Sunday, October 26, 2014

Treating with Tricks

Popcorn balls, Snickers, Kit Kat bars, and maybe some Sweet Tarts. My typical load for Halloween trick-or-treating in the middle of rural South Dakota.

our scarecrow head in 2009, a year-old jack-o'-lantern
Not much, but I did get to nibble on the leftovers in the bags Mom had assembled for the kiddos: Hershey's Kisses, Tootsie Rolls, hot cinnamon hard candy, and salt water taffy. I knew it would eventually all be mine because not many masked goblins came knocking.

The popcorn balls came from my mom's cousin, Mary G. Wipf, a woman who was like an aunt to me who passed away this summer. Braces kept me from taking a big bite, but they tasted the same after busted up with a knife. Mary G. made the same treats for Christmas time too—only with green and red food coloring.

my dad with Mary G., the popcorn ball lady, summer of 2009

Why was my Halloween haul so small? We only had a few neighbors, and Mom never drove me more than five miles from home. I do not remember going too many places.

One year Aunt Grace and Uncle Johnny were not home, and my childhood mind wondered why. 

They knew I would be coming. They should have stayed home. 

Mom must have sensed my disappointment when I plopped back into the car. She said, "Go move that ladder and block their door."

"Why? What for?"

"They'll have to move it when they come home. What do you think trick-or-treat means anyway?"

Ironically, this summer, my youngest sister Brenda and I went to that same farm and played a trick-or-treat of a different kind on my cousin. No one answered our knock, so we moved a pot of flowers in front of the door with this note: "Your Kansas cousins were here."

Within minutes a cell phone rang. Our cousin Gordie hunted us down via our nephew-in-law Erik who lived nearby. It worked. We headed back for a short visit with Gordie and his wife Charlotte before they headed off to 4th of July festivities. 


Gordie's treat: a kiss from two of his Hofer cousins

My childhood trick-or-treating days ended around fifth or sixth grade, but for that last go-round, Mom let me stay in town at Tami Price's house. She was a friend and classmate whose birthday was near Halloween. And yes, she lived in town.

10-year-old Tami, my friend who lived in Hitchcock

In-town trick-or-treating for a country kid was like a town kid getting to run naked in mud puddles on a farm after a rain storm.

My orange pumpkin bucket was so full that the candy lasted until Christmas time. I have no idea where I kept it at school the next day so the candy would not be stolen.

Good thing Mom had kept me close to home for Halloween all those years because I am not sure I would have any teeth left today. I already had a mouth full of cavities due to pop drinking. For more about that bad habit, read my post entitled Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, and a Slew of Yahoo.

What is your favorite Halloween memory? Ever play an innocent Halloween trick on someone? Or get sick from too much candy?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Computers: I Saw No Value In Them

I know just enough to be dangerous. Our tech guy at school, Brad Buscher, would agree with that—even though I never made my teacher home page the school main page like colleague Peggy Jones did a few years ago. No one still knows how that happened.

Like most Generation-Xers, I have a love-hate relationship with computers and other forms of technology.


It started in the spring of my senior year in 1984 when Hitchcock High School acquired some computers. This was back during the C-prompt days. Maybe pre-MS-Dos if there was such a time. See, I told you, I know just enough to be dangerous.


Poor Mr. Frank Podraza, he had to put up with my attitude. He was our football coach, principal, and my algebra teacher.



Frank Podraza in the HHS study hall room

My first memory of him is as a ref in one of our jr. high basketball games when I was 12-years-old. I tried to take out the ball after we had just made a basket. He said nothing and just gave me that you-dummy look. Guess I never held it against him because Mr. Podraza became one of my favorite high school teachers.

During my senior year, he was teaching us programming. Yes, computer programming. We had never even touched a computer, and we were learning programming. Big disconnect.


After a couple days of it, I told him, “I want to throw this thing out the window.” And our school was an old two-story brick building with no grass nearby, so it would have shattered the beast. I went on and on about how much money the school board wasted buying these things, and that I just might let a couple of them know since they went to my church. I saw no value in what the thing could do for me.



Me shaking the hand of LeRoy Gross, one of the board members who also attended my church.

Fast-forward a few months to the fall of my freshman year in college. I returned home and shocked Coach Podraza with these words, "I love computers."

You see, I never knew I could type a paper on the thing and print it out. And I would not have to retype an entire page because I forgot to leave room for my footnotes at the end of my research paper. Another thing, it wrapped the text. No hard carriage return.


Who taught me these wonderful tasks that a computer could do? Dana Davis, that’s who. He was our freshman orientation leader.



the guy who made me love computers

Dana was an upperclassman in charge of about a dozen or so of us on a weekly basis. We learned how to set margins, double-space, save to a floppy, and add that crazy perforated paper to the dot matrix printer. I was amazed at all it could do.

I must not have completely trusted the machine though because I typed all my philosophy papers that year on the electric typewriter my parents had gotten me while I was still in high school.


I loved to type. In fact, I even went to a business competition for it while in high school. Never placed, but I do remember achieving 90 words a minute with no errors one time in class. I credit piano playing for that speed.


Fast-forward a couple decades. I still love the computer and have learned to love the iPad, but not for the same reasons.

This week, teaching colleague Heather Potter and I present on how we use technology in our classrooms. She is talking about Google Classroom and the ShowMe app, and I am explaining how to differentiate assignments with the iPad app called Notability.

Notability, my favorite iPad app

It's my first professional presentation in 26 years of teaching. And if someone would have told me two years ago, when I did not want to go 1:1 with iPads, that I would be presenting at the Kansas State Department of Education's state-wide conference, I would have called you crazy. Click on the link, scroll to Wednesday at 8:30 on page 23, and you'll see it there in print. So cool. Heather and I are so pumped.

Like my mentor, Mr. Podraza, I had to overcome the learning curve. I am sure he was frustrated trying to make us see the relevance in what he was required to teach us, just as I have had to adjust to iPads and other forms of technology throughout the years.

I have matured, but my love-hate relationship with technology continues—only now instead of wanting to throw something out the window, I throw up my hands and say, “I think I’ll go be Amish." 


What are your earliest memories of the personal computer? How about when you learned to type? Did your teacher put fingernail polish on the keys and provide you with powdery paper to erase your errors on your research papers?

Writer's Note: to read about the purchase of my first personal computer, check out the post entitled, Dollars and Sense: A Lesson in Interest of a Different Kind.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Morning Child

An antique secretariat sets inside the front door where I hang my coat. I turn the corner. A teeny tiny television resides near the baby grand whose top holds fancy picture frames of loved ones and her students. Immaculate and dustless.

I close my eyes and I am there. Back in that house. My piano teacher's house.

Mrs. Matson. I never called her by her first name, Ruby, a classy lady full of piano playing talent.

Ruby Matson, photo from The Daily Plainsman, Huron South Dakota

When my mom was in the Huron Nursing Home near the end of her days, so was Mrs. Matson—only she seemed to have a bit of dementia. Such a cruel condition for a sophisticated white-haired woman who spent 68 years teaching piano.

I never knew her husband, for she was already a widow when I entered her life. She had no children of her own, but her piano students seemed to be just that—her children. I became one of them when my first piano teacher, Lillian Horn, moved out of town but had arranged for me take lessons with Mrs. Matson.

And how fortunate I was. Years before, Mom said she had tried to get my older sisters in with Mrs. Matson, but even back then, she was booked. Many times I felt out of my league surrounded by her talented students. I never realized at the time, I was slowly becoming one of them.


a recital program from spring 1982 when I was a sophomore

One was Huong Nguyen, a Vietnamese girl whose lesson was before me, and sometimes her equally talented younger sister, Trang, played after me. I loved to hear Huong play the beginning piece in Grieg's Holberg Suite. So if Mom was early or late in dropping me off or picking me up, I soaked up their incredible playing. Sometimes the schedule would change, and I then admired Heidi Krutzfeldt playing Debussy's The Sunken Cathedral. Heidi and I were duet partners for a couple years when Huron hosted a mass piano-duet concert involving more than a dozen pianos playing at once.


judge's comments about my performance at a contest during my senior year

Mrs. Matson was usually all business with little chit-chat. So I was shocked one Saturday morning after the boys' State B basketball tournament when she told me she had cheered for the Crow Creek Indians the weekend before when they were on television. Mrs. Matsonwatch basketball? I was stunned.

I close my eyes, and even today, I have a hard time imagining her sitting in her fancy curved-leg high-back chair, cheering on Chuck World Turner and his feisty teammates. But she spoke enough of the game that I knew she had watched. This was in 1982 when Webster defeated the crowd favorite, Crow Creek.

Mrs. Matson had a way of doing that to me. Stunning me. Nothing shocked me more than when she placed that Grieg piece in front of me.

I earned a I+ on the piece, Praeludium.

The faith Mrs. Matson had in me to master it lead me to write the poem below in 2008 when I took part in the National Writing Project, a program for teachers to not just assign writing but to teach it.

This poem went through multiple revisions. Originally well-over 100 lines, I was forced to cut, cut, cut by the instructor and the e-anthology critiquers. It pained me, but in the end, I agreed with colleague Steve Maack, the lead instructor for our local project, who said, "Now it is a poem."

One of Ruby’s Jewels
by Melodie Harris

I’m up next. I walk to the piano
   with a half dozen books in my arms.
I see the photographs on the baby grand.
   Faces that sit, like me
   One of Mrs. Ruby Matson’s protégés
   A Saturday morning child, waiting to be taught.

I glance around.
The teacher has changed the knickknacks
   on the always dustless end tables.
The best China adorns
   the dining room table expecting company.
A half-written letter awaits completion
   on the open secretariat.
A mostly blackened score is placed before me.

   Grieg's Holberg Suite.


How about you? Ever been challenged to a task so difficult you could not believe you were being asked to take it on? What happened? How has someone's belief in your abilities shaped who you are?

Writer's Note: read more about the role of music in my life in the blog posts entitled Hootin' ~n~ Tootin' and Mom's Pestering Pays Off.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Hootin' ~n~ Tootin'

I hid in our stairway because my clarinet teacher, Mr. Robert Wiens, showed up at our house one day after school.

No, I did not do anything to get myself in trouble—except turn in my instrument. I quit.

My parents knew it. My piano teacher knew it. But when Mr. Wiens found out, he did not like it. Not one bit. And he drove twelve miles out to our farm to say so.



It wasn't like I didn't have any musical talent, for I could already read music. So how could I make such a decision to quit? I was only in fifth grade. But someone, who shall remain nameless, lead me to believe it was taking time away from my pursuit of piano.

Mr. Wiens, known for producing outstanding marching bands as well as concert performers, respectfully explained to my parents how one instrument would enhance the other.

After Mr. Wiens left and I emerged from my hideout, my parents and I discussed the situation. I decided the lucky rabbit’s foot would go back on the case, and Mom and Dad agreed to purchase the new clarinet for around $150.

A few days later I was at my weekly clarinet lesson with classmate Adele Peterson where Mr. Wiens would sit between us and smoke his cigarette. Yes, the blessed ’70’s. I did not mind, for I knew he cared about me. 

I never did get to march under him though because Mr. Wiens left our school the next year. In fact, for the next seven years, Hitchcock went through three music teachers. Guess he was a tough act to follow.

I played piano much better than I did clarinet, but I enjoyed marching band, pep band, concert band, and particularly our ensembles.

One year at contest, our clarinet quartet experienced a debacle. One of us—probably me, certainly not Debbie Goehring—pulled off the top of the music stand as we prepared to perform. Our music flew all over the floor. We contained our laughter somehow, and I believe we managed a superior.

Whatever happened to the clarinet since it did not go back to the Music Center in Huron ran by the Pepper family? It stayed in the Hofer family. My oldest niece Evelynn used it.

Whatever happened to Mr. Wiens? Ironically, years later he ended up near a family member, my sister Priscilla. He lived in Bridgewater, but I am not sure what he did there. In fact, she gave me some home decor that he made out of wood. Hitchcock people will remember that he was a carpenter of sorts.

Sure would be nice to see Mr. Wiens again. Maybe this post will find him.

Have you ever experienced a teacher like this? One who went out his way for the benefit of your education? If so, share in the comment section below. 

Writer’s Note: for another story about the role of music in my life, read the blog post entitled, Mom’s Pestering Pays Off.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Three-Hour Tour: A Lifetime of Memories


An episode of Gilligan's Island and a bowl of Cheerios with a toasted Cheese Whiz sandwich: my after school entertainment and snack as a child growing up in the '70's.

When my colleague Angie Boone linked me a set of Gilligan's Island facts due to my all-time favorite show turning 50-years old today, I decided to pay homage to the crew America grew to love.

I lived in Cheney three years before I could afford cable television. I was too busy creating lesson plans and coaching high school basketball anyway. So when I could afford it and learned that Gilligan's Island was on TV Land, boy-oh-boy!

My VCR recorded every episode. I found another VCR and dubbed them onto another tape to edit out the commercials. I think my dad still has those VHS tapes.

Suzanne and Jessica, two of my younger nieces who were grade schoolers during my college and early teaching years, enjoyed watching the dubbed shows.

Here are a couple of my favorite lines from the show.

"Movie star, you make glasses steam."

This must be said in dorky, throaty fashion just like the actor did when his pop-bottle-bottom glasses steamed over as Ginger approached him to release her castaway friends. Plot line: a Japanese soldier ends up on the island and believes the war is still underway.

I know, I know. I've re-worded the original quote a bit. It's called creative license.

"Yes, master. I hear and I obey."

This must be said in a choppy, monotone voice to imitate how the castaways said it because a mad scientist and his monkey hypnotized them with a magical ring.

Plot line: the man is training the group to rob Fort Knox. This episode, and a number of other ones around this time, show Gilligan driving, I mean peddling, a car. What little kid did not want a car like Gilligan's?

In another episode, this same fella with the monkey experiments with teleportation, but he is only successful with the voice. The man's beefy sidekick ends up with Ginger's voice and Ginger speaks with a manly voice.

"Like a harp needs a string!"

This must be sung half-opera-half-spoken style like Mrs. Howell. She, along with Ginger and Mary Ann, dubbed themselves the Honeybees to impress the Monkeys, a singing group who purposely stranded themselves on the island to get way and practice their music.

"Neither a borrower, nor a lender be. Do not forget, stay out of debt."

Again, sung with gusto just like Skipper and Mary Ann in the group's rendition of a scene from Hamlet. Probably the reason I became an English major.

How do I remember all these great moments? Because it truly is my all-time favorite show. It contains all the elements of a well-developed plot. The worst they ever said on the show was son-of-a-gun. And any sexual innuendo was just that, innuendo, nothing inappropriate. The show was clean fun, and I will always defend it.

My favorite episode: The Radioactive Vegetables.

And when my husband wanted to cheer me up a number of years ago when I had to put my precious Lexy doggy down right before Christmas, he insisted that I open up a present early. Guess what it was? A boxed set of Gilligan's Island DVD's. 

If I have just conjured up some of your favorite Gilligan's Island memories, please share in the comment section below.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mom's Pestering Pays Off

Mom never asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. She just told me I was doing it. I grew up with musical sisters, so this was no surprise.

Practicing the piano was a daily event for me--usually after supper. I play it about every day now too as an adult. It brings stability to my psyche.

I started piano lessons in 3rd grade, the year I got eye glasses.

When I first started lessons, Mom would sit in the black swivel chair in the corner of the dining room quizzing me on the musical notes and symbols with flashcards. As I practiced, I would hear her flipping through her favorite reading materials: Good Housekeeping and The National Enquirer. She hid The Enquirer and other Hollywood gossipy magazines in the China closet.

Mom with me in front of the black chair she sat in when I practiced piano.

If I went on to a different piece too soon, I would hear, “That was not five times hands apart. Do it all again.” And I did. Probably with a roll of my eyes.

And if Mom was not in the house due to plowing up some field for Dad, my practice time was pretty short. Then the next week I would be explaining to Mom why I did not pass it at my lesson.

Oh, to be a little girl again with Mom around in her silent pride of watching me develop into something she was never given the chance to become. Mom could play a couple pieces by ear, but she could not read music, so it was important that her daughters knew how. I do not know if she had the same expectations of my brother, 20 years my senior.

Clarinet lessons at school started in 5th grade. I think I am a 6th grader in this picture.

As I grew older, my practice time increased. I had graduated from the Dozen A Day warm-up books to Hanon, a rigorous set of exercises. When I play them today, my young-girl frustration returns. My fourth fingers are still weak--especially the left one.

But Hanon enabled me to play tougher pieces. My teachers, for I only had two throughout the nine years I took lessons, were both meticulous. Maybe that is why people today call me picky.

my first piano teacher, Lillian Horn

Through their prodding, I seemed to become an accomplished pianist who earned superiors. No lower than a superior-minus one year, and on two different occasions, I earned a superior-plus. But I still do not think I am that good. I just practiced a lot.

I cannot sight read. I cannot play hymns. I cannot accompany a singer or a musician. I play only classical.

Yes, I play the scores whose pages are often blackened with more than an octave stretch, pass overs and unders, trills, and change of key. But really, I am not that good. It took me forever to learn a piece--but I did learn it.

I auditioned and earned the privilege of playing in front of my largest crowd ever: 1983 Girls' State in Mitchell, South Dakota on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University. More about representing my high school there in future posts.

Here is the note telling my Girls' State counselor I got the nod to play.

The type of persistence piano playing teaches is like none other. See, for those who know my rat terrier nature, I blame it all on the piano. One has to be tenacious to learn Holberg Suite by Grieg. It took me two years.

Even with success, Mom would still say, “You sure didn’t practice very long. Go do it some more.” The older I got, the more audible complaining she heard. But Mom never really argued back. She was good at ignoring my whining and griping.

Then my senior year came, and she did argue back. “You’ve only got one more year. Next year, you’ll be at college." I was not even thinking of the senior recital I had earned.

Ruby Matson, my piano teacher ~ Heidi Krutzfeldt & Lisa Brisco with me at our senior recital

So, I kept on a-playing. Kept on a-whinin' too. Only now I also complained about playing the prelude at church, playing the offertory at church, playing the postlude at church, and griped that Arlene Decker and Barbara Gross, our regular pianists, wanted me to do her job.

This self-centered teenager did not understand that those women were actually complimenting me when they allowed me to play instead of them. And Mom just kept on saying, "You're not gonna quit."

I am so glad she did not let me.

And today when I can still sit down and play, rusty--really rusty, I can almost hear Mom holler from another room like she did when I was a teenager, “That sounds just beautiful, honey. Play it again.”

Thank you, Mom. It seems you and Dad gave me a name that suits.

me on my sister Brenda's lap--eyes on the keys of the piano that I first learned on

Did your parents ever make you do something you grew tired of? How do you feel about it now? Share how it has shaped who you are today by commenting below.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Down in the Dip

My front LexiconGirl license plate is a little crooked due to a minor mishap in 2009 at Jerry and Elaine Gerber's in Garden Plain where I get my hair cut.

My step-daughter Brittany was with me, and she got out to take a look at what I had done. Silly me, thinking we were just stuck in a deep a pot hole, told her to lift up that end of the car. She kept telling me there was no way she could do that. I did not understand because the car seemed to be tipped only a little bit. It felt hung-up on something. When I got out, below is a picture of what I saw. 

The Alero Taking a Dip

I had backed up, turned too soon, and ended up with my front passenger side end down by the culvert. It seems I am not the only one to have done this, for Elaine knew who to call right away. Dan Stroud, local tow truck fella, lifted me out.

The Gerbers have since put up a cement guard on both sides of their driveway, but for months afterwards, I parked on the road. And I still have Dan's number in my cell phone--just in case.

Do you have any silly car mishaps? Or places you avoid because you do not trust yourself behind the wheel? Share them in the comment section below. It would reassure me to know I am not the only dumbo-driver out there.