Archive for December, 2009

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Don’t Let Space Be Alien in Your Life!

December 31, 2009

In 1955, David Sarnoff wrote an article previewing what he believed would be the developments of the next twenty-five years. He predicted increased technology and automation, and also stated that “a much shorter work-week will no doubt prevail in 1980. . .not labor but leisure will be the great problem.” Other experts predicted similar challenges for those of us living and working in the new millennium, wondering how we would entertain ourselves and live productive lives once the marvels of technology took over our work and left us with little to do.

Hah! Here’s what I know about my life. I have less leisure time than ever. My job has intensified. Expectations are racheted up. My machines have made me accessible 24/7 and it is difficult to escape the expectations of 24/7 response-ability, even if they exist only in my mind. There are fewer people to do the same—and sometimes even more—work. Changes in expectations and shifts in duties and ever-evolving systemic changes make it difficult to get things done. I don’t know who to ask for what anymore and I spend quite a bit of time figuring out how to get something accomplished before I can even begin doing it. Mandateering* (mandatory volunteer work) is increasing—there are many things that need to be done and someone has to do them. Everyone who needs her or his job is aware of the fragility of employment and few of us can afford to say no (and many of us were never any good at this anyway).

If you’re a student, you’re affected by all these realities in your own work and personal life. When you’re at school, you’re challenged by them too. Teachers who used to be able to direct you quickly to sources of information may be as baffled as you are by institutional and informational changes. Lines are longer, hours are shorter, and finding out what you need to know can be more difficult even though it seems it should be easier. Instant access to information via technology is only updated as often as there are people to do the updating. Changes sometimes don’t appear until months after they happen. Offices shift and combine and the people you think will be able to help you are gone or doing different work. Just about everything takes longer to accomplish than you may have thought it would or should.

So what? Despite these realities in your life or in mine, we still need to make time for the things that matter to us and refuse to let the constant demands of life keep us from our dreams and possibilities. I’m hoping that next year you’ll promise yourself not to become so mired in passing courses and doing everything that needs to be done that you forget the other things that matter to you too.

Don’t let space be alien in your life. Write a note to yourself about one thing you can do to make room for fun, joy, passion, or something else you want to accomplish for yourself in the coming year. Put it into an envelope and tape it up where you can see it to remind you. Open it in six months and see how you’re doing.

Even the wildest dreams have to start somewhere. Allow yourself the time and space to let your mind wander and your imagination fly.
• Oprah Winfrey

* Mandateering is a term I coined in my doctoral program after doing a study of faculty/staff volunteer work and being told time and again that people didn’t have time anymore for their volunteer involvement because they’d been pressured into doing other things without any real choice.

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Just Because Someone Says You Can’t Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Really Can’t. Ask.

December 30, 2009

When I returned to school—a long-thought-about but entirely impulsive decision caused by being laid off a couple of weeks previously—I realized on my way to register in the olden days before online registration how long it would take me to get a degree if I took courses one at a time. Although I hadn’t applied for admission or done any of the things I should have done prior to becoming a fulltime student, I decided to go ahead and take a full load.

As I tried to get registered, I was told that I couldn’t take a full load because I wasn’t an admitted student. I didn’t have official transcripts from courses taken two decades earlier. I didn’t have proof I’d graduated from high school almost a quarter of century before, nor did I have my SAT scores. SAT scores? Seriously. What were these going to show? I’d been working successfully for two decades in jobs that had required higher level math and verbal skills. Wasn’t that enough? Where does someone even get twenty-plus year old SAT scores? (Hint: My high school had a record of them in my cume file.)

I didn’t have financial aid because I hadn’t applied for it a year earlier. But that’s another story.

Yesterday I talked about patience and pleasant persistence. These things are what got me registered for a full load despite having none of the prerequisite requirements. It didn’t get me fully admitted, but nonetheless, it got me started. Here’s how I did it: I sat outside the registrar’s office after politely telling staff that no, I didn’t have an appointment, but that I was willing to wait quietly until he had time to talk with me, even if it took all day. They tried to get me to leave. They tried to convince me to go ahead and follow the procedures for admission, telling me that there was nothing anyone could do. I didn’t leave. Finally, after about an hour and a half, the registrar came out and said that he had a few minutes and would talk with me.

I pled my case, pointing out that I was an older student who’d proven my ability to be successful in multiple jobs. I pointed out that the institution had nothing to lose. I would either be successful in the courses or I wouldn’t and they would have my tuition dollars either way. I did all of this nicely and persistently, deflecting his demurrals and denials and continuing to say that there was nothing to lose by letting me register. I promised to get the requisite paperwork in, but I said that I was there and wanted to get started immediately, pointing out that as an older student with family obligations, I did not want to lose momentum.

He overrode the system and let me register for multiple classes. The rest is history. I continued without a break, graduating two and a half years later. We became colleagues when I returned to teach at the same school, and laughed about this day.

What’s the success advice here? If you miss a deadline or are told you cannot do something or need an extension to complete something or have had a request denied or whatever it is that you hope or need to circumvent, consider at least asking if there is any possibility that you can do whatever it is that you’ve been told you cannot do. Systems are designed to serve large numbers of people as efficiently as possible and sometimes there is room to make allowances for people who can make an articulate and compelling case for an exception.

This requires patience. It also requires a willingness to accept that your request may not be granted and the ability to move on graciously if it is denied. Don’t burn bridges by bad behavior. This seems obvious, but having been cursed at and threatened by students who were unhappy with systemic realities I was unable to circumvent, I can tell you that it happens. I am seldom willing to go out of my way to help these folks when they reappear in my life.

Based on your experiences or observations, what would you add to today’s advice?

The most essential factor is persistence—the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.
• James Whitcomb Riley

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If You Would Like to Reach a Real Human Being, Hang Up and Look Elsewhere

December 29, 2009

Several things converge: I was at the mall this weekend with nothing particular to do except look for a few bargains and watch long lines of people returning things they don’t want and hope to replace with more stuff they don’t need. I couldn’t help overhearing several no-box-no-receipt-but-I-know-they-bought-it-here pleas that were met with blank stares from salesclerks who’d clearly heard all this before and were probably instructed to make the return process as difficult as possible. This is just my suspicion based on previous experience, but with sales in the toilet, what merchandiser would want to take anything back? Human-to-human interactions within systems can be just as frustrating as encounters with machines, perhaps more so because it seems as though a real person might hear and care and understand and be able to do something about another real person’s problem.

I was also finishing up a syllabook for winter quarter this weekend. (Note: syllabook is a neologism I created for a long syllabus that includes assignments, scoring guides, samples, and other materials). As I work on the calendar and due dates, I am aware that there is no way that anything I create will be ideal for everyone concerned. In a quarter system, it’s likely that everything will converge for students toward the end of the quarter. I’d like to figure out how to make a final project due early in the quarter, so that it won’t conflict with other coursework and I’ll have lots of time to assess the work, but final projects are, after all, final, and students’ work needs to demonstrate effort and involvement and thought over time, so making something due right after it’s been assigned isn’t realistic.

I’d like to be humane. I try to be humane. Yet I realize that there is always someone who’s likely to think there’s little humanity in my requirements. If I leave too much wiggle room for students, I know from experience that I may just be tempting them to procrastinate and put off the inevitable. I must also balance the realities of time required for the assessment process with students’ need for time to complete the work. I care about my students, but I also care about my ability to sustain my enthusiasm and energy for my work over time. The quarter will be over and students will be finished with the course, but I will have to do this again. And yes, students will have more courses to take, but they will eventually graduate while I will still be there, still grappling with balancing their needs with my own little systemic realities.

And finally, I needed to talk with someone so that I could get a copy of materials from another institution of higher education that will remain nameless because I can sympathize with their systemic realities even as I am frustrated by them. I reached a message I could not keep up with. As I tried to write down all the “if you’s” with the appropriate numbers to punch because I am really lousy at remembering what number goes with which option so that I can choose appropriately from among the offerings once I’ve heard them all, I realized that there was nothing that addressed the reason I was calling. I stayed on the line awaiting contact with a real person through ten minutes of bad Muzak and “your message is important to us” variations and finally gave up. I wrote a letter requesting the materials since my previous emails have gone unanswered. We shall see what happens. And then I wrote a poem:

Phone Tag
Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn

Greetings.
You have reached student services at TechNo State College.
My name is Ma Chine and I’m delighted you called.

For information about our services, press 1.
To share your distress, press 2.
If you have an insoluble problem, press 3.
If you are stressed beyond your capacity to bear, press 4.
If the pressure is building up and you just need to scream, press 5.
If you don’t think you can stand it another minute, press 6.
If you’re about to explode, press 7.
If life is unbearable, press 8.
If there is no one who loves or understands you, press 9.

If you would like to reach a real human being who will
listen
share
care
empathize
encourage
advise
or provide information,
hang up
and look elsewhere.

I don’t think that dealing with any kind of system is likely to get easier, whether you’re a student or just some poor schmuck hoping to return a leopard-print Snuggie so you can get those argyle socks you’ve been longing for. Everywhere you go, there are fewer people trying to do more—we are living in times of work intensification–and budget cuts are affecting personal interactions in all kinds of unintended ways. But here’s a hint: patience and pleasant persistence in the face of systemic realities sometimes help. What doesn’t help is getting angry, blaming, accusing, and otherwise venting. Whether you need information or want extra time for an assignment or need to return that Snuggie, asking nicely may work.

When’s the last time you got frustrated by a system? How did you handle your frustration?

Is the system going to flatten you out and deny your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?
• Joseph Campbell

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Mired in the Slough of Too-Much-To-Do

December 28, 2009

Lest you think that perfect me dances through life unaffected by sleepless nights and task-filled days, I’ll share with you a poem I wrote in the bathroom while I was teaching fulltime and pursuing a doctorate at a school located several hours up the interstate. The poem is one I often use in class and seminars. Here’s the story of its origin:

I was feeling overwhelmed, working on several papers and a presentation that were due the next week, falling behind on reading and commenting on student work, getting involved in several committees at work that had turned into serious time-suckages, failing at family and household obligations, and just generally doing less than I thought I should in just about every area of my life.

I showered and sat down on the closed toilet seat to put on my shoes. My first thought was what a mistake it had been to chose high-top Converse instead of slip-ons since getting the former on and lacing them up seemed like an insurmountable task. I thought about changing shoes, but realized that I would have to get up and that I would also have to rethink the outfit hanging there ready to don. You have to know me to know what this might mean. I have never been a throw-on-a-pair-of- jeans-and-a-t-shirt kind of gal.

I started to pick up a shoe, but it felt as though it weighed a hundred pounds. I put it down and sat there staring into space overwhelmed with exhaustion, thinking about how tired I was and how I did not know if I could keep on going. The fatigue was so deep that I couldn’t imagine putting my shoes on, standing up, getting dressed, and actually going to work and teaching class. So I did what I often do when feelings run deep. I picked up a pen (handy in the old flowerpot that holds my makeup—I am seldom far from a pen), pulled a piece of cardboard out of the trash, and began writing:

I Am Tired
by Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn, mired in the Slough of Too-Much-To-Do

I am tired.
Without excuse.
It’s not brain surgery
or picking cotton
or even one of many other things
I’ve done and done again.
And yet I almost
cannot move.
My eyelids heavy
I look through slitted eyes
into a dayfull of nothing awful yet
all taking asking needing far too much from me.
More than I have to give.

The lassitude creeps from my head, my neck,
into my shoulders and down my back, through my arms
a snaking silent stoppage
making it quite difficult to write these words
even as my muddled thoughts project them.
I am tired.
Exhausted in some fundamental way.
Used up.
Emotions worn and tattered, guilty from the knowledge that I have no right
and weary form the cheerfulness demanded
and beaten down and in
by an avalanche of words
that pile around me never melting as my own pile up inside and
never really overflow
the damming of the years the fears the tears
that pressure up until the bursting
seems inevitable
and yet they squeeze themselves together
ever more tightly packed.
And so I wonder.
What will release it all?
And I’m afraid.

I am tired
of wanting wishing knowing wondering keeping it together
scared to let it go in case
I never get me back.
I am tired.
And I am never enough for me.
In fragmentation I am lived
even as I long to discard hold on worry less about some new disaster
that isn’t but might as well be poised on edges of ruin all my life.

I am tired.

I am still sometimes tired. I still get overwhelmed by the ongoing accumulations of obligation and personal obsession. But I try to remember the day that I wrote this poem and give myself permission to do what I can and let some of the rest go. This is never easy, but it is necessary. Imperfect me confesses that getting the rest of my life is a challenge.

What are your strategies for dealing with multiple obligations and getting the rest of your life?

I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.
• Thomas Carlyle

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A “Bad Night” Is Not Always a Bad Thing; Five Things to Do When You Can’t Sleep

December 27, 2009

It’s at night, when perhaps we should be dreaming, that the mind is most clear, that we are most able to hold all our life in the palm of our skull. I don’t know if anyone has ever pointed out that great attraction of insomnia before, but it is so; the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instincts and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind. I wish I believed, as J. B. Priestley did, that consciousness continues after disembodiment or death, not forever, but for a long while. Three score years and ten is such a stingy ration of time, when there is so much time around. Perhaps that’s why some of us are insomniacs; night is so precious that it would be pusillanimous to sleep all through it! A “bad night” is not always a bad thing.
• Brian W. Aldiss

I am often awake in the middle of the night. In fact, I’m awake right now and it’s 3:14 a.m. Insomnia used to bother me much more until I realized that I can lie here with the lights off watching the minutes pass on the clock or worrying about all the things a very good worrier like me can obsess about or making mental lists of things I need to do or fretting about how tired I will be in the morning or bemoaning the fate that saddled me with a restless brain or I can turn on the light and do something.

Dale Carnegie wrote How to Stop Worrying and Start Living in 1948 and it’s another of the books that was on my grandparents’ bookshelf. I have a copy in a collection of old self-help books that I use to provide historical context for stress-management workshops and to remind me that no matter how fast-paced my life seems, past generations felt pressured too. (Important note: I am a sucker for any kind of numbered list that promises to make my life better hence the inspiration for today’s title.) In part seven of the book, “Six Ways to Prevent Fatigue and Worry and Keep Your Spirits High,” number six is this: “Remember, no one was ever killed by lack of sleep. It is worrying about insomnia that does the damage—not the insomnia.” I find this comforting, although I suspect that there may well have been people killed by lack of sleep or that this at least contributed to their demise.

As a perpetually tired student, I found mid-night wakenings to be especially frustrating. I knew I needed to rest because my days were filled with so many demands from so many directions. It was frustrating to know this but be unable to sleep even though I badly wanted to. While I don’t recommend deliberately staying awake to work on things for school—please sleep if you can and do all the sensible things like avoiding caffeine and alcohol and other sleep-stopping/interrupting intake and activities and for gosh sakes recognize when you’re too old to pull any more all-nighters—I do recommend using the time when you would otherwise be stewing in sleeplessness to accomplish something. Here are five possibilities, plus an extra one for my students who are going to be teachers:

1) Braindance and write down ideas, insights, and inspiration about upcoming papers and projects. As you write, keep topics separate so you can add these notes to your file folders.
2) Do a bit of reading. It doesn’t matter much what you read—just read. You might even grow your vocabulary a bit. There is a danger to trying to read serious stuff in the middle of the night since it can keep you awake. Choose something soporific (since this is often textbooks, be careful with using mid-night reading to study for an exam). I like murder mysteries and I’ve found that other English teachers do too. The serious stuff we read gives us too many ideas and pretty much guarantees that we will still be awake to see the dawn.
3) Update lists of things you need to accomplish (school and life) and set new goals for completion.
4) Write down things you’re worrying about and/or things that are keeping you awake. Save them and put them away to revisit. Do this regularly and you will likely find that they are either not things you should be worrying about or that they are things you need to take action on.
5) Dream a little about your hopes for your life and think about how you might make these waking dreams a reality. What do you want to create for yourself?
6) For teachers: How will you ever get all those papers read and lessons planned if you don’t do some of it at night and in the early morning hours?

I don’t think I’d have been able to complete a dissertation if I hadn’t embraced sleeplessness and its companion, early wakening, and used them to process my thoughts, do some reading, and write bits and pieces of various chapters. The act of doing these things regularly allowed me to feel productive and stay on track to completion. I still envy my husband who sleeps beside me while I wake and think, and I appreciate his ability to sleep while the light is on. Right now, there’s a mystery I’m hoping will put me to sleep. Wish me sweet dreams.

What advice would you give someone who has trouble sleeping?

If people had as many ideas during the day as they do when they have insomnia, they’d make a fortune.
• Griff Niblack

NOTE: I wrote this title with a straight face and sincere heart, never realizing until later that some readers might be vastly disappointed by my idea of middle-of-the-night fun. If this is you, I’d say I was sure you could take care of yourself, but then I’d just be feeding the flames.

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A Lame and Sucky Holiday Haiku that Is Nonetheless Filled with Sincere, Albeit Poetically Awkward Yet Syllabically Correct, Sentiment: Presents All Unwrapped. Give Yourself a Gift Today: Creativity.

December 26, 2009

As you may have guessed, I am a bit obsessed by creative processes. As an autoethnographer and artist and poet and teacher, I spend a great deal of time being creative and thinking about why I need to be creative and how my creative processes work. Then I spend even more time dissecting my insights, trying to devise ways to encourage creativity in others. Everyone has a creative spirit, but not everyone has recognized it. It’s all well and fine to talk and write and read and theorize about creativity, but really, it’s something that has to be experienced before you can understand it on a personal level. Appreciating the creative work of someone else isn’t the same. I recently described this at a conference as having an orgasm of the mind. Until a person actually has an orgasm, all the talking in the world won’t make it real any more than watching a movie of someone climbing Mt. Everest equates with doing it yourself.

All of this wandering and wondering in the fields of creativity is related to my interest in making learning fun. I’ve talked to enough people to know that for most of them, learning is fun as long as they’re learning something that matters to them in some way, either because it helps them reach a larger goal or because it holds some appeal linked to personal interests. I have always loved poetry. My grandma didn’t have a lot of books. The Bible was her favorite reading. But she had a large collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and shelved along with them was my favorite, The Best Loved Poems of the American People, which I read and re-read, often aloud. I especially loved the story poems like “The Hell-Bound Train.”

Most of these poems, even the ones I once knew by heart, have disappeared from my memory, although I can still recall lines from Percy French’s ”Abdul Abulbul Amir.” I think I remember these lines because I loved the way the names felt in my mouth as I said them. There was the Abdul of the title and Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar. Go ahead, read those names out loud: Abdul Abulbul Amir. Ivan Skavinsky Skavar. Those sounds are what poetry is all about.

There are many hazards to being a poet. One is to be perpetually misunderstood and eternally unappreciated. In this affliction, the poet is joined by most of the rest of the human race. She or he is alone, but at least, as a poet, is able to express those inchoate longings for belonging more—well—poetically, articulating suffering and angst and sometimes even making them rhyme. Many of the best-loved poems rhymed, although among real and serious poets for some years now, rhyming has been a bit out of fashion. Those who rhyme are the lower-classes of poets, not its aristocracy. Unfortunately for me, I like to rhyme and thus reveal myself as one of the hoi polloi, a lovely little rhyming word for the masses of commoners whom I join in appreciating such versifying.

If you are so afflicted, rhyming is an irresistible impulse. “War on drugs,” someone says, and I immediately think: War on slugs! War on thugs! These are both good things, both worthy of further consideration. My mind keeps going through the alphabet. Bugs (hmmm—pair this with slugs and have something gross for sure). Dugs (quite possibly there’s something breast-related here). Hugs (I wouldn’t propose a war on hugs, would I?). Pugs (nah, don’t want to do dog stuff today). Mugs (so many teacher gifts, so little time to drink). Rugs (on heads or floors?). Smugs (oh, those goody-goody people). Tugs (the boats or the pulls?). Shrugs. War on shrugs? Who cares about lifted shoulders? But then I realize: War on shrugs! Yes! That’s it. I have something to say about that. Yes indeedy.

War on shrugs. An all-out battle is needed against those useless half sweaters—all sleeve and shoulder and no body—that remind me of the hand-crocheted grey yarn armor worn by Lancelot in a high school production of Camelot, designed to emphasize the hero’s arms and shoulders, leaving his chest area free for the obligatory emblazoning of something lionrampant-ish or fleurdelis-like maybe. I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter anyway.

I must stop myself and tell you how this is related to student success. What you’ve just read is actually another neurobics exercise for your brain and creative spirit: the rhyming game. You can play it alone as I just illustrated, or with friends: Throw out a word and come up with valid rhymes until someone—the lame-o loser—is stumped. I will leave further variations to you.

Play the rhyming game with yourself and see where your thoughts take you. Need a word? Start with bat or goose or red.

We didn’t have any money. My mother said we’re going to pick names from a hat and do something for each other. We wrote poems for each other. It was the best Christmas I ever had.
• Tom Cruise
, Inside the Actor’s Studio

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There’s a Three-Foot Plaster Santa in My Hallway. He Stays There All Year Long. So I’m Wishing You Merry Christmas, Even If Someone Thinks It’s Wrong!

December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, and holiday greetings of whatever kind are meaningful to you—or none at all if you prefer, although I hope that merriness and happiness and good cheer and joy are welcome sentiments for anyone at any season. We’ve mostly opted out of the holiday rush. The family’s children still get gifts, but we like to observe the fuss and bother as spectators, not participants. Last night brought the traditional Christmas Eve visit to a bad movie (thanks so much, 2012, you delivered!), although we had to forgo the traditional pizza for two for ninety-nine cent Jack-in-the-Box tacos. Double yum!

Merry Christmas. For me, these are words with wonders behind them:

The double doors opening at my grandparent’s home to reveal the tree, lit and heaped ‘round with presents for my cousin and me.

My Madame Alexander bride doll in ivory satin with a bouquet of roses and a long and lovely veil.

A red and black cowgirl outfit exactly like my cousin Sugar’s. We were beautiful in our fringed, embroidered, silver-studded finery.

Pajamas and hand-crocheted mukluks every year from grandma.

Candy canes and oranges and apples and a toy train filled with tiny round rainbow-colored candies in my stocking.

Snow falling softly while we caroled.

Believing in Santa Claus and getting a letter that proved that he was real.

Keeping that belief alive for my little brothers and sisters and my sons.

Geisha dolls from Uncle George, stationed far away, sending wonders from the other side of the world.

Making fudge.

Hot chocolate with extra marshmallows.

My mother playing carols on the piano.

Learning the words to “I have a little dreidel; I made it out of clay.”

Making a dreidel.

Not understanding what it meant to be Jewish when I lived in Detroit in a neighborhood that celebrated Hanukkah and not Christmas at the elementary school I attended.

Still being confused about how to spell Hanukkah. Is it Chanukah or Chanukkah or Hanuka or Chanukka or something else I haven’t seen?

Spending a whole month’s allowance to get grandma a long strand of sparkly blue crystal beads at the dime store.

Decorating every room of the house and being too tired to decorate anything.

Mom’s ambrosia.

Finally finding a Millennium Falcon.

Finally finding an Optimus Prime and discovering that his decals had been applied and that he’d been played with regularly and carefully hidden back in the closet.

Not buying an Easy Bake Oven and hearing about it every holiday season since.

Hiding clues for dozens of Christmas hunts and wrapping hundreds of Christmas pillowcase gifts in newspaper.

Mom’s pralines.

Walking down Flower Street in Santa Ana in the sunny warmth of a December day and crying as I sang “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” to myself. It wasn’t and it was my first snowless holiday ever.

Silent Night and Jingle Bells and Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

We three kings of Orient are, tried to smoke a rubber cigar, it exploded. . .

Sea Monkey disappointment.

Our first VCR, a Betamax, and our first trip to a video rental store. What magic for movie lovers!

My favorite gift: snail tongs.

Pong—back and forth all day long.

A donut maker. A hot dog cooker. A bun toaster.

Returning our first answering machine gift and getting something more fun.

Menorahs.

Ice skating with friends on a frozen stream through the woods as the snow fell quietly all around and thinking that no gift could be more perfect than that moment.

Grandma’s poppyseed roll.

Putting up the Christmas tree and leaving it up for years.

Getting in trouble in high school for keeping the doors to the family room closed while my boyfriend was over. He was helping me make and fill Christmas stockings for my whole family, seven people including grandma, and I didn’t want anyone to know.

Baking and decorating sugar cookies.

The Christmas when we gave our oldest son a BB-gun ad he promptly shot a hole in the neighbor’s very expensive picture window.

Making cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning and tacos for supper.

Hearing our youngest son come up the stairs at full speed shouting, “He brought me a bike! Santa brought me a bike! I can’t believe it! He brought me a bike!”

Seeing my son at the door when I thought he wasn’t coming home for Christmas.

About that plaster Santa. For decades he stood guard in my Aunt Mildred’s hallway and several years before she died, she passed him along to me. Every time I see him, I’m reminded of her love and her belief in me, the most meaningful gifts she ever gave me.

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received or given?

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
• Charles Dickens

P.S. This has nothing to do with student success except that any kind of list of memories you make can be a neurobics exercise. It’s good for your brain and that never hurts.