Ellie Searl Stories



I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself. ~ Maya Angelou

I’ve never liked to rise earlier than the sun, but lately I’ve savored the first hours of each day.  While I wait for a crack in the almost-morning sky, I imagine the treasures of my home.  Memory treasures.  Treasures our family has gathered through the years.  Chairs and tables, vases and pictures.  Sculptures and coats, lap throws and newspapers.  All of these in a comforting disarray of living.  We fill the rooms of our lives with love and bustle and happiness.  My home is alive with the stories written by the people who matter most to me.
 In the quiet of dawn, I absorb the sweetness of home, surrounded by the adventures of family, togetherness, and time, and I can play the stories over and over again. Across the room, on an unfolded afghan, lies last Sunday’s jointly completed New York Times puns and anagrams. Beside it is the broken-spined dictionary that ended one of our word scuffles. I laugh at my competitiveness, and vow to share next time. My coffee cup rests on the old blanket chest we bought so many years ago on a trip through the Canadian Rockies, the day we celebrated Katie’s eighth birthday around a pine forest campfire in Banff National Park. We made s’mores with leathery marshmallows, and her favorite present was a ballpoint pen with a floating canoe in the top. 
I sit on the couch that reminds me of endless walks through city department stores and furniture shops looking for just the right one with lots of pillows and a high snuggle factor.  The living room walls hold miniature seasonal photographs taken by Ed during a year’s worth of daily bike rides.  In one picture, the mist hovers over newly budded trees beside a still river, and the pebbles reflect upside down in the smooth, flooded banks of the park. I had biked with him that day, and we drank hot coffee with our gloves on because of the early spring chill.
I look at the old upright piano that we bought for $50 when we had so little to spare.  I can’t bring myself to give the piano away, even though I’ve promised to at least a hundred times.  Too many piano lessons and too many hours stripping off the black stain to uncover the gleaming mahogany keep my piano cemented in my house of stories.
The sun streams into the room and makes lacy patterns on the floor.  I remember that today is beginning, and I feel the surge of newness—the possibilities of creating.  I’ll take the blessings of my home with me as I go through the day.  And later, in the evening, I’ll watch the sun set on new memories captured by the spirit of home.
EVS – 12/11



She glances at the photo, and the pilot light of memory flickers in her eyes. ~ Frank Deford

I joined the fall session because I wanted to get the district-required “Teaching with Intention” workshop over with as soon as possible. The class would begin again in November with fifteen more teachers, and then again in January, and so on every other month until each teacher had completed the course.
The six-week seminar would spotlight a new and improved instructional system— the latest fad dreamed up by some scholastic guru—to reverse shoddy teacher competence. And when this maharishi of scholarship blitzed the nation with a bigger, better paradigm, our administration didn’t want to be the only district holding chalk without a board.
Had our administrators stepped away from their desks long enough to sneeze, they would have observed an exceptional staff—a team of superior teachers whose expertise enlightened and enhanced the academic, social, and emotional growth of their students.  
Using our teachers as spokes, the superintendent was bent on reinventing the pedagogical wheel.  A mentor’s minion—a data regurgitator certified in Educationalese as a Second Language— was hired to upgrade our collective instructional skill sets. We, the spokes, started from a sound hub of proficiency, only to be stretched on a slant of educational bias to an uninspired circular stronghold while our levels of motivation and morale were put to question.  And after redefining reliable techniques with new terminology and supposed groundbreaking methods, we returned to our solid center without having gone anywhere. 
Charlotte was the paid representative, the spokesperson of the new model.  She stood in front of the class beside the overhead projector with the markers and all the transparencies. Dwight, the superintendent, sat in the front row.  I wondered if he planned to attend all six classes or if he was just there to check up on everybody.  Regardless of his reasons, I thought his presence might put the kibosh on any teacher speaking honestly about anything.
During her welcome speech, Charlotte clutched a blue tissue and peered over skinny hug-the-nose reading glasses. She wore a neat little conservative-yet-stylish outfit—a red boiled wool embroidered Swiss miss jacket with silver buttons over a navy blue four-gored skirt. The lace collar of her white blouse sat under the curls of her bobbed russet hair.  
After a short lecture to acclimate the class to the new concepts, the Anticipatory Set, if you will, she numbered a transparency 1, 2, 3   down the page, leaving space for more writing.
“Attributes.”  She smiled.  “Attributes of a good teacher.  Think about it.” She paused. “Tell me, what are the attributes . . . ,” her eyes made contact with those who sat in an imaginary arc from left to right, and landed on Dwight, “. .  . of a good teacher?” She walked into the center aisle of the classroom and waved a marker.  “Move your desks into break-out groups and discuss this. I will give you . . . say . . . “she looked at the wall clock “. . . three minutes to come up with the attributes of a good teacher, and then we’ll share. O.K. now, talk among yourselves while I go around and listen in.”
The room fell silent. No one initiated a breakout group.  A couple of teachers doodled on the empty pages of their notebooks.  Another teacher folded her arms, sighed, and looked at her watch.
“Here,” Charlotte motioned to a teacher sitting near the door.  “Just swing your desk around and face the other two.”  He did.  “Good.”  She looked up.  “Now the rest of you do that.  Select someone to be the recorder and the reporter . . . they can be the same person. . . and share your ideas.”  I’m sure you all can come up with a couple of attributes of a good teacher.” 
Desks and chairs scraped as teachers formed their groups.
Dwight liked these ‘group discuss’ sessions, these triads, because he could exhibit his leadership skills After all, he was top banana with educational experience, having been a driver ed teacher, principal of some elementary school in Indiana, and a girls soccer coach. 
Dwight matched Charlotte, with his blue wool suit, burgundy tie, and white shirt all starched and creased. And they understood each other. Both were in supervisory positions.  Both followed the educational parade.  Both liked the word schema.  And neither had to integrate the newfangled concepts into a real classroom. 
Dwight told his group that he knew the answers. He took notes of everything Charlotte said so he could say them afterwards. He more than likely knew that there were three attributes of a good teacher even before Charlotte numbered the transparency.
The room buzzed while Charlotte watched the clock and waited.  After five minutes, she said, “It’s time to finish up your final statements and regroup.” 
Had she been listening, she would have learned that Tyler licked Heather’s cheek during recess, that Jessica squeezed all the soap out of the classroom dispenser, that Russell saved eraser droppings in an empty Band-Aid can, and that not only was this workshop a colossal waste of time, but also some teachers were leaving as soon as they signed the attendance sheet.
“So what did you come up with?  What are the attributes of a good teacher?” 
“The attributes of a good teacher include knowing your subject area.” Dwight looked around to see who was nodding in agreement. No one nodded. No one spoke. No one said what he or she was probably thinking, like, “Well, duh.”
He continued while the others foraged their apathy for an attention span.
“A good teacher is always prepared,” Dwight said, looking around again for approval.  Nothing.
Dwight had one more attribute to go. He continued, “A good teacher...”
“. . . is only good to the extent that students are interested.” A teacher shouted from the back. “The material has to be relevant—meaningful.  Every single person in this room is a good teacher – with enough good attributes to stuff North America.”
This time teachers nodded.  There were rumblings of ‘no kidding’ and ‘you got that right’ and ‘damn straight.’
Dwight scowled and looked at his notes, eyes darting around his paper, as though seeking instructions for workshop mutiny curtailment.
This wasn’t the first nor the last required professional development workshop led by a highly paid consultant.  It was as though the district didn’t have faith in the collective talent of its own faculty.  The district spent big bucks for hired help when most teachers could have led any one of the workshops, and not only bring a constructive twist to a stale idea, but also inspire teachers to maintain enthusiasm during the presentation.  Reading, writing, new math, old math, inclusion, exclusion, learning centers, IEPs, SSTs, whole language, half language, street language, curriculum integration, differentiated instruction, make-it-up-as-you-go-along instruction—it wouldn’t matter. 
Charlotte held up her tissue and said, “Wow, tough crowd. I guess I’ll skip the next part.  Let’s take a short break, and when we regroup, we’ll share strategies that work best for you.  That way we can learn from each other.”
Two teachers went home, one teacher went shopping, and the rest continued the first session with glazed eyes.
I went to three of the remaining five classes. The attendance dwindled and I understand that by the last session, only seven of the fifteen teachers showed up.  I don’t remember much of what Charlotte talked about, but I did end up with a bunch of handouts and one lesson-plan design, which we were required to implement into daily instruction if we wanted to pass our performance evaluation.
The following year, the lesson plan wasn’t required anymore.  Another guru had entered the scene and his taxonomy would alter the course of education altogether.  I never had to institute that new system into my already established program because by then I had found a career that rolled along on a full tire and didn’t change direction with the wind.
EVS – 11/11



Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Poochie’s mom told him it was too early.  “There’s no sense you goin’ there ahead of time, - you won’t get your candy any sooner.”  But Poochie put on his pea coat and stuck a flashlight into his pocket.  He huffed down the front steps and across the street.  “Cover your ears,” Poochie’s mom shouted after him.
Poochie walked past the Methodist Church and down the hill onto the short, two-lane bridge that crossed the river, which was more of a creek than a river by the time it trickled out of the mountains and meandered into the lake at the town beach.
Poochie stopped in the middle of the bridge and leaned over the railing.  He worked up a bunch of saliva and spit into the creek, grinning and pointing at the glob as it slid off a boulder into a rivulet of clear water. 
Sunrays glinted off the lake and made Poochie squint.  He lifted his face to feel the warmth.  If his mom had been there, she would have said, “The sun hasn't had time to turn up the heat.” Poochie yanked down his ear flaps, letting the strings hang over his shoulders.  He picked up a pebble, rubbed it on his pants, licked it, and stuck it in his pocket, where it clanked against his flashlight.
Poochie plodded up the hill and crossed the street.  He walked past the abandoned gas station and peeked in the windows of the firehouse before stopping outside of Goodenough’s.  The grocery didn't open until 9:00 a.m., but Poochie didn't think much about time or schedules or tradition.  Poochie didn't think much about anything.
For the first few minutes at Goodenough’s, Poochie directed traffic. He guided a Trailways bus down the hill, imitating its brake squeals and engine guns as it crossed the bridge, went up the hill, and disappeared around the corner to the other side of town.  Passengers pointed and laughed at the disheveled fat man in orange boots pretending to be a traffic cop.  Poochie laughed and waved, the bright bulb of his flashlight reflecting on the fender.
When he tired of playing street cop, Poochie wandered to the front door and plopped onto the rotting bench next to buckets of dead plants and cigarette butts.  He poked inside his pockets for a treasure and pulled out a wad of gum; it was hard and covered in coat-lint.  He stuck the lump into his mouth and gnawed it down to a good chew.
The ear-splitting scream of the fire siren made Poochie jump off the bench and stand in stunned, unexpected excitement.  The sensations were almost unbearable.  A fire.  Probably a big one.  He watched, gape-mouthed, as police cars and volunteer firemen careened from all directions and skidded to stops, drivers jumping out and running inside.  Poochie grabbed his flashlight and headed to the firehouse.  They’d need him. 
He hustled into the street, almost getting run over. The driver rolled down his window.  “Watch out, will ya, Poochie?  Yur gonna get yourself hurt.”
Poochie made a beeline to the fire truck and hopped onto the runner.  The fire chief shouted from the side of the truck. “Why don’t you just run along home, now, ok, Poochie?  We’ll let you know when you can help out.  Today’s not such a good time.”
Poochie jumped off the runner defeated and sad, but mostly confused— his dilemma larger than his brainpower.  He wanted his candy.  But this was a special surprise.  A fire.  And he wanted to go to it—and help.
A fire at the fairgrounds the summer before had thrilled him.  The fire had started in the horse stable while Poochie was helping park cars in the middle of the racetrack. When he saw the flames shooting up on the other side of the fence, he stuffed his flashlight into his pants pocket and ran over to the stable to watch. He marveled at the sparks as they flew up and up and up into the tree, crackling against branches. Red shards leapt against the bark and bounced to the ground, catching leaves on fire.   The horses screamed horrible whinny cries. Poochie had never heard those sounds before - nothing like the soft purrs he remembered.
The scared horses, eyes wild, heads thrashing, jerked and trounced as the owners dragged them to safety. Poochie was sad that two horses died. The blackened, charred hides and the acrid smell of burnt horseflesh stayed in Poochie’s memory and mixed with the exhilaration and horror and devastation—sensations he didn’t quite understand and could never talk about. His language too inadequate to explain anything that ever really mattered.
Poochie watched the firefighters put on their protective clothing and jump onto the truck.
“Poochie!  Get outta the way,” the fire chief shouted.  He grabbed Poochie’s sleeve and dragged him off the ramp just as the truck backed up.  Poochie’s knees buckled and his feet scrapped along the cement.  He fell into the weeds, landing on his behind and elbow. He started to cry.  Tears streaked tracks of white down his dirty cheeks and fell through his second day growth of beard.  The chief helped Poochie up and brushed him off.  “Go along now, Poochie.  Go on back to Goodenough’s— or go home.”
Poochie wiped his eyes and looked up at Goodenough’s. He remembered his candy. It was Saturday, September 25, 1965, and it was Poochie’s 35th birthday. 
Poochie didn’t have much between the ears, but he always knew when it was his birthday.  It was the one thing he loved more than anything.  Even more than Christmas.  Poochie’s mother had downplayed Christmas as he was growing up because they couldn’t afford both.  Poochie didn’t understand too much about celebrating a religious holiday and rather than have two special days for Poochie, she settled on having Poochie’s birthday be the one day of the year he got things he wouldn’t otherwise have.  Each year she made him a big vanilla cake, with his name spelled out in wild blackberries.  As Poochie got older, she helped him spell out his own name with the blackberries.  And then she let him put on the candles, counting them as he went.  As long as his mother was next to him, he was allowed to light his own candles before he blew them out.  Poochie also received a nice present from his mother – a present of his choosing.  Usually he chose a new flashlight—another, bigger, better flashlight—for seeing in the dark, making shadows, and directing traffic anywhere, especially at the fair.
At Christmas, Poochie’s mother filled a stocking with the same things every year—candy, mittens, socks, a big orange in the toe, and flashlight batteries. She hung the stocking on the footboard knob of Poochie’s bed so he would find it right away when woke up on Christmas morning.  Poochie would come running into the kitchen with his stocking and announce that he had “thomthin thpethal” on his bed.  Every year he’d wonder who put it there, and every year his mother would say, “Santa put it there.”  And every year Poochie would ask “Hooth thanta?”  And his mother would answer the same way every year.  “Santa brings growing boys a stocking of goodies on Christmas Day.”  And then Poochie would want to know where Santa lived and if he had a birthday and was it on the calendar at “Goodynuth.” 
All his growing up years, Poochie didn’t make much of a connection between his filled stocking on Christmas and the lights and decorations all over town. But he did know that getting a stocking full of goodies meant the calendar would soon be at Goodenough’s.
When Poochie was very little, the Chamber of Commerce had begun the tradition of making a calendar documenting the birthdays of everyone in the village. Each year the birthday calendars were delivered to all the businesses in town two days after Christmas.  And as soon as Poochie saw his goodie stocking hanging on his bed knob, he knew the birthday calendar would be at Goodenough’s in two days.  And he would be there to greet it.  Because Myrna always circled Poochie’s birthday on her store calendar.
Billy’s Diner had a calendar. So did Vrooman’s General Store and the post office and the bank. But Poochie didn’t like to go to those places.  He liked it at Goodenough’s.  Myrna was nice. She didn’t make him feel bad.  And she didn’t shoo him away when he wanted to look at the calendar.
The year before, Poochie waited an hour in a snowstorm for Myrna to come and unlock the store.  When Poochie finally got inside, he stood next to the cash register until the delivery kid plopped the calendar on the counter.  Poochie waved the calendar in the air at Myrna, still in the back stomping snow off her boots and turning on the lights. 
“Se-cul my name, se-cul my name,” Poochie shouted. He had waited so long for this day, this moment, this second, when his birthday would be circled on the calendar.
“I’ll be there in a minute, Poochie.” She sighed. “Just hold on.” 
She had once confessed to a co-worker that “Poochie was a confused bag of innocence, affection, and full-blown exasperation. I can manage about five minutes before I go batty—kinda like my grandchildren, or my dog, who pester and pester and pester until satisfied. Drives me crazy. But they give a bucket-load of unconditional love.” She laughed. “And you can’t help but love ‘em back, as obnoxious as they are.” 
 “Ok, Poochie, let’s open the calendar and find your birthday,” Myrna said.  “Why don’t you do it this time?”
 “I wanna penthil.”  Myrna put a pencil on the counter and watched as Poochie opened the calendar.  He began at January and turned each page, pointing at what he recognized in the picture.  Every now and then he looked up at Myrna and told her what he saw. “Thath a boat. . . an . . . an thath . . .  thath a twee . . . wif a leaf,” until he came to his own month.  He stopped turning the pages and pointed at the word September.  He knew that one.  
“Theptemba,” Poochie said and grinned again at Myrna.  He placed his index finger on September 1 and slid his finger across all the boxes, some with names typed in them, saying each number out loud, until he came to September 22.  “Thath my buthay.  Theee?  Thath my name . . . Poohie Whee,” he said proudly, and he pointed to his name typed in capital letters POOCHIE WHEAT.  He picked up the pencil and drew a shaky circle around the day.  “I come heah an git candy on my buthay, wite?” 
“Yes, Poochie,” Myrna said.  “You come here and get your candy on your birthday.  Now run along home, Kiddo, I’ve got work to do.”  Myrna said.
Poochie watched Myrna hang the calendar next to the announcements on the bulletin board, right inside the entrance to the store, where everyone could see it.  “Bye Munah, I be back,” Poochie said as he walked out into the snow.
Beginning in January, Poochie visited Goodenough’s almost every day.  He’d leafed through the pages of the calendar until he came to September.  And as he had done the day the calendar had been hung up, he’d place his index finger on September 1 and slide across all the numbers, saying each one out loud, “un, too, thee, fuh, fi, si, sen,  . . .” until he came to September 22. “Thath my buthday.  Thee?  Thath my name. . . wite theh.” He’d tap the date and turn around looking for people to show.  Mostly it was just Myrna who saw.
 “You look happy, Poochie,” Myrna said as she walked up from the store parking area.  “Must be a special day, or something!”
“Hi, Munah, theys a fya,” Poochie said.  “A big un!”  Poochie spread his arms wide.
“I know, Poochie.  I saw the trucks go by, and I heard the sirens.”  Myrna unlocked the door and they went in together.  “It sure does sound like a big one.  Do you know where it is?”
“Na, they thay I can’t go,” said Poochie.  He went to the calendar and took the pin out. The calendar was old and yellowed—streaked from almost a year’s worth of Poochie’s fingers leafing through the months, looking for his name.
“Ith my buthday – tuday, Munah,”
“Well, Poochie, I guess it is.  And I think I have something for you,” said Myrna.  “What would you like?  You can go to the candy counter and take five things.  Your choice.”
Poochie didn’t get many choices.  He was used to being told what to wear, what to eat, and where to go.  He looked at the Mounds, Baby Ruth, 5th Avenue, Mars, Milky Way.  He looked at Tootsie Rolls and Good and Plenties and Necco Wafers and Bit-O-Honey.  And gum. Black Jack and Spearmint and Chicklets.  Poochie stared at the shelves of candy. He picked one up and put it down.  He touched one and another one and another one. He began to rock and breath hard—a whimper rose from his throat.
Myrna came up behind him with a wax paper bag, and said, “Here Poochie – let me help you.  I’ll make it a surprise.  You stand over here.” 
Poochie’s breathing settled. Myrna plopped a handful of candy bars, some gum, and a package of licorice into the bag. “I gave you more than five, Poochie.  It’s nice to have a lot on your birthday.” When she turned around, she saw that Poochie had gone to the window and was watching one of the fire trucks pull into the station. 
“Here’s your candy, Poochie,” Myrna called.
Poochie grabbed the bag and practically tripped over his orange boots in his hurry to get out of the store and down to the fire excitement.
Maybe he could help.
EVS - 10/11 



Dreams are illustrations. . .from the book your soul is writing about you. ~ Marsha Norman 

They guard the entrance to creativity, allowing the select few—those who pass muster—to enter.  Not the riff raff.  Not the wannabees who try to worm through the slats, those sad, misguided dilettantes who think their work shows merit.  They’re gatekeepers, and they prevent the unskilled culture-defacers from assailing the public with crap. 
If it weren’t for that cadre of connoisseurs assessing, ranking, and restocking the Aesthetic Empire, the eating, viewing, and reading public wouldn’t know what to eat, view, or read.
Take food.  Without the Big Food Houses, like Poach Board and Pot Watch, anyone and his second cousin could open a restaurant.  BFHs put aspiring restaurateurs through a series of trial kitchens where chefs prepare innovative fare for taste testing, after which the Palate Committee flavor-edits the dishes, taking, say, six to ten months, eventually returning the recipes with recommended modifications that the would-be culinarian must integrate into menu options before contracts are finalized.
The Big Food House then spends the next year and a half designing and building the restaurant, and, once ready for business, collects all restaurant proceeds, forwarding to the owner maybe eight percent of the profits in quarterly installments.
Gastronomic gatekeepers save the world from being saturated with substandard eateries, i.e., self-established restaurants whose owners believe their food actually tastes good.
Then there’s art. Painters, sculptors, photographers. Those quirky right-brainers who think that producing art is a way of life.  Without art gatekeepers there’d be oils and watercolors and photographs and sculptures on display all over the place—museums, galleries, stores, street corners, gardens, offices. 
The Big Art Houses, such as Design Depository and Statue Statutorium, keep the art world under control. They stash submissions for review in massive warehouses, where they remain until the Talent Assessment Guild determines their attributes.   The evaluation process is simple. The appraisal committee members, made up of the administrative assistant and night janitor, stand in front of each work of art, and throw Rock, Paper, Scissors. A coin toss determines who represents the artist.
Rock over Scissors means the piece is rejected, or if small enough, displayed over the urinal in the men’s room.
Paper-over-Rock means the art is returned to the artist for revision—with a note:
“Jackson – Uh, we think you sent us your floor tarp by mistake.” 
“Ansel, a bit of color would be nice.”    
 “Say Vincent - Don’t give up.  With some practice, you’ll master perspective.”
“Yo! Leonardo! My Man! – Everyone on the same side of a table? Hello.”
Now these artists, if they want a second chance with TAG, must edit their pieces according to where the dart lands on the revision wheel—Color Within the Lines, Smooth Out the Dots, Quit with the Umbrellas, Straighten the Watch, Add Velvet—anything to show they’ve at least parked at an art school.
Scissors-over-Paper means the piece is a keeper, and contracts are signed.  Once a piece of art is chosen for public view, it’s put aside until there are upwards of twenty additional Scissors-over-Paper wins by the same artist – enough for a full gallery open.  Could take two to five years, during which time the artist waits tables for a Pot Watch Restaurant.
Creativity gatekeepers save the world from being saturated with substandard museums, galleries, and studios, i.e., self-installed exhibitions whose designers believe their art actually looks good.
Then there are writers.  Good writers.  Bad writers.  Mediocre writers.  Doesn’t matter.  They all want to be published.  Somewhere.  But especially by the Big Book Houses, like Reticent Review and Predictable Press.  Ask any writer, and he or she will say that publication is a primary goal.  It’s imperative to have reading gatekeepers.  Otherwise, just anybody could write and publish a book.  And if just anybody could write and publish a book, there’d be books everywhere.  We all know that the reading public lacks wordsmith sophistication.  They read books indiscriminately, ignoring taste, creativity, style, and quotation marks on the wrong side of the period.
It’s essential that gatekeepers guard the reading public from piles of word hash plopped beside gourmet prose at any reader’s table.  How dare a writer expect to publish a book without it first being prepared, plated, and presented to judges who can attest to the quality and doneness of a piece of writing?
The BBHs judge a book by its cover. Therefore, it helps if an aspiring writer has a close working relationship with a Scissors over Paper art winner. Once the cover passes muster, the interior text is evaluated—there must be a plethora of words with more than six syllables, properly embedded fonts, and an appropriate dedication to one’s mother. 
The publishing world has evolved to the extent that anyone—Grandma Jones, Aunt Agnes, Cousin Earl—can publish a book.  But self-publishers have no gatekeepers.  Self-published books aren’t legitimate. They’re written by amateurs.  Ask the experts.  Self-published authors use bad grammar, change tenses, and incorporate too many adjectives and adverbs.  Self-published books are puerile, shallow, and undeveloped. They’re not properly edited, they’re boring, they’re tedious— a scourge on the market.  
It doesn’t matter that someone’s father, a gentleman in his early 90s, wants to publish a series of stories and see them in print before he dies.  Or that a Mid-west bride wants to write her story of how she met a retired NYC police officer while playing on-line Scrabble, fell in love, and got married.  Or that a crime writer, who after two and a half years of Big House rejections, decided to publish his book himself.  It doesn’t matter that some, perhaps many, writers have a dream of seeing their words, their stories, their labor, their book, stand on a shelf between Shakespeare and Steinbeck. It doesn’t matter that, like restaurateurs and artists, they want to see their hard work come to fruition and become a product they can hold in their hands – or give to their children—or share with their friends.
What’s that you say?  Not all self-published books are full of crap?  There are well-written, self-published books by excellent authors? That it's not the self-publishing in and of itself that qualifies a book for the back porch, not good enough for the grown-up table, not worthy of the good china?  And that just as establishing one’s own restaurant doesn't mean bad food and installing one’s own gallery doesn't mean bad art, self-publishing one's own book doesn't mean a bad read?  How radical.
If that's the case, then here's to all writers who dream of seeing their books on the coffee table or shining through the small screen of an e-reader, go for it.  Game on!  Don’t be intimidated by the elitism of gatekeepers. 
Dream . . . on!
EVS - 09/11



"Shall I tell you what the real evil is? To cringe to the things that are called evils, to surrender to them our freedom, in defiance of which we ought to face any suffering." ~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca

The pressure for women in our culture to be skinny, gorgeous, de-wrinkled, tight-bottomed, big-boobed, and balloon-lipped is an evil yet to be tackled.  According to magazines, billboards, TV ads, and fashion gurus, every woman who isn't a Heidi Klum clone, or close to it, should wrap her body in cheesecloth and squeeze out the hideousness until all that's left is a plasticine replicant of her former self.  Or if not that, then she should spend a month or two at a Female Restoration Institute until her shape, hair, skin, and lips are trim, voluminous, porcelain, and pouty respectively.
If a woman is anything less than magnificent, she’s an abomination, and she shouldn't leave the house.  Until she can muster up enough time, energy, and dough to morph into the pinnacle of pure perfection, she should opt out of the social milieu entirely and grow moldy in the basement.
I admit to have fallen into the trap of spending big bucks on creams and lotions to debilitate wrinkles digging trenches around my eyes, mouth, neck, and brow.  And I've even sat in the cosmetician's chair for the full make-over—colors and shades chosen specifically for my skin tones: light beige foundation, buff powder, three levels of smoky teal eye shadow, navy blue eye liner, thick, black, lash-lengthening mascara, light-brown eyebrow pencil, suntan bronzer, ruby blush, peach lipstick, and coral lip liner.  The transformation was astounding.  I looked exquisitely sullen and devious from the neck up—like Cat Woman in pedal pushers and sneakers.
"Now it's easy to apply these items, Ellie, real easy," the cosmetologist had said.  "I'll draw a picture of your make-up routine and write out the steps of your skin preparations."
Using my unique color pallet, she painted over a sketch of a woman's profile so I would know exactly which colors to slather, smooth, spread, glop, or powder on and over the appropriate parts of my skin, eyes, lashes, brows, cheeks, and lips.   
Then she wrote out the steps I should take prior the final make-up application.  Scrubbing, sloughing, cleansing, reactivating, tightening, rehydrating, and moisturizing—each step requiring a specific lotion, mitten, bar, cream, gel, stone, astringent, paddle, cloth, or spray—each step "absolutely essential" to my beauty regime.  
"And we have all of these items right here."  She waved her hand down the shelves of skin care products.
Walking away without purchasing the items necessary to a Researched-based Years-Off-Your-Age Skin and Beauty Treatment is akin to wearing dirty underwear.  Why a woman wouldn't take full advantage of a Personalized Beautification System was beyond understanding. 
"Do you already have these items at home?" she asked, apparently astonished that I used such products considering the condition of my face. 
"Similar," I said, thinking of my oatmeal soap and Cold Cream.  "I probably have enough."
“What do you use to cleanse?”
“Ah, mild soap,” I said.
“Ooh, nooo!  Never use soap on your face.  That’s why your skin is so dry—and why those crow’s feet have a foothold there.”  She tapped my temple, and then she pulled a bottle off the shelf.  “Here—you must use this—Eau d' Savonette.  It’s wonderful—especially for your skin type.  It’ll take years off your face.  You’ll notice a difference in less than a week.”
Three ounces.  $55.50 .  “How long does this last?”  I asked.
“If used correctly, it should last you . . . I'd say . . . at least two months.”
$55.50 times six.  $333 a year. $16,650 to wash my face for the rest of my life.
“And of course you’ll want this specially formulated, age-reducing moisturizer.”  She reached for a small jar.  “Even if you buy nothing else, you must use this—Le Crème de Hydratante Amande or the cleanser won’t work as well.”  She opened the jar and breathed in the aroma.  “Hmmmm, I love this stuff.  It’s my favorite of all the scents.  Isn’t it wonderful?”  She stuck it under my nose.  Almonds and vanilla. 
“How much is that one?”  I didn’t think I’d buy it, but I was curious.  “And how long will that last?”
“This goes for . . ..”  She turned it over.  “Oh, guess what.  It’s on sale!  It usually sells for $95.00, but it’s on sale for . . . wow!  $87.50.”  She looked up.  “I think the sale ends today—I can find out.”  She put the jar on the counter and started off.  “Oh.  I forgot."  She turned around.  "That jar should last you, ah, if you use it without fail, day and night, about three months.”  She walked off to check on the sale.
I recalculated.  $87.50 times four.  $350 for the first year, $17,500 for the rest of my life. 
Altogether, I’d have to spend $34,150—until I was dead—if I wanted to take years off my face.
Might be worth it.  They’ll look into my casket and say, “My, but doesn't she look young.  Wonder what she used."

EVS 08/11



To spell out the obvious is often to call it in question. 
~Eric Hoffer

She shouted from across the street.  “Hey!  Do you people believe in Jesus Christ?”
I stopped raking and looked up.  She stood in her doorway, hands on hips, feet planted—square—like a drill sergeant, as if my answer could knock her over.  A full-length, flour-dusted apron covered her dress. 
 “Of course we do,” I said.  “He was a great leader . . . and teacher.  Everyone should follow his example.” 
Quick thinking.  Can’t argue with that.  I continue raking.
“But do you-all believe that the Bible is the word of God?”
I dragged a bunch of leaves into a pile.  “Great book, the Bible,” I said, and stretched the rake toward some thin branches at the base of the maple tree.  I reached down to disengage a twig from the prongs.  “Lots of good stories . . . good lessons.” I flashed Sunday School where I colored pictures of Jesus giving bread and wine to the hungry throng.  Jesus’s robe.  Periwinkle.  My favorite crayon.  “Especially for kids.”
So far, so good.  Maybe she'd go back to her biscuits.
"What about the miracles?  You guys believe in miracles?"
I hadn't memorized my thirty-second elevator speech about being a Unitarian Universalist.  Having been brought up Methodist, I knew what the traditional world thought of people who ventured into what was considered pagan territory.  Blasphemy.  I still struggled with putting my religious philosophy into concepts that described my spiritual leanings in such a way that those of the Christian faith wouldn’t view me as a wicked, irreverent heathen, who not only was hell-bent for, say, Hell, but also shouldn't be left alone with fire and children. 
I glanced at my front door and willed my phone to ring or Katie to call me inside or Ed to come out and take over the yard—and the conversation.
I nodded my head.  "Well now, weren't they just wonderful, those miracles,” I said.  "Changed a lot of people's lives, they did.  Hm-mm!”
It was October  of 1980, and Ed, Katie, and I had recently moved to Poland, a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio—the city where, two years before, Ed had begun his ministry at the Unitarian Church of Youngstown.
Until we bought a house in the suburbs, we rented a second story apartment on Elm Street near the church.  It was a perfect location.  Walking distance to church and Katie's elementary school, close to downtown Youngstown, and less than a mile from Youngstown State University, where I was enrolled as a graduate student.  Our city neighbors were cordial and welcoming, never seeming to wonder when we would start throwing devil darts in their direction.  But I wanted to build some home equity, and I wanted Katie to go to a "good" junior high school, so I insisted we buy a house in the suburbs, especially if we intended to stay in the area any length of time.
When Katie came home from her first day at Poland's middle school, she said, "I hate it there.  Everybody's white.  I can't tell them apart."  She slammed her books onto the kitchen table.  "They all wear horses on their shirts."  She looked at me.  "And why do they call black people, N-----rs?"
I didn't have a good answer for her, so I just said, "Some people are afraid of diversity, Katie.  They're afraid of things they don't understand or have no experience with."
Katie's previous elementary school was multi-cultural.  Whenever she talked about her school friends, she'd refer to them by their names and attributes – not nationality or race.  "Kevin is a good artist," she'd say.  Or "John is funny."  Or "Margie is smart."   It wasn't until she brought home her class picture that I learned that Kevin was Korean and John was African American and Margie was Mexican. 
"Well, I liked my old school better."
It became obvious after a few weeks in our new community that the neighbors were afraid of people like us–people who looked at the world through liberal, non-creedal eyes, people who didn't go to a recognizable Christian church.
The afternoon we moved to Poland we were visited by a lady from the Welcome Wagon.  She handed me a basket of goodies and a list of the churches in town. 
"We have lovely churches here," the lady said.  "If you're Methodist, there's a beautiful Methodist church across town.  You Episcopalian? Now, that's right around the corner.  First Presbyterian is between Piggly-Wiggly and the cemetery.  And if you're Catholic, you'll go to St. Mary's–that's right behind your property – you can see their parking lot through your living room window."
Finally, I said, "We go to the Unitarian Church in the city.  My husband is the minister there." 
The visitor gasped and stepped back, "Are there any more of you people around here?"
And now it was time for me to explain to my neighbor that I was a decent American who wasn't about to throw a match into my pile of leaves and dance around the flames.
How to put my beliefs into a few, succinct words to prove I'm as good a person as anyone—that she needn't be afraid?  Should I just spout off the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism?  The principles that UU congregations around the world affirm and promote?   Respected principles that most people live by anyway, regardless of their religious affiliations?
That "we people" believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? 
That we promote justice, equity, and compassion in all human relations?
That we accept one another and encourage spiritual growth in others?
That we believe in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning? 
That all people have the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process? 
That our goal is a world community of peace, liberty, and justice for all? 
That we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part?
And should I throw in something like, "If all people lived their lives based on UU principles, which, by the way, are akin to Jesus' teachings, there'd be less animosity and fewer wars—perhaps leading to harmony among nations"?
 Or were my beliefs too radical—too wild—too outlandish for this traditional faith and creed-centered community?
Rather than fill the air with what could be perceived as holier-than-thou platitudes, I walked across the street, smiled, and stretched out my hand.  "I'm Ellie," I said.  "What's your name?"
            I figured that was a good place to start.

EVS – 07/11



If you wouldn't write it and sign it, don't say it.
~Earl Wilson

A good cook knows how to edit.        Take meatloaf.  Most recipes call for some kind of filler—like breadcrumbs. The right amount guarantees a moist, savory meatloaf feast.  Too much and it's dry, tasteless, stick-in-your-mouth lump.
A good writer knows how to edit. Take Mark Twain.  In his short story, "Advice to Little Girls," he wrote, "Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged.  You ought never to 'sass' old people unless they 'sass' you first." 
Now that's succinct.
He could have written:  If you're a good little girl, you should be respectful, obsequious, and well-behaved when in the presence of anyone older than you are, like your parents, grandparents, and school teachers, and not only that, if you're a good little girl, you should never say nasty things to older people, like saying 'you're a poopy-face,' to a teacher or saying 'you have ugly brown moles on your neck' to your grandmother, even if she has ugly brown moles on her neck;  however, if one of these older people calls you a poopy-face first, well, then, you are entitled to call him or her a poopy-face right back. 
But he didn't. 
A good landscape architect knows how to edit.  Take the Chicago Botanic Gardens.  Their designers have created acres of floral magnificence.  Walled English gardens, ivy-covered fountains, lily ponds, flowering perennials.  A blooming wonderland.  
Understated in its overabundance. 
And a good conversationalist knows how to edit.  Take me.  I pride myself on knowing how to listen and respond—how to engage in conversation with sensitivity, diplomacy, and confidence.  I say all the right things at the right time.  I listen for cues and follow the path of my speaking partner, keeping my ego at bay. 
 I'm honest, yet prudent.  Curious, yet discrete.  Interested, yet unassuming.  I laugh, scowl, sigh, grin, cringe, smirk, weep, and wince—with accompanying gestures—at the appropriate times, exhibiting empathy, commitment, and compassion.
High enthusiasm.  Low maintenance.
Now that's darned good conversational editing. 
Too bad it's not always the case.
A few years ago at the Theatre of Western Springs, in Anne Chislett's production of "Quiet in the Land," I played a Southern Ontario Amish wife and mother who wanted a telephone. My role called for a Farm and Ranch dialect—the kind of Midwestern accent with thin vowels, clipped word endings, and a touch of nasal twang.  Country speak.  Not sophisticated.  Some people call it hillbilly.  I had trouble capturing the accent.  My mouth wouldn't cooperate—the words refused to take on the back-woods tone the director wanted.  I didn't know anyone with the accent.  Even an instructional CD didn't help.  Try as I might, I couldn't replicate the Farm and Ranch dialect.
Until I went to a wedding.  There, across the round table laden with roses, candles, silver, champagne, water carafes, and party favors, sat a lovely lady who spoke softly to those near her throughout the soup and salad courses.  My husband, who officiated at the wedding, and I spoke softly to those near us.  Finally, feeling unfriendly and slightly uncomfortable that we hadn't introduced ourselves, I looked directly into the eyes of the lovely lady and said, "We haven't met.  I'm Ellie Searl.  This is my husband Ed."
The lovely lady smiled and said, "Oh!  So glayd t' meecha.  Wadda be-udaful weddin', ya did der, Revrin Ed." 
 "That's it!"  I shouted.  "That's it!"  I pointed at her.
"Wa's et?"  She pulled her head back.
"Your accent.  Midwest Farm and Ranch.  You've got it!"  Excitement overtook common sense.  "It's perfect.  I'm supposed to talk just like you in an Amish play.  It's about a bunch of farmers."
Silence.  Everyone—stunned. 
"What's the matter with you?"  Ed whispered.  "You fall into a stupid pit or something?"
 There was no going back.  I couldn't apologize; it wasn't an accident. 
The lovely lady got up and left.
The others at the table resumed their meals, and soon the clicking of knives and forks drowned the  hushed voices of recrimination.
I don't remember much about the main course.
It might have been an unedited meatloaf.
Because I do remember a dry, tasteless, stick-in-my-mouth lump.

EVS – 06/11



He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak. 
~Michel de Montaigne

When Brett entered first grade this past year, his mom Katie not only agreed to be Art Master for the second time, she also volunteered to be the Room Mother.  She'd teach Brett's class about famous artists, and she'd plan parties, organize treats, and become friends with the other mothers. 
"And," she said, "This will give me a solid foothold in the workings of the school."
"Aren't you doing enough already?"  I asked.
"Mom – it's okay," Katie said.  "Being a Room Mother is the best way to stay on top of things.  It'll be fun."
Parent-Teacher Open House was the only September event that needed Room Mothering, so it wasn't until October at the Halloween party that Katie first encountered the Mighty Moms lurking behind the cubby buckets. 
After the costume parade, witches, princesses, and Supermen wriggled in their seats anxious to dive into the big cupcakes and apple cider.  Wally's mom had brought three dozen oversized dark chocolate chip cupcakes, slathered with thick swirls of creamy chocolate icing sprinkled with orange pumpkin-shaped candies- cupcakes to stir the saliva glands in young and old - cupcakes Wally and his mom had purchased together at Albertson’s store bakery.
Calvin's mom had brought little dented white ones with a clear glaze slopped across the tops and down the sides, puddling onto the tray – not exactly eye-catchers for the six-year-old sweet tooth.  But those cupcakes were homemade.
When Calvin's mom saw the store-bought cupcakes, she sneered, "Why did I bother to spend all my time making cupcakes from scratch when I could have just as easily gone to some old store and bought them." 
No one answered.  It wasn't a question. Wally's mom, embarrassed and humiliated, sidled out of the classroom.  Calvin's mom phoned the PTA president.  Then, much to Katie's chagrin and the children's disappointment, the chocolate cupcakes were set aside leaving a tray of sloppy white half-balls next to the cider. 
Wally's chocolate cupcakes were distributed at the end of the day, creating cupcake chaos as costumed children whooped and ran out the door, shoving the fat treats into their mouths, smearing chocolate over cheeks, knuckles, masks, wands, tiaras, capes, backpacks, lunch bags, and the upholstery of their parents' cars.   
"I felt so sorry for little Wally," Katie said, "Stripped of his place of honor.  He was so proud of his cupcakes.  At least the kids got to eat them later.  I can't believe Calvin's mother - or the PTA, for that matter."
"Wasn't there anything you could do to stop her – them?"  I asked, knowing if there had been, she would have.
Katie tried to put the kibosh on parental interference during the following parties, but it was a losing battle.  The Mighty Moms, backed by the PTA, insinuated themselves into Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Pajama Day, Grandparent Day, No Homework Day, Lost Tooth Day, and the Round-up Auction, for which Katie cellophane-wrapped two big baskets, decorated them with butterflies, and filled them with gift cards, candles, candle holders, and placemats - only to find her baskets dismantled, the gift items stuck into other baskets.  She finally found her baskets, stuffed with auction-processing papers, lying on the floor behind the auction cashiers in the check-out area.
Too defeated to complain, Katie decided to get through the rest of the year by using low-maintenance strategies.  Don't over-plan, don't over-do, don't over-expect, and don't over-react.
When Teacher Appreciation Week approached in late April, Katie phoned me and asked what my school did to appreciate my work as a teacher – she was looking for ideas.
I told her that there was no falderal.  No Hallmark Holiday.  In the middle of May, my colleagues and I would receive a thank you card from the school board, a token gift decorated with the district logo, like a key chain or a school calendar or a lapel pin, and a simple mid-week buffet luncheon served in the teachers' lounge, prepared by the PTA - a tossed salad, a platter of sliced meats and cheese fanned out on curly kale, a variety of rolls and breads, pickles, potato chips, condiments, and a tray of lemon squares.  The administration unlocked the Coke machine for the day, and we’d eat during our regular lunch periods.  Unless the PTA moms told them, the students didn't know their teachers were supposed to be appreciated that week.
After much thought, Katie decided to plan, with Brett’s class, an after-lunch surprise party for Ms. Howard.  They'd decorate the room, sing songs, and present the teacher with a lovely gift - something personal, like a spa basket or a couple of tickets to the theater or a dinner out with her husband.  Katie wanted to put her own signature on teacher appreciation.  Classy, tasteful.
"Does that sound like I'm overdoing it?"  Katie asked me.  "I'd like to make it a little more special than what you used to get."
"Sounds perfect," I said.  "Wish you had been my room mother."
A few days before spring break, Katie received a four-page notice from the PTA president, outlining what the PTA moms had decided the Room Mothers would do to celebrate their teachers.
Katie called me up.  "You won't believe this," she said. 
"First of all, there's a theme.  Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  The catch phrase is ‘Our Staff Make Learning Sweet.’  And – get this - Teacher Appreciation Week is going to be celebrated All Week Long.  ALL WEEK.  Every.  Friggin.  Day.  All related to sugar and candy and teacher sweetness." 
"My teeth hurt," I said.  "Did any of these PTA mothers ask the teachers what they wanted?  Five days of teaching children overdosed on sugar isn't instructional paradise."
"No," Katie said.  "It’s all secret."  
In order to give parents enough lead-time to stuff their kid's backpack with the appropriate item on the appropriate day, the Room Mothers had to send home, with the students, at least a week ahead of time, a packet outlining the activities planned for each day of appreciation week.  The packet had to contain five pages – one for each day – each a different color, each describing that day's activities and the accompanying parent and student responsibilities.  Packet preparation meant composing, typing, printing, folding, stuffing envelopes, labeling them with students’ names, and distributing them before or after school - without the teacher noticing.
"That's just the preparation," Katie said.  "Here's what's going on Each.  Day."
Sunday, the day prior to Teacher Appreciation Week, was Door Decorating Day.  Room Mothers had to decorate the classroom door with a Willy Wonka design and a 'Sweet' message - using pieces of candy to represent the class, like a giant lollypop for the teacher and Jolly Ranchers for the students.
 "Be sure to decorate the door on Sunday so it will greet the teacher first thing Monday morning," Katie read. 
"How are you going to get into the building?"  I asked.  "Do you have a key?"
"It's California, Mom.  Classroom doors lead to the outside."
"Maybe California rodents will eat the candy.  Little rats running around with Gummy Bears stuck in their teeth."
Katie went on.
Monday was Welcome to Teacher Appreciation Day – the day Ms. Howard would ooh and aah over the door, place her hand on her heart, and say something like, "All This for Meeee?"
Monday was also the first of four days that Katie would hide somewhere and collect money for the gift certificate that would be presented to Ms. Howard at the Friday afternoon culminating party, and the candy bar poems the children were to write to Ms. Howard – 'Be my Almond Joy' or 'I'm all Butterfingers Around You' or 'Your Happiness is My Payday' - with the showcased candy bars attached to the poems, which, once collected, Katie had to bind into a book.  
"Mom," Katie said.  "What the hell is the Ms. Howard going to do with thirty-one candy bars?  This is ridiculous.  I'm not doing that part."
I could hear a pen scratching.
"Better watch out, Katie," I sang.  "You're gonna get in trouble with Cupcake Bully and her cohorts if you break the rules."
Tuesday was Fresh Flower Day.  Each student was to bring a fresh flower to the teacher.  Katie had to be on hand that morning to collect the flowers, put them in a vase, and present the arrangement to Ms. Howard. 
"Get . . . a . . . vase," Katie said.  I could hear her pen again.
Wednesday was Oompa Loompa Day.  Students were to come to school dressed as Oompa Loompas - green hair, orange faces, brown shirts, white overalls, and blue soccer socks.
"Okay – Wednesday's a bust," I said.  "Can't teach orange faces and green hair."    
Thursday was Book Binding Day.  Katie had to finish collecting the poems and take them home to collate, leaving blank pages in the back for the forgotten ones.  Then, after Bridget's nap, go to Staples for bookbinding and stop off at the mall for a decent gift certificate.  
"Just a few hours of my time . . .," Katie said.  ". . . every single day – including Sunday – INCLUDING SUNDAY!"
"Katie," I said.  "This isn't asking too much, is it?  It's a cinch for someone like you – you’re just a mom - with plenty of time on her hands.  What do you do all day anyway?  Other than raising two kids, housecleaning, laundry, cooking, shopping, working twenty hours a week from home as a customer service rep, taking your son to little league, attending church, chairing two committees, and serving as the first grade Art Master, you don't do so much.  What's the big deal?"
"Yeah, right," she said.  "Listen to Friday."
Friday was Dress as Your Favorite Candy Day.  Peppermint Patties, Smarties, and Baby Ruths - adding yet another distraction to the already disrupted educational environment. 
Then, as if gratitude hadn't been stretched far enough into Oompa Loompa Land, there would be a Teacher Appreciation luncheon in the teachers' lounge.
"What'll they serve - a variety pack of Hershey's Chocolate with pralines?"  I asked. 
"I feel like I agreed to bake a dozen cookies and ended up project manager of a Mrs. Fields factory."
"The teachers are going to hate it," I said.  "I guarantee they don't want their classes interrupted by a bunch of Lemonheads and Atomic Fireballs running amok all week."
Katie, being the Good Mother, clenched her teeth and followed the instructions as directed.  The week's worth of activities took more than two weeks and cost Katie about fifty dollars – far more than any one parent's contribution to the gift certificate.
At the culminating class party, Katie presented Ms. Howard with the book of poems and the gift certificate.  Ms. Howard appeared appreciative and thanked the children for the sweet things they had done for her that week.  The children clapped and laughed and disappointedly picked at tiny half-pint cupcakes with sloppy glaze puddling down the sides and asked Wally where his good cupcakes were.
Katie phoned on Friday afternoon.  "Hell Week is over."
"So - did Ms. Howard thank you?"
"Sort of," she said.  "It's hard to tell with her.  She doesn't have much of an affect."
"All that and you can't tell?"
"I didn't do it for me, Mom.  I did it for Brett," she said.  "But never again."
"Not even if there's a Room Mother Appreciation Week?"
 "Not even - but I am thinking of joining the PTA."

EVS 05/11