I Know What I Know

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August 2016

A Plea for Louisiana Flood Relief

In a world where it seems a disaster happens every day, it’s easy to become desensitized. We often reach a point where we feel so helpless, our defense mechanism is just to ignore it.

Many of us would like to take action, to listen to that little voice that says, “do something, do good!” When it comes to donating our time, money, or energy we become wary — if I donate to help Syrian Refugees, does that mean I need to turn around donate to help the victims of the California wildfires? Is charity an all-or-nothing thing? Is my little donation going to help at all? How do I know which charities to donate to that will actually help the victims?

If you need help deciding how to do some good this week, I’m here to help you narrow it down. Please, please send relief to the flood victims of Louisiana. If only because I’ve made your choice easy.

Here are some reasons why:

  1. Louisiana was placed third-to-last on a recent list of best states to raise children. Poverty is a major issue. The weather is becoming more and more unpredictable due to climate change, and the destruction of wetlands related to oil drilling and other factors. I’m not saying every flood victim was living in poverty, but overall, the state struggles to give people a good life. Especially children.
  2. School is about to start! Schools are flooded and classrooms are ruined! I’m a teacher, and I can’t imagine what that must be like for those teachers and students. Here is a link to donate specifically to teachers to restock their ruined classrooms with supplies.
  3. Louisiana is home to some of the most diverse and rich cultures in the country. The most famous ones of course are Creole and Cajun, but there are so many others; German, Irish, Italian, etc. The African-American roots here are precious. When Katrina hit, we had to ask ourselves “What will be lost if New Orleans is lost?” We need to ask ourselves the same question. Thousands were displaced by Katrina, diffusing the culture of the state by removing its lifeblood, its people. We need to do what we can to allow people to stay in Louisiana.
  4. I’ve traveled to Louisiana several times, and have always been warmly received and treated as a guest. People are nice there! It is a beautiful state to visit and I want to repay their kindness. Yes, that’s my motivation, but it can be yours, too.
  5. Read this. Just look at these pictures.
  6. Pets are suffering just as much as humans! There are so many animal shelters that need donations. If you are an animal lover, please consider lending your support. Even the Louisiana Bobcat Sanctuary needs help.
  7. It wasn’t so very long ago that we had some pretty bad flooding around here and a lot of Iowans lost everything. Whether or not donations were sent from Louisiana doesn’t matter. You know what they’re going through. You’ve seen what it did to our community in the Cedar Rapids area and you know how long it takes to recover from a flood. Please help.


FYI: I am going to approach the administration at Lisbon Community Schools (where I am teaching starting next Tuesday!) about putting together a donation drive and shipping supplies down. If you live in the MV/Lisbon Area keep your eyes peeled for information if I can get that up and running.


Mama Wisdom Episode #1: The 80s

Stranger Things has inspired a lot of 80s-themed thoughts to rattle around my brain lately. I’ve posted recently about the crippling nature of nostalgia, which the show feeds into (and this explains why it’s such a sensation, I think — we always want to get back what is gone, what we can never have again, and this show makes it possible to hide your phone in a drawer, turn off the lights, and literally pretend it’s the 80s again) and how people online defend 70s and 80s parenting (letting your kids come home when the streetlights come on, etc).

With this in mind, I decided to ask my mom, Jan, about parenting in the 80s when I was a kid (I was born in ’83 and my brother in ’88). I was curious how much has really changed, because the perception is that child-rearing has gone through a serious, fundamental shift. Indeed, looking back at the 80s with shows like Stranger Things feels like being transported into another world entirely, one without the internet, ISIS, and the Kardashians.

My mother’s comments to my various questions about parenting in the 80s and being a working mom back then are below:

 I don’t think there is a big difference in raising a toddler between now and 30 years ago. Some of the gadgets are different and the car seats are more sophisticated. I guess we were more concerned about killing germs then, introduction of solids foods was more scripted then as well. We didn’t have smart phones or the Internet of course but we tried to restrict screen time then too (TV).

I relied very much on the regular appointments with [Amelia’s pediatrician] Dr Anderson for parenting advice. He would warn me of the safety and health issues associated with [Amelia’s] age at the time of the appointment. As [my granddaughter] Alyssa gets older, the differences in parenting of then and now might be greater, for instance, when to give her a phone, how to monitor Internet use and social media safety.

Another difference is the more frequent testing at school, safety concerns about letting kids play outside and walk places alone. It seems like there was pressure TO helicopter and provide lots of extracurricular activities back then and now people are seeing the advantage of independent play and self direction of kids.

[Some of the best advice I’ve received about parenting is] the importance of working on your marriage, spending time with your spouse… Also, that you are the parent to your child, not their friend or partner. And, the importance of family meals and time together every day.

Moms should know that they may not always be appreciated for their efforts. Women are basically expected to be superheroes. Working moms are usually working with other moms and should respect and admire the effort of their coworkers. Most of you have put a full day of work in before setting foot in work. I was lucky to work in education where parenting is valued. One really tough thing that got better was initially when I had to miss work to care for a sick kid, I had to lie and say I was sick. Later it was changed to family illness days which were so valuable to me.

Thanks very much to my mom for her insightful comments! I would also like to wish her and my dad a very happy 40th anniversary!!!

The Gastronomical Me

The Gastronomical MeThe Gastronomical Me by Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the back cover it says, “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” So said by Auden.

Yup. That pretty much covers it!

Fisher has this way of taking something that we consider mundane (eating) and crafting stories around food experiences in her life. But it’s more than that — she just makes the obvious and the typical seem magical by the way she writes about it.

I did a little research on her life to get some of the references in the book, but mostly, you should just read it and enjoy it. Let the MFK Fisher in your mind be the one that is real.

View all my reviews

Nostalgia: Poison, Paralysis, Sweetness, Addiction

Everywhere is memory. Memory is now obsession, morphing into addiction.

On Facebook, I get these messages telling me what I posted on this day several years ago. I get these little glimpses into things 2007 Amelia was writing. Sometimes I smile, sometimes I wince, sometimes I can see myself sitting at the little wooden desk at the apartment on Bloomington St, the one I shared with Crazy Sarah, using her blue and white iMac to try out this new thing called Facebook, using her stuff while hating her.

I watched (read: binged) Stranger Things. Suddenly I was up at Video Village with my brother choosing VHS tapes to rent. Hiding under the covers and reading IT and Cujo. Watching my VHS copy of Stand By Me when I lived on Michael Street with no cable and a box of tapes instead of TV.

I found a bunch of old CDs and put them in my car to listen to. Many of them were mixes I’d created in college. One of them was called “Sam’s Jams” and was a compilation of all the songs we played on the jukebox night after night at the old Sam’s Pizza in Iowa City. Gems such as “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand. Lots of Beck and Pixies and Tenacious D, which is just not as funny as it used to be.

2004, Halloween

Also the “We Survived the Tornado” mix, an album I made for my friends Alicia and Patrick to commemorate the time we almost died in the Iowa City tornado (I’m not exaggerating. As me to tell you the story sometime). I found myself singing along to songs that I didn’t remember that I knew, tracks by Maroon 5 and the Shins. I was so wrapped up in the lyrics somehow flowing out of my mouth from a place that no longer existed that I went the wrong way driving home and had to double back.

Some of the Sam’s Pizza Crew (Monday was $1 pint nite)

Memories infect me. I can’t get away from them, but, like a bad relationship, part of me doesn’t want to escape. Can’t let go. Perks of Being a Wallflower transported me back to middle/high school in the 90s, and I read the book so slowly just to comb through the tangle of memories it pulled to the surface for me. I cried when it was over and hugged the book to my chest. I want that again, I thought. Rocky Horror and mixed tapes and grunge and youth. 


The tragedy is that you can never go back. All you can do is let Nostalgia wrap around you like a soft blanket. Or a straightjacket.

Nostalgia sells, nostalgia is everywhere. Barnes and Noble sells remakes of old toys we played with in the 70s and 80s, like little rotary phones with faces (side note: I had a prop rotary phone in my classroom for the last 5 years and every kid asked me about it at some point, not knowing what it was or how it worked. They called it the Rotisserie Phone). Entire social media groups are devoted to posting pictures and asking “remember when…” The soaring popularity of Stranger Things is evidence enough.

Stranger Things also works as a corrective. I can’t tell you how many memes I’ve seen recently that say something like, “when I was a kid, Mom kicked us out of the house in the morning and we had to be home by dark” or lamenting how we played kick the can while kids now play Pokemon Go on their phones. Everyone over a certain age looks back and sees the past, their formative years, as inherently better than “times” are now. But that’s why nostalgia is a poison, and how it can paralyze you when it gets in your bloodstream. Nostalgia creates an idealized version of the past in our minds, and a wish to revisit a time and a place that never actually existed.

See, in Stranger Things, it’s 1983, and a group of boys have gathered for Dungeons and Dragons in a friend’s basement. They ride their bikes home without cell phones. One of them goes missing.

The world has always been dangerous. Life has always had its ups and downs. Hell, back in the late 90s, I was 15 years old and miserable for stupid reasons. I suffered school bullies, acne, frenemies and body image issues. I couldn’t drive, and the internet was SO SLOW. What exactly is there that is so desirable that I’d want to go back and relive it in some way? High school is not the “best years of your life.” Sure, there are good times, but how could that compare to my wedding day, spending a month in Europe, or this morning as I snuggled with my daughter and played with her tiger puppet?

Another thing, slightly off topic: interests and tastes are pretty meaningless anymore at age 32. I remember taking so much time on my social media profiles to list all the books, movies, and music I liked, because those defined me. “Well, she likes Tarantino, so she must be edgy and cool.” Life is not a dating profile anymore, I guess. I’m not out there fishing for music nobody’s heard of, or making sure everyone knows my favorite directors. In fact, I’m okay with liking whatever I like, regardless of it being “mainstream.” Because tastes and preferences are such a tiny, insignificant part of what makes a person.

Still, as I go through these CDs and fill the car with Daft Punk and Death Cab for Cutie, I can’t help but feel this hollow, addict’s longing for times and places and friendships that no longer exist.

I’ve seen some old friends sort of die
Or just turn into whatever
Must’ve been inside them
And whatever all of us had then in common
Grew up and left home
We don’t think that way no more
Turn around, turn the volume down
We’re counting the days down

Till the day when we live in a video
I’ll be stone-faced and pale
You’ll pout in stereo
24 hours every day of the year
Oh, what fun I can’t wait ’til the future gets here

— “Video”  Ben Folds

(one of the songs on the Tornado Mix)


Back-To-School: The Golden Time

A couple of New Years’ Resolutions ago, I decided that if I was really going to do this writing thing, I needed to start now. I had just turned 30, and realized that destiny is something you have to cajole, court, even hunt and trap. I started a novel, and began dabbling about with writing contests. I entered one for the now-defunct website where teachers were asked to describe what they loved most about their job.

I wrote about “The Golden Time” which is a span of weeks leading up to and entering the school year. It’s a time of potential, of the new and novel, and for years, never ceased to bring me excitement, as a student and as a teacher. I won $200 and it was the first contest I ever entered, which is kind of a big deal. It really solidified in my mind that yes, I can do this.

Anyway, this post isn’t really about writing or that particular contest, but about “The Golden Time” I wrote about that day. With back-to-school coming around, I realize now that this inspirational part of the year has never really been anything more for me than an idealized, nostalgic notion that has swindled me for years.

The Golden Time

It comes in late August. There’s a certain type of golden light that illuminates the lush trees, sparkling on the dewy grass in the early mornings. It is not the hot silver of the midsummer sun, but a light that gently ages towards autumn. The air gets a certain kind of pumpkiny smell to it. I don’t mean a pumpkin spice latte smell. I really can’t describe it except that it smells like end-of-summer heat, mown grass, and pumpkins. When that scent comes to me, when I see the light, I can’t control the excitement that tingles through me. It’s almost time to go back!

As a kid, I pretty much liked school, and as the summer wound down, I was always ready to start the next grade. Because our school systems run on an agrarian cycle, one ancient and set in our bones, though the rhythms of the land many not be part of our lives anymore, the start of a new school year always feels like a kind of rebirth. Not in the way that spring symbolizes rebirth, but when three months go by, a lot can change. As kids, I had grown all summer, and returned to my peers, tanned, covered in friendship bracelets, ready to be harvested by the machine.

It was that idea of change that appealed to me. You got a pile of (mostly) new school supplies to lord over and write your name on with sharpie. I remember painstakingly creating collages on my folders and binders with clippings from Rolling Stone and decorating the inside of my locker just so. Then, of course, there were new clothes, and new styles to try. That, coupled with the hustle and excitement of fall sports and upcoming events like dances and homecoming parades made back-to-school a time of magic. Of transformation and possibility. Summer, a chrysalis, just waiting for beautiful wings to emerge.

This year, I always think, this year will be different. Things are going to change. This year I’ll have the right outfits, the right accessories, and the right friends. Everything is going to be amazing. This year I’m changing my look, and everyone will be impressed. This year I’m going to be the funny kid, and everyone will be impressed. This year, I’m not going to get in any fights with friends and I’m going to do better in math. I’ll show up on the first day with my new folders and my cool collage binder and they’ll all see the new me.

It’s the same when you’re a teacher. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if deep down inside, the Golden Time is a significant chunk of what inspired me to teach. I’m addicted to the idea of possibility. Your students come to you, all scrubbed and tan and shiny and ready to learn, and you get a clean slate. This year, you think, I’m going to keep way better track of my formative assessments, and I will most certainly not be putting up with any more of Student X’s shenanigans. Also, my hair and nails will be fabulous.

Perfect Things are Impossible

Maybe it’s annoyingly obvious for those of you reading this, but I’ve just now, this year, come to the conclusion that the Golden Time may be a truckload of bull… fill in the blank. It’s taken me 12 years of public school, 4 years of college, and 10 years of teaching to finally reach this conclusion. And, to be honest, I feel like an idiot for being so optimistic.

In middle school, even when I showed up with the cool new dress my mom and I sewed, or my awesome X-Files folders, the bullies and frenemies were still there. Sophomore year, when I showed up with pink hair and Goth from head to toe, ready to buck the system, I probably looked cool for the first 10 minutes before the late summer heat melted my make up. The cool collage binder got lost, ruined, whatever. The math grades weren’t the best.

As a teacher, I’ve come to the realization that it doesn’t matter how many clever powerpoints you make, how you decorate your classroom, what color you paint your nails, or whether or not you wear black the first day and try not to smile. The same crap happens year after year. I’ve worked in three different schools, and it really doesn’t matter where you are. There’s always going to be professional development days that last way too long, discipline problems, and wasps in the classroom. There will always be that kid who pushes your buttons, and there will be others that you really enjoy working with. But no matter what, you’re still going to have to administer the Iowa Assessment at some point.

I guess… I’m weary of getting my hopes up.

What’s the Difference Between Jaded and Realistic?

The smell is in the air, and the light is tinged with gold. My heart wants to find that flighty excitement of yesteryear, to plan my outfits and decorate my classroom, but I’m really having trouble this time around.

I should be super excited. I’m teaching high school for the first time, and I’ve always wanted to do it. Talk about a rebirth! I’ve got a new school and new books to teach.

Maybe I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t want to be a butterfly anymore. Maybe I’m happy being the fuzzy caterpillar. It could be that I’ve reached a point where I just want to be myself, no gimmicks, no bulletin boards, no magical outfits that will impress whoever it is I’m trying to impress. This time around, in year 11, I guess I’m just there to do my job, do it well, and head home at the end of the day. Is there anything wrong with that?

I do miss the optimism this time around. The Golden Time had this Christmas Eve feeling that’s addictive and pleasurable. But I think the time has come to let it go and be okay with that. Summer isn’t a chrysalis anymore. It’s this long, amazing time where you go on trips, write, and binge Stranger Things on Netflix.



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