children, and it's as vivid as any photo album. As my boys move through their gangly and reticent teen years, and I'm left without any cuddly, pudgy babies, I've particularly loved reading these reminders of what our days used to look like. Much of it is about chickens and gardening and root cellars, but this one has just the sparkle I needed on this gray day.

Have a great holiday, everyone. 

A Day in the Life

With all due respect to the Beatles, my day hardly ever starts with a comb across my head, but I do have to worry about getting my fifth grader Benjamin out to the bus in seconds flat.

The low winter light has Ben convinced I’m waking him in the middle of the night just for chuckles. As I pull clothes out of his dresser and kick a path through the debris on the floor of his bedroom, I stress that I have no ulterior motive, no reason to lie, especially when his reluctant awakenings are so often paired with a foul mood. He insists on seeking out a second opinion on the hour at the Official U.S. Time web site. We then go through our daily ritual. He stomps back upstairs after I inform him that the clothing he’s worn for two days straight will not do for a third, and I admit that yes, I am the meanest mother in the world for forcing him to wear clean clothes.

“Ben, nine minutes until you have to be outside.”

Nothing. Six-year-old Finnegan helpfully offers that he does not think Ben heard me and that maybe I should speak “more louder.”

More louder it is.


Two minutes later, peanut butter sandwich in hand, Ben wiggles into his snowsuit, balaclava, hat, gloves, and boots, while I toss lunch into his backpack. As the bus rolls down the hill, I push him out the mudroom door with a “Have a good day! I love you! RUN!”

The neighbor waves the bus down for Ben and he makes it with a second to spare.

Turning back toward the kitchen and my waiting coffee, Finnegan runs in from the playroom holding two empty vials of glitter.

“Mommy! Come see this! You won’t BELIEVE it!”

He proudly leads me out of the kitchen by the hand. The playroom looks like Studio 54 on a Sunday morning. The whole room sparkles under a finely distributed layer of gold, silver and green glitter. The television, with its crackling static charge, appears swathed in gold lamé. The dogs twinkle like disco balls as they roam about in the bright sunlight.

I open my mouth to complain, but Finnegan proclaims, “Our house is so sparkly and pretty!”

And I have to admit, it is sort of pretty.

Time for a field trip.

Finn and I drive up to Robie Farms in Piermont for milk, cream, cheese, eggs, cider and Betty Sue Robie’s fresh cinnamon donuts. On the way home, we stop by Veracka’s Auto Repair for a new windshield wiper, and hit the Lyme Country Store for tonight’s pizza supplies. A local farmer who is working to create Lyme’s first organic dairy is at the store, so I get to hang out and talk farming for a while. Last stop, Recordridge Farm for some venison loin and steaks, paid for with cash tucked under the scale next to the cooler.

The glitter has not been cleaned up by the housecleaning fairies by the time we return, so I spend about an hour sucking up as much of it as I can with the vacuum cleaner.

Upon returning home, Ben looks around and asked,

“Why is it so sparkly in here?”

When I told him what Finn had done that morning, he says he thinks we should keep the playroom that way, that he likes it.

“It’s pretty,” Ben proclaimed.

From my perspective, it’s all upside – the remaining glitter can be deemed deliberate decorating strategy rather than a byproduct of negligent housekeeping.

I still have not written a word all day, so I allow the kids to watch a DVD while I get some Mommy time. As usual, Ben slams the playroom doors before selecting a movie. He is militant about this playroom door issue. They must be closed if a movie is in progress because he likes total silence. If I open them, even for an instant, he hits pause with the remote. This is the same kid who can read a book while simultaneously listening to a completely different audio book.

The dogs head out to romp in the snow with the new puppy next door, and I warm up the coffee I forgot to drink an hour before. The paper sits on the counter, but I have to return it to the Clarks paper box according to our finely tuned subscription-sharing arrangement. So, sadly, I never did read the news today. Oh boy.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wintering Over

The first snows have fallen in New Hampshire, and I'm feeling nostalgic. I'm pulling out some old friends, chapters from my first book, one of those books that was best left on the shelf and categorized as a learning experience. Bits of it are solid, most of it is training ground. I will be posting my favorite chunks this month, starting with a piece befitting this cold winter morning in New Hampshire.

I’ve been dreaming about little hats for frostbitten rooster combs. I think my brain combined my son Finn’s desire to learn how to knit (his friend Ellie can knit, and he’s jealous) with my quest to find a cure for my rooster Dewey’s case of frostbite. If I knit small hats, would they stay in place with tiny strings or would he Dewey able to untie the knots with his knobbly talons? Do I have to knit them in the shape of his comb or would a simple dome work? Would wool be too itchy on his comb? Maybe polar fleece instead…
New Hampshire is in the death grip of an Alberta Clipper, and the temperature has only made it above zero a couple of times this week. I noted on Friday that the temperature on the thermometer outside my office at Crossroads Academy was registering -22 or -23 at nine in the morning. I have a heat lamp on the chickens but even with that supplemental heat source, Dewey is suffering from a rather unsightly case of frostbite on his comb and wattles. The tips of his comb are black and there is a big white blister on the top of it yesterday. His Ladies are fine; they sleep with their heads tucked into their back feathers, but Dewey can’t possibly shove all of his rather impressive and ostentatious ornamentation under the warmth of his plumage. He does suffer for his beauty.
I have filled their coop with shavings and an abundance of straw in order to give them warm nests, but they huddle together on the roost just below the heat lamp. They like to keep their feet tucked up in their belly feathers and only come down from their perch to eat, drink, and lay. The laying has been infrequent this past week due to the stress of the cold. Chickens don’t lay well when it’s too warm or too hot, and my biddies clearly think it's too cold for their embryonic chicks to be lying around the frigid coop floor.
The chickens would prefer to stay in all winter long, but I force them outside into the sun when the days warm up a little. There are about three feet of snow on the ground right now, so I shoveled a large run for them and rotated the dirty litter in their coop outside, which just happens to be on top of my raised kitchen gardens. My chickens hate the feel of snow under their feet and simply refuse to go outside unless I spread something on the ground. Even with the shavings to insulate their tender feet, they stand, flamingo-style, on one leg or the other, obviously disgusted by the chilly and inferior footing. Nevertheless, their natural urges soon take over, and they quickly get down to the business of scavenging. They peck about in the litter and wipe their beaks on the ground like a proper Victorian women dabbing their lips with napkins at tea. Once my ladies have been shooed out the door, I empty a bale of fresh pine shavings in to the coop and the smell instantly takes me back to the horse barns of my youth. The only smell I love more than shavings is that of fresh straw, and the nesting boxes always get a nicely fluffed layer on top, just for good measure.
The chickens seem to enjoy being out in the sunshine. They stretch their legs behind them, like sprinters on starting blocks, shake and rearrange their feathers, and Dewey takes advantage of the extra room to maneuver by mating with all of the hens in less than an hour – always striving for a personal best, it seems. He usually mates with each of the hens at least once a day, but never in such rapid succession. It’s amazing what sunlight and fresh air can do for the libido.
Unfortunately, the recent frigid temperatures have kept them inside on even the warmest days. Egg production is way down, their water freezes in less than an hour, and the chickens are literally climbing the walls. I caught Dewey roosting high up in the rafters of the garage this morning. I have been filling their trough with hot water in the morning and afternoon – I like to think of it as chicken teatime – and they seem to like that. They gather around the hot bowl like women receiving a steam facial at the spa.
My new cold alleviation strategy involves warm breakfasts. No, wait, it’s not crazy – stick with me for a minute. I was up at Farm-Way in Bradford, VT, for shavings, layer pellets, Bag Balm, and a new pair of insulated Carhartt work overalls the other day, and I ran into my neighbor, who also keeps a flock of layers. As soon as we got the pleasantries out of the way, the conversation immediately went all poultry. She boasted that her coop is insulated, but in order to keep her hens warm, hydrated, and laying, she makes them a hot corn mash every morning before they begin to lay. She claims it keeps egg production up to reasonable levels. I’m on day two of steaming hot, coop-service porridge breakfasts, and while I have not seen an increase in egg production yet, I’m giving it some time before I pass judgment.
The Bag Balm I mentioned is also for the chickens. I read that a daily massage with Vaseline or Bag Balm can do wonders for a frostbitten comb. The massage helps stimulate the circulation and a protective layer of petroleum jelly and lanolin helps protect their combs from the cold. The poultry books and magazines made it sound matter-of-fact – just massage the rooster’s comb with the ointment. Simple. But if you have ever met a rooster, let alone my rooster Dewey - you know that capturing, holding, massaging…all of these elements are much easier said than done. I was able to capture him because he was in the coop, but he’s strong, and he hates being held.
I try to hold a rooster cuddling session once a week or so in order to get him used to the practice. As soon as a rooster’s spurs begin to grow, at around eight weeks, the countdown to an oncoming surge of testosterone begins. Just about the time the spurs – bony, sharp protrusions off the back of the legs – get to full size, a rooster’s body ramps up testosterone production to full volume. This surge can trigger hostility and dangerous displays of dominance, and, not coincidentally, this is when most roosters get the axe. I’ve told my kids that Dewey gets to stay as long as he remains docile, but the minute he launches himself at a the kids or the dog with his spiky spurs, his tenure in our flock is over. I figure that if I hold him once in a while, I can teach him who is boss and stave off any aspirations he may have for world domination.
So back to chicken massage. I managed to catch Dewey, and held him tightly while my city-slicker husband Tim scooped big gobs of Bag Balm out of the tin. He mashed it around in his fingers and smeared it on Dewey’s huge, waxy comb. The cold made the Bag Balm solidify, so big globs solidified on the blackened, frostbitten tips of his comb. In an effort be gentle while he massaged what must be very painful lesions, Tim was tentative, and I suppose he failed to inspire the rooster’s confidence. Dewey struggled fiercely, mortified by this indignity, and in his thrashing, bits of the petroleum glop went flying everywhere. His eyes rolled up into his head and his pink, pointy tongue jutted out of his open beak. Tim did the best he could with the stiff, sticky balm, and I tossed Dewey out into the sunshine with his hens. He shook his gloppy head and rubbed it on the ground. Straw and feathers stuck to the goo, and when he lifted his head back up again, straw stuck out from his head in every direction, a feather adhered to his wattles, and layer pellets dangled from his big white earlobes like gaudy costume jewelry. Oh, the indignity. His hens helped him return to normalcy by pecking the debris from his face. In under an hour, the hens had removed all but the tiniest globs of balm from his face, and he was feeling himself again. He even made the rounds and inseminated the entire flock in an attempt to restore order to his world.
His comb looks better this morning, and the thermometer is reading temperatures just above zero. I hear we may actually hit the upper twenties by afternoob. My friend Jim, a farmer down in Massachusetts, noted that spring is just around the corner in an email this morning. I pointed out that it’s still January, and the official planting date in my neck of the woods is Mother’s Day, 114 days from now. Apparently, his definition of “just around the corner” is a little more optimistic than mine – even in the relatively temperate climate of his zone 5 valley, he’s a good 65 days away from what could remotely be called Spring.

We got another four inches of snow yesterday, so I will head out and rotate the old shavings to the backyard run and open up another fresh bale of shavings in the coop. But first, I have to deliver their breakfast of hot corn mash with raisins and kitchen scraps. In return for my efforts on their behalf, I can expect a big fat tip. Over easy, with a dash of salt.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Life Informs Art

It will be one month since I was tossed from a horse and suffered a pretty awful concussion. The first two weeks were all about sleep and acute symptoms. Those weeks were frustrating, but I could wrap my brain around them because I understood that if I still had acute symptoms, I was still recovering. At this point, my symptoms have shifted toward subtle clues that I am not firing on all cylinders, and that if I push myself beyond a certain limit, I will pay for it later.

As the days pass, and I feel better and better, it gets harder to remember that my brain is still recovering. I still need a lot of sleep, and reading and writing tires my brain out faster than just about anything else.

I've had to adapt to reading and writing in very short bursts. I'm up to about an hour at a time if I'm rested. I wrote a piece for the Atlantic over the past couple of weeks, in stops and starts. It was inspired by an article I read in Harvard Magazine, but clearly, my psyche was yelling at me the entire time I wrote. I will be in Washington, D.C., next week on a couple of speaking engagements, and until then, it's time to remember how to practice the lost skill of patience.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mind the Gap

Thank you all so much for the kind words of support and concern for the state of my gray matter. I am recovering, if slowly, and these past couple of weeks have been a real education for me in patience, stillness, and quiet. I'm not back to baseline yet, but I'm getting there.

In other news, the most recent "Parent-Teacher Conference" has racked up some great comments. I love writing this bi-weekly column, and am always on the lookout for new questions, so feel free to drop me a line in the email form over there ------------>

In the meantime, check out the current "Parent-Teacher Conference," a discussion about ability grouping in math and finding the right level of challenge for your kid. Be sure to check out the comments, because they are fantastic. While other outlets are getting rid of the ability to comment on posts, I'm seeing encouraging signs of increased intelligent discourse here and there. It's rare for posts to receive so many thoughtful, productive, and nuanced comments, so I'm pretty thrilled with my readers this week.

Sorry for the radio silence, but until I'm all healed up, I'm trying to write and read as little as possible. Edits on my manuscript come back from Gail Winston, my editor at HarperCollins, any day now, and I'm determined to be as rested and ready as possible so I can get back down to work the minute they hit my inbox. The cover is looking great, the subtitle has been re-written, and I simply can't wait for the next step in the adventure.

Take the jump to Motherlode here.