A Story I’ve Rarely Told: The A Minus Incident

I’ve mentioned before that I was one of several valedictorians of my high-school class. The six of us all had 4.0 GPAs.

A 4.0 was as high as one could get in our high school—all A grades (A+, A, A-) counted as 4 points. There were no deviations for pluses and minuses, and there were no extra points for AP or Honors classes. (In fact, the school didn’t have separate AP classes, though it offered the tests.) And, in addition, the school only counted semester grades—quarter grades were shown on report cards, but not used in calculating GPAs.

My junior year of high school was my hardest, as it is for many students, then and now. I took six courses—Honors English, U.S. History, Chemistry, French 4, German 3 (straight from German 1, I skipped German 2), and Russian 1. I had no free periods for studying, and I had homework in most of these classes most nights. But through the second quarter, I had all As, and I even had an A+ in Chemistry.

My father at about this era, early 1970s – you can see how stern he could be

For the third quarter, ending in the spring sometime, I brought home a report card with an A- on it and no A+s. I can’t remember which class the A- was in, but I remember my father’s frowning response when he saw the report card.

“You should do better than this.”

We had several dinner discussions about how an A- could be improved.

I’d been disappointed in my grades that quarter also, but I recognized that it wasn’t the end of the world. I’d have to be sure that nothing slipped further in the last quarter of the year to retain my class ranking, but I knew that this report card wouldn’t impact my GPA.

Still, I was angry and hurt at my father’s reaction. This was the man who was chastising me—the guy who got a D in Algebra?

My father’s lack of early scholarship was part of our family’s lore. My mother—also valedictorian of her high-school class—dated and married her classmate who got a D in Algebra the first year she knew him. His problem wasn’t capability, but in his early teens my future father suffered from a poor attitude and failure to do the assigned work.

Somehow my father turned it around (probably my mother’s doing) and later earned a Ph.D., but still . . . his history was that of a D student, which I knew full-well. He shouldn’t be complaining about an A-.

I hid a lot of tears that spring.

Many years later, just a few months before he died, my father and I spoke about the A- incident. My pique still showed.

“I was too hard on you,” he said, “wasn’t I?”

“Yes,” I told him.

At his funeral two years ago this week, his former secretary told me, “Your dad was awfully strict with you kids. I remember when he complained about an A- you received.” So the story had made it to his office. “I told him he shouldn’t give you such a hard time. Wasn’t I right?”

I chuckled and said I’d told him the same thing.

Like my father, I know I was hard on my kids. They were (are) smart and usually were good students. Even though I was strict, as they went through high-school and college, I tried to keep my perspective about their grades, remembering the A- incident with my father. I think I was relatively calm about grades, though I lost my cool about many other things—assignments not turned in, papers forgotten, and disciplinary failures. I’m sure they could describe many times when I overreacted.

I wonder which of my failures they will try to eliminate from their parenting behaviors, should they have kids someday.

When has a memory from your childhood impacted how you parented?

On Birthdays and Memory

Sixty years ago today was my first birthday. I was too young to remember it, but there is a fuzzy photograph of me in a high chair with a cake bearing one candle in front of me. I was the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side of the family, so I’m certain my first birthday was a big occasion.

Family lore says that I stuck my fingers in the flame and got burned. That happened to most of the kids in our family—I’m surprised my parents didn’t learn better over the years. A one-year-old does not know that candles burn. I was more careful with my own children.

Although I can remember some things from a very young age (see here and here), I have no specific memories of my birthday until my sixth birthday when I was in the first grade. Or maybe it was my seventh birthday when I was in the second grade.

My mother arranged a daisy-themed party. I have no photographic evidence of this daisy party, but I know it was my first birthday party with friends beyond family members. I had a party in the second grade that I remember well, but I think I had a party in my first grade year also, and I think that’s the daisy party I recall.

My mother made invitations and taped plastic daisies to them, then we sent the invitations by mail. I felt very grown up to be entering society with written and posted invitations requesting “R.S.V.P.”

My mother was very much in control of this party. Daisies were one of her favorite flowers, not mine. The entire party involved daisies. In addition to the invitations, there were daisies on the table, more plastic daisies on the name cards at each place setting, we played a game of pin the petal on the daisy, and so forth.

I did get to choose the cake. I chose angel food. I usually wanted angel food, whenever I got to choose. I love the airy sweet texture of angel food cake. My mother typically covered it with whipped cream and pineapple frosting, though sometimes she left it plain and served fruit compote on the side. Angel food was one of the few cakes my mother made from scratch. She preferred making pies to cakes, and most of her cakes were from boxed mixes. Though she also made German chocolate cake (my father’s favorite) and pineapple upside down cake (my brother’s favorite) from scratch, so she was capable of some fine cakes.

Even though I have no memories of my early birthdays, I know that birthdays were important occasions in our family. Birthdays were so important that we also celebrated half birthdays with half cakes. So it surprises me that my early memories don’t include my birthdays. But they don’t.

That is the way of memory. We cannot decide how to fill the filing cabinet in our mind. Why certain things remain in our heads and others disappear forever is a mystery. Is it because certain physical synapses connect in our brains, triggered by later events? Is it because some traumas sear us irrevocably and cannot be dispelled? Is it because some scenes get repeated as family lore and institutionalized in our minds? Probably all of the above. Our memories make us who we are, yet we have no control of which we keep and which we lose.

Which is the earliest birthday you remember?

Writing Milestones: Journaling and Blogging

I don’t want March to get away from me before I write about two milestones that occurred this month—the fifteenth anniversary of when I began keeping a journal, and the fifth anniversary of this blog.

My original journal. The picture at the top is my new journal cover, which I had to buy when the original leather cover became tattered.

I’ve written before about starting my journal. One of my early posts on this blog was titled “Take the Plunge—Start a Journal.” That’s what I did—I had bought myself a Christmas present of a pretty leather journal cover and three blank narrow-ruled notebooks to put in it. It sat in my drawer for a few months, until one day in March 2002, I took the plunge and started writing.

That month was a turning point in my life for many reasons, though I didn’t know it at the time. I suppose most fifteen-year periods in my life have been equally eventful, and some have been more stressful, but the last fifteen years—close to 25% of my life—have been challenging.

On the personal front, I’ve seen my children grow from teenagers to responsible adults. One child graduated from college, and has since had six jobs, more than six different addresses, and the same girlfriend for the past three years. The other child has graduated from high school, college, and law school, has lived in D.C. and two states, and has also had more addresses than jobs. In these fifteen years, I’ve also grieved the loss of a grandmother, both parents (one slowly, one fast), and a father-in-law.

On the career front, the last boss I chose to work for quit during March 2002—the month I started journaling. A new boss was appointed several weeks later. I was already wrestling with whether I should retire four years later in 2006 when I turned fifty. In those four years, I had two and a half different jobs (I worked on a special assignment for several months, hence, the half) and had three and a half different managers (same reason for the half manager). I dealt with corporate politics in ways I never had before.

I did retire at the end of 2006, and for the past decade I’ve been devoting my primary effort to becoming a novelist. So on the writing front, I mark March 2002 as the beginning of my career as a writer, because my journal started me on the path to writing, even if I didn’t take myself seriously at the time.

My journal has helped me stay grounded through all these changes. It has helped direct my life. I’ve debated a variety of courses of action in its pages, often repeatedly. When an issue keeps raising itself for discussion, it’s a sign I should change something. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t, and sometimes I continue to debate what to do.

I didn’t write daily in the first few years. But since I retired, I have written almost every day of every year. I’d bet there are only 10-20 days in the entire decade that I have missed. In fifteen years, I have filled fifty of those narrow-ruled notebooks—160+ pages each, about 300 words per page, or roughly 240,000 words. The equivalent of two to three novels.

And, oh, by the way, I’ve published three novels, am well into a fourth, and I’ve written many essays, short stories, and poems, some of which have won contests and been published.

And I’ve written this blog. I really began Story & History in January 2012, but I didn’t start posting weekly until March, so I consider that to be the anniversary of the blog. (I increased my posts to twice a week later that year—a schedule I’m amazed I’ve been able to continue for so long.) So in my mind, this is the month I have completed five years of blogging.

While my journal is my private musing, this blog is where I muse more publicly. As readers know, I muse about all sorts of things. Enough to have written well over posts. I write another blog under my pseudonym, which I’ve also kept up for about five and a half years. Between the two blogs, I estimate I’ve written about 375,000 words in the past five years. That’s another three or four novels’ worth.

I guess I have to say I’m a writer now. And take myself seriously. I often wonder if I should be spending my time journaling and blogging, or if I should focus on moving more novels from my head to the page. But as long as my journal directs me, and as long as blogging connects me to others, I will probably continue.

Does writing help direct your life? Have you tried it?

Treasures & Trash: Or Why I Hate to Clean and Why I Hate to Throw Things Out

I could have titled this post “Tidying Up, Part 2.” But I decided on “Treasures and Trash” because that is what I found.

It started as a simple project. I have a chest in which I have stored items for many years. It’s a small chest, the height of a short dresser, and it has cupboard doors. Over the years, when I had photographs printed, I would throw the envelopes of snapshots (together with negatives or CDs) into the chest. Old family portraits I didn’t want to display anymore went into the chest, along with the frames they were in, unless I had another portrait to put in the frame. I stored many other keepsakes in the chest as well. After each item went in, I shut the doors and rarely thought of it again.

Occasionally, I rummaged through the chest looking for pictures for this blog, or searched through my kids’ baby books to find a date or a certificate. But for the most part, out of sight, out of mind.

It was getting hard to keep the doors on the chest shut. So I finally decided I had to clean it out. Really, I thought, if I just put the loose envelopes of photos into boxes, I could keep the chest neat enough to close the doors. So one Saturday afternoon, I found some boxes and started in.


Before: The Messy Stage

There is always a stage in a cleaning project when it is messier than when one begins. This immediately became true of this project. No way could I simply cram photo envelopes into boxes and stash everything back in the chest. There was too much stuff in there.

I’d been afraid something like this would happen, which is why I chose an afternoon when my husband was away. Messes—at least my messes—make him nervous.

But I’d started. I had to do something, to get it back to a stage when my husband wouldn’t see a mess.

So once everything was out of the chest, I started sorting. I found many things that were trash, and many that were treasures. In the trash category were about two years of old financial statements from the mid-1990s. And many terrible snapshots of family members (though I didn’t bother to sort these out). And also a costume I’d worn for Halloween at work in about the year 2000—Catbert, Evil HR Director.

But there were even more treasures. Things I’d been looking for. Things I’d forgotten I had. Things I don’t think I ever knew I had. The photograph of my brother and me with Santa Claus from 1960 or 1961—I’ve been searching for that since my father died two years ago (though I think this copy was my grandmother’s, not my parents’). A 1950 picture of the adults in my husband’s family at a civic event (one of the things I didn’t know I had). A postcard from my husband to his great-aunt announcing that he’d taken a girl (me) home to his mother (another thing I didn’t know I had). Many pictures of momentous occasions in my children’s lives I’d forgotten about—my daughter’s preschool graduation, my son’s Eagle Scout ceremony (now if I could just find a copy of the speech I gave), and many visits and vacations. And so much more.

These treasures are why I hate to throw things out. I didn’t have time to look through all the photos. I’m sure there are more treasures in some of the rolls of film from years ago. If I simply toss them, I might lose something precious, a memory that would make me smile.

In months to come, you’ll hear more about the treasures I found. And maybe about some additional treasures, if I can steel myself to get back into those boxes. If I can bear to attack the chest again.

After: Much neater, and less stuff

I spent a miserable afternoon at the chore, but the treasures were all back in the chest before my husband got home. The trash? It’s been thrown out, the financial records shredded.

When have you found family treasures you didn’t know you had?

Lent: Too Old to Fast . . . At Last!

The Catholic Lenten obligations prohibit eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during Lent and require fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. As our pastor reminded the congregation recently, “A Catholic fast isn’t a real fast. We get to eat three times a day.” Which is true—the Lenten fast permits two small meals that do not add to a full meal, plus one full meal. And only on two days of the year. It really isn’t an onerous practice.

Still, I am glad that this year I am too old to fast. The fasting obligation only applies to people between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine. I’m sixty now! Other than being eligible for a few senior discounts, this is the first time I’ve been glad to be sixty. I might have been able to get away with not fasting last year—I was fifty-nine when Lent started last year, so in my sixtieth year—but I piously decided I’d be a stickler for the rules, and so last year I complied with the fasting rules.

Although Catholic fasting is not onerous, I have always hated it. (Maybe that’s the point. It is a sacrifice.) I’ve had Greek Orthodox friends whose religious fasting meant they could eat practically nothing for the week before Easter. I know Muslims who fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. Am I weaker than they are? Less religious? Maybe.

But in truth, I feel better when I eat small, regular meals. When I started my fasting years, I only weighed 88 pounds. Reducing my two already small daytime meals to less than a full meal meant I Uwas really dragging by evening. I was ravenous and cranky. Somehow, that never felt like the Lenten spirit.

I didn’t reach 100 pounds until mid-way through my first pregnancy, and I didn’t stay above 100 pounds until after my second child was born. I weigh “comfortably” over 100 now, but I still like my regular meals. And sometimes snacks—when I get home from the gym, I eat any food in the house that isn’t frozen.

Plus, it’s best if I avoid situations that make me cantankerous (as my family would attest). I had some blood work done recently, and I couldn’t eat breakfast until 9:30—that was enough to make me snarl. So I admit to being glad I no longer have a religious obligation to fast.

This Lent, I’ll give up fasting.

But on a positive note, I have decided on other ways of observing Lent this year. I’ve given up the daily Wall Street Journal crossword puzzles, which have been consuming a half-hour or so of my day. (I wish the Journal had never begun daily puzzles—the weekly puzzle was plenty for me.) I’ve reduced my Diet Coke intake each day (and suffered withdrawal for the first few days of Lent). And I’ve decided to read more literary fiction for the next six weeks, instead of genre fiction like murder mysteries (maybe I’ll sleep better at night).

These changes in my habits, plus a couple of other projects I’m taking on, should do me at least as much good as reducing my food intake for two days. I’m hoping to be more productive and healthier. And less cranky.

What makes you cranky?

Not Proud of Middlebury College Now

As readers of this blog know, I am a proud alumna of Middlebury College, Class of 1976. My years at Middlebury contributed greatly to making me the person I am today (see here and here).

But this week I am not proud.

Last Thursday, March 2, 2017, Middlebury students protested an appearance by Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of several books. I haven’t read Mr. Murray’s writings, so I do not take a position on his work. He is conservative and controversial (not necessarily bad traits), and some claim he is racist. Regardless of Mr. Murray’s opinions, I do take a position on how Middlebury students handled themselves during their protest.

First, let me say that it was at Middlebury that I was taught the historical and theoretical bases for civil disobedience. I took two Political Science courses taught by Professor Murray Dry, one of the best professors I had at the college. His courses on classical and American political theory and history prepared me well for Stanford Law School and have informed my thinking on many issues over the years.

In Professor Dry’s classes, I read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King impressed me with his arguments supporting nonviolent direct action against unjust laws. I recall discussions on the merits of violent versus nonviolent protest, on how far civil disobedience should go, and on whether these tactics would only work in a just society.

The problem I have with the conduct of the Middlebury students last week is that they did not remain nonviolent. Nor was their conduct directed against laws or civil authorities, but against speech by a private citizen who was invited by a student club to speak on campus. Mr. Murray was invited because he has written about the white working class in America. Apparently, the invitation was intended to permit him to explain his views on Donald Trump’s appeal to much of America—which seems an eminently reasonable issue for college students to discuss and debate at the moment.

In advance of the scheduled speech, students and alums argued that Mr. Murray should not be permitted to speak on campus. They have the right to protest, and I have no problem with the fact that they did, although I believe that college campuses should solicit and present to students a wide variety of opinions on issues of the day—including conservative opinions. Middlebury has the reputation of being a very liberal campus these days, and I think it is particularly important for liberals to listen to conservative opinions (and vice versa, of course).

Once Mr. Murray took the stage, students disrupted his attempts to speak by shouting protest slogans and screaming. Again, they had the right to speak and protest, though it shows a remarkable lack of civility to disrupt a campus-sponsored event, when a boycott or standing in silent protest would have made their point as well.

When it became clear Mr. Murray could not speak in the original location, administration and faculty members moved him to another site, so that his remarks could be broadcast without disruption. While he was being escorted to the new building, protesters pursued the car in which Mr. Murray was riding, jumped on it and shook it. In the mêlée, a demonstrator pulled a female faculty member’s hair and twisted her neck. She was injured to the extent that she went to the hospital later and ended up in a neck brace.

In addition, the students pulled fire alarms and disrupted the transmission of Mr. Murray’s broadcast.

This summary of the events is based on multiple news accounts. A Google search will let readers verify the reports for themselves.

The events at Middlebury last week went beyond my understanding of nonviolent civil disobedience. The student protestors engaged in criminal acts of vandalism, assault, and battery.

Middlebury College President Laurie Patton said in a statement forwarded to alumni that this was a “lost opportunity for those in our community who wanted to listen to and engage with Mr. Murray.” She says the college will respond in “the very near future” to “clear violations of Middlebury College policy.”

I will not be proud of my alma mater again until I see how the college responds. I hope the response is swift and strong. I hope the college cooperates in the prosecution of the criminal acts that occurred on campus. And I hope Middlebury encourages open and civil debate on a wide range of topics in the future.

I have donated money to Middlebury College for most of the 41 years since I graduated. I have represented Middlebury at college fairs in the Kansas City area, and I have interviewed many applicants from the Kansas City area in the last decade as part of the college’s Alumni Admissions Program.

I do not see how I can continue to support the college if it does not support the values I uphold. One of my values is maintaining courtesy to those with whom I disagree. If Middlebury students cannot be courteous to those with whom they disagree, I see no reason to contribute to their education.

How do you feel about the decrease in civility in today’s society?

P.S. as of March 6, in the evening: Here is a link to the March 6 statement by President Patton to the Middlebury community. She raises the right initial response items, and I am hopeful that the college’s actions will hold people accountable and improve respectfulness on all sides. The proof will be in the results of the investigation, the follow-up actions, and the conduct of students in the future.

Why Did the Emigrants Head West? For Prosperity, Health, or “Manifest Destiny”?

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol, by Emanuel Leutze)

I decided to write about the Oregon Trail in part because the concept of leaving home for an unknown wilderness so far away is such an alien concept to me. I’ve moved across the country on a few occasions, but I don’t like spending time in the wilderness.

Why did the emigrants choose to leave? I wanted to know. What made them pack what they could in a wagon and leave family and friends behind?

As I researched, I discovered that the reasons were as varied as why we move from state to state or leave one job to take another.

Most pioneers left for economic opportunity. They could own more land—free land—in the West than they had in the settled territories.

Some left for health reasons. Plagues of cholera and smallpox and other illnesses struck the East Coast regularly. The open land was considered healthier. Of course, it wasn’t long before diseases followed the people.

Some went for patriotic reasons. Americans wanted to drive the British out of the Pacific Northwest and the Mexicans out of California.

“Manifest destiny” was a phrase coined by John L. O’Sullivan in an article titled “Annexation” in the July-August 1845 edition of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. In this article, Mr. O’Sullivan argued that the U.S. should annex Texas, writing:

“other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves . . . in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

And he went on to point the finger specifically at England and France.

Zeal for “manifest destiny” became the prevailing sentiment of most Americans—the United States should extend unbroken from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This attitude led not only to settling the West, but also to ill-treatment of Native Americans, as well as to war with Mexico and conflicts with Great Britain.

Regardless of their rationales, all types of people emigrated to the West. Most were hard-working and sensible—farmers and tradesmen who intended to work for prosperity they hoped to find in the new land. These families were probably less motivated by politics than by prosperity.

But there were also those who left home unprepared for the hardships of the journey. Some families brought their sick and elderly, unwilling to be parted. Others came who had lived in luxury in the East and knew nothing about fending for themselves.

And there were the troublemakers one finds in every crowd. I created one such troublemaker—Samuel Abercrombie—in Lead Me Home, and this character reappears in Now I’m Found and in my current work-in-progress about this same wagon company. I have to admit, writing scenes with Samuel in them are the most fun!

The migration to the West is a reminder that we are a diverse people, with varied motives and abilities. It takes all kinds to settle a nation and to populate a novel. Though conflict, in my opinion, is more enjoyable on the page than in real life.

Do you know why your ancestors came to the United States?