Thursday, April 30, 2009

Success (breeds success)

Youngest Daughter is preparing for her Advanced Placement tests in US History and English Language. It's been a difficult year, for many reasons, but the upcoming tests have been more of a drag than we expected. YD's having trouble concentrating on her studies - and without being able to turn up the focus, it's very hard to retain the solid factual stuff which makes up the first part of each test. She's also having trouble finishing the essay questions in the allotted time, and those comprise the second part of the test. Things don't look good.

Focus is a problem for her at the best of times and not one I expect her teachers to be able to solve; she's got a powerful case of ADD and we work on it in our own ways at home. But she's had no advice from either of her AP teachers as to what strategies to employ in order to improve her timing on the essays, and that surprises me. Wouldn't you think they'd have an idea or two on the subject? One of her teachers was alarmed enough to contact me; the other simply offered her failing grade after failing grade.

Both of these teachers, I should mention, obviously care about her. They enjoy having her in their classrooms: the first is urging YD to take a follow-up class with her next year; the second failed to flag YD's failing grades for the office because he didn't want her moved to another, less rigorous, classroom. Without her, he said, there'd be no insightful class discussion. He couldn't let her go.

Middle Kid - the one who intends to pursue a career in teaching - offered her the first piece of helpful advice she got: if you can't finish in the time allotted, he said, then write less. He was right on the money - YD is a perfectionist and wanted to be able to write the same sort of essay in forty minutes that she would have written if the essay were assigned as homework. It was hard for her to attack these questions at that different, shallower, level; but once she got the hang of it, the grades began to come up.

The second bit of helpful advice came from me, but it was entirely accidental. Over spring break, she wrote several practice essays taken from the College Board's website. For some reason, on the very first one, I set a kitchen timer next to her. She finished the essay with a minute-and-a-half to spare - and it was a damned good essay, too! It turns out that YD really has no internal clock at all, no sense of time passing, no ability to gauge how much time is left. Having a timer at her elbow made all the difference.

We still had to battle a bit with the College Board. She'll take a timer to the test, we thought, and that will be that. Not so fast, said the CB. You can't bring anything that beeps. Okay. How about the stopwatch function on a watch? All you do is push start, stop, and reset. It won't beep at any point because it isn't timing down - it's counting up. No, no, said the CB. The start, stop, and reset buttons beep when you push them. Fine. She'll set the watch next to her, make a note of the time she should finish, and proceed from there. Fine, said the CB.

But let's go back to those teachers for a moment. I'm a huge fan of public education in general, and of our local school system in particular. But in this case, I felt that YD didn't get the sort of attention she deserved. It's true that students in AP classes are expected to keep up, but when a student who clearly should be able to work at that level fails, is some teacherly action too much to ask? Maybe YD's profound disconnect with time is unusual enough that her teachers were stumped; but surely runaway perfectionism is something they confront regularly.

The excuse I hear most often is that this is a college-level class, and in college she wouldn't receive any special treatment. Ah, I say, but she's not in college yet. She may be able to comprehend more intellectually challenging material, but she's still a high school student. Obviously she needs strategies for dealing with work of this caliber, and if you aren't going to offer them while she's still in high school, when exactly will you? Is an AP class really a place where students can't expect help?

Apparently so. If YD manages to pass her AP tests, it will be in spite of this odd blind spot on the part of her otherwise talented and dynamic teachers. Succeeding at writing the essays has been key to improving her focus. She doesn't feel quite so hopeless, or helpless, anymore. She can come at the material without all that angst, so she's better at retaining it. I think she's got a shot at passing, and that's a good thing. But I have to ask - how many kids with extraordinary intellectual capabilities fail because no one will help them when they're struggling?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'm getting a different (and better) computer!

All it took was saying, "Okay, I think it's time. We should buy another computer." Forty-eight hours later, a new Apple G5 Power PC is winging its way here as I type. We're going to put the new computer in my husband's office and move the Mac mini I'm using right now into my office to replace my ten-year-old iMac. See, I moved my manuscripts to the mini a couple of years ago to make the querying process more convenient. Sadly, I discovered I couldn't go back because the version of Word I use on the mini won't run on my poor little iMac. And that put a big crimp in my writing time.

This should make my weekends more productive, since I won't be competing for time with all the Toms, Dicks, and Harrys who wander through here. Well, actually, there's just the one Tom, but he's been a tough competitor. Nice to discover he's also a talented shopper.

So. It's all good, and getting better.

Update: My husband points out that the computer I'm getting is obviously not new, as it's his current one. He's getting the new one, and for good reason. Whichever computer is mine gets the least rigorous use - I want to write on it, and now I'll be able to get online with it, and that's about it. So, I've updated the title to reflect reality.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


When I'm upset, I take baths - long, hot baths with lavender-scented bath salts. I read a good book or a magazine. I lie down and run the water until my arms and legs float. I stay there until I feel as if I can face the world again, which can be a surprisingly long time.

Sometimes I eat candied ginger to make myself feel better. It's chewy and sweet and peppery, with a crunchy-sugary crust on the outside. It soothes my stomach, which tends to knot up when things are going badly.

I've been known to take long walks, especially when I'm angry about something. It's a two-fer: I walk off the adrenaline while improving my health. When I get back I'm not only calmer, I'm armored with the self-righteousness of the exercise nut.

Milk chocolate truffles are nice, but the comfort only lasts as long as the candy; a vodka martini on ice with a twist is nice, too, but it lulls me to sleep.

Sometimes I just have to lose myself in a good book. Not 'literature.' A good, pulpy adventure of some sort: scifi or mystery or a thriller.

There are certain movies that always make me feel better: The Shawshank Redemption, Babe, Billy Elliott, The Whale Rider. Or I'll turn on a marathon of some sort: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars. Project Runway or America's Next Top Model.

Well, that's my list. I've been all over it this week after listening to one too many pundits miss the point entirely on the whole subject of torture and its efficacy and its morality and which administration should be damaged by it. (Hint: the administration which used it to generate fake evidence so it could run amok in the world should be the administration covered in shame. And the media, which can't seem to find an ethical code with both hands and a flashlight, oughta share in that particular limelight.)

The only thing I haven't tried yet is the martini - I'm saving it for dinner. Tomorrow, I suppose, I'll have to start cycling through again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Last word on the writing contest

I didn't make the semi-finals, so I'm out.

And that's that.

If you scan the discussion boards at Amazon, and all the various writing venues online where writers gather, you'll see all kinds of happy-talk about not giving up, taking the advice the reviewers offered and making the manuscript even better, sending out queries right away - like getting back in the saddle after the horse throws you.

Honestly? I'd get more satisfaction out of putting a gigantic sign in my front yard that reads: AMAZON ABNA: BITE ME!

It's been a long road, and I'm still on it. But I'm going to step off right here, get out my little hip flask, and apply some liquid comfort. Then I'm going to eat a quarter-pound of milk chocolate (yeah, take that, universe! I'm not going for the healthy dark stuff today!) and maybe I'll follow up with a bag of Cheetos. After that, I'll arrange a bunch of rejection letters on the big bulletin board in the office and throw darts at them. Probably, I'll end my pity-party with a nice slasher film...

And after a couple of days, I'll succumb to temptation and work on one of my books. (Yes, all right, Clara. I'll work on Pearl.) I just hope I can hold off long enough to get my tomato plants in.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Frog Moves On

That's right. The frog - called, variously, Whiskey, Buddy, and Frog - has changed residences. After eight years as mother to a South African Clawed Frog, I find myself frogless.

Just to be clear, he's not dead and he's not making his way through the sewer system to a freer life. We gave him away. Our friends Jarred and Whitney and their daughter Cammy have taken over the care and feeding of the frog. Cammy has announced that she will henceforth call him Whisker, although I'll betcha it won't be long before Whitney is saying, "Hi, Buddy," as she feeds him each morning.

Whitney is studying marine biology, so Whisker's life may be improved by this change - or at least his diet may be more exciting. Whitney says she'll feed him blood worms, which he loves but which I withheld because they made the water smell bad. (Now it can be said: changing the frog's water was right up there with cleaning toilets on my list of unfavorite activities.)

Here's a very short history of Whisker's life so far:

He arrived as a birthday gift for Recalcitrant Teen before she was recalcitrant, or teen-aged. He was supposed to be a miniature frog, but he never stopped growing. This was important because the miniature version of these frogs is legal in California, but the full-sized clawed frog is not. Apparently, there's no way to tell the difference in the tadpoles so it was an honest mistake by the lab which supplied him.

He had whisker-like threads growing from his face for a while; hence, the name Whiskey.

We thought he might be lonely, so we sent for a companion. The second frog bounced around the tank like a little rocket ship, earning the name Frisky. Frisky proved to be another full-sized male but Whiskey loved him anyway - yes, biblically. Whiskey would hang onto Frisky for hours, crooning a lovely mating song the whole time. We referred to them as our giant homosexual frogs. Our friend Claudia, assuming their attraction was the result of being held in captivity, called them Joe-Bob and Bubba. (Frisky, poor guy, was always Whiskey's bitch.)

Sadly, we soon learned that we had misinterpreted everything. South African Clawed Frogs are loners and carnivores, so Whiskey eventually dispatched his friend (whose frenetic flights take on a whole new meaning in this light), and returned to his solitary existence.

He sings at night. He tries to bite the tiny spoon I use to measure out his frog-tidbits. He comes to the surface when the top of the tank is opened because he knows it's dinnertime. I think he'll be very happy with his new family, who can expect to get another twenty years or so of enjoyment out of him, and I will put a nice plant on that shelf where he used to sit.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


My mom was a quirky, gentle, funny soul who loved birds and flowers and rocks and trees. When she died we divvied up the rocks she'd polished so everybody would have a little bowlful to remember her by. We interred her ashes in a beautiful wooden box with an elaborate carving of a tree on the lid, and each of us added something to the grave - a rock, a feather, a flower - so she'd have those things close to her while she slept.

When we were small she liked to cuddle us and kiss the backs of our necks and call us 'Dolly.'

She loved to read to us - in particular, I remember my sisters and I gathered around her, snuffling and sighing as she read us The Yearling, and The Red Pony, and Old Yeller. (Always with the dead pets. She loved a good tear-jerker.)

"Don't wish your life away," she used to say. Good advice.

She loved Red Skelton and Jack Benny - and she was right to. When I see those scratchy black and white clips of them now, I laugh out loud and I probably sound just like her.

She loved mysteries and biographies and science fiction. In fact, she introduced me to the sci-fi/fantasy world, first with The Hobbit, and later with Stranger in a Strange Land.

She taught fourth grade. On her fiftieth birthday, she asked her class how old they thought she was. "One hundred," one kid said.

She liked to make jam, and she wasn't afraid to experiment. One year she decided to use up some vodka that had somehow ended up in her cupboard (the provenance of that vodka is a mystery in itself) by adding it to some strawberry jam. She thought it might give the jam an extra bite, like strawberries in champagne or oranges drizzled with triple sec. What she learned was that the vodka separates and forms a pool on top of the wax used to seal the jar. So, she sat down and drank those little pools off the tops of her jam jars. Cracking herself up the whole time.

Her brothers used to tie her up and make her eat cold gravy. They thought she was too scrawny, which, in fact, she was. When she met my dad, she was 5'3" tall, and weighed 88 pounds. Later, of course, she was diagnosed with a thyroid condition; later still, Type I diabetes. Treating these illnesses allowed her to gain a bit of weight - at one point in her life, she attained the enormous bulk of 125 pounds! The operative word here, obviously, is bit.

The memory of the cold gravy incidents always made her laugh, although not as hard, she said, as she laughed while they were happening. She and her brothers and sisters got up to a certain amount of mischief. Once, she said, they stood at the top of the very steep and narrow staircase which led to the second floor of their farmhouse, and tossed a large cardboard box down the stairs. "Ow, ow, ow," they yelled as the thing banged and thumped its way to the bottom. Poor Grandma came running. "You kids," I can hear her saying. "You kids get on out of here, now."

Mom grew up on a farm in Iowa during the Great Depression. She liked to tell us about the radio Grandpa hooked up to the windmill used to pump water from the well. The kids would gather around to listen to whatever was the radio drama of the day, and it all worked fine until the wind died. They missed the conclusions to many stories.

My parents met in a lecture hall at the University of Iowa - McBride Auditorium. Seating was alphabetical, so Geneva McBride got the seat next to Gordon McCallum. (The fact that my mom and the auditorium shared a name always struck me as equal parts peculiar and cosmic.) Their first date was on St. Patrick's Day. They were married three and a half months later, on July 3rd, 1948. My sisters and I joined them in rapid succession: Steph in June of 1949, me in May of 1950, and Susan in August of 1951. Dave arrived in October of 1953, and Duncan brought up the rear in December of 1961. We were a clan.

My parents were married for just shy of 59 years, and that's a good run by anybody's standards.

Mom died two years ago today. I still miss her; I suppose I always will. But thank goodness she taught me to love literature, birds and flowers, rocks and trees, and that laughter is the best medicine of all. I'll think of her today and pretty soon, I'll be laughing.