Month: January 2018

Homage to But

Note:  This was a letter that I wrote to my class in 2015 and read to them at their Moving Up Ceremony on their last day of Fifth Grade.  I’m posting it today because I just read a Blog post by Kate Roberts about the importance of healthy skepticism.  Her topic and mine are not identical, but they have some overlap, and they both focus on this most powerful three-letter word. I apologize for the  inside references in my letter.  At the time I wrote it, it wasn’t really intended for a broader audience.

Dear 5-vE,

I’d like to talk to you about something controversial.  I hope you’ll keep an open mind.  I hope you won’t be offended.  I hope your parents won’t be offended, too.  It’s all based on a word that’s hard to say.  In fact, some people actually treat it like a bad word.  Still, I’d like to make a claim that while some might misuse this word, it may also become one of the most important words you’ll use in your life.  Sometimes it may make people angry.  Sometimes it may make people sad.  On occasion it may confuse people who have trouble with its ambiguous meaning.  Still, I think, if used wisely it will serve you well in life, so I’m going to talk about it now, even if it makes people uncomfortable.  I think you’re ready.  The word, of course, is…but.


See what I mean?  Some people are laughing.  A few people are shocked.  Several are uncomfortable.  And one or two are confused,  probably  about how I spelled the word.  You see, that’s why I’ve been telling you that spelling counts.  But here’s the thing, I actually meant what I said in the first paragraph.  I’m not focusing on buts just to get your attention.  I believe it’s been a really important word for us this year, and not just because someone confused it with the word boat earlier this year and created a surprising new compound word.  I think it’s a word that’s going to continue to matter in your future. I’m tempted to say that as you move forward, it’s your buts that will lead you, but again, that might confuse some people.


This year, we’ve done a fair amount of arguing.  I know, that could sound like we’ve had a bad year, but I think we had a great year.  I think learning to argue well is as important as learning to agree.  One thing we agreed on this year is that this is a competitive group with a strong sense of justice.  Combine those qualities, and you will have arguments.  This year we’ve argued about whether to pay college athletes, whether to ban bottled water, whether to require uniforms in schools, whether to extend school years, and whether schools should sell chocolate milk.  We’ve also argued about choosing tables in the cafeteria, reserving seats at the back of  the bus, and whether someone’s silent ball catch was really a “snaggy apple.”   In each case, smart people presented evidence on both sides.  Sitting proudly in the middle was  a “but.”  It challenged us to look at something another way.  One person’s idea had value, but we’d better listen to the other side.  We needed to acknowledge another view.  We weighed the evidence and decided where we stood. “But” helped us to see issues in a new way.


“Buts” have also changed the world.  In social studies we learned that an argument gave birth to our country.  Our founding fathers may have sailed here from England, may have fought on the British side in the French and Indian War, may have considered themselves loyal subjects of King George, but when he ignored their disagreements, the colonists wrote an argument for why we should become an independent nation.   That declaration hinged on the word “but.”  You could look it up.


But they didn’t stop there.  Not only did our founders propose a separate nation, but they determined that it ought to be a nation where people made the laws, debated the issues, and elected the leaders.  That could lead to a lot of disagreements.  Ever since then, Americans have had the privilege of throwing their buts around.  At some points those arguments took the form of civilized debate, while at another time the arguments led to a most uncivil war.  Later the “buts” led to peaceful sit-ins.  In many cases disagreements led to change.  That’s the kind of “but” I’m celebrating today.  It’s the kind we often encountered in the books we read this year.   The kind that bravely stood up to commonly held beliefs.

Some courageously protested minor issues.  A kid disagreed with a teacher. When the teacher said, “You can’t write a poem about a squished squirrel,” a kid poet said, “but I don’t think that’s true,” and helped us all see a father squirrel, missing and missed, whose “eyes glistened still.”  


Other times the issues were major:

Someone said, “Without slaves to work the fields, the Southern farmer will never survive…” But brave people of many colors like Harriet and Abraham and Pink and Say, said they’ll have to, because slavery is not justice for all.

Someone said, “It is in the best interest of Negro and white to have a separate education and social order.But voices from both sides of that invisible fence, like Clover and Annie and Joe and John Henry said that separation is not equality.

Someone said, “The success of the suffrage movement would injure women spiritually and intellectually…”  But a strong woman named Charley, and millions who followed her, proved them wrong.

Someone said, “Schools will always have bullies…” But  Patricia and Officer Batlin  and you said we can do something about that.


In February we read a poem called “Valentine for Ernest Mann.”  The poet challenged us to look at things with fresh eyes, like the earnest man who gave his wife two skunks for Valentine’s Day.  While the rest of the world saw those skunks and thought only of their smell, the earnest man looked in their eyes and saw beauty.  He reinvented them as Valentines.  I think most great inventions in the world arose from someone who looked at something in a fresh way and didn’t accept the commonly held view.  You can’t light up the world with electricity.  You can’t transmit someone’s voice across the country in an instant. You can’t make a phone that works without wires.  You can’t wipe out polio.  You can’t.   “But what if I did this?”  


This spring, we read a book called So B. It, by Sarah Weeks.  In that book, we learned that one of the characters, a developmentally disabled mom with no knowledge of her past has been tagged with the name So Be It.  The wise character Bernadette said she’d like to get her hands on the person who gave her that name.  She said it was a name without hope,  a name that signaled the end.  It was a way of saying, “That’s just the way it is.”  But Bernadette couldn’t stand that way of thinking.  Neither could Heidi; neither could you.  


Here is my parting wish for you on this Moving Up day:  I hope as you head out of this school you will take your buts with you.  You will need them. Please don’t use them as an impediment to progress or as a strategy to get something for yourself. Rather, think of them as powerful words that can move us forward.  You will need them, because every day you will hear things that you disagree with, and you may feel compelled to argue.  Use your minds and your buts to help others see another side, another view. Many days you will see things that shouldn’t be, and you will hear others say, “So Be It,”  or “It is what it is.”  You know that’s not the final word.  It’s anything but.


Mr. vE


Keyless in Bethesda

Over the Christmas break, we used my daughter Sarah’s car as we headed to the D.C. area.  It carried a few surprises along with our baggage.  As I look back, I realize it joins a line of quirky cars from my past.

This vacation, we needed to get to Bethesda, and Sarah wanted to continue on to North Carolina afterward, so we decided we’d pile into her car and Nancy and I would take the train home.  Sarah’s had this car a year, after buying it used last winter.  It’s had its share of malfunctions already, but this winter’s issues caused mostly embarrassment.  

The car came with a keyless entry system, though it didn’t seem to be the factory-installed kind.  No, it seemed more like the purchased-at-a-portable-table-on-a-sidewalk-in-the-city kind.   “Psst, hey, Buddy, wanna buy a remote for your car?  Works just like a real one.”

When she first got the car, Sarah couldn’t get the remote to work at all.  She ended up calling the dealer (the car dealer, that is) to get it to work.  There was no manual.  Now, it is operational.  If you press the lock button it will, in fact, lock the doors. This is the good news.  Unlocking is a little different.  Here’s how it goes.

I volunteer to drive the CT-to-Washington leg of the trip.  The first time I try to unlock the car is at our house in the morning as we’re getting ready to leave.  Fortunately it isn’t too early in the morning.  I amble out of the garage and smoothly depress the unlock button.  Suddenly the horn blares and the lights flash.  Woops.  I must have pressed the wrong button.  I look down at the remote and begin madly pressing the unlock button.  No luck. Panic button?  No.  I press the lock button, and the horn rests.  I try again.  This time I carefully press the unlock button…and we’re back to “The Streets of New York” soundtrack. It’s loud…and persistent.  My eyes dart from house to house, expecting my neighbors to come charging out.  Instead it’s Sarah.  “Open the door.  Open the door.  You have to put the key in the ignition!”

“Okay,” I think, “that’s doable.”  I grab the front door handle.  It doesn’t open.  “Press it again!” Sarah yells.  I follow her directions, only slightly flustered by the incessant horn. I dive into the front seat and frantically look for the keyhole for the ignition.  This is not the car I usually drive.  Finally, I locate the hole, and insert the key. The horn continues to blare.  “Turn it on!” Sarah yells, exasperated by my incompetence.  Right, I try to turn it on.  The key doesn’t turn.  I realize I’m not stepping on the brake.  Somehow the routine is less automatic when it sounds like I’m inside an air raid drill.  At last, the key turns, and the horn section takes five.  “Well, that was fun,” I grumble.

I think nothing more about this until four hours later when we stop at a rest area in Maryland.  We need gas and the girls need a pit stop.  Amazingly, the gas line goes faster than the ladies room line, so I park the car and head in for some snacks.  Naturally, with all of Sarah’s belongings in the car, I remember to lock the doors.

Exiting  the rest area a few minutes later, I tell Sarah I’m going to be more careful about my button pressing this time.  Very carefully, I place my index finger on the icon that clearly shows the unlock symbol.  I press the button.  Horns.  Lights.  We’re in “Wall of Sound” mode again,  everyone at the Maryland House staring at the offending car…and the low-lifes who are clearly breaking into it.  I grab for the door.  No luck.  I press again.  Doors unlock.  Horn solo continues.  I dive into the driver’s seat, shove the key in the ignition, step on the brake, and turn the key.  Ahh.  Silence.

“What am I doing wrong?” I ask Sarah.  

“I’m not sure,” she replies.

“Well, can you show me?”

“I’m not sure.”

“What do you mean, you’re not sure?  Show me.”

“I don’t really know what you’re supposed to press.  I usually just leave the car unlocked.”

“What!?”  This from my wife.  She believes in locking doors.

We arrive in Bethesda a few hours later, park on the street across from my parents’ apartment house, and lock the car.  Well, we have to.  It has a lot of Sarah’s stuff for college.

Later that night, long after dinner, we head out to the car.  We need to drive to Mclean where we’re spending the night with Nancy’s brother.  It’s cold and clear.  The stars are bright.  I’m whistling “Silent Night.”  This time I have a plan.  I’m not going to unlock the car with the black market remote.  I’ll use the actual key. Old school.  I love it.   Pleased with this plan, I’m feeling relatively calm.  I insert the key in the door lock.  I turn the key, and…No more “Silent Night.”  More like “Honk the Herald Air Horn Sings.”  I yank open the door, scramble into the front seat and perform the silencing act once more.  Man, that’s a very effective horn.  Most of Bethesda agrees.  We wave sheepishly as we pull out.

For the rest of our stay in the DMV, our departures look something like  scenes from I Love Lucy or Little Miss Sunshine.  I try locking the car with the key.  I try locking the passenger side.  I try hitting the buttons from the inside before exiting the car.  Every time we try to unlock, our Sonic Subaru serenades the neighborhood.  The only thing I get better at is looking casual as I scramble inside and crank the ignition. Alas,  I never figure out the key to the keyless.

As Nancy and I ride the train home to Connecticut, I recall the quirky cars from my past: There was stalling car, the one that we couldn’t  allow to stop during an entire trip from Poughkeepsie to Washington; there was the duct-taped back seat car that ruined a friend’s dress.  She may never forgive me for that. And, of course there was the push-button-gear-shift-with-toilet-seat-floorboard Plymouth Valiant…but perhaps those will have to wait for another slice.    Right now, I’m late for work.  Where are my keys?

I Reflect on Reflecting

Today I’m sitting in that tunnel of mirrors, the barbershop trap, where you’re supposed to be looking at how the back of your haircut looks, but instead your eye gets distracted by the fact that you can see the mirror in front of you inside the mirror behind you, and the mirror behind you inside that…and so on…and so…you nod and say, “It looks good,” but really you haven’t even looked at your hair.  You’re too distracted by the myriad reflections.

That’s me.  Reflecting in so many scattered ways that my reflections don’t always yield the results that people imagine when they describe a “reflective person.”

This year, as I’ve read the entries on the Two Writing Teachers blog, I’ve seen how much thought some teachers put into choosing a word that will be their “One little word” (OLW) for the year.  I took part last year, and I chose the word “citizen.”  Most people chose verbs.  I chose a noun.  I thought, though, that it was a noun that implied action.  I don’t know how successful I was as a citizen last year.  I voted; I marched; I rallied; I wrote.  Was that really enough?  I probably could have done more.  I’ll reflect on that later.  

At the beginning of this school year I chose the word “yet” as the touchword for my year.  Again, avoiding the verb, this time I chose a conjunction. Odd, I know.  I chose it for its ability to revise and reframe a sentence. In the world of a fifth grader, things are often black or white.  Kids say, “I’m good at art,” or, of more concern, they state the negative, “I’m not good at writing.”  It can be hard to counter that concreteness, the certainty or finality of their assertion.  I tried to focus our first weeks on adding the word “yet” to any negative proclamation.  That quality of temporariness made it seem like there were still possibilities.  “I’m not good at math…yet.” (Wait, I’m wondering now if that really is a conjunction when you use it that way. This is how I’ll find out if my sister reads these entries.  She will know).  Whatever the part of speech, I’ll continue to push that powerful word as a tool this year. But now it’s January, named for Janus, the two-headed one who looks backward and forward in Roman mythology, so I’m choosing a new word for this year:  reflect  (a verb, finally).

I’m determined, though, to be more conscious of how I reflect.  I do it naturally, but almost obsessively, at times.  As a result, I sometimes don’t use my reflection for more than a chance at admonition.  “Well, that sucked.  I won’t do that again.”  Or, “That didn’t work so well.  I should remember to do it a different way next year.”  Those reflections, though honest, don’t do much good.  Neither do the reflections that keep me from sleeping at night.  Those often mix with projections, the things that worry me about tomorrow.  This year, I’d like to be more constructively reflective. I think that means I need to leave space to look back more regularly, to look back in a more focused and analytical way, and then to look forward, based on my reflection.

Reflecting is on my mind right now, since I’ve recently spent time reading a memoir that my father is writing.  His purpose, of course, is different from mine.  Partly, he’s trying to figure out his old self, wondering why he emigrated from Sweden at age 17, wondering why he wandered so much in those years from 17 to 23.  Partly he’s doing it so that future generations will know who he was and hear his voice.  

Now that I think of it, I probably should be thinking along those same lines.  Rather than waiting till I’m 87,  with memory failing and energy flagging, it might be wise to figure out myself and make myself known to that generation that hasn’t arrived yet. I could begin a memoir project now, and…

See? This how my flawed and unfocused reflections lead me off track. Now I’ve just given myself a new project.  Reflection should clarify and direct, not just add to my to-do list.  Here’s my reflection resolution:  In school, I will leave time before the end of each day for all of us to reflect on one part of the day.  In my reflection, I’ll try to find something interesting or positive upon which I could build, and I’ll try to make note of one specific thing I could do as a follow-up or correction tomorrow.  That’s Janus-like, purposeful, and focused.  My one little word for 2018 is reflect.

I can do this, even if I’m not good at reflecting…yet.  

The River that Divides

I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my sister-in-law, Ann Marie.  We’re at her house in McLean, Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac River from my parents who live in Bethesda, Maryland.   We’re chatting about the news of the year, since it’s the next-to-last day of 2017.  The subject of all  the fallen giants bubbles up.  I don’t recall  which of us raised it.  We run through the list of transgressors,  Harvey, Matt, Kevin, Louis, Al, Garrison, knowing that we’re leaving some out.  Wouldn’t they be relieved?

I sigh.  “It’s weird with some of them.  They just seem like good guys.  I guess it just shows something about people  in the public eye.  You really don’t know them.”

“I don’t think you really know anyone,” says Ann Marie.  “I mean, really.  We have all these friends and relatives that we think we know, but some of them we see a few times a year. Sure, it’s more than that if you count Facebook, but we don’t really know them.”

So true, I thought.  I could take a deeper dive into this pool, but I’m slicing, here, so I’ll hold off.  It occurs to me that we had many examples of this during the holiday, but I’ll focus on one.

The evening before, we were sitting in my parents’ apartment.  It’s four miles from Ann Marie’s house as the crow flies, only about 15 minutes as the car drives, for that matter, but for some reason this is the first time in thirty years that we’ve seen both families on the same trip.  Odd how wide that river can seem.

We’re talking about breakfasts, because Ann Marie has been serving us feasts each morning, as though we’re at a bed and breakfast.  Nancy, my wife, is mentioning how she and Sarah are not really breakfast people, while I’m saying, for the benefit of no one, since everyone in the room knows this, that I happen to be a big breakfast person.

“He always has been,” says my mother.  “So, ever since he was very little, we said, ‘Okay, here’s how you make scrambled eggs, and here’s how you make french toast, and here’s how you make an omelet.’  Ever since then, he’s been able to make his own big breakfasts.”

This amuses Nancy.  It seems almost sneaky on the part of my mom, tricking me into doing the cooking.  But then again, it appeals to her, this idea that I was a willing student, with an appetite for learning.  “He’s pretty good with the eggs,” she concedes, conspicuously omitting all of the things I’m not “pretty good with.”

“Yeah, and don’t forget the egg nog,” I add.

“You made egg nog?”  My daughter Sarah is not a fan of eggs.

“You made egg nog?”  My wife is not a fan of egg nog, but she’s also dubious because of the effort that involves.

“Yeah, but not always for breakfast.  Sometimes I had it as like a fourth meal at night?”

“A fourth meal?  Geez, how often did you make this stuff?”  Sarah is getting more disgusted by the moment.

“I don’t know.  Once or twice a week for a few years.”

“What?!”  Now Nancy is alarmed.  “Wasn’t that a bit of a chore?”

“Not really.”  I proceed to explain my process.  “You know, you just get about three eggs, drop ’em in the blender, add some milk, a little sugar, and a drop or two of vanilla.  I never bothered with the nutmeg (yuck) or the alcohol (underage).”

“Wait, you didn’t heat the eggs?”  Nancy is both alarmed and grossed out.

“Wait, three raw eggs?”  Sarah is nearly gagging.  “Didn’t it taste awfully…eggy?” This is accompanied by the face of distaste that daughters are so good at making towards their parents.

“It tasted kind of like vanilla ice cream,” I say.

“Why did you do that?”  Sarah can not get her mind around this idea of voluntarily consuming something so blatantly egg-ish.

“I was a skinny teenager.  I wanted to gain weight.  It was much more tame than Rocky’s routine.”

Nancy is sure that is neither the correct nor the safe way to make egg nog.  She is sure there should be cooking involved.  She even tosses out the word “tempering” to show that there is a proper verb for what I was supposed to have done with those three eggs.  I offer to  Google it.  The first recipe is almost identical to what I had said.  No cooking or tempering involved.  Nancy is dubious.  “What’s that, the ‘cooking hacks for lazy people’ web site?”

“No, it’s  It has nine thousand likes.”

“Yeah, well, try something that has some cooking cred.  Is there an Alton Brown recipe? He  does things the right way.”  I look up Alton Brown, and sure enough he has a recipe.  Sure enough, he also has his own, more meticulous method.  It involves separating the eggs, whipping the whites, and folding them into the mixture.  BUT, there is no cooking or tempering.

“HA!” I shout, vindicated.  “Oh wait.”  At the bottom of the recipe, he has an alternate method, for those who don’t like the idea of uncooked egg.   It uses the word “tempering,” too. “Rats.  Well, it’s not his first method.  It’s just his alternate.”

“Wait, you used THREE raw eggs?”  Sarah again.  I believe this is called perseverating.

The argument is settled, sort of, but Nancy is still looking at me in an odd way.  “You  know, what’s weird is that I’ve known you for 36 years.  I think I know pretty much every story about you.  How is it that I never knew you loved to guzzle raw-egg egg nog as a kid?”

I shrug.

Now I can say, “You know, Nancy, a wise person from the other side of the river once said to me, ‘I don’t think you ever REALLY know anyone.'”