Friday, April 30, 2010

Solomon's Puzzle and Teaching

Part 1

Around the time in my life that my children left home-schooling for “formal” school, my husband had work in London and invited me to go with him. We left our children in the very capable hands of my mother-in-law and went away together. While he worked, I wandered around London. This wandering somehow fed my soul. I stood in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey and prayed with great longing for some grace to write; the desire inside had become so strong. One of these wandering, blissful days, I bought tickets to the musical Les Misérables and we saw it that night. Something inside of me opened up as I watched the magnificent play. The theatre’s stage rotated and because we were sitting way up high in the balcony, we could see the many levels of the barricade the student rebels had built. It occurred to me, then, that the things in literature meant more than the description of their looks or dimensions. I felt as if I could see another dimension in life and thought. It’s hard to explain but I think it might have been an epiphany.

Longing to understand more about literature and language. I returned to school to complete what the college degree I’d begun at St. John’s College eighteen years before. Well, I hadn’t valued my years at St. Johns until then. All the misery of learning math and science until my head spun, all the credits I struggled to earn there, counted as my basic education classes and I was able to immerse myself in the study of English and composition and literature and the history that put it in context.

I grew in skill and confidence in my writing that year and continued on to study for a teaching certificate and a master’s degree in education. Education classes and teaching, surprisingly taught me lots about writing. Education writing is the antithesis of composing fiction. Whereas fiction demands the dramatization of ideas, the creation of meaning through symbol and inference, education writing introduces an obvious subject, then tells you what you already know, tells you again, once again, once more again by way of studies no one can follow and then concludes. This takes many pages.

Teaching taught me a million beautiful reasons why everyone should love teenagers. I treasured their generous spirits, their hope to understand life and love and faith, their marvelous sense of humor, their conviciting sense of justice. I hated and still despise the way teenagers are portrayed in modern literature and media. And planning lessons for them helped me understand how to write. When I was starting, my friend Jo-Ann said, “You have to make learning happen.” She added, “Set the classroom, the lesson, the work, the review, the assessments up to make learning happen.”

This clicked in my mind as this is exactly what is done in good fiction. Hawthorne doesn’t lecture about how pitiless the Puritans were, he demonstrates it in Hester’s punishment. Nor does he preach about how one is to be saved in such a society, or how one ought to behave, instead, he shows his complex and touching idea by contrasting Hester’s struggle to make peace with her community with Dimmesdale’s deadly self-reliance.

In the spring of 1998, I began to write the draft of Solomon’s Puzzle that is finished, being edited and formatted now. Where to start and how to organize the narrative came to me one morning in my AP English Literature and Composition class when I was writing a Liz Jamison’s comment about a homework assignment on the board. It came to me and I turned around and saw that bright, little class there and knew I had to begin again.

I continued to teach and all those beautifully written books, all the compelling, mysterious poetry and the hours spent thinking and writing about words others had labored over, the hours spent talking about it with my thoughtful and lively students—all of this taught me.

The years of teaching students, their earnest quest to be heard and to learn all inspired me. I wanted to portray them and the community of parents who loved them dearly and sought to raise them well. I wished to document the community of just citizens I knew and loved in Annapolis
once students, friends of students, married to students, now my friends and family

Someone I was thinking of hiring to help me market the book asked me if I was passionate about it. My response? I don’t have a firey personality, but I’ve been working for more than ten years late at night, before six in the morning, on weekends, in lieu of TV watching, always on snow days, in faculty meetings, all during summer vacation. If that’ s not passion, what is?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lasagna Secrets

Did you know that you don't have to cook the lasagna pasta before baking the casserole? That's right. Before I learned this secret, I dreaded making lasagna because when I boiled the pasta, it stuck together and then I burned my fingers trying to rip it apart.  This way, there's less hassle, less mess, no ripped lasagna noodles. And you don't have to buy the special "no cook" lasagna pasta in order to do this.  Though friends and family are reluctant to believe this secret, it is true.

First make the sauce.
Brown in a large pot:
1 1/2 pounds ground beef (lean)\
When cooked, move to the sides of the pan and add
1 small can tomato paste -- cook this until it is bubbly and brown
Add 1 large can of tomato sauce and
1 large can of diced tomatos
1/2 cup of water (used to rinse out the cans and get all the bits of tomato)
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon basil
a sprinkle of hot pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
three or four grinds of freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon sugar * secret to great, authentic tomato sauce
a tablespoon to 1/4 cup leftover red wine (if you have it)
Cook this for at least 1 hour.

When ready, prepare the 13 x 9 " pan by spaying with cooking spray or coating lightly with oil
1 large container part skim ricotta cheese
4 eggs
2 cups shredded motzarella cheese

Spoon a layer of the tomato sauce (hot) into the bottom of the pan.

place the completely uncooked lasagna noodles on top of the sauce.

Drop the 1/2 of the cheese mixture on top of this and spread it out.
Spoon another generous layer of tomato sauce on top of the cheese
and repeat.

Use 1/2 cup of the remaining sauce to fill up the corners of the pan. This is an important step.

see how the corners are filled and see also how the pan is about to fall off my counter. That part I don't recommend.
End with a sprinkling of motzarella cheese and parmesan.
Cover tightly with tin foil and place the pan on a cookie sheet with edges (to catch the drips - I promise you, there will be drips).

Bake at 350 degrees  for 50 minutes covered. Uncover for 10 minutes and bake some more.
Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting.

No milk variation
Substitute hummus for the cheese/egg mixture.  Add sliced olives and/ or marinated artichokes.
It's yummy!

See? Pasta is cooked, sauce is just right, and no burned fingers!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Dishwasher Update

Many of you have been asking what happened with my dishwasher. The last I wrote, I had been told by the person who kindly called to say the dishwasher would not again be installed on the scheduled date, that the dishwasher had no “drain hole” and that it had to be taken to “warehouse repair” to get one installed. Hmmm.

That sounded a bit like fiction to me and sure enough… it was. The dishwasher had a drainage hole, it turns out, but it was missing a drainage hose. When asked if we could buy one at Home Depot or etc. while they drove it over here, or if they could get one somewhere in their vast appliance warehouse, the answer was no, that wouldn’t work. Why not? Because the real reason that the original dishwasher was being sent to “warehouse repair” was that the door had somehow become dented.

No one dented it. It just somehow became dented.

The saleswoman wanted to know if we still wanted the dishwasher once they banged the dent out and patched the paint. We declined.

My husband is a good negotiator; I’m not. Either I have an attack of sympathy and totally commiserate with the opponent or I lose my temper or I give up and get mad at myself for doing so. Taking the advice of my kind readers and friends, he called the Best Buy manager’s manager and spoke to someone who arranged to have a similar dishwasher installed the next available time.

It didn’t quite make it that week. Some glitch occurred when somehow the order was totally cancelled.

Hmmm. What can I say that I haven’t already? Back to negotiation and this time speaking to the manager’s manager’s manager. And it all could have been so simple.

Another week went by and finally after trying since mid-March, last Friday April 23, a welcome knock came on my front door and there was a beautiful, new, undented dishwasher, standing on my driveway. And the expert installer carried the whole thing in by himself!

It took not thirty minutes to install!

It came with its very own drainage hole!

It runs beautifully and quietly and the dishes came out clean.

I’m grateful.

Thanks also to all of you for your comments and suggestions.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mainly About Jack

I’ve been looking for time to get to know my two-year-old grandson, Jack, a little bit better. Because he is the second child, and content to amuse himself happily, I think I tend to respond to his older brother’s exciting and dramatic ideas. Joey awakens with plans fully formed in his mind and I love helping him accomplish them. If this is true of Jack, no one knows because he is quieter, tends to think things through and because he’s younger and less likely to speak up as quickly.

This weekend Joey and Jack stayed with us and I was blessed to be able to get to know Jack better.

I’ve always been drawn to Jack’s personality. That may be because I am also a second child, but I remember one afternoon when he was tiny and snuggled in his infant seat, I bent close to talk to him. Looking in those wide, infant eyes, I saw, unmistakably, intelligence and understanding. He “cooed” at me, though he was merely three weeks old. Maybe it was his many-toned voice, or those wondering eyes, but I got the feeling that this child had the special, deep gifts of love, wisdom and creativity.

Two year old children are interesting creatures. I love the scampering, eager way they run, love their attempts at conversation. Their wills emerge in a passion they cannot control but feel acutely. Their unreasonable displays of temper show this. Yet they are also becoming reasonable, learning their words, that they must eat and sleep, naming their colors, executing the intricacies of grammar, becoming sure of the ways that families work, delighting in the wonders of nature. This twin intellectual development of reason and will makes for some strange behavior.

My instinct about Jack having great love has proven true. He is a sweet child, always affectionate. When I pick him up or show him affection, he whispers, “I love you, too, Grannie.” I think this shows an amazing depth of understanding. So when this loving, sweet child has a complete screaming meltdown, it stops everything.
Jack with the play-doh cobra that Aunt Care made for him

The first meltdown this weekend happened when I thought I ought to bathe the boys on Friday night. They weren’t really that dirty, but, I was trying to take care of them. Upstairs we went and Jack started to scream. Not cry. Scream. It was high pitched, intense, hysterical screaming.

“What’s wrong Jack?” I asked.

Hand shaking, he pointed into the tub where a little orange basketball and Noah’s ark, full of plastic animals waited.


His hysteria was so intense that I was actually alarmed. I took out Noah and his animals and put them on the bath mat. I turned the water on and took off Jack’s shirt.

His screaming escalated, tears running down his face. “GET THAT BALL! GET IT OUT THERE!”

I gave him the ball, which he clutched to his chest. I turned the water off thinking the sound of its rushing into the tub might be what was frightening him. He was so upset I wasn’t sure what to do. He must have sensed my hesitation and begged, “JUST WIPE ME DOWN! JUST WIPE ME DOWN!” His solution, I guess, to getting in the tub.

I decided to postpone the bath.

Though I know that two-year-olds experience irrational fears, I hadn’t really expected it in Jack because he’s the kind of kid who enjoys things. He brings a sense of wonder and excitement to most of life’s events.
playing "Billy Goats Gruff" on the bridge at the playground. I had to be the troll.

On Saturday we had lots of fun. We went to a “Thomas The Tank Engine” event at Toys R Us, everyone played hard, ate well, and Jack took a great nap. We went to a couple of playgrounds and played in the back yard so that by the time we were getting ready to watch a movie before bed on Saturday night, the boys were pretty grimy and needed that postponed bath.

I thought I’d get the water ready before I mentioned it.

I took Jack upstairs to a tub filled with warm bubbly water and the crying began again. This time, he whispered, “I not go down drain.”

“No,” I said, understanding the desperate hope in his statement. “You’re too big to fit.” I don’t know what else I said, but he got into the tub with only a bit of a whimper and once in there, he grabbed Noah’s ark and kept his arms around it while I washed his hair. A few times, he patted the bubbles and seemed to be enjoying the warm water, but his main focus was that ark full of animals and when I took him out, again he screamed, “GET IT OUT THERE!” Which of course I did.

We watched the water swirl down the drain with Noah and his animals safely in Jack’s little arms.

My husband had visited the library and found a Benji movie for the boys to see. If you don’t know Benji, he’s a little dog, some sort of smart, heroic terrier. In this movie, Benji was lost in the mountain wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Benji’s heroic heart is roused to action when four mountain lion cubs are orphaned (shot by a man hunter). He spends the movie providing food for them, fending off predators, making friends with bunnies and owls and trying to convince a neighboring mountain lion to adopt the four orphans.

Jack sat with me for part of the movie, but after a while, got down to pick up some of his favorite toys (as many as he can carry) and hold them. He was standing thus, arms filled, when the movie showed a hawk circling above Benji’s brood. Though Benji barked, the hawk swooped down and got one of the kittens!

“Shocking! Why put that in a kids’ movie! Ridiculous!” were my thoughts. I knew Joey was comfortable with the food chain idea, and I was sure Jack would not understand.

I was wrong.

He turned toward me. Tears welled in is wide blue eyes and his mouth trembled. He let out a wail, dropped his toys and ran to me. I picked him up and he sobbed onto my shoulder.

Of course I felt horrible for letting him see that, Horrible. When I saw that the movie was showing the neighboring lion walking in a lovely high mountain meadow with her one cub, I “rewrote” the script and told him that the hawk had carried the kitten to the mountain lion. This may not be strictly right or honest, but I often “rewrite” scripts when I can’t bear an ending. Especially a stupid one like this one. What would it have hurt in the vast universe if all four of those kittens had made it to the end?
sweet awhile ago

Jack took comfort in seeing the Benji struggle to carry the remaining kittens up the rocky mountain slope to the meadow where family awaited them. I suppose my little Jack, his heart full of compassion and love, identified with Benji’s brave demonstration of love. May you find the strength and means to protect and love all those in danger, my dear, brave Jack.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Chesapeake Boys

I know you may not believe this, but sometimes I tire of looking under rocks for worms. Not that I don’t love and admire worms! This weekend Joey and Jack stayed with us and we did look under each rock and flower pot in our yard at least seven times. They even convinced my husband to lift the biggest and heaviest of rocks and pots. Worms, rolly bugs and more worms! When they came to see me this week while their mother worked, I must admit privately that I felt as if I couldn’t look another centipede in the face.

So I bundled them into my ancient stroller, which though made for one child is sturdy (read heavy) and large enough to squeeze two agreeable boys. We walked down the street and through our neighborhood to the place where our community has built a little park by the creek’s edge. The first whiff of this park in the spring is not the bracing scent of the sea, but instead the pungence of brackish water in the bright spring sunshine - muddy, fishy, and just a bit salty—the scent of home.

We saw a Great Blue Heron too quick to capture on film.

Looked for water snakes,

But found some minnows darting in the shadows. This felt just as thrilling, but less scary.

We played on the floating dock for hours.

Their sticks became fishing poles.

Jack said, “Look, I got algae.” How does a two year old know what algae is?
Sorry for taking a picture instead of snatching the stick out of his mouth

They snagged sea weed calling each new stick hanging with bright green moss a different fish. In the end they’d "caught" salmon, sharks, the Great Chesapeake Whale and quite a few eels.

Joey was fascinated by the mud on the bottom of the brackish creek, and liked stirring it up. He liked getting his stick stuck on the bottom. Then he liked bringing the mud up to show Jack.

Jack loved the mud.

When my own children were little, I was unaware of this park's beauty. It's a favorite place now. And though I may miss teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with all my heart, watching two boys play at the water’s edge is just as good.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Valerie had an idea
so she started making things.

We all love books
Eric is an English teacher
so the ideas came together
as in
pages of a book
or leafing through a book...

Val had an old copy of Little Women that was absolutely falling apart.
We grieved over cutting it up, but... we could hardly keep it together so....
Valerie made a stamp out of the styrofoam from a meat tray (you know what the chicken or meat comes in from the grocery store), which we washed a few times.

Once the shape was made, pressed the "stamp" into the ink and then onto the old, already brown pages of the book.

We cut these out with a jagged edged scissors... and pasted it to a pale blue/green square
On the back we pasted a poem that Jackie, Val and I wrote collaboratively explaining that we
Val made a banner called "bunting" in the same style with zig zag edges and leaves.

And of course, the cookies too had to match. Val drew leaves on the sugar cookies with chocolate piping. And the chocolate shortbread had zig zag edges with a cut out leaf in the middle.
We went a little crazy, but it was fun.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Much Ado In The Backyard

While Jack was napping, Joey and I amused ourselves outside.

He practiced swordfighting
with the biggest tree as his opponent.
He must have the most amazing imagination,
 not to mention courage and confidence!

He's fierce, but even the strongest need a change of pace so...
Joey made a flying saucer to carry the Gi-Joes all over the yard

and into the pool.

We made a vacation castle for the Gi-Joes

with a road around it

We looked under every rock and flower pot (at least 3 times)

for worms
and lizards and rolly bugs and slugs.
Joey likes to make a home for the worms and lizards by getting flowers and plants to "make them happy."

And while we were working, a pair of house wrens built a nest in our window box, just like they do every year. It's so considerate of the birds to build their nest where we can share in the excitement! We can watch from inside the house by peeking past the curtains to see what's happening with the eggs and the new baby birds. Updates to follow...!