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May

25May

Spelling Probs

Spelling Probs

Lots of former students have told me they worry about spelling mistakes in notes they write to me. I promise I've never returned a personal note yet with red pen marks (I actually always preferred green), and I honestly don't notice the medium when I'm caught up in the message. I LOVE getting notes – whether they're in my Facebook Inbox or on my wall, through the mail, texted, or recently – stuck in my mailbox. Last week two students who were leaving on trips stopped by to leave notes – what sweethearts to take the time in the middle of packing! Love you, Martina and Aaron! And Carson, you have a gift for knowing when I need to hear from you most!

I don't care at all about spelling errors, but if you're writing for professional reasons – whether you're querying an agent or publisher or submitting requested info to a boss – you gotta get it right. I found this poster on the Oatmeal site that covers the "it's and its" and "they're, their, and there" issues, along with some other spelling buggers, in a way that'll help you remember. Perfect for your office or dorm room (or you can print out a smaller version.) If you focus on one issue at a time and make a commitment to learn the rule, most spelling problems are pretty fixable. Old habits die hard, so it takes conscious effort. (Thank you, Alice Evans, for teaching me to spell "y'all" which I'd always spelled "ya'll" for some reason before you noticed it. I think nice thoughts about you every time I write it - which turns out to be a lot.)

In the current crappy job market, don't give an employer (or a potential one if you're resume writing) ANY excuse to choose someone else over you. Clean up your act and take care of those little problems that have bugged you for years! Unless you have a learning disability (which I totally understand because numbers are like a foreign language for me) It's not hard if you make up your mind to do it.

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Posted in May, 2010

19May

Love and loss

I had a long conversation yesterday with someone I haven't seen in a while. He came in town because a friend committed suicide. No one saw it coming, and he hadn't spoken to this friend in a while. The thing is, the last time I saw him was at another friend's funeral – someone he'd been really close to and had a falling out with, who was killed in a car accident a couple of years ago. My friend has attended more than his share of friends' funerals for someone in his early twenties. And the conversation we had on my porch came three weeks after I lost my father who slipped into a coma just a couple of days after being admitted to the hospital with pneumonia.

This isn't going to be a blog about how we should say all the things to people that we want to say in case we don't have the chance later. Worrying about not having time to say stuff isn't a very good reason to cough up a bunch of emotional sentiment that doesn't feel natural. What struck me yesterday was how important friendships really are. Lots of people will go to bed tonight after the funeral wondering if there was something they might have said to stop what happened. I don't think there is. In the conversations I've had with suicidal students through the years, I've learned that you can't tell them about all the things they've got going for them or how different things will look in a few months – because that's YOUR perspective, not theirs, and they can't see things from your point of view. All you can do is promise to be right there with them while they work through their crisis - but they're not likely to tell you how bad things are until it's too late. So you're left just hoping that you made it clear how much you cared for them.

I told my friend on the porch that what I remembered about him and his friend who died in the auto accident is how they always laughed when they were together, how one of them always had a crazy idea that the other thought was pure genius, how proud they were of each other's successes, and the way they pulled everyone around them into whatever rule-breaking stunt they were planning. They shared a love of music, a gift for storytelling, and a bond as brothers. I rarely saw one without the other. I never knew what caused the rift in their friendship that didn't get mended, but I'm pretty sure the friend who died knew that the love was still there. In spite of the stubbornness that kept both of them from reaching out to fix things, the months of silence didn't diminish the years of friendship they shared. I hope my friend can focus on the good times they had.

There are lots of things I might have told my father if I'd known I only had a few hours to say them. But the truth is, he knew. And I know the things he'd have told me if he could. I'm hoping that the friends who will be suffering this fresh loss we're now facing, a tragic and violent death made harder because it was exacted by the victim's own hand, will understand the same thing. Whatever pain is so great it causes someone to take his own life might temporarily overshadow his best days, but the terrible passion of that moment doesn't negate the years of companionship offered by his circle of friends. He knew you loved him. He just – for one tragic instant - couldn't find a way to love himself. He leaves you behind to stand as a testament to the good times. If he could, he'd ask you to be happy for the memories you'll have forever, and the friendship you were lucky to share.

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Posted in May, 2010

13May

What Babies Know

What Babies Know

Emily told me about a New York Times' article on "what babies know," so I looked it up yesterday. Fascinating stuff with big implications for people who write children's books! These researchers showed babies a "puppet show" where a red ball is moving up a hill. A yellow square shows up and assists it up the hill, but a green triangle appears and pushes it down. (All the shapes have faces, which has turned out to be an important part of getting babies involved in socialization issues; they lose interest without them.) After watching, the babies are offered each shape, and they prefer the "nice" shape to the "mean" one overwhelmingly – those under six months by looking at it longer, older babies by reaching for it. (In case you're thinking babies might prefer a particular color or shape, they changed those up and the results were the same.)

We can no longer assume those big eyes and rounded foreheads house empty space – or visions of sugarplums dancing. Those babies are dealing with complicated issues like right and wrong. By the way, they can also "do math." When one Mickey Mouse doll is shown on an empty stage, then joined by another, babies stare longer if they are subsequently shown one doll or three dolls instead of the "expected" two.

That innocent wide-eyed look is deceptive. My friend Beth points out that the word for that appealing combination of features look babies have is "neoteny," which usually refers mostly to the retention of these characteristics in adults. It's why film-makers make aliens with big heads and low, wide apart eyes. (And don't you just want to force-feed a cupcake to those poor starved models with the huge heads?)

With infants, eyes and cries are all we've got. Many parents learn to "read" cries to determine hunger, pain, or fatigue. But it's the eyes that show the more positive emotions I love – absolute adoration of whoever's feeding them, downcast embarrassment for the person making a fool of himself trying to get a smile, and wicked bemusement when they're "in on the joke." I've learned never to sell my students short; they've often come through when I least expected it. Looks like we owe babies the same benefit of the doubt.

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Posted in May, 2010

03May

In Loving Memory

In Loving Memory

Johnnie Brigman
July 24, 1929 – April 27, 2010

In the rush to plan a funeral last week that would be the most fitting tribute we could offer my Dad, I had no time to write a letter to him as many other family members so thoughtfully did. While it's personal in a way that will be uncharacteristic for this blog, I want to honor his memory by posting mine here.

Dad,

Today I read the letter you wrote me when I left home for college. You worried that you'd failed to tell me how much you loved me, when feelings ran "too deep for words." You and I shared our love for words, but we understood their limits. Still, I always knew how you felt. Your love for me was there, in every lesson you taught me, as you guided me in your quiet way, setting an example I can only aspire to emulate.

You gave me poetry - in the childhood books you read so tirelessly, the thousands of songs that lulled me to sleep, the French language you loved, the hymns you hummed throughout the day, the mountain lore you collected, and the novels we passed back and forth as adults. It'll be awhile before I'm able to listen to the tapes we have of your sermons, with spontaneous prayers so beautiful and genuine. The verses you wrote me for special occasions - from the day I was born - were the inspiration for my own work that you read so eagerly, your tired eyes glittering with pride.

We loved words, but sometimes we didn't need them. That night you heard me crying on the porch because your new church assignment would require me to begin my senior year in a high school far from home, you came and sat with me – just as we'd sit together those years when Mom was battling cancer, and last year in your hospital room when you fought off pneumonia to give us a little more time with you. We knew your great heart couldn't go on much longer; you'd given so much of it away in fifty years of ministering to others. No one ever loved his fellow man more, or judged others less.

The writings you left behind show such loving attention to every aspect of your children's and grandchildren's daily lives; no concern was too trivial to merit your prayers. Your journals will remain on your desk - a testament to your active spiritual life and the quest for intellectual stimulation that continued until your final weeks on earth. We worried at first we were invading your privacy in reading them, but I know you were a writer with an appreciation for an audience . . . and that your diaries are part of your plan for continuing your gentle teachings, setting the standard for our adult responses to joy, sorrow, pleasure, and pain. Your past experiences offer wisdom for the years ahead.

You summed up your credo so eloquently in the letter you wrote me so many years ago: "I hope you will never forget the importance of work well-done, the deep satisfaction that comes from giving yourself to others, the value of self-respect and integrity, the sustaining quietness and confidence that comes from the Lord when things get rough, and the wonder of God's creation about us. Never surrender your faith in the loving providence of God and the essential goodness of the human spirit." No matter what befell you– and your trials were many – I saw these ideals in the way you lived your life, and in the way you embraced your death.

You are dearly loved, Daddy, and you will be deeply missed.

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Posted in May, 2010