Attention Non-Christian Friends: You’re Getting a Card, Too!

I never make it through my Christmas card list.  Every year I try, every year I fail.  If I start too early, I feel like a department store putting Santa out before Halloween.  The news in the cards becomes outdated. Then I don’t want to send them. If I start too late, they never make it to the mailbox.

I’m old-fashioned about the idea of a Christmas card–they remind me of a time when people used actual correspondence and had certain levels of etiquette about such things. I wax nostalgic about a tangible piece of mail that does not contain a bill or coupons for products I don’t use. I still get junk mail dating back to the time when we thought it was a very funny practical joke to sign each other up for mailing lists just to be obnoxious. I bet the rainforest thought that was pretty obnoxious. Someone signed me up under the name “Jon Shankenheimer.”  He gets a lot of college offers at my address.

Anyway, every year, I sit down with Card Number 1, and write an amazing letter, then put it in a pile.  For reasons unknown to me, I can’t mail Card #1 until all the cards are done and since they are never done, they never get mailed. Sometime around the Fourth of July I find the stack and toss it. Or I’ll pick one or two finished cards from the pile and mail them like the winning entry of the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes to people who truly get the essence of my mind.  They can enjoy my card in time for the summer solstice. Two days later, that person will call me because they can’t read my writing anyway. So much for Dickensian calligraphy.

On a good year, I can make it to the D’s in my address book. Some years I try to be fair and start at the Z’s and go backwards thinking of the kids who never got to be line leader due to the cruelty of alphabetization. In such years, I can almost always make it to the Y’s or even W or V, but not much further.  M and N are always left out.

This year, I have a very different strategy, which I will begin this week. I’m going to do my cards in order of religion, starting with all the non-Christians first. This, I think, makes the most sense, because I want everyone to feel included in the holiday season, taking part in “American Christmas,” which was created by Macy and enjoyed by us all. Consumerism transcends religion, after all, because if the holidays were really about God, we’d forgo the Black Friday sales and spend more time serving our fellow man. So, why not include non-Christians and secular Americans in the fun, too?

The order of operations for cards:

I’m starting with all my Jewish and Hindu friends.  Why? Well, because Jews have been oppressed for thousands of years, and so they always get my respect and admiration. They deserve a card, even if it has Jesus or Santa on it. Hindus come in close second because they get to be born again, so if I don’t finish, I always get a second chance with them.

Buddhists will be third–not because I love them less, and it’s true, they also get a second crack at life which helps me better deal with my procrastination, but they also spend such a great deal of time getting rid of desire for material things. I fear a Christmas card might just be clutter.  Still, I think my Buddhist friends will appreciate the sentiment behind the cards, even if it messes with their inner zen.

Muslims come next. They have lots of cool holidays so they may not need ours, but since most of their holidays require superhuman feats of sacrifice, like 40 days of fasting and prayer while watching other people eat, they are on my most-respected list. That’s hard-core prayer and contemplation. They definitely get a card. Maybe two.

I have a few Jehovah’s witnesses on the list. They’re a tough group, because a Christmas card would actually offend them. They don’t technically celebrate the holiday, though, because they feel such commercialism aggrandizes people above God (true), and we don’t even know when the historical Jesus was born–it was most likely in spring, astronomers tell us–so why have a party to give ourselves presents during the time of the winter solstace-based Roman-conquest holiday of Festivus?  It doesn’t make sense to them.  And as such, they do not get cards commemorating holidays of Roman conquest, presents, trees given to us by German pagans and awesome yule log cakes made by French bakers.  But I found a loophole.  You can give a Jehovah’s present a gift out of friendship and appreciation, if it does not lift the individual above the Lord.  So, this is the spirit of my cards.  “Hey, you’re a great friend.”

Then, if I make it that far, I’ll tackle the list of cards to my Christian and secular friends.  They’ll be really busy shopping and wrapping, so they won’t have time to read the cards right away anyway.  But if I don’t get that far, as usual, I’ll consider stealing a screen shot of an Ansel Adams photo and posting a card on Facebook.  It’ll be that or mailing out the summer solstice cards once again.  I still have three weeks–I’m doing the best I can. We’ll see how it goes.

Life Hacks: How to Survive without Any Common Sense Whatsoever

I have no common sense. If Thomas Paine gave me an autographed copy of his opus, I’d still lack common sense. Some would say this makes me creative. People like me would say this, for example. Others would say this makes me a disaster of epic proportion waiting to destroy the universe. My husband would say that. We think differently.

We ran into this while building a greenhouse two autumns ago. I miss that greenhouse–I didn’t get to bring it with me when we moved. Now that the farms are asleep for the winter and I have not yet achieved self-sufficiency on this new plot of land, I must go to the regular store. Sadness.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to bring my greenhouse–I did. When I ordered the “kit” I didn’t know it would come in 496 pieces, because I don’t have common sense.  A normal person would’ve looked at the flat box with the Chinese characters (because I’ve now studied enough Mandarin to realize it said “we laugh at your attempts to assemble this because we are paid slave wages”) and said, “That’s going to be a bitch to put together.” Not me. I said, “Herbs in the winter.”  If the directions had been in some Asian language, I’d have been able to puzzle through it, but the 3×5 instruction card had pictures and arrows which required spatial recognition and common sense. Game over.

By the time I had all 496 pieces spread alphabetically across the lawn, I didn’t think the greenhouse would ever emerge.  It nearly ended our marriage. In the end, it took three of us to defeat–one academic sans common sense (me), one ex-military jack of all trades turned entrepreneur (my husband) and one machinist (the kindly neighbor). It was so secured with bolts, wires, duct tape, and salvaged nails that it was going nowhere. It could have doubled as the neighborhood bomb shelter if it weren’t so small. It would be staying right where it was.

I tried to contribute to the assembly process, but it was out of my league.  I’m handy. I refinished the downstairs after the Great Flood. I used the Sinatra method, mind you, “I did it my way,” because the right way would’ve required common sense–I’m not above measuring boards for a shelf using a piece of dental floss if it’s within reach. I used a jig saw to router out some moulding when I was lacking the right tool. It’s shady, I admit, but it works. My husband can’t watch, because he does things “right.”

The greenhouse was mocking me. So, I did what comes naturally–I pretended to work, making progressively fewer logical moves descending into the ridiculous. Things “someone with no common sense” would ever do. Things designed to attract Rusty’s attention.  I knew that sooner or later his staff sergeant intuition would detect a ripple in the force and he’d come over to provide the leadership I needed to take that hill. I mean assemble that greenhouse.

This strategy, incidentally, works in classy department stores when you can’t get assistance–try it this holiday season. I call it the “May I help you?” move.  Walk around befuddled and utterly confused. Touch everything, starting with the expensive stuff first.  In less than thirty seconds, the salesperson who had spent the last half-hour ignoring you will be at your side serving you as if you were the King or Queen of England. Especially if you are underdressed looking like you might rob the place.

This choreographed move works well for husbands who need that sense of order, too. Most specifically leadership husbands with military backgrounds. Sometimes it backfires when I am focusing on the job at hand but my appearance of disorder puts me on his radar.  Mowing the lawn, for example. He likes straight lines. I circle and zig-zag. As such, I have been fired Trump-style from mowing.

I am permitted to build stuff, however, as long as Rusty doesn’t have to watch. He must be far removed my lack of systems, efficiency, analytics and process, and at the end, he’ll emerge and say, “That came out nice!”

Yes, he’s the entrepreneur and I’m the useless academic. I’d have been the first one purged by Stalin. “What do you do for society?” would be the question.

“I think and I write.” I’d reply.

“Yes, but can you manufacture a greenhouse and contribute to society?” Game over. Pack a warm coat for that train to Siberia.

Studying the art of vision is fascinating–when I create, it’s as if the pieces come to life and tell me what they want to become–my plan twists, pivots, morphs, and emerges–it’s always different from my original intent. At least twice during every project I want to burn it, toss it, smash it and start again. I resist the urge, and end up with a work that transcends my original intent.

My husband starts with a plan, executes the plan, and finishes the plan. When it’s done, the results are what he intended; effective, brilliant, efficient, and able to be successfully replicated a million times by using “the system.” It’s probably why he’s the entrepreneur.

Usually our thinking styles, left to percolate in their own spheres, unite and produce something fantastic. This time we were in trouble. Thankfully, the machinist neighbor looked out his window–he couldn’t help it–it was a small neighborhood–and bailed us out to the tune of a case of Mountain Dew which I left gratefully on his doorstep the next morning like an offering to the gods.

No more greenhouse kits for me. When I build the next one this spring, I’ll do it from scratch. Just some posts and a makeshift foundation built on some 4×4’s reinforced with whatever I can find.  I’ll hack it together until I get a rectangle-ish looking building covered with polycarbonate of one sort or another. And I’ll do it when nobody’s home, because I’m going to Picasso this thing out of the dust and it’s not going to be a pretty process. When it is finished, however, it’ll give me the winter of herbs and veggies I desire.

That greenhouse, along with other household projects, made me realize that it takes both sides–the yin and the yang–to make the circle of life complete. We can be extremes, but we must meet in the middle. My husband and I both have our sides. We are both right. And wrong. Simultaneously. Maybe that’s what life is all about–learning to balance those extremes and create a whole that is more than the sum of the parts.

This winter, I can go to the grocery store while I wait for the farm to wake up, and I can take occasional Saturday trips to the farmer’s market across the state. Since I’ve been in the farm and small market loop so long, I’ve noticed how funny the grocery store really is. It’s stocked to the brim with stupid stuff. Stuff that I will never buy, and have, in fact, decided to mock. But that will be the topic of the next post.


Avert Disaster: Organize for the Holidays!

Thanksgiving snuck up on me. It was a busy year–buying and selling a house, doing the staging, showing, and construction leading up to the sale/purchase, moving, dealing with the “finer points of education reform,” writing, creating, blogging, supporting my husband in expanding our business and converting the adult kickboxing portion to the franchise (coming to a city near you). All on top of trying to run my end of the household simultaneously.

They say that women can have it all. That’s not true. There are only 24 hours in a day and choices must be made with values prioritized. I try to be creative about time management–never easy for me. I’ve settled for getting up at 4AM to be productive when there are no possible distractions around. The East Coast is asleep, the West Coast just went to bed, and the only people awake are on the other side of the globe, and they’re usually at work. This is the best system for me in organizing and reining in my ADHD and keeping things in check before they take on a life of their own.

Thanksgiving clearly got away from me.  Last weekend, it occurred to me that I should procure a turkey. Sometimes I forget about this step, being a vegetarian and all. There have been years where I either forgot the turkey until a couple of days before Thanksgiving, or if I purchased it in advance (which I usually remember to do after being slapped in the face with a dozen sale fliers advising me that dead turkey season is upon us) I invariably forget to take it out of the freezer.

For those of you who cook, you know this is why the Butterball Hotline was invented–to deal with simpletons like me.  Because you simply cannot thaw out a million pound carcass overnight. I’ve done lots of shady things. I’ve put it in warm water (bacteria can kill you). I’ve left it on the counter overnight (another version of bacterial Russian Roulette). I’ve even hired a group of kids to breathe on the turkey. Even then, it takes a long time to thaw. I’ve been lucky.

Holiday planning is important. 

Holidays are tough for many people. Even though I have been especially blessed this year, the holidays will cause stress if not well planned.

Nearly forgetting about Thanksgiving caused a scramble.  But in the end, I got to bring together a branch of family that doesn’t often get together. I got to hike in the woods with Declan. Both are important.

For Christmas and New Years, though, I need to step up the pace and plan. I must shop. I must bake and cook to ensure everyone gets their favorites. I must prep and send boxes, bags, baskets, and gifts, so they GET there by the right dates, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Russian New Year.

Incidentally, that’s why I like my Buddhist and Hindu friends the best–first of all, December 25th is irrelevant, so I can totally be late if I want, and they have a lot of lives to begin with, so my lack of attention to the calendar means nothing. Maybe they’ll need my gift more in the next life anyway. My Jewish friends come in close second, because if I plan to get something there by Day One of Hanukkah, I have seven days to screw up and still be on time. The Russians are a close third since they hail from a country where they had to change their holiday from Christmas to New Year’s to avoid persecution. They’re very forgiving. It’s just the Christians that keep me on task.

And there are a lot of them. So I must be prepared.

I need a strategy. I need a list.

Then, I must reduce that list–we have too much crap in this world anyway. Best not to get carried away. And while “three carbon credits have just been purchased in your honor” isn’t really an ideal gift for kids, I can pull it off for my environmentalist sister. Parents always say they don’t want anything but quality time. That’s worth a try. And my husband wants a tow hitch now that we live in the sticks. I’m not really sure how to steal his Jeep for two days without him noticing, though. I guess I could draft a fake police report and tell him I saw two farmers in the driveway with a slim jim–I couldn’t fight them off because of their guard cow.  But that would cause him stress. And the holidays are about reducing stress.

Here’s my strategy: 

1. Buy less–create joy with experiences and quality time, both of which are far more valuable commodities these days.

2. Handwrite cards–reconnect with people and enjoy the lost art of hand-written correspondence. I’ll need discipline as well as a touch of forgiveness from friends because my handwriting is truly awful.

3. Create a calendar and checklist–making sure I get everything out on time. The post office trip has always been my worst enemy.

4. Reduce the list by 50%–make the favorite candies, fudges, cookies, and breads. The canning is done. Sometimes I go overboard, so, this year, I’m making a few key favorites, and that’s that.

5. Relax.  No perfect tablescape is worth losing the time to enjoy the holiday, unless you are Martha Stewart. But Martha has interns and I do not. So, this year, since I’m getting a late start, I’m going to schedule in all the things I absolutely must do and cross off the ones I do not. End of story.

Considering that planning and organization is a part-time job itself, no wonder so many people say they dread the holidays. That’s sad. I love the holidays–the music, the wonder, the tradition, the joy.  Best to keep it that way.  Planning and preparation will help me do just that!


I’ve organized a lot of my material on Learnist boards. I created some of these to get my own mind in gear, but I hope you find them useful. Here are a few resources:

Organizing for the Holidays: This was my attempt to avoid procrastinating.

Going Green: Waste-Free Holidays: I truly believe in this, but I’m struggling to get over the tradition of wrapping paper. Maybe I’ll evolve.

Frugal Holidays: There have been years where frugal was the only option. Those years  have been a gift. They have created my happiest memories.

Gift Baskets Galore: This board is by blogger and Mom Colleen Sullivan. I love it because gift baskets make me think about the recipient for longer–they show love.

Holiday Food Gifts: This board is by Lauren Atkins Budde. I have always done “gifts in a jar,” canned foods, and homemade candies. I’m glad Lauren put this together.

Why We Can Never Be Martha Stewart: You might wonder if I’m serious about this board, but the truth is I hold nothing but the highest reverence for Martha, who shows women that independence and domesticity can reside in the same sphere. I think I’ll write an entire post about her soon.



Black-listing Friday: Getting Back to What Matters

Christmas appeared early this year in our local stores–about three weeks before the Fourth of July, I think. It’s not that I don’t love the site of a freshly-decorated fake tree with a pine-smelling air freshener trying to convince me it’s real–I do, don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff.  I love mistletoe and wilted cranberries alternating with stale popcorn strung in strands wrapped around light poles.  I love walking down Fifth Avenue looking at the outrageous perfection of window displays planned months in advance and revealed for the season. I love knowing that the largest tree in the world has been hunted down, exterminated, and will be waiting for me in Rockefeller plaza if I get a chance to get down to see it, which I used to try to do annually but haven’t done for some time.

I love all the trimmings of the American Consumer Christmas that was created in tandem by Coca Cola’s plump carbonation-consuming Santa and marketing genius W.H. Macy–the first great entrepreneur to give St. Nick an emolument for sitting in his department store training kids to want stuff on the occasion of the birth of someone else. And then to be ballsy enough to have a parade in honor of that desire. That’s America! And who doesn’t love the movies–the Bing, the Jimmy Stewart, the “Christmas Story” 24-hour marathon. Because I can watch it twelve times. It’s a cult classic.

I don’t mind the secular side of Christmas, or the leftover relics of other holidays so intelligently disguised by the Holy Roman Empire–I love the German Christmas tree, the Yule Log, and the fact that the mistletoe was actually a fertility ritual. I’m even willing to forgive the fact that in the year 350 the Roman Catholic Pope Julius I picked the date of Christmas to coincide with everyone else’s holidays irregardless of the historical birth of Jesus, just to make it easier and more convenient for other religions to convert and still keep their celebrations in tact.

I want to share this holiday spirit with everyone–religious, secular, Christian, non Christian–it’s the season of awesome carols (also a pre-Christian tradition, I might add, but I’ll steal a good song like Vanilla Ice lifting Freddie Mercury when it presents itself). It’s the season of million-calorie egg nog.  It’s the season to give cards, token gifts, and smiles–even to the people we don’t like. They all seem a little nicer to me. And that’s a good thing…


Black Friday.

This is a tradition I just can’t wrap my head around.  I didn’t mind so much when it was the stores opening a bit early to publicize a few doorbuster sales.  But then it got vicious. Stores opening earlier. Stores staying open all night. People fighting over the last Whatever’s Hot That Season and selling it on Ebay for ten times the cost. Almost all of the “seven deadly sins” wrapped up in a – bow for the news coverage to see. One person reported to me that he had to go to Black Friday training to be permitted to work the all-nighter, because stores taught techniques in loss-aversion and crowd control.

Let me get this right–we have to train employees in law enforcement so they can deal with thieving, pushing crowds the day after Thanksgiving–the holiday of gratitude? Workers need to learn how to mediate disputes between people fighting over consumer goods at rock-bottom prices made in countries that are underpaying poorly treated workers? In honor of love and spirituality?

I pause to think.

One year, I did take part in Black Friday–I didn’t set my clock. I’m naturally awake at Dumb O’Clock in the morning.  The reason I decided to venture out was because I lived in the city near the store. We were really struggling that year–we were building a business–the entrepreneurial spirit is never quite as glamorous as one thinks–the Great Recession hit hard, and there was so much uncertainty in the air. I was flat broke and my step-daughter’s holiday list was on the table. I went out to one store, and got the simple things–as many as I could so that I’d have something to wrap under the tree. Things made in countries by underpaid workers made available to me at rock bottom prices.

I started thinking of a time before Black Friday existed. I was somewhere around eight years old.  My father was out of work during that generation’s Great Recession, but there wouldn’t have been box stores offering huge sales at that time, and if there were, my mom would have had to make choices between things like food or presents.  Somehow, there were presents. The gift I remember most was a radio. I now know this came from a tag sale, and it was broken.  It only got one channel–the Spanish station. I think my mother was upset, but I loved the Spanish station–I still love it today.  Por eso, hablo espanol bastante bien, claro. 

Because the things we truly love cannot be measured by money, sales, or consumerism.

As a child, that Christmas was just like any other Christmas–family, community, and fun. Community was much closer in those days. Friends stepped in and helped. They were there in person because computers did not exist. When there was no food, food appeared, when there was no money, it magically grew in the Christmas cactus. When someone was sick, people came and took the kids and gave parents the break they needed.

This is the essence of the holidays and Christmas seasons I remember. My friends Karen, LIsa, and Cheryl–how we used to make Christmas crafts together. All my parents’ friends and their circles of guitars. The traditions at the church and the houses of the people with whom I grew up. As we got older we sang in the choirs. As we got older still, the last people awake and still coherent enough to read the words on the page had to go back to the late Mass to sight sing Latin a capella…I miss that. And you can bet this holiday season, I’ll throw on the sacred music, even if I don’t always land in church in person.

Black Friday–taking employees away from their families and communities–is the opposite of this feeling of warmth I remember.  Although I caved to Black Friday that one year due to the year of fear and uncertainty for my family and for many Americans–I will not be doing it again.

This year, Thanksgiving will be small and peaceful. I suspect my extended family will show up for cheesecake, egg nog, and the list of pies they requested. The day after Thanksgiving, I plan to fence off my garden–I just moved, and I want it to be ready for the spring.  I want to take the weekend to reach out and thank the people to whom I’m grateful–friends new and old, new colleagues, family members I don’t see enough.  I want to make actual phone calls rather than sending texts and emails–I want to hear voices on the other end; just a small attempt to stop the rat race for a little bit.

And if I venture out into the commercial arena, it will be to my local businesses, which have pulled out all the stops better than the stores on Fifth Avenue ever could. I’ll meet the shopkeepers in my new town, and buy some gifts from them–because Small Business Saturday, I think, should not be a holiday, it should be a way of life.  It should be a way of shaking hands and building back the community that the rat race seems to have stolen from us.

I’m guilty of joining the rat race, too. Of seeing how much I can get done in order to defy the physics of time. This holiday season, I want to prepare, connect, build relationships, and enjoy.  Black Friday seems the perfect time to do just that.


I will never be as cool as my siblings because I am “just a teacher”

I would like to take a moment to thank everyone who stops by.   When I started this blog, I figured, “What’s the worst that can possibly happen? I’ll write something, and nobody will read it.”  I’ll probably have five loyal readers–four of them will be related to me.

It didn’t turn out that way–no matter what I do, I my brother won’t read my blog. He keeps meaning to, but I suspect the fact that he’s busy counting all his children to make sure they don’t escape might have something to do with it, so even though he was technically an English major and should be here trying to find dangling participles and vague antecedents, he’s nowhere to be found.  Which is why it’s safe enough to make fun of him in the lead paragraphs.

My sister reads this blog sometimes but she’s more important than me, so if she can’t get to it every day, that’s okay. She writes an awesome national brief–it’s not really funny, but I’ll overlook that point, because it’s tough to laugh when you have to write about countries that are blowing each other up. Her entire life goal was to spark world peace, not to have to write another column each time someone throws Molotov cocktail across a border. I hope world peace comes soon–not only do I think it’s important, but I think then my sister could use the day off.

Funny–I remember the days that my brother and sister became cooler than me. My brother, let’s call him “Dan,” because that’s his name, played soccer and wrestled.  He tried very hard.  He played video games with his friend “Kevin” (any resemblance to actual individuals is entirely intended), and we–the older sisters–felt “Oh my god, these kids are doomed.”  Not that I was an expert in cool–I was the anthesis of the “in crowd.” But still, I was concerned.

Turns out Dan and Kevin did alright–Kevin has a family and a Ph.D in something I’m not qualified to understand.  Dan got his name put on “The List” traveling around Ireland meeting students and buying books about Bobby Sands. Apparently they write down your name if you read about such people. He’s a peace-loving person, in case anyone’s still watching.  A harmless Yankee fan who just loves Irish history.  Now, he gets to work with some of the best and brightest language-development minds in the world.  He is much cooler than me.

My sister–we’ll call her “Mary,” became cool much quicker. She did sound production and got to blow off rappers who were late for studio sessions, which would have been even more impressive if she knew who they were, and she got to do political spots during several election seasons. I love politics. Meeting those people would have been cool.

Then, she decided that cool wasn’t cool enough, and she went back to school to save the world–a degree in “Peace and Conflict Resolution.”  If I invented that degree, I’d have put a question mark after it, “Peace and Conflict Resolution?” because no one really wants to stop fighting as long as there’s money flowing on both sides, but Mary is doing her best to promote key solutions, and far more people read what she writes on a daily basis than will ever read my stuff.  She is definitely much cooler than me.

Alas, I am not cool–I just got put in my place again last night, “I don’t understand why you guys (referring to me and to a couple other college friends) went to the University of Rochester to become teachers. Seems like such a waste. If you wanted to become a teacher, why didn’t you just go to a cheap college instead of such a good one? Spending all that money to become a teacher is just stupid.” Sadly, it was an honest question, not an intentional insult. I get those types of questions and comments a lot.

This happens more and more frequently of late. When I switched careers thinking I’d save the world, my friends frowned just like they had when I considered law enforcement as a career.  “Really?  You’re overqualified.”  To improve lives? To save the world?  If I succeed in saving the world, that would make me, like, God, and am I truly overqualified to be the Almighty?  I think not…but apparently the world does not agree.

I figured people would high-five me as I went into teaching. Not so. College friends have put up with my decision, and in some cases openly mocked me, as if I were throwing my life away to join a monastery. “Casey, really?” Or when I tell new people what I do, “I teach,” they immediately say one of two things, “Oh,” and they walk away to find someone more interesting, or “Good luck with that, I’d never do it.” If I’m lucky, they’ll tell a bonus unsolicited story about how teachers are lazy, ruining the world, or how “nothing personal but” they all suck.

It’s getting tough to remain positive in a career that everyone despises–one that throws new regs on daily as if the art of saving kids weren’t enough. As if it can be micromanaged down to the last bits and bytes of data. Not only am uncool, but I spend more time chasing numbers lately than I do teaching my kids. I feel much more like an accountant than the saver of the universe I set out to be.

James Altucher came through with some inspiration  the other day, “Complaining is the opposite of improving,” and when James is busy writing about other things, I can always turn to Tom Petty, who “won’t back down.” Just in the nick of time someone recommended Margaret Wheatley’s new book to me, which I’m only partially through but makes perfect sense.  She urges us to avoid burnout by knowing that the world is flawed and flawed systems make it impossible to save the world.  Recognizing that helps us to avoid fighting the windmills and still realize that we are doing the good work.  Work that must be done. She must have seen the Picasso of Don Quixote I keep close by.

I’m grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog–the blog I never expected to exist. I’m grateful that I have seen your blogs and discovered inspirational people, teachers, visionaries, writers, scientists, Zen thinkers–people who bring joy and inspiration to my life.  Although I may not be as cool as my siblings, because I’m “just a teacher,” you all give me hope that someday we might change that, and being a teacher will be something people aspire to be once more. In gratitude for your trust, I will do my best to make this career a better place to be while simultaneously inspiring and informing my own students to carry the torch further.

Even if I will never be quite as cool as Mary and Dan.

How to Scare Students on Parent Teacher Night


Last night was parent teacher night.  I love parent teacher night, but I don’t really love the format–basically, a million parents line up for ten seconds of my time. I feel somewhat like a cross between really, really rude, and a rock star.

We put out appointment sheets, but they never work for me, because they contain five-minute slots over the course of two hours, and I have 252 students this year.  That math just doesn’t hold up.  But, I do the best I can. I smile, thank them for coming, tell them I’ll be quick and that next year I’ll move the Keurig out in the hall with snacks. They smile and nobody yells at me to get moving. Many times the students come along, and often there are brothers and sisters who have been dragged out into the night to see me, too.  For them, I have a supply of crayons and my awesome fish tank to keep for entertainment and I say that I look forward to teaching them in seven years.

Holding parent conferences is a fine art–I’ve been on both sides of this aisle–the receiving end of conferences you know aren’t going to go well, and the facilitating end of thousands of conferences that I insist bring some modicum of joy to the adult who is seeing me at the end of a long day and who is entrusting me with their child.

But the students are always terrified. “What will she say?” That, I don’t mind, because it buys me at least two days of good behavior in advance. The quickest way to put the fear of God into a student who dares to brave the conference with their families is—to be really, really nice.

It starts out like this: The day before the conferences, I ask, “Hey, anyone coming to see me or am I going to be sitting here drinking coffee pondering the meaning of life by myself.”

A kid will approach, “I might come. What are you gonna say?”

“You know, the usual.” I say.

“What’s ‘the usual’?” usually the Student in Question has some inner conflict–did I do my homework? Did I fail to shut up in a timely manner? Did I forget my watch at home while meandering to her class? Do I come prepared? What will she SAY?

That’s the beauty. I never, ever say anything but nice things. No parent wants to drive from three towns away to see me for five minutes after working all day. They probably rushed home to have a quick dinner and collect kids–they don’t want to hear bad things. Parents hear bad things all the time. “Your son didn’t do his homework.” “Your daughter talks while I’m teaching.” “I think your child will be on the news someday, and it won’t be good.” You’ll never hear that from me. It’s not that I don’t express concerns–I do. I just find the greatness in each student and state it in caps with an exclamation point.

Sometimes, when a family member is clearly expecting to hear bad things I’ll come right out and speak to the question, “Listen, your son has amazing creativity–he organizes a little differently, but heck, so do I, and I’ve been successful in life. We all have our styles–I’ll help keep him on task.”

When I state things like that, I can see the hesitation leave their faces.  I see that years of negative meetings are opening up to the possibility that parent-teacher dialogue can be productive and positive.

Last night I said things like, “I can help you (student) to focus better, but honestly, your boss won’t fire your dad. He’ll fire you. It’s my job to prepare you so that doesn’t happen and you call the shots in your career. Can we achieve that goal?”

“Your daughter is respectful and has a great group of friends. You should be proud.”

“Your son hates school–let’s be honest. But that’s okay. [To student:] I daresay you’ve missed some skills–we’ll catch you up on the side, if you come at these times. No one will ever know.”

“Your daughter is very intelligent–she will always get A’s. But I don’t want her to get an A from me, I want her to imagine that scholarship in four years–I’d like her to work on college-level writing and research–we’re going to shoot for that goal instead. Here’s how…”

and the granddaddy of them all…

“Your son should consider performance. He is talented beyond measure.”  I know–where’d that come from? It’s something I’ve said only one other time in my entire career teaching. But when I see it, I have to acknowledge it.  “Consider researching the greats, reading about the greats, finding local people to mentor you, and starting small.  You should be very busy practicing and improving your craft if you’re serious.”  Basically, I sentenced that boy to four years of extra work if he does it right. Which I hope he does.

What does every adult want to hear at a parent-teacher conference? They want to hear that their student has potential. That their student is kind and respectful. That their student will not be stuck living at home playing video games them forever.  Families have different values–certain cultures value academics so much that I always include “always works hard in class.”  Others value respect above all.

“Well, your daughter has a 110% in all classes, and she found the cure for cancer yesterday,” I will say.

“Yes, but is she respectful?”

Parents want to know that their children have good friends. While I’ll never talk about someone else’s student with another family, I might say, “Your son is getting involved in school and making a lot of good friends–I hope you’re proud of him and that you have a chance to meet his friends.”  That puts families at ease.

Setting up those relationships is always, always important.  I wish I had tons of time to just sit and converse with families, and thank them for lending me their students for a year or in some cases more.  I now see families where I’ve had multiple members. I’m not old enough to start having children of students–when that happens, I’ll probably be that old hippie-looking teacher with the silver braid talking about how in my day MTV was just invented and we only had one pair of sneakers, and computers hadn’t been invented so we had to read books. And when we communicated with friends, we had to pass notes on paper–and we liked it.

Today, I’ll go to school and thank everyone for bringing their families–it’s an honor that they did, because I like to assume that people have much better things to do than traipsing out to see me for such a small time. And then I’ll laugh and say, “What did you think I was going to say? Did I scare you?”

They will laugh with uncertainty–always keep them guessing–it’s the key to performing, to teaching, and to life–and then we will have a great class.

[Note: Please see my board on Learnist about having a successful parent-teacher night. This should be a time we look forward to on both sides, never a time of dread. Hope it helps!]

How I Chickened out of Reality TV…

Few people know this, but after finishing a grueling four years at a quality institution of higher learning–majoring in waitressing, I mean, Russian–I applied for, and got through several cuts in the selection process for MTV’s Real World. It was the second season, which would have landed me somewhere in Los Angeles, if I recall correctly.

Auditioning for a reality TV show is all about creating a character, though I would not have known it at the time, because reality TV was brand new.  The only two really shows around were Survivor in its infancy, and The Real World. Heck, in those days–hard to imagine, MTV even had music, not pregnant teens and Rhode Islanders hogging all the hair gel fighting with non natives of New Jersey after having way too much to drink. Reality TV shows were cool. I thought cool would be a good career interlude.

At the time, the auditioning process involved first sending in the actual application and getting through a few rounds of pre-screening.  The premise is this–shows cast people from all over the world to live together to see who will kill whom first.  They stole the idea from the cult classic Highlander, which was about a bunch of immortals roaming the world killing each other and assuming their power under the premise that “there can be only one.”  Same thing with reality TV. The one that defeats the other for screen time gets the best makeup, hair gel, bad fashion and endorsements–heck, I saw one relative victor advertising, um, pickles, and another recently got to make his own alcoholic drink, so that every time he overconsumes from here on in, he’ll get a slice of the profits.  He should do pretty well on that own.

Of course, I wouldn’t have seen that glamor then–the genre was still too new.  I would have cast myself as the “vegetarian weightlifter guitar playing Gandhi loving pacifist.” Although it seems like there would have been plenty of them in LA already, my guess is that there probably weren’t because they kept calling me for the next round.

As is the case with so many perfect opportunities in life, I got scared and backed out of the process just when it appeared success was on the horizon, choosing instead to work for a multi-million dollar corporation in a cubicle.  Although I didn’t get to sign any autographs, I did get to put pictures on my desk.

I always wonder what life would have been like if I did had followed through to the homestretch, been chosen, and then subsequently survived the show–would I have been able to drink that much herbal tea in opposition to the forces of people punching each other, engaging in romantic interludes, vomiting and backstabbing in front of all of America? Would someone have named a tea or brand of granola after me and allowed me to be the spokes-hippie? These are questions I’ll never be able to answer and reasons I always advise people to follow their dream.  Alas, I’ll never be a Vee Jay.  But that’s okay, because Vee Jays no longer exist since there isn’t any music on MTV. And I was too old to get a slot as a pregnant teen.

What can I do to recapture the moment? I’ll tell you what–I will start my own reality TV show, right in my very own classroom.  It’ll reach cult classic status before you can say Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Here’s what you’ll see:

Two hundred fifty amazing students fighting the odds to get an A from Casey, who will give anyone an A as long as they keep doing the work until it reaches “A” status.

The Underground Teacher Food Swap–three food-freak colleagues swapping home-raised chicken eggs for goat cheese and bread.The horror on the face of one when she sees the crackers are not gluten-free. All drink iced tea from mason jars and are avoided by “normal” staff who fear they might have their Easy Mac infected by the macrobiotic swill.   All recipes must pass by Gluten-Free woman, natural-food woman, vegetarian homesteader-wanna-be, and no processed ingredients are permitted. That leaves various varieties of lettuce and iced tea in mason jars.

This individual go through the quarterly begging for paper inquest, “Didn’t you get paper in September?” Why, yes I did, but you see, I have 252 students. I stole some from the guy who has twenty.  You know what, forget it, I’ll send them into the bathroom for sheets of one-ply. That should do it if I keep my notes to a minimum.

This individual try to keep up with the changes in ed reform–that would include memorizing three books–two on Common Core State Standards, which I can now recite better than a preacher at a bible convention, and a 101 paged guide on the new teacher evaluation system, which threatens to be the death of me as I attempt to collect data on 170 of my 250 students. That will be the best episode of them all–a veritable miniseries of episodes watching me track, coordinate, cry, file, and break down on a scale that even the Housewives of Orange County have never seen.

Camera guy, listen up: Pan in on the breakdown shot. If you’re good, and not the guy who took my picture at the DMV, you should be able to get a nice shot of me borrowing some saffron robes from the monks up the street from my house, and a parting shot of my self-immolation. Self-immolation always makes for good press, much better than emotional breakdowns. At a bare minimum, you should be able to get some film of me throwing the much-prized ream of paper into the air and sprinting for an application to the closest fast food restaurant.  This is a good Plan B season finale–who doesn’t want to see a vegetarian making Big Macs?

If you don’t want to watch a reality show involving my classroom because perhaps you already spent enough time enduring social studies in your own school career, I’ll pitch a few other shows–we could sneak into San Francisco and steal all the iPhones and watch the fallout like one of the doomsday apocalypse prep shows. We could follow the kid who got locked in gym lockers for most of school, give him a job in an upcoming start-up hiring all the kids who bullied him, and watch him beat the Trump of them.  We could drop some people opposing marriage equality in the middle of Provincetown, Morgan Spurlock 30-Days style, and see if we could get them to become more open-minded, or we could put a camera in each side of the Senate and House chambers and watch our elected officials make amends, cross the aisle and solve the problems of this nation or demand that they, themselves, be the first to jump off the fiscal cliff. Oh, right, those cameras already exist.

You know what–I think my IQ just dropped by ten points even thinking about this today. I’m going to just go and read a book.