Family Hassles and Turning the Tassel

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The future awaits my son. If I have done my job—and the verdict will be out for some time to come—he will work harder than everyone else, refuse to accept rejection and failure, which are unavoidable, try new foods and go new places, push himself far beyond his comfort zone, and tell those who deserve it to kiss his ass. I will always love and support him, and he will always have a soft landing place in my home, wherever it is.

And if, as I get older, I behave as certain members of our family did on graduation night, I give my son permission to leave the dinner table, to curse my name under his breath as he walks away, and to block my messages as he cranks his car.

I will not become my parents.

An Exchange Student’s Bittersweet Journey Home

I was eighteen years old and introverted. My Spanish host father was a retired porn director. My host mother had had her palm read; there was no sign of her husband in her future. My host brother was a spoiled, teenaged baby.

During my six-month stay, I had offended them in ways I still don’t understand, and they had kicked me out….

March 1989

A faded symbol on the ground outside the Puerta del Sol, a 19th-century square which is the heart of not only Madrid but Spain itself, marks Kilometer Zero of the system of national highways known as the carretera nacional. The major arteries of this network are six toll-free highways, or autovías, prefixed by “N” and numbered I to VI.

Radiating from the geographically centered capital to coastal provinces or the Portuguese border, the N-I-VI are more heavily traveled than the “R” autopistas (toll highways) they run parallel to since many Spaniards can’t afford to pay the high tolls. Anyone who has been mired in traffic hell during one of Madrid’s four rush hours knows all too well that “heavily traveled” understates things quite a bit.

The N-VI breaks out of the capital near the Mirador del Faro observation tower and passes through Ciudad Universitaria on its way to the suburbs and the northwestern port city of A Coruña. At Kilometer 18 along that major artery lies the burgeoning municipality of Las Rozas. Its proximity to the capital, which was on the front line during the Civil War that began in 1936, explains why the town stood in ruins when the war ended in 1939. The fact that it straddles the N-VI only twenty minutes from Madrid is an important reason why it and los roceños (the people of Las Rozas) flourish today.

Roceños are among the countless nicotine-addicted suburbanites with a penchant for the honking of an automobile horn who each weekday morning form a creeping Madrid-bound caravan. Even with five of the N-VI’s eight lanes, including its two center reversible HOV lanes, or carriles de Bus-VAO, open to inbound traffic, commuters making the 15-kilometer trek to the capital may be stuck in traffic for an hour or more. No wonder so many of them smoke.

As I taxied alone from Las Rozas to Madrid’s Barajas Airport, which lies almost 15 kilometers to the east of the Puerta del Sol, I became fixated on the growing total on the running meter and the blinking colon on the dashboard clock. It wasn’t long after we had been “parked” on the N-VI that I began to place mental bets on which would be gone first—the pesetas in my wallet or my mid-morning flight to New York. The woman in the maroon Volkswagon Polo to my left and her young backpack-toting passenger appeared to be on their way to a colegio (primary or secondary school) somewhere near Madrid. I just knew that little girl would be late for school, and I was quite sure that eventually I would be standing in the international terminal staring at an empty gate.

To my surprise and relief we made it to our exit in about thirty minutes and merged on to the outer carretera de circunvalación (ring highway) encircling the capital that provides access to the airport. Racing—well, it felt like racing, at least compared to the crawling of the last half hour—towards Barajas with that slowly moving parking lot behind me I whispered a long-distance thank-you to the upstairs neighbor who had called for my taxi just a few minutes early. About an hour after I got into the cab I stepped out of it, and after more waiting at the ticket counter, passport control, and security, I boarded the plane and was in my seat. I hoped that schoolgirl was in hers, too.

The Unbeaten Path and Your Overtested Schoolchild

My son will be graduating from high school in May and then heading off to lapidary arts school—cabochons, casting, faceting, mineral ID, opals, silver. For the past twelve years, he has been standardized tested to the point of ridiculousness. In celebration of his upcoming release, here’s the quote that, along with CBS’s The Amazing Race, has fueled our spirit of adventure these past summers:

“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” — John Hope Franklin

Many of the places we’ve gone in the U.S. are popular tourist attractions: Denali National Park (AK), Gatlinburg (TN), Lake George (NY), Rehoboth Beach (DE) to name a few. But we always get off the beaten path. Here, I post some of our favorite, lesser-known places and activities. I hope they inspire you to explore the United States, and am happy to answer questions about them.

(Note: I/we have no affiliations with the following places and activities, and quoted material is taken from their websites.)
 

Arnolds Park Amusement Park (Lake Okoboji, Iowa)
https://www.arnoldspark.com/
Rides, raceway, cruises on the steamer Queen II, maritime museum, concerts, food, games, shopping, pebble beach, chilly lake
 

Bushkill Falls (Bushkill, Pennsylvania)
http://www.visitbushkillfalls.com/
“The Niagara of Pennsylvania”…scenic trails, gift shops, gem mining, miniature golf, paddle boats, fishing, picnic areas, children’s playground

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Cape Henlopen State Park (Lewes, Delaware)
http://www.destateparks.com/park/cape-henlopen/
Beaches, disc golf course, historic Fort Miles, hiking, biking, nature center

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Carolina Motel (Franklin, North Carolina)
http://www.carolinamotel.com/
Hands down, our favorite home away from home, anywhere—super clean, friendly, and affordable

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Dry Falls (near Highlands, North Carolina)
http://highlandschamber.org/
A kid-friendly waterfall you can walk behind, but the spray won’t keep you “dry”

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Exit Glacier (Seward, Alaska)
http://www.alaska.org/detail/visit-exit-glacier
A road-accessible glacier with a nature center, trails, and ranger-led hikes

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Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum (Franklin, North Carolina)
http://www.fgmm.org/
Located in the old jail, eight rooms housing one of the largest collections of gems and minerals in the Southeast (don’t miss the Coca-Cola gems), gift shop
 

Funland (Rehoboth Beach, Delaware)
https://www.funlandrehoboth.com/
“Family business since 1962″…rides for all ages, food, games, prizes

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Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community (near Gatlinburg, Tennessee)
http://www.gatlinburgcrafts.com/
“The largest group of independent artisans in North America. This historic 8-mile loop has been designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail.”
 

The stretch between marker R-39 and Indian Creek (on Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia)
http://www.smithmountainstriperclub.com/
The first and only place I’ve ever caught a striped bass on artificial bait—a white bucktail

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Martin Guitar Museum and Factory Tour (Nazareth, Pennsylvania)
https://www.martinguitar.com/about/visit-us/

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Motel Nord Haven (Healy, Alaska)
http://www.motelnordhaven.com/
Clean and cozy lodging 15 minutes from the tourist traps near the Denali National Park entrance

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Mountain Springs Lake Resort (Reeders, Pennsylvania)
http://www.mslresort.com/
A hidden gem in the Poconos (when I stopped to asked directions, no local had ever heard of it)…nature trail, beaches, fishing, playgrounds, Ping-Pong barn, cottages, a bit of a property management feel but quaint and quiet

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Mt. Washington Auto Road (Gorham, New Hampshire)
http://mtwashingtonautoroad.com/
“Completed and opened to the public in 1861, the privately-owned and operated Auto Road climbs 4,700 feet from the base and reaches more than a mile in the sky to the highest point in the Northeast at 6,288 feet.” The drive is not for the faint of heart.

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Natural Stone Bridge and Caves (Pottersville, New York)
http://stonebridgeandcaves.com/
62′-high, 180′-wide stone bridge arch, self-guided tours, rock and gift shops, gem mining, disc golf

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Pemi Valley Moose Tours (Lincoln, New Hampshire)
http://www.moosetoursnh.com/
3-hour tour—air conditioned bus, main roads through the White Mountains, one potty stop, moose, deer, a bear or two
 

Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm (Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania)
http://quietvalley.org/
“Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm, is a non-profit, living history museum preserving 19th century Pennsylvania German agricultural heritage. Period dressed interpreters portray descendants of Johann Depper, re-enacting daily life on the farm.”

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Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (near Gatlinburg, Tennessee)
http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/roaringfork.htm
Narrow, winding, scenic; saw eight bears one early August evening
 

Rose Creek Mine (Franklin, North Carolina)
http://www.rosecreekmine.com/
Undoubtedly, our favorite family activity. Bring rubber gloves, a change of clothing and shoes, and a chair pad or towel to soften your seat on the sluice bench.

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Schooner Eastwind (Boothbay Harbor, Maine)
http://schoonereastwind.com/
Built by hand by a family that has sailed around the world twice

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Sled Dog Kennels and Demonstrations (Denali National Park, Alaska)
http://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/kennels.htm
http://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/sled-dog-demonstrations.htm

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Zoder’s Inn and Suites (Gatlinburg, Tennessee)
http://www.zoders.com/
“Its Main Street location puts guests within walking distance to the town’s restaurants, galleries and shops, while its wooded six-acre setting offers just the right amount of privacy and seclusion.” I’m 45 and may have been conceived at Zoder’s.

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The Importance of Classrooms with Four Walls and Blue Skies

In honor of the rockhound/fireball/breadwinner I call my wife, I post her 2011 application for the summer Naturalist Internship at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Admittedly, it was a long shot, and she didn’t get an interview. No big surprise: she’s a school teacher through and through.

Last fall, she interviewed with a better (my word) school division—“Fish grow to the size of their tank.”

Success. Time for a new tank….

“Why are you interested in this internship and what personal skills would you bring to this program?

For honesty’s sake I must confess that I still hear the call of Alaska, and I make no apologies for refusing to check the 49th state off my bucket list. No, I won’t do it. The scale and wild beauty of Denali and Kenai Fjords National Parks each require at least a third visit; I still haven’t spotted any whales at Beluga Point. And since we all need more beauty in our lives and to do more things that take our breath away, I’ll have to drive along Turnagain Arm as many more times as possible. On second thought, I’ll let my husband drive so I can get lost in the views.

That’s what we were doing last July when my mother-in-law spotted a cluster of white dots on the side of a mountain, so we found a safe place to pull off, and my husband, son, and I hoofed it back to take so-so photos and shaky video of what turned out to be a band of Dall sheep. Little did we know that two ewes were grazing on the cliff above our car, putting on quite a show for my mother-in-law while we were gone. One disappeared before we got back, but the other one, apparently indifferent to the gathering tourists, paced the cliff for ten more minutes.

Except for an arctic ground squirrel that, unfortunately, had become habituated to humans at Polychrome Overlook, I had never had such an up-close sighting of Alaskan wildlife. Yes, the views of Turnagain Arm were breathtaking, but what I remember most about the drive was that chance encounter.

What I remember most about the day, however, was my first visit to AWCC.

While most of the species on Alaska’s admittedly small endangered list are marine species, the memories I cherish most about my visit—Seymour Jr. [moose] browsing at the fence, Hugo [female grizzly] seeming to pose for the camera, Joe Boxer and Patron [male grizzlies] chasing gulls—wouldn’t have been possible if Alaska’s terrestrial species didn’t need a helping hand, too. Chance encounters with wildlife, whether by tourists or residents, are memorable but rarely provide the teachable moments that the close-up yet respectful observations of the animals at AWCC do.

As I watched a member of the staff engaging and educating a group of children about the porcupine, I was intrigued by the possibility of volunteering my 15+ years of experience as an elementary school teacher to help AWCC fulfill its mission, and upon returning to Virginia my intrigue lead to discussions and ultimately this application for internship. Accruing some of the 180 professional development points I need for licensure renewal would be icing on the cake.

I am confident that in addition to my enthusiasm for education, my strong work ethic, and my facility as a jill-of-all-trades, AWCC would be able to avail itself of my experience planning and executing field trips, graduation ceremonies, and community presentations and of my skills as a former technology teacher, including creating and running PowerPoint presentations.

What are your personal, educational, or career goals? What kinds of experiences would you like to gain during your internship to further your pursuit of these goals?

During my first year of teaching my mother-in-law gave me a plaque that reads: ‘A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.’ — Forest E. Witcraft

The quote is a good one and absolutely true…or at least this senior teacher hopes it’s true because the balance in my savings account is stagnating, my house might need a new roof, my car is almost ten years old, and after chasing after 16 at-risk four-year-olds each day there’s no way I’m going to be alive in a hundred years to find out how the children I’ve taught have changed the world.

I have worn many hats at [name omitted]—Early Childhood Special Education Teacher, Virginia Preschool Initiative Teacher, Technology Teacher, and again Virginia Preschool Initiative Teacher when the technology position was eliminated last year due to Virginia’s budget shortfall. Each new challenge has helped me to grow not only as a teacher but as a person as well. Admittedly, I will never be a perfect teacher or person, but I firmly intend to continue striving to be a better teacher and person and to keep exploring and learning in order to become a more complete teacher and a more well-rounded person.

Professionally, my time in Mother Nature’s classroom at AWCC would provide me with a wealth of new ideas to take back to my classroom and to share with my fellow teachers so that we can inject our lesson plans and the students’ daily activities with as much creativity as Virginia’s Standards of Learning allow.

And on a personal level, stepping outside my comfort zone and getting my literal and figurative hands dirty in something other than Virginia’s red clay would be a wonderful challenge, and if my summer in Alaska were to have the same positive effect on me that my husband’s time in Spain as an exchange student had on him, I cannot miss this opportunity, no matter how atypical my candidacy for this internship.

What is the best public presentation you have done? Describe why it was your best.

“The Virginia Preschool Initiative provides programs for at-risk four-year-old children that include quality preschool education, health services, social services, parental involvement, and transportation” (www.doe.virginia.gov), and in my classroom we use the HighScope Preschool Curriculum. The central element of HighScope is active learning, a hands-on approach to education in which children learn by participation and through direct experiences with objects, events, and ideas. The curriculum is taught at many institutions of higher learning, including my local community college, but finding classrooms that follow HighScope can be a challenge.

Taking advantage of a local HighScope resource, a professor of education at [name omitted] invited me to speak to one of his evening classes. My presentation included photographs, video clips, and printed materials and a PowerPoint presentation that I had created. The students’ interest was high during and after my presentation, and with my principal’s prior permission I invited them to visit my class the next day for some real-world practice with the curriculum. Many of the students who spent time in my classroom wrote to thank me for the “practical” and “educational” experience and for the opportunity to affirm—and in one case to doubt—their course of study. I have made countless presentations, including others at [name omitted], but I am most proud of that one because of the students’ interest and feedback and the article about it that appeared in the local newspaper.

Describe a situation where you really went above and beyond in the name of customer service. OR Describe a situation where you effectively dealt with a disgruntled customer/visitor/co-worker.

A teacher’s work is truly never done, and often going “above and beyond” is more a necessity than a reason for being patted on the back. We buy paper and pencils, for example, for students who cannot afford them because without them, they cannot do their jobs as students, we cannot do our jobs as teachers, and both of our performances suffer. For similar reasons, we stay late, make home visits, and spend even more extra time when they’re having problems. Going “above and beyond” can be tremendously rewarding. It can also be a bit of a nightmare, as it was on an occasion during my first stint as Virginia Preschool Initiative Teacher.

One of my students presented severe behavioral and cognitive delays, so I worked on special activities with him before and after school, sent activities home with him, but even with the extra help he continued to disrupt the classroom and to struggle. As a former special education teacher I knew the importance of early intervention, and I requested a parent-teacher conference to discuss the possibility of referring the child for testing.

The conference began by the father bursting through my door, cursing at me, and threatening to do me physical harm if I insisted that his son was retarded. Keeping my wits about me, I turned slightly sideways to lessen the face-to-face/confrontational mood and began calming him down by rephrasing what he had said so he would know that I was listening to him and that I understood his concerns. I then explained that special education services range from tutoring to a self-contained classroom and that he could decline services after testing even if his son was found eligible.

A month later the child was tested, found eligible, and began receiving in-school tutoring. He is now in third grade and studying on a third grade level. The father recently thanked me for my help and apologized for his behavior.

I am proud of the difference I made in the life of that child.”

Welcome to the blog of Tony Houck…

…and I thank you for visiting. Stay a while. Browse. Read. Smile. Scratch your head or shake it. Comment. Follow.

I’m introverted and hesitant to ramble or waste your time.

In that spirit, let me quickly explain that unsalted gems is a term used at family-friendly gem mines, that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, that I am addicted to the language and culture of Spain, and that the purpose of this blog is to inform and entertain my readers. To them, I extend a sincere invitation to provide feedback and share their stories.

My Story, which further discusses unsalted gems, OCD, etc., is available for those who wish to read it. I leave that decision up to you.

As an obsessive-compulsive who is embarrassed by his disorder, and not a person who gravitates toward self-aggrandizing tendencies, I’ve had to step outside my comfort zone for my first post. Although it’s an excerpt from my unpublished novel, which is not a memoir, the passage is short on meism but long on insight into the world of an obsessive-compulsive. OCD manifests itself in different ways, of course, but what follows is a place to start….

 

CHAPTER SIX

07:43 h

      A bottled gas delivery truck clanged past the open window, but Thomas was already awake. Staring at the clock he had watched throughout the night, he sat hunched on the side of the bed, his forearm resting on the nightstand. He dared not move the travel alarm, so he pinched it lightly between his index finger and thumbnail, which quivered over a small button split into half-moons marked ALARM and SET.

07:45 h

      Thomas took a shallow breath, held it, and pressed the button before the alarm could ring for the fifth time. Five would have been bad: It wasn’t one of his numbers. After letting the echo fade, he pressed the button again and then stared at the display, holding his breath again. “It’s there,” he whispered.
      “It” was a little bell above the colon that indicated the alarm was turned on. A lingering touch—he had a proclivity for lingering touches—could have turned it off altogether, but his nail had been quick. He exhaled. The alarm was ready for tomorrow morning, and it was important that it was…irrationally important, anxiety-provokingly important. He lifted his elbow off the nightstand and sat back. “It’s done.”
      But no amount of physical distance could have taken his mind off that bell or prevented his daily battle with “it,” as even a master of self-control is helpless against spasmodic contractions of the diaphragm. He leaned forward. “It’s there.”
      It was there. He clearly saw it and the speck of dust on it, but couldn’t take his eyes off it. He tried to lean back. “It’s done…It’s there— It isn’t.” He sighed and checked it again. The thoughts became reflexes.
      “I see it…It’s right there.” He leaned back, but before his spine could straighten, he threw himself forward. “Damn. Last time,” he promised emptily with all his heart and rechecked it.
      In the distance a driver laid on the horn, but Thomas was already beyond the tipping point again. “Not there. Damn it, shit, hell. Last time, I promise.” He re-rechecked it, but was soon lost in the bell once again.
      “It’s there— No, I see it. Fight it. It’s not, check it later…I might forget. Last time, I promise.” He re-rechecked it again, raised his eyes to heaven, and then smacked himself on the head. At that moment, he wasn’t sure whom he hated more. “Guaranteed done, no matter what. I promise.”
      There was no way in hell he was done.
      “You’re not getting anything else from me— I promise just one last time.” He checked it, but he wasn’t really seeing at it anymore. Something similar to the difference between hearing and listening.

07:47 h

      “It’s there, it’s there, it’s there, it’s there,” Thomas insisted, desperate for the relief that often came with repetition in fours. He could have afforded to change his ticket if he had 1 € (about $1.30) for each time he’d repeated something four times in September alone.
      He had other “lucky” numbers of course, but in eights, fifteens, seventeens, twenty-twos, thirty-ones, thirty-sevens, fifty-ones, fifty-sevens, and seventy-sevens things took quite a while longer, and he had to get going. No, four usually did the trick. Besides, the higher numbers were better suited for such things as turning off headlights, wiping down the bathtub, blowing dust off the television, walking across a room, and closing bottles. He could have stayed in Las Rozas forever if he had 1 € for each time he had mashed the refrigerator handle.
      He took several deep breaths, trying to reset the brain that wasn’t getting the message.

      —Why? is a question answered only by theories about the cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
      Many researchers attribute the disorder to biological abnormalities. Perhaps the neurochemical serotonin can’t transmit its message to neighboring nerve cells because the receptors on those neurons are faulty, resulting in the reuptake of serotonin. Maybe the part of the brain that initiates certain actions lacks a specific protein. Possibly a prior immune response to the streptococcus bacteria produced offending antibodies. These are but three possibilities.
      Advocates of a psychological cause suggest that OCD sufferers repeatedly wash their hands, check locked doors, etc., to relieve anxiety provoked by illogical doubts and fears that intrude into their thought processes, and though the anxiety re-emerges, they associate short-lived relief with the washing, checking, etc., negatively reinforcing those actions. The cycle repeats, encouraging the obsessions and compulsions, although sufferers take no pleasure in them, and the disorder intensifies.
      Whether abnormal biology, psychology, or, more likely, a combination of the two is to blame, the many forms of OCD make it one of the more prevalent mental disorders in the United States, afflicting millions, and many more have never been formally diagnosed.

07:48 h

      Thomas wiped the “pollution” off his finger and wagged the tip of it across the display, playing peekaboo with the bell. “There, not there. There, not there.”
      Muttering stares were often just fists to the chest, but taps and rubs could be like paddles to a fibrillating heart and restore normal rhythm to his dwelling brain; for Thomas, abnormal was normal. The additional stimuli helped curb his anxiety, so he relied heavily on the sense of touch during his private struggles, but in public the behaviors drew embarrassing looks, so he disguised them.
      When tapping and rubbing didn’t provide the necessary relief, the situation worsened still, and he was often forced into momentary, even persistent surrender. But if he was playing beat the clock or if the task was especially difficult, he resorted to more severe behaviors to increase the stimulus. Metal zipper pulls were tugged so hard they bent. Plastic caps were tightened until they bulged at the sides; often they were so tight that he had to open them with pliers. The violent rattling of the side door used to shake and wake the house.
      Thomas was incredibly sorry about breaking the doorknob.

07:49 h

      “It’s there.”
      The next few moments were critical, so Thomas sat breathless, motionless, fearing the unexpected, even the rumble of his stomach.

07:50 h

      On to the bracelet, the shirt tag, the drawstring in the pajama pants, in that order. In that order.
      The day had just begun.
      He was exhausted.