Archive for the 'How to Grow a Zuska' category

Fifth Day of Christmas: Terrific Teachers

Kindergarten was for the most part a pleasant time, though my most vivid memory of that year is of a sour disappointment.

We were required to demonstrate competence in tying our shoes, with a promised reward of a large gold star on our report card. I begged my mother to instruct me in the art of shoe-tying. Not understanding the high stakes, she did not feel a sense of urgency. There's no rush. Entering kindergarten at age 4 1/2, my motor skills were a bit behind those of my classmates. But like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted, and did learn to tie my shoelaces - only to discover on test day that we were not allowed to demonstrate competence on our own shoes. Presented with an outsized fake boot-shoe mounted on a platform, sitting on the teacher's desk facing us - wrong place, wrong height, pointing the wrong direction - I struggled to produce a bow. I was pleased with my result in this backwards formation, but my kindergarten teacher was not. It's too droopy. No gold star for droopy bows! Bitterly disappointed and angry, I felt I had been cheated. I had tied the laces on both my shoes at home that morning.  Years later, this teacher, who went to the same church as my grandparents, would remark upon The Droopy Bow every time she saw me. "You were such a bright kid, but you just couldn't tie your shoelace! It was too droopy! I couldn't give you a gold star!" Well into my college years, I dreaded seeing her at my grandparents' church.

Most of my grade school teachers loom as frightening or at best oddly disconcerting presences in my memory - teachers who carried wooden paddles and used them on our small bodies, teachers tightly focused on discipline, teachers who weren't shy about letting us know who among us was hopelessly stupid and undeserving of their precious teaching time. Here I do not exaggerate. I had a third-grade teacher who divided us into five reading groups based on how well we could read and announced one day that she did not have time to waste teaching the "slow readers" in group five - from now on, the group one readers would instruct the group five readers while she dealt with the rest of the class. I still remember the shy boy D. who was assigned me as his "reading teacher" and often wondered how his life turned out. Did he learn somehow to love books and reading? Did he ever find encouragement for anything he was interested in?

Among this sea of misery, there were a few terrific teachers. Two beloved teachers in grade school were Miss Phillips and Miss Pekar.

Miss Phillips was our music teacher. The precious time spent in her classroom was a gift. She had small percussion instruments for us to play - a triangle, a tambourine, maracas, bells, and the like - and she led us in singing. We watched filmstrips in her classroom about music and with musical accompaniment. I vividly remember one about folk music. It was the first time I heard the song "Blowin' In The Wind," the Peter, Paul, and Mary version, and I was so overwhelmed by the music and lyrics that I memorized it as I was listening to it. Miss Phillips vanished from our school one day, and the adults in our lives began to whisper about her, and then we learned a new word, leukemia, and a new sadness.

Miss Pekar was my fifth grade teacher and the one who brought the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond into my life. We read it together as a class, and we also read Charlotte's Web. When I think of Miss Pekar, I see her walking slowly around our classroom, reading a passage from one of these books, before turning the reading over to us. We each read a paragraph aloud in turn - no Group One readers "teaching" neglected and shamed Group Five readers in her class, we were all one group reading together. Miss Pekar also memorably one day brought into class a large box of books and said anyone could have any book in the box that they wanted. Oh joy! Free books! I was first to the box and what did I find? The collected plays of William Shakespeare! I recognized the name as important, also, there was just more book per book in that book than any of the other kid books in the box. A better deal! "I want this book," I said. She took the book from me and turned it over in her hands, looking doubtful. "How did this book get into the box?" I can still hear her saying that, almost to herself. "You said any book!" I said, with a child's clear sense of justice. "I'll tell you what. You can borrow it for awhile and read it if you like but then you have to return it to me." And that is how I came to read - or skim read - many of Shakespeare's plays in the fifth grade. Except for excerpts of two plays read in senior English class, that is the only time I read Shakespeare in my schooling, and the source of my (garbled) understanding of the Bard.

Three high school teachers belong in this narrative.

Mrs. Miller, my high school algebra and trig teacher was not popular with students, but by golly she taught me algebra and trig. I had no deficiencies there. If our school had actually offered calculus I have no doubt she would have been as thorough in her instruction of that subject. I still have the TI-30 scientific calculator she made us all buy in senior year - it cost my parents $30, in 1979 - because calculators were the way of the future and we needed to learn how to use them.

Mrs. Long, my typing teacher was fierce. She was as rigorous and as hard on errors as my trig teacher. She gave me a skill I have used throughout my life, one that carried me through typing my term papers on an old manual typewriter using onion skin and carbon paper, to typing on an electric typewriter with wite-out, to typing on a keyboard at a mainframe using LaTex to format my master's thesis, to typing on a PC to write my PhD thesis, to typing this blog post on a laptop. I don't know what she'd make of thumb typing emoji texters today. Maybe she'd just consider it another form of shorthand, which she also taught, back in the day.

Lastly, Mrs. Shuttlesworth, my freshman year French and English teacher, did teach me French, and did teach me some song lyrics could be analyzed just like poetry (reminding me of my beloved Miss Phillips and that encounter with Blowin' In The Wind - hey, didn't the Nobel Committee have something to say about that?!?) Even more than that, she gave me a sense that I should value my intellect, and that I should strive for something beyond the confines of my known world.

It is not possible to overestimate the importance of this in a sea of schooling that was often anti-intellectual or just downright incompetent. Some teachers meant well, but some didn't care, or had given up, or were in over their heads. Nobody - and by nobody I mean nobody in Harrisburg - cared if coal miner's and farmer's kids in Greene County, PA weren't getting a world class education, or didn't have adequate resources in their schools, or didn't have access to enrichment programs. The odds were against us students. But: The teachers who did do a good job, who sang to and with us, who read to and with us, who taught us cosine secant tangent sine! 3.14159! , who taught us a useful skill while embodying competence, confidence, and intelligence - these teachers were terrific when all the odds were against them, too.


One response so far

Fourth Day of Christmas: Lunch Ladies

Dec 28 2017 Published by under How to Grow a Zuska, Tales From The Coal Patch

Not ladies who lunch, but the lunch ladies, are today's topic.

Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?

In grade school, sometimes I did both. We lived down the street from the elementary school. Bus rides didn't happen for me until sixth grade, though there were plenty of kids who did ride the bus up into Bobtown for grade school. (And I do mean up - Bobtown Hill was quite a trip on a school bus, especially in winter, especially with snow chains on the tires. Do they still do that? Oh the poor bus drivers, eternally having to repair the broken chains en route to or from school. But I digress.)

Kids who rode the bus either had to carry their lunch or eat in the cafeteria. I could choose either option, but also on occasion could walk home for lunch. Sometimes I'd go to the home of my second cousin, who lived even closer to the school house, as this savings of walking time might allow for a bit of play time.

Every weekend we would study the school lunch menu as published in the local newspaper - they did that back then! they published the weekly lunch menus for all the grade schools and high schools in the county! in our local paper! we had a local paper! two of them, actually! morning and evening! delivered daily! to our front doorstep! by a local guy! who walked the route! - anyway, we would study the lunch menus to see what days were desirable eat-in-school days.

In my grade school days, the lunch ladies were women of the town who knew how to cook, and who prepared the lunches more or less from scratch. Those lunches were good, tasty food, nutritious and filling. I still have the recipe for Pizzaburgers a la Bobtown Elementary School (see below). Pizzaburgers were definitely a eat-in-school lunch.

In grade school, there was a lot of stern discipline. We were all the kids of immigrant families whose fathers worked the coal mines. The teachers at that time, for the most part, were not drawn from the ranks of the townspeople. Some of our teachers seemed to think what we needed was not so much the fundamentals of readin', ritin', and 'rithmatic as the fundamentals of discipline and punish. One teacher lined us up in alphabetical order to march from the classroom to lunchroom and back, and maintained a strict no-talking rule during the transit process. All teachers carried wooden paddles and it was common for at least one child to be paddled during the lunch hour for some transgression or other. (Keep in mind these are children from kindergarten to fifth grade.) Children who were paddled were commonly made to sign their names to the teacher's paddle. I was an extremely well-behaved child and I was hit with the paddle once each year of my grade school career - for example, once in second grade, for jumping out of my seat and running to the window in excitement at the sight of the first snow of the season.

With this as background, imagine a young child going through the lunch line with the cheerful lunch ladies - who were not so very different from our own mothers and bubbas - serving up trays of warm food along with a smile and an encouraging word or two. I have many bad and frightening memories of grade school but none of them have to do with the lunch ladies.

Even at high school, the food was real food, cooked by women you knew because your family socialized with them. Every high school lunch came with a bun, a small freshly baked yeasty mini-loaf of bread accompanied by a pat of butter. With homemade meatloaf or spaghetti with meat sauce, this was really quite filling.

I remember one particular day taking my tray up to discard my lunch leftovers at a time when I had grown oddly picky about food. The pickiness was perhaps made worse by peer pressure. It had become common to indulge in mocking the lunch offerings; as teenagers newly aware of our importance and centrality to the universe, we mocked everything. M., the lunch lady who was my brother's mother-in-law saw that I was discarding an entirely untouched bun, and she chided me, kind and stern at once. Why did I take the bun if I would not eat it? Did I not know that they made those fresh, from scratch, each morning? Did I not know how good they tasted? Did I not like bread? Did I not know that if nothing else on the menu appealed to me, I could make a meal out of the bun and butter and a carton of milk? Did I not know my mother would be ashamed of me for wasting good food?????

I could not argue with any of M.'s logic, and I definitely could not argue with that last statement. And I knew if I were ever again caught throwing an uneaten bun in the trash, my mom would hear about it, and I would hear about it from mom. I did like the buns, and M.'s chiding gave me courage to eat them in the face of my friends' lunch food mockery. Henceforth, I ate my bun and drank my milk, even if nothing else on the lunch menu appealed to me.

Later in life I watched Jamie Oliver attempt to revamp public school lunch programs in the U.S. and was dismayed to find out how little control lunch ladies have over the meals they produce for schoolchildren now. They care just as much as the women who fed and nourished (and chided) me but their hands are often tied by harmful policies designed more to help mega-food corporations than to nourish children.

What can you do to help improve school lunches for your kid, and support your local lunch ladies? The NRDC has some advice here.

And now, the recipe for Pizzaburgers!! (Obviously scaled down from production for a lunchroom of undisciplined talking youngsters who just will not stay in an alphabetized straight line, but still sizeable enough for a family of nine. Recommend serving with a side of green beans. And a carton - not plastic bottle - of chocolate milk, if you can get your hands on one.)


2 lb ground beef
3 cans tomato paste
2 cans tomato sauce
1 c. grated cheese (cheddar or Longhorn)
2 1/2 T parsley flakes
2 T brown sugar
1/2 T. garlic powder
1 T oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion, chopped
Brown meat and onion with salt and pepper. Add paste, sauce, brown sugar, garlic powder, oregano, grated cheese, parsley. Mix well. Spoon on open buns. Sprinkle some cheese on top. Brown under broiler till melted.

One response so far

Third Day of Christmas: Amazing Aunts

The three wise aunts: next door, Aunt Nellie, across the street Aunt Mary, and catty-corner across the street was Aunt Stella. These were in fact my great-aunts. Mary was sister to my mother's mother, Nellie sister to mom's father, and Stella was married to a brother of mom's father. Mom, bereft of her mother, relied heavily on these women in the early years of her marriage.

Aunt Stella was an exceptional baker. She took over the thrice-weekly bread-baking for the family after my grandmother's death, until enough time had passed that she deemed it acceptable to gently suggest to mom and her sister Betty that perhaps it was time they learn to master this task. Aunt Stella was famed for her cookies and pastries; there was always something delicious in her kitchen. In addition, there was a swing in her backyard. My sister and I would obtain permission from mom to trot across the street, knock on the door, and ask if we could play on the swing. I can still see in my mind's eye the gentle smile on Aunt Stella's face and in her eyes; the answer was always yes. Mom sternly instructed us ahead of time never to ask Aunt Stella for anything to eat, but we nearly always got a cookie. Oftentimes it was a ladylock, and no one made better ladylocks than Aunt Stella. By "no one" I mean no one in the entire universe of cookies. Near the end of her life she did teach a young woman in town how to make them, and hers are nearly as good as Aunt Stella's were. Only nearly as good, because nothing in the world will ever taste like the freshly made ladylocks Aunt Stella placed in our grubby little hands on a warm spring afternoon when we were six and seven years old.

Aunt Mary and Aunt Stella accompanied my father and mother on the epic trip to the hospital late on the wintry January night of my birth. The hospital was a good thirty minutes drive away and mom's water had already broken at home as she was mopping the kitchen floor (as you do, at the end of your ninth month, after 11 pm, when the other four kids are already in bed.) Aunt Nellie stayed with Pappap and the kids, Aunt Mary and Aunt Stella came along to help out mom because I seemed to be, as Pappap later said, "in a hurry to get into this world." In a hurry I was, and just a mile or so out of town, mom said "Ed, you'd better pull the car over, this baby is coming!" To which my frantic father famously replied, "Can't you just cross your legs?" "Ed, pull the car over! The baby's head is coming out!" And so I was born along the side of a road in the back seat of the car, with the aunts presiding.

Aunt Nellie features in many stories about mom learning to cook, as she was right next door. Mom would often run over for advice. The first time mom made Thanksgiving turkey, she asked how is the gravy made? Aunt Nellie told her to take the neck and boil it in some water, and save that water to use for the gravy. Mix with some flour and use to thicken for the gravy. Later she asked mom how the gravy came out. Not so good, mom reported. It was thin and gray and watery and had not much flavor. How did you make it, Aunt Nellie asked. I saved that neck water like you said, and I added flour to it, and it got a little thick, but it didn't have good color and it didn't have much taste. So Aunt Nellie naturally wondered, what had she done with the pan drippings? Oh, I threw those out. And here you have to picture Aunt Nellie's clenched fingertips flying up to her mouth, face scrunched in shock and dismay, as she squeals/screams/cries out oooooooooooohhhhhhhmmmmmnnnn! in grief for all that flavor thrown away. Many years later I would cook Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and labor carefully over the making of the gravy, which came out in perfect consistency and astonishing flavor, only to watch in horror after dinner as the friend jumped up from the table to announce: "The dog has been so good all through dinner he deserves a special treat!" He promptly filled a large bowl with kibble and poured three large ladles-full of my gravy over the kibble. Oooooooooooohhhhhhhmmmmmnnnn!

The list of amazing aunts is so long, it would take a book chapter to cover them all. There was of course Aunt Betty, mom's older sister and best friend. There were two by name of Anna Marie, one very short and quiet and one very tall and exuberant. Two by name of Rose: the one in Virginia, she of the French-toasted fruit sandwiches, and one in exotic Cleveland, who had insisted on taking shop class rather than home ec in high school, and who had met Albert Einstein while working in Washington, DC. There was an Aunt Mary Ann, whom my mom raised from a young age and my dad had liked to tease; Aunt Margie, throughout her life tireless in caring for her family and the ill and elderly around her; an Aunt Mary Kathryn who was so kind to us over many years of our family tragedy; and an Aunt Catherine, adventurous enough to go off to live in Texas, funny, and smart and beloved, as was Cleveland Rose, of my father.

That's just an intro to their names and a sketch of their ordering in constellations of my family sky. If you had a day or two, oh the stories I could tell! And that's not even touching on the cousin-of-mom-who-functioned-like-aunts, and the more distant great aunts...

The great-aunts are long gone. Seven of my nine aunts still survive, though some are in poor health. For most of these women, their careers were the home and family, though a few did have paying gigs as well. Even so, they were (and are) so different from one another, and collectively they gave me many examples of adult womanhood for examination and inspiration. The best of what I am able to do in nurturing others comes in part I am sure from what I absorbed from being in their presence. Amazing aunts, how sweet they are.

Comments are off for this post

Second Day of Christmas: Sisters and Cousins

Sisters and cousins - I was surrounded by, embedded in a web of these, growing up.

I grew up with two sisters, one a year-and-a-half younger, one four years older. Down the street from us lived our second cousins, also a family of three girls and three boys, the girls approximately the same ages as we were. My sisters and I were all in the marching band, as were the second cousins down the street. We had first cousins "across town" (a five minute walk). They too were in the marching band. J was the same age as my older sister, D a year older; and I was just a year younger than P.

Seven miles away in the town where my father grew up lived my Aunt Betty's family. Her three children were more the age my two oldest brothers. B, the youngest, worked summers at the concession stand of the public swimming pool. Clutching a precious nickel and dime or perhaps a quarter, making our way in dripping wet suits from poolside to the concession stand in the middle of the park under shade trees, it was always more special to get our candy bar or slice of pizza when B was behind the sliding screen window. Also, sometimes B gave us an extra slice of pizza (to share) on the house, which made us feel enormously privileged and fortunate. B's father was Italian - Italian! - and B had inherited his coloring and handsome features. In my Slovak world of studda bubbas, she was a bella stella.

There were a slew of other cousins we saw only on holidays or at family reunions - from Ohio and Virginia and Maryland, eighteen of them first cousins, as well as uncounted second cousins whose names and connections to ourselves we often had to relearn each year at reunion time. These were just the relatives on my mother's side. Cousins did not sprout quite like weeds on dad's side of the family but there was still a good crop - eight first cousins in Pittsburgh, Ohio, and by god, Texas! It boggled the mind to think we were related to someone who lived in Texas. It almost made it a real place.

We had a second cousin in Michigan, too. She always arrived with a full complement of Barbie dolls and exotic Barbie doll clothes whenever her family came back to visit (coming back to visit was what a lot of people who had gone "away" did, and did frequently, in lieu of more exciting travel options.) This is the cousin with whom we played Our Barbies Are Witches Who Can Make Their Boyfriends Clean House.

Photos of birthday parties from my young years are full of sisters, cousins, and a few non-relative friends. Weddings, which were a major form of social entertainment in the summers, were always large affairs because everyone was related to everyone else, and so everyone had to be invited. One cousin managed to marry a man with an equally large and mostly non-overlapping extended family-and-friends network, and their wedding list topped out at around 500 souls. The usual two sittings of family-style dinner service at the fire hall were not enough - it took three sittings to feed everyone, and some people had not eaten until well after the dancing had begun.

I moved away from, out of my web of sisters and cousins when I went off to college. I missed family reunions, weddings, births, First Communions, school plays - shared events and rituals of daily life that bonded us all together. I built a different kind of life for myself and it has been a satisfying one but I often miss that sense of connection and shared life experiences that made life growing up a cozy and comfortable (if often stifling as well) existence.

In recent years I have reconnected with some of my cousins. Much as we sometimes had to re-learn our names and relationships to each other at family reunions, in our adult life we have begun relearning what we can mean to each other. Sharing elder care experiences, in some cases, has been a trigger for a deeper bonding with a few.

All these cousins were in our lives because sisters in the generation(s) preceding ours had lived near one another and/or made the effort to stay in touch with extended family through reunions and visits back to "the old home place". For the third day of Christmas, I'll be mediating on those wonderful women - the aunts and the great-aunts.

Comments are off for this post

On The First Day Of Christmas: Memories of Mom

I wrapped a package of two books for a little nine-year-old girl yesterday: The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Island of the Blue Dolphins, two favorites from my younger days. There was always a book under the tree for me at Christmas time, and it was nice to pass along that memory and tradition. It was a treat to spend part of Christmas Eve with the enthusiastic young recipient of the books. She was quite absorbed with tracking Santa's progress on her iPad, dialing up his voicemail message, and checking and rechecking her naughty or nice level using a "finger scan" app. All of this brought to mind the letter to Santa I had written when I was nine, and that my mother so faithfully saved for so many years.

The little girl last night got an American Girl doll, much fancier than any doll I had ever known as a child. But the thrill and joy and wrap-around hugs lavished on the doll, and worries about what to name her, were all familiar. I remember the Christmas that Santa brought my "big baby doll", after mom and I had carefully looked her over in a toy store. I had not dared to hope for such a lovely baby doll but there she was on Christmas morning, wrapped in a soft pink blanket with a big pink satin bow. How I cried when I could not retie the bow properly, and how happy I was when mom made it all nice again for me!

My big baby doll (saved for me by mom, too), sans the long-gone pink satin ribbon.

There was another Christmas when my very best gift came in a black plastic garbage bag, because it was too big and bulky for mom to wrap properly. It was a brand new coat! In those days, I rarely got a new coat. There was an older sister ahead of me whose hand-me-downs were readily available. And if her wardrobe did not suffice, there were always the frequent donations from a better-off branch of cousins. They seemed to get new clothes every other day, and to stop wearing them when they got bored with them, rather than when they were torn, stained, or worn beyond repair. But this Christmas I got a brand new coat of my own. A "fur" coat, spotted like a leopard, with a hood trimmed in more brown "fur". I remember opening the bag, peering inside, shrieking with delight and immediately shutting the bag again - I could not believe it was true. I peeked in again and it was! it was true! If I had that coat in my possession still I would make a pillow out of it.

When I think of the book under the tree each year, and the amazing fur coat in a trash bag, I think that my mother saw me - saw me, her fifth of six children, the middle of three daughters, as a unique person with individual preferences and desires and needs. She was often overwhelmed, always overworked and tired and stressed, always trying to stretch an inadequate budget to feed and clothe her large brood of often ungrateful kids. She was not in any way a perfect mother - is there such a thing? - and she was not my friend, in the way that it seems to me the ideal of modern motherhood is often portrayed. But she loved each of us fiercely, loved each of us as her own and for our own selves. I was lucky to be so loved.


2 responses so far

Why You Should Write To Your Mother

Jul 21 2011 Published by under (if) Elder (why) Care, Geekalicious, How to Grow a Zuska

A thousand years ago, when I went off to college, my mother wrote me letters, because there was no such thing as text messaging.  Why, there wasn't even any email, if you can believe it!!! She wrote real, actual letters, sometimes as many as three in a week.  "You've got mail" meant there was a paper envelope lying in a physical mailbox.  I got mail, and I got packages from home, and I was the envy of everyone on my dorm floor.

Z-Mom wrote to me, and I wrote to her.  As I moved on to graduate school, and then all over the place for various and sundry postdocs and other jobs, I continued writing letters to her.  During these years, "long distance" phone bills became an irrelevance as competition introduced one rate for unlimited calling; tethered phones evolved into cordless things; cell phones appeared and then became ubiquitous and then turned into smart phones and now threaten to make what we came to call the "land line" obsolete.  Z-Mom and I always talked on the phone a lot, more after it got cheaper to do so, but even with phone calls, we never stopped writing to each other. PC's, of course, also appeared on the scene during this time - my senior thesis was typed on an electronic typewriter, my dissertation on a Macintosh Plus - and they too got cheaper, faster, and ubiquitous. And email came along with them.

At some point, even Z-mom got a computer at home, and an email address (incorporating the name of her favorite candy bar).  She was happy to receive pictures of her great-grandchildren, and jokes forwarded from some friends in town, but she never really took to sending emails.  So Z-mom and I kept writing to each other.  I had gotten in the habit of sending her a postcard from every place I went, even if I was only there for two days for some less than glamorous business trip.  Greetings from Ames, Iowa!...  I've been in Austin since yesterday...  Greetings from Fargo, North Dakota!...

Those are the actual (totally fascinating, I know) opening lines from postcards I sent to Z-mom in October of 1999, June of 2001, and November of 2001, respectively. I know this because, as it turns out, Z-mom has apparently saved just about every card and letter I've ever sent to her.  I can look back through them and trace my travels, observe the ups and downs of my life and work as reported to her, relive events and even whole vacations I'd sort of forgotten. I went to Cape Hatteras in 2002?  Oh yes...that's when those undated photos in the album are from!

The most hilarious postcard I've found so far, however, is not one I wrote.  It's one my ex sent to Z-mom in November of 1991 while we were living in Europe, during the month I was away from him working at my German boss's collaborator's lab in Israel.  It reads in part

[Zuska] will be gone for another 12 days or so.  At least we talk often by electronic mail, which takes only an hour or less to get there, so we can even discuss things back and forth in the same day.  I wish everyone had electronic mail, it is really quick and easy.

Electronic mail!  The brand spanking new form of communication!  Takes an hour or less to arrive!  In the beginning of that same year, my German boss-to-be had wanted to communicate with me via this fancy electronic mail but alas! we did not have such a thing in my lab at Duke yet.  So we had to arrange the details of my postdoc, arrival in Germany, and the apartment he was taking for me via the other available high tech form of communication...fax.

I love what Z-mom's cache of letters and postcards gives back to me.  When I was much younger, I religiously kept a daily diary from about age 7 or so to age 17.  Then I fell out of the habit.  Writing to Z-mom has been something of a substitute, I now see.  There's a whole series of postcards I sent her from travels in Europe, which are wonderful to have, since the ex got most of the photos.

Above all I am grateful that she wrote to me so much when I was an undergraduate, for by doing so she taught me the habit of writing letters, and the tangible joy a piece of mail can impart when you are lonely and away from your loved ones.  Sometimes now we talk on the phone two or three times in a day, but I still write to  her.  All her life she has always enjoyed getting and sorting the day's mail.  You might think that now she is in assisted living and no longer has to worry about dealing with bills and banking that the urgency of the daily mail would drop away, but you would be wrong.  She is still just as eager for each day's mail delivery, and it seems more important than ever that it should contain something other than Reader's Digest asking her to renew now.  Every holiday, no matter how small, was an excuse for her to send me a card when I was an undergraduate, and so now I return the favor.  I haunt the Hallmark display in the grocery store to see what crazy special holiday cards are up next, and I buy one, and I send it off.  I look for "just because" cards that might give her a laugh, because laughter is good for you.  I buy "series" notecards - spring, summer, fall, winter; numbers 1 through 4 of a whimsical bug and flower illustration - and send them off in series, so she can anticipate the next one.

I write to her so she will have mail, but I also write to her for myself.  Not because someday I'll get to read my cards and letters again, and remember oh yeah, 2011 was the summer I put in the climbing rosebush, but because writing to her is a way I stay connected to her, a way of emulating her, a way of saying "this is a part of you that is also a part of me."

Postcard from Paris

12 responses so far

The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Engineers

It came to pass that the engineers gathered at their most sacred place, near the river Charles, to seek learning from the wise ones.  And it happened that one of these said to another, “We are women in a man’s world, and we should stick together, and help each other out. We should build together, on the Rock of Amita.”  But the second said to the first, “No, for I am like unto the men myself, and will go in their guise, and learn their ways, and build my house upon their beachfront paradise, next to the all night Hooters and down the street from the Sports Emporium.  For it is more pleasing to be allowed to walk eight blocks to the beachfront between 4 and 6 a.m. and to work part-time at Hooters for minimum wage in the hopes that someday I will be invited to give a talk at Janelia Farm.  The winds blow shrill at the Rock of Amita; harpies take wing in the skies overhead; my legs are clean-shaven.”  And she cast the first away from her, and did take the guise of men, and strove to learn their ways, and built her house eight blocks back from the beachfront paradise.

Then the rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on the house; and the house of the first one did not fall, for it was founded on the Rock of Amita. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on the house of the second one; and it fell—and great was its fall.  For the men would not help her rebuild, and blamed her for building so poorly, and mocked her for her sadness at her loss, and told her that science doesn’t stop at 5 on Fridays, and she was cast out.

And she wandered, even as far as the Tobacco Road, and entered into the Duke’s house, and was given a seat at the far end of the table, and permitted the crumbs of the feasting.  But it came to pass that she found a wise teacher, and a holy book, and began anew to build, this time surely, upon the Rock of Amita, which can be found in many places.  And the wise teacher asked her one day, “How will it come to pass that the young build upon the rock rather than the sand?”  And she thought well to herself, and said, “Teach early, else it may be only by building upon the sand that one will ever come to build upon the rock. Many will be lost to the storms; some will repair and rebuild, even to the end of their days.  These I look upon with pity and understanding, for I once lived where they now dwell. Teach early, lest the young mistake the house 8 blocks back from the beachfront, next door to Hooters, as paradise, and clamor to build there, and are swept away in the storms.”

"Paradise," said the wise teacher, "is the opiate of the Engineers.

5 responses so far

Teach Your Children Well: Understanding Mansplaining

A friend of the blog recently let me know how understanding mansplaining is helping the children of England navigate today's world.

Scene:  A family home in Manchester, England.  Kitchen interior.  Mom is cooking, and pre-adolescent Son and Daughter are nearby.

Son:  Mom, how do new words get made?

Mom: Oh, well, lots of different ways.  Sometimes somebody just makes something up, and then their friends start using it, and then it catches on, and then everyone uses it.  Or sometimes an old word gets modified to describe something new.  Or sometimes two words get combined to describe something.  Here's an example I saw the other day in the New York Times: mansplaining.  It's a combination of man and explaining.

Son and Daughter: What does it mean?

Mom: It's when a man starts explaining, especially to women, how to do what they already know how to do, or how they are wrong about what they are actually right about.  Or they interrupt to give some small facts about something you are talking about that you know more about that he does.   Man explaining - mansplaining, is how the word is formed, and it means that annoying sort of totally unnecessary explaining done by men, usually to women, and often interrupting the woman when she was talking.  [See here and here for an elaboration.]

Son and Daughter: Okay.

Scene: The next day.  Out and about in the family car, kids in back seat, mom driving.

Daughter: Hey mom, did you know [story ensues about something that happened last week].

Son: [Interrupts Daughter and takes over narrative with his version.]

Daughter:  Hey!  Shut up! Stop mansplaining me!  [resumes her narrative]

Zuskateers, we can't say for sure that knowing the definition of mansplaining this early in life will have a profound impact on Son and Daughter as they grow up.  We can't say for sure that having the opportunity early in life to identify mansplaining in action in a relatively benign setting will make Daughter more likely to challenge it from now on, and/or Son less likely to engage in it.  But surely they both have more of a chance, now that they know what it is, than they did before. Yay kids!  Keep asking questions.

Sons, partake not ye of the mansplaining.  Daughters, when the mansplainer arriveth at thy very footstep, remember to callest out "Stop mansplaining me!"  The End.

Thanks to the family in Manchester for sharing this story with TSZ!

12 responses so far

MAD SCIENCE!!! or, Atoms for Peace and Fun with TRIGA

More than a thousand years ago, I was once an undergraduate.  A first-year, even. Liked trees, but my initial interest in forestry had been dampened by a job shadow day with some forest rangers who frankly told me parks and rec jobs were scarce and low paying, and government jobs were all about cutting down trees.  Set out to become an engineer because I was good at math, a few people important to me in my life had encouraged me that direction, and word on the street was that engineers got good jobs with high pay. Knew nothing about engineering.  Picked environmental engineering, because of the tree-love, and was quickly disappointed to discover it had more to do with sewers than trees.

Why I found nuclear engineering more attractive than environmental engineering is difficult to say.  A best girlfriend was majoring in it (and women were very scarce in engineering a thousand years ago, scarcer than today).  Plus, atoms! For peace!  Atoms and radiation were just so funky.

I'll tell you what. My nascent engineering self was forming right after TMI became the buzzword of the day, and here I don't mean "too much information".  But I still found the whole nuclear bit enormously compelling and sexy.  Get this!  A course where they let you run a freaking reactor!  Sign me up, baby!  You boys can go tinker with your circuits all day long in electrical engineering if you want.  Over here, we are splitting the fucking atom!  For those of us who were nuclear engineers, the thought that we were being trained to run something that could melt down or explode was freaking exciting.  I mean, we were 19.  What did we know?  We were gonna live forever.

I went critical at Penn State's Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, which recently had its 50th anniversary in service (now 55 years).  It's now a National Historical Landmark!  Check out the distinguished white dudes in the pic at the link.

According to a historical marker placed on the reactor site by the Penn State Alumni Association, "Penn State in 1955 became the first university licensed by the Atomic Energy Comission to operate a nuclear reactor as part of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's 'Atoms for Peace' program. Named for William Breazeale, Penn State's first professor of nuclear engineering, the reactor became a training and research tool for peaceful applications of atomic energy."

You can learn more about the reactor and its history here.

In the end, operating the reactor was not as big a thrill as I had anticipated, and as usual, the boys hogged the controls and shoved us girls aside, telling us it would be helpful if we did important bookkeeping tasks like writing down the numbers on the screen that some of the other more dweeby boys who had also been shoved aside were already writing down.  Bored as hell, we wandered around and went out to look again at the beautiful beyond description reactor pool.  Oh, Cerenkov radiation! You are so dreamy!  I felt like a GOD(DESS) (we were all male-identified in those days) looking down at the eerie blue reactor core.  I felt powerful and invincible thinking I could mince about there at the side of the reactor pool, some dozens of feet away from fuel rods packed with uranium where atoms were being split WHILE I STOOD THERE AND DID NOT DIE.  I felt I wanted to know the nucleus and its secrets and make it mine and control it and use it and, of course, do some good with it and help humanity and all that, but most of all I wanted the knowledge and power.

I did a senior thesis with a wise professor of nuclear engineering, Edward S. Kenney.  The very first and most important thing he taught me was to be afraid of radiation.  And never, ever, ever to lose that fear or to become overly comfortable in working with it.  He told me some stories of what could happen when one becomes too casual, careless, or comfortable in working with radiation.  Some of the stories were historical, and some were local.  He put the fear of the Lord of Radiation in me.  It was a great good gift.  The other gifts he gave me in that senior thesis year were these:  How to keep records. How to use the scientific literature.  How to contact a vendor to ask for samples.  How to approach a colleague at another campus for a possible collaboration.  (Even though he already had an ongoing collaboration, he had me present my tiny little project and talk about how it might fit in with Potential Collaborator's.)  How to look at "stuff", and frame it in a context, and understand it as data, and begin to interpret it, and then to draw conclusions.  How to tell the story of a year of work in a way that made sense to people who weren't with me every day.

He gave me knowledge and power.  Not the kind I thought I was lusting after at the side of the reactor pool.  Most of the time I did not feel sexy and invincible, everything felt like drudgery and confusing and boring and frightening and lonely and insignificant and there was no incredible blue light and I didn't split any atoms.  I won an award, though, for the honors senior thesis in engineering science.  I was on my way to becoming a real engineer, a real scientist, with an honest love for knowledge and some shaky beginning grasp of the ethical responsibility, to one's self and others, that came with its power.

Some years later, I was with a group of non-scientist friends.  Women's studies friends. We were talking about how some scientists can lose sight of the ethics involved in their work.  How things can go horribly wrong.  We had all just recently read Carol Cohn's excellent article "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals".  Some present felt that it was a problem of masculinity and "mine is bigger".  The Manhattan project was cited as a particular example.  How could anyone become so enamored of working with such a horrible technology, they said.  Men cannot give birth, so they built a bomb.  I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds, and all that. Women are more in harmony with nature.  There was more talk like that, a thousand years ago. Evil masculinity was destroying the world, and the feminine principle would save it, and gender essentialism was not being as closely scrutinized as it ought to have been.

I had been listening a lot, because I was not a Feminist Expert.  But now they were talking science, and lust for power, and this I knew about.  I spoke up.  I talked about the Penn State reactor, the seductiveness of Cerenkov radiation's sapphire glow, the Superwoman theme playing in the brain and the blood coursing just a bit faster in the veins.  That this powerful excitement and love, wanting to know, is an inspiration for scientists to work hard.  I said anyone can be seduced by science.  I meant to say more, but at this point everyone was looking at me oddly.  It was as if they had all been chatting away, believing themselves to be among friends, and then I tore away the mask - the MAD SCIENTIST revealed!!!!  MWAH HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!

I am still not sure how it is that I came to love science and engineering so, while nearly all my feminist friends in that room had learned to look upon my love objects as sources of fear and loathing.  I don't know how I was so fortunate as to learn from those same friends that science and engineering, just like any other subject in the academy, could be subjected to a critical feminist analysis and be the better for it, when most people I knew in science and engineering thought their fields were beyond reproach, especially from shrill feminazi harpies. I only know that feminism made me a better scientist.  I could be a feminist without science, but I'm forever grateful I wasn't one of the many women turned away and taught to fear and loathe what is rightly theirs to love.

A feminist scientist is, in truth, neither mad nor a harpy.  I am reminded of an old Far Side cartoon a friend long had hanging on her refrigerator.  A friendly looking, bespectacled, beehived therapist takes notes as a cow lies on the couch next to her.  The cow says, "Maybe it's not me, you know?  Maybe it's the rest of the herd that's insane."  Indeed. Herd, take note:  You have issues.  It's time to deal.

Happy Halloween, all you mad harpy feminazi scientists and engineers out there!

8 responses so far

How To Grow A Zuska

Aug 27 2010 Published by under How to Grow a Zuska, Tales From The Coal Patch

Anyone can be a Zuskateer if they want - many of you are, and I thank you for reading!  Perhaps some of you more adventurous folk look at your young ones, picture  them in a onesie emblazoned "Future Zuskateer!" and wonder "just how the heck did she turn out that way anyhow?"  Being childfree myself, I am the last person in the world to turn to for childrearing advice.  Nevertheless, I have spent some time pondering the positive things my parents did for me, and at the top of any such list would be this: valuing books.

"Disposable income" there was not much to speak of, but we always had books in the house.  Not a huge library, but enough to justify, at some point, my parents purchasing a bookshelf.  Back in the olden days, when people still read actual books printed on paper, men used to travel door-to-door as encyclopedia salesmen, exhorting working class families to purchase encyclopedia sets so that the poor kids could learn.  My parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia, and the Childcraft books, and the Grosset & Dunlap Companion Library two-in-one books.  We had a raft of Dr. Seuss books and other small story books for small children - I remember being particularly fond of "Splish, Splash, and Splush", a book about some ducklings afraid to swim, who head off to the pond with rainboots and umbrellas. The water strips them of their fear-born coping mechanisms and voila!  Swimming!!!  The wise mother duck allows them to clutch their useless umbrellas and figure out for themselves that they like swimming - unlike my dad's father, who taught him to swim by repeatedly throwing him in the Monongahela River until, in self-defense, he swam.

But my most favorite book, when I was little, was this one.   Continue Reading »

31 responses so far