Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why Primrose Hates Phones

We ate at 6:00 every night. My dad and stepmom both worked at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, and unless Dad had a screwy shift, he was usually home by 5:15 or so. We always left him alone for a bit while my stepmom cooked dinner - he needed time to decompress after working in the ER.

A house with three boys is a chaotic place, but dinnertime was absolutely sacred. No eating in front of the TV. No radio in the background. No grabbing your plate and heading off to your room. We all ate dinner at the kitchen table, held reasonable conversation, did the dishes, and then moved on with our lives.

Now, don't imagine Leave It to Beaver or an overly stern, hear-a-pin-drop atmosphere, because that's not the case. We held heated political debates, talked about the Broncos, and always made sure to compliment my stepmom's cooking.

But one thing would bring conversation to a screeching halt. The table would go from lively and bright to deadly in less than a second. Someone could be in mid-sentence, about to reveal some inner truth about Elway's passing ability, only to have the wisdom rendered utterly moot . . . by the telephone.

When the phone rang during dinner, Dad's face would fall. It was anger, yes, but I realize now there was sadness there, too. My brothers and I would invariably glance at each other, wondering which idiot friend of ours violated Rule #1: No calls between 6 and 6:30, ever, for any reason, even if it's about a girl. And that made us think to ourselves, Oh God, please don't be a girl calling.

Dad was brutal. Just mean. It didn't matter who it was - wrong numbers, best friends in grave peril, charity for three legged cat shelters, all were treated with equal disdain. Calling our place during dinner had to be one of the most awkward experiences of your life in the 1980s, up to and including velcro shoes.

Now, in fairness, when Dad was in a good mood, he'd just toy with the caller for a while before handing the phone over to one of us, smirking. And as he's aged, he's changed his tune a bit. These days he's practically friendly with random callers - I think he enjoys stringing along telemarketers just to see how long they'll stay on the line after they realize they're not going to make the sale.

So now, when I think about calling students' homes in the evening, I think about how my dad used to react and I wonder: Am I that caller, ruining someone's dinner? What domestic traditions am I interrupting?

I've been a better writer than speaker since childhood, so when possible, I'll stick to what I know. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

And Now a Little Something for AP

It is so utterly pointless to say anything about how long it's been since I've posted here that I'll refrain from doing so, mostly.

It's been a productive day, and as I take a break from writing up my next AP unit, it occurs to me that my students are probably stressing a little bit about this APA research paper. Rightfully so, to some degree, but sitting here on my porch I'm reminded of a story from my Phoenix days.

Oh, my Phoenix days. Post-Champaign, pre-Seattle. Definitely a lost year. Phoenix is a city without a soul, and living there bothered me a great deal. How I got there in the first place is a story for another post, Dear Reader. For now, what's important is insight from a guy named Jim.

My second job in Phoenix* was slinging lattes for the Scottsdale elite. Tucked into a strip mall on Hayden Road, Java City is no longer operational in the Phoenix metro area, but you've probably seen the kind of place I'm talking about: smallish cafe and bakery chain, catering to the stay-at-home middle to upper class types. If I sound bitter, it's because my customers could be nice, had they chosen, but were usually snotty.

A few doors down in the strip mall, a crafty Bostonian and former flight instructor named Jim opened a lobster business. Replete with Red Sox cap and "pahk yah cah" accent, Jim's entrepreneurial spirit found him peddling live lobsters to uppity Phoenix foodies at roughly a zillion dollars per pound. His store was furnished with exactly five pieces: two enormous lobster tanks, a rickety table, a stool, and a cash register. How Jim went from Boston flight instructor to Scottsdale lobster wrangler was never clear.

One day Jim and I ran into each other in the shared alley behind our stores. I was breaking down boxes and he'd just finished unloading a shipment of lobsters from the airport. I'd had yet another stressful day - spills, snippy customers, rude, Porsche-driving high school kids, etc. I must have said something about losing my mind.

"Paulie," he said, "let me tell you something I used to tell rookie pilots about losing your mind."

This should be good, I thought to myself.

"The first thing I used to tell pilots to do, when they lost control of the aircraft, was to set their watch to the clock on the instrument panel."

Ooookaaaay, I thought to myself . . . because, you know, when you're in a tailspin at 14,000 feet, it's important to know the precise time of impact.

"And do you know why I would tell them to do that?"

"No idea."

"Because it gave them at least a little control. It gave them something to go on." 

I must have looked confused, because he continued.

"Whenever your world is caving in (whenevah yah wahld is cavin' in. . . ), you need something to cling to. Start with whatever you can. In a pilot's case, it's setting a watch. In your case, I dunno, maybe sweep the floor or something. Find something you can control, and control it. But whatever you do . . . do."

The cynic in me was speechless for a minute, no small feat when I was 24 and angry at the world. But you know, Jim was and remains absolutely right.

AP students, as we head into what will likely be a stressful unit, I encourage you to remember Jim's advice. When your lives get stressful, take action, however small, on that which you can control. You cannot write an 8 page APA research paper in one night. You can, however, spend 15 minutes trying to track down a source or two. You cannot reasonably expect to understand every nuance of APA style by checking a website in one sitting. . .  but you can check how this citation should work in this particular instance.

Alrighty. It's been a looooong day of staring at the computer, and I'm cooked. Sorry I didn't get the Do It the Hard Way essays graded. That should happen this week.



*My first job is also a story for another post.