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Teacher Appreciation– Three of my All-Stars

Teachers: giving us gifts we'd likely miss on our own

Teachers: giving us gifts we’d likely miss on our own

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve picked a few of my major influencers and asked them to fill out the below Q&A.  Here are their responses.  I encourage you to reach out to your teachers and ask them to share their wisdom. They’re swamped this time of year, so this Q&A is a good way to tease out their pearls without giving them “homework.”  And I encourage you to share their answers with your peeps.  Let’s shine a collective light on those who have been the wind at our backs!  THANK YOU, TEACHERS

Now Booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!  Do you have a teacher you would like to sponsor, or ARE you a teacher who needs to fill up YOUR cup?  Haven has worked with many educators, and I have seen it be the very thing that has them return to their students with renewed spirit, conviction, and useful tools of inspiration.

June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 18-22

#1 Nan Caldwell

Nan Caldwell (Lake Forest Country Day School, Spanish Teacher and much much more) was a huge part of the formation of  my spirit and mind.  She showed me, by her sparkling example, how I could be myself in the world, without compromising my heart.  She was the reason I spent a year in Italy, my junior year in college, which I have written about in my memoir and elsewhere, and will be talking about on my deathbed.  And she also taught me a love for languages, and took me to Spain and Portugal with our 9th grade Spanish class, which primed the pump for a lifetime of devoted travel and open-minded/hearted-ness.  Thank you, Nan! You know how much I adore you and always will.  And you know how many many young minds and spirits you have help formed. Here are her pearls of wisdom:

Q&A for Teachers.  (all questions optional but encouraged)

What is your definition of the “Teaching Spirit,” and how does a person know if she/he has one?  You are ready to sacrifice a higher paying career for one that truly may make a difference in the world.

How did you become a teacher?  (DNA, default, other?)  It must be DNA.  I have two uncles and three aunts who are teachers.  My father followed a business career, but I’m a throwback!  I always wanted to be a teacher- even when I was little.

What got you out of bed on the hard school mornings?  (Coffee?  Gerunds?  That one kid in the back row?)  Duty!

Which battles were/are worth fighting for?  (Would love to hear some trench stories, esp if you’re retired and won’t get in trouble!)  I think that in today’s world it is important to help students stay grounded and focused on values. Faced with ubiquitous social media sway, it is easy for them to fall prey to materialistic and/or cruel outlooks that influence their behavior. Honesty, kindness, and generosity never go out of style, but it takes some targeted work to maintain that perspective.

What was the funniest thing that happened in your classroom?  (Feel free to rip on us.  It’s the least we can do.  Fictional names, please.)  One time, I had the students draw monsters that they later had to describe in Spanish for their classmates.  One little boy drew something that looked like a monster octopus.  In his description, he said that it had tentacles coming out of his head and tentacles coming out of his body and six tentacles for legs….except he had the word for testicles!  Heh!  The kids had no idea!

If you could give one piece of advice to parents of your students, what would it be?  (Go ahead.  Offend us.  We really need to know.)  Let your children make mistakes.  Don’t get involved in social problems.  Offer your child some advice, but step back.  Remind them always to be kind and inclusive, no matter what.

What were some of your “tricks” to connect with students?  (My personal favorite was:  Weekly ice cream truck–  3rd grade.  Thanks, Mrs. Dino.  7th grade Math Hump Day cake was a close second.  Thanks, Mr. Virden.)  Food.  It works. They love games, too.  And stories!!

Why do people say that teaching is one of the hardest professions?  (Paint us a portrait, if you’d like.  Day in the life…)  Up at 6:00, at work by 7:15.  Teaching, hall duty, study hall, recess duty, lunch duty, coaching after school, clubs, service projects, 400 emails to answer….home around 6:00.  Make dinner, eat, grade papers until around 10:00. Watch the news so that you are prepared to be a teacher the next day!

In your opinion, is college all that it’s cracked up to be?  Ditto an Ivy League education?  Ditto private schooling?   Private schools are as varied as public schools- some excellent, some not much better than a good public school.  The good ones can provide extra personal attention to the individual needs of each child.  That attention and care can usher a student to more fully explore and achieve his/her potential.
College is the right place for academically minded and socially concerned students.  I do not think that every student should feel that college is the only route to a successful career- especially if he/she is passionate about a specific field- gaming, coding, arts, trades, etc.

What is a moment in your teaching career that makes you especially proud?  (BOAST, PLEASE!  You deserve it!  Or…full disclosure.  ie: The day I nailed Suzy in the face with an eraser for picking on Matilda.)  Occasionally a former student sits down and writes a thank you letter.  Getting one of those makes every day worthwhile!

What can teachers do to prevent burn out?  (ahem go on a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana ahem)  Set realistic goals.  Don’t overreach and try to be super-teacher.  Take one challenge at  a time and strive for patience and good humor.

Any advice to law makers and administrators that you feel might change our public school systems for the better?  (Here’s the soap box…)  All of society’s challenges and solutions begin with families and schools. Plain and simple.  Start there.   

What is/was your dream take-away for your students?  As a teacher of world languages, I hope to open a door through which my students can more authentically explore the history and cultures of other peoples, global issues, and our responsibilities as Americans.  We become not only better guests in other countries, but better citizens of our own.  The path of this knowledge can lead to professional and personal opportunities that are not as readily available to monolinguistic people- opportunities that may begin with friendships, jobs and travel, but ones that also have the potential to telescope toward international relations, human rights and peace.

Will books ever die? I hope not!!!  Please don’t let them!

***There’ll be a pop quiz directly following this, FYI.  Sharpen your #2 pencil.  And spit out your gum.

WE LOVE YOU AND ARE SO GRATEFUL FOR ALL THAT YOU DO/DID FOR US AND OUR CHILDREN!

#2 Janet Edmonds

Ms. Ed (Janet) was my boarding school English teacher (Westminster School) and I think she taught me something about Hawthorne, (“yea verily” comes to mind), though what I remember most was her love of words.  She had that English teacher wonderlust for books, liked she’d torn herself away from one to get to class, and was eager to feed us with its (and her) knowledge.  Somehow she waded through the classics with us and took us along with her.  She didn’t stand on any desks and speak in Latin…but she did hold us in the elegance of words through the ages, and often when I’m sitting alone with a book, trying to understand just what the author is trying to say, or writing one and doing the same with my own muse,  I think of her quiet countenance and take heart.  Thank you, Ms. Ed!  Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?  Love, Laura

Questions and Answers for Teachers.  

What is your definition of the “Teaching Spirit,” and how does a person know if she or he has one?

They bend and hold us so we can see the light.

They bend and hold us so we can see the light

My hunch is that answers to this question will be like fingerprints, like the unique patterns on whales’ flukes. I think you have a teaching spirit if you start teaching and find that you like it. Plenty of people start teaching and leave after a year or two, but some of them may have turned into excellent teachers had they stayed in the work. There are many factors that go into loving or liking teaching besides your subject and students. You have colleagues, managers (going by names such as the dean and the principal or headmaster), and the rules and values of the institution where you work. A problem in any of those areas can drown a teaching spirit. I loved my subject, students, and colleagues (your best teachers at that school, Laura, were also my best teachers), but as strict as I might have seemed at times (maybe you all saw through that), I could not stay on board with the conservative ethos that existed in many boarding schools in that era. I did not think it was fair or caring for some students. I fought it and I left.

How did you become a teacher?  (DNA, default, other?)

I wanted to be a teacher when I was in sixth grade because my English teacher assigned a couple of amazing novels and opened up the worlds in poems as if they were flowers with hundreds of petals blooming slowly under a warm sun. I just wanted to be able to do what she did—understand novels, stories, and poems. Of course I discovered that being serious and enthusiastic in a field did not mean I could “make” another person feel the same way. And when we got right down to the purpose of teaching and learning English in high school, what was more important than literature was strong, clear writing. I was 22 years old when I started teaching high school students, and even though I often miss it 30 years after leaving it to work in publishing, I know I wouldn’t have the nerve to try again. I would no longer dare to hope that I could teach someone who doesn’t write with even a tiny bit of ease or who sees no point in acquiring some fundamental skills. Maybe that’s the biggest problem—conveying to a student that there is some long term relevance to them about what you trying to teach.

What got you out of bed on the hard school mornings?  (Coffee?  Gerunds?  That one kid in the back row?)

A clock radio.

Which battles were/are worth fighting for?  (Would love to hear some trench stories, especially if you’re retired and won’t get in trouble!)

May I please have an extension? I have some good battle stories: What it felt like when the faculty met to discuss a wonderful boy’s discipline record and whether his most recent infraction merited expulsion, and I was the only one to raise a hand saying no; Why I left . . . .

What was the funniest thing that happened in your classroom?  (Feel free to rip on us.  It’s the least we can do.  Fictional names, please.)

I need an extension for this question, too. You told me you would send a few questions, but you’ve sent term paper assignments. Did you know that? For now I will only say that the funniest things that happened with you guys in and outside of the classroom do not require any “ripping” on you—just joy and gratitude for the warmth and laughter the memories bring.

If you could give one piece of advice to parents of your students, what would it be?  (Go ahead.  Offend us.  We really need to know.)

Please, please, please try to realistically understand and love your child’s strengths as a wonderful person instead of crushing him or her with totally unrealistic demands about what college you want him or her to get in to.

What were some of your “tricks” to connect with students?  (My personal favorite was:  Weekly ice cream truck– 3rd grade.  Thanks, Mrs. Dino.  7th grade Math Hump Day cake was a close second.  Thanks, Mr. Virden.)

 May I contort and distort this question in order to retort and report, Laura? My tricks were all to avoid connecting with my students. I used pop quizzes, extra laps around the field . . . .

Why do people say that teaching is one of the hardest professions?  (Paint us a portrait, if you’d like.  Day in the life….)

Again I want more time to answer, but here’s my short answer that applies to teaching in a boarding and day school: Responsibility and discipline. Teachers are responsible for the intellectual, physical, and emotional safety of many teenage human beings. It’s a huge responsibility, and there are school rules to help ensure that safety. Violating the rules can have serious consequences such as suspension and expulsion.

In your opinion, is college all that it’s cracked up to be?  Ditto an Ivy League education?  Ditto private schooling? 

I wouldn’t want those things to go away, but I’ve long thought that a person who really wants to learn is going to learn at any institution he or she goes to. It’s the student and not the school that makes the biggest difference although graduating from a school with a widely respected name can be an advantage.

The people who have taught me what I love and how to learn more about those things, who helped me discover the things that give my life meaning are people who did not go to college or end up getting a degree.

Do you believe in the liberal arts education?  If so, why?  If not, why?

Emphatically yes and no.

What can teachers do to prevent burn out?  (ahem go on a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana ahem)

 Go on a Haven Writing Retreat. (This experience is on my bucket list.)

Any advice to law makers and administrators that you feel might change our public school systems for the better?  (Here’s the soap box…)

There are things I can’t say, but I’ll start and stop with saying that principals and superintendents who are a) afraid of parents and b) unwilling to support the decisions of teachers in classrooms over complaints of whiny parents should not be principals and superintendents. If you won’t allow teachers to insist that students behave in classrooms, there will be no learning. Grrrrrrr

What is/was your dream take-away for your students?

Realize that you are “the decider” in your life. You get to say “yes, I can” and “no, I won’t.”

Will books ever die?

Maybe in a long time, there will be few paper books. In a long time.

What will you/do you miss about teaching?

You guys.

***There’ll be a pop quiz directly following this, FYI.  Sharpen your #2 pencil.  And spit out your gum.

WE LOVE YOU AND ARE SO GRATEFUL FOR ALL THAT YOU DO/DID FOR US AND OUR CHILDREN!

#3 TERRY HAIGHT

Mr. Haight (Terry) was my grade school History and Social Studies teacher and maestro of a 50s a capella singing  group called Terry and the Terrifics, to which I attribute my still-love of singing in harmony and busting out of Shaboom and Goodnight Sweetheart around campfires.  He taught us by DOING, and perhaps this is why my teaching style is yes, instructional, but mostly, experiential.  Total immersion is the best way I know.  And I still know the difference between Ionic, Corinthian, and Doric columns, thanks to one of our Social Studies projects and my girlish moxie to ask ladies of the fine Lake Forest, IL mansions of my youth for house tours, the way t0 describe Raphaels’ lighting and spout off about it at the Louvre last winter, and got to the steps of the Parthenon, first chance I could. Thank you, Mr. Haight.  Lonnie ding dong, a lang a lang a lang…boom boom…wah dah…a doobie doobie day-ee, indeed!  Love and deep bows to you always!  Laura

Reply to questions from Laura Munson:

My replies are in no particular order and are not answers to specific questions. Rather I am writing thoughts encouraged by your questions.

I wanted to be a teacher for a long time. I worked as a camp counselor at Camp Kechuwa, run by Charlie Leake, for the summers of 1965 and 1967. Then I worked at the Hull House camp in East Troy, WI for the summer of 1968. My Father was a professor of History at Lehigh University, my maternal grandfather help found Lake Forest Day School, and my three sisters taught. So you could say there was a tradition of being an educator (and probably a tradition of enjoying summers in Ontario.)

Perhaps most important, I was a weak student and struggled with school. I wanted to make it fun to be in a classroom: A place where hard work was expected but also a place students wanted to come back to. So if there was a “Teaching Spirit” for me it was that I wanted kids to enjoy learning through doing. I remember there being plenty of nights when I’d find myself awake on the edge of my bed pretending to be teaching a class. Part of the “Spirit” was to begin the year by teaching, maybe even telling, and ending the year as a facilitator, as a Watcher of students learning.

To achieve some of this we introduced lots of ways of learning. We often had a “Social Studies Week,” listened to Amahl and the Night Visitors around Christmas, did a lot of group work focused on team play, map making, Word Games if there was extra time, singing, play reading, biography impersonations, and on we went.

Teaching was a joy, but it was hard. I had my students do lots of writing, but that meant hours of corrections and comments. If a student did poorly on a paper or test they could always retake it to improve. And effort really mattered. That meant lots of time to edit and support. There were long days. I remember right after I retired walking thorough the down town area around 11:00 AM. I couldn’t understand what all the adults were doing out and about. As a teacher there was no down time, and I’d feel guilty ducking out to get a haircut.

I taught at the Lake Forest Country Day School from 1972-1999. Aside from the students, the thing that kept me going was the advent of the computer in the classroom. And it was not just for adding up grades. I found the computer presented a more level learning ground for my students and me. “Oh, Mr. Haight. Why not try plugging it in?” “Mr. Haight. Let’s format it this way.”

I attended three summers worth of a great course of using the computer in the classroom put on by Summer Corps. I remember my right hand being so sore as I learned to use a mouse. Am I a supporter of Teacher Professional Development? YES. You should try something like a Writing Retreat. They say the Montana air and beauty will get your writing juices flowing.

I didn’t have any favorite students. I see many of them around town as they have moved back. I see some during the summer. And I see some in faint pictures wearing T-shirts and singing Terrific songs, a 50s a capella group I led with students for years.

I was fortunate to teach in a school that had a tradition of learning and expectations of excellence. We also had a terrific group of parents who supported their children but also the teachers. For parents I encourage you to learn about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, accept and support both, hug them all the time and love them madly.

THANK YOU TO ALL THREE OF YOU for indulging my questions, and for giving them your heart language and wisdom.  You inspire me.  Please consider reaching out to your teachers and shining a light on them!

 

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Teacher Appreciation Week: A Q&A for your favorites!

Haven Writing Retreats

Helping the written word be the teacher it is!

I never thought I’d be a teacher.  I still don’t actually call myself one.  I’m more of a facilitator.  The design of my Haven Writing Retreat is the ultimate teacher.  The writing exercises.  The readings.  The guided feedback.  The community of word-lovers.  And of course, Montana.  I hold the whole thing, ’tis true.  And I love it with all my heart.

Doing this work has had me in reflection about the teachers who have shaped me, some of them no longer with us, but forever in my head and hopefully in my prose.  Favorite lines like, “Get rid of the bombast and the deadwood!”  (Gordon McKinley, Westminster school).  ”Good Morning, Miss Munson,” (Malcolm Coates, yanking on my pony-tail as I was nodding off, making me read William Safire On Language out loud from the NYT magazine.  9th grade.  Lake Forest Country Day School).  Memorizing Desiderata in 7th grade and reciting it as a class.  (Scott Bermingham, LFCDS). “You will get an automatic F if you use the Passive Voice.”  (Thank you, English Department, Westminster school.  BTW, I can still recite Sonnet 18.  Shall I compare thee…).  ”You really should think seriously about going abroad for an entire year.”  (Nan Shiras.  Spanish class.  6th grade.  LFCDS).  ”It was supposed to be an hour-long presentation on the Bruges Madonna, Laura.  Not a short story about it being stolen by the Nazis from Mary’s point of view.”  (D minus.  Later published in a literary journal.  Rab Hatfield.  Junior Year abroad.  Syracuse University.  Florence, Italy campus).  The answer Yes to this:  ”I’d like to do an independent study on crayon drawing.  But what I’m really doing is buying time to work on a novel.”  (Tony Stoneburner– Senior year.  Dension University).  And perhaps the defining moment of my life:  ”This is not cinema, Ms. Munson!  Take this (full length screenplay) to the fools in the English Department!” (Elliot Stout , Cinema department– Denison University).  And the consequent, “Where have you been for the last three years?  I’m putting you in the advanced Creative Writing class.”  (Dick Kraus, English department– Denison University).  Bless you people.  And so many more, of course.

Last week, I was inspired by a two time Haven Writing Retreat alum and retired teacher, Donna Naquin, to honor some of my favorite teachers.  By the magic of social media, I found them, and asked them if they would answer these questions, or at least a handful of them.  I will be posting their responses here on May 15th.  I invite you to use this questionnaire with your favorite teachers.  Feel free to email the responses to me and I will post the top five here.  Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com  

Q&A for Teachers (current and retired)   (all questions optional but encouraged)

What is your definition of the “Teaching Spirit,” and how does a person know if she/he has one?

How did you become a teacher?  (DNA, default, other?)

What gets you (got you) out of bed on the hard school mornings?  (Coffee?  Gerunds?  That one kid in the back row?)

Which battles were/are worth fighting for?  (Would love to hear some trench stories, esp if you’re retired and won’t get in trouble!)

What was the funniest thing that happened in your classroom?  (Feel free to rip on us.  It’s the least we can do.  Fictional names, please.)

If you could give one piece of advice to parents of your students, what would it be?  (Go ahead.  Offend us.  We really need to know.)

What were some of your “tricks” to connect with students?  (My personal favorite was:  Weekly ice cream truck–  3rd grade.  Thanks, Mrs. Dino.  7th grade Math Hump Day cake was a close second.  Thanks, Mr. Virden.)

Why do people say that teaching is one of the hardest professions?  (Paint us a portrait, if you’d like.  Day in the life…)

In your opinion, is college all that it’s cracked up to be?  Ditto an Ivy League education?  Ditto private schooling? 

What is a moment in your teaching career that makes you especially proud?  (BOAST, PLEASE!  You deserve it!  Or…full disclosure.  ie: The day I nailed Suzy in the face with an eraser for picking on Matilda.)

Do you believe in the liberal arts education?  If so, why?  If not, why?

What can teachers do to prevent burn out?  (ahem go on a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana ahem)

Any advice to law makers and administrators that you feel might change our public school systems for the better?  (Here’s the soap box…)

What is/was your dream take-away for your students?

Will books ever die?

What will you/do you miss about teaching?

***There’ll be a pop quiz directly following this, FYI.  Sharpen your #2 pencil.  And spit out your gum.

WE LOVE YOU AND ARE SO GRATEFUL FOR ALL THAT YOU DO/DID FOR US AND OUR CHILDREN!

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2017

June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

For more info and to set up a time to talk, email Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com

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The Pack Rat Ate My Patagonia

Fred
The Pack Rat Ate my Patagonia by Laura A. Munson

I have never wanted to kill something before. Trap it live, and then shoot it. Or drown it in a glacially chilled grave. That thing—with the pretty little well-appointed pink nest, with its self-important aroma and little be-jewelled leavings. You see, I am planning a surprise party for my mother’s 70th birthday at her suburban Chicago country club from my rural Montana post, and I really could give a pack-rat’s ass whether or not Mrs. Who’s-who will eat blue cheese. So flush—down she goes. Her and her kind. The kind that is currently camping in the engine of my Suburban. The pack rat that broke the good-daughter’s back.

How is one supposed to carry on sophisticated conversations with the club manager about roast suckling pig in a port demi glace with wild mushroom risotto when there is activity in the garage of architectural proportions? Thievery from diaper bags when I’m trying to sort out the soup course from the salad course? Pillage while trying to estimate how many martinis Mrs. Who’s-who is good for? I’m talking about what floral colors lend themselves to the Persian rugs in the Hunt Room with Roberto the botanical coordinator, and a rodent the size of a Corgi dog is scurrying past my toes with insulation from the garage to beat the ensuing night chill. He’s heard the temperature is supposed to drop to eighteen tonight. Probably because he’s been sitting on my couch with a Budweiser in one paw and the remote control in the other while I’ve been in my office ordering five dollar a piece balloons.
packrat
The phone rings: “Laura dear, I’m going in for a little nip and tuck if you know what I mean, and I’ll be tardy to your mother’s big surprise ta-doo. So if you can arrange to have someone just spoon me into a chair for the party, I’ll be a definite oui to your respondez vous.”
At this moment, I am actually cradling a cordless in my neck, picking out– thumb to index finger– pack rat shit from my children’s car seats before I pick them up from school.
“Why of course, Mrs. Who’s-who, and by the way, do you like blue cheese?”
“If it’s Stilton, Dear. If it’s Stilton.”
It is then that I realize that my car smells like blue cheese. Like blue cheese atop a skunk canapé, served with a musk coulis.
So I run back in the house and I grab a stick of incense and light it off the cigarette burner while I’m mocking 90 down the highway so as not to be, yet again, one of those mothers who gets scowled at by crossing guards as she whips into the school playground fifteen minutes late. It is patchuli incense sent to me by my forty-five year old Deadhead brother who lives in a car conceivably better-smelling than my own, and I realize that my car now smells like a Grateful Dead concert, and I open the windows to get that smell out too.

My kids each have a friend coming over to play.
“What took you so long? Oh geez! This car stinks!” This four times.
“Get in,” I say, as a beer bottle actually rolls out from under a seat and clink clink clinkclinkclinks down the incline of the school parking lot. (I’m not sure I can blame this on the pack rat.)
A PTA mother looks at me, and ushers her perfectly clean child into her perfectly clean white mini-van.
“A pack rat is living in my car,” I say. Like that is an excuse.
It is at this point that I hear a sound– a pitter patter, coming from underneath my hood.
I get out, realize that I am not wearing a bra, open the hood with some odd posturing, and ploink– the damn thing evicts itself and slithers off into the soccer field, which is occupied by just about every kid in town, not to mention their myriad on-time type, non beer-drinking, non-pack-ratty parents.
I smile at them, hiding my pendulous post-breastfeeding chest behind my elbows, and pick out a pink nest of insulation from my car engine, replete with a few pieces of dog food, and one of my daughter’s barrettes. Then I cross the parking lot, and throw this vestige of Montana living, into the dumpster. It is here that my cell phone rings.
packrat
“Laura Dear, hi, this is Mr. Club Manager. Listen, we got your choices for hors d’oeuvres, and we think there might be a problem here.”
“Oh?” I say, slamming down the hood of my car.
“Yes, Dear. We noticed that you chose two Asian hors d’oeuvres. We think one is enough. Remember these people are WASPs. I don’t know how they do things out West, but in the Midwest, it’s still pretty much meat and potatoes, even at the Club. We would suggest the bacon and brown sugar.”
“Bacon and…what?”
“Brown sugar. Everyone in their crowd just begs for it.”
“What’s this black poo looking thing in my backpack?”
“Can we go—it stinks in here!” Times four.
“Laura, Dear? It’s your choice, really. I mean this is your party, after all—even if it is for your mother’s seventieth birthday. I mean everyone knows it’s a surprise party. So if you make a little mistake, they can blame it on you, if you know what I mean.”
“Huh?” I hear a squeal from the soccer field.
“It won’t be a reflection on your mother, is what I mean.”
“Oh. Okay. I guess you can exchange the Thai dumplings for the bacon and…brown sugar. Listen can I call you back?”
“Fine, Dear. But do call me back soonish. I still have to go over the color of the linens with you. The party is in a week. By the way, when do you arrive and what is your local number in case I need to contact you for any last minute details, like whether to serve during toasts or not?”
“Uh—I think my flight gets in mid-day on Monday. I’ll call you from the airport for any last minute details, because I’m…I’m going directly up to Wisconsin to visit a friend for a few days before the party. And she lives in a little cabin. And…and she doesn’t have a phone.” This is a lie.
“No phone? How about a cell phone number?”
“Uh—no cell phone service up there either. Kind of like most of Montana.” This is a lie as well.
packrat

“Mom! There’s that black poo-looking stuff in the baby’s diaper bag!”
Then the baby says, “Ewwww-ah.”
“And your fleece coat—it’s all—holey.”
“Hey—I’ve got a situation. I trust you guys. You do this all the time. I haven’t done it ever. And frankly, I think you know my mother’s taste better than I do. So– listen…you pick what you think is best. I’ll call to confirm…soon. Ish.”
I look into the back seat, and into the one nice thing I think I have left on this planet after two kids, two dogs, a cat and life in the country—it’s the Patagonia fleece my mother-in-law bought me last season. Just a little knock-about coat so you can look spiffy when you’re picking the kids up from school.
And I pick up my fleece, and hold it in the air, pack rat pellets falling off it as it lifts to the sun, and there is not just a little hole under the armpit, no– the whole thing is like a piece of polypropylene Swiss cheese.
That is when I open my mouth and these words come out: “This rat must die.” Then I spend five dollars of quarters at the car wash vacuuming out my car with a blaring Terminator-pitched hose so that all of the kids plus the baby say, “Whuuuht?” when I ask them afterward if they want to go for ice cream.
packrat

That night I take dry wall screws and drill them into the bottom of a rat trap the size of a flip flop. Then I mount it on a two by four and actually say out loud, to myself, “Ain’t nothin’ dragging that trap nowhere.”
Then I slather peanut butter on it and turn off the lights in the garage. “Nighty night.”
The next day there is nothing in the trap, but the inside of my car is covered in pack rat shit, and now, my other last nice thing—my $250.00 Pierre Deux diaper bag given to me by my mother’s suburban Chicago bridge group so you don’t feel frumpy, Dear carrying around all those horrible diapers and things—has a hole in the side of it the size of a softball.
I drop off the kids at school in a drive so silent, that they are afraid of me. And I go to the car wash, forgoing my hair appointment designed to assuage my mother’s comment on her last visit to Montana: can’t we do something about that hair of yours?
I am interrupted by a guy standing at the hood of my car. “Better be careful,” he says. “I just spent five hundred dollars fixing the wiring in my truck from a rat.”
The cell phone rings, then, in-between quarter-feeding rounds. “Laura, Dear, hi this is your Aunt Who’s-who (for some reason every woman in my mother’s bridge group refers to herself as aunt somebody—usually when they want something) “I hate to bother you Dear, but I thought I should let you know, Mrs. So-and So has her nose bent out of shape that she’s not included in the surprise party for your mother at the club. For what it’s worth.”
And standing there, holding the power vac, I feel my oats, because I actually say: “I’ll tell you how much it’s worth: fifty frigging bucks a head!”
Flash: a call waiting from my Deadhead brother: “Laura, hey dude, listen, I’m still a Vegan so like…could you make sure there’s something for me to eat at Mom’s party. Maybe some raw organic carrots and hummus at the cocktail party and like…a smoothie, maybe. I still do garden burgers so that’d be cool for dinner. Hey—and like is this a surprise…or does she know. Because I might have said something to her about it.”
“First of all, YES it’s a surprise! Generally speaking, a surprise party is supposed to be a surprise! And second of all, I don’t think the Who’s-who Club would know a smoothie, never mind a garden burger if it slapped them across the face, and third of all…” I can feel my heart beating in my temples. And it is here that I have a vision of my brother welcoming a pack rat into his Volkwagon van—befriending it, adopting it as a pet, feeding it lentils one by one, fastening a little red bandanna around its neck and naming it Magnolia Blossom. “And third of all…third of all…you can take your flippin’garden burger, and shove it up your–”
“Whoah. Hostility. What’s that about?”
“There’s a pack rat living in my car, okay? The pack rat ate my Pierre Deux diaper bag, okay? The pack rat ate my Patagonia!”
“It’s just a creature. He’s probably just looking for a warm place to get in from the cold. You should–”
“What? I can’t hear you. You’re breaking up.”
I beseech myself: Why am I trying to be the good daughter? At what point do we stop paying proportionally for our adolescences, never mind our births?
packrat

Another five dollars in quarters later, with no epiphanies to speak of and two more phone calls from my brother who is now trying to convince me to pass around a hat at the surprise party to fund his return airfare, I am at the hardware store again, investing in a live trap. Maybe he’s right. I am hostile. Hostile that this pack rat is making it impossible for me to go back for my mother’s surprise seventieth birthday party and look presentable. Hostile that I have offered to co-ordinate this party in the first place. Hostile that people get their noses bent out of shape, especially when they’re just going to go get it nipped and tucked anyway. Hostile that my mother can’t just fly out here for her seventieth and have a good old fashioned pot luc under a rain tarp with a keg and a DJ like everybody else in this country.
I buy the trap, put it in my car this time, bait it with a piece of old pizza and turn off the garage lights.
My ex-boss calls me later that night from a Christian conference in the deep South to tell me she is on fire for the Lord. I tell her about my pack rat. She says, “Jesus says you reap what you sow.”
Next morning at seven-o’clock, I am staring a terrified and noticeably cute little critter in the eyes, striking a deal. “I take you out in the woods, see…and you go make a nest in a nice old stump, see. I save your life, and you save mine, see. It’s a Jesus thing. Capice?”
packrat
And we go, me and my little doppleganger buddy, out to the woods before anyone wakes up. And I lift up the door. And he doesn’t go.
“Go on! This isn’t a Lassie episode! Get out of here. Shoo. Go! I know they don’t have Patagonia or Pierre Deux in the woods, but moss works just fine! You’re a rat! I’m the one with the WASP lineage to uphold. Go on! Git!”
And he goes then. Slowly, with stealth, at a royal’s pace, a little hobo stick over his shoulder, looking back once, his nose a little bent out of shape—he wouldn’ta cared, you see, if I double-Asianed his hors d’oeuvre choice, wouldn’ta cared, see, if I’d spooned him into a chair or hung him from a chandelier, given him a GD gardenburger or one of his own turds.
Aw shucks, little guy. Write when ya get work. It’s a cruel world out there. Ain’t it.

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