Category Archives: School

finish line

Clouds - Pittsburgh 12-2-2015One of my college friends died suddenly last night.

Amidst the maelstrom of emotions still swirling since The Husband’s medical situation on Thanksgiving, this loss has me shaken. There are too many similarities. The timing of this. It’s too close.

We hadn’t been in touch for years but that’s the thing with our college — it doesn’t matter if you last spoke to someone yesterday or 25 years ago.  We were there at a time when our school was small enough to know everyone. You became family.

I kept up with him through his twin brother.  After all, if you knew one twin, you knew the other. They were inseparable, always together. They were legendary on a campus where we were so close-knit, connected like family. We all felt like they were our brothers. They just had that way about them.

And now? Well, now it’s impossible to think of a world where they’re not together, confusing the hell out of everyone because they looked and acted so much alike. Jokesters.  Always ready with a smile, a laugh.

They were cross-country runners and in a way, that’s what makes this such a shock. Because it doesn’t seem possible that someone with that kind of endurance, who was a champion competitor, could be taken so quickly and unexpectedly.

Somewhere, there’s a picture of both of them in my high school yearbook, in the background during an invitational meet that my school hosted every autumn.  We would discover this coincidence a few years later. There we are, my friend said, pointing out himself and his brother in grainy black and white. A snapshot in time.

My memories of that time can sometimes seem like that.  An image, a moment, a visage of what we were and hoped to be. A random capture, like the photo I snapped today of the changing clouds that greeted me upon leaving work at the end of this heavy day. A burst of yellow light, a streak of pink. A feathery wisp.

More and more often, that’s what this life seems to be like sometimes.  Fleeting. A flash and a blur. Our finish line around the corner, always just out of sight.

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a few things i’m doing

This thing called Life is kickin’ our collective asses around here lately. Maybe I’ll be able to write about it sometime, but for right now, in the midst of the muck, there are a few things I need to keep off the blog.  In between the hits, though, I’m finding myself in need of a few distractions … which, as we know, is the reason why we have The Internet.

Fortunately, all kinds of cool things are happening in the online world this fall.  Here’s what I’m doing to try and forget about Life for awhile.


My blogging friend Trish of Love, Laughter and (a touch of) Insanity is bringing back her fun Pin It and Do It Challenge for September and October. For whatever reason, I’ve recently re-discovered Pinterest, and this challenge will be a little kick in the pants for me to do some projects, try some new recipes, make some blog improvements and who knows what else.  Go to Trish’s blog for the official sign up, follow me on Pinterest, and have fun pinning and doing.


Speaking of blog improvements and whatnot, look what starts today – besides the first day of the planet Mercury losing its collective shit AGAIN and spinning the hell out of control in retrograde, that is. (Because, you know, I really need THAT nonsense right now.)  Bloggiesta is back, baby, and the Fall 2015 edition is happening now.

I really like this multi-day Bloggiesta format. I’m hoping to use this go-around to take care of a few housekeeping duties here on the blog. Not quite sure what, exactly, as a lot depends on how the week goes. I’m supposed to write an official Bloggiesta to do list as part of my participation post (which I guess this is), so we’ll keep it the same as all the other Bloggiestas I’ve done:

1) catch up on book reviews (and other posts) and
2) update the Book Reviews page here on the blog.

RIP X - 2015

image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

It’s September, and that means the return of the book blogging community’s beloved R.I.P. Reading Challenge. Short for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, this annual challenge created by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings is being hosted this year – the 10th! – by the wonderful Andi and Heather of The Estella Society. You can find all the R.I.P. details here.  I’m planning to participate in Peril the Second which means I’ll be reading two books of any length that fit within the R.I.P. categories (that includes mystery, suspense, horror, thriller, gothic, dark fantasy, supernatural types of reads and the like).



I’m not sure what books I’ll be reading for this year’s R.I.P. This might be one of those years where I make it up as we go.  Right now, I’m in the midst of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, which seems to qualify. It definitely has the suspenseful, creepy factor. And I haven’t ruled out doing Peril the Short Story either because I am all about the short stories, yo.

Finally, thanks to the magic of Coursera and FutureLearn, I’m enrolled in four MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) right now:

Plagues, Witches and War: The World of Historical Fiction through the University of Virginia;
William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place through Lancaster University, in the UK;
Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (known as ModPo, for short), with the University of Pennsylvania.
Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance (with Monash University and which started on Monday but I haven’t shown up for class yet).

Like everything else, I’ll find my way there, albeit with a few side trips en route.

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sunday salon: summer’s end

The Sunday Salon

To say we (as in, our family) are dealing with a difficult transition brought on by the unofficial end of summer to the forced beginning of fall is …well, a bit of an understatement. Anxiety is always heightened as August segues into September, what with a new school year and all the adjustments that brings, but the past 10 days have brought something entirely different.

It’s the autism and yet it isn’t the autism. There are limits to what I can say in this space, which is in direct contrast to what I want to say. Most of this is not entirely my story to tell. This is new, unknown, and scary territory.

I’m finding myself in need of a step back from the outside world and have prescribed a modified Facebook break for myself for this holiday weekend and possibly beyond. I tend to check Facebook somewhat obsessively, and I’m trying to limit myself to twice a day.

I noticed that quite a few books in my immediate to-be-read queue were rather dark, which is not unusual for me but also not what I can handle right now. (Yes, I’m looking at you, A Little Life.) Back to the library they went.

Rising StrongWhile at the library yesterday with The Girl, Brene Brown’s new book Rising Strong was prominent on the Nonfiction Bestsellers table. I hadn’t noticed it earlier in the week, so I took that as a sign of sorts that I should probably grab it despite having never read Brene Brown and being only slightly familiar with her work. Enough people are devotees of hers that I figured she might be helpful for me to read right now.

(UPDATE: Rising Strong is going to be a DNF, as I’m finding this too jargonish and … well, lacking anything I didn’t already kind of know. Perhaps Brene Brown isn’t for me or maybe this wasn’t the right book to start with.) 

Go Set a Watchman – the Harper Lee novel that is either much-celebrated or a representative of elder abuse, depending on your viewpoint – was among my planned reads for this blessedly long weekend. Alas, I made it through only two chapters last night before declaring this a DNF. I’ll probably do a longer post with my thoughts on this, which I approached with some skepticism and an open mind (at least I’d like to think so).  Suffice it to say that 43 pages was enough to put me solidly in the “this should never have been published” camp.

The UnspeakableThis week I finished The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum. Several of these essays in this collection resonated with me, particularly “The Best Possible Experience,” “Not What It Used to Be,” and “Difference Maker” – all of which best fit the theme of “the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor…and the unspeakable acts that teach no easy lessons and therefore are elbowed out of sight.” (pg. 5-6)

Wonderful TownMy attention span for audio books is similarly limited; I’m listening almost entirely to podcasts these days. That said, I’m also listening to Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker, which has been on my TBR forever. I’m finding this to be a fantastic collection for filling in the gaps with authors and stories that I probably should have read by now.  The order of the stories presented on audio doesn’t match up with the print edition, though. So far I’ve listened to “Poor Visitor” by Jamaica Kincaid; “The Five-Forty-Eight” by John Cheever (another author on my list I need to read more of); and “The Whore of Mensa” by Woody Allen, which gave me a much-needed laugh.

Aside from the life lessons these dark days are teaching me, I finished my first MOOC, “Literature of the Country House” through the University of Sheffield and am now immersed in “Plagues, Witches, and War: The World of Historical Fiction” from the University of Virginia. One of the readings is The Physick of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, which fits perfectly with the 10th annual R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril challenge being hosted this year by The Estella Society. I’m planning to sign up again, as I do every year.

Hope you’re having a good Sunday – and if you’re in the States, hopefully it is part of a three-day weekend.

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sunday salon: so, today we’re gonna party like it’s blog post #1,999

The Sunday Salon

Indulge me, my friends, if I seem more nostalgic than usual today, which I am.  Undoubtedly, this is the result of seeing too many Facebook photos of high school and college friends schlepping the equivalent of several Bed, Bath and Beyond stores into dorms that only merely resemble the SINGLE room that I moved into WITH TWO OTHER ROOMMATES nearly three million decades ago.

For whatever reason, there seems to be more than the usual number of these photos – of which I am not complaining, except for the fact that they are making me feel So. Fucking. Old.

Coincidentally (or not so much) I’ve discovered the world of MOOCs (massive online open courses) – which, yes, I know have been around for quite some time now. As I tend to do with every new shiny toy I come across, I’ve been going a little overboard signing myself up for free online courses. I’m currently enrolled in four such classes and a few others starting later this fall.

This weekend, I’m trying to finish up Literature of the English Country House which was offered through the University of Sheffield in the UK (and which ended earlier this month) and Childhood in the Digital Age through The Open University, which ends this week. I’m enjoying the former more; we’re dipping into excerpts from Jane Austen, Dickens and Oscar Wilde and looking at the houses that inspired their work.

My newest course is Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction, taught by Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia. This just started but already seems intense in a way that I love; at 8 weeks long and with a lot of readings, it feels like a literature course I would have taken in college.

I don’t need a therapist to tell me that these indulgences are no coincidence, given my mental rewinding of the videotape of my own glory days. Without getting into details that I’m not allowed to write about publicly, suffice it to say that there has been a great deal of reflection in our house lately about choices we’ve made or didn’t make, paths we pursued and those left untrodden.

It could also be the new start that is the school year itself; my kids start 8th grade this week. I am extremely conscious that their own “real world” paths of college or what have you are only five years away. It is the most infinitesimal sliver of time, I know this, but sometimes it seems as if there is a chasm between here and there.

A week ago, this blog celebrated its 7th anniversary. Today’s post happens to be a milestone, too: it’s blog post #1,999. Two thousand posts seems like something to celebrate and I feel like I should be commemorating this. I’ve been kicking around an idea in my mind and the 2,000th post might be a good time to announce it. Stay tuned.

Reading and Reviewing
Not too much to report on the reading front this week. I breezed through The Little Spark: 30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity by Carrie Bloomston. (I’m thisclose to reaching my goal for the library’s adult summer reading program, so I needed something relatively short.) It’s part motivation, part how-to/workbook, and part inspiration for jump-starting your “little spark” of creativity. I also finished True Stories, Well Told which I mentioned in last week’s Salon post.

The Picture of Dorian GrayStill listening to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I have less than 100 pages left, so this will likely be finished up this week. I’m reading a new YA novel for a review I’m doing for Cleaver Magazine, and another review was just accepted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is scheduled to appear next Sunday.

Speaking of creating, we’re looking into ways of re-configuring our basement family room/game room area. This is a ridiculously underutilized space in our house.  My overflowing bookshelves live there, my even messier scrapbooking table is there, and aside from the kids going downstairs to watch TV every once in awhile, the entire space is really a glorified storage unit. It would be an interior designer’s dream, seriously. We’re looking into how best to expand the home office space by adding a desk and bookshelves for The Husband.

It seems as if there is a lot going on … and I guess there is. Right now, though, I’m savoring this quiet, late summer day on the deck with one of the most picture-perfect days that Pittsburgh has to offer, while trying not to live too much in the distant past or the uncertain future, but right here, in these small but monumental moments.

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sunday salon: currently

The Sunday Salon

Currently: In my usual weekend spot on the deck with a Mason jar of water, the Sunday paper and my current read (Belief Is It’s Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by my friend, Pittsburgh author Lori Jakiela). Nothing on the agenda today except reading, preparing a few blog posts for the week ahead, finishing a book review, getting caught up on the two online courses I’m taking, and potentially watching Steelers football on TV tonight.  I can’t think of a better way to spend a gorgeous summer’s day. (Well, aside from being at the beach, that is, but that’s not where we’re at.)

Reading: I was between books earlier this week, not quite sure what I was in the mood for next, and decided to try something unusual for me – finishing an entire issue of The New Yorker. To my surprise, I actually did. I tend to read the magazine piecemeal: an article here, a short story there, and pretty soon I have piles of them around the house with those insert cards bookmarking my spot.

The New Yorker - July 6 and 13 “Five Hostages,” an article in the July 6 and 13 issue, deserves a mention because it was so compelling and heartbreaking. Those families … I simply cannot imagine the anguish they went through, and to not be able to tell anyone that their child was a hostage in Syria while they personally were negotiating with ISIS. The focus of the piece (which I had to read over several days and in brief intervals because it was so emotionally intense) is how the abandonment they felt led them to join forces with each other and David Bradley, the owner of the media company that owns The Atlantic. He took an active, personal interest in bringing the hostages home, as Lawrence Wright has written in this incredible piece of journalism.

Incidentally, if you haven’t listened to the July 21 interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick on WNYC’s podcast “Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin,” it is well worth the 48 minutes. Very insightful and entertaining, as most of the episodes on this podcast are. (This one is quickly becoming one of my favorites.)

Oh, and if you are a listener of “Here’s the Thing,” what the hell was that interview with Paul Simon earlier this week? Holy shit. I’ve never heard an interview where the subject sounded so miserable. Seriously, Paul Simon came across as a total ass, and I say that as a fan of his – although slightly less of one now. Uncomfortable to listen to doesn’t describe that.

Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

As mentioned, on Friday I started reading Pittsburgh author Lori Jakiela’s new memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe. She had me from her first sentence: “When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one.”  Belief is described as part adoption narrative and part meditation on family, motherhood, and what it means to make authentic connections. So far, 43 pages into this, it delivers.

Listening To: In the car, my listening is still primarily podcasts, which I can’t get enough of. I’m also listening to the audio book of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, which is so incredibly good. I have this on my Kindle and I can’t believe I’ve never read this one, but that’s what The Classics Club is for. (This is one of my selections, mainly because it has been on my TBR forever.)

Counting: Speaking of TBRs, have you guys done that quiz/calculator thing that’s making the rounds on Facebook about how long it will take you to read your entire TBR pile?  My results are depressing as hell. With 1,870 books on my “want-to-read” Goodreads list (yes, really) the TBR calculator informs me that reading all 1,870 books will take me 26 years and 8 months and I’ll finish on March 29, 2042 when I am 73 years old.

It lies: I’ll only be 72 on that date, with 73 looming a few days later. But, hey, what’s a year when it is going to take me 26 of them to read all the books I want – without adding a single thing to said want-to-read list?

Learning: Because a coworker mentioned how much she is enjoying MOOCs (massive online open courses), I decided to see what they are all about. Needless to say, I’m completely hooked on them, too. I told my mom that I was registered for a total of five online courses between now and throughout the fall, and she asked how I possibly found the time for five classes.  (She knows the answer to that: I’m the world’s worst when it comes to cleaning my house, as I have no interest in that crap.)

Anyway, I’ll be spending some time today trying to wrap up what I can of Weeks 3, 4, 5, and 6 of “Literature and the Country House,” my first course and one that is being offered through the University of Sheffield in Sheffield, UK. When I announced to The Facebook that I was doing this, more than a few thought I was actually spending six weeks in England taking this course in person. I wish. Instead, I’m on my deck in Pittsburgh dusting off the English part of my English/Communications degree while reading poetry and excerpts from “Hamlet” and other classics. I’m more than a little behind, but that’s the beauty of MOOCs. Besides being free, they tend to move at one’s own pace.

My second course, “Childhood in the Digital Age,” started this past Monday with The Open University. That’s a bit shorter (only four weeks) and seems like it will be easier to keep up with. This one has some connections with my job, in a sense, so there are practical and personal reasons for participating in this.

Watching: Probably the Steelers vs. Vikings game tonight because … Steelers football, baby! Whoooo!

Hope you’re having a great Sunday!

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When the Bully is the Teacher

1000Speak - Voices Are Strong

Let me start what I anticipate to be a controversial post by saying this, loud and clear:

I’ve had some wonderful, amazing, inspiring teachers.

My kids have had some wonderful, amazing, inspiring teachers.

Several of our friends and family members are wonderful, amazing, inspiring teachers.

This post is not about you. Or them.

This post is about Ms. K.

Ms. K. teaches chorus to seventh and eighth graders.

Middle schoolers.

You remember middle school, don’t you?

You’re 13. You’re incredibly self-conscious. You’re trying to fit in. You’re trying to figure out who the hell you are and who you’re going to be. You’re overwhelmed.

They’ll never admit it, but this is a time in a kid’s life when grown ups have so much power and influence. Those of us who are parents know that It doesn’t seem that way, at least in my house. Far from it. But these kids of ours, deep down inside they’re looking to us, the grown-ups who supposedly have our shit together, for lessons on how to make our way in this crazy world.

As if we have a clue.

My daughter used to love Chorus.

In her middle school, students are able to take Chorus as a class and earn a grade. As someone who enjoys singing and has acted in several plays, my daughter embraced the concerts, the hard work that paid off in a triumphant performance.

There’s little joy anymore in what my girl used to love.

At first, back in September, Ms. K.’s antics seemed somewhat amusing. At the dinner table, my daughter would tell us all about Ms. K’s daily dramatics.

The change was gradual, slight.

“She yelled at us today and said we were pathetic,” my daughter said one day.

People say stuff, we said dismissively.

“She told us that there wasn’t a single brain cell in the entire class!  I mean, who says that?”

We’ve all had crazy teachers, The Husband and I said, regaling both kids with stories of the middle school and high school teachers who were the banes of our existence. Someday you and your friends will laugh about Ms. K., just like we reminisce about our crazy teachers with our friends.

Besides, Ms. K. was providing a good life lesson. In life, you’re going to encounter some impossibly ridiculous people in the world, I espoused. And if they’re not your teacher, they’re going to be your boss or your co-worker or the company president or someone you need to get along with. So, buck up; better learn now how to accept the real-life reality that some people are simply difficult to deal with and unhappy with their lives. That their miserable-ness has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

The comments got meaner. Nastier. More personal.

Ms. K. has told her 13-year-old students that they are “going to die before their parents” because of the amount of “processed junk food” that they eat. She supervises lunch and has come up to my daughter’s lunch table to scrutinize her classmates’ meals.

Ms. K. has announced their test grades out loud. To the entire class. By name.

And on Wednesday of this week, when a student asked whether they can refer to their binders during a performance, Ms. K. replied,

“If you don’t have the songs memorized, I’m killing you all. There will be bloodshed.”


Really? Bloodshed? Really?

I asked my daughter several times if Ms. K. really used that exact word. In the classroom. In a post-Columbine, post-Newtown, post-Everytown classroom. How, exactly? What was the tone?

“She was sort of joking, but … well, Mom, a teacher shouldn’t say something like that, should they?  I was horrified. I mean, I don’t think she would really do anything ….”

Her voice trailed off.

I wasn’t going to say anything to anyone at the school about this. Maybe I was making too big of a deal about it. After all, people say stuff ….

I don’t consider myself a reactionary, knee-jerk parent. I’m not the type who has the principal’s number on speed dial or fires off emails to the superintendent when my child is slighted. I know when something is said in jest and I am usually willing to give teachers more than the benefit of the doubt.



To me, after what has been six months of insults and demeaning remarks to 13-year-old kids, bloodshed is where I draw the line.

Because although I am not a knee-jerk, reactionary parent, I watch the news and I happen to know what kind of knee-jerk, reactionary society we live in and I know that if my child made a remark in the classroom such as “I’ll kill you all. There will be bloodshed,” my child would be looking at expulsion and I’d be needing a lawyer and there would be a horde of media at our doorstep.

Still, I slept on this. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. I realized that I was hearing things second-hand.

But I also know my kid and what my kid – who I have no reason not to believe – has been telling me about what has been going on in this classroom every damn day since August.

I know what I’ve experienced as an adult from email exchanges with this teacher.

I know what I’ve heard from complete strangers in the community about their encounters with this teacher.  For whatever reason, a double-standard is allowed to apply here.  I’m wondering who the hell she’s related to or who she knows or what she has on someone because I cannot believe I am the first parent to call this behavior out for what it is.


I don’t think that’s too harsh of a term to use in this situation, because I’ve seen the effects firsthand. I’ve seen the dread in my child, seen the joy that has been taken from her with something she used to enjoy, seen her extreme, out of control anxiety and obsessiveness over HER GRADE IN CHORUS, for Christ’s sake.

That is bullying.

When you tell a kid they are going to die before their parents, THAT IS BULLYING.

When you repeatedly call someone pathetic, THAT IS BULLYING.

When you humiliate a kid who has gotten a D on a test by announcing that score aloud to the class, along with her name, THAT IS BULLYING.

And when a child has to think twice to understand that you don’t really mean that you will kill them and their classmates and that there will be bloodshed, you’re goddamn right THAT IS BULLYING. 

As parents, we teach our kids to report bullying behavior. To stand up for what’s right.

So last night I had to ask myself: what’s the message I’m sending to my daughter when I say that bullying is wrong and then I don’t do anything about someone like this? When I don’t empower my girl to stand up to a bully? What does that teach her and how does that set her up for other relationships in her life when someone might make her feel unsafe? What does this say about me as her advocate?

And what does it say about the lessons we’ve learned and what we’re teaching each other?


“When the Bully is the Teacher” by Melissa Firman is part of 1000 Voices for Compassion, where bloggers write about kindness, compassion, support, and caring for others.  This month’s theme is Building from Bullying. Read more posts here and visit 1000 Voices for Compassion on Facebook.  Join us in flooding the blogosphere with good. 

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the ones keeping me plugged in and grounded

The note on my laptop this morning, lest I become distracted by, you know, little things like Amazon rankings.

Lunch account photo


(Because I know you’re wondering: Extractions: A Short Story is up from the 24,017th best-selling book to an Amazon Best Sellers Rank of #17,097 now. We’ve cracked the Top 20,000 of books ya gotta pay for on Amazon … or, something.

And yes, that was after checking to see if my boy had enough in his account to buy his chicken nuggets.

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