Boarding School

She sipped her Cosmopolitan while I sipped my water.

I was out for dinner with my father and my husband, an unusual treat on a Saturday night. Our table, though, was almost uncomfortably close to the neighboring table where a well-dressed couple sat.

Despite the din of the dining area, my ears perked up when she mentioned swim team.  What can I say? I love swimming. I glanced at the couple, but knew they were not any of our swim parents. I wondered what team their child swam with.

Talk of Middlesex, test scores, and tutors made me realize they had a child at prep school.

Just the day before I had taken Karl to a college event for accepted students at a small private college. Early in the day, I had noticed a couple who held hands as they walked from building to building, from session to session. They, too, were well-dressed — she in her long red wool coat, complemented by cream-colored mittens and scarf, and he in a charcoal-colored wool coat and leather gloves. I liked that they held hands. It made me feel warm.

Our last session of the morning was parents-only while the prospective students attended a class. The provost gave a brief presentation outlining ways the college helps students make the transition from high school to college.  She then opened the time for questions. Immediately, a formerly leather-gloved hand rose.

“My daughter has been at boarding school for four years. She’s quite advanced. She’s not going to be dealing with the same issues of transitioning. What are you going to do to challenge her?”

The provost launched into an explanation of how, because their college is small, the professors will know the students well and find ways to challenge them, and that there is a learning difference between high school and college, less rote learning and more learning to question.

The hand rose again. “But my daughter is very advanced. She’s been at a top boarding school. How will you challenge her? Will she be in appropriate classes for an advanced freshman?”

The provost again attempted to address his concerns.

And a third time the parent spoke of his advanced child and her boarding school.

I soured on them. No longer was their hand-holding warm and fuzzy to me.

I made up a song that I sang in my head whenever I saw them.  It’s to the tune of “The Addams Family.”

You act so very snooty.
You think that I’m a cootie.
I shouldn’t give a hoot-y.
You’re the boardingschoolfamily.

Your daughter is advanced.
She’s probably been to France.
Me? I worry about finance.
But you’re the boardingschoolfamily.

Duh-na-na-na (click-click)
Duh-na-na-na (click-click)
Duh-na-na-na, duh-na-na-na, duh-na-na-na (click-click)

The next day, at the restaurant, the song started running through my head.

She ordered a second Cosmopolitan. The waitress refilled my water.

I couldn’t focus on the conversation at my table. I kept hearing tutors and test scores, and pictured the scowling girl I had seen slouching next to her parents at the college the previous day.

It’s such a foreign world to me. Prep school, that is. I always think of the Baroness saying to Captain von Trapp, “Darling, haven’t you ever heard of a delightful little thing called boarding school?” Truthfully, that’s the moment in the film when I begin to dislike the Baroness.

I was still processing the dinner boarding school talk the following day at a swim meet. I commented on it to one of my co-coaches. Boarding school. Ugh.

How condescending I sounded! I was looking down my nose at them!

When the waitress brought her a third Cosmopolitan, I had glanced at their table again. Her entree was the same as mine.

I turned that over in my mind again and again.

She may drink Cosmopolitans and I may drink water, but we both ate the same dinner.

She may send her children to boarding school and I may keep my children at home, but we both want what’s best for our children. We’re both parenting the best we can.

Her daughter may swim for a prep school and mine for a local club team, but we both have daughters that swim.

She may worry about test scores and tutors and I may worry about quarterly reports, but we both are involved in our child’s education.

Even the boardingschoolfamily (click, click) at the college was simply trying to look out for their child’s best interests.

I’m such a snob. I’m ashamed of myself.

A Complete Package

QuickRichardYears ago, I had the privilege of listening to Richard Quick speak at a swim coaching clinic. He has since passed away, but I remember thinking to myself, He’s a complete package.

Not familiar with Richard Quick?  His accolades include earning more college swimming titles than any other Division I coach; coaching at six Olympics; and personally coaching Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres, Matt Biondi, Rowdy Gaines, Misty Hyman, Janet Evans, Summer Sanders, and many others.

A complete package.  He was smart and funny. Passionate about swimming. Compassionate. Intuitive. He had the right amount of charisma so that people (me, for instance) wanted to listen and follow.

I left that conference wishing I was Richard Quick.

I will never be Richard Quick, though. Not even close. I’m fairly smart, occasionally funny, compassionate, somewhat intuitive about a few things, but there’s not a single drop of charisma in me.

We have a word that’s been newly-banned at our house. You’ll think that we’re a family of four-year-olds when I tell you what it is — stupid.

Yes, stupid. Especially in reference to people.

Helen found a gong app to put on her iPod. If someone says “stupid,” they get gonged.

“Why do stupid people get such good jobs?” one of my children asked me the other day.

“Where’s the gong?” I asked Laurel, who happened to be sitting there.

The question was legitimate, though.

Scott Adams, in his comic Dilbert, said that “in many cases the least competent, least smart people are promoted, simply because they’re the ones you don’t want doing actual work. You want them ordering the doughnuts and yelling at people for not doing their assignments—you know, the easy work.” See Dilbert strip from February 5, 2005.

My son was referring to someone in sales who earned six figures but didn’t have a great intellect.

“All he’s good at is schmoozing,” he complained.

Schmoozing, however, is an essential part of a salesperson’s package.

Which brought me back to Richard Quick, who had everything he needed to be a great swim coach.  But he also worked at it, hard.  Matt Kredich, University of Tennessee’s women’s swim coach, said this about him, “Everything obviously ‘counted’ – there was no time or need for poor swimming. He cheered during ‘warm-up’. He never let up. He injected energy into every practice.”

Indeed. He pushed himself and his swimmers.

But we all have a complete package. Mine just doesn’t include the tools to make me a Richard Quick, or even a six-figure salesperson.

My package includes the tools to make me a good mom. And that’s the role God planned for me. I have a responsibility to understand those tools and learn to use them, but they’re there.

Each of my children has a complete package to make them… whatever.

Comparison — whether to someone we deem better or worse than us — cripples our ability to develop our own unique set of skills.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say this, comparison can be stupid.


Curious, Amphibians, and Keystone Species

Mary said something to me about keystone species.  In her online biology class the teacher’s explanation had been inadequate.  Maybe the teacher was still recovering from the fact that when she had asked for examples of where the students could find examples of biodiversity, the most popular answer had been the zoo.

I was not familiar with the term “keystone species”, so I looked it up. I’m still not sure I get it. National Geographic defines it thus:

A keystone species is a plant or animal that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. Without keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.

Personally, I buy into the butterfly effect. I had read Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” in high school.  In his story, a butterfly is killed during a time travel expedition back to prehistoric times.  When the traveler returns to the present, many things are very different — all because of the death of one butterfly.

But Mary’s teacher struggled to explain keystones species. And I’m a butterfly effect person who believes every species is important, so I’m not even sure what to tell Mary.

When I struggle to understand something, I force it into a mold that makes sense to me.

Like the time in elementary school when the teacher was explaining about amphibians.

“They live half of the time in the water and half on land,” she said, and used the example of a frog.

IMG_5970[1]I asked her whether a beaver was an amphibian.

“No,” she said.

“But it lives half of the time in the water and half on land,” I argued.

Looking back, I think I must have been an obnoxious child.  My mother would have used the nice term, precocious.

IMG_5968[1]“It’s not an amphibian,” the teacher repeated, but she couldn’t tell me why.

I finally argued her into ceding amphibian status to beavers.

It wasn’t until years later that I understood that half of an amphibian’s life cycle occurred in the water and that a beaver was a mammal.

When I was in 2nd grade, I also argued with my teacher about the pronunciation of curious, as in Curious George. I was 110% sure that curious rhymed with precious. “Cure-i-shuss” made sense to me, but I couldn’t get the teacher to see it my way.

Several  years ago our homeschool group read Jan Andrew’s book, The Very Last First Time, in a co-op activity.  The story takes place in the far, far north of Canada, an Inuit village on Ungava Bay.

While I read the book aloud, one little girl — she was probably six at the time — intently studied the pictures with large solemn brown eyes. When I finished, she raised her hand.

IMG_5969[1]“There are no trees there,” she observed, “so how can the people breathe? Where do they get their oxygen?”

My mind froze, like tundra. I was now the teacher without a ready explanation.

Fortunately, her mother stepped in and explained the atmosphere in words that meat something to her daughter.

That little girl is now in public high school and I wonder if she still thinks such heady thoughts.

For me, I need to figure out keystone species.

Maybe Mary can help me.


Yes! We received all the parts to fix our washing machine! Thank you for so diligently checking on that.


The broken washer.

Having a large family and a broken washing machine is no fun. Years ago, a woman stood up in our church because her dishwasher was broken. This was before the days of and helpful videos on how to replace parts. She asked for prayer for her broken dishwasher. I’ll never forget the pastor’s response to her. “I have four dishwashers. They’re sitting in the front row.” Sure enough, there sat his four sons.

When our washer stopped working, I knew it needed more than prayer. And, dad-gummit, what with all this cold weather, the creek was frozen over and the washboard put away. I know that it was for situations like this that God invented laundromats, but instead I ran some self-diagnostics on our machine.

The first time my diagnosis was wrong. I ordered new shock absorbers which were not only difficult to replace but turned out not to be the problem. Oh, your video warned that they would be hard to replace and very clearly showed how to do it. You did an awesome job, but when my husband dismantled the machine he discovered that a water inlet valve had been leaking onto a sensor and that was the problem.

You send out the shock absorbers immediately when I ordered them and did the same with the new parts.

Can I tell you, as an aside, that having my husband fix my washing machine was AWESOME!?

The new sensor

The new sensor

Here’s the real reason why I was so thrilled with your help, though. When the new sensor arrived, and I took it out of the box, it rattled, like a baby’s rattle, like something was possibly broken inside. I called your help line and explained the situation to the woman on the other end.

“I don’t want my husband installing a part that has been damaged in shipping,” I told her. “It looks fine, but it rattles.”

“Can I call you back?” she asked.

A few minutes later she called me back.

“I ran back to the warehouse,” she said, “and found the same part. It rattles, so I think yours is okay.”

Wow. She ran back in the warehouse to rattle a part. Now that’s customer service.

I think I could have saved a dollar or two ordering on Amazon, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have run back to the warehouse for me to rattle a part.

So,, I am sold as a customer.

Would I recommend you to other people? Absolutely!

My washing machine is fixed, running, and I am one happy mama.

Thank you.

And a special thanks to your Customer Service representative who went above, beyond, and back to the warehouse.

I Prefer Substantive Discussion

(This post is a response to the following comment left on my blog. “From seeing you about Greene and from reading your blogs, I see that you have made some very poor choices throughout your life, as an adolescent (rebellion, hepatitis, not respecting church camp rules and authority), as a wife (disloyalty, belittling your husband), as a parent (home schooling, hoarding, not allowing your children to experience a normal life), and as a supposed religious person (not capable of forgiveness, wanting revenge). You describe yourself as open-minded, thoughtful, attractive, outgoing and moralistic. You believe that you are omniscient – 1) having infinite awareness, understanding and insight – 2) possessing complete or universal knowledge. You are and never were any of them. You are not the beauty, but are the beast. You are delusional – a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary. Typically, they occur in the context of mental illness. Any person would have to be insane to want a relationship with you.“)

Dear Joan Jackson,

I received your comment on my blog the other day. Wow! You are a very astute reader! You’ve keyed in on many details that others have missed.

I had to search through back posts to read exactly what I had said. I’m sort of like Yogi Berra in that aspect; I haven’t really said all the things I said.

I knew that I had spoken of my rebellious teenage years on several occasions. I had forgotten when I mentioned that I had hepatitis. I found it – in the piles of posts I had taken down a few years ago; I reposted it yesterday.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why you find this so significant. My hepatitis was associated with my bout with mono and doesn’t have anything to do with my poor teenage choices.

The reason I mention my poor choices as a teenager is that I never would want to portray myself as someone who is perfect. I am very imperfect. Very. It’s the same reason I mention my poor housekeeping skills. It’s the same reason I post family pictures where I am often looking down or making a goofy face. Life isn’t about me.

Yes, life most certainly is not about me – but I love the fact that I can live it, make mistakes, recover from them, and keep plugging away.

I love that I have an imperfect family. My husband is wonderful, but he isn’t perfect. Oh dear. Is that belittling?

My kids are wonderful, but they aren’t perfect either. And, no, they haven’t had a normal life. So far, though, half have graduated from college. Some have multiple degrees. I don’t think that homeschooling has held them back.

What is a normal life anyway?

I searched my posts for the following terms:

  • Open-minded – zero posts. I guess I’m not.
  • Thoughtful – twelve posts, and, truth be told, I probably would describe myself as thoughtful.
  • Attractive – two posts, neither of which are in reference to me.
  • Outgoing – um, really? I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I am the opposite of that.
  • Moralistic – not a word I use, but I have referred to morals in eight posts.
  • Revenge — zero posts.

I’m not omniscient, never thought I was omniscient, and never want to be omniscient. That’s for God.

I’m not a beauty. You’re right there.

I don’t know about delusional. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m living in the Matrix. That is an irrational fear I have.

But I will say this – I am incredibly thankful that there are so many insane people in the world. At church, there’s a whole congregation of people who accept me just as I am – imperfect, delusional, beastly. I go to a conference once a year in Nashville. I’m pretty sure it’s for insane people because they all accept me there too. I have many friends, lifelong and more recent, that must be downright nuts – they love me and my whole imperfect family.

So, Joan, thank you for the opportunity to do a little self-examination and blog review. As a rule, though, I prefer more substantive discussion and less personal attack.

Unfortunately, if you comment again, I won’t see it. I’ve chosen to block you. It’s my prerogative as a blogger.


Emergency Room

(This post was first published June 28, 2011)

It all started with bilirubin.

Bud and I have some sort of blood incompatibility issue which caused each of our newborn children to have elevated bilirubin levels.  Even though I had had hepatitis and jaundice as a teenager when I had mono, I didn’t know much about bilirubin.  I just knew that, at the time, I was a strange shade of orangey-yellow when I looked in the mirror.  And then, when my babies were orange and needed extra lights and watching and such, I learned more about it.  But this post isn’t really about bilirubin.

Each child had newborn jaundice.  Each needed their bilirubin levels checked multiple times.  Helen actually was re-admitted to be put under the lights at the hospital.  And this post is about Helen, but not about her bilirubin.

When Karl was a newborn, he had newborn jaundice.  I had to take him up to the hospital to have his bilirubin level checked.  Karl is number 6 in birth order, which meant I had to farm out five other children to take him for his doctor’s appointment.  Either that, or take my little tribe with me.  Nobody likes watching a baby get stuck for a blood draw, especially not siblings, and I have wonderful friends, so I farmed them out.

When I got home from this doctor’s appointment, I called Bud to let him know that I was home and everything went well.  One of his co-workers answered the phone.

“Hi, John.  This is Sally.  Could I speak with Bud?”

“Oh, he just went to the Emergency Room with the little girl.”


“Someone called and he had to go to the Emergency Room.”

“What happened?!?”

Here the co-worker started back-pedaling.  He didn’t know.  He hadn’t known that I didn’t know.  He didn’t know what to tell me.  Basically, he wanted to get off the phone with me because who wants to deal with a frantic, hormonal, post-partum mother.

My next call was to my friend who was watching Helen.  No answer.

My next call was to the Emergency Room and they put Bud on the phone.

“Everything’s fine.  Don’t worry,” he said.

Let me just say that if you ever have occasion to talk with someone while in an Emergency Room, don’t first say “everything’s fine” because obviously everything is not fine.  If everything was fine, you would not be in an Emergency Room.

“Helen got hit in the head and needs some stitches,” he went on. He reassured me that he had everything under control and would let me know what was going on when they had more information.

Helen and Caleb

Helen and Caleb

I hung up the phone wondering what had happened.  The phone rang almost immediately.  It was my friend, Jean, who had been watching Helen.  She explained the whole thing.  Jean had four sons at that point. Caleb and Helen were outside smashing ice and somehow he smashed Helen’s head by mistake.  With an ice chopper.

Poor Jean felt terrible.  Once I knew, I was okay.  I understood about boys.  Bud’s reassurance had worked.  I knew Helen was in good hands.  Today she has only a small scar along her hairline from the ice chopper incident and a great story to tell.

That day replayed for me yesterday.  Here I had spent to whole day worrying/wondering about Jacob’s first day at work.  Finally, I decided to call Helen to see how everything had gone.  I dialed her cell and this was our conversation:

“Hello, Helen?”

“Hi, Mom.  I’m in the Emergency Room.  Everything’s fine.  Can I call you back?”

“Is Jacob okay?”

“Yeah.  Can I call you back?”


I hung up and realized I knew nothing.  Jacob had been on my mind, so I assumed she was there with Jacob.  I hadn’t even asked about her.  I hadn’t even had the opportunity to find out what was going on.

Then the phone rang.  It was Helen.  She had a health question that told me she was giving her history.  As soon as I answered the question, she was gone again, with an “I’ll call you back.”

So now I knew that Helen was the patient.  She was well enough to answer questions.  BUT WHAT WAS GOING ON?!?!?

I paced and fretted until I couldn’t stand it anymore — which was about five minutes.

I called again and found out that she had gotten stain in her eyes.  She was staining a high ropes course and somehow some spilled in her face.

Over the course of the afternoon and evening, I spoke with her and her brothers that were with her several times.  She’s okay.  Everything’s fine.

The words “Emergency Room” and “Everything’s fine” don’t belong in the same sentence.

But then I find myself thinking, “O me of little faith.”  I have such a hard time believing everything is fine before I know the facts.  I think that somehow facts help my faith.   And that just shows me how small my faith really is.

I’ve been reading in the Old Testament.  God tells Abraham, “Everything is going to be fine.  Now go sacrifice Isaac.”  And Abraham did it!  Well, he didn’t end up having to sacrifice Isaac because God had it under control.

God tells the Israelites,  “I know the spies reported giants in the land, but everything is going to be fine.  Now go take the land.”  And they didn’t do it, and paid a heavy price.

In the case where they had they facts (i.e. knowledge of the giants) they actually had no faith.  In Abraham’s case, it was only God’s word and he acted on it.

The next time I get an Emergency Room call (which I hope is never) I need to remember that if they start off with “everything’s fine,” it’s time for a little faith and believing on my part.

From bilirubin to ice choppers to wood stain to … faith.  Everything’s fine.

On Being Pushy (or not)

My brother Peter is a celebrity.

That fact has nothing to do with the story, except it introduces you to Peter, known as Mr. Science to kids all over Otsego County.

What began as a grant to bring science activities to rural schools has continued with Mr. Science working for BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services); schools must buy into his services. That sort of has something to do with the story because, with cutbacks in education, he is one of the frills that has been eliminated in some schools.

“I’m just not a pushy person,” he said to me the other day.  He would have to get out and try to sell himself to schools to get his numbers up.

His science camp is always to first to fill up — all six weeks of it — at the place we work in the summer. He’s got a reputation for being pretty awesome.

“We’re not from a pushy family,” I responded.

We both kind of shrugged. Yep. That’s just how we are.

“Except,” I said, “remember the time we were shoe-shopping with Mom?”

He didn’t remember, but I did.

We were doing back-to-school shopping in Oneonta and had gone to Sears to buy shoes.  We had probably already been to Bresee’s and J. C. Penney, because I don’t remember Sears ever being our first choice for shoes, but that’s where we were.


And waiting.

And waiting.

We must have arrived during the Sears’ shoe-salesperson’s lunch.

We waited a long time.

Another family showed up and started waiting with us. Just then, the salesclerk came out, and who do you think he proceeded to help?  I’ll give you a clue —  it wasn’t us.

My mother got pushy.  She put her hands on her hips and shouldered past the other mother.

“We’ve been waiting here for twenty minutes!” she said — in such a loud voice that I felt like everyone in Sears could hear her. And that every one of the other shoppers turned to look at her. At us.

It’s the only time I ever remember her being pushy.

waiting outside the restaurant.

waiting outside the restaurant

Well, except for that time at the Sea Captain’s Table in Myrtle Beach.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Outside. In the sunshine.

Party after party was called to table after table.  They were all parties of two or four; we were twelve.

Still, my mother reached her wait limit.

And wait (note the hand on my mother's hip)

Note the hand on my mother’s hip

Hands on hips she bustled up to the maitre d, demanding our table.

“I was just about to call you,” the woman answered sweetly.

What’s remarkable about the story isn’t that my mother was pushy. It’s that those are the only times I can remember her being pushy.

We’re not from a pushy family.

Not even the family celebrities.