WOI: An Ode to Frau

When I first started high school, a mysterious figure arrived at the front doors of Flinthills High.

She wore her dark hair in a boyish pixie cut, which struck us as odd since the only women we knew with hair that short were our moms. Her skin was pale, as though she was too busy reading novels to spend time outdoors. Her slim, athletic figure was often masked by chunky knit sweaters and loose-fitting polos that sometimes rose just high enough to tease us with the edge of a tattoo (we thought?); and her semi-angular face, framed with expressive and prominent brows, rarely displayed more than the slightest hint of artificial color.

Her effortless manner of existence was unlike any we’d seen before. She was so damn comfortable in her own ordinary skin, that she became anything but ordinary. Her very being suggested both careful consideration of her place in the world, and a quiet but firm refusal to adhere to societal expectations.

We came to know her as Frau.

Frau was our ninth and eleventh grade English teacher — and she was exotic, right down to her obviously-European sneakers. She spoke German fluently, we discovered, due to a year-ish stint in Karlsruhe — or was it Düsseldorf? (This life abroad, we came to understand, did not entail evangelizing or studying at a university or teaching young children to speak English; I seem to recall her admitting she spent much of her time washing dishes. I forget the specifics, now, but the puzzlement remains.) We were exhilarated by every mysterious layer of her being.

She kept miniature squares of Ritter Sport Schokolade tucked away in odd desk drawers: coveted rewards for particularly skillful writing or unusual participation in classroom discussions. She instigated heated debate sessions, forcing us to take a stance just so she could flip the tables and require us to defend the opposing point of view; all the while enabling us to understand the complexities of not-so-black-and-white issues, unbeknownst to us fumbling teenage idiots. She welcomed original student works, and suffered through many samples of my angsty teen poetry: some, she submitted to contests or anthologies; most, she returned, riddled with suggestions, scribbly stars, and questions.

One February afternoon when the grass lay buried and brown beneath mushy gray-sky snow, Frau read a poem to us: “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I have never forgotten how innocently the poem floated up from the silky pages of those Holt Literature books, right up to the last two lines: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / went home and put a bullet through his head.”

After a brief moment of silence following the sound of the last period, my peers issued immediate exclamations: That was STUPID! Why’d he do it?! I hate this poem. But I was enamored. How remarkably odd, indeed, that Robinson could so nonchalantly introduce the man’s abrupt suicide. My heart ached with startling pity: Robinson’s words had touched me, at the very core of my being. I don’t remember a time before this in which an author’s work had such a moving effect on me.

While many of my peers likely forgot the poem and the record player upon which Frau shared the musical version by Simon & Garfunkel, I still think of this poem often, ten years later. I remain haunted by Richard Cory.

Frau set the wheels in motion: my literary awakening.

* * *

She’s a bit romanticized in my memory, I’ll admit. It’s quite possible that some of the details of this recollection are a bit skewed. But I suppose that is normal: those rose-colored glasses are some sort of due process for a person with whom one has formed such an intimate but distant personal relationship.

Frau claims ownership (or perhaps, contributing-editorship,) to a fair chunk of what I claim as my actual self. She planted a seed of hope in the palm of my teenage soul that has never stopped growing. Certainly, sometimes that seedling has shriveled a bit or needed some coaxing to emerge from a particularly crusty layer of neglect and doubt; but the seed remains. She showed me how to nourish that seedling with exceptional prose and tidbits of poetry.

She also cultivated my appreciation for literature and writing into something much greater, something much more fulfilling. Because Frau walked through the doors of USD 492 some twelve years ago, I learned how to accept criticism of my writing, though sometimes frustrating or nettling. And through her steady stream of feedback and encouragement, a foundation was built for a lifelong need to write.

In the meantime, she hurled book recommendations at me like literary bullets. I grew whole in the fibers of those pages, filled with competing desires to read my life rich and to please this woman I had grown to love in the manner of student admiration. Few things became more satisfying than the affirmation Frau bestowed upon me when I completed another noteworthy novel. My appreciation for this beloved teacher grew into something a bit like friendship, and a bit like worship.

* * *

I’m a teacher of high school English, now, and more often than not I have a little cry at my desk at the end of the day, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. My students can be belligerent and cruel, my colleagues are often sharp-tongued and more critical than helpful, and society as a whole seems to have few kind things to say about educators. On those days, I usually end up calling my mom, who sits patiently on the other end of the line as I weep loudly and feel pretty sorry for myself. I wonder aloud why I even bother, what is even the point of being a teacher.

When the gasping cries subside a bit, she always asks, “Are you done?” and I nod, as though she can see my head bob through the phone. “Good. Do you remember Frau Krehbiel?” she starts.

And that’s really all she has to say.

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The Craftsman

smooth, broad nails set deep,
fingers crusted (Titebond III):
hands of a master.

the thrum of a lathe,
soft tendrils coil, pile, bury;
edges redefined.

homemade concoction:
acrid lacquer bites nostrils–
now, a waxy sheen.

curved flesh and muscle,
a backdrop of planned angles:
man and craft blended.

infinite dust motes
cling to forearms, lashes, jaw:
garb of the master.

WOI: True Grit

Last weekend, I laced up my Brooks Launch 2s, threw on a ratty old race t-shirt, and chugged what seemed like a half gallon of Arctic water from my Yeti Rambler as I passed through the doorway of my childhood home. It was race day, and I was not even remotely prepared.

At 7:00 on a muggy Eastern Kansas morning, I maneuvered the F-150 in robotic fashion toward a destination only somewhat known, the deeper part of my brain engrossed in a one-sided conversation that could aptly be dubbed WTF Have I Signed Up For? Meanwhile, my passenger sat only two feet away, equally silent — though her silence seemed much more serene, determined.

Sheila and I were on our way to our second race together, and our very first OCR (obstacle course race): the True Grit Challenge 5k.

In the weeks leading up to the race, we nervously shared photos and videos from Oz Events’ Instagram and Facebook accounts, often with nervous giggles that resembled desperate hiccups (at least, on my end of the line). I grew increasingly wary: I’ve been a runner for 14 years, competitive for 9 of those, but this OCR thing was unknown territory. Sheila, on the other hand, who has no history of running, only offered words of support and encouragement in the days prior to our race. We can do this, she texted me. We are warriors!

Though the course was not the most extreme or difficult of OCRs around the country, the back half would have been an agonizing tenth circle of hell if it hadn’t been for Sheila, who pushed and pulled and encouraged through her own exhaustion — she was a beacon not just for myself, but for others, as well. While my mantra was something along the lines of “OMG I’m out of shape – please don’t let me die today,” Sheila’s was an even, confident img_3866“We will succeed – we will finish this race.” Her tenacity was nothing short of incredible.

***

I’ve known Sheila for three years, now; two of those years we spent as colleagues and friends as teachers at the same school. My first impression of Sheila was that she was remarkable: her 2nd grade classroom ran like a well-oiled machine, her own children were respectful and kind, and her faith — that, my friends, could move mountains.

I quickly discovered Sheila to be an unstoppable, striking model of everything that a woman could be — everything a woman should aspire to be.

Sheila is a Woman of Interest (I know — I slipped up a bit on blogging about those) for a number of reasons; truthfully, too many to list in this post. First and foremost, Sheila is a fountain of encouragement. Seriously. In every frustrating situation I’ve endured over the past three years, Sheila has bombarded me with goodwill and heartfelt words of encouragement. Sometimes, these tidbits come from the Bible. Most times, these nuggets of inspiration come from the depths of her beautiful heart.

Perhaps due to this perpetual stream of support she supplies for others, I know Sheila to be resilient. During a physically grueling OCR, nothing could phase her; haybale mountains, cattleguard crossings, log carries — all of these obstacles were merely annoyances to be dealt with prior to crossing the finish line. A year ago, she ran her first half marathon; and though the going got rough, she finished with a smile on her face.

She is the picture of grace. Even in the face of divorce, Sheila has prevailed in her efforts to remain composed, dignified, and kind-spirited. Pettiness is not the stuff she is made of. At her core, she strives to better the lives of others around her, regardless of her personal feelings toward any given individual or situation.

I find myself awed, often, by her ability to go far beyond proclaiming a faith in Christ or her own status as a Christian; Sheila truly embodies the loving, forgiving, and compassionate nature that her faith asks of her. In her, you know that these elements are authentic; usually, they seem effortless.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines grit as “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” It’s almost as if the entry was composed with Sheila in mind.

Review: The Martian

Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, has been placed on a pedestal of science fiction-worshippers’ making. In fact, the book, which got its start as a serial publication on Weir’s blog, charged forth with tenacity after it was published in 2014 and adapted by filmmakers in 2015. It’s safe to say few book/movie combos have accrued this much hype in the past two or three years. (Key word: few.) It’s also safe to say those who do not identify as sci-fi fans, readers, or aerospace intellectuals account for a large portion of readers who have hailed this novel as a must-read.

Which means it may be unsafe to say I didn’t love it. At all.

img_3886
The novel starts on Sol 6 (sols, you’ll discover, are solar days, which are slightly longer than Earth days). The opening line grabbed me: “I’m pretty much fucked.” Both unconventional and vague, Weir played a strong hand right off the bat, compelling me to read further. Unfortunately, the next 50 pages didn’t live up to that first line.

The novel is separated into chunks, primarily several chapters of “diary” entries by Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars with inadequate food to account for the four years he must wait for the next Mars expedition — and no way to communicate with NASA. Or Martians. Or anyone/thing. In contrast to the diary-esque entries by Watney, the reader also gains gratifying glimpses into the goings-on at NASA and on the Hermes, the ship that Watney’s colleagues escaped to prior to stranding him on the red planet.

Fortunately, Watney is highly resourceful and manages to find a way to produce food and survive–at least, for another 300-or-so sols. Unfortunately, one problem after another crops up, thwarting his resilient attempts to survive. The story chronicles some of the most creative (& critical) thinking on Earth — and Mars — and despite several tedious stumbles along the way, concludes with a jaw-clenching finale.

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Intriguing premise, non-conventional play on the survival theme, sharp contrast between Earth/Mars. . . . Unfortunately, I can’t join the hordes of others who worship at the feet of Weir/Watney.

The plot was sluggish — I almost quit at the 50-page mark. (Read: SO. MUCH. SCIENCE. Sidenote: I am not scientifically-minded at all, so much of the chemistry went way over my head. That being said, without these descriptions, it would have been hard to fully grasp Watney’s dire situation.) However, I can’t remember the last time I quit a book, so I kept digging through the prose, hoping for redeeming qualities. Once Weir included scenes from Earth, things improved.

I also struggled with characterization. Watney was completely uninteresting to me at the start of the book. He said things like, “Yay!” (yeah . . . I just didn’t buy that) and only rarely allowed a glimpse at the sarcastic genius readers would come to know and love (or just appreciate) later in the novel. Additionally, Weir kind of pushed my limits with repeated scenarios in which Watney proclaims he’s succeeded at something/is safe, followed by, “I’m completely fucked.” Those quips lose their humor and effectiveness after repeated use.

I did relish the portions in which Watney’s character really shined through (think last half of book). My favorites: his sassy communications with NASA when he felt they were micromanaging. I also enjoyed the last third/half of the novel, once the plot picked up speed and I became more invested in Watney’s survival.

This novel is a quick read, especially if you allow yourself to skim over some of the more tedious scientific descriptions to grasp the major concepts of maneuvers and predicaments. In all, the book fell short of the hype, and I was a bit disappointed. For me, this disappointment is more rooted in the writing itself, rather than the premise. For those who aren’t English majors with tendencies to over-analyze writing, I don’t doubt the book will prove enjoyable.

Rating: 3/5 stars

 

The Waterboy

My grandfather’s face is a topographic map of his nearly century-long life: a deep line down the left side, from his years at Texaco; several softer, branching folds at the corners of his eyes, from years of chuckling at the shenanigans of my brothers and sister and me; another particularly distinguished furrow above his brows, from losing a son in ’80.

His skin is worn and cracked, like the seat of a saddle that hasn’t been conditioned in the seven years it has dwelled in the barn, uncovered. A hooked nose forms the saddle horn, darkened from years of exposure in the scorching Kansas sun. His upper lip forms a neat little downward peak in the middle, though I rarely see this peak, which flattens and stretches like a plateau when he reveals a crooked, ornery grin.

My grandfather’s ears are large and hairy. This is a truth I may have written in the unswerving honesty of a third grader, which remains valid today.

His hands are speckled with scorch-marks from summers spent under the watchful eye of the sun, from the seat of a 60s-era Allis-Chalmers tractor (which also bears the faded mark of long afternoons outdoors). These hands fascinated me as a child: they are rugged and gnarled, his index fingers bent at the uppermost knuckle. This crook in his fingers may have been due to accident, but I prefer to believe the crook exists by design—the bent knuckle is just the right angle and size for wet willies.

My grandpa’s belly protrudes out over his belt, a perfectly watermelon-shaped curve. If I reach back into the furthest corners of my memories, I cannot recall a time when that hard, round belly was smaller, or larger, or nonexistent. It thrives on a steady diet of orange slices, black licorice, and the occasional bottle of Bud Light. This belly, coupled with roly-poly ankles that twist and bend of their own accord, creates a precarious gait that involves a sort of prancing, high-kneed step, step, step.

***

If Grandpa were a literary archetype, he would be the trickster. From an early age, I distinctly remember his gnarled fingers reaching for earlobes to twist with a high-pitched “EEEEEEE!” and the toothy chuckle that reached his glittering eyes.

When my sister and brothers and I were too young to drive but old enough to engage in free manual labor, Grandpa would gather us up in the worn out flatbed chore pickup and haul us to pastures to chop weeds and small trees.

On the way, he told stories.

He told of racehorses he raised with his brother, R.P., and the transition from lithe horses to black Angus cattle on the Simon ranch. He pointed out the pasture where Dad and Terry hopped on the hood of the ancient hay truck and rode the five blacktop miles home, clinging to its headlights. (“But don’t tell your grandmother, kids.”) At our cajoling, he recounted tales of the mischief my dad and uncle engaged in, often involving everyday items like manure, perfume, and our Aunt Syndi.

Grandpa’s mind was a gold mine of historical truths blended with familial legends.

***

grandpa

 

When I was in high school, Grandpa’s name changed to Waterboy.

It all started with cross country. You see, when I was a freshman, my school finally agreed to start up a distance running program, if the prospective coach could drum up enough interest. I hadn’t run long distance before, but I knew that my skills as a volleyball player were limited . . . and after watching Missy, an upperclassman, (unintentionally) pile-drive a ball straight into the nose of one of my classmates, my resolve was firmed. Cross country it was.

I quickly discovered that I was surprisingly good—enough so that my grandparents and parents didn’t mind driving two hours to watch me run for fifteen minutes. (Okay, maybe that had a bit more to do with their unconditional love for me.)

Grandma and Grandpa never missed a meet. Despite my grandfather’s wobbling trundle—or perhaps, in spite of—he could always be found at the starting line, and the finish. While my muscled legs (aka genetically inherited thunder thighs) pounded the earth with youthful dignity (and often, agony), he walked in that almost-stumble from one vantage point to another. Right knee up—eighty degrees—belly tilt—right knee down—ankle flutter—step. Left knee up—eighty degrees—

Grandma often perched at the start and finish, too, but found a place to rest beneath the slightly more temperate shade of a cottonwood tree or on the sticky seat of some ill-used picnic table. She guarded the cooler.

Before the finish, my grandfather would take those painful-looking steps to grandma’s bench, unzip the cooler with his twisted forefinger and thumb, and draw out a miniature bottle of Dasani. He’d head back toward the finish line with deliberate determination, brow furrowed beneath his Flinthills Mustangs cap, beads of sweat on his upper lip.

When I crossed the finish line, legs wobbling from the kind of exhaustion that can only be produced by 4,000 meters of rolling golf course terrain and ninety-three degree Eastern Kansas humidity, there he was: my Waterboy. Sometimes he stood back, waited for my parents to congratulate me and lead me to shade before offering his own congratulations; but often, he was somehow immediately at my side, bottle of water in one gnarled hand, the other reaching around my waist to prop me up.

His brow was never furrowed at the finish line. His lips were always stretched back in a silent chuckle, his dark eyes glittering with palpable excitement. After I could stand on my own, he would reach for the stopwatch that hung around his neck and compare times with my dad. Nobody could be more proud, or more invested. He was my Waterboy, and that was a great honor.

***

Now my grandfather is even more unsteady than when I was in high school. His walk is a bit more deliberate, a lot more terrifying. His knotted fingers struggle with the twist-off caps of Bud Lights, with the keys of his car, with the fork at dinnertime. His ears are still large and hairy, but I no longer believe those hairs are sound-feelers; even with hearing aids, conversations are a struggle.

He forgets things, too. The count for the Leonard pasture; a word, mid-sentence; his 60th wedding anniversary; how to exit the Sprecker, a pasture we’ve rented for twenty years; how to start the car; where the burn barrels stand; the name of someone he’s known for years. He forgets these things, and he knows that he’s forgotten. The recognition of forgetting flashes in his eyes, and they glitter once more—but not with joy, or mischief; they shine with panic, and fear, and frustration.

We watch his memory deteriorate like a sandcastle on the shore at high tide, a few particles at a time until no more remain. Those of us who watch from higher on the beach stand with shoulders slumped, hearts writhing somewhere between our stomachs and our feet. We stand together, separate in our own memories, unable to rebuild the sandcastle with the same particles of sand; bitter that no one warned us the castle would fall so soon. Or at all.

I like to think the roar of water reminds my grandfather of something, though; perhaps sizzling afternoons on browning fall grass and a time when he was called Waterboy.

Review: The Casual Vacancy

I first read J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy in 2012, when it debuted to little acclaim as her first non-Harry Potter work of adult fiction. Since that time, I’ve read numerous other books, including the Hogwarts series a few more times, and though I couldn’t remember all the minutiae of the novel, I did remember loving it. And I distinctly remember being disappointed in the majority of the literary world, which had cast a surly glance at Rowling’s novel and stamped off in an entirely different direction, without so much as a backward glance.

(Okay — maybe reception for the novel wasn’t that bad . . . but I felt personally slighted on Rowling’s behalf, and I hadn’t even written the book.)

I figured — why not give it another go? I’m all about reading enjoyable books over, and over, and over.

The Casual Vacancy is a novel of painstakingly-crafted layers. From the start, the reader is bombarded with a number of characters and storylines to follow — a feature that I realize is a turn-off to many readers. Admittedly, the first 50-100 pages fostered a love-hate relationship as I read: I became enamored with the raw characters, but found myself frequently flipping back to review some previously released nugget of information about Fats, or Krystal, or Colin. This is where most people give up — they don’t want to struggle to follow the storyline, and I can’t blame readers for that. However, if you trust the writer, you will later thank her for the web of lives she has spun. (See what I did there?)

The story takes place in Pagford, a fictitious parish in England that lives separately but quite irritatingly in the shadow of the neighboring city, Yarvil. Deep-rooted undercurrents of bitterness flow from Pagford to Yarvil, particularly in regards to a small addiction clinic and low-income housing development that Pagfordians no longer want to acknowledge as part of their community. In time, the citizens of Pagford (and Rowling’s readers) ultimately learn (or continue to quash their realizations) that poverty and addiction isn’t all that it seems.

Rowling’s propensity for multi-faceted characters and interwoven storylines is crucial in the development of Casual Vacancy, where no detail goes unnoticed. As I reread the novel, I found myself recalling snippets from the first go-round . . . but still I plowed through the work eagerly, savoring every unforeseen twist of fate that led the strikingly different characters onto one abysmal, downward-spiral of a path. I marveled at Rowling’s ability to so adeptly portray the carefully constructed public personas of her characters, in direct opposition to their usually far-less-desirable home personalities. (Sukhvinder and Colin, for example.)

This story is not Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It is not mythical or magical or even remotely gratifying (in the traditional sense of the word). The tale is not for children, or for people seeking a follow-up to Rowling’s first round of genius.

The Casual Vacancy is, however, a gut-wrenching exploration of morality in politics and community. It is a tale of lives closely linked, despite physical distance or age or economic status. The book is a magnifying glass held to the callous pores of a global society that values the separation of poverty and wealth, young and old, personal responsibility and public burden. Rowling’s novel begs the reader to ponder his or her own code of ethics as she dares to ask:

  • Does responsibility for individual choices/actions ever shift from personal to societal? 
  • Just how far will you go to protect your own interests? 
  • How far does your empathy for mankind extend? 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars – highly recommended.