Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Universe Conspires

George snores. He denies it, but it's true. And when he snores, I can't sleep. So we have a routine. I read in bed while he falls asleep; then I move to another room to sleep.

For a long time, I moved to Nick's room because he slept with Jack, but now the boys sleep in their own rooms. For the past month or so, I slept on the living room sofa because, get this, Nick didn't want me sleeping in the guest room.

You see, the guest room is in the far corner of the finished basement, which is big and dark and scary at night. Nick didn't want to wake in the night, need me, and have to go to the basement to find me.

Never mind that Nick hasn't woken me up at night since he was three years old (he's 13 now). Never mind that I offered to leave a few basement lights on at night. Never mind that mom was sleeping on the sofa while the rest of the family...even the dog...slept in real beds.

Last night, I went to the basement. George encouraged me to take the dog, so I did. Daisy snuggled beside me on the guest bed, her head on the pillow. As I started to drift off, I heard it.

No. It wasn't possible.

Surely not.

Yes. Yes. She was.

Daisy was snoring.

I cannot win.

What We Did Monday

In 2003, after George returned from Iraqi Freedom, we drove to Colorado to buy a Ford Expedition. But the dealer did the ol' bait-and-switch, so we ended up buying a Volkswagen Passat. In black.

The joy of my driving life for ten years...

I love this car. We had it for ten years, and put 134,000 miles on it. I still wanted to keep it forever, but I stopped trusting it about the same time we moved to the new house. Finally, George and I decided it was time to let it go and get something new, something a bit bigger for our growing boys.

I decided it was time to add some color to my life.

May the next ten years be as wonderful...and a little more colorful!

Oh, yeah. Metallic deep red and new car smell. VW, I will always remember you fondly, but it's time for some shiny red Mazda in my life.

And have you ever noticed how the Mazda logo looks like an owl?

Hopefully, this symbolizes that we made a wise choice.

George rolled his eyes when I pointed this out last night while we were signing paperwork. Men are weird. A cute logo and a pretty color are two totally good reasons to buy a car.

Safe and colorful driving, everyone!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Gratitude Journal #193

Today, I am grateful to have made a decision about buying a new car. We'll see if the dealership cooperates. If not, no biggie...I love my Passat with 134,000 miles on it and it IS still running strong. If the dealer cooperates, I'll be driving new wheels soon. (For the curious, the new wheels will belong to a dark red Mazda CX-9.)

Today, I am grateful for a visit from my sister-in-law Angela. I'm grateful for a fun time spent with her at the Cincinnati Museum Dinosaurs exhibit and for seeing how much the boys enjoy spending time with their aunt. I'm grateful that a spotted fawn made an appearance in our back yard just for Angela. I'm grateful (but not at all surprised) that she enjoyed the food George fixed for her, claiming the grilled skirt steak tacos were the best thing she'd ever eaten. I don't think she's had his grilled rib-eyes, though. I am also grateful Angela had safe travels for her trip, despite some weather delays.

Today, I am grateful for the commissioning of five new Stephen Ministers at our church and for the final tearful farewell to our youth minister and his family. We repeat the commissioning ceremony at all three services, and by Sunday afternoon I felt so wrung out a good way! The youth minister is moving on to receive his own church...a wonderful step forward in his faith journey supported by his lovely family, though we will miss them all. Our five new SMs are also moving forward in faithful service to God to provide loving care for those in pain. Heart. Is. Bursting. With. Gratitude.

Today, I am grateful that Nick enjoys mowing the lawn. It's so cool to see him out on the riding lawn mower in his ball cap looking like a mature and responsible young man.

 Today, I am grateful for my iPhone camera which allows us to document life on the go!

"It's exhausting being so adorably golden."

Jack, Nick, and Aunt Angela happily oblivious to the
danger lurking behind.

Cute bald guy who belongs to me.

What are you grateful for today? 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Strange Adventures in the US Air Force: Belonging, Part 1

Belonging. We all want to belong. We need our people. Our tribe. Our band of bosom friends. The peeps who get us through life day by day, witnesses to our follies and triumphs.

The best piece of advice I received before going to college was this: find a group to join, whether it is a sorority, fraternity, chess club, intermural wrestling team, or a lobby group called Let's Bring Latin Back from the Dead.

Doesn't matter which group, just find one where you belong.

This is good advice for life as well, and being married to the Air Force made it easy. George always had a squadron, and I always had a squadron wives' group. While it was weird belonging to a group simply because of what my husband did (oh, how the feminist in me balked at this!), those groups got me through three deployments, two wars, and two babies being born. Those women, thrown into life randomly with me, are still my friends.

I appreciate them.

But one assignment, we found ourselves unexpectedly on the ouside, ostracized and invisible, wondering how we became the social equivalent of slime molds. When George took an assignment as an Air Liaison Officer with the Army Rangers at Ft. Benning in Georgia, he was excited about working with a different branch of the service, a branch he admired and honored for its courage and history. I was concerned that George would be jumping out of airplanes instead of navigating them but naively expected the Army battalion wives' group to function pretty much the same as an Air Force squadron wives' group.

In every flying squadron George had served, he and I made insta-friends and had an active social life. On Friday nights, when we entered the Officers' Club, we were greeted by a chorus of "SPOT!!!" and "MRS. SPOT!!!!" (George's call sign was Spot because he has an albino spot on the back of his head.) At the Club, all the guys were happy to see me because I didn't drink and would get them safely home with no complaining or criticism. They loved George because he would drink with them and was a lot of fun...a loyal and gregarious brother in a band of brothers flying, fighting, and winning.

My first inkling of trouble at Ft. Benning came when the cable company installer told me a story about his brother-in-law, a retired Ranger. When the installer's wife left her purse at a family function, they arrived home to a voice message from her brother the Ranger: "I have secured the purse."

Do people really talk like that? Well, yes, it turns out Rangers do. The cable guy said the Ranger attitude--a no-nonsense, aware-of-every-risk, always-alert-for-danger attitude--permeated every aspect of his brother-in-law's life. The cable guy had the highest respect for his brother-in-law and his dedication to country, but he acknowledged that Rangers are a breed apart.

When George had been at the battalion for a couple of weeks, I asked him what he thought. After a contemplative pause, he replied, "Nobody smiles."


Then, a few weeks later, we ate dinner at a steakhouse. George went to the restroom, where he ran into one of the battalion officers and his small daughter, who had spilled something on herself. George said hello and made a joke about having spilled milk on himself at breakfast to make the little girl feel better. Her father looked at George, without smiling, and said, "Yes, sir."

In retrospect, the culture-clash George experienced makes perfect sense. Military aviators fly above the action, dropping bombs and blowing up things and people at a distance. The ethos in a flying squadron is a profoundly contradictory mix of practical jokes, party time, and intense professionalism. The movie Top Gun got that right.

Army Rangers, the elite of the Army fighting force, are trained to jump out of planes, float through the air, and hit the ground ready to look the enemy in the eye and shoot them. It's shocking the number of Rangers who lose their lives in training accidents. A whole group of Ranger trainees had died of hypothermia in Florida the year we got to Benning. (You can read about that incident in a New York Times article here.)

Despite the fact that the 3rd Battalion never deployed while George was there, four Rangers died during his two years with them: three in a night jump when they landed in a river, and another who fell while fast-roping out of a helicopter.

George did night jumps. He fast-roped the same day as the fatal accident. For his two years at Ft. Benning, I was a nervous wreck.

People who are brave enough, serious enough, dedicated enough to volunteer for this work are few in number, and the work they do is absolutely vital to our national defense. But as you might imagine, party-animal Spot and his wife didn't exactly belong to the Rangers.

It's amazing how invisible we became. Our attendance was "mandatory" at the official Hail and Farewell parties...held to welcome newcomers to the battalion and give those leaving a plaque and a chance to make a speech about how honored they were to serve with such an amazing group of men. But unless we cornered someone and forced them to speak to us, we might as well not have been there.

About halfway through George's tour, a Hail and Farewell was held at a British-style pub in Columbus. We arrived early, determined to have a good time. We sat in the middle of the pub and tried to make eye contact with everyone who came in. We waved, shouted hello, and got nothing.


At one point, George lifted his arm and asked me, "Do I offend?" I sniffed his arm pit and said, "No! Do I?" And I lifted my arm. He sniffed and said, "Not at all!" We laughed at the absurdity of it all. The fire safety officer, who wasn't a Ranger either, made a bee-line to our table to join us, and we three sat in a roomful of Rangers discussing how excluded we felt and how sad it was that the Rangers didn't bother to get to know us because, by golly, we were charming people!

Finally, as all the other tables filled except ours, a young couple came up to us and said, "May we sit with you? The tables with our friends are all full."

We invited them to sit and did all we could to make them feel welcome and wanted. But it wasn't enough. At the next Hail and Farewell, we were completely invisible to them.

Situations like this invite us to feel an us-against-them anger or simply hurt. What's their problem? How could they be so mean? Why would they do this to us? Who do they think they are?

But the reality is more mundane, more hardwired into our sense of belonging and group identity. Rangers are special. They go through training that could, quite literally, kill them. The job we ask them to do as a nation is hard...hard in every sense of the word. They know they can count on each other for their very lives. That training permeates every aspect of their lives, up to and including securing a forgotten purse at a family dinner. Their strong sense of belonging to a brotherhood over-rides other social priorities.

So why make the Air Force guy and his wife feel welcome? He's not wearing a Ranger tab. After his 2-year controlled tour with us, he will go back to his cushy flying job making more money than we do and engage in practical jokes and get drunk at the O Club on Friday nights. We appreciate what he does for us, but really, he's not one of us.

No, he wasn't. As frustrating as that assignment was socially, George and I both came away with deep and sincere appreciation for what the Rangers do and who they are, for the sacrifices they and their families make, for the risks they take in the everyday execution of jobs the rest of us don't even want to think about.

When that two-year tour was up, we drove cross-country from Columbus, Georgia, to the Temporary Lodging Facility at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. George was going back to flying the B-1 Bomber, back to wearing a flight suit, back to logging the same number of take-offs as landings.

It was a Friday afternoon when we checked in and settled into a room. Around 4:00, we drove to the Officers Club and walked in. Screams of delight assaulted our ears. "SPOT'S BACK!!!!!" "MRS. SPOT!!!!!!" We were surrounded by friends, quite literally surrounded, hugged, patted on the back. George played crud* and got drunk and told all the guys how much he loved being back with them. We spent hours that night catching up with friends until it felt like the previous two years of ostracism were washed away in wave after wave of warm, fuzzy welcome.

We were back where we belonged.

In Part 2, I will discuss the effects of ostracism and some constructive things you can do when you're being ostracized. But please share on this post your experiences being ostracized. Has there ever been a time in your life where you felt ostracized or excluded? What circumstances led to those feelings? Was it really malice, or just strong group identity that created the situation?

*Crud is a violent contact sport played around a pool table in USAF Officers Clubs around the world.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Gratitude Journal #192

Today, I am grateful for the father figures in my uncle Darius, my grandfather D.L., my father-in-law Roger. I'm also grateful for the father of my children, who loves them and me so very much.

Today, I am grateful for my heavenly Father.

Today, I am grateful for yesterday's dance recital. Nick did a great job, and I should have a picture or two to share soon.

Today, I am grateful for tasty cow.

Today, I am grateful for silly dogs and boys who photograph them.

Gravity pulls Daisy's loose upper lip down, revealing
a fang. But she looks relaxed, and her eyes seem peaceful.

Same picture flipped. This version makes her look
utterly insane. 

Today, I am grateful for firefighters everywhere but especially in Colorado right now. So many homes have been lost and precious lives are gone, but without firefighters, it could have been so much worse and could still get worse. My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by all the fires raging now.

Today, I am grateful for friends and family.

What are you grateful for today? 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

To My Google Reader Subscribers...

According to my statistics, 119 people subscribe to Questioning via Google Feedcatcher, which includes Google Reader and iGoogle subscribers.

Google Reader is going away very soon. I hope that those of you who use Google Reader will stay with Questioning through another subscription avenue. If you want to try another reader, the easiest I've found is Bloglovin, which transfers all your GR subscriptions at the click of a button.

(Edited to add that Bloglovin did not pay me to say's just the only one of the feed readers I could get to work for me after hours of trying. When I clicked that button and BAM! all my feeds were there, I wondered why I didn't start with Bloglovin the first place. The dent on my desk is deeper from banging my head over this issue.)

You also have the option of subscribing via email. If you choose that, please look for the verification email you'll receive shortly after filling out the subscription box (located on the sidebar of the blog). If you don't get the verification email, check your spam filter.

Thank you for sticking with Questioning through these awkward Google changes!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Take a Stand

Yesterday, I listened to a story on NPR's All Things Considered about a public meeting in Tennessee that broke my heart. The trouble in Tennessee over the building of a mosque has bothered me for a while. But listening to the cheers of supposed Christians when the burning of another mosque was mentioned made me ashamed to call myself a Christian.

My Christ isn't the same person as the Christ those people seem to worship. My Christianity isn't ruled by mob or tribal mentality. It isn't "us against them" but "we are all beloved children of God who should love one another as Jesus loved us." Jesus calls Christians to go forth and share the love of God with the world.

Share God's love.

Please, God. Share Your love with all of us.

We live--Praise God from whom all blessings flow!--in a country whose founders established freedom of religion as a basic right. People should be able to practice their faith without fear of harassment or harm. I want that right. I won't deny that right to others.

That's my stand.

Where do you stand?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Gratitude Journal #191

Today, I am grateful for Patti M's thoughtfulness. She sent me and George an anniversary card, even though she and I have never met in real life and she wouldn't know me to cross the street. Patti has remembered our anniversary for several years now, and her kindness and thoughtfulness to this internet stranger/friend is just so refreshing!

Today, I'm grateful for marriage. This Friday, George and I will have been married for 27 years. Pretty cool, eh? Love you, honey-bunny!

Today, I am grateful for my mother's safe travels and fun with friends and family.

Today, I am grateful for something Pastor Suzanne said in her sermon: "Politics can't save us." She was, of course, referring to the fact that the Jews expected the Messiah to be a political leader to bring back power and stability to His People. Instead, as we literary critics would say, Jesus shifted the discourse away from earthly power to power of the Spirit and eternal life.

Her comment got me thinking about how partisan our politics and our religion have become, how much energy we put into hating this party or that party, how much fear-mongering and media slant incite us to reactionary words and behavior. We so want politics to turn out for us, for our party, for our side. But God's not on a side. He's too big for that. His love is too big for that. God saves. And that is a happy thought.

Today, I am grateful for a boy who wakes up in the morning and sings "Zippity Doo-Dah." I've got a bluebird on my shoulder...and everything's satisfactual.

What are YOU grateful for today?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

This Is a Test, Only a Test...

...if it were a Real Education, you would have been called upon to think about something other than No. 2 pencils and bubble forms.

My fourth grader had three rounds of standardized testing in the 2012-2013 school year: fall, winter, and spring. At least five days of instruction time were lost to the actual testing, and I don't know how many days were lost to test preparation.

Which brings up some interesting questions. What is the point of education? What is the real reason for learning?

These are huge questions, and people take a variety of approaches to answering them.

1. The practical approach. People who subscribe to this approach view schools as credential-granting institutions. Public schools, then, are designed to equip people with basic skills to be base-line employable. In other words, high-school graduates can read and write at an acceptable level, can do functional math (and maybe a bit more), understand the basics of our culture and government enough to get by as voting citizens (hopefully), and grasp enough science to boil eggs and change air filters on HVAC units.

College, in the practical approach, should give you job skills. Get a degree and become a computer programmer, nurse, engineer, teacher, Ponzi scheme planner, or politician. The curriculum should just teach you skilz, dude.

I had a student who asked, on the first day of Introduction to World Literature, why the university made him take my class because he was going to be an accountant and what possible use could Homer be to him in his career.

I hate the practical approach (and wanted to throw my copy of Dante's Inferno at this student's head), but practicality does, sadly, have a point, and for some people, practical results are all they want from formal education.

2. The idealistic approach. People who subscribe to an idealistic approach to education and learning see school as ivory halls of percolating brilliance, where Great Ideas and the Great Minds that think them are nurtured and encouraged. The point is to teach creativity and independent thinking skills with minimum influence and maximum freedom for students to explore their interests.

The idealistic approach keeps higher education alive by encouraging people to get PhDs in such esoteric subjects as Hispanic Studies or Theoretical Physics or--my personal favorite--Medieval Studies. About all these folks can do to earn a living is teach, which is good as far as it goes, but we don't need a bazillion Medieval Studies professors. When I was in graduate school, everyone was talking about the glut of English PhDs and how hard it was to find a job.

The idealistic approach, as much as I love parts of it, suffers in the real world. It encourages students to rack up $150,000 in college debt while majoring in German Culture Studies. If this student has no intention of going on for a PhD, s/he is in for a world of hurt when those loans come due. You've got to pay the piper, and German Cultural Studies isn't going to get you a job, especially in Germany.

3. The middle ground. Education is a big word that encompasses a vast range of reasons for learning. Yes, there is practical learning...which is necessary and good and can partially be tested with bubble forms. But when we think of education as something we only get in school, we're limiting it ridiculously. What you learn in school should be a springboard to what you learn in the world, outside those ivory towers. School learning should contextualize your experiences, encourage you to seek beyond the textbook or rule book. It should teach you where to look for answers, how to look for answers, and that lots of times, the answers aren't as neat and tidy as we want them to be.

The accountant in my Introduction to World Literature class likely remembers nothing from that class except the torture of reading The Odyssey, but another student learned something important. At the end of the semester, after final grades had been turned in, he told me a bit about himself. He was in his late 30's, retired Army, a criminal justice major, and he was not selling his Norton Anthology of World Literature back to the bookstore.

Say wha'? Most students couldn't wait to trade that book in!

He said he hated high-school English and couldn't remember much else about it. The only things he'd read since high school were Army training manuals and Sports Illustrated, but that my class taught him there is a whole big world out there he was missing. Milton's Paradise Lost spoke to him. He was, on his own, reading the parts of it we didn't read for class. He thanked me for showing him that reading is wonderful and that he could do it.

His words made the entire semester worth all the work I did for a pretty paltry paycheck.

William Butler Yeats said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." That fire needs kindling in the form of basic, practical knowledge, but without some spark--curiosity, passion, sticks and twigs just sit there.

Once the fire is well and truly lit, however, not much stands in its way, and it will burn for a lifetime. The goal of education, then, should be to light that fire and turn students into lifetime learners.

I grew up watching adults try new things, perfect skills they already had, pursue their interests with enthusiasm. They modeled that behavior for me, and I soaked it in. I loved books and school not just for themselves but for what they gave me: a sense of the universe as a great big book to read, so big we puny humans only ever get the merest glimpse of a few pages...but what beautiful writing is on them!

Last time I checked, there aren't a bunch of bubble-form tests in life, so how can standardized testing fit into an education dedicated to creating lifetime learners? Some standardized testing does serve a purpose of tracking progress in a practical sense and identifying students who are struggling, but why in the world would fourth graders need three standardized tests in one year?

All this testing throws a pail of water on the fire. It does not stoke the flames.

Lifetime learners don't care about anything as mundane as bubble-form tests, degrees or diplomas. They are curious and confident. Of course they want jobs and paychecks, but that's not the reason for their existence. They know that true education comes from stoking the fire of their mind, and they crave that education until they die.

But then, I double-majored in English and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. What do I know?

What are your feelings about the purpose of education? What sparked the lifetime learner in you? If you're not a lifetime learner, what put out your flame? 


Monday, June 3, 2013

Gratitude Journal #190

Today, I am grateful for tasty cows and the men who cook them on open flame.

Today, I am grateful for cool weather and a wetter spring than last year. Maybe our lawn will fill in!

Today, I am grateful for summer break and big back yards and birds being birds.

What are you grateful for today?