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We've Been Married 18 Years

If that doesn't make one feel old, well...

Here are two of our engagement photos. Dang we were cute. At ISU in 1996.

I promise I'm not pinching his nipple. 

Here we are on our wedding day in 1996 with two of my adorable cousins. (It tears me up to look at this. Both girls look like their fathers. I adored their fathers, both of whom died young.)

We wore boots to the wedding. Because we're awesome.

Here we are about a year later. We're still adorable 1997.

And, here we are at year five, in 2001. Poor baby Benjamin was sobbing just before the picture--look at his puffy face and red eyes. 

I honesty can't remember if we took photos at years 10 and 15. Sometimes we forget to do simple things like that.

An Open Letter: The Red Thread

An open letter to visionary and master teacher, Thomas Determan:

It was with great pleasure that I learned about (and contributed to) the Global Perspectives Endowment. Way cool!

And, it was with ridiculous sadness that I learned how soon you’ll blow this figurative popsicle stand. Dude, what a serious bummer!

(I’m sure you’re getting lots of sad-ass emails and cards about now, so I’ll skip that whole part. Hopefully, you know how well-loved you are. I wished I lived closer, too, as Thomfest looked like a blast.)

I’ve been meaning to write a letter like this for years, and the creation of the Global Perspectives Endowment has given me such incentive.

I was one of those many students whose global vision changed on entering your classroom. The first day of 9th grade (1988)—when I entered 10th grade social studies with Sarah K. and a few others (and we had you all to ourselves for one whole class)—well that day and the rest leading up to February (when you deserted us for administration—no wonder I have abandonment issues!) were transformative. Please do not underestimate my meaning:  Thomas Determan’s class was life changing for me in all the best ways.

Before walking into that class, which an older friend, Zachary Wilson, had insisted I absolutely must take as a freshman, I was just a working class Iowa girl from a working class Iowa family who thought she might one day teach at a preschool, or something. I didn’t think I was smart. I didn’t aspire to anything. I figured I’d give college a try, and I would likely get married and have kids. That’s it. It wasn’t a terrible plan, but there wasn’t much visions in it. My world was what I saw around me in Dubuque, and that world was neither hopeful nor inclusive. It certainly wasn’t global.

And then came my first assignment in your class. Each student was orally given a unique research task. All you said to me was:  Steve Biko. Research and report back to the class.

This task was over my head in so many ways. I lacked the skills and the general knowledge I needed to even attack the problem: I didn’t know about apartheid; I didn’t know about the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature; I’d not yet been to the school library; I’d never had an open-ended prompt like that before, one where I was expected to create my own parameters as I went; and, I’d never been held accountable to the entire class to report what I knew, as if what I knew about a topic was in some way meaningful.

I shared some of this with you and you directed me to the library and to the Reader’s Guide, and I managed on my own from there.

That day alone might have been enough to change the course of my future, but fortunately I had many more of those days with you. I got to know you better through various clubs—Model UN and the global realities trip to Taos—and I valued that time. I was lucky to get a seat next to you at dinner in Cedar Falls at my first Model UN conference. (It was my first time eating Chinese food and you encouraged me to try the chopsticks.) I felt proud every time you asked me what I thought about something, as if what I had to think and say about a subject mattered.

These are big, life changing things, Chinese food and mattering. Please know, that for me and thousands of my Hempstead peers over the years, you were vision altering in all the best ways, including chopsticks.

A few years ago I joined Facebook and reconnected with many Hempsteaders I hadn’t heard from since graduation. One of the things that surprised me was how many of us not only earned advanced degrees, but how many of us teach. I don’t think this is a fluke; it speaks directly to the quality of education we received at Hempstead and the quality of the teachers we encountered throughout  Dubuque. It’s a hot spot for good teachers, for sure.

I do not believe all teachers need to be extraordinary or that there is really any measure for that. We put too much onus for the deficits in our education system on the backs of hardworking teachers, who are mostly in survival mode, and this needs to stop. All the problems of general society are in the classroom too, and teachers have so much to do it’s nearly impossible to succeed at teaching subject matter and mentoring informed young people, and yet they do. Everyday.

Extraordinary teachers change lives. Everyday. I am blessed beyond reason that as a student I’ve had more extraordinary teachers than I can name, and I’ve taken this for granted for way too long.

What has become clear to me as a teacher is that many of my students don’t share this blessing, and that lack matters. Some of them can’t name a single extraordinary teacher in their past. Some can name one. This is sad to me for many reasons, but mostly because we all deserve someone in our lives to think our ideas matter and to introduce us to Chinese food and to challenge our visions of reality.

I teach developmental and college-transfer level English in California’s enormous community college system. My students are diverse, yes, and just as diverse from each other as they are similar. Some are recent immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Some are rural. Some are urban and suburban. Most are poor or working class. Many are technologically poor in that their only access to a computer is their phone. Nearly all are working one or more jobs, and have, at times, significant family responsibilities. There are obstacles in their way to getting an education left and right. Their physical, emotional, and learning abilities and disabilities are too numerous to discuss. Many enter the community college system after drug rehab, or a work injury, or a layoff, or time in the military. Community colleges are microcosms of society in ways other colleges are not; we’ve got it all.

Although there are a handful of students using the community college system as an affordable path to the university, many more of my students are meandering without a vision through a rigged system. These students won’t graduate. They won’t advance in their programs. They will get stuck in the cogs of the machine, repeating remedial English and Math until their enthusiasm for more and better is beaten out of them by the gates the academy keeps. Certainly these students are underprepared to succeed in college in all kinds of ways that have been discussed ad nauseam by teachers and administrators and legislators. They are many and varied, but notably a recurring theme I see among these students is there is not a list of extraordinary teachers in their past. Teachers are the fabric of schools, and what teachers can do that an institution cannot is expand a students’ vision of the world. We must foster a culture that supports and encourages teachers to care about and engage with their students. There is no other way to improve education.

Of course that isn’t what most schools are doing on most days. At least not where I live. And it’s a shame.

I have been lucky to have so many excellent teachers as mentors, and I am always growing and learning my trade anew. I spend a lot of time discussing life skills and cultural values with students—much more time than we actually spend on essays and paragraph construction (which, let’s face it, is dull stuff). Of course, they need to construct a strong essay to do well in school, but they also need to write about something, and that something is the stuff of their lives and their cultures—these are the best starting places for fledging academics. These topics offer us a relevant context for thinking and writing. Students do not go to school in a void, and should not write and learn in one either. We teach and learn in a world rife with conflict and despair and generosity and heartbreak—and this matters. These stories of despair and hope and reality matter to all of us. I see part of my job as validating my students version of reality enough to suggest other possible realities, about shifting their visions of possible futures.

Learning always should be grounded in the real and the possible. Ultimately, this is a kind of visionary shift we need—learning without context is just a bunch of words, and a bunch of words isn’t gonna change the direction of this moving train.

My students are finishing up their semester this week. They’ve been giving presentations of their final projects and turning in their reflective self-evaluations. It’s my favorite time of the semester because I can bear witness to the fruits of our collective labors. And this is true:  for most, my teaching has mattered. For most, their experience in my classroom has mattered to who they are as people as much as it’s mattered to their subject matter acquisition. I have read their words, and responded to their ideas, and have cared about their work in ways some of them are just now experiencing for the first time. I’ve asked them to think about their futures in new ways. All of this matters. I need to keep reminding myself of this.

That red thread connecting all of their work this semester leads through me and back to you.

You are in my heart.

Cherri Donath Porter

First Kiss Blog Hop: Spring Cleaning

If you're here, reading this post, you likely already know it's part of the First Kiss Blog Hop. If you want to read the other stories in the Hop--and they are all so worth the read--check out the full schedule at Audra North's website.

You are about to read my very first short story ever *crosses fingers.*

Spring Cleaning

"Ava, dear. Over here." 


The first rule of this reality T.V. set is: look busy when Her Lady of the Immaculate Clacking Clipboard comes a calling, or she’ll find a less-than-desirable task for you. Testing the dozens of broken bathroom scales I uncovered yesterday, one-by-one, instead of tossing them, clearly isn’t busy enough for her.

The second rule, which I heard the crew joking about is: it’s not a wrap until someone falls in love or gets their heart broken.

My school brain thinks this is gossip spread by someone who should find something more productive to do than testing her weight on broken scales.

Lizard brain—my brains almost never agree—has her money on the busty sorority girl working off community service hours for crimes unstated, who has been flirting with the PA since orientation. Heartbreak is in her future. For sure.

I sidle around the growing pyramid of ancient Keds and cross trainers—who keeps worn through shoes, anyway?—to reach Her Lady, wondering what torture awaits me.

Then I see him, behind her, half shaded under the admin tent: Thor, or some version of a Greek God.

Nitwit, school brain chides. Thor is Norse, which you’d know if you hadn’t napped through Mythologies of the World last year.  Lizard brain’s only input is Thor pretty. I’m with her on this one.

Nodding from Thor to me as introduction, Her lady says, "Conner just signed on—show him the ropes,” and then she disappears back into the tent.

I shove my hand at him like a groupie demanding an autograph. School brain is disgusted by my eagerness, but his hand takes mine before mine reaches his, so the eager is mutual. I think. I hope.

“Hey,” I say. “Welcome.”

Welcome? That’s all you got? Try again.

I tug his hand to make his head bend toward me, and scan the lot, overrun with 47 years of hoarded something-or-others, pulling his eyes with me. In my best fake TV announcer voice I say: “This week, on ‘Our Parents Were Hoarders,’ underpaid spring break cast offs shovel shit into a dumpster. People grow. Cry. Everyone’s inspired. Stay tuned.”

Framing his answering smile are gleeful divots. A girl could get lost in one or the other of those.

"So, we’re the shit shovelers, I take it." His sunny syllables loosens the stays of my balance. Holding his hand becomes necessary.

School brain is sure he smiles like that for all the girls, but my internal hearing has gone as soft as my center of gravity. I’m not quite listening.

When we unlock hands, I step back take in the rest of him. The blunt, grunge ends of his dark blond hair brush a smooth jaw. His eyes are kind and open. He’s taller than me, but not so tall I strain my neck to see him. Closer inspection reveals this boy is no Thor.

All Thor has is that dumb hammer. Conner’s superpower, school chimes in, is navigating the vestibular labyrinth. Lizard brain simplifies this to messing with physics.

Conner, my two brains, and my slightly wobbly self spend the rest of morning hauling shit to the dumpster. Broken toys older than both of us combined. Every copy ever of Reader’s Digest. Twisted blinds. Mildewed sofa cushions, sans sofa. The pièce de résistance in this morbid museum of detritus: thousands of empty bread bags Russian-dolled into seventeen trash bags and legions of ants calling them home.

When we clear all that away, there are four decades of flattened boxes stacked floor to ceiling, kinda like the walls of the Grand Canyon, if the Grand Canyon smelled a bit like the alley behind the post office.

“It’d be quicker to burn the joint down,” he says.

“Her Lady of the Immaculate Clacking Clipboard says lighter fluid isn’t in the budget. I asked.”

His laughter is orange poppies.

“Is that what everyone calls her?”

“Just me. But she is kind of imperious with the clacking.”

I walk along the boxes to see around it, but it’s a solid sedimentary wall of cardboard, chipboard, and dust. For a hoarder, this guy was pretty orderly, but it still left the question: for what?

“Ava dear,” Conner mocks Her Lady’s chirp, “why on earth are you frowning?”

I am frowning. I’ve fallen into the dumpster of my own brains again, which is a frowny place.

“Isn’t it dreary? How a whole life adds up to no more than a few dumpsters full of crap no one wants, but this widower can’t seem to part with.”

“It’s kind of cool though,” he offers, closing the distance between us. Closer is nicer. “This is only the stuff of someone’s life. We get to help take the life out of the stuff or something, and give the good parts back to the guy who lives here.”

School brain knows an optimist when she hears one. But she’s got a soft spot for rosy thinkers, and I can’t say I blame her.

We get back to work. He lifts the boxes off the top of a stack, and setting them on the floor, makes a second stack I can reach. As I watch, gravity wobbles again. School brain notes, with uncharacteristic longing, the full curve of his brachioradalis muscles when he reaches above his head. 

Good griddle—Lizard brain sounds like an old-timey hair dresser when she’s worked up—School, this isn’t an anatomy quiz. Can’t you just admire the boy’s arms. Or put your smarts to use and fanaticize how a sudden spring storm might send rivels of rain down them

Rivulets, school corrects.

You’re always killing the moment. Now, imagine licking the crease of the curve, all the way from wrist to elbow, twisting it round to taste the flex, swallowing those rivels of rain...

I sure hope rain is in the forecast.

* * *

“Was this job in your spring break plans?” I ask Conner during a disappointingly clear-skied lunch.

“I went up to Yosemite with buddies. I thought we’d hike and climb. Adventure stuff.”

“But no adventure?”

“They started drinking the minute we got there. I did a few short hikes, but I’m not stupid enough to climb alone. Or with drunks.”

“This is kind of an adventure. Think of it as an olfactory safari of the suburbs.”

“Yeah, not quite the same.”

Through the afternoon, though, Conner conjures a different sort of adventure. If this one-hundred-dollar-a-day job is my sack lunch, it’s his buffet. Shortly he knows the names of all the fulltime crew, and the majors and hometowns of the college kids. He tugs the matted tangle of my life and pulls clean my story like yarn on a map, moving town-to-town with my migrant farm family, through my school years, and on to my favorite professors and whether or not I underline or highlight in my textbooks.

My brains and I are in agreement about his company.

“So, is this what you’d planned to do for spring break?” he asks.

“I work every break. The university is a stickler about getting paid, so money. Even though we’re filthy and that crate of skunky Louis L’Amour’s will off-gas from our pores well into finals week, this isn’t my worst spring break job ever, if you can believe it.”


“Last year I deep-cleaned the dorm cafeteria for a month’s free board. Considering I mostly lost my appetite for dorm food after that, they got a deal. But that was still better than the year before.”


“Yeah. I went scrap metal junkin’ with my uncle Luis.”

“I have no idea what that is.”

“You go round to businesses and farms and pay to take away their old junk metal. But you can’t sell the metal until you remove all the plastic and whatnot, so you burn it off and breathe in the fumes and think you’re going to die. For days.”

“Sounds super fun.”

“I might have committed felonies. Luis gave me 200 bucks and told me to keep my mouth shut.”

“Luis sounds like a winner.”

“Yeah, but he can bullshit the bark off a tree. Don’t let him corner you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for when I meet him,” he says. Like maybe he means to.

* * *

As we work deeper into the garage, school wants to learn the lesson here. Lizard’s policy is: keep only what you can carry. Such was my childhood. I still own only as much as I can haul on my bike in a few trips. (I don’t tell either brain that I sometimes fantasize about a wardrobe of shimmery pajamas, a closet full of knee high leather boots, and palates of coffee table books. It would just start a fight and we’re all getting along so nicely today.)

When Her Lady of the Clacking Clipboard reappears, she warns us of the impending camera. “Perk up and smile pretty” is her command, before conferring with the lighting guys.

“Too bad I don’t smile pretty,” I grumble to myself as soon as she’s gone.

But then Conner’s behind me, and he tugs me into him so I am flat to his chest and holds me there with a broad hand on my stomach. I’ve been sweating since morning, but my skin erupts into a parade of goose bumps at the insistence of his touch.

The shifty gravity is back. If he lets go I might perk right down into a lump on the floor.

He’s not letting go. His words “you do too smile pretty,” brush wisps of my hair over my ears and neck.

School barely restrains my urge to rub back against him like a cat might a door jamb.

Lizard is breathing too shallow and quick for words.

Then he takes my opposite hand and twists me until I am facing him. His other hand steadies me at the waist. His curious, earnest face closes in, becoming my whole view.

My brains are useless to this vista.

His thumb teases my jaw line, earlobe to chin. “You’re smiling now.”

I am not, actually, smiling.

But by the time I think the thought, I am, actually, smiling. I smile because he sees me smiling.

Then I kiss him.

Because I see myself kissing him.

For a while, it’s light lips on light lips.

Then it’s not so light lips and urgent bodies and no space between them.

When a voice yells, “roll camera,” my arms are around his neck, my hands in his hair, demanding his face be in my face.

Our kiss tastes like our work day and of spring to come.

And it is not enough.

I get an inkling of it now, this hoarding.

I want to hoard all the seasons of these kisses, and the kisses still to come. To gather them at our lips. To lick the pans of the feast clean. To eat the crumbs from the floor. To collect them all and hoard them in my cells for always.

P.S. Here is how I imagine Ava and Conner.

Original fiction. Copyright © 2014 Cherri Porter. Please do not reprint without permission.

Oh Harken Young Maidens

A few weeks ago I posted some American Sentences I wrote a couple of years ago, most of which are related to the processes of aging.

               New plan: pluck my sinewy goat hairs for saving in specimen jars.

I read a few to my students during our poetry unit--who knows why I do the things I do?--and mostly got odd looks in response.

The next day I got a delightful email from a student in that class who, inspired by the goat hair sentence, wrote a poem. A whole poem. I LOVE it, and she gave me permission to publish it here.

The Goat
Gayle Love

Hello old foe
I see that you’re back.
That again you’ve survived
The tweezing attack.

Coward you are
In the war that you wage.
Your only assault
Is upon women of age.

Once you were black
But now wiry grey,
From the moment we met
I have since rued that day

Oh harken young maidens
For my word it is true.
There is no escape
The goat’s coming for you.


"Googled You in Quotes / Got No Results"

Favorite Mix Tapes from my Stash

I made a playlist! *pats self on back* It's such a simple pleasure, the playlist, and I've just been reminded that it's so much more fun to make a playlist for someone else than it is to do it for one's self. Now that I'm old and not courting and everything is digital, it's a rare pleasure to sit down and choose music for someone you love.

This one is for the lovely Shari Slade, purveyor of gooey angst, pusher of naughty gifs, and ducky word-smith. (I have no idea what ducky word-smith means; it just sounds right.) It's named after one of the most haunting lines on Pete Yorn's album Back & Forth.

Googled You in Quotes / Got No Results

  1. 2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten, Lucinda Williams
  2. My First Lover, Gillian Welch
  3. Broken Things, Lucy Kaplansky (Cover of Julie Miller)
  4. Blossom, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
  5. Kiss Catastrophe, The Nadas (cover The Damnwells)
  6. Social Development Dance, Pete Yorn
  7. Jealous Girl, Ben Kweller
  8. Down On The River By The Sugar Plant, Mike Doughty
  9. Magick, Ryan Adams
  10. Lonely Boy, The Black Keys (The video is awesome!)
  11. Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings, Lucinda Williams
  12. Down Home Girl, Old Crow Medicine Show
  13. Wolf Like Me, Lera Lynn
  14. Don't Mind Me, Lucy Kaplansky
  15. Are You Happy Now? Richard Shindell
  16. Hard Out Here, Garrett Hedlund

Stocking Stuffers & Gifts for Tween Boys

In My Etsy Store

This lists has been months in the making. Right before Christmas, I was struggling to find stocking stuffers and small gifts appropriate for my twelve year-old son, who is both all-boy and a bit geeky. I did not want to buy him any more video games nor junk that would end up in the closet in a matter of days, so I scoured the internet and quizzed my mom friends for gift ideas for tween boys. There are not many ideas out there, and much of what is there is lame. So, I made my own list and it grew and grew.

This list is the result of hours of brainstorming. I've included hyper-links to unusual items. Most of the gifts on this list are inexpensive ($1-$15 price points), although there are a couple of items that fall above $30.

The list includes ideas for tween boys that would work for stocking stuffers, easter baskets, birthday parties, party favors, and Christmas and birthday gifts.

I've divided the list into somewhat arbitrary categories, but the categories do let you in a bit on my thinking process. There are more than 125 distinct items listed, and I bet you haven't thought of most of them. There are a few old standards here as well.

This list is now free. Click here for the free download.
Gift list appropriate for boys ages 9-14. 
Stocking stuffers. Easter Baskets. Birthday Gifts. Party Favors. Christmas Gifts.