Saturday, September 23, 2006

Somebody Stop Me...

Okay, I've done it, what I'd promised myself I wouldn't do. I resisted the temptation as long as I could.

I bought an iPod!

I've become a mass consumer. I've fallen prey to the hype.

Not only did I buy an iPod, I bought iPod accessories!

Oh-my-god! I'm accessorizing an iPod!

I don't even accessorize my outfits and here I am buying "things" to make my iPod experience more enjoyable and intrusive.

Let me explain myself more clearly before I descend into hysteria. I really like podcasts. That's often how I receive my news blurbs (I subscribe to both ABC News and CBS News podcasts); I also like to download audio books ( and other audio and video. One of my other favorites is a general site,, where I can pick and choose what I want from a wide variety of genres and interests. Podcast has a good list of literature sites; my favorite is a Creative Nonfiction site (Podlit) where I can listen to Lee Gutkind and Natalie Goldberg discuss issues in this genre. Since I teach creative nonfiction in my advanced comp classes, I'm interested in hearing what the "masters" have to say. I'm also interested in creating podcasts for an online class I'm planning for next semester, so I've immersed myself in learning everything I can about them.

So, I bought a 30G video iPod from the Apple Store--but, because I wasn't sure I would like it or use it much, I bought a refurbished iPod. It cost me loads less and, if I decide the technology is for me, I can always invest in a more expensive one later. But I also bought (from, another favorite shopping site) an iBlast, which is a speaker system that sounds great and charges the iPod while I'm listening to it, and a tuner for my car so I don't have to change out CDs all the time. Changing CDs in my car is cumbersome--I can get them out, but I can't get them in. This way (as I reasoned it), I can listen to my music without having to carry all those CDs around with me; in addition, I can view video news broadcasts and movies (not when I'm driving, of course!) without having to carry around DVDs or a television.

It all sounds logical, but I'm a great rationalizer. I can convince myself that something is great if I really need to. Only time will tell, though, if this really is a good investment of my hard-earned disposable income. I did manage to get everything transferred (or "synched" in the iPod lingo) and I did listen to one of the podcasts from the Bill Moyers' NPR series on "Faith and Reason" as I fell asleep last night. I downloaded some video from [adultswim] and watched the performances of a few rap artists (something I'm not usually inclined to do, unless the rapper is my son, Daniel). So maybe this investment will prove beneficial. Maybe it will broaden my horizons. Who knows?

Does anyone know of a support group for iPod dependency, in case I get too wrapped up in this? I know me--I have a knitting obsession already; I don't need another obsession.

So, I just want you to know, if you say "hello" to me and I don't respond, I'm probably plugged in to my iPod. Tap me on the shoulder, wave your hands in front of my face, or yank the earphones out. I'm not ignoring you, I'm wired.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

I Owe My Soul to the Family Store (of stories)

I open the door of the china cabinet to retrieve a teapot and a porcelain cup and saucer. Tea time is when I relax and I like to make it special, since I do it so seldom.

As I reach in to get the necessary tea tools, I spy the Quaker Man, a doll I’ve had as long as I can remember. It is part of a set—my older sister has his female companion—that my father brought back for us when he returned from his four-year Army stint. Dressed in his German folk costume, Quaker Man is moth-eaten and shabby, from his black, broad-brimmed hat, to his claret coat, to his orange vest and gray flannel pants. His poor socks are so faded and dingy white. His shoes, if I remember correctly, were black, but I have no idea where they are. I probably lost them in my severe neglect. Until I bought my house and unpacked him, he languished in a box in a bathroom closet for three years.

I remove him from his domed display and take a good look at him. For the first time, I notice he also sports an off-white bow tie. Such a jaunty touch and one that I never noticed in the 50+ years he’s been in the family.

I wonder why I keep him, but, in the same thought, I smile, remembering how my father ended up in Germany to begin with. The story is a family heirloom, one my mother delights in telling and one my father never contradicts. Prompt her just a little and she will tell it with a sparkle in her eye, while my father sits stoically; the only sign of his annoyance may be an increase in the television’s volume in a vain attempt to drown her out.

As she tells it, when my sister and I were very young (around ages 2 and 1, respectively), my parents were separated. My mother was standing with us, waiting on a trolley to take us back to our Aunt Claire’s (not really my aunt) where we were living. She had twenty cents in her purse, enough to get us home. My father, who was working as a lens grinder at the time, was not giving her any money for our support. And, to top it off, he had given her engagement ring to another woman (why he had her ring is something that has never been explained, adequately, to me).

My mother was furious. She didn’t know how to make my father give her money for us. We were sick; we needed medicine. We had just been to the doctor and both my sister and I had colds. Mother didn’t have the money to fill the prescriptions and she was, as she says, at the end of her rope. As we were standing there, she noticed an Army recruiting station across the street. At that very moment, she says, she had a most brilliant idea.

My mother is proof that level of education does not equal smarts. She never graduated from high school, but she’s the smartest person I know. She marched us across the street to the Army recruiting station. Her question to the recruiter was straightforward: how could she go about having my father drafted?

This was a risky move—it was 1952, during the Korean Conflict. My mother was taking a big chance; my father could have been sent to a very dangerous place. She didn’t want him hurt; she just wanted him to suffer. The recruiter questioned my mother regarding her situation. Was our father supporting us? No. He patted my mother’s arm and said, “Leave it to me.”

And, so, my father was drafted and, because he had dependents, he was sent to Germany instead of Korea. Yes, it was difficult—he’ll at least admit to that. But, at the same time, he learned to snow ski and he and my mother had time to work out their differences through the mail. My mother received her support through a monthly allotment from the Army. Everybody was (mostly) happy. It must have had an overall positive effect; they’ve been married for 58 years (this October) and they have ten children, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Certainly, the situation caused some tension in my father’s family. When his father died, my parents had to go through my grandfather’s papers and personal effects. In my grandfather’s desk, my father found a piece of paper with this one line penned on it: “The damn fool let her put him in the Army.” That probably explains why, throughout their marriage, my grandfather called my mother “Jo Anne,” not “Joan,” which is her name. That has to mean something.

Many, many years later, at Christmas, my father brought in a huge box that contained my mother’s present. She unwrapped the first box, which led to another box, which led to another box, until, about ten boxes later, she retrieved the last box. She opened it and, there in red velvet, was a half-caret engagement ring.

Sometimes, I think my parents held on out of spite; other times, I think they’ve stayed together because neither of them wants to be the one to give up. I don’t know why they’ve endured or how they’ve endured and I’m not sure they’ve always been the best representatives of marriage on the planet. Whatever the reason, they have managed to make their relationship work and I’m glad they are my parents.

As with all family stories, I take this one with a gallon of salt. I don’t know if my father doesn’t contradict the details because he doesn’t remember or if he doesn’t want to expose my mother’s story as a fraud. I have to think it’s mostly true, since so much of their life together hinges on that one incident. As legends go, it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.

As for the doll, I sometimes think I should give him away or retire him to another box. But he is a constant reminder that I can always count on my mother for another story. And, with every story, I learn a little more about what makes me the person I am.

Note: To any of my students who read this, this is my attempt at a portrait/personal essay. It is only a model and is not representative of how I think your essay should be written.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Short People

I'm not easily startled by news announcers; I've seen and heard too much on network news, so very little surprises me these days. But, the other day, I heard something that made me put my coffee cup down and sit up really straight.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I reconsidered what the announcer said: "Some doctors are now treating shortness as a disease." Pardon me? Shortness as a disease? Now, I'm not consulting a dictionary here, but I thought a "disease" was something that was debilitating, life-threatening, and/or requiring medication. Somehow, in my mind, "shortness" doesn't quite measure up (ha ha).

My incredulity might be better understood if you knew that I'm 4'9" tall (yes, "tall"). While "shortness" has served me well as a topic of conversation with strangers in elevators, it hasn't seemed to affect my view of who I am. For some reason, I don't equate my height with my abilities or my worthiness. Call me crazy, but I think a person is more that a measurement chalked up on a doorframe (just so you know, my parents never did that to their 10 children). Where my height is a disadvantage--reaching high shelves or cabinets--society has provided a solution (it's called a "ladder"). In my own home and office, I don't put things where I can't reach them. I'm a sensible person.

When I was about a year old, so the story goes, my mother became concerned because I wasn't gaining weight and I wasn't growing. She schlepped me to a doctor who ran every test he could. At the follow-up conference, the doctor asked her, "How tall are you?" My mother replied, "Five feet." The doctor smiled and said, "There's the answer to your question. She inherited your genes."

Perhaps I overcompensated by studying hard and working on my smartness factor, but, I have to honestly say, that I don't think about my height unless someone calls it to my attention. I don't go around wishing that people would treat me like a "tall" person; it doesn't occur to me that it's a "problem" for me--other people seem to have problems with it, though.

And I think that's why parents want doctors to treat shortness as a disease--it's not the kids who usually have trouble with height, it's parents. They don't want their sons to be passed over (sorry) for promotions at work; they want their sons to play basketball and get those scholarships.

For women, maybe, shortness works favorably (or not). Some people think we need to be protected; some men think that, because we're petite, we're pushovers (in more ways than one); some women might think we won't stand up (sorry, again) for ourselves. People have weird ideas about other people--if we're not judged by our height, we'll be judged by our gender or color or religion or anything that anyone finds objectionable/different/strange.

But my concern goes beyond this whole judgment thing. If we start engineering height, what's next? Eye color? Intelligence? Physical beauty? Does the name "Dr. Mengele" come to mind? We've already begun in vitro procedures to eliminate or reduce a fetus's pre-birth conditions, such as heart problems. I don't think this is wrong, especially if it increases a fetus's chances for a birth/childhood free from constant medical treatment. But these other qualities are aesthetic, not medical. Having a child who's chance for making the NBA increases doesn't seem as crucial as having a healthy child.

Yeah, I've heard about those surveys that say that short men are frequently passed over for promotions, that people perceive them as weaker, etc. I say it's all in their heads. The best treatment for "height deficiency" is a healthy self-esteem, especially in parents.

As for me, I'm often tempted to turn the tables on those strangers who ask me about my height. I'd like to ask them "How much do you weigh?" or "What's your IQ?" and see how they like such a personal and/or irrelevant question. But, you know, most of them wouldn't get it. I'm not out to change the world; I'm just working on myself.