Count to ten.
Think before replying.
That old chestnut is actually fairly hard to apply in a classroom environment–where everyone’s eyes look expectantly at the teacher, where the teacher is supposed to be the font of information, where the energy is alive, where the teacher needs to carry the momentum with snappy decision-making. Particularly with today’s students, whose internal rhythms are accustomed to quick edits, it’s important to keep things moving.
Put simply, it’s a challenge to stop and count to ten when 30 Red-Bull-infused bodies are anxious to zip their backpacks and get out the door so they can check their phones and quell their jonesing for the next data hit.
While this thrumming feeling exists in the traditional classroom, it factors into online classrooms, too. To keep students from peeling off the sides of the pack and wandering off into the proverbial desert, the teacher needs to push ahead with an agenda of “Here’s what we need to do. Here’s how we’re going to achieve it. Any questions? Okay, then: let’s get on it!”
It might help to translate this feeling of “gitterdun already” into something more familiar. Consider this: have you ever visited a blog, taken a look at the length of the current post, and thought, “Too long.” When you see all those words asking you to slow down, take your time, put the brakes on your clicking around, you either skim or abandon. For most online readers, the feeling is “I’m here to say hi, maybe pop a quick note, and then I’m cruising to the next thing. Mostly, I was just hoping to see some pretty pictures of flowers and then tear the hell out of here.”
If you feel this way as a blog reader, imagine how an eighteen-year-old feels about his college class when he’s already running late for his shift at Target. The swirl of age, school, work, and a faulty transmission keeps him in a mental mode of Movin’ On.
As a teacher to students who are always Movin’ On, blipping in and out of their classes, their attention fractured by the demands of jobs, X-box, children, romance…
it behooves me to grab their energy and channel it. Thus, my general attitude as a teacher is:
1) the work is important, so do it well and right;
2) the work has a deadline, which you must meet;
3) as soon as one assignment is done, the next begins immediately;
4) let me know when you need to scream;
4) let’s join hands and gitterdun, my frantic chums. We can do this thing and come out the better for it.
Because the best way to get 150 or 175 students from Day One all the way through to Final Exam is constant motivation–pushing through to the next assignment (promise: reflection still happens!)–
and because grading and handling questions from that many students require that the teacher not take overlong in replying, I am Quick Reply McGraw when it comes to responding to their messages. Question? Excuse? Meandering tale of fear on an elevator? Photograph of a new bike? Clarification needed? Emotional breakdown?
I read it, view it, digest it–all in the space of a few seconds–and then I hit reply.
Of course, while many of my replies simply need to say “Look at the example on p. 214 in your textbook” or “You should have thought of that last week” or “Try closing your eyes and breathing deeply” or “Those tires look like they can plow right through the Spring mud” or “I’m sorry I wasn’t clear; I was trying to say that your introduction needs a better hook–perhaps a story from your own life” or “We have free personal counselors available on campus; would you like me to help you connect with one of them?”,
other times I do need to slow down
the first thing
The response to some questions shouldn’t be efficient. The response to some questions should be typed only after I
Count to ten.
Think before replying.
This is the spot where an example might be helpful, yes?
Last night, I got a very sweet email from an online student in an eight-week class (we do sixteen weeks’ work in eight weeks, so the deadlines hit at double pace, and there is very little wiggle room). As is the case with a surprising number of online students, she is pregnant. As is the case with a surprising number of online students, she has been intending to give birth during the semester and not miss a beat. By and large, these amazing new mothers manage to handle both chapped nipples and revising their thesis statements.
In case I haven’t typed it lately: ALL POWER TO HELLA AWESOME WOMEN WHO MANAGE TO STAY UPRIGHT IN SITUATIONS WHERE I CURLED UP INTO A LITTLE BALL!
This student began her message apologetically, saying she had been debating even contacting me, but ultimately, she decided I should know her C-section scheduled for next week had suddenly, due to pregnancy difficulties, been switched to today.
As in: she was emailing me a few hours before she would head to the hospital for major surgery that would forever after change her life. As in: as I type this, she’s probably coming out of the recovery room. As in: I’m very glad she let me know
so I can send a bouquet of 75 rattle-shaped balloons to her room at the hospital! The point of her email was this: she had started the rough draft of her research paper but hadn’t gotten very far yet. She had to go in for this early C-section on Wednesday. She knew the rough draft was due by noon on Thursday. She wanted to assure me that she was still certain she could get her paper done on Wednesday, after the surgery, and even if her draft truly was rough, rough, rough, she would get something posted by noon on Thursday.
After reading her message, I quickly hit reply and started typing.
As the first words flowed out of my fingertips, I stopped. Started typing again. Stopped. Made myself really stop. Count to ten.
What my Quick Reply McGraw hands had been typing was a joking, “Oh, honey, there’s no way you’re writing the rough draft of a research paper on the day you had a C-section. NO WAY. Not only are you going to be in pain and a fair bit overwhelmed by this unrelenting new world you’ve just entered, you’re going to have a bunch of visitors, and you’re going to be on a morphine drip, and you’re going to have to clasp a pillow over your stomach at the merest hint of a sneeze. Oh, and then there’s that little thing called Your New Baby, and I don’t know if you’re planning on breastfee…”
Just STOP, McGraw.
What we had here, in this student’s message, was not only a lovely, almost-plaintive moment of “I’m a little scared, but you can count on me” from this young woman, a moment of sharing, a moment when she harnessed her voice and announced that she had big things coming,
we also had a teachable moment for the teacher.
This message didn’t need a quick, all-knowing reply. This message deserved a more measured response, one that acknowledged her excellent intentions rather than rolling out an overbearing “Well, I’ve been there, sweetheart, and let me tell you…” tone.
Turns out, ten seconds of silence is just long enough to tame a blowhard.
I took my hands off the keyboard, thought about what kinds of words might serve her best. Simple. Positive. Affirming her plan. Leaving the door open for commiseration. Not trying to own or direct her experience. Tossing in a dash of the cheerleader to counter her nerves.
And then, only after actually thinking about her as a person on the precipice of Hugeness,
did I type.
“Wow. Not only am I sending all good thoughts your way, I’m stunned that you’re determined to turn in the paper by noon on Thursday. I mean it: WOW. I’ve had a C-section, and I was good for nothing for quite some time after (long, complicated story, though–and yours will be quick and easy, I’m sure).
Of course, to be deeply honest, I have to admit I can’t see her getting that rough draft written (what, she’s going to access the library databases and find peer-reviewed journal articles in between pushing the button on her morphine drip and attempting to put her feet onto the cold tile floor and stand up for the first time?).
However. I can tell you this. If she does post a draft by noon on Thursday,
no matter how crappy it is,
I will have nothing but respect for its every unfocused paragraph and uncited statistic. I will slow down, note the missing apostrophes, wish for a proper header,
and write careful feedback worthy of her effort.
When I was pregnant the second time, I harbored a fear.
I was a fair bit afraid that the baby inside me would be
See, I’d spent the previous couple of years hanging out with a sweet, calm, kind little girl. I liked the little girl. When I’d take her places, like to the library, we’d sit together in shock and awe, staring at the little boys as they hung from the stacks, fought over toys, belted each other with hardcover pop-up books, jumped off the couches, spun the paperback racks as though they’d melt into butter, if only enough G-force was achieved.
Cowed by this behavior, I could only murmur to the chromosomes inside my body, “Please, no Y. Please, no Y. Two XXs? Good. Y? No. Please. I’m not ready to have my refrigerator whacked with a stick.”
Certainly, a good part of this thinking came from the spinning whirl that is Pregnancy Brain, that hormone-infused entity that darts toward the sunniest of days before plummeting into the darkest of gloom as it explores every possible permutation of the future.
However, history supports the assertion that if a stick thwacks, a punch connects, a war decimates,
a bomb detonates,
the force behind that violent action will almost invariably be male.
Listen, Chuck: I don’t make the news, just report it.
Biology + power + opportunity = men are behind most of the violence.
In the off chance any of you are starting to splutter defensively, let me stress that if there is saliva popping out of your mouth, you’re reading me wrong. I’m not about condemnation here–more about noting the facts.
And if it helps you feel less defensive, I’m completely happy to acknowledge that women excel at relational aggression, poison, methodical dismantling over time. We simply have a different skill set. When women put their minds to nastiness, their subtle, wearing, diminishing cruelty completely creams an honest sword-swipe to the neck.
All better now?
So I was pregnant, and although I wasn’t actively or constantly worrying about gender (good health being the main priority), I did harbor a little niggling concern that a boy could hurt our hardwood.
Bless the Universe for showing me the error of my concern. She grew inside of me the fluffiest, most cuddly little hugger ever to sport low-hanging genitals. The boy who came out of me has spent the first ten years of his life requesting “softie clothes,” wanting to cradle egg yolks in his palms, cooing over ducklings, asking his parents if they’d like one of his self-patented massages, whispering to me when we spot a toddler, “Did you see her pudgy little arms?” And when we go to the public library, he sits with the rest of us, staring in shock and awe, stunned by the rambunctious hijinks of his boy-sterous peers.
He is clearly his father’s son, for Byron has noted on many occasions, “I don’t really like men. They make me uncomfortable. When they try to chat with me, I never know what they’re talking about.”
Indeed, the males in my house–one of whom is deeply engaged in learning to cultivate kefir grains and doesn’t know how many points are in a touchdown (sighing deeply, I keep telling him, “HELLO: it’s eleven, Goofy”), the other of whom is deeply engaged in melting beeswax so as to craft mini figurines and has never even heard the word touchdown–
are completely free of violent inclinations.
Thus, my fear of having a boy was groundless. My son is the most soft-hearted and tender member of our troupe.
Of course, had he been born into a different time, a different country, a different culture, a different family, a different religion, a different life,
his natural sweetness, the same natural sweetness that exists inside nearly every human at birth, no matter the gender,
could have become corrupted by circumstance.
Through the sheer random luck of being born a white, middle-class American; of being born into an educated family that values peace, love, and understanding; of being born into a conflict-free region,
my son’s most radicalized life moments may revolve around demanding better sushi.
Around the world, every day, there is violence within homes, violence with guns, violent beatings, violent explosions that kill innocents. Occasionally–exponentially less often than in most other countries–the United States feels the impact of this male-driven violence up close, firsthand. When we do, we sit on our couches, stunned, shocked, awed, devastated.
While we mourn the loss of life, the loss of security, the loss of feeling untouchable, we should, similarly, mourn for those mothers and fathers everywhere whose softie sons’ shining sweetnesses,
when scoured by prickly reality,
lost their sheen.
In their boys, as exists in mine, there once was limitless potential–for compassion, kindness, caring. Woefully often, however, their sons’ softness was replaced by hardness and hatred.
And I am achingly sorry about that.
I feel for mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. I feel for us all.
When violence erupts, it is a reminder to me that I must continue to foster the gentleness that defines my son. I must provide him with a life and environment that are aimed at recognizing others’ humanity; I must teach him mercy and forgiveness; I must help my son be a reminder to the world that another type of male exists.
For every punch that breaks a jaw, tackle that snaps a femur, bullet that pierces a forehead, bomb that obliterates someone’s legs,
there are are millions of tender, loving, gentle boys who provide comfort and solace,
their softness countering the callousness of a world that is unbearably hard.
I recently had an email exchange with a college friend who reads this blog. The exchange started when she messaged to josh me, semi-accusingly, about the point in my previous post where I mentioned road tripping to The Alamo in Texas–yet I had not called or visited her (she lives in Austin, TX), and how dare I not have contacted her if I’d been in her area???
In quick order, I was able to remind her that I had visited her during that swoop around the country, pointing out that I’d stayed with her in Austin for a few days, giving her some details about her main hobby at the time (martial arts), the music we’d gone to see (Martin Zellar), and her address (a 1/2 street number, as in 507 1/2 South Elm Street).
Oops, she replied. It seems this isn’t the first, nor will it likely be the last, time her memory has failed her. She rather worries that there might be a problem, in fact, as she’s spaced out other events and interactions of fair significance, such as when she asked her sister why she hadn’t been invited to her niece’s christening, a lack of invitation that seemed particularly odd considering my college friend was this niece’s godmother. College Friend’s sister replied, “Honey, GODMOTHER, you were there.”
Yes, I suppose my college pal could have a problem, and if she decides to undergo testing for it, I’m sure it will be relatively painless, as she’ll only recall the CAT scan for an hour after the procedure.
More likely, though, my college friend is, well, human. I don’t have any deep knowledge about the nature of memory–why bother reading up on it, when I’d forget what I’d learned by the time I set the book on the nightstand?–but I don’t think she’s alone in forgetfulness. Rather, I think it’s more that the vast, multi-hued, multi-faceted, multi-layered thing called Life presents us with more than we can rightly retain. Plus, we get older, and age adds in more and more information to track just as our brains are gunking up with plaque. Quite naturally, data gets lost in the mud.
This phenomenon was highlighted for me yesterday when a former student stopped by the house (you can read more about her here, and trust me, she’s worth a read); she is now an echocardiography nurse and about to start medical school to become a heart surgeon. As we all sat in the kitchen, catching up on her love life and impending move out of the state, she tried to explain the new software she’ll be learning when she switches jobs. Easily, unthinkingly, she looked at Byron and said, “Well, you’d understand this because you’ve had an EKG…”
Jocelyn’s Brain: “Wait. WHAT? Byron had an EKG? I should know this, right? Did he have a heart problem as a child, and I’ve forgotten? [frantically scans Swiss cheese memory for tales of tragic health in husband's youth] No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a problem as a kid. Maybe before I knew him? [frantically scans stories related during months of wooing, all of which are lit with magic in memory] So, whaaa? This means he’s had an EKG since we’ve been together???”
Wisely, lest my student loose the smidgeon of respect for me that still remained after I asked, regarding her new girlfriend: “At what point did she first stick her tongue down your throat?”, I remained mum in the moment and simply nodded and asked questions.
But seriously: what kind of life partner can’t remember her husband had a heart issue serious enough to merit an EKG while he was in his 30s?
You get one guess, and if you answer “Jocelyn,” you win an all-expenses-paid tour through the empty chambers of my skull. Bring a headlamp.
As soon as Former Student departed, I looked at Byron and asked, incredulously, “You had an EKG? Is this what you do while I’m working all day? I mean, when you’re not watching Dr. Oz and eating bon-bons on the couch?”
Much to my relief, he responded, “I’d actually kind of forgotten about it, too. I was sitting there, listening to Former Student, thinking, ‘Now, why did I have that EKG again?’”
As ever, the ignorance of others serves as a solace to me.
With a little brainstorming, we dredged up something about a faint arrythmia that presented during a standard physical, supplemented by something about white blood cell counts being high. And that right there? That’s all we got. So long as he can go out and run for hours and swim a few miles when he hops in the pool, we’re going to call it good and move on. Apparently, he had an EKG, and now he’s fine.
What’s troubling, though, is that this wasn’t the first case of me having forgotten something significant about Byron’s relatively-recent health. A few days ago, when I was making molasses cookies, Paco was hanging about the edges of the process, waiting to be called in as Resident Egg Cracker.
To pass the minutes, he was reading aloud from the margins of the molasses cookie recipe (I record the date and a little something about our lives each time I use a recipe; thanks for that legacy, Mom!). Stumbling over my poor handwriting, the kid read: “Byron had hernia surgery…”
Jocelyn’s Brain: “WAIT. What? Byron had hernia surgery? [frantically scans Swiss cheese memory for images of fascia or organs poking through husband's groin. Quickly realizes this scan is going very blue, very fast, and therefore aborts it. We are in the presence of a child after all] So when did Byron have a hernia? How did it happen? Did I lift heavy things for him in the month after his surgery? DID I LIFT THE COUCH BECAUSE HE THOUGHT IT WOULD LOOK BETTER ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM?”
Both of these health issues have occurred in relatively-recent years. I mean, I guess. For all I know. Both are lodged so faintly in my mind that it was only when Byron re-enacted the doctor’s appointment in which his hernia was discovered that I had any whiff of a recollection at all. He’s awfully cute when he mimes being felt up by a doctor, incidentally.
Part of me wants to blame my lack of specific recall on Byron coming from a family that is preternaturally healthy at the same time that its members are consistently plagued by off-the-wall health issues. Who can keep track of all that? Another part of me wants to blame it on baby brain and say, “Did these events occur between 2000 and 2006? If so, I must have been without sleep and nursing around the clock.” Yet it appears Paco was four when the hernia surgery happened. At that point, he’d been weaned and sleeping through the night for, like, a full three months. Finally, yet another part of (the clearly fractured) me wants to blame my lack of recall on some sort of peri-menopausal shift that has my hormones eating my twelve remaining brain cells and burping up their detritus for dessert.
But. Well. If I can remember:
the pair of white clogs I bought in Denmark when I was seventeen,
and I can remember the Britney Spears song playing the radio in the taxi of a Turkish man named Kadir,
and I can remember dancing around the room with a guy named Scott to The Pretenders as “Back on the Chain Gang” spun on the turntable,
and I can remember pulling a Tom Sawyer-like coup in elementary school when I convinced the neighbor girl that mowing our lawn was really fun,
and I can remember the hard candy lemon drops in my grandma’s candy jar,
and I can remember the time I took too much niacin and underwent a full-body, prickly heat rush as a result,
and I can remember when I locked my office door and cried next to my filing cabinet because I was so scared of a student,
and I can remember driving a Chevy van across a mountain pass into New Mexico at 3 a.m., marveling at how the huge steering wheel vibrated all feeling right out of my arms,
then doesn’t it seem a bit troubling that I had virtually no memory of my husband having a hernia or an arrhythmic heart?
Does anyone else suffer from Forgetting Crap That’s Major-entia? And wouldn’t you think that, in a winter where my city has just experienced an additional 13.3″ of snow in the last two days (that’s 33.8 centimeters for readers who are smart enough to live in metric-based countries), which put us at a grand total of 98″ (metric smarties, read this as: 249 centimeters) so far–and I am legitimately typing “so far” because there are two more snow events predicted for this upcoming week, including another 6″ tomorrow–well, wouldn’t you think I’d have nothing more to do between November and April than contemplate my past, play memory-strengthening games, and grow my own ginko baloba?
It would appear I’m too occupied with gnawing off my own hand to recall that a few times my husband
had some bad things happen in his feeling places.
In brighter news, I do recall THIS bit of Byron-based-drama vividly, and not just because our bathroom floor was coated with blood by the time it was over.
Seriously, chums: if I didn’t have a blog, I fear I wouldn’t know my own name. Bless the archives!
At my college, we offer regular, semester-length classes (sixteen weeks) along with a different option: the eight-week class. The eight-week option was created to help our students pack as much learnin’ as possible into the shortest reasonable time frame.
One would be justified in having reservations about the eight-week classes, as our students often have below-college-level reading and writing skills, so the logic of speeding up the learning for students who struggle even in “relaxed” courses might be flawed. On the other hand, the eight-week classes often work really well, as their accelerated pace makes for a rhythm of “BAM, BAM, BAM” when it comes to deadlines and getting things done. Just when a student might be considering taking a breather and thusly screwing up his/her grade, the class is over. Before they can make a mess of it, the thing is done.
At any rate, we just passed mid-term, which means a bunch of late-start eight-week classes began a few weeks ago. In my late-start section of freshman composition, students had to jump into their first essay, the narrative, on the first day of class. This was a rather dizzying assignment when they didn’t even know each other, or me, yet.
To get us going both with introductions and finding topics for the narrative, I asked them to post brainstorms of at least ten significant moments in their lives, moments that could potentially work as topics for their narratives at the same time they shared a bit of themselves with the class as a whole.
Below is the example I provided; I urged students to focus in on specific moments rather than broad swathes of time, telling them a micro-moment yields a more original and interesting final paper.
Here are my micro-moments:
–When I was seven, my sister came to me and whispered, almost threateningly, “I know something you don’t. Mom and Dad didn’t even ask you, but they signed you up for piano lessons. You start next week.”
–When I was fifteen, feeling awkward and like I didn’t know how to fit in at my high school, I joined the speech & debate team. Mostly, I joined because I had a crush on a guy (guess who was gay, and I didn’t know it?). I ended up dating this guy for a year-and-a-half. We were really good at owning the floor during extended dance remixes of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”
–When I was eighteen, I went away to college, more than a thousand blissful miles from my Montana home. The first week at college, every time I went through the cafeteria line, I was left thinking, “I’m confused. There’s no beef entree. I see turkey. I see salad. I see lasagne. But where’s the beef?”
–When I was twenty-one and done with college, I decided to take a year of Not Pursuing Serious Employment. I worked for a couple months as a temp in big buildings in downtown Minneapolis before taking a job as a nanny. Sometimes I would go out dancing at The Saloon on Hennepin Avenue (the gifts of my high school gay boyfriend continued to pay off!) and realize, the next day as I held the baby and tried to amuse the preschooler, that I was still detoxifying from the previous evening’s partying. Ah, youth.
–When I was twenty-two, I took a few months to drive around the country. I saw where Buddy Holly’s plane went down; I visited Graceland; I stood in The Alamo. One night, in a campground in Hot Springs, Arkansas, it rained and rained all night long, and since I was in a $24 tent from K-Mart, the rain came right through the fabric. By morning, I was sleeping in more than an inch of sop. At that moment, I started to consider graduate school as a means of eventually making a liveable wage.
–Before starting graduate school, I lived for six months in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado, in a log cabin with two women, a ferret, and a wolf. The wolf was cool, even though he killed every hummingbird that came to our feeders (until we clued in and raised the feeders a few more feet). Because I hate rodential things, life with a ferret was challenging. One night, when I was home alone, the thing slipped its cage and tried to come into my room. Because I didn’t have a door but rather an “opening,” I had to scream a lot and stack chairs to block things up. The ferret slid right through, at which point I fled and went out to sleep in my car for five hours, until my roommates came home. When I woke up at 2 in the morning, stiff, cold, crumpled in the back of my Honda Accord, I realized, indeed, it was time to grow up.
–When I was twenty-four, I finished graduate school, with a Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language. The practical experience I’d gained, though, was teaching composition, which I’d done as part of a teaching assistanship. So I got a job at the U of Colorado in Colorado Springs–a beautiful and conservative town. Three years later, after reading one too many student papers that argued people with AIDS deserved the disease, I moved.
–At twenty-nine, I got a job in southern Minnesota and entered community college teaching. I was living in the town where they make Spam, so the place sometimes reeked of cooking pig parts. During these years, I saw the stresses of small town living, as many of my students were still burning from the big strike that had taken place at the Hormel plant years before. One day, when I tried to put a class of students into groups to work together, kids of “labor” refused to work with kids of “management” parents.
–When I was thirty-one, my cousin and I, hanging out together on Thanksgiving Day, stood next to a pick-up truck bed full of nine dead deer. As their tongues lolled out, my cousin asked me if he could act as my “agent in the field” and set me up with a guy he knew.
–Less than a year later, I married that guy. A few weeks before the ceremony, I had miscarried one of the twins I was carrying. I sobbed with a whole lot of emotion throughout the vows.
–Thirteen years after that, I moaned when Duluth Public Schools closed due to cold temperatures. How to get through the fifth day in a row, in January, with two kids suffering from The Serious Goofies? We played raquetball at the Y; we went to the library; we had a friend come over. It was, essentially, a special day, but a day like any other.
Obviously, I could have gone on and on, what with limitless babbling being one of my superpowers.
Spill. Let me in to your life, Petunia. Even if I’ve been reading your blog for years, I’ll bet there are things I don’t know about you.
What micro-moments-of-greater-significance would you have shared?
You better believe I’m trotting out this old chestnut for its yearly airing. If there are any new readers out there, this’ll be a new one, but for many of you, it will be cause to muse, “Wow, another year’s gone by already?”
For me, I like to re-run it because then I’m motivated to update the photo gallery, and I really like having a place where I’ve collected pictures of my daughter in each year of her life, on or near her birthday.
I got engaged and pregnant on the same day.
Even better, it was “Buck Night” at the local ball park, so I also got to drink eleventy dollars of watery beer on a humid July evening while feigning interest in an All-American sport.
You might be trying to forge a connection between all that cheap beer and my getting knocked up. Damn your clever mind. Does it never rest?
Suffice it to say, though, that pretty much all of my days since then have been anticlimactic. They’re all “go to work, read to the kids, sweat through a run, fold some laundry” and ever-so-rarely are they “get engaged, drink beer, get pregnant” kinds of days. I suppose, though, that a girl can only have so many splendid Whopper Days; otherwise, I’d have a whole lot of husbands, hangovers, and kids. And frankly, one or two of each is about all I can handle. Ask both my husbands. They’ll attest to my treating them with an air of benign neglect. Fortunately, they are a comfort to each other.
So, yes, from that sticky July day came good things. I still dote on my groom, and the issue of that pregnancy is just cresting thirteen years old (since I, personally, remember a lot from Age 13, this implies to me that I should start being nicer to Girl, now that the threat of lifetime recall is firmly in place).
It’s all good now, but the growth and arrival of our Girl weren’t as straightforward as her conception. In fact, Girl started out as two.
All I knew was that I was pregnant, and the hospital in our town would confirm that but would not have me see a doctor or midwife until the end of the first trimester. So I took some vitamins, ate a lot of Ben and Jerry’s, exercised, and dreamed an entire life for the child inside of me.
Until one night–the last night of that first trimester–when I got off the couch after watching some bad reality tv and went to the bathroom. After pulling down my shorts, I discovered the pregnant woman’s nightmare: blood. Lots of it. And when I sat down on the toilet, there was an explosion of more blood, along with many miscellaneous floating bits…of tissue.
My brain reeled, of course, and all I could think was, “This can’t be good. I’m pregnant, so this should stop.” At the time, Byron and I weren’t yet married, and he lived almost six hours away. I called him; he lurched out the door and into his car; then I called my friend Virginia, and she was at my house in minutes.
We went to the emergency room, where I spent a long, long time with my feet in stirrups. I heard words like “she’s dilated” and “tissue in the cervix” and “no heartbeat.” Virginia stood by my side, crying quietly into a Kleenex. My own tears ran down my cheeks into my ears.
After some time, I was told that it looked as though I’d miscarried. But, they told me, I was young, so future pregnancy could happen. And, they told me, a miscarriage is Nature’s way of ending a non-viable pregnancy. It happened, they told me, all the time.
But here’s the thing: it hadn’t happened to me before, and so I was ill-equipped to handle the absolute, immediate grief of losing a life I had already planned. Sure, I’d heard of women having miscarriages, but no one had actually ever brought that experience alive for me; no one had shared their experience publicly–and if there’s one thing I do, it’s find ways to process the world by touching the experiences of others. Yet miscarriage proved to be one of those last female taboos, one of the hidden subjects that no one acknowledged. So all I really knew was that I was in significant physical pain (I didn’t even know enough to realize a miscarriage is actually a mini-labor, with a contracting uterus and everything) and in even more profound emotional pain.
When, at 4 a.m., Byron finally got to me, we just cried. And the next day, and the day after that, we cried. A baby isn’t real to the world until it’s born, but it had become real to us from the minute that stick turned pink. Even more, the promise of a life we’d made together confirmed our rightness of being.
Some days later, we went to see the midwife at the hospital, to have her check my uterus to see if all the tissue had been expelled that night in the emergency room, or if I’d need to undergo a D & C, to “clean things up.”
As I lay there, again on a table, she palpated my uterus, noting, “There’s still a fair amount of tissue in here. If you don’t mind, I’m going to roll over the mobile ultrasound machine to see how much we’re dealing with.”
I didn’t want to see the remains of the babe, so I stared at the wall as she worked, not registering her words of, ”Hmmm. I see a heartbeat here.”
How cruel, I thought. Why is she taunting me?
But. Then. It. Sunk. In. A heartbeat?
My head whipped to look at the monitor, where I saw a most-contented-looking little figure, reclining in the tub of my belly, a strong and regular heartbeat emanating from its chest.
My memory of the next few minutes is the feeling of Byron’s tears hitting my face, as he stood above me, and the midwife exiting the room, saying, “I’m just going to give you guys a few minutes.”
So my grief had prayed for a miracle–for the miscarriage not to have been real, for that pregnancy to still be happening. Suddenly, it was. Gradually, we pieced together that I had been carrying twins, and one of them had not made it. This, according to one nurse, happens more frequently than we know, but it is still a “once in a blue moon” event.
For the rest of my pregnancy, we called the kid inside of me The Little Gripper; I pictured it hanging resolutely onto the walls of my uterus by its tiny, soft fingernails while its twin fell out of me. Assuredly, I will never stop missing The Kid Who Fell, but mostly I can only marvel at the child who hung in there.
Today, March 31st, it has been thirteen years since The Little Gripper became our Allegra, twelve years during which she has emerged as reserved, smart, sweet, wry, amiable to a fault, Love Incarnate.
The Birth Day: Byron cries some more, as Allegra greets the midwife. Under the white sheets, once again relegated to laying on a table, I wonder how long it will be before I can have a bowl of Peanut Butter Cup ice cream.
And then time, as it does, moved on:
Four Was Fun
Ten Took Her Places
At Eleven, Ancient Landscapes Broadened Her
Twelve Gave Her Texture
…at thirteen, the owner of that braid positively glows.
As the years tick by, I love her purity of character above all else.
Even when she was six, a wee first grader, her unalloyed caliber was evident. One night, at bedtime, her overtired Brother Wee Niblet (now Paco) cried in his bed, sobbing: “I don’t want to go to sleep, ever. I wake up in the night, and I am alone. I’m always alone. I’m never going to close my eyes because sleep is too lonely.”
We had already pushed the kids’ beds next to each other, strung the room with lights, played music on a CD player through the night, and tried everything to get him to appreciate sleep as an opportunity, not a burden. But no matter what I suggested that night, he cried even harder.
Then an almost-seven-year-old hand snaked its way across his bed and extended itself onto his torso. With all the compassion of two souls, Allegra said, “Here, buddy. Just hold my hand while we fall asleep. And when you’re asleep, I’ll just keep holding on to you. You know I won’t ever leave you all alone.”
Happy birthday, Toots. Every single day for thirteen years now, I have thanked the sky above for that blue moon.
In the last weeks of his life, I would talk to my dad on the phone every day.
He was in Montana. I was in Minnesota. It was January, and at the same time his heart and lungs were deteriorating, my body was busy helping those same organs grow inside the baby I’d been carrying for more than 40 weeks. Completely, utterly, I was in The Middle Place, sandwiched between the start and end of life’s cycle.
When I was the baby, it was my dad who was in The Middle Place. I was born, and a few months later, my dad’s dad died.
Thirty-five years later, Paco was born, and 16 days after that, my dad died.
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, indeed.
Because I was so heavily pregnant during his final decline, my dad and I didn’t have a face-to-face goodbye. I would talk to him on the phone, with him in the hospital and me laboring to breathe as I sat on the couch in our tiny house. Similarly, my brother was far away, in Japan, with his 7.5 months pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter. Five months before his death, my mom had filed for divorce and turned her attentions to a new boyfriend in California. Thus, my heroic sister single-handedly walked Dad to the grave as she cashed in all her days of leave and drove, again and again, the ten hours from Denver to Billings.
He was decency incarnate, my dad, and I loved our conversations on the phone. Although a quiet Finn by nature, he was an astute observer, listener, and question asker–skills that find special life over the telephone wires. We discussed his health, of course, but also my teaching, his grandkids, life in Duluth. After the traumatic delivery of Paco, when my dad realized we were struggling to cope, he asked a question–so charming to me because its phrasing revealed his farmboy roots: “Can I send you a cheque so that you can hire a girl to come in?”
He was a love, and yet his body was done. For decades, he’d lived with chronic bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, allergies, eventually a heart attack. By the age of 66, his lungs and heart were exhausted.
When we would talk on the phone each day, and he would tell me, his breathing more labored than mine, how much he loved seeing photos of his new, his ONLY, grandson, how much he loved seeing pictures of Allegra cradling the new baby, how much he couldn’t wait to see them both,
it was as though my opera singer father was engaging in a kind of overtone throat singing. There was his voice, but there was also a simultaneous rasp of air, sort of a thick hitch in his breathing, with every word. The sound was distinctive and ran, literally, as the underlying accompaniment to our conversations.
And then one day, after a few close calls, one involving emergency intubation,
he rolled over, exhaled, and died.
At that point, he was alone. My sister was in Denver attending to her job, about to drive back up to Billings. I was recovering from a C-section in Minnesota. My brother and his family had gotten on a plane in Japan the day before and were above Detroit during that last exhale.
He died alone.
There is a saddest story in my life, and it is that my dad died alone.
There is a happiest story in my life, too, and it is that my dad and I shared a birthday. Every year, come March 25th, we had Our Day. Even in his absence, March 25th is Our Day.
This week, this March 25th, he would have been 78 compared to my 46. For the first time in my recollection, I was sick on my birthday, largely bed-bound with the same virus that laid the kids low last week. First, there was a fever, then painful lungs, then a developing cough, then a vise-like headache, then a draining nose, but most of all, a complete lack of energy.
I spent Friday, March 22nd, in bed.
I spent Saturday, March 23rd, in bed.
I spent Sunday, March 24th, in bed.
On Monday, March 25th, my eyes flew open at dawn. Although I had been sleeping sitting up, propped by pillows, breathing was still work. In fact, it was the sound of my breathing that had awakened me.
The sound that pulled me to consciousness was like an overtone throat singing noise–a rasp, a hitch. I woke up thinking, “DAD. That sounded like Dad. That was Dad.”
Thusly, we started Our Day together.
Inside me, forever with me, the very breath I exhale,
there is my dad.
Didn’t February last about seventeen weeks? And then Daylight Savings slammed into our bodies–which were already trying to figure out how to get through a day without drooping. What’s more, we’re in the midst of a snowstorm here today, currently racking up 6-10″ new inches on top of the existing white mounds.
Spring is approaching, but its rejuvenating air is still a faint whiff at best.
Even for the winter lovers in the group, and I count myself among them, this time of year generally holds at least a few black-brained, can’t-get-the-feet-to-shuffle, is-this-thing-over-yet days. For us in Northern Minnesota, it’s still the height of winter; certainly, I make sure I’m actively enjoying the blessings of the snow and ice while, simultaneously, I start fondling the Seed Savers catalog and mentioning to Byron that some packets of black velvet nasturtiums wouldn’t go amiss as a birthday present.
Actually, to put a finer point on it, I started fondling the Seed Savers catalog before Christmas and may possibly have taken a sharpie to its pages within fifteen minutes of its delivery.
The point is that I’m salivating anticipatorily about brightness to come.
So much is bright now, already, that I can keep thoughts of future color at bay by focusing on the riches currently in front of me.
(Earthy types loading up on soy margarine while treading lightly through the aisles of the Whole Foods Co-op might articulate this same sentiment while absentmindedly fondling kale; speaking to a clear-eyed listener sporting a felted hat, they would use the words “conscious” and “deliberate.” Should the word “mindful” float across the locally-grown potatoes and reach my ears, there is a strong possibility I might open a freezer door–letting precious cold escape!–so as to stuff their bodies inside, next to a box of Amy’s Breakfast Burritos, thus providing them a quiet minute in which to consciously consider how annoying Talk of Deliberate Living can be. Oh, no need to worry your felted hat, dear Harmony Borealis. I’ll let your pals out in a second, after they’ve contemplated the pretense inherent in yammering about something that should simply be lived without fanfare. Once they promise vigilant avoidance of pretentious yammer and undergo therapeutic retraining by mouthing the words “Skrillex,” “Dorito,” and “Tupperware” through the glass, I’ll crack the freezer doors and let ‘em out.)
Assuredly, there are some things that are making me very happy, even in these days of slush and grey and additional snowfall. Quite deliberately, in mindful fashion, let me consciously list some of this week’s soul-sustaining beauties.**
1) My new blue-and-green striped shirt.
I love this shirt because:
- It’s good for layering, and I am still alive thanks to layers. Seriously. Layers are how one makes it from November to April in this region;
- It reminds me of Dr. Seuss, and when I wear this shirt, I fancy I can hear a Who;
- It is both patriotic and sassy when it poses for photos (all the better to show off its well-developed biceps).
2) Fatboy Slim.
Can I get a witness when it comes to not really understanding the “craft” of being a DJ? The same part of me that gets exasperated when it overhears pretentious “mindful” talk at the Whole Foods Co-op also gets exasperated by the celebritization of DJs. Pretty much, I can’t see how what they do entails talent or even expertise, and I have to glue my slappers to my thighs when I
stagger walk into a local club and see some 22-year-old upstart with a huge headphone clapped over one ear, up on a dais, playing music that no one cares to dance to. When a danceable tune is requested, said DJ reacts with the the superior condescension of Misunderstood Artists everywhere. But here’s what I don’t understand: how is this DJ doing anything at all, outside of taking a paycheck for broadcasting other people’s work? And does this DJ not know he’s in DULUTH, MINNESOTA, FER CHRISSAKES?
Ah, but then the reality of being a grown-up kicks in, and I recall the myriad times in my life when I’ve dismissed something or someone just because I don’t understand them or what they do. In general, this policy is neither fair nor wise; once I learn more about the situation or person, I often realize there is something to it after all. To dismiss something as stupid and pretentious when I don’t understand it, well, that makes me as bad as I think the DJ is because I’m wrongly casting myself as superior and cool. Clearly: wrongly.
Thus, my aim in recent months has been to decipher what it is DJs do. Because I’m a limp researcher at best, I’ll admit my best lesson came from the movie Pitch Perfect, in the scene where Anna Kendrick’s character explains her love of DJ-ing for its alignment of beats and moods; the DJ is a sort of editing wizard who pulls together disparate sources into an intriguing new concoction. Now, if I’m willing to think a chef can be an artist, should I not grant the same possibility to a DJ?
I’m not going to answer that, for my jury remains out on DJs and DJ-ing. I still don’t really get it, but that doesn’t mean all DJs are pretentious idiots. It just means I don’t get it.
By now, you’re wondering how all this ties back to Fatboy Slim and him being a highlight in dark days. Well, the other night a song came on the radio station streaming over the Netbook in our kitchen, and I said to Byron, “What is this song? I could add it onto my running playlist. I like it.” Turns out it was Fatboy Slim, a DJ; I’d heard his songs for years, as it turns out, but never before put together the name Fatboy Slim with “DJ” and the familiar songs. At any rate, there is something intelligent in his music (in an electronica kind of way) that counters some of my unfounded objections to DJ-ing. I appreciate that.
3) The term “relict crop.”
I’ve been playing around with “healthier” baking, if such a thing is possible. Basically, I’m working at finding recipes that use yogurt and applesauce (instead of butter), non-wheat flours, and alternate sweeteners (instead of refined sugar). There’s no real reason for any of this, as none of us in the house has food allergies; however, I adore, adore, adore baked goods, especially when it’s cold and snowy outside, and so if my brain and body want me to be stuffing bread and brownies into my craw, it might be a good idea to figure out ways to minimize the damage. So far, I’ve made very good loaves of some lemon breads, some so-so pumpkin spice muffins, some pretty good chocolate muffins (good enough to pretend they’re cupcakes!), and some quite lovely mint-chocolate-ganache brownies (they use more traditional ingredients, which is probably why I like ‘em so much).
My time leafing through recipe books has shown me how much I need to learn about some of these “healthy” ingredients. I was taken aback at how many not-exactly-natural-sounding ingredients there are in vegan cookbooks, for example: erythritol, xylitol, and–oh YEA–that soy margarine business. For me, if it’s margarine in any form, my eyebrows go all skeptical, and if an ingredient sounds like it came out of a chemistry lab, those same eyebrows hit Disbelieving on the sky-o-meter. What’s more, I’ve realized that I’m familiar with various kinds of flours, but that doesn’t mean I really know what they are. It’s kind of like DJ-ing that way. For example, I was making muffins with spelt, and suddenly I realized I don’t exactly know what spelt is, per se. Drawing up on the previously mentioned limp research skills, I went directly to the Wikipoodle and found out that spelt is sometimes known as dinkel wheat (Teehee! Dink!), hulled wheat, or “a hexaploid species” of wheat. There’s a lot more, so go read it.
You totally didn’t go read it. I see you right here, still staring at this post.
Anyhow, what I really loved as I read the entry on spelt is that it contains the term “relict crop” (basically, a relict crop is one that used to be widely sown but now only is farmed in small areas). There’s something about the sound and combination of those words, relict crop, that pleases me and feels like a metaphor for so much more. Seriously, wouldn’t that be a great name for a blog? Especially one where the writer used to post every day but now posts once a month?
4) Za’atar on bulgur.
People, as long as we’re on the topic of nifty words, there is a spice mixture that I’ve only just tasted for the first time, and it’s called za’atar. Last month, Byron grabbed a bag of it when we were in a Middle Eastern market (restocking our sumac supply), and so we had some bulgur sprinkled with za’atar a few nights later.
I’m actually thinking of getting some iron-on letters so that I can add the words “Za-atar Fan” to the back of my Seussian striped shirt.
5) The beautiful rabbit hole that is Wikipedia.
You better believe I looked up za’atar on Wikipedia, along with everything else on this list, and that lovely public service of a website took me from za’atar to the Levant to Circassians to the Crusades in under four minutes. How I ever knew anything before the Internet is a mystery. Sure, I had access to dictionaries and encyclopedias, but dollars to donuts that the encyclopedias in my childhood home would not have contained entries for either Fatboy Slim or za’atar.
As long as we’re thinking of childhood, I’ll tell you this: I find that passing time with Wikipedia in 2013 is equivalent to holding a tape recorder microphone up to the radio to capture Billy Joel singing “I’m Movin’ Out” in 1977. With both pursuits, I’m putting in endless hours trying to grasp something I hope to own.
5) The wedding episode of Parks ‘N Rec.
I love this show. I love the cast, the writing, the pacing, the characters. Of course, I love Amy Poehler. Of course, I love Nick Offerman. Actually, I should have typed that more like a crazed-stalker shout: I LOVE NICK OFFERMAN. To put a finer point on it, I love Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson. Few characters in television history have spoken to me–made me feel not alone in the world–as Ron Swanson does.
Everything I enjoy about Parks ‘N Rec was summed up in the wedding scene a couple weeks ago, when Leslie and Ben got married. Although I’m the type of person to get annoyed by DJs and crunchy types in the produce section at the Co-op, I just can’t get over feeling touched by a good set of wedding vows. Parks ‘N Rec delivered on those, in particular when the bride and groom affirm to each other, “I love you, and I like you.”
Because really. Love is nice and all, but if you’re going to live with someone, day in and day out, Like is infinitely more important.
6) Figuring out skiing so I’m a tidge less screamy on the trails this year.
When it comes to cross-country skiing, I’m not hardcore or committed in the fashion of many Minnesotans. Get this: I actually know people who own bait boxes (kind of like the huge multi-tiered boxes that a Hollywood make-up artist would tote to an ingenue’s house the morning of the Oscars) full of their ski waxes. I am not those people. I am also not of my husband’s background, he who had a Norwegian grandpa who’d been on skis since age four, won some medals in his middle years, and still was skiing on the golf course at 90. What I am is a person who first tried skiing at age 29 and who has, since then, come to understand the fun and glory of a good afternoon in the tracks; hence, even though I’m not skilled at it, and I hate to go fast or down long, turning hills, I strap the boards on my feet and give ‘er a go when I can.
In years without much snow, I sometimes have only gotten out a couple of times, which isn’t enough to improve. However, this year I’ve been out about ten times (compare this to my husband’s 30+ times in the last few months for perspective), which has been enough that I don’t necessarily feel like I’m going to hurt myself or sob wildly while hacking around the woods, poles in hand. As a rule, there are two sets of trails in this hilly area where I feel like I can handle myself, but last week, I decided to try, for the first time in some years, the park nearest our house (awhile back, I had a bad experience on a turn with a 90 degree angle there).
Friends, this non-Catholic, non-Hindu only said one Hail Mary and made only one quick offering to Ganesh at the top of the very gnarliest hill…before plunging down it and staying on her feet. I did it. So I went back again last night and continued to befriend those trails.
Bit by bit, effort by effort, I’m getting a teensy bit better and braver and more relaxed with each ski. I love trees and sun and sweat and whoosh, and skiing brings all of those together in one activity.
7) Watching Byron love Hilary Mantel.
Have you read Wolf Hall? Have you read Bring Up the Bodies?
I read Wolf Hall a few years ago, after it first won The Man Booker prize, and it was a more-than-worthy experience. What Mantel has done in Wolf Hall and its sequel, well, it’s one of those rare authorial efforts wherein the reader feels a genre being redefined–and I don’t just mean historical fiction, I mean The Novel. The way the voice of Mantel’s protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, takes hold of the novel is remarkable. For me, when I got into Wolf Hall, I realized I was having an experience much like when I read Keri Hulme’s The Bone People; to read the book right, I had to become a different reader, had to give over to the writing and meet it on the author’s terms. In the case of Wolf Hall, I had to not only read Cromwell’s voice, I had to hear it aloud inside my head. Once I made that shift, I got him–the incisive intellect, the wry humor, the vulnerability. Before I heard his voice in my skull, that character was abstract. Yet once I connected with Mantel’s Cromwell, I was fully on board.
Byron just picked up Wolf Hall a few weeks ago. He got it into his paws after a long-wait request he had placed at the library. When it was his, it was on a non-renewable two-week loan. The book is thick. That’s some pressure.
Motivated by his desire to finish the thing, he read it while stirring soups, while standing on the balance board in the basement (which he uses when he takes breaks from drawing), while he ate every meal…in every free moment he could wring from each day. As the due date crept nearer, he realized he wouldn’t finish it. But, heck, what’re a couple days of overdue fines compared to following through until the end?
Seeing someone I love profoundly read something I profoundly love has been a joy.
Oh, all right. I am crazy for the little flippers they have at the pool. They aren’t long deep-dive or snorkeling flippers, but are short and fierce, like:
In my efforts to keep my muscles confused and to mix no-impact activities with the high-impact of running, I’ve been hitting the pool once a week these last few months. Another goal with the swimming is to regain the strokes I’ve lost since childhood. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always loved swimming and find great fun and peace when in any body of water. Over the years, though, my freestyle has completed faded away, and I do a modified breast stroke, at best, leaving me the middle aged woman whose go-to pool move is the sidestroke (or the underwater tea party, a trick perfected in childhood). Realizing I’m good at playing in the water or side stroking, but little else, I’ve been trying to trigger those old strokes again.
During the process, I’ve discovered that, like a successful drag queen, I’m all about the props. Without some supporting equipment, I was feeling anxiety and having trouble getting through even a full length of the pool with the freestyle. Fortunately, Byron, quite the dedicated swimmer these last few years, gave me the tip that I should remove my legs from the equation so that I could focus on my arms. To do this, I now hold a “pull buoy” between my knees as I use my arms to get across the pool. Then, to work on the whole stroke at once, I put on a waist belt, leave the pull bouy on the deck, and kick and haul my way back and forth. Even further, because I’m all about excess, I also do some kickboard laps and some laps with foam weights. In case this isn’t enough, I slap on some goggles and a nose plug.
Truly, it looks like the Michelin man exploded and scattered his internal organs all over the end of my lane, what with the litter of foamy stuff covering my space.
If it all had to go away…if I had to swim with only one prop…you better believe it’d be the flippers.
The other week, a bright young twentysomething who’s training for a triathlon was in the lane next to me; she’d been trying to find something to slap on her feet for the warm-up lengths of her swim, and so I’d directed her towards my Beloved Flipper Bin. After she slid her feet into Flippers and began to kick behind her board, she turned to me, glowing, and shouted, “I FEEL LIKE A DUCK.”
Nodding in agreement, I shot her a joyful “Quack!”
And if a flippered quack can’t get you through to chinook season,
you might as well throw on a fur coat, head for the nearest cave, and hibernate for a few months,
until the sound of fireworks drags you out of your depression.
**Kale was molested during the compilation of this list.
This will be overkill for those of you with whom I’m friended on Facebook. Apologies. Feel free to shift into Long-Suffering Mode here.
However, since there are still twelve people on the planet who don’t have Facebook accounts, I thought I’d share one of my recent happinesses here, too.
A few weeks ago, I received a message from the producer of a show on Duluth Public Radio (affiliated with the University of Minnesota-Duluth), saying he’d gotten my name from a mutual friend and asking if I’d be willing to read something from my blog on the program called Women’s Words. This program airs twice each Sunday afternoon, embedded into a music show featuring lots of Shawn Colvin, Ani DiFranco, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams.
If you like your Birkenstocks and are adept at braiding (hair, rugs, what have you), you should tune into KUMD for the Women’s Music Show. To perk up the mindful folk tunes, a mini-program called Women’s Words is inserted into breaks between Neko Case and Fiona Apple. Usually, Women’s Words features Minnesota women who are poets. But a blog essay? The producer thought that would work just fine.
He gave me complete leeway with my selection, which meant I could choose from any of roughly 500 past blog posts. Knowing full well I could spend days mired down in making a choice, I just scrolled through the last few months on the blog and decided to go with this fairly-recent post. It was relatively free of swearsies and references to private parts, so it fit the bill.
Of course, once I printed it and did a test read, the thing clocked in at over 8 minutes.
I do like to go on.
You may have noticed.
The program generally runs 3-4 minutes, so there was some whittling to do. After a few hours of editing (changing the title alone cut off nineteen seconds), having cut out every extraneous thought, word, and bit of nonsense, I had it down to about 4.5 minutes.
Would this fly, I asked Producer?
Yes. Yes, it would.
The next step was to get myself to the studio on the appointed day, at the appointed hour. Anyone with any familiarity with me will know that this was the biggest challenge of the entire project. Not only can I get lost between my bed and the front door, I’d be eleven minutes late even if you walked me there yourself, holding my hand.
Fortunately, I found the UMD campus, found the building, found the basement studio, and found the tall, bearded producer. We sat and chatted for a few minutes before he migrated to his glass booth. After clapping on huge headphones and making sure my microphone was at a 45 degree angle to my mouth, we talked a bit more to each other in hushed, controlled voices.
“Hey, I feel like this is an SNL skit about public radio,” I told him. “Have you seen those? With Alec Baldwin?”
“Do you need me to do a bit about ‘Schweaty Balls’ now?” Producer responded.
“Only if I can pretend I’m a guest who’s made muffins. Here is my muffin. Isn’t it fluffy? Everyone loves a fluffy muffin. Andddddd scene!”
With that kind of warm-up, how could I not be ready to read?
Truth is, I’m pretty much always ready to read aloud. My dream job would be Audio Book Reader, in fact. I couldn’t do all the accents or keep track of the characters, necessarily, but I would toss in an occasional brogue followed, inexplicably, by some drunken hillbilly. Give me two minutes, and listeners would no longer be invested in the plot but, rather, would be willing the random appearance of a helium-voiced elf.
Anyhow, I read. And it was fun. With digital editing, Producer could fix any word stumble or verbal biff. When I finished, there was one word that needed re-recording, and then I was out of there. Adrenalized. Smiling. Wishing for a career in radio, even as a sound effects lady. I make a mean Horsie Clip-Clop by slapping my legs, and my Wind in the Pines mouth blowing makes listeners feel like they’re out for a moonlit ski.
So here you go. If you’re interested, or if you haven’t listened already, this is your chance:
Apparently, it’s International Women’s Day, which means I should be posting pre-packaged sentiments on Facebook that urge the world to treat dames better.
I get that. Let me assure you I am made legitimately irate by the ongoing, centuries-old maltreatment of women. See how I made a sign, even?
Feel free to make that viral on Facebook by midnight. Use your powerful, capable typing hands to copy and post it into the zeitgeist!
My powerful, capable typing hands would like to take a moment to assert this thesis, however:
The best way to elevate the respect and esteem accorded to women is to stop wearing excruciatingly awful trash like this–
Certainly, it’s a First World problem, this trend of embellishing one’s buttocks with rhinestones and metallic crap. I understand that the truly-sobering barriers women face are more heartbreaking and deep than this.
If you are a woman, and if you are fortunate enough to have the ability and economic power to choose what you put on your body,
don’t be ridiculous.
Treat yourself with the dignity and regard that you wish the world would afford to women.
It starts at home, and you are your own home.
Consider this: as you move through your life every day, in millions of mundane ways, you are teaching the world how you expect it to treat you–how you expect it to treat all of us.
Be a meaningful lesson.
Keep the zirconium off your ass already.
As we entered the holiday family gathering, setting down boxes of gifts, shedding our coats, assuring greeter after greeter that, yes, the roads had been fine and, yes, it definitely was cold out there,
I eyeballed the bathroom door.
It was open. I could dash in, relieve myself, and then see what was going on in the kitchen.
The moment I turned to start the dash, my path was blocked by Byron’s aunt. In a hushed voice, cutting her glance sideways towards the younger set and gesturing to the envelopes in her hand, she whispered, “I made a scavenger hunt for the kids. They have to go around the room and find the person whose name is on each envelope and then pose to that person the question on the back of that envelope. If they answer the question correctly, they get the envelope, which tells them where to go next. But here’s the problem: a couple of the people whose names are on these envelopes aren’t here today because of sickness, so I need you to be a Substitute Erin, okay? When the kids get an envelope that directs them to Erin, they should come to you, and then you ask them the question about Erin’s life. The question’s written on the back of the envelope, and then there are multiple choice answers. As I’m sure you know, the correct answer out of the options listed for Erin is that she lived in China and India for a time.”
No sweat, I avowed. Much of my life as an international spy has been spent impersonating sisters-in-law.
You may have seen my elegantly-rounded posterior prominently featured in April of 2011 outside Westminster Abbey.
Thusly signed up as a scavenger hunt confederate, I tucked away the envelope and returned to my quest for the toilet—but first it was time to greet my father-in-law…mother-in-law…first-cousin-once-removed-in-law…great-uncle-in-law…first-cousin-not-removed-in-law…chatting with each person as I continued to stand in the entry way. At such times, I always wish for a five-minute buffer upon entering a social situation during which I might remove my outerwear, scamper to the bathroom, find myself something to drink, and apply a full-body fluff to my being. Removed, scampered, found, and fluffed–only then am I ready to launch into the chat and play nice.
The reality, however, is that I end up standing in the foyer for twenty minutes, gratefully nodding at my free-roaming-thanks-to-natural-introversion husband when he presses a glass of wine (Wine! There was wine at the family gathering this year!) into my hand. Being held hostage by a foyer is ever-so-much-more pleasant when one is hooked up to an alcohol drip.
[True fact: “Alcohol Drip” was my nickname during college]
In addition to always wishing for space and time when entering a house with a crowd—although I’m smiling and nattering on the outside, inside my brain is stridently suggesting,“Howzabout we all move two feet further into the house now? I promise I’ll follow you to those stuffed pieces of furniture in the other room once I’ve had a chance to unzip my jacket, pass water, and volumize my scalp follicles”—another traditional component of any social situation is that our reserved children tightly orbit my being. When they were younger, they were in my arms; later, they clung to my legs; held my hand; joined me hip-to-hip; stood shoulder-to-shoulder; managed a foot away. Allegra’s current stance at big family gatherings has regressed a bit, as she’s closed the gap of that foot and likes to glue herself to my back or, better yet, hold my hand during times of Circle Chat. I do not mind having a seventh grader who’s happy to squeeze in close. We’ve got six years until she’s off somewhere, hundreds or thousands of miles away, so I’ll take the intimacy while I can get it. Plus, she’s got a front row seat when it comes to watching her mother exercise the rarely-seen social skill of Elevating Small Talk To A New Level By Answering Innocuous Questions With Unanticipated Honesty.
On the day in question, then, the kids were still in the entry, too, orbiting and front rowing. Certainly, it was a spacious area, but after a few minutes, my internal Crochety Old Man (I call him Murray) reared up off his rocking chair, threw aside his afghan, and hitched up his knee socks. Seriously, he griped, howzabout we all move two feet further into the house towards those stuffed pieces of furniture? At this rate, you’re gonna need to consign the powder room and all hope of fluffage to the annals of Wishful Thinking, Murray croaked. Waving a desiccated digit under my nose, he warned, If someone doesn’t start pushing this crowd of Midwestern greeters towards the sofa, they’ll still be lingering near the front door come sunset, asking each other if they’ve been able to get out skiing yet this year.
Real good then, Murray. Grab your afghan, and let’s start shuffling through the bodies towards the coffee table. My guess is all those bodies blocking our way will find themselves snared in the net of our forward momentum.
I began the shuffle, a movement which, with a kid cemented to each leg, felt like the world’s slowest six-legged race—a challenge made more difficult by attempts to balance a goblet of wine while pushing three abreast through question askers (ah, my favorite event in the Holiday Olympics!)—and considered the problem of the children. As the only two under 40, they would be at loose ends unless I could cruise director them into an activity; certainly, they’re pretty good observers and listeners, but after not too long, conversation about the poor treatment of teachers in a state far removed from their own loses its luster for pre-adolescents. At that point, the family gathering lapses into hours of bored kids catching Mommy’s ear and whispering, “How long ‘til we leave?”
Our strategy is to ward off the boredom for as long as possible by always bringing a bag of games and books. Since both kids, in recent months, have been very into this
we had brought along decks of cards. I considered the options and decided to draft a few relations into challenging the kids at their favorite games. To achieve this, we quickly availed ourselves of the bounty that is Byron’s aunt and uncle—the most game of game players, indeed. They responded easily, positively, to the offer to play some cards and even upped the stakes by teaching the kids a new game.
I watched for a bit, happily sipping, absorbing the rules of the new game, and just as I was sure the pups were settled, just as I was about to peel away to head to the bathroom, Paco announced he was done and would need me to take over his position so that the balance of the game remained.
We don’t do Kegels for nothing, do we, Birthers? We know that many a life situation is enhanced by the absence of urine sliding down our legs, and, therefore, we practice urethric control moves. Our underwear thanks us; the carpet thanks us; our viewing public thanks us; our children thank us.
That’s why, rather than call a pause to the game so that I could “dash” to the toilet (quotation marks needed since there were six people between me and the bathroom—all with chambered questions, ready to shoot them out at the slightest eye contact—which means that the “dash” would have turned into a thirty minute slog through a series of conversations), I was able to opt, instead, to clamp my bladder shut and make do. All hail Mr. Kegel.
Quite pleasantly, we card players continued our game for the next half hour, catching up with each other at an easy pace while setting down runs, pairs, and straights. When the call of “Dinner is served!” went out, I was relaxed, convivial, and ready to mound a mountain of mashers onto my plate.
a quick trip to the bathroom already.
With everyone futzing around about who would be at which table and who would sit by whom, I knew I had a straight shot to the porcelain.
At last I was able to whiz in to the whizzer, peel open my waistband, and experiencccccccccccccccccccccceeeeeeeeeeee sssssssssssssssweet relief. Standing up and musing, “Diggity-dong-dang, but that felt good,” I reached towards the seashell-shaped soap in the seashell-shaped soap dish BUT WAIT WHAT HO?
My glance had dropped to the toilet and its contents anddon’tgogettingallhighfallutin’onmeandactinglikeyoudon’tcheckoutyourworkwhenyou’redonetoo, and, well, there was something odd in the bowl.
No need to scream. It wasn’t a rat. “Rat” is my go-to toilet-bowl-based fear, incidentally, for every thinking person is well aware that rats like to come up into toilets through the plumbing from the sewer and bite the arses of unsuspecting toilet sitters and give them not only profound mental trauma but also The Plague, and what’s more awful than suffering a lingering death covered by boils and the kind of bacilli that even leeches and those heated-up cups they used on Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons can’t cure?
Don’t answer that. Any answer you could conceivably provide would assuredly cost me a week’s sleep, so stay quiet, Liebchen. Finger to your lips. Jocey needs her sleepies.
The good news: there was no rat in the toilet. The less good news: there was something in the toilet, and since I stopped muling for the cartel back in ’92, I was pretty sure the something in the toilet hadn’t dropped out of me.
So what the heck? Taking a step closer, peering more deeply into the xanthous water, I tried to riddle out what it was coasting so merrily upon the foam. Hmmmm. It appeared to be some sort of small raft captained by Abraham Lincoln. Huh to the whaaa?
One step closer, bending at the waist now.
OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. Yea. That’s right.
I was wearing yoga pants. They had no pockets. I’d been given an envelope to conceal for a couple of hours. Personal policy dictates that I not jam envelopes into my bra in front of relations over the age of fifty. So I’d folded the envelope in half and stuck it down the back of my pants (no personal policy against that move, apparently!), which I swear wasn’t half as yuck as it seems now that I’m typing it out; I mean, I’d put it sort of in the up-higher part of my waistband, a significant number of degrees north of Cracklandia. And also, I think I’d showered that day.
Listen. If you’re still ewwwwing and insisting on squeamishness at the very idea that I crammed an envelope down my backsies panties, then you’re not cut out to read this blog because I’m here to warn you, Pollyanna, that I’ve put a whole lot more bad worser things down there in my day, and I can’t promise I’ll never tell the tale.
For a quiet moment, I stood staring into the bowl, marveling at how a water rinse had revealed the money hidden inside the envelope. Looky at Lincoln, threatening to become liquescent! It was hypnotic, the way Abe was just floating around in there, buffered by formerly-white-but-now-more-goldenroddish paper, looking so serene as black ink melted all over him. What a leader that man was.
All too soon, reality came crashing in, though, and I found myself gripped in the quick nanosecond of Choice that we’ve all experienced in some form or another. Sometimes, it’s about hitting the brakes or speeding through; sometimes, it’s about looking over our shoulders or ignoring niggling worry; sometimes, it’s about putting the Oreos in the cart or leaving them for the next high-fructose-loving dolt. This time, for me, it was about
reaching in or flushing.
A quick mental scan of my wallet revealed no five dollar bills. If I flushed, I couldn’t replace. Without the five dollars, I would have a problem with both the aunt and my “I’m awfully sorry Mommy peed on your Christmas present” kid.
What’s more, a business-sized envelope and a five-dollar bill are wrongly shaped for the design of a toilet’s plumbing. I could end up not only putting my kid in therapy but also paying a professional $200 an hour on Christmas Eve to come snake Abe out of the rat tube.
Hence, the only sensible option was to
reach in and grab the thing.
Well, hell, it’s not like I’ve never been covered in my own urine before. Plus and also, I would like to point out that the only thing on the planet filthier than a kitchen sponge is money. Further making the case for action was the fact that urine is sterile. All in all, I’d just done that fiver a favor. I was also pretty sure my kid wouldn’t be getting sick at any point in the next month, so long as he kept The Germ-Free Abe in his grip.
This was looking better by the millisecond.
Rolling up my sleeve, I plunged my hand in, grabbed the envelope, dumped the whole soppy mess into the sink, and ran some hot water. Naturally, because it would have made my life infinitely easier, there was neither Kleenex nor washcloth in that small guest bathroom. Tearing off five feet of toilet paper, I mopped off the envelope (the question about Erin still vaguely legible!) and cradled Abe into a layered double-ply pillow.
Dabbing at his forehead, his cheekbones, his slightly-melancholy eyes, I murmured comfortingly, “Now, now, Abie. This is a minor escapade in your vast history. You’ve suffered worse assaults upon your person, haven’t you, luv? And won’t this make a fine story to tell Tad in front of the fire tonight, as you dry out?”
Gently, like a whisper, I straightened his cravat and smoothed his hair
before crumpling him into a wad and jamming him down my left cup.
Then, ready to face the holiday and all its associated hoopla, I opened the bathroom door, threw my shoulders back, and went in search of a seat at the table
and a second glass of wine.