Doing Dishes, While Living Life

A Summer Tanager – one possibility for the glorious streak of red I saw in my backyard, while I was supposed to be preparing for autumn classes.

It would be nice if life brought to us challenges in neat packages: “Deal with this, and when you’re done I’ll bring you something new to test out.” Our school days (and years) are organized along these lines.

But the events and issues on our timelines overlap and circle around and sometimes travel against time and double up and triple up and overwhelm us and trip us up when they can. We do what we can, as we are able, using our skills for parsing catastrophe, and calling on the resources we recognize in the midst of all the chaos.

Of course, structure – pattern, alignment, sequence – can be helpful. This is one of the less mercenary reasons we work, or volunteer. Monday-Friday, 9-5, or however we structure it, helps to corral our herds, keeping our strays from wandering off onto the ponderosa.

And aside from the obvious issues of centralizing learning opportunities, this benefit may play a bit into how many of our schools are organized.

At the same time, there is something to be said for exercising our creativity in stretches of unstructured time, and there is now a roiling tussle over whether we should allow our kids to do just this at recess at school – whether they benefit from having time to wander or run or sulk around playgrounds; forming social alliances (or not); following the rules and climbing ladders to the slides or not following rules at all and climbing up the slides themselves; occasionally skinning their knees and ending up on the nurse’s bench; or filling their shoes with sand and emptying it over the heads of friend or foe and winding up on the principal’s bench.

One fascinating study (with several associated branches) proposes that this kind of free time actually prepares our kids to cope – right then and later in life – with such far-flung issues as depression and self-control and attention. Some pretty seriously accredited professionals support this idea.

And some parents take this idea very seriously, urging their school systems to preserve recess – the period of activity that has become threatened on the premise that it is not productive time, that using those minutes in academic ways could improve students’ performance on the spreading seas of standardized tests being developed to gauge student performance and the competence of their schools and teachers.


For me, summer is a mix of recess (recovering from the spring term as a scattered adjunct) and work (preparing for the Autumn Marathon of Classes, which crescendos to the cymbal crashes of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the like). My unstructured time today included some cleaning of dishes, which brought its own startling moment.

I keep a basic bird feeder – a gift from my youngest daughter – along the driveway, close enough to two windows so both cats can have a perch to watch the noshing by the birds (all of muted colors, which do not raise much of a hackle in either Neville or Eleanor) and squirrels (which always bring a puffing-out of the cats’ tails, and occasional vocalizations).

But today, away from the feeder, on a different side of the house – across my backyard as I was washing the last plate, came a streak of pale red, which alit on the side fence.

Because the red color was striated – the red was not intense, but was narrowly striped with a pale brown, and the bird had a distinctly reddish beak – I imagine it may have been a tanager I could not find a photo of for comparison. It stayed on the fence for about 10 seconds – long enough for me to notice that beyond the pale red head and underside, and the pale red and pale brown stripes along its back (appropriately tasteful for a New England backyard), there were no other distinctive patches of color, and the legs were dark.

I should confess: I was cleaning the dishes during a part of the day I had previously reserved for reading – it was intended to be productive, academic time. I should have been reading Vonnegut or Whitman, or taking notes on the essays in the text for my 101 essay class at the community college where I teach. That would have furthered my goals in a way that could be proved, tested. Reviewing “Beat! Beat! Drums!” would have brought me closer to being ready for the 29th of August, honed my skills as an instructor, enhanced the experience of my classes of students …

… And then I would have entirely missed that glorious streak of pale red.


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