Saturday, December 13, 2008

THE FINAL ASSIGNMENT (you gotta swear, not a word to Mom!)


My instructor said to “write a story about failing,” and there went my enjoyment of this class, straight down the tubes. I know this shouldn’t be all that difficult. So why is it I can’t think of a single thing to write about? Is it because I am just so special that I excel at everything I set my hand to? Oh good lord, if only! When I cried on my husband’s shoulder about the assignment, he comforted me with “Well, you can always write about the time you failed to complete the final assignment in your writing class.” Any normal person could easily pluck a dozen memories of failure from their head, so why not me? Probably because, in order to fail at something, one must first take a stab at it, and in my family, that was a very risky thing to do.

The one thing that has always flabbergasted me about my husband is his complete willingness to “make a fool of himself.” If he wants to participate in a golf tournament or join in on a baseball game, is he deterred by the fact that he is fairly lousy at both sports? Heck no! He jumps right in and has a great time. I could no more do that than I could get up on a stage buck naked. He is equally confused by my unwillingness to work my way through the learning curve on anything. If I can’t be fairly proficient right from the get-go, then forget about it. I never really understood it myself, and just figured it was a character flaw I was born with. Now I’m not so sure.

There is a blog I have discovered, called Eyes of Wonder. It is written by a woman with ten children, all home-schooled, and is mostly just photographs of their simple country life. There have been several occasions of late, when I have come across photos there of the parents or older siblings teaching one of the “littles” to sew a skirt for herself, or finger-knit, or bake some cookies, or ride a bike, and found myself with quivering lips and reddened eyes. Why on earth would the beatific smiles on those kid’s faces reduce me to tears? Don’t my siblings and I have plenty of great stories to tell about Dad teaching us to do stuff? For instance, everyone loves the story about the time when my brother got his first football. It wasn’t five minutes of tossing it around in the yard with Dad before he came running back into the house, face red with anger, and hid the ball away so he would never have to do it again! Oh, and what about the time Dad was teaching my older sister to drive? You should hear the way she describes how he grabbed hold of her ponytail, while screaming “I (yank) said (yank) stop!” (yank her head completely backwards). My personal favorite was the time I was foolish enough to ask him to take the training wheels off of my bike, and help me learn to ride without them. Unfortunately, I didn’t make sure he set that wrench down first, and I ended up getting rapped on the knuckles with it, every time I did something wrong.

So what about Mom? Why didn’t she take over the role of teacher, since Dad so obviously had not the temperament for it? She was an excellent seamstress, loved to bake, and was a much better driver than my father. Why was I never at her side, learning to do anything other than clean bathrooms or mop floors? Well, it was her “poor shattered nerves,” you know? Just the thought of being in a car, with one of us kids behind the wheel, would surely have caused her to take to her bed!

I suppose this explains some of why I hate learning new things, but it’s not the entire picture. It didn’t take us long to realize we were better off just figuring stuff out on our own, but like any kid, we still yearned for someone to notice our accomplishments. Everyone comes to parenthood with their own set of baggage, and Dad certainly had his share. I can look back now and say he was probably doing the best job he could do, with the tools that he was given, but oh, the damage he could do with his words. He firmly believed that criticism was the only way to get a child to strive harder. “Look Dad! I shined your shoes for you!” “You call that a shine? Why didn’t you buff them properly?” “Guess what Dad? I got straight A’s!” “But you’re still in the regular old dummy class. Why can’t you get into accelerated?” “Dad, our choir is having a concert this weekend, if you and Mom want to come.” “Why did you join that choir? You know the one your sister was in is better.”

Once, when I was nine or ten, I was in a shop with my mom. I wandered around the corner from her, came across a little framed poster titled something like “A Father Is...,” and stopped to read it. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it listed all the qualities of a good father, and talked about how a loving father would never belittle or ridicule his child. He would teach with praise and loving encouragement. When Mom came around the corner, I was standing there with tears streaming down my face. “What on earth is the matter?” she asked. “I wish someone could show that to Dad,” I replied, pointing to the poster. I think that poster planted a seed though - one that took decades to mature. I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t really so terrible at everything after all. Maybe it was him, not me. I am just now, in mid-life, overcoming my fear of failure, but at least, thank God, I didn’t pass this particular piece of baggage along to my kids.

When my son was eleven or twelve, he wanted to learn how to mow the lawn. My folks came over one day, and I saw Dad eyeing the lawn critically. My son was not out of ear shot, so I quickly said, “Can you believe it, Dad? Your grandson volunteered to start mowing, all by himself!” “Do you call that mo...” Dad started to ask, but I grabbed his arm before he could finish, digging my fingers into his flesh. “Stop right there!” I said in a low, fierce voice. “That’s not how we do things around here. We are very proud of that kid’s efforts, so if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!” He stared at me for a moment with raised eyebrows, made some grumbling, harrumphing noises, then finally turned his head slightly, and begrudgingly tossed back, “Good job, son.” Now you see Dad? That really wasn’t so hard, was it?
* * *

Our instructor normally doesn't reply to our submissions for about 48 hours, but within minutes, I received this message: "Hello Becky, Okay, I've just given this a quick read-through, and I wanted to get back to you about it. I read the first paragraph and was so ????? -- oh dear, to think I'd made you cry?! But by the end I didn't care -- this is soooo good! If you had to shed a few tears to get this good, I can live with that. This is your authentic voice, this is a memoir. You're a good writer, but you have often written from a distance; this is up-close and personal. I am so pleased for you. Keep writing, Robin"

So...I've delved into the dark side. Hope you're happy. Don't expect a repeat any time soon. I suppose it was educational. Might explain why, the minute I start feeling like nothing that I do will ever satisfy a person or boss, I switch into bail-out mode, but if you show even the slightest appreciation for my efforts, I'm your willing slave forever! It might also explain why I can't abide anyone who finds humor in poking a finger at someone's (emotional) bruises. Still, I can't say I actually enjoyed this foray into being a "real" writer. In fact, I'm startin' to see why so many take to the bottle!

And don't forget, mum's the word!

Friday, December 12, 2008


The first two assignments came back with all the expected red pencil marks, as well as some good, constructive criticism. Number three was a shocker. I had decided to submit my story about the stages of a marriage - the one called Circle of Love. It seems to be one that really resonates with people, so I was hoping my instructor could help me get it cleaned up enough to be worthy of submitting somewhere - somewhere that might actually pay money for a story!

When I opened the critiqued version I was puzzled. I kept scrolling down the page, looking for her corrections and critical insertions, but couldn't find any. "Well great," I thought. "She accidentally sent it back to me ungraded!" But no, when I finally got to the bottom of the page, I found this: "Becky, You know how some people's homes are lovely, everything matches just right, everything is tasteful, but you don't get any sense of the woman who lives there? There's no personality in the house? But I looked at your blog today, and saw the photos of your ceramic and glassware collection - I'll bet your home is a perfect reflection of you. Writing is like that too. We call it 'voice,' and refer to 'finding your voice.' It's difficult for writers to do. In this essay you've found your voice. Nothing wrong with the earlier pieces, but they didn't have your personality in them. This one does. Nice work."

OK, picture my head swelling to the size of a Macy's parade balloon. Picture me having cocky thoughts like, "Wow, this writing biz is way easier than I expected. Only halfway through the course, and I've already got it down pat!" Now picture that balloon being ruptured when assignment #4 came back, and I read this: "Hello Becky, Have you heard of the Myers-Briggs test? It's a personality test that considers four different aspects to classify people's personalities for better team building. The reason I mention it is that I'd be willing to wager that you, (Classmate X), and I are probably similar types. We're analytical and we want to step back from the emotions of the situation to deal with it intellectually. Trouble is, that doesn't really work in personal essays, which by definition are personal rather than intellectual. (Classmate X) has really been working at getting the emotion into her writing. You might want to reread her essays on the Yahoo site. Not that you need to write about such serious subjects, but you do want to make that emotional connection we're talking about. Keep writing, Robin"

Well, sheeyut. Why would I wanna go and do that? After all, the main reason I started writing about family stuff in the first place was to put some distance between me and all the drama. I don't want to be in the center of it all, feeling all that emotion! I kinda like it out here in the audience, viewing it all as more of a sit-com. Is that a crime? So, sue me!

P.S. Many thanks to for the above image.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


You have no idea how difficult it was for me to shell out $200 to take that on-line writing class through Story Circle Network. It's not just that I am frugal-bordering-on-miserly. It's more that I am not currently contributing much of anything to the family coffers, so I feel especially guilty when spending money on anything that isn't a necessity. This expenditure means no haircuts or hi-lites for several more months (it's already been 6 or 8), no new plants for the garden, and most certainly, no new clothes any time soon. At first I wasn't sure if it was going to be worth the sacrifice. Now I'm thinking it might just be one of the smartest things I've ever done - next to marrying John, of course!

I have all kinds of books on how to be a better writer, but making myself sit there and wade through page after page of generic stuff, and then trying to figure out how to put it all into practice, is next to impossible. This class, on the other hand, focuses specifically on the one thing I really need to learn above all else: what to keep.

Each morning I sit here rambling on in my journal, and every so often, I see the makings of a good story appear on the page. But, along with the story I get lots of extraneous fluff. So, now I'm learning how to cull out the important stuff, and flush the rest. Neat-o!

P.S. Many thanks to for the above image.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Just after tossing yet another crappy appliance into the trash this morning, I came across this posting by Rhonda, from down unda: I just love it when someone takes the words right out of my mouth, but says it much better than I ever could, so now I don't have to!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I watched a great Hallmark movie this week, about a kid with Tourette's Syndrome who grew up to be an award-winning teacher - the kind he was never fortunate enough to have himself. It got me to thinkin' - about how lucky you are if, at least once in your life, you are touched by a teacher with a true calling. My daughter is one of the fortunate few, for Mr. Jacoby came into her life just when she needed him the most. What a character he was!

We moved to Indonesia when Alexis was just beginning 3rd grade. Prior to that she had just been skimming by under the radar. She was never in trouble at school because she was cute and quiet, and the teachers had their hands full, but she wasn't flourishing either. Actually, she just barely got by.

Once we got to Indonesia, it was a whole new ball of wax. With only 5 or 6 kids in a class, there was no way for Alexis to escape attention, and these teachers had much higher expectations for their students. The first year was a nightmare, with a teacher Alexis referred to as Dragon Lady, and Alexis began to feel as if she might be the dumbest kid in the school. The next year Bruce Jacoby came along, and turned that notion upside down. From that point on, the whole Indonesian experience became one of the most magical times in Alexis' life.

Many times since, Alexis has asked if I knew where the Jacobys were now. Every time she received an honor or excelled at something, she would laugh and say, "Wouldn't Mr. Jacoby faint if he could see me now?" Several times I actually inquired of various friends, whether anyone knew how to contact him. Some thought they had moved from Indonesia to Equitorial Guinea, but they lost track after that. I wish I had tried harder, and kept asking, for there was one family who had kept in touch with them. They are the ones who informed us all recently that this vibrant, energetic young man who was probably only in his early 50's, had suffered a massive heart attack and passed away in E.G.

My daughter was distraught over the news. What she wanted, more than anything, was to be able to say to him, "See Mr. Jacoby? You really did make a difference! If not for you, I might never have discovered what a smart girl I am, and that I can accomplish pretty much anything I set my mind to. Thank you so much. You are the best thing that ever happened to me." Now it's too late.

But not for you! Is there someone out there who has touched your life? Have you told them that they made a difference? Why not?

Sunday, December 7, 2008


At the beginning of November, I wrote this in my journal:

"When we first bought this place several years ago, we were quite anxious to experience a Hill Country Christmas. Lex had moved off to California and only had a few days off, so we didn't even try to get her up to Dallas for our traditional get-together with my side of the family. Instead, John, Austin and I drove up there a week early to see everyone. We were then able to spend Christmas in our snug little house here, just the four of us. It was a much quieter holiday than we were accustomed to, but still, a lot of fun to explore what this area had to offer, and establish some new traditions.

We've done that three years in a row now, and though it's great to be here, we sometimes miss the chaos of a multi-generational family celebration. Since Lex's office now shuts down for a full week at Christmas, we are going to shake things up a bit this year. Lex is flying to Dallas a couple of days early to spend time with old high school friends. We will meet her there to spend Christmas with my family, then drive back to Wimberley for a few days before she flies out and Austin takes off for a camping trip in Big Bend.

I'm sure it will be a lot of fun, but it will certainly be different from recent years, and it brings up a lot of questions. If the kids won't even see this house until after Christmas, and John might only be here one weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, do I really want to haul out, set up, and decorate the big tree, just for myself? I think I might be just as happy with some garland and twinkle lights on the porch rail, my funky raku nativity set on the sofa table, an amaryllis blooming in the dining room, a Christmas candle or fresh rosemary scenting the house, and wrapped packages stacked on the hearth. With all this extra alone time, I could spend my days in front of the sewing machine, listening to my favorite Christmas music and actually making some gifts , instead of in front of the computer, ordering them. Yep, I think I could be quite content with this simple, scaled down version of Christmas."

And on 11/14:

"Got all the Christmas gifts cut out yesterday, except for the canvas interlining and fusible interfacing. Ran out of those, so will have to make another run to San Marcos. Whew! I never suspected that something so simple could have so many layers and pieces. It took me most of the day just to cut them out, and my back was killing me before it was over with! I had forgotten what it was like to stand hunched over a cutting table for hours on end. Wish I could post pictures of what I'm making, but most every recipient reads the blog, and I don't want to spoil the surprise!"

"Just found out I'm having unexpected visitors this weekend - lovely friends that I'm really looking forward to seeing. Only problem is, I've wrecked the house with my projects, and with wrapping all the goodies I bought for the kids we "adopted" this Christmas, and which need to be delivered to Paula right away. I did go to the laundromat to wash clothes and pre-shrink all the fabric for my projects, but I didn't do any sheets or towels, and I haven't done any house-cleaning in two weeks. NOT ANY!! Guess I'd better figure out the bare minimum I can do, to keep the house from looking disgusting when they arrive. Criminy!"

And on 12/2:

"I'm wondering whether to get the sewing machine back out right now, to finish up my gifts, or should I spend the day doing my simplified Christmas decorating? After the craziness of Thanksgiving, and spending yesterday just trying to clear a path through the house, I'm feeling the need for a day of nesting. I think sewing is gonna have to wait a few days. Knowing me, if I don't get a bit of Christmas cheer spread around this house before I leave for Houston on Wednesday, I'll probably start thinking 'Crap. December is almost half over, we aren't going to spend Christmas here, and the kids won't even see the house until after Christmas. Why bother?' Well, I guess I need to bother just for me. Because I love it, and it's important to me. But it better get done soon, or I might change my mind!

It's funny how each person is so different about family celebrations. My SIL is adamant that the tree can't go up until after 12/17, but then she leaves it up forever. I always wanted to enjoy mine the entire month of December, but couldn't wait to get it down afterwards. My friend Paula has always disliked decorating her tree, and eventually switched to a trio of woodland-style trees with simple twinkle lights and no decor. I love decorating, when we do it as a family, but hate the fact that, more often than not, I have to coerce them into participating. The last few years have been a time for rethinking how we celebrate. I've been asking myself what is important, and what can I let go of?"

Finally, today:

"Good news, bad news! Lex's company finished up their work for the year before Thanksgiving, and doesn't have anything else lined up until January, so her boss has asked them all to take unpaid extended vacations. This is devastating to Alexis, financially. However, it has motivated her to come on to Texas on the 15th, and start testing the job market here. Also found out that John and Austin have decided to come in shortly after her, and are staying on through New Years (except for our two days in Dallas)! It just occurred to me that this is the first time in years that we will all be together for more than a week before Christmas, while all of the fun stuff is still going on. I must admit, I've been slipping into a funk about not having a tree, and about having so much alone time this season, and the kids were crushed when they thought we'd have to skip our traditional family excursion to the flagship Whole Foods store in Austin. Looks like now we might be able to do that plus a trip to the Austin Farmer's Market, a crazy movie at the Alamo Draughthouse, and a wonderful dinner at a funky Austin restaurant. On top of all that, Lex has been emailing me about wanting to do some Christmas baking with me, and about looking forward to seeing what all we can make from my Bountiful Sprout orders. Suddenly my gear shift has just ratcheted up into the giddy zone! Guess I'll be putting up a tree after all. I can do without sending Christmas cards, buying new outfits, hosting and attending a bunch of parties, and trying to outdo the neighbors. But some things are just too important to let go of. See ya!"