Vanity Plates and Bumper Stickers

My grey Honda is my cocoon. Surrounded by glass and steel in a vehicle that is practically ubiquitous, I feel safe and anonymous in a crush of drivers. That’s the way I like it. The only distinguishing characteristics to my car are the various dings and dents I have collected over the past nine years, a small round sticker that identifies me as a contributor to PMA, and a blue spider. Only the initiated will know that PMA is the Philadelphia Museum of Art and that the impetus for my sticker was saving Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” from the claws of the Walton family in their museum grab a few years ago, or that the spider is the logo for the University of Richmond, my daughter’s alma matter. My license plate’s number was assigned to me by the state of Pennsylvania two cars ago. It is showing signs of wear, but this long relationship means that when I have to record the digits when I’m dropping the car off for an oil change, I finally have it memorized.

My penchant for privacy makes me wonder about people who reveal themselves via vanity plates and bumper stickers. Did the driver of the BMW that proclaimed, “Live simply that others may simply live,” notice the ironic juxtaposition of this noble sentiment with an obvious symbol of wealth and privilege? Of course, there are the cars that are plastered with political stickers, declaring themselves Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or whatever. Don’t they know that they make themselves a moving target for people of the opposite point of view who drive clunkers? Then there are the cars with decals from every Ivy League college. Do they want me to be impressed with their children’s intelligence or the debt they have incurred? We have stolen the country stickers that Europeans use as a practical identification because they cross borders so frequently, and instead use them to flaunt our favorite vacation destination, our kids’ preschool, or even our gym.

Vanity plates reveal a great deal about a driver in seven characters or fewer, a feat that makes sticking to Twitter’s restrictions seem easy. Some are clever (10SNE1 is my all-time favorite), some are obvious (JAXBMW), some are confusing. A person I worked with had the plate SGRSPIC. I’m assuming it meant “Sugar and Spice” (as in “sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of”), but other people read it very differently. There are websites that list top 100 vanity plates, which shows how much attention they can draw. Statistics show that drivers are distracted by texting or by talking on a cell phone. I wonder how many accidents are caused by drivers trying to figure out just what that license plate in front of them means. I am too cheap to shell out extra money just to send a message to other drivers, but I am also too insecure to find out that the bon mot that I thought was so clever just isn’t.

My son’s CRV sports an “I Drive Naked” sticker which makes him stand out from the crowd almost as much as the deer’s head he had strapped to his front grill for a few months. For political reasons, my daughter immediately stuck an oval “BVI” over the “Bush 2008” sticker on the Impala she inherited from her grandfather. My children are much more willing to share their views with the world than I am. They are like many millennials who willingly share personal information through social media. Perhaps vanity plates and bumper stickers are a pre-high-tech opportunity to let everyone know who we are, where we go, and what we stand for. I still prefer to keep my business to myself, especially when I’m driving.


Lost in a Good Book

Reading is probably my very favorite activity. I love the feeling I get when I open the pages and start in on the first few words. Soon, I’m transported to another place and time, becoming so engrossed in their lives that I forget everything else around me.

I love a book that is so well written that I feel as if I am living right along with the characters. Their joys and sorrows are mine. People around me are puzzled at my emotional responses, my laughter and my tears. I remember reading Pygmalion in study hall in ninth grade and being punished because I was laughing at the confusion caused by the different accents. Recently, my husband looked on helpless as I cried for hours after I turned the last page of The Light Between Oceans. Even mediocre mysteries keep me engaged as I pit my sleuthing skills against the caterer or teashop-owner amateur detective.

Sometimes books I have read over and over again have even stronger emotional pull. My mother introduced me to Gone with the Wind when I was in tenth grade, and I carried it with me everywhere. It sat open on my lap in science class, and I was so engrossed in Mitchell’s tale of the Civil War that I didn’t notice my teacher standing over my shoulder watching me read until the entire class was giggling. I had the grace to blush, but as soon as the teacher went back to the front of the room, I was pulled back to Tara. One reading was not enough. I began a ritual. The first day of every summer vacation, I pulled my copy of Gone with the Wind from my bookshelf and read it again. Each year, I began crying earlier in the story, which I’d like to think was a reflection of my growing maturity, and eventually, I started crying before opening the book. I had to let go of Scarlet and Rhett and Tara. I never watched the movie because I knew it could never live up to the vision I had in my head.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is another book that I have read over and over again. Each time I hope for a better outcome, a different turn of events, but I can’t resist John Irving’s prose or his eccentric characters. As John Wheelwright tells Owen’s story, I am lost in a Vietnam-era New England. I can’t stop reading until I get to the end of the story. I did watch Simon Birch, a truly pitiful adaptation of this masterpiece, so unlike the story that Irving severed all ties with its production. Like the best novels, it is too monumental to be reduced to the big screen. By cutting Owen’s life shorter, there was not enough time to establish the tensions that make for a great book. It will be a long time before I watch another movie adaptation of a book I love.

 My students ask why teachers insist that we read the classics. I even had a fight at the airport with a university professor over the value of teaching The Scarlet Letter. (I mean, seriously, think about how much we would miss in Owen Meany if we did not know The Scarlet Letter!!!!) If a book is popular, like The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter books, the kids will read those on their own and find their own meaning. They will discuss them with their friends. They will write fan fiction. They don’t NEED the teacher to help them. In fact, if they expect the teacher to tell them what it means, we are doing our students a tremendous disservice.

It is the responsibility of schools and teachers to introduce our students to the classics, not because they are classics but because they have something important to deliver, something that stands the test of time. If the language or subject matter is too difficult, perhaps we need to place them later in the curriculum. I was appalled to find that because the middle school teachers taught Animal Farm, that they felt a need to follow up with 1984. I didn’t care that they were teaching the book. I cared that the kids hated the book because there was too much in it that they couldn’t possibly understand in grade seven. I am not saying that we shouldn’t introduce new books into the curriculum, but these should be books that will expand the students’ experience as readers.

 When students complain about OUR choice of books, we have to give the opportunities to select books to read on their own. That’s their opportunity to find the books that will transport them to another world. It’s their chance to be subversive, reading after lights out, maybe even reading their own books instead of what they are “supposed” to be reading, learning about themselves as they immerse themselves in the adventures of others.

 Speaking of which, it’s time for me to get back to reading myself.





I don’t have anything to write

Slice of Life offers writers like me a tremendous opportunity to exercise discipline, and I am thankful for the helpful nudge, but this week my head is not in the game. I have applied the old rule of putting posterior in the seat and giving myself 15 minutes to write anything, but the results have been mediocre, words that I cannot share with this elite community. I feel that I am a failure. I can’t come up with an idea. The ideas I do have sputter. My sentences are clunky. My mind wanders.

In other words, I feel like most of the kids I have ever taught. They slump in their seats, they fidget, they sigh, they want to give up, but I won’t let them. Sparks fly from angry eyes when I poke and prod them to continue. They want to do anything but sit in a chair and write on a beautiful late-winter afternoon, but I cannot give up on them.

While I won’t give up on them, I am ready to give up on me. I am ready to say that I should just give up on the Tuesday Slice of Life. It’s a commitment I made to myself, so it doesn’t really matter, or it doesn’t matter the way laundry matters, or cooking matters, or cleaning matters. These mundane tasks are all calling, like the sirens of the Odyssey, pulling me off course. The chores offer some level of immediate gratification with not a lot of intellectual effort. I mean, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to throw sheets into the washing machine, transfer to the drier, then tuck them on the bed. It’s an item I can check off my to-do list, and it feels wonderful at the end of the day to slip between freshly laundered sheets.

Writing does not offer either the gratification or the ease of housework, but tomorrow the sheets will already feel a little stale, while my writing might have a germ of an idea that deserves to be developed, to be nurtured, to be shared. The writing will grow more fresh as I probe the idea, eliminate the excesses, and revise. Chores don’t offer that satisfaction.

Today I am not particularly proud of my writing, and it would be much less painful to ignore Slice-of-Life Tuesday, but if I don’t post this week, I certainly won’t post next week. Without trying to post, I’ll lose the momentum of the challenge. If I drop out now, who knows what ideas I will ignore. I have to give myself the same encouragement I offer my students. Thanks for reading!

The Taste of Snow


Grandmom in our living room

This March morning, I’m almost blinded by the sun reflected off the snow still piled deep in my backyard. The day started in the single digits, proving the groundhog was right when he ducked back into his burrow to dream of spring, a spring that was far, far away. Unlike the groundhog, we humans have had to shovel and brave both the temperature and the traffic. But spring is coming. I can taste it in the air.

Long ago, there was a March blizzard that left my neighborhood in the cold and dark. Our house was the exception. We still had a coal furnace and a wood stove, so we were snug and fed. Four generations lived in our house, and we couldn’t afford to make the switch to an oil furnace. We had a large square grate in the doorway between the dining room and living room that allowed the heat of the furnace to rise into the living part of the home, a cozy spot for a four year old to play with dolls or look at books.

When the unseasonal storm began, Grandmom, my great-grandmother, went out and gathered fresh snow in the spaghetti dish, a large painted-ceramic bowl. My surprise must have shown when she brought what belonged outside into the house. She shushed my questions with a smile and a quick, “’spett.” I didn’t have to wait long. She mixed the snow with vanilla and sugar, transferred a scoop to a smaller bowl, and lifted a spoon to her mouth. Grandmom closed her eyes and smiled. Next, she told me, “Mangia.” I tentatively took the spoon from her hand, dipped out a morsel, and put it on my tongue. The vanilla snow was sweet and cold and light, unlike anything I had ever tasted. The two of us finished eating the snow together as we watched the wind swirl the wall of flakes, filling the yard quickly.

We didn’t notice when the power went out, but soon neighbors were knocking at the door. They addressed Grandmom as “Madrina,” a form of respect that they seldom used. “Can we stay with you?” they asked humbly. She invited them to come out of the blizzard. The house filled with people who had laughed at our old-fashioned ways. Some brought food with them, the dinners they couldn’t cook on their modern electric ranges, and my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother melded the contributions and what we had in our cupboards into many meals because the storm lasted four days.

 It was a week before the power returned, a week when our house almost burst at the seams. People slept on chairs, the sofa, the floor. Meals were served in shifts, but there was a place for everyone, and no one went hungry because my great-grandmother had filled shelves with the vegetables she had canned from her garden in the back yard, and she shared her bounty.

I can’t remember the pasta or the soups or the stews that we shared that week, but I can still taste the vanilla snow, even though my own attempts to make it have never succeeded.