Category Archives: education

Another time

seven chanterelles

I grew up in a time when I could roam the woods by myself. I could grab a hat, and walk out our back door, not letting the screen slam or else my mother might remember that I should possibly be doing something else, like weeding, or picking beans. I hated picking string beans because of the squashy prickly bean beetle larvae that crawled over leaf stems and beans. They gave me the creeps because they looked as though they had neither tail nor head, just a translucent blob, the naked juiciness of them studded with a pattern of black spines. They would break against my fingers and I loathed the sap of their deaths on my hands.

Quickly walk along the tractor path that traced the base of the hill, so I’d be out of earshot of anyone remembering that I should be tutoring my younger sister, or perhaps vacuuming the living room. Or dusting— the job that never ended. Then, with a deep breath of freedom, across the mown slope barely in view of the house. Don’t look behind, or I might see someone waving me back home for any of those chores I was convinced could wait. Over the rise, almost running, with the sweat prickling down between my shoulder blades, and down past the brushy edge of woods that bordered corn fields green with eager breeze blown blades, taller than my head, the overcast glow of sky hot on my hat.

I always looked for other people. Looked for farmworkers, for wanderers, for the adolescent boy checking out possible hunting ground before the fall, despite the “No Hunting” signs my cousin had posted on this old Gowen land. Then I’d duck down a path into the woods, this path wide enough for a truck. Trucks had come this way, keeping it open. The farmworkers often parked down here where the slope of land deepened, seeking shade for lunch time.

six chanterelles

I knew that if I came across anyone else there, I should not let them know of my presence.. Soft footing around, I prided myself I’d always spot any intruder first, and never would they see me. Every so often, I’d take a pause, breathing through my mouth to listen. What did I fear? Nothing so clear; I simply knew I was safest alone, unknown, unnamed.

Now how many children have such freedom? To lose themselves in the woods and orchards of infinite mystery and promise, discovering animals, spying on insects, picking up a shed hawk feather or collecting a cluster of fresh chanterelles from the duff under the hemlocks? I took part of my education there in the shadows of trees, naming red oak and sugar maple, white pine and the startling silver and black of paper birch. What has replaced this for our children now?

single chanterelle



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Emergency Response and CERT


Here’s my graduating class in CERT.

With the fires raging in Northern California and the other recent natural disasters that have affected and afflicted countless people , I hear the questioning rising. Why wasn’t there more help given faster? Why didn’t notifications work better? Whose responsibility are these matters and what do we have a government for, if it has no role in on-the-ground protection of the citizens?

There’s an old tradition lodged in the minds of many Americans, that somehow the organized governmental agencies and their hierarchical structures are somehow less valid and less effective than the Minuteman approach. I think I still hear echoes of this. We certainly hear heart-warning stories mixed in among the tragedies, about untrained souls who rise to the challenge of disaster and save not only themselves but neighbors, or strangers. Wonderful stories to lift us a little in the midst of destruction, suffering and loss.

But what we come back to is that the structures do have a place, the organized, governmental agencies are life-saving. The firefighters who had to spend their time assisting evacuees instead of fighting the fires are to be praised, even if we can also wonder, why wasn’t there another group, more professionals whose job it might be to evacuate while the fire fighters fight flames. We can go in to the economic issues at the heart of this balance, or imbalance, but that’s not where I mean to go right now.

Clearly the systems of notification and spreading the alarm at need aren’t fast enough, or clear enough. Would that we had better tie-ins to satellite imagery so that evacuees don’t get mistaken directions about how to flee. A lot of us have signed up for the local alarms to be sent to our phones, which is a great first step. But what about, as in this case for so much of Santa Rosa, it’s night time and our phones are silenced into sleep mode, or actually turned off? What if we have taken a sleep aid to gain some restful sleep, a dose that will leave us slumbering? Then we depend upon our neighbors, and the night owl who had insomnia and checked her or his phone and read the first outburst of warnings.

I know from anecdotes gleaned from some of our past local fires, that what we expect of government agencies, police, firefighters, and such is often not what they are capable of doing. They cannot reach into every home simultaneously and snatch us to safety. A lot of our alerting system functions by luck.

Could this be addressed? Are there places where a siren should be mounted for such extreme alarms to be sounded? Perhaps. This may be a question for neighborhoods and townships, especially as our global climate shifts and displays a brutal temper.

But there are some ways to be prepared, there’s information to be gained and employed, that can at least train you how to be a part of the response, not the problem. What we sometimes forget in our Minuteman zeal is that when professionals are present, part of our best action is to stay out of the way. Too passive a reaction? Then may I suggest CERT training?

About a year ago I heard of an opportunity to take the free CERT course at the nearby University. I signed up and showed up and spent the next few days being informed, learning how to work as a team with strangers, and learning a good deal of humility.

Let’s be honest, I consider myself quick to think, adept at adapting, fairly bossy and pre-apted for command. (Yes, immodest too.) But the lessons put me in a different frame of mind, and made me, I hope, a far better team player, willing to shift my ground to fit what the larger need demands, and what my associates request.

Plus, I had a great time. This class with all of its lessons was fun. The other students had such different backgrounds and strengths. I had to change and think and learn, and we all made mistakes. Some of our mistakes killed imaginary people. Just like a war game, or a computer game– remember the companion cube? Anyway. let me recommend this exercise and the CERT experience. At the end of the day, you will have a better sense of what others can do for you and what you can do for them, and when you are the civilian running for help, you’ll have a far better concept of what help you can hope for, and how to ask in the most clear and speedy fashion. Plus you will also know what kinds of things you may have to fix yourself, so you waste no time waiting for a helping hand.

Even if you have some disability, or like me, are entering the ranks of senior citizens, knowledge is a weapon, a language, a map for your road.

At the end of a bad day, maybe we all need to be ready to be Minutemen.

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Post SBWC 2017

2017-06-24 17.24.50

The above photo represents what I came home to, and with, after the writers conference.

After six days of intense interaction, and staying up late after rising early, I’m back at home feeling rather odd. What happens when you put a collection of mainly introverted writers in small rooms and invite them to help each other? Wonders, that’s what.

Yes, I went through strangely lonely and dark periods during the writers conference. I panicked I’d lost my touch, that I couldn’t see well enough to put one word after another in a worthy fashion. I heard marvelous, apparently perfect works by my fellow writers, and I doubted. I felt out of step, not so much with others, although that happened sometimes, but with my self. I was afraid I’d mislaid or damaged my writing voice. I felt like that person at a party who has no one to talk with, standing not quite part of any group, but trying to pretend he is, who keeps a smile on his lips because to do otherwise is to be pitiful, and to fall that low, is too far.

Terrifying the silence when you finish reading and you hear not a single response. You rearrange the sheets of your paper and all you can hear is them sliding on the polished wood of the conference table. Was I clear, did I commit cliches, or is even the action in my short story so obscure that no one dares begin a critique– oh hell, was I even speaking English? It’s two AM and what do I imagine I’m doing here? That man over there is yawning.

It’s terrifying to feel that other creators are trying to be kind–but they see you haven’t kept and nurtured the gift. It’s horrid to feel they lean over and speak the encouraging word because they are reflecting their own hearts, not any quality of yours.

I have been trying to create my whole life. That’s nice; we all know it’s a long apprenticeship. But what some part of my monkey brain forgot was this– a writer’s conference is never about you. Nor your work. It’s about the community of writers. I didn’t go in to win anything– I did at least understand that, long before the conference began,  but I did go in to regain my footing. That was my error– the wrong goal.

The goal? It’s to engage in the purpose of helping everyone regain his or her footing. I rediscovered that at last. By helping others, I began to see my own way. I started then to really hear what was said and made and shared. There is a rhythm to creation and sharing, and since creativity is meant for communication, there is a need to step deep into that shifting tide. No dabbling at the edge in the froth. For writers and artists there is an infinity ahead of making, and what that takes is humility and hard work together. This is not the time for selfish doubts, for in-turning.

Introverts or not, now, we break barriers. We swim, far out of our depth.

I am swamped with sensations of loneliness and encouragement, with a gratitude to all my fellow travelers that thickens my voice, with a sense of loss, because I now sit alone. But that may be the biggest mistake. I don’t sit alone.

Now to work, while the remembered voices of friends sound in my brain, while their kindness and engagement glow in my mind. Enough light at last, to let me see my way.


Filed under blog, education, experiences, friends, social and anti, writing

Listen, and you may hear


Do I have a tale to tell? Yes I do. But I will vex you with being slow in telling, a quilt pattern rather than a cogent solid story. Teasers, rather than complete essays.

My husband and I picked up the kid in Phoenix where she is in grad school and headed to our first vacation in over twenty years– Ramsey Canyon. I here post a couple of photos, but bear with me… there is more to tell. I have a dinner to cook for October 1 (between 70 and 100 guests and yeah, yet again, I don’t hire caterers.) So be patient, there’s more to come.



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Now that school has begun once more

As a parent I got so angry about ‘make-work’ repetitive homework problems and the kind of assignments that clearly were purposed to shape youngsters into obedient sameness suitable for future repetitive uncaring jobs focused solely on ‘getting it done’. Obedience should not be the focus of an education.

To have institutionalized teaching of obedience leak into the home and violate the refuge for a tired kid back from a day of frenetic input, bullying and goose-stepping is simply wrong. Teaching needs to happen in school. Practice likewise. Homework should be for the assignments that were reasonably timed within a school day that a student did not manage to complete. It should not be added on top of full, demanding days. How I hated my child’s homework. It spoiled time we would have better shared reading books– and by the way the fact that I was supposed to count the pages my kid read and report it to the school was insulting. It made the creative act of reading a ‘check in a box’ activity. I ended up reporting the books the kid read, not the pages.

Then let us speak of both the school and teachers’ punitive attitudes towards the noncompliant parent, and then the punishment through the school and teachers’ attitudes and restrictions for the kid who didn’t jump through all the hoops while in the sanctuary of the home. Or worse yet, for the kid whose parents didn’t jump through the hoops. The kids were held hostage for our parental ‘good’ behavior.

My solution? The homework group. A mixed batch of kids of different ranges of abilities working together to get the pages and pages of repetitive exercises done, with homemade brownies or cake, and discussions about science and history that enlivened as much as possible of this tedious obedience training. Lots of reading aloud to illustrate human history and what the international news brought to our door. Maps, and stories from epidemiology and novels, sometimes animal tales laced with natural history.  It wasn’t perfect but it made the process of cookie-cuttering our children something I at least had a hand in.

Guess I should draft a blog on this….Short, incomplete, here it is, but better than nothing.




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How to Choose your College

Two Trees Los Banos copy

Having just returned from a couple of recruitment events on behalf of the University of California, Santa Barbara, I am full of the delight of talking with bright motivated candidates for admission to the fall quarter. But I am also mindful of errors in education I have seen, and made myself, and I have a couple of ideas to offer about how a young person, with a handful of congratulatory admissions in hand, might think about where to go for four years of challenge, before responding to those delicious offers.

First of all, remember that it doesn’t make that much difference which one you attend. The university name isn’t going to bring you glory, not as an undergraduate. (As a graduate student where you go becomes far more important.) It depends on how you attend. Are you getting a degree to check a box in your projected career or are you off on a voyage of discovery and adventure? Don’t miss the long view because the ivy blinded you.

You want a community, a place that you feel will help you grow as a person and a scholar. Go see the possibilities, smell the air, see if folk are friendly. Ask about competition in the classroom, in research, in politics and popularity. You can actually find a campus that’s just like high school, alas. A place where everyone postures to seem more blasé and sophisticated than everyone else, surprised at nothing, assuming that means some kind of win. In my estimation, that is not what college is supposed to be about. Or you can find institutions that don’t look to give the student a broad experience, that narrow down the choices to a safe unchallenging world view with nice walls firm on their foundations. I object to that too.

Undergraduate experience is personal, it matters that the fit is right. If you love a cut-throat atmosphere and it makes you thrive, go for it. If you would rather spend less time watching your back and more time pushing the boundaries of science or art or writing to create the future we all can share, go somewhere that has an emphasis on the fact that we can work together to thrust back the forces of ignorance. If you are driven, excited about possibilities, we’ll all meet up at the end.

A lot goes in to that sense of a good fit, because after all, a college or university should make you uncomfortable. It should make you stretch, far beyond your comfort zone. You should experience failure there, as well as triumph. You should go hungry for fresh thoughts and ideas, concepts and explorations. You go to be challenged in your assumptions, in your conclusions, in your accumulated wisdom. You go to college or university to find out what you don’t know, and all the questions that no one has answers to,  material that unsettles and roils the mind. To plant a field, you need to harrow it first, and that’s a big part of what college needs to do with you. So when you look remember that you want a diverse student body who do not all believe the same things. You want this diversity in faculty and staff as well, an institution that allows these disparate ideas to be heard, and you want to listen to all the voices, even though they may upset and anger you. An education will teach you about things you might prefer to ignore or deny, but that is the point. You should never have to believe everything you hear or are taught, but you do need to know what those things are. I have never seen ignorance protect a single soul from anything. Not in the plowed field, nor in a musty library, nor yet in the streets of the city.

Don’t go to college to look good. Don’t aim low. Go willing to look foolish, to ask dumb questions– because at the end of the day you may have a graying professor scratching her head and saying–“I never thought about it that way before– you just opened a real can of worms.” Go to class–yeah, many big classes don’t take attendance so you can skip lectures. Many kids do. But if you do, you will be like the fellow who goes in to an expensive restaurant and pays for the meal, but walks out without eating it. Such a person is by any measure a fool.

I hope you don’t have to work while in college. Work will expect you to give it your all. Trouble is, so will the university. It is like being married to two people at the same time and trying to uphold the needs of two households, children included. Daycare, parent conferences, doctor’s appointments, quarrels, peace-making, holidays that conflict. It is brutal trying to make both things succeed as each deserves. Better if you can pick the less expensive school if that might allow you to do the learning with a whole soul. An education isn’t a trivial entertainment, it’s hard work, done right, and why would you want to waste your time doing it less than the right?

Go to office hours– there’s no one more desperate for company than the lonely professor waiting in his or her or their office waiting for office hours to be over. Ask professors what they’re working on. All of them have research projects ongoing, and those projects are things they love. You may not yet know, looking at colleges now, that half, or even more, of what professors do isn’t  focused on teaching, nor should it be. They are daily fighting on the frontiers of knowledge and understanding through their research, and that struggle is where the power of their teaching gains its edge to cut deep. Maybe you’ll catch this enthusiasm– the greatest gift of all. But if that doesn’t happen, when it comes time that you need a recommendation for your future job or graduate school, those professors with whom you sat and talked will actually remember who you were, out of the sea of faces in lecture, and be able to write an insightful recommendation because you bothered to go and meet them face to face, and let them know who you really are. Too many times a professor is faced with a young person saying “I need a recommendation for med school and I just loved your class. I got an ‘A’ in it.” The professor looks at the stranger’s face and lamely says, “Well, let me see. Can you tell me something about yourself…?”

And here’s one more thought. When you arrive on your campus, remember that no one knows you. Yes, that’s intimidating, but it also means that this is one of those magical opportunities to rewrite your script. If the first thing you do is a face plant in the flower bed with everyone watching, you’re free to spring up with a laugh because no one at this new school knows you’re not the funniest, friendliest, kindest, happiest soul in the world. You can choose to be that person you always wished to become. Leave all accidents of pretension behind, (haven’t we all memories like that which make us cringe,) forget arrogance, and be inviting, be generous. Open your doors to the finest in others, too, and pick companions, fellow musketeers who make you learn and grow and try harder, because the prize isn’t the degree, but the self you make in these years, that self which is the only company you are guaranteed for life. Create your highest self, allow yourself some of the wonderful things you never felt you could express before.

Bon voyage, friends.

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On Locke in the Bathroom, Bacon and Giants

I have for much of my life only vaguely been aware of Francis Bacon. His works gain reference in the movie Amazing Grace when Toby the butler tells his master “I don’t just dust your books…” and there’s an Abba song I heard in a store recently that I insist sounds like they are making some comment on Francis Bacon (my daughter says it’s my ears.)

But common culture has its points, and pricked by my ignorance I picked up an elderly volume of Francis Bacon’s essays and placed it in the bathroom bookbin, where almost anything can obtain at least a cursory perusal. It joined a miscellany of magazines, a 1960’s paperback on Goethe by Ancelet-Hustache, that charming gentle book In the Company of Mushrooms by Elio Schaechter, Fish’s How to Write a Sentence (tedious,) Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (provocative,) Millard’s The River of Doubt (fraught, fascinating,) and The Remedy by Thomas Goetz, a tale of Robert Koch, Conan Doyle and the quest to treat tuberculosis (un-engaging somehow but I shall try again). Usually I have at least one Stephen King in there, but I just checked and there isn’t. I used to have Locke’s Two Treatises on Government but I seem to have moved him somewhere, maybe to the studio. That’s a risk of bathroom books– when you become engaged you take them away with you, and then you can’t find them.

I must digress for a moment, I obtained a neat little copy of The Federalist Papers last year, and for an excellent read in this year of political change I can hardly recommend browsing in it too highly. Readable, entertaining. All these works– Locke, Bacon and the Federalist Papers are as clarifying as those ‘gets the red out’ eye-drops, when you are looking at the nature of governance.

But let’s get back to Francis Bacon, which is where I started. Try this excerpt, and by the way remember as you read it that Bacon was born in 1561 and died in 1626.

“It were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him. For the one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: Surely (saith he) I had rather a great deal men should say there was no such man at all as Plutarch, than that they should say that there was one Plutarch that would eat his children as soon as they were born; as the poets speak of Saturn.”

Further he notes that philosophy, laws, the regard for opinion that can all bring a man to at least an outward moral virtue, can be utterly derailed by superstition–

“…superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men. Therefore atheism did never perturb states; for it makes men wary of themselves, as looking no further: and we see the times inclined to atheism (as the time of Augustus Cæsar) were civil times. But superstition hath been the confusion of many states, and bringeth in a new primum mobile, that ravisheth all the spheres of government. The master of superstition is the people; and in all superstition wise men follow fools; and arguments are fitted to practice, in a reversed order.”

Again, in a slight digression, there has been much discussion of whether Francis Bacon was himself an atheist, or was his argument focused here on an argument that the whims of superstitious thought did not belong in governance or muddying the social contract. You can look this up for yourself, though I believe the answer is clear that he was profoundly religious and therefore anxious about the misuse of religion in public life and governance.


I look at the news, the abounding sound-bites and sensationalist quotations and I cannot help but wonder, how much are we fitted to our times? If we indeed build our understanding and knowledge, upon the shoulders of giants1, as Newton said in his letter of 1676, why do we in every generation persist in hopping down and insisting the view is better from the gutter? We could do worse than to go back to Locke-ing ourselves in the bathroom and chewing over some Bacon.


1.) Standing on the shoulders of giants (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”


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