Thinking about Pittsburgh

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In light of recent events, I have been thinking a lot about Pittsburgh. This weekend at the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s fall conference in Charlotte, I was inspired to write the following after a great panel on the importance of place in writing:

 

City Chicken

When I moved to Beaver, PA, in 1983, I was 23, just graduated from Oral Roberts University, Lord help me, and had come to work at a small Christian school outside of Pittsburgh. I grew up an army brat, who moved from place to place north, south, east, west, yet always carried the South with me as I traveled with my loud, boisterous, loving Alabama family.

Part of my heritage is a powerful streak of non-conformity, independent even from the strong political, religious, and social mores of southern society. So when I was still jobless a couple of weeks before graduation and was invited to apply for a job teaching English and German at Rhema Christian School in Aliquippa, PA, a major steel town outside of Pittsburgh, I didn’t hesitate. It was a grand adventure, moving to a brand new place to explore and new people to meet.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived that June day and was picked up at the Pittsburgh airport was how dang humid and hot it was. Despite that similarity with my home state, on the way to the school from the airport, I knew I wasn’t in AL anymore. The rolling hills were larger than those of the Alabama plains. Instead of one story brick or wooden houses, spacious lawns and pecatrees, we passed two story homes huddled close together in the valley and scattered over the hills, big red barns decorated with brightly colored quilt patterns I know now are PA Dutch Hex signs, long rambling steel mills belching smoke, and the bridges! Silver train bridges beside the huge arches of yellow ones crowded with cars and trucks, moving in and out of small bedroom

Pittsburgh’s bridges

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communities and Mill villages.

 

On the way to the school after leaving the interstate, we passed a Perkins Restaurant, a chain, I was told, much like, but not at all like, Shoney’s in the South. On the marquee I read that the week’s special was City Chicken—city chicken? I thought it was weird but let it go as my nerves took over in anticipation of my first teaching job interview. 

I got the job and moved two months later. Almost my whole family helped me move. We had fun exploring Pittsburgh—the drive through the Fort Pitt tunnel.

Point state park in pittsburgh

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opening up to its impressive view of the city during the beginning of its renaissance, lunch at an Italian place, claiming the best pizza in The Burgh, beautiful Point State Park, right where two rivers came together to form the mighty Ohio. Then, hugs, kisses, tears, and they were gone, back to Al together. I was left alone with a map and my dad’s advice on the best route back to my new home.  

After crossing four or five bridges and traveling down numerous wrong roads, I finally found the right one and headed to Beaver. It was getting late, I was already homesick, frustrated that I had lost my way, and therefore powerfully hungry, when I saw a marquee in front of yet another Perkins restaurant, or maybe it was Eat ‘n Park, anyway, the special, according to the sign, was city chicken.

close up photography of orange rooster on brown wooden bench

Photo by Yves Chaput on Pexels.com

I took the bait, parked, was led to a booth, and without thinking or asking or reading the menu, ordered the special from my young, perky, big-haired server.

She wrinkled her nose. “Did you say City Chicken?” Not the first time that day someone had trouble with my accent

“Yes, Ma’am.” I said, smiling.

She gave me a curious look but said nothing. A few minutes later she placed before me a huge plate of meat on a big pile of fluffy white rice with a side order of broccoli. I took a whiff and was suddenly transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen as she prepared fried chicken and rice for a Wednesday night church supper before prayer meeting.

My mouth watering, I took a bite. Oh, my, it wasn’t  chicken at all. City chicken, turns out, is big fat juicy, deep fried pieces of pork tenderloin on a frickin’ stick. It was not like anything I had ever tasted before. But, man, I thought, feeling I had not, after all, made the biggest mistake in my life, it sure was tasty.

 

 

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Five Easy Ways

rear view of man working in office

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The first semester as a graduate assistant working on my Masters in English Education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, I was required to take a course in teaching methods. Because I already had five years of teaching experience, two years in a private school in Pennsylvania and three years in Rome, Georgia, teaching English and German, I was arrogant enough to think I didn’t need to take the course and was somewhat annoyed that I had to do so.

However, during the course of the semester, I found out how much my professor, Dr. Gayle Miller, had to teach me. One of the best activities Dr. Miller had us complete was teaching to the class. Each one of us had to pick something we were interested in and instruct the class. My friend, who later became a colleague at the school where I teach now, taught a lesson on writing apprehension, offering suggestions I still use today. Another interesting topic was finding a word in an English/Chinese dictionary–surprisingly difficult.

Even the few times Dr. Miller was not there, she always had an interesting person to come in and lecture. It was a long time ago, and I can’t remember her name, but one speaker who came to Dr. Miller’s class made a lasting impact on my teaching by introducing the class to five easy ways that can help students improve their writing.

Although I have modified the list somewhat over the years, I still introduce my freshman composition students to The Five Easy Ways, which I have found especially useful when teaching community college students who may not have been strong writers in high school. The beauty of the The Five Easy Ways is students can improve their writing without knowing much grammar.

Don’t get me wrong! I love grammar, but I have a great deal to accomplish in a short time in freshman English, so I have found that The Five Easy Ways jumpstarts revision among students who may have never truly revised a paper. They just don’t know how!

So here are The Five Easy Ways in their latest iteration:

  1. Avoid the use of first and second person pronouns.
  2. Avoid beginning sentences with There and It.
  3. Eliminate overused expressions and vague modifiers, such as like a lot, lots, very, really, good, bad, awesome, etc.
  4. Avoid over-coordination.
  5. Read backwards and aloud.

Okay, maybe I should not have said they were easy. These five ways may make finding sentences that need revision easier, but fixing them is not always easy.

Okay, okay, there is a little grammar here, too. I usually must explain what first and second person pronouns are and also over-coordination, but most students know the grammar; they just don’t know that they know it. After a few minutes of review, the majority of students begin to remember.

Today, let’s look more closely at the first Easy Way. Students are so used to writing about themselves they find it difficult to think from any other perspective, something we want college English students to do; therefore, I don’t allow first person at all in finished drafts. Also, students learn that stating one’s opinion does not require the phrases I think, I believe, or I feel to precede them. Furthermore, eliminating second person forces students to think more about broadening their audience and often leads them to develop a more mature voice. They can also learn to avoid pronoun errors caused by using the second person incorrectly.

Example: After reading my paper, you can see that it is for the best if you start recycling. 

Oh, me. So many things to talk about–where to begin?  Start with eliminating the first and second person pronouns.

Revised: After reading the paper, most people can see that it is for the best if everyone starts recycling.

Still some things to work on, but for a freshman who doesn’t even know where to begin revising, the sentence is already improved by making just a few simple changes.

Okay, okay, okay. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are thinking how I am forsaking The Five Easy Ways even while explaining them, but I am much more conscious of overusing the first person or inappropriately using the second person. Now, I am consciously looking for this overuse when revising. Looking at the draft of this blog, for example, I noticed the overuse of first person pronouns and have worked to eliminate some pronouns while reconsidering others.

I have incorporated The Five Easy Ways into freshman English classes, which now begin with an assignment that is a personal narrative written in third person.  After completing this assignment, students seem to grasp how avoiding first and second person can strengthen their overall sentence structure.

Here is the assignment and an example:

One of the easiest ways to make writing sound more academic is to eliminate first and second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, your, your). Although finding the instances of first and second person is a snap, rewriting sentences to get rid of these pronouns can be time-consuming at first. The good thing is once writers begin using third person only, they soon become used to it and will write in third-person more often, making revision easier and easier.

Therefore, in this exercise students will write a one paragraph (five to ten sentences long) narrative. The trick is to write the paragraph totally in third person .  Here are some suggestions for the paragraph, but students are not limited to these topics:

a car accident

                      an event during a family vacation

learning to drive or learning to do something else

winning or losing a game

failing or succeeding at school or work

the first day of elementary school, high school or college

any other topic as long as it is a personal narrative

IMPORTANT NOTE: The paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and be no shorter than five sentences and no longer than ten well-developed sentences. Telling a story in such a short time is difficult so narrow the paragraph down to the climax of the narrative. 

Take a look at the following example to get an idea of what I’m looking for:

Example:

Katie and a Horse Named Butterball

Katie only rode him once, but she will never forget riding Butterball through the Grand Tetons. She was nine and a half, on a trip back from California to Alabama with her parents and siblings when the family stopped at a dude ranch in Wyoming for two nights. The owners found out that Katie and her sister loved horses, so they decided to take the family on a trail ride. Everyone was given a horse that seemed to suit each one, except Katie, small and scared, who was put up on Butterball–the biggest, fattest golden palomino gelding anyone ever saw! Katie’s little legs stuck straight out across the horse’s wide back, and at first, she was terrified. However, when she realized that the horse was a gentle giant, she relaxed enough to look down on her older sister and brother, even her parents. That’s when she began to feel much better. As she walked the trails through the glorious mountains in late summer, she saw sights she had never seen before or since–the Grand Tetons early in the morning, a moose cow and her calf drinking by a lake, wild horses led by a buckskin stallion–all while riding high on a horse named Butterball.

This first assignment does not cure students of overusing or inappropriately using first or second person, but it certainly gives them something to consider when they begin the revision process as college students, and for some, knowing where to begin is the start of a whole new way to look at writing.

Next blog post, I will tackle Easy Way #2.

Thanksgiving at the Pagoda

L4b77bf7ebf16aa15a52a4ad03b49010fike many college students that I teach today, when I was in college, not only was I a full-time student, but I also had two jobs. I worked as a secretary in the German department (I majored in English and German), but I also worked as a hostess and cashier at my friend’s parents’ Chinese restaurant–The Pagoda, where I received an education of a totally different sort, but equally as important, to me anyway.

The Pagoda was a truly American Chinese restaurant, built and owned for years by a Chinese-American family, then, after it was already an established and popular eatery, bought by my friend’s father, a Puerto Rican-American,.  The chefs were from Hong Kong primarily; the fry cooks, bussers, and dishwashers were mostly Puerto Rican. Some of them spoke English, but many of them did not. Then there was the wait staff, which included a myriad of varying ethnicities, including Japanese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Oklahomans,  and me–a little bitty, painfully shy girl from Alabama.

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It was quite a place! Who would have thought, at a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I would have tasted such a rich variety of cultures and traditions but always with a distinctly American flavor? This true melting pot extended to the menu, where patrons could feast on traditional dishes like Moo Goo Gai Pan or Chicken Chop Suey, more Americanized fare like Garlic Chicken (garlic-flavored fried chicken) or Steak Kew (thick chunks of sirloin stir-fried with Chinese vegetables in a savory sauce), or all-out All-American eats, including hamburgers, French fries, and Chicken-Fried Steak with White Gravy. (One customer regularly came all the way from Fort Smith for that dish.)

When I first started working at Pagoda, I was so shy, so naive. My parents had moved us to Tulsa when I was still in high school–I graduated from Jenks High School in Jenks, Oklahoma–but I stayed in college at Oral Roberts University, living at home for my first three years in college. Then, about the time I started working at Pagoda, my parents moved back to Alabama, and I moved into the dormitory.

Before that time, I had relied mainly on my family members, my best friend, and her boyfriend for companionship, but now my family was gone, my best friend had moved to a college out of town, and her boyfriend worked a great deal, and I did too, especially at Pagoda.  But my bosses and fellow workers reached out to me, engaged me, joked with me, even protected me, as if they knew I was lost and lonely in a world where I didn’t always fit in.

pagoda-placemat-60-thumbOh, so many memories of that time–

  • The time the Japanese servers refused to work unless they could put a TV up in the waitresses’ alcove so they wouldn’t miss a single episode of Shogun
  • The old Chinese chef, who spoke little English but gave us all pet names off the menu–one friend was Fried Won Ton, another was BBQ Rib, and I was, to my consternation, Sweet and Sour Pork.
  • The huge strong chef, who looked like an Asian Mr. Clean, with his bald head and bulging biceps. One day he was tossing fried rice in a gigantic wok over a searing flame and called me over as I walked by. I motioned I was in a hurry, but he insisted, so I went over. He communicated to me that he wanted me to toss the rice. I looked at him, my eyes narrowing, suspecting a setup, but his was a face of stone. So I took hold of the massive spatulas, more like tiny shovels shoved into the mounds of rice, steeled myself and tried to lift them. They didn’t budge–I heard a tiny sputter from the big man. Tried again, nothing–he sputtered a bit louder–then at the third attempt, he could contain it no longer and burst out with a big-bellied laugh at my expense. Then, after he wiped his eyes, he started tossing the rice with an ease and abandon, laughing all the time. I laughed too–unashamedly.
  • There was the tiny Japanese waitress who had been married like four or five times, who came up to me almost every single time I came into work, looked me in the eye and said, “Smile if you got a little last night.”  Of course, I never got any and of course, I always laughed. Oh, how I loved her.
  • Giving a sweet Cambodian couple some English lessons. In thanks, they cooked me a huge turkey at Christmas time, such a generous gesture that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I lived in a dorm and had no place to put it. I can’t even tell you what I did with the thing, but I remember their kindness to me. I will never forget that.
  • Then there was the self-proclaimed Okie from Muskogee, who smoked like a chimney and spent her free time traveling to Vegas for gambling weekends with one of the other Japanese waitresses. She had lived a hard life, and nobody messed with that woman, but she had raised children too and knew when they needed to be loved. She cursed and complained about many things, but she never had a harsh word for me. Bless her, she knew I needed a little tenderness, so far away from my own mama.

I especially remember sitting down for special meals during holidays and other special occasions, especially Thanksgiving. Everyone celebrated it–all races, nationalities, and creeds. At Pagoda, Thanksgiving meals became times for friendly competition between the two major groups of cooking employees, so when the restaurant would close before Thanksgiving Day, we would have a spread, all the traditional fixin’s with a spicy twist, including two turkeys–one was cooked in a Chinese style, brined with the skin crisped on the outside and the other one in a spicy Puerto Rican style with adobo spices and oregano. (I’m guessing based on what I know now–I only knew the food was delicious back then.)

Both groups would try to get all of the diners, myself included, to declare their favorite, but I never did. I just smiled, laughed, said I had to get another helping before I could be any judge, and headed back to the table for seconds or thirds. I always tried to find my way back in a corner. I was young. I was shy. I didn’t speak their languages, but I ate their perfectly spiced food, watched them, listened, laughed when they did, and longed to understand them more.

Thus was born one of the key tenants of my educational philosophy.  So I tell my students–get out of the classroom. Put yourself in new and uncomfortable situations and listen for that song you’ve never heard before. Go into every situation with a mind open to learning about things and food and cultures and people you never dreamed you would. If you want to truly, deeply learn—then go out and live.

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Man, That Is So Great! Thanks, Mom!

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Mom along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a visit to North Carolina in 2015

A while back, I wrote about my father’s influence on me as a person and an educator. I’ve also written about my grandmother, great aunt, uncle and sister.

Now it’s Mom’s turn.

I quoted Mom in class today, again. I frequently do that because Mom has had so many things to say…wait…that didn’t come out right. I mean in a good way, so many good things to say. Today, I was talking to my students about the importance of learning research skills and remembered one of my favorite Mom sayings: “The secret to a getting a good education,” she said, “is learning how to find things.”

Man, that is so great!

And Mom knew what she was talking about–for the bulk of her career she was a high school librarian–teaching students how to find things. But Mom had been an English teacher, too. She was actually my English teacher one year. I know what you’re thinking. What a nightmare! And occasionally it was indeed, but totally NOT Mom’s fault. She was a wonderful English teacher because she is so well-read and is such a good story teller.

One story I frequently tell my students is how Mom was teaching us about writing introductions and the importance of grabbing people’s attention. Now, you must realize that I was in eight grade at the time and attending a Christian school, a conservative Christian school, in Augusta, Georgia, where my father was principal and my mother an English teacher.

So Mom gives an example of an attention-getting opening. She told us about the best first sentence she ever heard, often attributed to Agatha Christie (origin is not clear), that truly reaches out and grabs you–“Damn!” said the duchess.

When Mom said “Damn!” everybody stopped their daydreaming or passing notes or whatever and looked at Mom. Did the principal’s wife just say, “Damn!”? Once Mom made eye contact with all of us, she just smiled and said, “See? Got your attention, didn’t I?” Man, it was so great. I have never forgotten that lesson. Write something different, unexpected when you write an introduction, and you will have your reader eating out of your hand.

I quoted Mom a few weeks ago when I was explaining the concept of soft skills to my students and how hard it is to teach them in any formal way, but we need to learn them if we hope to be truly successful in our careers and in lives. I explained how my mom was constantly looking for ways to teach us these important soft “life” skills, like when she explained the importance of having good manners. “You know,” she said one day, “having manners is nothing but being kind to people. That’s really all it is” Man, that is so great.

Mom likes to quote, especially scripture and poetry, so I have my favorite Mom quote that I quote to my students. It is from the poem “A Farewell” by Charles Kingsley, which my mother learned from my grandmother, another teacher-mother, and so on it goes:

Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long:
And so make life, death, and that vast for-ever
One grand, sweet song.
Man, that is so great. I love you, Mom.
Mom and me

Mom and Me in front of the Jule Collins Smith Art Museum in Auburn, Alabama Summer 2015

Proverbs

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad on their honeymoon in New Orleans–December, 1955

I miss my dad. He died three years ago, May 6, at age 80. He always said he would make it to 80, and he did. Dad did most things he put his mind to.  Sometimes I called this characteristic stubbornness, especially when I, like all children, became fiercely angry at him. Other times, like in the last years of his life when he was fighting the debilitating effects of type I diabetes, I called it persistance. Now I call it courage.

By profession, my father was a soldier, a preacher, a singer, a teacher, but above all, a courageous leader.  Here are some memories, things he did, said and wrote, in no particular order, that have helped shape me into the person, the teacher, I am today.  Some of them may seem cliche, but when I heard them from Dad, they were fresh and new because his actions and his character stood behind them.

  • Once, when I was about 13 or so, my dad hit a dog and killed it. He went across the road and knocked on doors until he found the owner of the dog to let them know, apologize and help in any way he could. Afterwards, climbing into the truck to drive away, he said, “You have to go through your problems. Meet them head on. You can’t go around.”
  • “I’m not going to retire. I’m going to refire.”
  • “Do everything you do out of love, and you can’t go wrong.”
  • In answer to the question, “What word best describes your life?” Dad wrote this:
    • Integrity. I believe that we all need to be people of our word. I don’t believe we can go wrong if we adopt this word to live by. I heard of on Indian. A banker was once asked how much money he would loan that Indian. “I’d loan him as much as he wants,” said the banker, “because he will die rather than not pay it back.” That’s integrity. That’s what I want. I want to live by that word.
  • “It’s hard to be a Christian–a true Christian.”
  • “The three most fantastic changes that have taken place in my life time are
    • 1. The advances in medical science. If we had not had the advances in medical science , I would be dead because of my diabetes.
    • 2. The advances in education. If we had not had the advances in education, and I had not taken advantage of my opportunities, I would have been retired from the cotton mill by now.
    • 3. The advances in technology. If we had not had the advances in technology, my children and grandchildren would not be having this abundant life, being blessed and being a blessing to others.
  • I describe success as
    • S–Sharing
    • U–Unity
    • C–Cooperation
    • C–Compassion
    • E–Endurance
    • S–Speaking the Word
    • S–Suffering long
  • ” Love is ever ready to believe the best in others.” Dad said he learned this from my mother, one of the other great teachers in my life. (I will write another blog post about her in the near future.)
  • “That’s the name of the game–helping people.”

    Dad and Rob

    Dad helping my brother Rob tie his shoes, mid-70’s

  • “I like to travel. Travel is a part of education. Learning about different peoples, countries, children, religions is a part of education. I’m glad that all of our children have gotten to travel. I believe all of it has contributed to the positive attitudes they have now about different countries, cultures and peoples.”
  • “Never do anything half-ass.” Mom taught me this too. She just said it in a more refined way: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Same sentiment and one that has served me well.
  • After Dad retired from working as a representative of a large ministry, he went back to teaching. He worked for the county office, taking long-term substitute assignments. This was in the 80’s at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic when there was still a great deal of fear and misinformation about the disease in the country. There was a little boy with hemophilia who had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. The school would not let the little boy attend school and could find no one to teach the boy at home–until my dad volunteered. He taught the boy until he was too sick to study, but Dad became more than a teacher to that boy and his family–he was a friend. Years later, the boy’s mother posted under Dad’s obituary, “Mr. Whitlock was a wonderful man….He meant the world to us.”
  • Dad was principal of a Christian school in Georgia. Although the school was started as a dodge around integration, my dad did not pay any attention to the racist’s views of some board members and enrolled the first African-American student. “Do what you know is right,” Dad said, and did.
  • Some of Dad’s favorite scriptures that he counted as important lessons he learned in life:
    • I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
    • Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do it all for the glory of God.
    • All things work together for good to those who love the Lord, to those who are called according to his purpose
  • Dad recorded ideas on what it takes for a husband and wife to maintain a healthy marriage:
    • Love each other
    • Pray together
    • Be in unity
    • Put Jesus first
    • Attend church and have all of the family go together
    • Have a spirit of forgiveness toward each other
    • Be patient with each other
    • Build each other up, not tear each other down.
  • “I love everything about your Mom.” Dad called Mom his “little hummingbird.” He loved her fiercely, and their relationship has taught me more about having a successful marriage than anything else could ever do. When two fallible people can live together, for the most part happily, for 58 years, they must have done something right.
    house after tornado

    My parents’ home after the tornado in April, 2011. My brother Rob endured and persisted during this time. His efforts made it possible for my parents to move back in less than a year after the tornado. 

     

  • Although it was so hard to watch Dad go through what he went through the last years of his life, I learned so much about perseverance, determination and courage from him during that time. Through the death of his oldest child, a devastating tornado, his own failing health, leading to two amputations and eventually succumbing to heart failure, Dad endured much discomfort, pain and embarrassment but rarely complained, usually about not being able to have salt on his food. He continued to be an inspiration to those around him by learning how to walk again with one prosthetic, losing the other leg, then learning to walk on two prosthetic legs. Knowing how athletic and active Dad had been most of his life made it even harder to watch as he struggled to do basic tasks,
    Dad on Prosthetics

    Dad, learning to walk again–December 2012

    but Dad persisted and endured with courage and dignity. The last time I was with Dad, about a week before he died, his heart severely weakened from the effects of diabetic neuropathy, I watched as he tested his own blood sugar and gave himself his own insulin shot. The last thing he ever said to me was, “I love you.”

Two weeks after my dad died, I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. It was hard to hear as my doctor spoke of possible nerve damage leading to blindness or amputation, especially after watching my dad go through what he did.

But I am his child, so I have determined that this disease won’t lick me. Dad, I’ll do what’s right, won’t do a half-ass job, won’t try to go around.

Life is worth doing, so I’m going to do it well.

Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

Woodstock
by
Joni Mitchell
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Joni Mitchell did not play at Woodstock. She wasn’t even there. Reportedly, she penned this homage to one of the most important musical events of the 20th Century from a hotel room as she watched clips of the festival on TV. Nevertheless, she caught the spirit of that time, experienced it in a true way and wanted to return to it–knew that it would be  necessary to go back to the place where the spark became flame, built up and roared.
I was nine-years-old when Woodstock happened. My father was a major in Army Intelligence, serving in Vietnam; nevertheless, the country’s division over the war was not a part of my life then. My wonderful parents protected us as best they could from the reality of my father’s situation. Woodstock came and went while I was playing Kick-the-Can in my grandmother’s backyard, waiting for my little brother to be born and my daddy to come home.
I didn’t really start listening to Mitchell’s music much until college. I attended a rather conservative Christian university, and because I’ve always been a contrary soul, probably to get attention more than anything, I subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine and carried each issue  around with the cover always carefully arranged to show off the title. Oh, what a rebel.
joni_wild

Joni Mitchell painted a self-portrait for the cover of Wild Things Run Fast

I did, however, truly read Rolling Stone and often times bought albums that were reviewed favorably in the magazine. Joni Mitchell’s 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast was reviewed (Review), and I liked what I read, so I bought the album. It moved me, especially  the final track, based on the beautiful “Love” chapter in the Bible–I Corinthians 13.

But not until I took my first teaching job in Aliquippa, PA, working at a private Christian school that paid me a pittance (less than the male teachers with equal or less experience), did I hear Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”
In PA, one of the things I did to amuse myself was go to the nearby mall and “shop,” rarely buying anything unless I had gotten a little care package from home or pushed paying a bill back a little. In the mall was a record store that also sold cassette tapes (CDs were not a thing yet). I was single then, and there was this good-looking young man who frequently worked there, so I would always take time to visit and linger if he was working, looking through the used and discounted cassette tape bin (I couldn’t afford a record player), searching for something that looked interesting.
One day I found something of value to me–Joni Mitchell’s third album–Ladies of the xladiesCanyon. Even then the “Woodstock” track on that album didn’t appeal that much to me. I preferred the rock version by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Other tracks resonated with my single, 20-something self–“Big, Yellow Taxi” and “Conversation,” especially.
I was lonely then. Still am in many ways, whenever I’m away from my family and close friends. Then as now,  I just never seemed to fit in anywhere else. Southerner from Alabama living in dying northern steel town. Liberal in the conservative world–conservative in the liberal world. Devoutly Christian yet disillusioned with institutionalized religion. But whenever I listened to Mitchell’s songs, I just felt better. Her distinctive voice would waft over me, soothing away the frustrations of the day–the loneliness, the isolation, the otherness.

Life got much better and infinitely less lonely when I started dating the man who would become my wonderful husband. After we moved from PA and settled in North Carolina, I still listened to Joni Mitchell, now on CD, but different songs began to resonate with me–my daughter was born and “The Circle Game” became my favorite, but now when I listened to “Woodstock,” Mitchell’s piano and poetry began to sink in: “We are stardust. We are golden.” Yes, yes we were.

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by seriousfun@Morguefile.com

Then we come to yesterday–twenty years later–over twenty years doing what I love to do and in which I always thought I excelled. “Perhaps you’re not as good as you think you are,” I thought as I drove home after a particularly disheartening day, not of teaching, but of listening to how my colleagues, my friends, are being dismissed, belittled and even harassed by people who are supposed to have their best interest at heart, and worst of all, hearing an administrator, who has never taught an online class, denigrating our students in an open roundtable discussion about distance learning.
Feeling empty, I drove. Then, as if mystically planned all along, I tapped the CD player button. “Ladies of the Canyon,” the song, “Woodstock” was playing–the second verse. Joni’s voice soothed me again and started bringing me back.
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Thanks to Joni, I’m on my way back.

wildflowers

photo by hmjmiller@morguefile.com

I have decided to add a creative non-fiction category to Teach. Write: A Literary Journal for Teachers of Writing. Send me creative non-fiction pieces about your experiences as a writing instructor. I will also be accepting poetry and short fiction. See Submissions Guidelines here.  I will be accepting submissions until July 1, 2017 for the first edition of the journal.

A Liberal Arts Education

visitspartanburg.com

My husband and I attended our only child’s graduation on May 14. She graduated cum laude  with a bachelor’s degree in music from a small liberal arts college. People ask me, they ask my husband, they ask her, what is she going to do with that degree? It’s not very practical, is it? I suppose that depends on what value one puts on a solid liberal arts education.

I put great value on it, but I find that my standard explanation of the value of a college education — a liberal arts education teaches a person how to think — falls flat, even to my own ears. Therefore, I was delighted to encounter David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. The author of the modern classic Infinite Jest eloquently defends that old cliche and renewed confidence in my belief that what my daughter learned by earning her degree is so much more than training for a career–it has ushered her into a lifetime of thinking, and choosing, for herself.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the speech, followed by a link to a youtube video of it in its entirety (audio only). I encourage you to listen to the whole thing–well worth the 22 or so minutes and so relevant to our time.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

“I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

“…if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

“Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly….Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

“The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us….”

The complete speech