Homesick, tarred, and ma’amed

I knelt on the hot tar in my skirt, head down, hair in my eyes, sweating and swearing, while I squinted under my glasses at the tiny cartoon on the “help” sticker on the metal diamond that was supposed to show how to use the metal loopy thing that might be a crank. I could do this. I didn’t want to wait the hour for AAA to send the help I paid for.*

Ten minutes earlier I’d crossed railroad tracks and a bridge over the river and wondered why I could hear the water whoosh so loudly. Turned out my tire was the whoosher.

I finally got the crank spinning pretty well (actually it was awkward and my left elbow made that creaking sound it makes when I knead bread dough) and the car was just rising up off the ground when a rattling pick-up truck slowed down. The tatooed and sunburned arm of the driver asked if I needed any help, ma’am.

Seriously, I did not look anything like a woman wanting to be called ma’am. There’s a special sarcastic twang to the m-word when it’s uttered slowly, in two full syllables to a sweating woman on her knees in a parking lot.

“No. I’m good. AAA is on the way.”

He drove away. Free. On four whole tires. He hadn’t actually stopped all the way.

A minute later a gray-haired man squatted beside me. “You got that?”

“Yes. Thanks.” I kept cranking.

“You know how to get those locks off the bolts?”

Crap in a hat. The bolts are locked? I stayed calm. I did not cry. I’d already done the math and knew I couldn’t get home tonight. Homesickness be damned, I had a tire to change and bolts to somehow unlock.

I looked up at the nice man and said, “I’ll get the book from the glovebox.” His smirk matched my doubt that the translated-from-Japanese/German guidebook would help. My knees cracked when I stood to get it.

I’m too old for so many things, but somehow I have not outgrown my stubborn. She rides on my shoulder and hisses in my ear, “Do it yourself, Laura.”

When I got back with the book, the nice man was cranking the jack up higher. I knelt back on the black tar and he read over my shoulder and nodded. We looked through the tools for the promised lock wrench. Nope.

I went to the trunk to search and when I came back, he said, “Look, they just pop off.” Wednesday Thursday Friday? Why are they called locked?

Then he uncranked two bolts and got stuck on the rest. He was older than I, which equates to way too old for this. He was also bleeding a little from a cut on his hand, caused by my tire, I guess. Nice people will bleed for me. But, despite the river of water dripping from his head, he couldn’t get the bolts off.

Stubborn-jerk-on-my-shoulder cheered, “Do it, Laura, doooooo it!”

So, based on the hundred stuck pickle jars opened by my tiny hands in the last half-century, I placed the wrench-thing on the bolt, parallel to the planet, and stood on it in my sandals. Two little hops–up, down, up, down–and the bolt let go and unwound. Ha! Gravity’s always on my side.

To make a long story short (as Gram C used to say to make her son-in-law roll his eyes), the tire got changed to the donut spare, I drove away from home, slowly, not crying, with angry drivers riding my bumper and my arm waving them by.

A day of clarity made me realize how lucky I was that the damn tire blew when I was driving 20 mph in a sleepy Southern town full of folks who are nice to grumpy women, instead of five minutes earlier when I was stock-car racing and playing chicken with Mack truck drivers on the freeway.

Thanks for your help, Joe.

*I hadn’t been quite as pleasant as I should’ve been to the operator lady and doubted anybody would show up. I think when she asked what year the car was, I said something like, “I’m in the trunk looking for a spare tire. The year of the car is on a little piece of paper in the glove box. Is it more important that you know the year than knowing whether I have a spare?” She was quiet for a beat before she said something nice back to me. Yeah.


Notes from a dork

Recently, on the open interweb where students (who are protected by FERPA) feel the need to publicly rate their teachers (who need none, so seek no protection, and work insane hours for low pay because teaching is so much fun), I was described as “a little dorky.”

Me. Dorky. Really?

To investigate the accuracy of the statement, I looked up the current meaning of dorky and found this: socially inept, awkward, unfashionable.

Let me dissect this mush. I stand in front of 120 students at a time and talk for hours. Maybe that’s what socially inept means now–the willingness to make eye contact and speak. I do so in clothes I like, that are comfortable and likely unfashionable, but I don’t care what you wear, so I’m surprised you care what I do. Perhaps I should be more offended. Go ahead, you can be offended for me, but I’ve been at this for decades and have seen the cycle: Years after graduation, students grow up and regret their actions. Some even come by and apologize. They know not what they do when they are young and unemployed. Some do not think of their professors as fellow humans, though we perceive the best of our students as the great hope for the survival of humanity.

Anyway, this proud geek/nerd/scholar couldn’t stop at one source, so I continued on my quest and found another definition: stupidly foolish, inept, clueless.

Now wait a minute. What might I be clueless about? Atomic theory? Organic reactions and rates, oxidations, nucleophilic substitutions, kinetics, equilibria? Transition states, Newman projections, stereochemistry, molecular shapes, bond angles, hydrogen bonding? Ah, nope.

Maybe I’m clueless about things I don’t care about. In that case, clueless might be the perfect platform on which to choose how to live a life. But I plead not guilty to “stupidly foolish” and “inept.” Those words are my antitheses; I am smartly serious and quite ept.

And on to a third source, to satisfy the statistician in me: In slang, I found dork to mean nerd (guilty) and jerk (nope, not me. I’m nice. I care. I work hard. I show up. I’m honest. Maybe you’re just petrified of strong women. Try to outgrow that.)

So after some spreadsheet work with multiple scatterplots and best-line-fit analysis, I am self-diagnosed as 57.9% dork, which makes me maybe dork-ish. I’m also 50% Irish. 25% French. 25% mutt. 100% female. 98% stubborn. 32% angry. 84% content. 98% curious.

Don’t pin a label on me. It won’t stick. And I won’t do it to you.




Dear fellow teachers (and your students)

As the next school year looms and I prepare to begin my 22nd year standing in front of a lecture hall full of one hundred (or more) eager and engaged students, happily professing about my favorite topics, I thought I’d prepare a pep talk for fellow teachers.

Then I thought I’d make another pep talk for future students.

And then I realized students and their teachers all need the same skill set, the same advice, to survive the demands of a semester.

Teachers, remember your students have many other courses, deadlines, labs, meetings, and responsibilities besides your homework. Be gentle: allow for a fumbled ball, a missed assignment, an absence. Consider excusing or dropping a low score. Consider it an outlier.

Students, remember your professors have many other courses to teach and lectures to prepare, hundreds of other students, meetings, committees, spouses, children, pets, and responsibilities besides grading your quiz. Be gentle: allow for an error during lecture, a math error in calculations, a typo in the grading spreadsheet. All of these things are fixable. Your professor is a human, just like you.

Students, learn efficiently. Go to class. Turn off your phone. Listen. Take notes. Ask questions. Keep a detailed personal calendar of deadlines and tests. Make a daily list of things to do. Prioritize. Study before you have to. Do the homework before the due date. Be responsible and in charge of your life. If fun doesn’t fit in for a few weeks or a month, remember the summer. Successful mastery of content in college courses requires a huge commitment of time and energy and dedication. As long as you’re a student, there will always be another summer.

Professors, teach efficiently. Go to class. Turn off your phone. Slow down. Write clearly. Ask for questions. Check for understanding. Keep a detailed personal calendar of deadlines and tests. Make a daily list of things to do. Prioritize. Post office hours. Open your door. Write assessments well before they’re needed so you can make them better. Be responsible and in charge of your life. Successful college instruction requires a huge commitment of time and energy and dedication. If fun doesn’t fit in for a few weeks or a month or the entire semester except on weekends in the football stadium, remember the summer. Oh, the beautiful summer.

Professors need patience. Your students don’t know much when you first meet. If you are patient, and give as much as you can to each who asks for help, all of them can do it.

Students need patience. With themselves. Learning is a layering process. Some concepts will take multiple attempts of study to comprehend. These multiple layers come in the form of reading, thinking, trying, listening in lecture (going to lecture), reading again, working problems, asking for help, failing and trying again. Freshmen are astounded by the levels of challenge that they face in their first semester. If you are patient, and give as much as you can to each of your courses, all of you can do it.

Students need stamina. There won’t be many breaks. Even the weekends will be filled with things to read and write and try and study. When you take a break due to illness or exhaustion, your courses will feel even more challenging when you return because the lectures continued in your absence. Stamina will get you through.

Teachers need stamina. There won’t be many breaks. Even the weekends will be filled with things to read and write and grade and prepare. When you take a break due to illness or exhaustion, your courses will feel even more challenging when you return because nobody continued your lectures in your absence. Now you are behind. The end of the semester will not be extended. You have to teach and grade and prepare even faster. Stamina (and coffee, chicken soup, candy bars, adult beverages) will get you through.

Professors, a sense of humor can help. Most students appreciate your attempt at humor. Even when they’re laughing at you, instead of with you, at least they’re laughing. Sacrifice yourself for their sake. They are surely in more pain than you are. Ignore the three who scowl and growl for fifteen weeks–nothing can make them smile and they’ll be annoyed that you tried. But for the rest, laughing in your lecture or in your office may be the only time they smile for weeks.

Students, a sense of humor will get you through it. Laughing releases good molecules into your tired brain. (Dr. Lanni can draw them for you.) Find a reason to laugh and someone to laugh with.

Students, find the courage to ask for help. There are office hours, and tutors (some free!), and organized study groups with university-paid peers. There are advisors and RAs. You are not alone.

Teachers, especially new ones, find the courage to ask for help. Experienced instructors have dealt with almost every unique situation you will face: crying students, crying and angry parents, huge stacks of papers to grade, lesson planning, cheating, lying, lying about cheating. Ask someone. If they don’t know, or are busy, ask someone else. You are not alone.

Students and professors, just remember everyone is doing the best they can. When they wish they’d done better, encourage them instead of making them feel worse than they already do. Respect each other, and we can all get through this, maybe laughing along the way, and reaching the impossible goals we all set for ourselves.

The best life is an intelligent one. Never stop learning.

Please, brain, stop thinking for a few hours. Let me sleep. Thanks.

What wakes me up at 2 am? My brain. Actually, small molecules and synapses in my brain. Normal people (who are asleep right now) probably call them thoughts.

The old brain just can’t downshift. It won’t stop thinking. About everything.

Like when you type the word brain, you automatically add a g, because of the “in“.

Like my work-in-progress (aka my book)–how to distribute that section that Jim wants spread across the first 57 pages.

And the next book. The characters. The plot. The desire to write it (NOW) instead of finishing the other one, or sleeping like a normal person.

And I really need a good word for WordsWithFriends.

And more and more and more thoughts about. . .

The future and the past.

Decisions to be made and secrets to be hidden.

Sore knees.

Infinite hopes and worries.

Fear of war and incompetent leaders.

Need ice cream.

Must write a blog post.

Need to hush that barking dog, quacking duck, snoring man.

Must flip the hot pillow. Cover the cold feet

So thirsty. Must deal with opposite of thirst.

Must mentally compile tomorrow’s list.

Must worry about things I cannot control, so when they happen, I’m ready (but so sleepy).



He adored me

A mother is a busy person. Her life revolves around keeping the children alive. Feed them. Give them gingerale and hugs when they’re sick. Make them wear pants and change their socks. She keeps the children clean(ish) and presses manners down upon them with a mallet. I’m a mom, so I’ve done all these things.

But despite all the effort from the mom, there’s something magical about a daddy.

Our daughters adore their father. I’ve shared him with them because I relished and snuggled under a blanket of adoration from my own father.

Dads.  They go to work. They mow. They play. They watch sports. The get sat upon. They receive running hugs. They sneak us a cookie. Or a dollar. Or the car keys. They teach us to juggle and they tickle. They work for smiles.






A pie is born

It might not seem a great idea to make a pie while on vacation, away from the home kitchen, and one that I’ve never made before and was sure not to like. But I did.

At the beach, during a mostly rainy but relaxing week, my husband and number 1 pie-eater and I were discussing food. I was adding avodaco to my salad. He was not. Actually, he was making a face and dissing my avocado, which was perfectly ripened and delicious.

I asked what his problem was. He said he didn’t like the texture (smooth and creamy!) This made no sense to me so we discussed other “textured” foods and it turns out I like smooth and he likes lumpy food. Creamy vs chunky peanut butter. Nuts or no nuts in everything from banana bread to cookies to ice cream. Somehow the discussion led to coconut, and quickly to pie.

[You can guess: he likes coconut, I do not. Ick. The texture.]

Some background on my pies. I make the Crisco crust and an apple pie that is family-famous. I’d make one every day if the pie eaters could keep up. I considered opening a bakery instead of going to graduate school. This apple pie is completely from scratch. I can peel apples in one long stream of curly peel. I know the recipe so well I use it to explain limiting and excess reagents when I teach stoichiometry in my chemistry lectures. Oh, and the man who likes coconut eats my apple pie from the pan if nobody is looking.

I also make a strawberry rhubarb pie (disgusting, but for sibling birthday reasons, a yearly staple) that mimics the fame of my best husband’s mother, a legendary cook and baker. So in my heart, I know the strawberry rhubarb and apple pies are on the top of his pie list.

But there we were watching rain fall at the beach, discussing avocado vs coconut, and he remembered a delicious coconut cream pie from forty years ago, and I could tell by the smile and gleam in his eyes that he really wanted one. So I asked the pivotal question (and got a surprising answer).

I asked for a pie ranking. “What are your top three pies in order?”

With minimal think time he held up his hand, palm to the floor, above his head to visually demonstrate position and declared strawberry rhubarb in the prime spot (no surprise). He dropped his hand to the next level (he’s Italian; his hands talk) and declared coconut cream pie in second place. And broke my heart by declaring my apple pie in third place.


So, of course I had to learn to make the second place pie. I had to make him eat it in my presence.

I went to the store and learned shredded coconut comes in little bags just like chocolate chips. I went online and compared three recipes, and used this one. I used a premade graham cracker crust, low fat Cool Whip, learned how to toast the coconut on a cookie sheet (why?), and made the thing that day. I stirred my arm off for for 40 minutes over the not-quite-yet boiling custard as it thickened and I wondered why a box of pudding wouldn’t work. The pie shell was too small, so I made a consolation dessert with 3/4 cup of the custard (before the coconut was added!) on a bowl of chunky sliced strawberries, which I topped with Cool Whip (all for the cook).

It was a beautiful pie.

He LOVED it. Immortalized its position between strawberry rhubard and apple pie. The last slice was eaten from the pan.

And a beach pie tradition is born.