My Ninety-Three-Year-Old Mother Meets Alexa

My mom met Alexa at our house at Christmas. She listened as I asked Alexa about the weather and as my grandchildren told Alexa to tell them a joke and play “Eye of the Tiger.” She heard Alexa read a Wikipedia article about Camp Nelson in Kentucky. And she kept trying to figure it all out. How did all this work since Alexa didn’t have a brain. Or did she?

“How nice,” my mom said another day when she stopped by our house, “to be able to just ask Alexa, instead of typing it all out on a keyboard for Google.”

So on her ninety-third birthday, Alexa seemed a perfect gift. And when she opened the package, it seemed we were right.

It was after Alexa was installed on her kitchen counter that we ran into trouble.

“She’s just not listening to me,” Mom said on the phone one day.

And when I stopped by her house, I found why. As I walked in, I thought she was chatting with someone on the telephone. Her voice was conversational and leisurely and pleasant. But there she was, standing in front of Alexa with a puzzled look.

“I’ve asked her nicely,” Mom said. “But she just doesn’t understand.”

“Be more direct,” I told her, “more bossy.”

But I couldn’t figure out how to cure my mom of being nice.

Not until one day when I was researching horses for a book I’m writing. When you command a horse, I read, use few words and make them short and crisp.

“Hey, Mom,” I said, “talk to Alexa like you’d talk to a horse.”

She knew all about horses from her long-ago childhood, having driven them to cultivate corn and gather up pea vines. She had used short, crisp commands—get-up and gee and haw and whoa—to bring horses in from pasture and to urge them up and down the hilly fields of western Maryland and to turn them into the next field row and stop them at the end.

This analogy worked. My mom might not be sounding so nice these days. But she’s getting Alexa under control.

Like Jet Lag Without Landing Somewhere New

“This is the happy time change.”

That’s what my grandson said yesterday about the turning-back-of-clocks this Saturday evening. He thinks the joy of getting back the hour he lost in the spring is worth it.

But not everyone has agreed.

Nearly a hundred years ago, a reporter for the Madison Press, the newspaper in London, Ohio, made an editorial comment about the first-ever time change for the town.

“London’s fast summer has gone way too slow.”

“Fast time” as they called Daylight Saving Time then, had a rough start, and not only in London.

“We’re just whipping the devil around the stump,” one man said. “Slow time is God’s time. We could adjust if we were minded to. But we’re not minded to.”

And so some shop owners operated on fast time, others on slow. Many displayed two clocks, in their stores, and even the courthouse tower clock showed the double-mindedness of the town. The commissioners ordered that a second set of eight-foot-long hands be added to the clock. All over London, people could look at the tower clock and read fast-time with the red hands and slow-time with the black hands.

This two-times-at-once image reminds me of teaching middle school students on spring-ahead or fall-back Mondays with their bodies synced to one time and the clocks to the other. In the spring, students needed matchsticks for their eyes. Bedtimes came too early, so they’d lie awake and then drag through groggy mornings. And in the fall, lunch time took forever to come, making students restless with hunger and low on blood sugar. If the Oxford English Dictionary editors want confirmation on their recent decision to make the word hangry official, all they need to do is visit a middle school classroom one morning after a time change.

I’ve crossed time zones, going east and going west. And I know the adage that it takes one day to adjust to each hour of change. But I’ve got to say that helping a classroom of middle school students, who already struggle with wake-sleep cycles and mood swings and ravishing hunger, through a one-hour time change feels a little like the jetlag that time we went to Thailand. Only without landing somewhere new.

A Magic Machine on Main Street

When I was a kid, I used to dream about a magic machine. With this machine, I could stand at any spot on the earth and dig down into history. I could discover, for example, if anyone had ever been murdered on this patch of ground or if a tee pee had been pitched or a tool invented. If I asked, the machine could show me the spot’s saddest moment or the most terrifying. With such a machine, history would never be boring again.

A few weeks ago, I used such a machine. Sort of.

In the library, I scrolled through roll after roll of microfiche film reading the 1920s news about London, Ohio, the town where I’ve lived for the past decades. And this reading has changed my evening walks.

I now know that several hundred Ku Klux Klan members marched down Main Street one Sunday afternoon. This parade was headed by thirty girls dressed in white, followed by two bands and the Klan ranks. I can picture how an airplane flew overhead so its passengers could drop flowers on the marchers. And I know that the Klan marched to the courthouse lawn and knelt in front of a cross to pray.

I walk by this courthouse often, it being just down the street from our house. And, since I read about it on microfiche, I can also imagine a lighter courthouse scene. On June 4, 1925, the legendary Harry Gardiner visited London. He was the original human fly whose claim to fame was climbing over 700 buildings in Europe and North America. This inspired other copycats to venture up over on the newly-built skyscrapers of the day, with numbers dying in falls.

As people and Model-T’s and horses with carriages jammed Main Street in front of the courthouse, Gardiner, without ropes or nets or any other device climbed skyward over stones and moldings and pediments until he reached the top of the mansard roof. He stood there with only the clock tower and the sky above him, bowing and waving to a cheering crowd. And then he climbed up around the clock to Lady Justice who stood at the apex of the clock tower.

When I walk down Main Street to the courthouse most evenings, I feel like my childhood dream has come true. It just took a little more work to use the magic machine than I thought it would.

Voices on the Train

For 126 hours and 5000 miles, I heard voices on the train. I hadn’t anticipated this listening when I packed my bags for our Amtrak trip. The main attraction for me was looking out the window. And I did. I saw people in their daily lives—combining fields and walking dogs and sweeping front porches and climbing on school buses. I saw laundry on lines and irrigation in desert fields. I saw mansions cropping the tops of mountains and people subsisting under strung-out canvases along the railroad tracks. And from the ground, I saw the vastness of this country and its varied terrain. All this is what I had expected.

But I was surprised by the richness of listening. There were, of course, the official Amtrak voices. Most of them made me feel like getting on board, cooperating with the program—take my turn, make way for people who were exiting the train, wear a mask, and follow Amtrak’s security slogan: If you see something, say something.

Many of them helped me know what I was seeing.

“Out your window,” a conductor said as we crossed Minnesota, “are bluffs, not hills. You want to know the difference between a bluff and a hill?”

He paused while we considered.

“A word,” he said. “That’s it. And this is not a valley we are passing through. It’s a coulee. If you’re getting off at the next stop and you want to fit in, use the right words.”

But there were some other Amtrak voices that helped me sympathize with rebellious middle school students. Three syllables in, I could feel my spine stiffen. I could already tell I didn’t want to comply, no matter the request.

Several times I heard computer keys clicking right along with mine. I spoke with an author who was finishing his ninth book on music history. And with a woman who was writing about her journey across the country. She told me that right there on the train she was working to forgive what happened on her last stop. A white man in a SUV hurled a hot cup of coffee at her as she walked along the pedestrian path of a bridge and then rudely gestured with his hand.

“I’m trying to tell myself,” she said, “that his anger is a mask for his fear.”

One night I had just reclined my coach seat. My travel pillow was in just the right position, my eyes were shielded from the overhead lights, and the rocking train was lulling me to sleep. That’s when I heard the first heavy breathing across the aisle. Soon the man was snuffling and wheezing and snorting through his nose. And then guttural snoring echoed through the car.

What amazed me was the voices I didn’t hear. All night the man snored, and no one complained. That night, my faith that compassion still exists was restored.

Not So Far From Home

We’ve lived in the small town of London for almost forty years, and having taught thousands of students, I run into them almost everywhere—at the grocery store, in the park, at a concert, in the doctor’s office, and on the street.

“Mrs. Swartz,” someone will call.

My grandchildren nod knowingly and say, “A student!”

And they’re usually right, although it could be a parent of a student. The parents also call me Mrs. Swartz.

But across the country at Crater Lake?

We were standing on the rim of the volcano-turned lake trying to take a selfie and looking quite awkward doing it.

A friendly woman left her small group and asked, “Would you two like some help?”

And after the photo shoot, we stood there with her group, basking in some Midwest friendliness and narrowing down our common geographies—from Ohio to central Ohio to Madison County and—we couldn’t believe it—to London. And that’s when we started on names.

It turned out that I taught their nephew Billy in the gifted program of London City Schools during his middle school years. So besides the picture she took for Steve and me, the friendly woman took a group picture of all of us to prove to Billy that we met, not at the London Kroger, but at Crater Lake.

Who would have thought?

More than two thousand miles from home and 7000 feet higher in elevation, where snow is already on the ground (with another 559 inches to come this season) and the sky and the lake (the deepest in the country) combine to create the bluest place I’ve ever seen, I was still a teacher and not that far from my hometown, where the fields are golden and the trees are scarlet and the creeks are muddy and the land is flat.

What a Trip!

I’m making my way across the country on a dare from our son.

“Amtrak has a special,” he told us. “And you’re both retired now.”

And so for three-hundred dollars each, my husband and I are making a big loop—from Chicago to Denver to San Francisco to Crater Lake to Glacier National Park to Minneapolis and back to Chicago again.

It’s not a trip for the faint-of-heart—sleeping in coach, pulling luggage up narrow Amtrak steps to the top deck of superliners, brushing teeth while the train lurches in restrooms so small you have to decide how to turn around, and reading the news about a derailment and a shooting.

But . . . what a trip!

We just completed our longest stretch of almost 40 hours between Denver and San Francisco. But I was sitting by my husband and on a heating pad with a shawl around my shoulders. I had my computer and a bag of crocheting and an acrostic puzzle book and a Kindle full of hundreds of books.

And through seat-to-ceiling windows I watched as the California Zephyr cut through the center of the country. We saw harvest in the Midwest and climbed to the mile-high city. After Denver, we forgot about reading as the train chugged through precarious mountain switchbacks and through tunnel after tunnel.

“Most of you will never reach an altitude higher than this,” the conductor said as we entered the Moffat Tunnel.

Before the tunnel was built in the 1920s, it took six hours of switchbacks over Rollins Pass to cross the continental divide. But we tunneled through in six minutes and worked our way down through narrow canyons where rivers, rails, roads and bike paths all share close space.

We watched sunlight playing on sandstone cliffs in the Sierra Nevada mountains and descended still further through the infamous Donner Pass. And after that, we just kept going down, down, down.

We’re glad to have some time off the train, to walk instead of ride—up and down the streets of San Francisco, around Fisherman’s Wharf, and across the Golden Gate Bridge.

But I’m looking forward to getting back on the train. I like moving while I’m sitting still.

Forget the Rules, At Least for a While

The room was filled with 120 kids, some already restless and cavorting in their seats, others hunched over as they battled first-day jitters, and still others in a snit about getting sent to music camp instead of soccer camp.

The director didn’t say, “Hello, my name is Mr. Stutzman.” He didn’t say, we are here to learn music. He didn’t tell them the rules or the consequences for breaking these rules.

“This,” he said, “is my voice.”

Wiggling stopped, and heads went up.

“I am the boss of my voice,” Mr. Stutzman said. “I can make it do what I want.”

The smiling started.

“I can growl,” he said, dropping his voice to gravel at its bottom.”

Campers began leaning forward, more and more of them as he sent his voice, bright and light, to the top of his falsetto and then slid it back down to its bottom. He kept showing ways he could boss his voice: staccato and flowing, whispery and resonant, vibrato and straight-toned.

“Do what I do,” he said.

So their voices began echoing his tongue trills and pitch glides and vocal sirens and lip buzzes.

I could see self-consciousness fade. Boys forgot that their voices were sure to crack, first-year campers lost the fear they couldn’t perform, and kids who liked to keep moving relaxed because they had something to do, something fast and changing and unpredictable.

“As you can see,” Mr. Stutzman said, “I’m here to help you boss your voice.”

And he had them.

The first minutes of every class at every level should be like this—opening what’s closed and bringing greater wonder to what’s already open.

This is why I quit starting class with the rules and introductions and SMART goals and reminders of high-stakes test and the syllabus. I turned instead to story and mystery and demonstration and paintings and music. After I had their hearts, I found, they were willing to bend their minds toward learning.

When You Whisper

I once taught middle school three days straight with laryngitis. I started the week with a scratchy throat that turned into a croaky voice and then into no voice at all. Except for a whisper. And that’s what I used for three of the easiest days of teaching I’d ever had.

Partly the students were being nice. Because of my sore throat, they took pity. But as class periods ticked by, each as smooth as another, I began to think I was learning something important. 

The most visible change was student posture. Instead of slouching or slumping over to fend off a teacher voice coming at them, they leaned forward, their ears and eyes actively trying to catch the words I said.

That’s the strange thing about humans. We are attracted to what is not readily available to us. If it’s too easy to get, we don’t value it. And if we’re pushed into it, we turn away.

This is why force feeding doesn’t work. Last week I was caring for my ninety-three-year-old mother who lost her appetite. A plateful of food revolted her. She grew weaker as the pounds kept dropping. One day my father, in a new ploy, cut her portion down to appetizer size. And she asked for more. Watching this took me back to when our children were babies. If I pushed a pacifier further into their mouths, they spit it right back. It was only when I pulled it back that they latched on.

Film maker Ken Burns has noticed this dynamic. In his documentaries, he has used hundreds of first-person narrators. To find one good storyteller he sometimes evaluates 200 people. Burns has noticed an easy-to-spot trait that most good storytellers have in common. They lean back as they talk. And what happens next, Burns says, is that their listeners lean in.

Too often, I got in wrong—leaning forward so far my students instinctively leaned back.

The Mennonite Community Cookbook and Me

When I was a kid, the Mennonite Community Cookbook meant a whole lot of work. To follow its recipes, I had to pit cherries until I was restless with boredom and knead dough until my arms ached. Onions made me cry, and my stomach cramped when I cut up a dead chicken. And there was the endless scrubbing of pots and pans and cookie sheets. All this for food that vanished in one short table sitting.

Despite my antipathies toward cooking, my mother saw to it that I learned. So I mastered recipe after recipe: old-fashioned bean soup and fried potatoes and tip top cake. And after I married, I cooked and baked from my own copy of the Mennonite Community Cookbook, not for pleasure, but because people needed to be fed.

Cleaning out a kitchen drawer this week, I pulled out this now-dilapidated book. The spine is letting loose of its 494 pages, one edge looks suspiciously scorched, and page 208, where you can find the recipe for Devil’s Food cake, is spotted with chocolate.

As I thumbed through the pages, I recalled what has always redeemed this cookbook for me. As a child desperate for diversion in the kitchen and as an adult hankering to relieve tedium with words, I had always turned to the stories scattered through the cookbook. I read about how, in the old days, folks made mush by adding enough meal and flour to the boiling water until the mixture became thick enough to pop as it bubbled. The stories told about a smokehouse built over a spring and guineas who were alarm clocks, waking their people every morning by calling, “pot rack, pot rack.”

The stories keep going—about a grandmother who baked 16 pies every Saturday morning and about clear crisp fall days that were just right for boiling sorghum molasses in a big kettle over the fire with a taffy pull to follow. And near the end of the book I loved to scan the list of food needed for a barn raising, a few items being 115 lemon pies, 500 doughnuts, 16 chickens, 3 hams, 50 pounds of roast beef, 300 rolls, 16 loaves of bread and all things pickled: eggs, red beets, and cucumbers.

Somehow, reading these stories made me more willing to measure a precise quarter cup and sift the dry ingredients and drop teaspoonful by teaspoonful onto a greased baking sheet, spacing two to three inches apart.

Story does this. It prepares the mind. I’ve found students are more ready to remember the dates of the Civil War when they follow the story of a boy who lived across the five Aprils it spanned. They are more willing to learn chemical properties when they hear about John Walker, who one day in his pharmacy scratched at a lump of sulphide and chlorate that had formed at the end of his mixing stick. When flames burst forth, the striking match had been invented.

The stories in the Mennonite Community Cookbook pulled me into the kitchen, and over and over I’ve seen story hook the attention of reluctant learners.