Thursday, April 29, 2021

Reading | Carrying The Fire

Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys | Michael Collins

If you would like to know what it was really like to be an American astronaut back in the 1960s glory days of the manned flight program, read this book. Michael Collins may be best remembered as the third wheel of Apollo 11, the historic first-man-on-the-moon flight; the guy who drove the mother ship around and around the moon while his crew mates explored the surface, but his before- and after-stories put that incredible achievement into the context of a long, interesting life. With a delightful balance of NASA techno-babble and good old-fashioned yarns, Collins tells his fascinating story with a deft touch. Ever self-effacing, he acknowledges his monumental role in history with an aw-shucks humility that reads as both genuine and incredibly touching. There are plenty of books written by and about the astronauts of this generation, but for my money, this one is the best. 

* * * * *

I recall with startling accuracy my opinions of the Apollo 11 astronauts. Of course I knew them all by name, just as other children knew major league baseball players or the members of the Beatles - and I held my own childish opinions about their relative merit. Neil Armstrong, straight and serious, kinda handsome for an old guy, held sway as the ultimate hero. Buzz Aldrin played the role of his equally competent but kooky sidekick, and the third member of the crew, Michael Collins, was... who knew? Poor guy flew all the way to the moon just to wait in the Command Module while the other guys bounded across the rocky surface in one-sixth gravity, like a parent dropping off the kids at an out-of-town birthday party with an inflatable bouncy house and circling the block till they were ready to go home. During the heady days of the Apollo program, little-kid-me knew precious little about Michael Collins but based on what I did know, felt quite sorry for him.

“We are off! And do we know it, not just because the world is yelling ‘Liftoff’ in our ears, but because the seats of our pants tell us so! Trust your instruments, not your body, the modern pilot is always told, but this beast is best felt. Shake, rattle and roll!”

Well. This book surely straightened me out. What I learned all these decades later is that while Armstrong did indeed project pure intellect, and Aldrin was at least nine-tenths a self-absorbed showman, Michael Collins embodied all the qualities I admired most in the astronauts. Smart as a whip, yes, but also deeply committed to preparation with keen attention to detail and his eyes glued to the ever-present checklists. He carried a sharp tongue and a quick wit, often on display during his on-air chats with Houston, and a flair for curse words, which he tried to keep under wraps. 

As for his role as limo driver for his moon-walking crew mates, Michael Collins saw his destiny quite differently. His duty to fly alone in the Apollo 11 Command Module while the others landed on the moon was not a second-rate errand but a role absolutely essential to the success of their shared mission. Like the mythical Apollo, Michael Collins carried the fire that had propelled them a quarter million miles to the moon and then brought them back home. Neil and Buzz would have never made it without him. 

“I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher… we might get a much better idea of what we saw.”

Once safely returned to earth, he continued to stand straight and tall. Though many of his colleagues stumbled through more than their fair share of drama in their post-astronaut lives - because, really, when one has been to the moon, what does one do for an encore? - Michael Collins settled down as a devoted family man, a reluctant hero, a newly productive citizen, and a pretty good fisherman. Humble and generous, he really did live happily ever after. 

* * * * * 

After finishing this book - and immediately flipping back to page one and starting to read every delightful word all over again - I've been consumed with the idea of reaching out to Michael Collins in real life. As far as I could tell, he was still puttering around the waters of South Florida with his fishing poles, a widower now after losing his beloved wife, Pat, but still under the watchful care of his my-age daughters. Based on what I'd learned about him, I figured that Michael would be much happier if I kept my admiration to myself, but still, I've had a strong sense that his ninety-years-long life would not go on forever, and any chance to reach out to him was a window that might close at any time. 

“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”

This morning, I read that Michael Collins has died. Peacefully, surrounded by his family, as gently as cancer will let anyone go. I'm sad that his long, illustrious life is over, and the world a bit dimmed as his brilliant light flickers out. But his contribution to space travel, and even better, his lovely way of being, have left us all the better. Thank you, Michael Collins, for carrying the fire during your remarkable life here on earth, and I'll catch up with you in heaven. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Reading | See San Francisco and Corbis Royalty Free RF004

See San Francisco | Victoria Smith

A social media influencer roams the streets of her home town, snapping dozens of pretty pastel Insta-style photos. She gets a book deal, and an editor convinces her to arrange her shots by neighborhood, prefacing each section with a one-page blurb describing the personality and key features of that particular neck of the woods. Sounds good so far, right? The only hitch in the plan is that said influencer's photos don't necessarily zero in on what is unique about each area of the city; mostly she loves to document commonalities: darling cafes and restaurants, quirky shops, brightly colored vehicles, charming street scenes, vintage signs, and flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. So. If you want a proper tour guide of San Francisco, I suggest you shop on. But if you're looking for a book full of pretty pictures with a highly specific aesthetic, taken in and around this lovely American city by the bay, bingo.

Corbis Royalty Free RF004

Browsing books at the thrift store one day, I pulled this one off the shelf, took one glance at the cover, and fell in love. Took me considerably longer to figure out exactly what I was holding. More catalog than book, this is a marketing publication put out by a photo licensing company, originally owned by Bill Gates and eventually sold to a Chinese company that now leases the operation to Getty Images. Much easier to describe is what's inside this adorable pink-booted cover: photos. Big, bright, colorful, interesting photos. Grouped into thematic categories - Abundance, Aspiration, Balance, and so on - the photos command my attention and captivate my imagination. Other than the category names, there are no words on these pages, but honestly, I don't miss them one bit.

* * * * * 

I'm currently working my way through a book called The Artist's Way that leads the reader into discovering deeper wells of creativity within, and one of the activities involves weekly visits to art galleries or museums. Alas, Covid complicates that plan, and while I'm sure I could work out an arrangement for spending time in outdoor art collections, or socially distancing myself in more conventional indoor locations, I decided to reinterpret the challenge. How about I widen my artistic horizons through books? 

Over the past month, I've scrolled through dozens of art titles and while there are quite a few individual artists and art movements that pique my interest - Bauhaus! Frank Stella! Surrealistic architecture! Andy Goldsworthy! - I found myself craving something much more simple. Photographs. Everyday photos of everyday places and things. Exactly the kind of photos that I might have taken myself, had I not spent this past year in Lockdown City, taking very few photographs indeed. 

And that's the path that led me to these two books: they are simply books full of photos. For that purpose, both books are useful but to be honest, the Corbis catalog scratches my photo-craving itch in a much more direct and pleasing way. Compared to See San Francisco, the Corbis photos are bigger and better quality; the subject matters more diverse and imaginative, and the simple thematic categories organize the photos in a much more pleasing way. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Spring Has Sprung

As winter slowly fades and the sun gently warms toward summer, there is always one day that marks the change. 

The air swirls around my suddenly bare arms, soft as bathwater.
Bright green leaves and grasses pop against the dregs of fall.
Flowers burst out in celebration.

And finally, finally, my heart and soul believe that the earth has once again been reborn.

Here in suburban Seattle, last Saturday was that day.

This week, even though the weather has once again changed to cool and rainy, and the overcast clouds menace just as they did in November, I see the wild daisies blooming in the grass.

And I know for sure that spring has sprung.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Let’s Talk

Last night, I sat down with someone near and dear to me, and began an uncomfortable conversation. 

Oh, man. That is always a scary moment.

Righteous debates.
Running from the room.
Raucous anger.

Anything can happen when I take on a tender subject, and I've got the scars to prove it.

Which is not to say that every uncomfortable conversation explodes with the force of a thermonuclear bomb. I'm happy to report that last night's chat went very well, and today as I celebrate that happy result, I've been mulling over the tools that help me get a difficult talk headed in the right direction:

Strike while the iron is cool
Choose the right setting.
Begin with the end in mind
Listen first, talk last.
Acknowledge feelings.
Look for common ground.
If necessary, agree to disagree.
End with an action step.

Now please don't get the impression that I handle uncomfortable conversations perfectly.

I would need more than one hand to count the number of times my husband climbed out of bed in the wee hours of the night and stomped down the stairs to interrupt one of the uncomfortable conversations of my daughters' teenage years to say, "If you guys don't quiet down, the neighbors are going to call the police." 

But over the years, I've learned a lot:

And one of my main takeaways is that in most cases, one conversation is probably not going to change the world. I've learned to adjust my expectations and accept that what's needed is a series of uncomfortable conversations, hopefully becoming more and more comfortable with time and practice.

Baby steps, ya know.

* * * * *

Still, no matter how uncomfortable or downright terrifying a conversation might feel, talking is always preferable to not talking.

Yeah. I mean ghosting. Or giving someone the silent treatment, which is what we called it back in the day.

Wordlessly cutting someone out of your life because you don't know how to talk to them can only be the act of a desperate person who harbors a paralyzing fear of uncomfortable conversations. 

And finding oneself the victim of this strategy is wildly confusing and deeply painful. 

Other than a childhood boyfriend or two - okay, I can think of at least two - I don't think I've ever ghosted anyone. But I've been on the receiving end of this tactic quite a few times - from friends and family members - and I have slowly learned to take this bleak rejection less personally.

Because in the end, the silent treatment says way more about the perpetrator than it does the victim.

In fact, it screams at the top of its nonexistent lungs, "I HAVE ZERO CAPACITY TO TALK TO YOU AS A FELLOW HUMAN BEING AND THEREFORE I MUST RUN AWAY. GOODBYE."

And I have learned to respect that unspeakable panic and look upon those who have ghosted me in the past, and those who continue to ghost me at this very moment, with compassion. And pity.

It's worth noting that in several of my real-life ghosting scenarios, the ghoster eventually returned to me, the ghostee, with heartfelt apologies and explanations of what had happened. And that has been for me a very sweet experience, as words once again fill the wretchedly empty gap between two souls. Even though those first moments of renewed conversation can be painful and uncomfortable indeed, they are always worth the effort.

Because there are no two words that speak of love and healing better than these:

Let's talk. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Life Of A Math Teacher: Math By Phone

The power of one, if fearless and focused, is formidable, but the power of working together is better." -Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
To find the area of a trapezoid, divide the shape into two triangles, find the area of 
each, and add them together. Voila!

Zzzt. Zzzt zzzzzzt. 

Ooo. Incoming notification on my phone.

Like everyone else in the post-modern world, I reach for my device, wondering with a happy hit of dopamine who might be reaching out to me.

Maybe it's my contractor du jour, replying to one of my ten million questions about whatever the project in progress might be: currently I'm working on a new laundry room floor and getting some trees trimmed. 

Or perhaps one of my daughters, ringing in with hearts and likes for the latest entry in my acclaimed photojournalism feature, Streicher Pet Picture of the Day.

To be honest, it's most likely to be Amazon letting me know that they've dropped yet another cardboard box or ten on my front doorstep. I wish you'd treat your employees better, Jeff Bezos, because your retailing behemoth is just so, so good. (Don't worry, I shop local too.)


If I'm really, really lucky, the notification will signal that someone has sent me a math problem to solve. 

* * * * *

Usually, the questions come pouring in from my students. They all know my digits and have been told ten thousand times to text me any time of day or night if they get stuck. Oftentimes, they do, sending me a problem number or a photo of the offending beast straight out of the textbook, and after a bit of chitchat about what they tried and why it didn't work, I work the problem myself and shoot back a photo of my handiwork.

I expect my students assume this to be a fairly annoying intrusion into my non-math teaching life. Probably because they would be annoyed if someone texted them with random math problems to solve. 

But. Guess what. I love it!

If only my students could see me dash to my supplies drawer and carefully slide out a new perfect piece of paper. 

Such a problem deserves a fresh start.

Excitedly, I commence to work it through, first as a scribbly draft and then again in final form, making sure to write extra neat, showing every step - even the ones that I usually do in my head - and pointing out the tricky spots with instructions emphasized in upper case warnings. Of course, I double check my solution against the answer key to be sure I got it right. A wrong answer from the teacher is a cruel deception indeed.

On the rare occasion that I don't have access to an official solution, I track down one of my fellow math lovers in the family - my husband or my fourth-born - and ask them to double check my work.

Guess what. They love it too.

* * * * *

Today I enjoyed a delightful twist on this math-by-phone formula. I received a message asking for help with a math problem all right, but not from one of my current students. This request came from one of my long-ago students, now an adult friend, who is tutoring a middle school math student and got a bit stumped by one of their homework problems. We sorted that out in fine style, and while we were at it, chatted about another tricky scenario - this one a dreaded word problem.

I really enjoyed our chat.

But you know what was best of all? My friend and her tutoring protege live in Istanbul. 

Istanbul, Turkey.

Where Europe and Asia meet up and hold hands. 
Ruled over the millennia by Greeks and Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans.
Home of architecture's precious gem, Hagia Sophia.

Yes. That Istanbul.

* * * * * 

Math is usually considered a lonely pursuit, and when we think about math students - if we think of them at all - we often conjure up sad images of stoop-shouldered egg heads toiling alone in cheerless isolation.

But when we reach out and work together, even doing math by phone, the world becomes a better place.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Take Joy
Take Heaven

January 4, 1993 was a rough day in my life. 

During the wee hours of the night, my fourth pregnancy came to an abrupt end with a miscarriage of my eighteen-weeks-along unborn son.

Like every mother who loses a baby-to-be, I was devastated. And you know, to be honest, I felt particularly robbed because, with three darling daughters already under my belt, I considered myself a tried-and-true baby maker. Three times over, my body had proven itself to be a proper champ at conceiving new life, providing forty plus weeks of prime growing conditions, and then birthing healthy and nearly perfect babies. Suddenly, I had a very somber reason to doubt my body's ability to deliver my much-dreamed-of fourth child, and I felt like my picture-perfect life was suddenly falling apart.

Dramatic, I know. But that's what miscarriage felt like to me - an inexplicable failure of my body, an end to my hopes and dreams, and an event that was painfully rewriting the script of my life.  

Later I learned that my understanding of miscarriage was wrong in several ways. A mother's body somehow knows when a fetus is not viable, and seems to have a way of protecting its resources by stopping the development of one child, and conserving its energies for the next. Far from a failure, miscarriage can be considered a healthy form of natural self-regulation and one at which we might marvel. The vast majority of women who suffer one miscarriage go on to carry other children to full term, and the historic rate of one miscarriage per four pregnancies lines up exactly with my track record. What I got right about miscarriage though, is that it stirs up deep and complex emotions, and we who experience miscarriage must carry a special respect for our grief, as our culture often does not. 

* * * * *
Take Peace

We drove home from the hospital as the sun was coming up, and I was faced with the challenge of getting through the first day. We told our three little girls our sad news, which they readily grasped and sweetly grieved before settling in for a busy morning of playing at home. I found myself straightening up the family room bookshelves, trying to distract myself even for an instant from not just my grief, but my misery and despair.

What happened next is something that to this day, I cannot explain. As I pulled a stack of catalogs off the shelf and attacked with my dust cloth, I discovered a small pink card. The back side was mysteriously blank but when I turned it over, I found written in soft blue flowing script this simple verse:

Take Joy

I salute you!

There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present instant. Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.

And so at this time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

* * * * *
Fra Giovanni
A.D. 1513

I cannot explain where this card came from. It wasn't a postcard or a greeting card or a mailer, or a marketing piece from one of the catalogs. I'd never seen in before in my life. 

But this I know for sure; in the instant that I read these words, my life changed. 

I felt - no, I knew without a doubt - that this card, this verse, these beautiful words had somehow been placed here in my bookcase for me to find on this particular morning, when Heaven and Peace and Joy seemed very far away indeed. 

And I understood, deep down in my aching soul, exactly what Fra Giovanni was getting at. 

He wasn't asking me to deny my emotions. He was encouraging me to move past them.

He wasn't promising that the world would always be kind to me. He was reminding me that there's more to life than just this world. 

He wasn't telling me that it would be easy to move past my pain. He was promising that I could do it if I would only try, and no one else could do it for me. 

This is not to say that my grief disappeared, I got up and danced around the room, and never felt sad again, the end. 

Of course it didn't happen like that.

But my old attitudes toward pain, misery, despair and grief popped like bursting bubbles, and a new awareness filled my broken heart. 

I knew, and I still know to this day, that I always have a choice. 

I can take Heaven.
I can take Peace.
And I can take Joy

Any time I want.
Take Joy

This gift has become especially precious to me in these wild Covid days. The world is slippery under our feet as we try our best to skate across the thin ice, and the resulting anxiety runs rampant. 

Here, there, and everywhere, I see people struggling with 

inability to make decisions, 
and just straight fearfulness

Sometimes, I just want to sit down and cry for everyone who is struggling. All of us. 

But Fra Giovanni still whispers in my ear

There is much you can take...

Peace is hidden in the present instant...

The gloom of the world is but a shadow...

Take Joy.

And even though every day I have to remind myself and begin again, that is exactly what I am choosing to do.

Take Joy!

Monday, April 19, 2021

People And Trees

 When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." -Fred Rogers

I heard it before I saw it.

The deep, threatening growl of an unmuffled car traveling at high speed. 

* * * * *

Gracie and I had just headed out into the soft sunshine of a spectacular spring day, and the sudden danger of this angry beast snapped me out of my sweet reverie.

The car was coming toward me, on the opposite side of the street. It's normal for drivers push the 25 mph speed limit along this stretch of quiet suburban neighborhoods, but this bullet was far beyond normal. As the car blasted around a curve and flashed into sight, I caught a quick glance: a mundane dark-colored sedan, slightly dusty but also traveling in a cloud of oil smoke, barreling straight toward us. 

* * * * *

Adrenaline surged. Quickly, I assessed my leash-free pup, who was casually strolling along just a few feet in front of me with nary a care in the world, oblivious to this oncoming assault on our senses.

 Apparently she's got the ideal temperament for a Formula One pit crew member. 

In the split second before the torpedo came upon us, I urgently coaxed Gracie, "Come!" She happily trotted back to me, and I safely snapped her leash on just before the car flew by.

Now I don't spend a lot of time walking along the shoulder of the German Autobahn, nor do I sit in the front row at Nascar races, so it's difficult to assess exactly how fast this car was traveling. 

At least 60 mph. Easily more. 

Thank God, it was gone. Breathing a sigh of relief, I released my dog to her independent pace and listened as the raucous throttling monster receded into the distance. 

But what's this? The snarling engine reasserted itself, complete with screeching tires and the unmistakable smell of burning rubber, and I turned to look back down the street. At a small three-way stop intersection, the car was spinning through the last few degrees of what must have been a 540. Most of the street was in deep afternoon shade, but sunlight struck the car and eerily illuminated the surrounding cloud of deep, swirling smoke. I stared for a horrible instant, and realized that with a menacing snarl, the car was streaking up the street, fishtailing and skidding with irrational speed, clearly faster than before.

And this time, it would pass within a foot or two of the sidewalk where I stood.. 

Thankfully, the adrenaline surged through my nervous system again, now with exponential force, and called me to act. 

Gracie had drifted maybe ten or fifteen feet ahead of me. Much too far. Trying to disguise the panic I felt, I again called to my dog with the cheeriest tone I could muster, and prayed to sweet Jesus that she would obey. 

She did.

Forget about hooking her up to the leash. As soon as Gracie was within reach, I grabbed her collar in one hand and threw us both up the small incline on the far side of the sidewalk. Pinned in from further retreat by the six foot cedar fences that run along my neighbors' backyards, I still felt vulnerable and very scared.

But then I remembered. We were among the trees.

Giant trees, Douglas firs, the kings of the Pacific Northwest forest, stand in a long row between the sidewalk and the fence, and in an instant, I tucked my dog up against the safety of one of the massive, craggy trunks, opposite the trajectory of the incoming arsenal, and folded myself into the same tiny pillar of protection. 

In a blur of irrational hostility and blind rage, the car passed. 

It was all over in an instant.

Gracie and I stepped out from behind the tree and onto the sidewalk.

A different car - a sleek and sparkling vintage Jeep Jeepster with an immaculate red and white two-tone paint job - had approached from the opposite direction and was now making a smooth Y-turn in the street. The man rolled down his window, clearly shaken and aware that I was too, and said, "I'm going after them." 

"Good," I said. "Please do."

I watched as he drove off, his beautiful car shining in the sun, traveling at a crisp speed but clearly within posted limits. And I felt, somehow, safe. 

Now as Gracie and I returned to our normal pace, I felt the trauma reaction set in. My body trembled from head to toe, I felt spent and weak. Hot tears burned behind my eyes. I wanted nothing more than to turn around and run back home. But Gracie, I knew, would be a better companion for the rest of the day if I allowed her to exercise. So on we walked. 

I was scared that the car would come back, though my rational mind reassured my fight-or-flight center that I would certainly hear it ahead of time. But terrifyingly, I did hear off in the distance an assortment of brutal mechanical sounds that may (or may not) have been this same raging machine. At least three different times, I considered calling my husband to come pick us up in the car. But I decided to face my fears and push on.

I'm glad I did.

Because as we were almost home again - funny, we stopped in almost the exact same spot on the sidewalk as before - the man in the two-tone Jeepster came back, although this time he was driving an equally clean and sporty white vintage Jeep Wagoneer. He slowed as he approached me, rolled down his window and said, "The police are looking for them; they won't get far."

"Thank you," I returned. "That was terrifying."

"Yes, it was," he agreed. "They were going at least 120 mph. No doubt in my mind."

I managed some sort of socially appropriate closing, thanked him again, and staggered home. 

As I walked under the lengthening shadows of the Douglas firs, still silently towering above me, protectors and friends, I realized that I'll never know for sure exactly how fast that car was traveling, or why they were so hell bound on a sunny afternoon, or even whether the police ever caught them, though I may do a bit of scrolling to see about that. 

But what I do know is that Mister Rogers' mom was right. Whenever scary things happen, there are always helpers. 

Sometimes they are people. People driving beautiful vintage Jeeps. 

And sometimes, they are trees. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Life Of A Math Teacher: Yabba Dabba Do

Fred Flintstone (after Wilma is given Pebbles for the first time): 
Awwww, she looks like a chip off the ol' block.
Barney Rubble: Actually, more like a pebble off the ol' flintstone.
Wilma Flintstone: What a beautiful name. Pebbles Flintstone.
Pebbles Flintstone [Her first words ever]: Yabba. Dabba. Goo.

These are the proofs from my high school senior pictures. Feast your eyes upon my teenage spirit. 

When I was in high school, I worked hard to cultivate my image.

Gotta look right, dress right, act right, talk right, right? 

Since the beginning of history, when high school girls began tying dinosaur bones into their hair and fashioning off-the-shoulder shifts from mastodon hides, we've all shared the same need to fit in.

But my biggest concern was neither my intricately feathered haircut nor the cut of my hand-bleached Levi bell bottoms. Both were immaculate; I made sure of that.

What I most worried about was being too smart.

I snuck my mother's favorite locket out of her jewelry box to wear for the photo without asking permission. Did I think she wouldn't notice?

It's true. At least in my day, girls who put obvious effort into being good students had a certain reputation, if you know what I mean.

Uptight do-gooders who concerned themselves with playing by the rules and getting patted on the head. Serious girls who served on Student Council and stayed in the classroom after the bell rang to clarify their homework assignments and make small talk with the teachers. Over-achievers who would rather collect gold stars than have fun.

And I was bound and determined not to be one of them. 

Now, I didn't necessarily mind being smart. I couldn't help it if I remembered the difference between the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas, reveled in the tools of the Paleolithic era, or read aloud with dazzling accuracy. Smart came naturally to me and I was moderately proud of that fact

What I could not tolerate was any hint that I was trying to be smart.

I'd say that my hair, clothing, and make up stand the test of time pretty well. But I'm not so sure about those skinny little 70s eyebrows. 

Math and science were especially tricky because a) they came particularly easy for me and b) they were the two subjects at which girls were definitely not supposed to be smart. 

So I came up with a plan to handle this touchy scenario. 

I signed up for only the very basic classes in those boys-and-nerd-girls-only subjects.





The bare minimum college prep requirements.

No fancy Advanced Placement courses or high-powered electives, thank you very much. I filled in my schedule with gym and Spanish, which served better my quest to portray myself as a fit, active young lady with an eye for adventure and fun. 

And you know, I have no regrets. My life played out just fine, thanks to an academic counselor at Michigan State University who sat me down near the end of my freshman year and said, "Look, with the top grades that you're earning in your math classes, you have a lot of options. Doors will always open for women who are good at math. Choose a major in business or engineering." 

The boy in my life at the time was studying accounting and convinced me to give it a try. 

And that's exactly what I did. I tried

Without shame, I tried hard to do well in those intro to accounting classes. I eventually earned grades that blew that boy straight out of the water, and it turns out I was just fine with trying to be smart after all. 

Another version of my patented crooked smile, which seems to come bursting out of me whenever a camera points my way. But you know, I've come to accept that about myself too. 

Looking back, I do feel a bit sorry for the self-conscious high school version of myself, so afraid to follow her own path. If I could take her aside, I'd give her a hug and whisper in her ear, "Stop worrying about what other people think and simply be yourself; that's all that matters."

Until I find the time machine to whistle me back through the decades to the Stone Age of my youth, I have landed on another outlet for sharing my newfound passion for trying.

I teach 



and hopefully, inspire

teenage girls who are studying math with me.

Yes, of course I teach boys too. But it's interesting to observe how they rarely need the same sort of support to embrace their inner mathematician.

Despite all the talk nowadays about women in STEM, our culture still sends teenage girls some ugly subliminal messages about math, and I make it my business to make sure my girl students know that

it's okay to be smart, 

it's okay to try to be smart, 

and it's especially okay to be smart at math.

Wait. Girls who study hard and do well at math are way more than okay

They're yabba dabba do!

* * * * * 

Most evenings, after my high school day was done and dinner was coming together, my brothers and I would gather round our trendy portable color TV to watch an old episode of The Flintstones. It's hard for me to image my teen years without them: overbearing Fred, lovely and level-headed Wilma, Dino the darling dogasaurus, and sweet baby Pebbly-Poo.

* * * * *

Read more stories about my life as a math teacher. I'm building up quite a collection.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021


I’m not angry 
I’m not scared. 
I’ve no regret for what has happened. 

But I am feeling a bit gobsmacked to learn that after all these months of carefully distancing myself from Covid, swiftly arranging for a vaccine as soon as I was eligible, and powering through a few hours of decidedly unpleasant side effects, I have now fallen into the crevasse of concern regarding blood clots. 

Yep, last Saturday I received the Johnson & Johnson version, just three days ahead of the CDC’s decision to pause distribution because of a possible if mostly implausible link to blood clots, as discovered in six U.S. women. Granted, they are all considerably younger than me, which is good to know. 

But did I mention that my eldest daughter also got the J&J jab, just a few days before me, and she’s smack dab in the middle of the affected women’s age range?

Yeah. That does not make me happy. 

At least the good news is that my third- and forth-born were headed off to get their own J&J vaccines on the morning that the story broke, so thankfully, their appoints were clancwlled and they remain unvaccinated and waiting for an all-clear before they move ahead. 

In the meantime, I will happily cross every passing day off my calendar until the two-weeks danger period has passed, and my first-born and I are in the clear. 

And then, I suppose, I shall wait for the next lurking danger to snarl menacingly from the shadows. Because, despite the pretty pink flowers on the trees and the promises of spring, the world still feels rather unsafe. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Reading | Space and Moondust

"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." -President John F. Kennedy in a special State of the Union message on May 25, 1961

Space | James A. Michener

Another epic tome by this legendary author who ingeniously threads ribbons of fictitious characters through the warp and woof of mankind's real-life adventures in space. Start with a handful of survivors clinging to life after World War II's Battle of Leyete Gulf, and follow the intrigue of politicians, pilots, computer developers, PR men, and rocket engineers as they pursue their dreams of exploring the heavens. Enjoy the symphony of public reaction and wackadoodle push-back in response to their resounding triumphs. If you're not familiar with the story of how mankind came to travel in space, or if you remember well the days of Wernher von Braun, Yuri Gargarin, and the Mercury Seven, you will find this story equally spellbinding. Just keep your phone handy because consulting Wikipedia to sort fiction from fact is a delightful part of the journey.

I am a child of the sixties, and the space race stood front and center in my imagination for the first decade of my life. My mother shook me from my sleep to watch the glorious early morning lift-offs with their billowing clouds of fire and flame, and we stayed riveted to television coverage till the tiny capsules fell back to earth and safely splashed down. I memorized the astronauts' names and the faces of their wives and kids; I understood the different kinds of space vehicles, their intricate docking maneuvers, and strategic objectives of each mission; I felt endlessly reassured by the calm, cool ship-to-earth banter between the astronauts and their care-taking humans in Houston. Michener's creative reconstruction of these years, wrapped up in the fascinating before-and-after events that put the space race into historical context, brings all those memories to life for me, and fills in many of the gaps in my less-than-ten-year-old brain. 

What I remember most about the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo; of NASA and Cape Canaveral and EVAs and LMs and "T-minus ten, nine, eight," as Michener so beautifully lays them out like stars shining in the black velvet sky, is our collective thrill at the miracle of it all. And if there is anything about me that is true, it's that I've grown up to believe that if going to the moon is possible, then anything is possible. For my unending trust in the power of human endeavor, I thank the hundreds of thousands of people who drove our space programs forward during those exciting, crazy, critical years for proving to me that it's true, and I thank Michener for reminding me. Anything really is possible. 

* * * * *

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth | Andrew Smith

In the entire history of mankind, only twelve humans have ever set foot on the moon, and during a chance encounter with one of them around the year 2000, the author realized that that number was already down to nine and would soon dwindle to zero. So he set himself the challenge of interviewing each one of the Moonwalkers to ask, "What was it like to walk on the moon, and what did you do after that?" The results are surprising, predictable, emotional, laughably rational, funny, sad, and entirely thought-provoking. Smith is truly an artist with words, and brought deep compassion and insight to these fascinating men. 

If I were to write a book about the space program, I'd want to write one just like Moondust. Though I can plow through and even enjoy the more typical technical prose calmly laid down by the technocrats who dreamed up these incredible missions and made them come true, this book tells the kind of story that fascinates me most: 

Who were these humans who went to the moon? 
What made them tick? 
What did they feel when they walked on the moon?
How did their experience affect them, change them, illuminate the rest of their lives? 

And then, with breathtaking insight, the author turns the tables upside down and nails the best question of all: what do the stories of these Moonwalkers tell us about ourselves? 

Smith writes with the compassion and profundity deserving of the subject, but he's also freaking hilarious and I smiled at every page. It helps that he's very close to my age, which makes him feel like a friend, and his clever cultural references and signs of the times resonate with accuracy and charm. 

* * * * *

I give both of these books top marks, and both have earned a well-deserved place on my Space Exploration bookshelf. (Yes, I really have one.) Please allow me to clarify their difference:

Space is like a college education, filling the mind with an orderly progression of information about man's pursuit of the moon and beyond, providing not only structure but a deep sense of competence and thorough understanding of the subject. 

Moondust is the hilarious and brilliant fellow student who strolls into your senior year capstone class, helps you re-write your thesis paper, and makes you feel like you've been best friends forever. 

If I had to choose one book over the other, I'd be hard pressed to make a choice. But yay! I don't have to choose, and neither do you. Like so many pairs of books on a common topic, reading them together, one after the other, creates a synergy that fills me with joy. If you have any interest in the Apollo program and man's achievements in space flight, I say run, don't walk, to your nearest library or book shop and grab these two gems!

Friday, April 9, 2021

All My Darling Dogs

"Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole." -Roger Caras

Gracie on a leashless walk. She could certainly find work as a crosswalk safety guard. 

 "Wait, did you get a new dog?"

Stepping back a respectful six feet from the woman I'd just passed, I called the leashless Gracie to my side in a heel, and stopped to chat with this stranger on the street. 

Well. She was a stranger to me; I'd never seen her before in my life. But apparently, I was not so unfamiliar to her.

"Umm, four years ago?" I stammered, wondering what exactly she was getting at.

Glancing at Gracie, she smiled. "You used to have a different dog. He was so wonderful." 

Oh. She was remembering Ranger.

Yes, he was wonderful. Like anyone whose lost a beloved pup, my grief for my dog in heaven normally lies quiet, molten lava under the surface of my heart, but quickly bubbles up at his mention.

"I loved to watch him walk with you, on that long, long leash. He would strut along such a handsome way; he always looked like he was having so much fun.

What a wonderful, familiar, treasured picture her words made in my head.

Sunday Grace, the lovely lady who currently keeps me on my toes, last week. 

I thanked this kind soul for sharing her memories with me, turned and continued on my walk with Grace.

As I strolled along, one eye ever watchful on my well-behaved girl up ahead as she marching down the middle of the sidewalk and carefully stopped to wait for me at the crosswalk, catching the eye of every astonished human driving past as a model of proper deportment, my own memories of sweet Ranger burned bright in my heart.

Ranger Streicher chilling at Kalaloch Beach, 2006

He was a tender-hearted boy, but up for a bit of mischief now and then, such as waiting until everyone had gone to bed and the house was dark and quiet before he stole back downstairs to the kitchen where he was fully capable of opening the fridge and rummaging through the sturdy storage containers to find the non-dog-proof take-out boxes, and carrying them off to the privacy of the dining room where he might help himself to the delicious leftovers. Still, I could only smile at these very occasional and incredibly clever outbursts of naughtiness, and every night, as I laid down to sleep, he would hop up on the foot of the bed, circle once or twice, then curl himself in a tight little ball perfectly snuggled into the crook of my knees. He always managed to land just so - cuddled up to my side-sleeping legs so we made pleasant contact, but never crushing or overcrowding me. A sweet way to end each day, and I was endlessly grateful for his cozy companionship.

* * * * *

As I mused over my years with Ranger, my thoughts drifted back even further to the dog of my childhood, Kelly, and the first dog of my own family, Casey.

Hillpoint Shamrock Kelly slept under a forsythia bush 
in our front yard when he wasn't sailing the open seas, circa 1971.

Kelly lived a charmed life on a country lake in Michigan, slipping and sliding through the snowy winters as my brothers and I ice skated and sledded our days away. Summers we spent swimming and sunning around the lake, and I logged many hours in our aluminum rowboat, usually powered with a ten horse outboard, and Kelly loved nothing more than to travel with me. As we skimmed along the waves, headed for maybe the sandbar in the middle of our Ore Lake where I might drop anchor, lie back on the seats and gaze at the clouds till we were ready to swim, or possibly down through Little Ore to the quiet spots missed by the main currents, where we slipped among the water lilies and scouted out turtles taking lazy sun naps on the flat, floating leaves, Kelly assumed command of our little ship. Paws up on the shiny triangular bow, standing tall on outstretched legs with his lush red coat flowing out behind him in the wind, he barked at the top of his lungs for the sheer joy of living. God love him, he was an adventurous soul.

* * * * *

Case O'Whiskey, escape artist extraordinaire and a fence-jumping Evil Knievel, didn't mind a little quality time swaddled in a baby blanket, 1990.

More than any of my other dogs, Casey was bred for the hunt, and I spent a considerable amount of time and energy during our life together trying to help him scratch that instinctive itch. He was a notorious bolter, and since I couldn't dream of letting him off leash in the middle of suburbia to follow his nose - he had zero respect for streets and the superior might of human vehicles - I was constantly challenged to find him a safe place to scent quail and run free. At the downhill end of our neighborhood lay an untamed retention pond, a man-made wetland wild with grasses, cattails and a lovely bit of water, lots of room for an energetic red beast to romp, and best of all, securely fenced in on all four sides save for a single opening about ten feet wide. During the years of my daughters' babyhoods, I spent many an afternoon at that opening, entertaining the girls with little games and songs while also defending the goal-sized gap against my marauding pup who, while satisfied to romp about in this muddy paradise, would much rather slip past me like a caroming puck and run the streets of the neighborhood in gleeful, utter abandon. And oftentimes, that's exactly what he did. 

* * * * *

Happily caught up in my memories, I suddenly remembered. Today, April 8, is the birthday of both Kelly and Casey, 1969 and 1986 respectively, a very special date in my dog-loving life

And in her kind recollection of my boy, Ranger, my newfound friend has helped me celebrate this sentimental day by reminding me of all my darling dogs. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Be You, Be Me

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

^ Watercolor paper cut into 4-inch by 6-inch squares and painted with acrylics. 
I went with an uncharacteristic pastel palette but what can I say, it just felt right.

^ Letters cut freehand from white cardstock in my trademark font. What can I say, the shape of these letters lives in a special corner of my brain, directly connected to the neurons that fire up my scissors reflex. And I use a paper punch to snip out those tiny inner circles. 

* * * * *

^ I made and gave away these framed bits of inspiration to a couple dozen of my nearest and dearest this past year. Word art is not normally my thing, but how else to convey - simply, directly - the best advice that exists in the universe?

* * * * *

Be you. 

Screw society, the media, schools, workplaces, well-meaning friends and neighbors, even our beloved parents, if they try to shape us into who they want us to be, rather than letting us find our own way in the world.

I well remember the resistance I've faced, my metaphorical hands over my ears to block out the voices that have tried to tell me what to do with my life, and the hard feelings I've stirred up by doing things my own way.

Choosing to go to college.
Choosing where to go to college. 
Moving to Seattle...and not eventually moving back to the Midwest. 
Homeschooling my kids.
Welcoming my kids back home after college. 

These are the mere tip of the individualist's iceberg that I've floated out into the ocean of my life, and I've had to deal with plenty of push back in my quest to be me

But guess how many of these be me decisions I regret?


* * * * *

But this whole thing of being me does not just apply to major life decisions. I've learned that trusting my gut happens on the daily.

I listen to that voice that whispers inside my head, 
I feel the sense of rightness that brings calm to my body, 
I notice how certain ideas float back to me again and again, lighting up in front of my eyes like sunshine hitting a disco ball. 

Those are the moments that tell me I'm on the right track to doing what's right for me.

And the more I pay attention to those moments, 
the more I recognize them when they happen, 
the more opportunities I find to make the choice to be me
the more I am rewarded by a sense of rightness when I do.

Being true to myself creates a self-perpetuating cycle, a repetitive reward system that encourages me to keep being me, and teaches me how to get better at being me over the years. 

* * * * *

Somehow I stumbled onto this simple truth, that being me is the answer to every single question life can possibly throw at me, and frankly, I love how it's all worked out.

And I plan to keep on heeding this advice for the rest of my life.

So, even though you have probably worked this all out for yourself too, let me encourage you:. 

Be you.
Be true to the amazing, one-of-a-kind treasure that you are.
Be who you see yourself to be, and don't listen to anyone who tries to tell you differently. 

You are perfectly made to be you.
And the world needs you to be exactly as you are.

So please, by all means, be you.

And I will try my best to be me