You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

When Leo was a puppy, he needed to be taught how to do everything from coming when called, to relieving himself outside, to learning that if food was left on a table or counter that it was not an invitation for him to help himself!  At some point, he learned, or used his instincts to help him retrieve objects when thrown – tennis balls, sticks, you name it, he would chase the soaring item and sure enough, bring it right back to whoever initiated the “game.”

At nine years old, Leo, a beautiful Golden Retriever who prances when walking (perhaps due to his father’s famous show dog lineage) has shifted his approach to retrieving.  Yes, he will still occasionally be enthused by the stick throwing routine, but these days, Leo has his sights set on a much more creative approach to play.

Instead of waiting for an object to be thrown and then capturing it, Leo initiates a whole new approach to fun.  Most mornings, he can be found racing through the Swift River trails en route to a quieter open space where there is a sandy spot that has easy access to a slower moving part of the river.  Upon closer view, one will notice that Leo is actually surveying the shallow waters and then hand, or paw-selecting a river rock.

Sometimes the transaction is seamless, and he is able to secure the rock in his mouth before bringing it up to higher ground, proudly dropping it near our feet and going back for more.  Other times, Leo may choose a rock that is too big for his mouth span and he will relentlessly try to capture it, nudging it with his nose – usually heading in the wrong direction away from the shore – whining at it and if really frustrated, barking profusely.  I am in awe of the whole fascinating process!  The fruits of his labor have been collecting over these summer weeks and he now has garnered quite a river rock garden!

As I wonder at how amazing Leo’s new development has been to observe, I am reminded that an old dog can learn new tricks!  Taking a page out of Leo’s book, and with the guidance of many writing legends – past and present – I am creating this blog to have a place to share my life moments – immense or miniscule – of any size.  It is here that I am committing to living a writerly life so that I can be a more authentic teacher of writing for my fourth grade students.  Cheers to all teachers as we get closer to the new school year ahead on the horizon.

 

 

Advertisements

Crows’ Landing

Have you lost someone close to you and then felt a presence somehow after the passing from life into death?  Apparently it’s quite common, and through age, experiences seem to increase incrementally.  My husband shared one such story with me.

Last week, I found myself writing my father-in-law’s obituary at my husband’s request.  I researched the various formats and styles of these written memorials, and decided that using anecdotes would be the best way to capture the spirit of this 84-year old man.

The basic information was included in the writing; however, some less known facts were added in and a few snippets of my father-in-law’s past were highlighted.  Perhaps the most powerful part of the obituary was the story of the crows.

My father-in-law loved many things in his 84 years of life and animals were at the top of the list.  Living on an award-winning working dairy farm in Maine, he was surrounded by animals, caring for them and enjoying their company.  Apparently he had a pet crow in his youth, not a traditional family pet for sure.  The crow would land on his shoulder and he would talk to it like he would any other pet.

As an adult, he visited the farm with his son, Matthew, who was six at the time.  A crow came flying out of nowhere and landed on my father-in-law’s shoulder then, too, scaring Matthew and forcing him to wrap his arms around his father’s legs and bury his head, too.

As the end of my father-in-law’s life drew near, he was surrounded by his family in his final hours.  Almost immediately after his peaceful passing, my husband noticed some activity outside of my father-in-law’s window.  It seems that some crows decided to fly in and land on the roof just on the other side of the window.  They hesitated for a bit, and then flew off to a new destination.

Perhaps my father-in-law wanted to send a message to his family that he arrived safely in the afterlife.  Or maybe the crows sensed the change in status and came to pay their respects.

Of this I’m sure, whenever my husband or any member of his family sees a crow, they will remember my father-in-law with fondness and a smile will inevitably form knowing he is near.

 

Leo (by Guest Blogger, Abigail Palmer)

Leo

 

I wait

Behind a gate

Blocking me from going

To where they play

And I say

Let me out

All I do is shout

Please! Please! Please!

Let me out!

I try to get them to hear me

And for them to see

I want to play.

As I watch the ball

Bounce, bounce, bounce

It goes off the wall

As it comes my way I growl

All I want to do is play.

 

Breaststroke Takes the Prize

If you could only pick one stroke to swim for thirty minutes straight, what would it be?  I know from experience that it would be breaststroke.  Hands down.

Wait a minute, let’s review the stroke choices first!  There are four main strokes which can be used to move through any larger body of water.  The most common stroke is freestyle, a.k.a. front crawl or just plain crawl, some even call it doggy paddle.  Then, flip the body over and do the reverse of the front crawl which is the back crawl, more commonly referred to as backstroke.  Butterfly requires a lot of coordination and strength as both arms come out of the water at the same time with the head popping up occasionally while the feet alternate in a dolphin kick.  Last, but certainly not least is the breaststroke which is the one that makes a person look like a frog gliding through the water.

Thirty minutes is a good stretch of time, so the rhythm of breaststroke is highly desirable.  The most efficient breaststroke has the arms propelling the body forward, both hands cupping the water in front of the body together in a scooping motion while the legs take a break.  When the arms reach forward again after completing two smaller circles, the legs steal the show with the famous frog kick continuing to move the body forward while streamlining the body so the arms get a rest.  It’s important to note that breaststroke is the slowest of all four strokes, so selecting it is not for speed.

While it may not be a fast stroke, it certainly could win awards for the quietest stroke!  The body glides as it moves forward like a graceful dancer across a stage.  When this complex stroke is performed correctly, almost all of the action happens beneath the surface of the water, the head being the only body part to peek out regularly in the sequence of motions.

Having the head facing forward, moving up and down as if bobbing for apples, actually provides an amazing view of the surroundings, whether it be in a lake, an ocean, a river, or even a pool!  This head positioning becomes important for the swimmer to gauge how to get from one point to another effectively.  Afterall, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line!

Breaststroke may be the slowest, most complex stroke out there, but it packs in the value with its quiet, rhythmic motions that offer the very best views!

 

 

First Flakes

“It wasn’t supposed to start snowing until late morning,” I mumbled half-asleep.  It was moments before 8AM when I gingerly pulled back the bedroom curtains and peered outside my window.  “Crap,” I thought.  An enormous array of miniscule flakes were already falling from the sky completely unaware of the havoc they would wreak.  “This can’t be,” my mind raced, as I scanned a long mental list of items on my outdoor “To Do” list and panic began to set in.

Earlier in the week, all of the remaining leaves on our mature, established trees finally decided to descend to the ground covering the driveway and surrounding yard like a slightly burned batch of onion rings – dark and crispy!  It was as if the leaves were taunting me, saying “Catch me if you can!”

Thank goodness I remembered to eat breakfast, because I needed every ounce of energy I could get to attend to the monumental task in front of me.  Once outside, I felt like I was late to the party.  The cleanup started to feel larger than life and I was almost instantly overwhelmed.  “Get a grip and make a plan,” I heard my conscience cry.

The lawnmower.  That was where I would start.  Making only small strides alone, it quickly became clear to me that I needed to call in for backup.  My reluctant teenaged son emerged after what seemed like an eternity.  We switched jobs, and luckily the loud hum of the mower’s engine quickly drowned out any of his complaints.  Areas that I hadn’t noticed before or stopped paying attention to seemed to jump out at me as if saying, “Over here!” or “Don’t forget about me!” and even “You missed a spot!”  It was so unnerving.

Was the snow really going to come now – in the early morning?  Maybe it was simply a tease – a test – to get me up and out of bed.  Reader, whatever it was, it worked!  I didn’t know it at the time, but those flakes did cease for a period of about two hours – just enough time to make the yard a little cleaner before being buried in snow for an undetermined amount of time.

A few flakes can certainly stir up a lot of anxiety!

 

If Sweaters Could Talk

Tom Flynn had an extensive collection of wool Christmas sweaters stowed away until the holiday season rolled around year after year.  It seemed like he had an endless supply at times, though the total was probably in the vicinity of a dozen pieces.

Last year, my mother began an admirable journey to share parts of my dad’s story with my siblings, me, and our extended families through his sweaters.  She tediously washed and dried the sweaters to “felt” them.  Using circle patterns of graduating sizes that she created herself, she lovingly cut the sweaters into various circle sizes allowing the smooth silver blades of her scissors to slice through the knitted yarns.  Pleased with the variety of sweater patterns and sizes, she layered them, thread a thick string through the center, and topped each one with a wooden bead, making an enormous family of felted sweater trees.

We are fortunate to have five sweater trees in our house – one for my husband, me and each of our three children.  As I carefully pulled each one out of the square holiday Santa box, and placed them on the mantle, I couldn’t help wondering what the sweaters would tell me if they could talk!

Unwritten Rule

There are some parts of the classroom teacher job description that are simply understood – the unwritten rules – shared between grade level partners.

Picture me shouting from the rooftops that the most important thing is to know your GLP’s birthday by heart!  Make reminders in multiple places, because forgetting is simply a travesty of justice.

Commit the date to memory!

It was the end of the day on Friday, after a full week of school.  Students had left the classroom, and we could leave contractually in about 5 more minutes.  I heard the words, “Enjoy your birthday.”  A lightbulb went off in my tired, scattered brain as I remembered that November is the month, but I was unsure of the exact day.

Commit the date to memory!

“You have a birthday coming up,” I said through the walls as we packed up to go home for the weekend.

“It’s today,” she said matter-of-factly.

Commit the date to memory!

My heart jumped skittishly as I realized that the whole school day had passed and not once did I recognize its significance.  My classroom phone rang and the moment was lost.  By the time I was off the phone, she was already backing out of her parking spot.

Commit the date to memory!

My head tried to catch up with my heart as I wracked my brain for how this could have happened.  I didn’t have the date recorded in my new planner for 2017-18.  This helped to make the case for adding the date into my phone under her contact information so it would be stored in perpetuity.  Sadly, I hadn’t taken this step either.  Then there were the morning messages that surely would have announced her birthday, only the intercom in my classroom is faulty and spoken words are fuzzy and unclear at best.

Commit the date to memory!

So what does a guilty grade level partner do about a forgotten birthday?  She bakes the most scrumptious concoction she knows and hopes that a slice of decadent chocolate torte will right the wrong and restore balance to the team.

On the seventeenth day of November, a kind, generous, incredibly smart woman graced this earth.  I am humbled to call her my grade level partner.

Happy Birthday!

Finders Keepers

The Vista Cruiser was packed to the hilt with bags filled of food, diapers for my brothers, clothes, books, and as many other things as we could fit inside.  When I was young, summers on Prudence Island were simple and yet filled with anticipation.

Visitors would occasionally come to the island to see what we were up to and that would always be a nice change of pace from our back to basics routine.  Relatives and family friends would come in large groups, usually for day trips, giving us the chance to show off our island.

One summer, things were a little different.  I was about ten or eleven years old and being the oldest of six, I was the first of my siblings to be allowed to have a friend visit the island by herself AND spend the night in our crazy rented summer home!  This was quite extraordinary – even for island standards – and I was beyond excited.

Alicia Philippe was a classmate and she was so pretty.  She had shiny dark brown hair that rested just below her shoulder.  She also wore the latest styles from popular brands at the time.  I remember being envious of her fashion sense, wishing I could dress like her.  Looks aside, one thing I noticed right away when she got off the boat was her new wallet.  Oh – it was so clever!  The velcro wallet was all the rage in the 80s – made out of a durable nylon fabric with tons of pouches – and if you were lucky, you could have a design on the exterior.  Boy, did I want one just like it!  I knew there would be a fat chance of me getting one as it would have been considered low on the priority list – food and diapers seemed to be where it was at back then.

I probably thought, “What will I do with Alicia first?”  I’m sure I made a mental list of dozens of things that we could explore on the island.  Maybe she’d like to ride bikes over to Canario’s to buy some penny candy – my favorite was the pack of gum dressed up like cigarettes that actually “blew” smoke, a.k.a. sugar on the end!  Or what about taking her to Sandy Point to jump off the docks?  How about asking my mom to take us digging for clams on the West Shore.  When it got dark, a game of Capture the Flag with the kids living around us could be fun.  Maybe she’d like to visit the gift shop to purchase a rope bracelet just like mine?  Ooh – I know I probably wanted to show her the rock houses I’d built by layering super thin rocks.  Perhaps she’d like to play “house” with my brothers’ matchbox cars?  That might have seemed too babyish – I bet I held off on that one.

It was nearing the time for Alicia to get to the ferry so she could head back home.  The ride was about a half hour, making 1-2 stops before reaching its final destination in Bristol.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the wallet.  Alicia ended up leaving it behind.  It’s possible that I put the wallet in a different spot, say a closed dresser drawer in my shared bedroom before her departure, but she was not privy to this information.

I remember thinking she would notice that she didn’t have the wallet with the rest of her belongings and my plan would be foiled.  Nope.  I couldn’t believe my luck!  The wallet was so calling my name.

“Mom, look what I found!”  I innocently exclaimed.  “It must have been left here by the family before ours.  Finders keepers!”

My mom – bless her heart – went along with my little scheme at the start.  She was quick to point out that the person who left it was probably looking for it, and maybe even a little sad about the loss.  She suggested that we leave the wallet where we found it in case the person came back looking for it, knowing full-well that it was Alicia’s wallet.  If only I hadn’t made such a big fuss about Alicia’s wallet, maybe I could have fooled the tired mother of six.  Nonetheless, I wanted that wallet and by default, it became mine for what was left of that summer on Prudence Island.

Call it what you will, but I do believe my conscience intervened and helped me realize my misstep.  As summer neared a close, and we packed our things back into the Vista Cruiser to head home and start a new school year, I decided that Alicia should have her wallet back.  Somehow, the velcro wallet that I’d temporarily made my own, was returned to its rightful owner.

I accepted that I made a mistake claiming someone else’s property as my own and I learned how smart my mom really was.  She never accused me of wrongdoing, which she could have easily done.  Instead, she let me wrestle with my own choices, probably faithfully praying that I would eventually see the light.

 

 

 

The Ubiquitous Grey Sweatpant

Can it really be?  Three years of waiting for the ubiquitous grey sweatpant?

“I ask every year for a pair of grey sweatpants,” Jackson claimed as the temperatures plummeted and his go-to shorts no longer cut the mustard.  “Maybe this will be my year,” my son commented sarcastically.

I distinctly remember hosting one of Jackson’s friends during a winter break.  Yes, you guessed it – a magic three years ago!  His friend was wearing a brand new pair of grey Under Armour sweatpants.  I would later find out that his mom bought the sweatpants that morning especially for the occasion as we would be outside for several hours in the month of January and he was otherwise ill-equipped.  Jackson discreetly whispered, “Those are the sweatpants I want, Mom.”  Reflecting back, I’m not sure why we didn’t run out and do the same thing!  Perhaps a combination of sticker shock and the sameness of the teenage “uniform” is to blame for the delay in purchasing the desired leg coverings.

Fast forward to present time and the plea for sweatpants returns.  So, like many other residents south of Boston, we trekked to the South Shore Plaza late Saturday afternoon.  It was our hope that the plethora of stores contained within the plaza’s walls would have something we could purchase that would fit the bill.

Reader, I kid you not – it was if Olympia Sports knew my son’s pain.  Their advertising seemed to pop out at us like neon signs, beckoning us to enter.  Multiple signs boasted fleece sales – buy one, get one 70% off.  It seemed like a tease at first because there were virtually no size smalls remaining on the racks.  He took a few pairs into the fitting room unenthused.  The first couple didn’t work – too baggy, way too long, too pegged at the ankle – you get the idea.  We even considered the Kids’ XL sizing – no dice.  It seemed hopeless.  Honestly, I think his need took over and miraculously, he was able to settle on two different pairs – one, a Nike cotton fleece, the other a synthetic option from Under Armour.

Was it worth the wait?  Considering that boy and grey sweatpants were virtually inseparable the next day, I’d conclude an astounding yes!  Some of the snippets of comments heard the day after went something like this:  “I just love the feel of sweatpants on my legs” and “they are so soft” as he repeatedly smoothed the outer surface like he was petting his most loyal furry companion.

Oddly enough, rekindling a love of sweatpants with a shorts guy was very satisfying for this mom.

Oh, Restless Night

“I thought you said you shut all of the storm windows earlier today?” my husband questioned me with a faint note of annoyance and just a hint of underlying concern.

Oh, restless night!

It’s now 11:30PM and what started off innocently enough with a gentle rain sweetening the air a few hours earlier, has now turned angry and threatening, slamming heavy rain drops against closed windows.  The wind is howling, banging against the walls of the house and thrashing against the shutters.  Audible drops of water are making their way through the chimney as the rain pours onto the house.

Oh, restless night!

We make our way through all three floors of the house swiftly and silently, pushing up screens and pulling down storm windows while the rain beats relentlessly against all surfaces, teasing us as it tries to enter the open spaces even for the briefest of moments.

Oh, restless night!

Meteorologists tried to warn us of the storm’s potential impact, but we didn’t take it too seriously as we’ve been fooled before.  Earlier in the day, as the sky darkened and looked even more ominous, I asked my daughter to text my husband.  She wrote:  “Mom said for u and Jackson to bring the glass table and chairs in the garage before the rain and wind. DON’T BE LAZY.”  A one-word reply came back almost instantly: “Nope.”

Oh, restless night!

Cars are parked in the driveway, not the garage where they should be.  Why is that, you may ask?  Well, our teenage son has taken over the garage with his hockey set-up – interlocking plastic tiles arranged in front of a net to encourage shot practice.  There is a feeling of urgency to get the cars inside before the weather really turns sour.  Jackson’s not using the practice space nearly as often as he used to, and besides, he’s taking up very valuable real estate!

Oh, restless night!

Finally, I lay in bed, cocooned by my covers, hoping that my husband’s even breathing will lull me to sleep.  Instead, I am wide awake, my thoughts swirling around inside my head making me feel like I am spinning inside a washing machine on the “extra spin” cycle.  I imagine the worst case scenarios and these devastating outcomes occupy my thoughts and hold my dreams hostage.

Oh, restless night!

Somehow, I manage to find some sleep and the sounding of my alarm at 5:30AM seems  a bit cruel and unfair.  I wake up with fully-functioning power, and quickly move downstairs to assess potential damage from the late evening’s ugly visitor. A massive tree branch did fall, but on the lawn, averting the driveway and sparing the cars.  Our vehicles are mostly untouched, just wrapped in pine needles and leaves that brushed gently along their outer shells.  Four chairs and the round glass table are barely out of place and in fine shape.

Oh, restless night!

I realize how lucky I am to have only had a restless night.  I will happily welcome a night like this, where cleanup is minimal and life goes on almost without a hitch.  After all, we only experienced a fraction of the devastation and inconvenience that our fellow Americans have endured during the wrath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose.  Continued well wishes are sent to those still waiting to resume life as “usual” – whatever that may be.

 

 

Thank You, Mr. Baker

Dear Mr. Baker,

Do you ever wonder how many lives you’ve influenced over the years?  Or, how many students are who they are because you had a hand in shaping them when it counted?  I remember being a student in your fifth grade class and feeling lucky that I could call you my teacher.

Now, over 35 years later, the tables are turned, and I am a fourth grade teacher guiding 17 students to be curious, responsible young citizens.  We have just finished a shared reading study of Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree and a companion text, Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco.  Mr. Daniels and Mr. Falker are teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty, and coincidentally are both male – how strange!  Are you familiar with either or both texts?  If not, check them out – they are wonderful stories that as teachers, pull at our heartstrings.

To keep the stories alive, students are planning and drafting letters to former teachers thanking them for inspiring their growth as learners and people.  I thought it only fitting to share the task and to take the opportunity to reflect on my own formative years and your role in shaping me.  You hold a special place in my heart and were ahead of your time on so many levels.

I want my students to know that you valued each person in your path.  You were in the business of forming relationships well before it became a catch-phrase.

I want my students to know that you made learning fun.  I distinctly remember playing Newcomb – a form of volleyball for the classroom.  Is this even a real thing?

I want my students to know that you encouraged us to take risks.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget our trek across the frozen Narragansett Bay at ten years old!  Can you imagine trying to pull that stunt today?  It would never happen.

Teachers have the power to make impressions that will last a lifetime.  You are one of those teachers for me.

Thank you, Mr. Baker.  May your life continue to be blessed with new students and old memories.

Your former student,

Patty (Flynn) Palmer