Nine Volts

Chirp.

My brain is asleep. So is my body. The noise doesn’t fully register.

After a quick blip of “Huh?” I drop back into the blackness of sleep.

Chirp.

Hell and damn it. My brain pushes to consciousness like it’s swimming up from the bottom of a murky lake, half panicked, gasping for air. As it surfaces and draws in a shuddering breath of wakefulness, the only thing to pierce my confusion is this: there’s a chirping in the hallway. I lie there in the dark, discombobulated, trying to figure out what day it is, what time it is, what my name is, who’s the president, why Kanye’s a genius, why creme brulee isn’t the new kale, and how in the glottis my husband can still be snoring when there’s a robin or a katydid or a Kristin Chenoweth periodically pipping mere feet from his head.

I spend a few minutes engaged in magical thinking, during which I dreamily muse that the noises might simply have been the house settling, or something toppling off a shelf in the closet, or the sound of a ghost sharpening knives, lulling myself with assurances that the chirps won’t necessarily contin–

Chirp.

This time, I’m awake enough to understand: it’s the smoke detector remonstrating us for letting Daylight Savings pass without changing its batteries.

As I sort out what’s happening, I rue the law of batteries that decrees they must die when it sucks the most. Commiseratively, my husband, Byron, exhales a steady zzzzzzz. This takes me back to the early years of our marriage; he slept, while I felt around in the dimness for babies and boobies. Sometimes, with the first kid, he’d wake up, too, and we’d turn on a bedside lamp and spend precious Hallmark-sponsored moments together staring at our daughter’s soft, tiny fingernails while she nursed.

A few weeks into that, we realized that middle-of-the-night communal marveling resulted in a completely non-functional household the next day. If we hoped to eat good food and pay bills on time, then at least one of us should get some sleep. During the next handful of years, as my breasts and I continued to work the black hours, Byron applied himself wholeheartedly to the task of getting reasonable sleep, The result of this was a household wherein Daddy made delicious homemade pesto that Mommy loved to eat–that is, once she lifted her head off the steering wheel, wiped the tears off her cheeks, and trudged into the house for dinner.

In the intervening years, the zzzzzzzzzs have continued, but nowadays I sleep (or read or fret) rather than nurse. Instead of tag teaming our days, as we did when the kids were new, Byron and I now share a common purpose at night: resetting for the next day.

Unfortunately, that smoke detector is putting a serious crimp in my reset.

Shivering in anticipation of the cold air, I try to convince myself to throw open the covers and stand up. I try to make myself be the adult in the room. I try to fool my brain and body into thinking the chirp is actually a hungry baby.

Brain and Body are no patsies. They know I’m messing with them. In desperation, Brain argues that the definition of “adult” is actually, simply, clearly “the tallest person.” Then Brain points out that Byron fits that definition. Because Brain is emphatic about making her case, she also notes that the smoke detector is high on the wall, near the ceiling, a place that’s easier for taller people to reach.

The notion of thumping downstairs to get a stepladder convinces me: I’m going to shove the snoring guy and make the chirp his problem.

Rationalization is a glorious thing, for it throws itself across descriptors like “lazy” and “selfish” and muffles their mealy yelps. I mean: obviously, I have to wake Byron because he is taller. Possibly, irrationally, I have to wake Byron because he never nursed babies.

We’d have to ask Brain to be sure on that one, and she’s currently refusing callers.

With Byron’s next wall-rattling inhale, I slip my knees behind his, trying to pry him to consciousness with a hearty spooning.

He doesn’t stir. Spooning feels too much like clean, direct love, and this endeavor is about hoggish, miserly love. This is about a love that entails him getting up and taking care of things so that I can stay in the bed and be warmly supportive from the island of mattress.

I whack my foot into the back of his calf. Twice. Firm-like.

He rears up, bleary and confused. Poor thing’s a full four minutes behind me that way. Since he’s the one who’s discombobulated, and since he doesn’t know yet that he’s about to get up and handle my problem, he deserves kindness. Softly, I start to talk. In truth, I could just say “Eep, opp, ork, ah-ha” for the first few words, as I’m only moving my mouth because the act will get him to remove his earplug. Once the earplug comes out, I shift into genuine content: “So there’s a noise in the hall…”–

as though it had been scripted, a chirp echoes loudly.

“Wait. What?” he asks, his brain pushing up from the bottom of the same lake that had recently been drowning my consciousness.

“There’s a chirping noise out in the hall from the smoke detector. It’s been bleating every few minutes.” Then I trot out our household’s most terrifying currency: “I’m worried it’s going to wake the kids.”

Although Byron is less scared of wakeful children in the night than I am, he snaps to and gets that this is a pressing matter if we want to avoid a kitchen full of cranky whiners in the morning. Marshaling his forces, he thinks through the situation. “There are actually three smoke detectors on this floor of the house–one in each bedroom–and also a carbon monoxide detector in the hall. It could be any of them. Have you noticed where the chirp is coming from exactly?”

Every single day, my husband teaches me. Abstractly, I knew some nice men had come a few years ago to remodel our kitchen, and while they were here, they also updated the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house. Once they took down all the hanging sheets of plastic and drove away in their trucks, though, I got distracted by the new cabinets and forgot to look up and see what they’d done elsewhere. In my defense, if I look toward the ceilings, I see all these cobwebby things that someone should deal with. It’s better to keep my gaze aimed forward, really.

Helpfully, I answer Byron while sweeping an arm wide. “I know the noise is coming exactly from out there. Not in here.”

We decide to listen for the next chirp with an ear to specific location. As I listen, I realize both my pillow and my husband’s back are very soft.

We wait. And wait. Some more.

Because we are wide awake and ready to figure this thing out, there is nothing but silence.

After a few minutes, Byron throws open the covers and wanders into the bathroom to relieve himself, at which point a chirp from Could Have Been Anywhere resounds loudly.

How frustrating. But as long as he’s up…

Coming back into the bedroom, Byron grabs his headlamp. He straps the thing to his head and goes out into the hallway, ready to narrow down the possibilities.

With the stoic patience of a Scandinavian type in his forties, he stands there quietly, leaning against the banister. In his underwear. Wearing a headlamp.

Minutes pass. Silence.

More minutes. Still nothing.

He just stands, quietly, his eyes clapped on a six-inch space high on the wall. Waiting.

Eventually, I hear him yawn, and even though there’s nothing I can do, I can’t take it. I hoist myself from the bed’s warmth and join him in the hallway. I ask if he’s able to reach the detector, should he need to, or if he’d like me to run downstairs and get the step ladder. Thankfully, his legs are step ladders all on their own, so I am safe from the threat of exertion.

There, by the banister, we stand together and stare at the plaster. Come on, you damn thing: chirp so that we know it’s you. If it’s not you, then it’s time to bust this process into the kids’ rooms.

Silence. Obviously, our focused attention has made the thing shy. Trying to fool it, I begin to look around. The only thing worth looking at is Byron, all tall and leaning, shirtless, in his underwear, the headlamp an unexpected accessory to his ensemble. He wraps his arms across his chest, warding off a shiver.

Cripes. He is the cutest.

He stands there in his headlamp and underwear, the perfect foil to an unpredictable, ridiculous thing, and somehow it’s a metaphor for our marriage. All my own unpredictable ridiculousness ever needs is him, standing there unwaveringly, ready to deal with things–all the better if he’s in his underwear and a headlamp as he does it.

After a few minutes, freezing, I return to bed. As I lie there, willing the detector to chirp, the shadowy image of Byron, still leaning against the banister, makes me smile. When we got married, I thought I knew him. Our years together–fifteen!–have schooled me, though. There was no way for me to know that the 28-year-old anthropology-major-turned-naturalist that I married would

teach our sixth grader how to play cribbage so that the kid could feel confident when his new elective class in that game started;

attend cross-country banquets with our ninth grader, willingly spending hours making small talk (which he hates) in the presence of a pasta buffet (which he hates) because he delights in the community she’s found;

become a literacy volunteer at an elementary school for a minuscule monthly stipend because the work matters;

take up blackwork embroidery at age 43 as he continues to explore the various permutations of being an artist;

train our kids’ palates with his excellent cooking, to the point that they’d rather have a dinner of groundnut stew or Thai curry than spaghetti;

tell me every few days, “I like you so much”;

hear my point more than my fumbling words so that I always feel innately understood;

stand in the hallway in his underwear and a headlamp at 4 a.m., hoping to catch a wayward chirp.

 

Eventually, after silence reigns for a few more minutes, Byron surrenders and returns to bed, but not before checking the supply of batteries. We’re short on the nine-volt version, which he’ll need the next day when he changes out the batteries in all the warning systems. Then he snuggles under the covers, and we chuckle, knowing the offending detector, wherever it is, will be issuing a tweet any second.

It doesn’t, though.

As the minutes pass, the house is quiet. Dark. Still.

It sighs a little, as do I, when Byron drops back into sleep and emits a gentle zzzzzzzz.

I lie there for a long time–like a nursing mother listening for her baby’s cry–expecting another chirp. It never comes.

There is only Byron,

the soft skin on his back,

his steady breathing

the perfect noise.

 

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Full Moon, Agitated Hearts

As is my way, I was racing the clock, squeaking in to the meeting two minutes late. In my defense, I was hustling because I had stopped to buy a baguette to set out during the meeting, in case anyone needed a late-afternoon snack. While at the store hunting down carbohydrates, I had also grabbed a latte. Three shots of espresso were hitting my bloodstream, working magic on my burning eyelids and oxygen-hungry brain.

It had been a tough week emotionally. My whole body felt foggy, and while the latte offered superficial comfort, what I really craved was an afternoon under a heavy duvet, thick book in hand. I was ready to pick up the reader’s passport and travel to whatever world the book created, escaping for a few hours from the hardness of fluorescent-lit reality.

Of course, being an adult often entails feigning functionality, so the book would have to wait. I had a meeting to get to.

In the hallway, I passed a student who would be attending the meeting. She was on the phone, locked in intense conversation. We waved at each other, miming greetings, before I whirred into the conference room, a space big enough to seat a dozen people around a common table. Under the bright fluorescent lights, two students sat at the table, chatting. Another one wandered in followed a few minutes later by the student from the hallway, now off the phone.

There we were: four students and one instructor, coming together for the weekly English as a Second Language conversation group. Originally, the intent behind this group was to meet once a week during fall semester in an effort to connect students born and raised in the U.S. with international students, as there is a gap between those populations on our campus. It’s only in recent years that the northern outpost that is our city has become more diverse and, by extension, that our college is seeing students from a variety of backgrounds enroll. Put another way: we now see not only more people of color, we also have women in hijab walking from classroom to classroom, for our campus’ programs, in particular nursing, are drawing immigrants from African countries, many of them Muslim. Our nursing instructors do an amazing job of pulling together students from all over the world under a common curriculum, but they have noted ongoing issues with English ability in many of their students–and, when one is a nurse, language matters. Thus, the idea for this group was hatched. I am the faculty advisor for the honor society chapter on our campus; the students in the honor society decided that starting an ESL group would be an excellent way to connect with international students while also providing language practice for those who might benefit from it.

We hung posters, filled faculty mailboxes with flyers, made announcements. The first week the group met, there were a handful of members from the honor society in the room…and one person from another country: a nursing instructor from Bulgaria. We were not surprised, as the nature of a community college campus is that students work multiple jobs outside of taking classes, and in general they commute to the campus on a need-to-get-to-class basis. After the first week, I decided to launch a campaign of personal outreach and emailed past students of mine, hoping to get more folks with international backgrounds into the room during future weeks. It worked, as we now have had interesting cultural conversations with immigrants not only from Bulgaria but also Jordan, Finland, Jamaica, East Timor, Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Philippines.

So there we were that day in the conference room: four students and one instructor. Three of the students were born and raised in Northern Minnesota, and the other lived in the Philippines until she was 25, at which point she moved to Italy and worked as a nanny for ten years before meeting her American husband, having kids, and moving here. Now, she is more stereotypically Northern Minnesotan than most: she is a hockey mom.

The feeling in the room was easy, full of chat and joking. As I set out butter and sliced the baguette, the student who had been on the phone in the hallway, Avie, started to talk. She, too, was having a stressful week. A woman in her early fifties who works full-time in health care, Avie got out of an emotionally abusive marriage a handful of years ago, at which point she realized she could do anything. She found a new love, bought a house, remodeled it, started traveling, enrolled in college to pursue a new future, and opened her house to three young people who needed a place to live: her son (in his mid-twenties), her niece (in her first years of college), and her niece’s girlfriend/partner (also in her late teens, in her first years of college). For nominal rent, Avie provides these younger students with a lovely home, free tutoring services, and endless late-night counseling. When the girls moved in a year-and-a-half ago, she laid out her household rules, most notably that they may not have sex when she is home. This matters because the girls’ bedroom is adjacent to Avie’s, and there is no door between them, only an open frame. In return, Avie promised not to have sex with her boyfriend when they were home. Fundamentally, her message to them was “Let’s all have a little decency, please, in the form of boundaries.”

By and large, they all have lived together harmoniously. However, one recent Thursday night, Avie came home, ready for an evening of studying math with a classmate before their big test. Upon seeing her, the girls greeted her with a kind of aggressive incredulity: “What are you doing here? You’re never home on Thursday nights.” As it turned out, Thursday nights are the girls’ Love Nights. Quickly, their annoyance at Avie’s presence spiraled into something like an argument. These young women–who do laundry every day, each using two new towels every time they shower, yet who don’t pitch in toward the cost of utilities; who let Avie pay for a cleaning woman to come in every two weeks; who let Avie stock the pantry with basics that they use–had complaints.

As it turns out, it’s difficult to have productive disagreement with a 19-year-old lesbian who is taking her first Women’s Studies class. Fueled by the self-righteousness of the marginalized, one of the girls (sorry: womyn) took all her textbook learning and applied it to cutting down someone who’d actually lived through various female-related hells yet still retained a soft and generous heart.

Riveted and sympathetic, we four listeners at the conference table asked questions and lobbed opinions as Avie explained that she didn’t even want to go home and was making plans to stay at her boyfriend’s house instead. Even more, she connected the dots between her childhood experiences and her current fear of conflict and reluctance to lay out consequences for the girls’ disrespectful attitudes.

At one point, I tried to convince Avie that she needed to push herself past her tendency to avoid conflict and give the girls a good dose of “This is my house, and I will not be treated this way.” But then one of the other students in the room, Adam, weighed in. Adam has a fantastic head of dreadlocks, is a self-described Daoist Rastafarian, has been a vegetarian for decades, likes to get high and do yoga every night, and is deeply into astrology. Also, and this is what makes community college students so fascinating: he was a long-haul trucker for eight years.

Adam advised, “It does seem like you need to set boundaries with them, but you should retreat for a few days first. Right now, you’re too upset, and so are they. If you try to get firm with them, things will explode, and you all could end up saying things you’ll never be able to forgive. Let it cool first.”

Considering the merits of Adam’s intuitions, I sliced a few more pieces of baguette off the loaf and pushed the bread board toward Avie. Then a third student, Jade, piped up with her own story. Jade is a single mother of three adolescents, and she owns the foibles of her Adventures in Mothering with bracing honesty, right down to the time she caught a glimpse of herself chasing her three-year-old with a wooden spoon, aiming to give him a whupping, when she caught sight of her reflection and thought, “What am I doing?”

After emphasizing the many ways her 12-year-old son is driving her crazy with his oppositional attitude, Jade offered, “We were sitting in the drive-thru at McDonald’s last night, and he was being such a butthead, all ‘Blah, blah, blah, poke, poke, poke, you’re stupid, Mom, how lame, blah, blah,‘ and so I was yelling at him about what a brat he is, and I just wanted to reach around and whack him, and then the McDonald’s worker’s voice came through the speaker, and this worker was the most perky, happy, upbeat, thrilled-about-his-job person ever. He was just so excited to take our order. He was totally, ‘What can we get you today at McDonald’s that will make your evening? What can I do for you?’ This guy kept going on all chipper, and it cracked me up. I was trying to order and sound serious, but I was laughing so hard. Then I looked at Dustin, and he couldn’t stop laughing either, so then both of us were holding our stomachs, covering our faces, completely unable to stop snorting at the happiest McDonald’s worker in the world. The entire feeling in the car had changed, all thanks to this wacky guy handing McRib sandwiches through a window.”

We were well into the meeting now, and I wanted to be sure the student from the Philippines was included, so I leaned over and stage whispered to her, “This is the week the ESL group became a therapy session.”

She was having a good time listening–what a pleasure to be treated like part of the crowd and not a specimen on display–and nodded. At the same time, wise Adam noted, “We get therapy in bits and pieces all the time, from all sorts of places and interactions.”

“Yea, like the McDonald’s drive-thru,” I agreed.

Adding more of his particular insights, Adam continued, “It’s interesting that, astrologically, this is called The Week of Depth. It’s a time of tensions rearing up, and the full moon is in opposition to the Week of the Teacher, also known as Taurus II.”

Because I know virtually nothing of astrology outside of the fortune-cookie “horoscopes” printed in the newspaper, I later looked up the Week of Depth. An astrologer at We’Moon: Starcodes (which I might one day take as my Wiccan name) explains that this is a good week to:

…honor memories of our beloved dead. The past will be with us, old feelings arise, and we need to work with the watery Moon and let the feelings flow through and flow on. We may be unusually touchy and painfully aware of our vulnerabilities, easily insulted and just a little delicate on the soul.

Also:

…opinions fly fast and furious…Let the dust settle before responding…stubborn entrenchment may polarize…Let go of comparison, as jealousy and territoriality can be a problem; don’t go there…Stay true to personal truth and goals.

Interesting. I was left agreeing with Adam that, when our hearts are searching for guidance, therapies reveal themselves everywhere, from the McDonald’s drive-thru to a spiritual counselor on a website to a conference room at a community college.

As our conversation continued in the conference room that afternoon, I turned to Beth, the student from the Philippines, and tried to direct some questions her way. In her wide-ranging responses, we heard about disciplining of children, expressions of anger, traditions of weddings, and celebration of holidays in the Philippines.

Toward the end of the hour, the remaining baguette sat, untouched, in the middle of the table as Beth remembered her youth in a village without electricity. Even after lights came to their house when she was nine, her grandmother’s rural home in the country still remained dark, relying on oil lamps during the evening hours.

As our minutes together in the brightly lit conference room ticked down, Beth’s quiet voice related a very particular memory. She and her siblings were at their grandmother’s house, and it was a holiday–a feast day in her Catholic country–and they all wanted to see the feast parade go by out on the main road that night. So they set out together, grandma and the kids, to walk the two miles to the road. Later, heading home, they lit their way with torches Grandma had made by rolling and binding leaves from coconut trees.

Swinging their torches above their heads, the kids romped in the darkness. Suddenly, though, they were surrounded.

By darting fireflies.

Phantasmal, chimeraic, the insects flickered and disappeared.

Walking in darkness, the family chattered, moving closer together, sliding further apart, ebbing and flowing with each other,

joyfully following Nature’s unexpected light as it led them from one dark place to the next.

Fireflies

(photo by Jason Mrachina)

My Thing

I’m a firm believer that teens do better if they have a “thing.”

Preferably not heroin.

Ideally, the thing might be football, chess, sewing, soccer–some activity that helps navigate the journey toward self-definition. When we’re young and don’t yet know what we are or who we’ll be, having a “thing” can clarify.

For me, the thing that buoyed me during high school was being on the speech team. Not only did it provide me with the opportunity to apply all my many words to a purpose, it also connected me with like-minded peers. I could talk SAT scores with my speech peeps as we bemoaned the number of college essays we had to write before December. What’s more, participating in speech taught me how to fake confidence–how to wrap myself in a cloak of bravura and save my tears for the bathroom.

I still use this technique today, in my teaching life.

One other significant thing that came to me thanks to my love of Original Oratory was a relationship with and affection for the coaches. Mr. Fisher. Mrs. Hall. Miss Bach.

It felt novel and special to have a non-classroom-based relationship with these teachers at my high school. They never graded my work; rather, they got on buses with all of us forensics kids and rode for countless hours around the state of Montana. We went to meets in in Missoula, Havre, Glendive. We stopped at Country Kitchens and 24-hour diners. We looked over the judges’ ballots together after each meet. We laughed and laughed together. These coaches were our mentors, chaperones, and friends.

Now, thirty years later, Facebook has reconnected me with two of them. Over the years, I had kept in contact with Mrs. Hall, as she was the coach I worked with for my event; always, I have loved her. However, I had lost contact with Mr. Fisher and Miss Bach. But then: Facebook. So now I am friends with Miss Bach, and it’s been grand to have that point of communication and contact, especially because she is an English teacher. We speak that shared language.

The re-connection with Miss Bach has never been more appreciated than today. You see, as I’ve tried to pitch my writing at online publications in recent months, there have been lots of rejections–and, along the way, a few successes. First, there was this piece at Mamalode, which I posted about previously: Sweet Like Sugar. Then, last week, I had a piece run at The Good Men Project: Raising a Gentle Boy in a Violent World. 

Now, today, I have an essay on Mamalode. Their theme this month is “men,” and so I submitted an essay about my dad. If you are so disposed (Be disposed! Be disposed!), you can read it here: The Air That I Breathe.

Of course, the best part of having one’s writing reach an audience is the sense of a shared moment.

I just had the best shared moment with Miss Bach, when she sent me a message about today’s essay on Mamalode. She wrote:

When I comment on your writing, I can never quite go the cast of thousands FB approach. I loved this piece. Having lost my own father in January, so unexpectedly, setting my siblings and me on our own orphan train, this resonates profoundly. I have to believe that anyone who has loved or been loved deeply does not die alone and therein lies solace.

The greatest tribute I can pay you–I am realizing I need to begin to write, and you are giving me the courage/inspiration to begin the journey.

Immediately, as I read this message, my eyes filled with tears. Miss Bach was a seminal figure in my teen years. She helped shape me. She is one of the many reasons I teach English. She is one of the many reasons I write.

With her message today, she treated me as a respected peer. I am humbled.

Also:

I am having the best day.

Miss Gastrocnemius

I walked down the empty corridor, the modest heels of my pumps clicking satisfyingly on the tiles. After a three-hour night class, I couldn’t wait to get home for dinner and an icy drink, so the clicks echoed quickly, pertly.

As I passed one of the the Auto Body classrooms, I caught sight of my reflection in a full-length glass window. I tend to wear dresses when teaching my night class; we only meet once a week, which is infrequently enough that I can convince the students I’m a pulled-together adult. If we saw each other more often, that jig would be up. However, with the controlled circumstances of a single weekly meeting, I can put my best foot and face forward, and just when I start to melt into creased and rumpled–my normal state–it’s time to head home, whereupon I scrub off the slap, peel off the tights, clip up the hair, and don knee socks, shalwars, and a hoodie. By the end of this transformation, I look like a 4 a.m. Walmart shopper, hopelessly confused in Aisle 23 because where do they keep the deodorant?

Hence, it was unusual to catch a glimpse of myself dressed like a real person who pays taxes and knows where the deodorant is. What I saw in that quick reflection was huge.

I saw my calves.

There, jutting out below the hem of my dress, were my huge calves.

It is not news to me that I am calvishly blessed. Strangers have stopped me in hair salons to ask how such beefy things came to be compliment me.

What grabbed my attention, thus, wasn’t the size of my calves. Rather, I was struck by the image of those muscular beasts packaged into hose, clipping along in heels. Immediately, one thought flashed through my mind: “Well, tighten down my wig and glue on some false lashes because I’ll be damned if I don’t look like a transgendered male-to-female.” Then I yelped out an involuntary hoot of laughter.

Holy hell. I have trans calves.

SONY DSCMost likely, this thought popped into my head because we’d spent the previous week watching the new Amazon show called Transparent. This terrific program explores the journey and ripples of a father’s decision to begin living as the woman he’s always known he is. More than anything, the episodes explore subtleties of gender identity and family politics. It’s a grand bit of storytelling headed by actor Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, and because I always want to be part of a grand story, it pleased me to realize that my legs, when dressed up in their Tuesday evening best, look just like those of Maura’s hormone-popping friend Davina.

The truly significant part of realizing I have trans calves is how much this epiphany tickled me. As someone who has fought her way through a lifetime of bodily loathing, it would make sense for me to hate my masculine calves. All those self-esteem demons that plague my psyche with accusations of “fat,” “ugly,” and “undesirable” should have hissed to the surface when they saw my reflection in the window.

Yet they were silent. The only sounds that echoed in the empty hallway were my delighted hoot and the tap of my happy steps.

Heels clicking across the linoleum, I savored that victory, all the richer for being so unexpected. Although agonizingly willing to hate my body, I actually love my trans calves.

Here’s the thing: whether these calves are sported by a man-become-woman…or by a woman-always-woman, they are full-on freaking badass. I tire of gender-specific “beauty,” and for that I thank those who have blurred the lines or taken a stand for their right to just BE. For example, last year my brain reeled in awe at the bearded Sikh woman who responded with humbling equanimity when she learned that a mocking photo of herself had been posted online. To the person who posted the photo, she wrote:

I’m not embarrased or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positve] that this picture is getting because, it’s who I am. Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a seperateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it?

Relatedly, I was impressed by the action the Women’s Tennis Association took when they recently disciplined the head of the Russian Tennis Federation for comments about Serena and Venus Williams; referring to the sisters’ bodies, he called them “the Williams brothers,” adding “it’s scary when you really look at them.”

And so the world progresses. We have bearded Sikh women who make no apologies. We have breath-taking female athletes whose forearms ripple in the wind. We have television shows where a man in his sixties shares heart-breakingly touching scenes with his ex-wife–he in a skirt and long hair, she in pants wearing a cropped wig. the two of them united by a shared history. We have English teachers with massive calves, dressing up like they’re grown ladies, ticking their way down empty halls, anticipating a cocktail.

We have my husband, who can’t get enough of his wife’s legs.

We have my children, who see that their mother refuses shame.

We have me, who caught sight of herself walking out of a building and realized she looked like a man.

We have a delighted hoot,

a shout of ready acceptance,

and it echoes into the night.

Clicking Along

I walked down the empty corridor, the heels of my pumps clicking satisfyingly on the tiles. After a three-hour night class, I was eager to get home for dinner and an icy drink, so the clicks echoed quickly, pertly.

As I walked, I considered the joy this class was bringing me. Last year, I had a group of students so challenging–so street hard, inculcated in the culture of drugs, guns, stripping, and prostitution–that I had been left unsure I could continue in the profession.

If this new semester had presented me with an equally unruly and chaotic bunch, I would have had to make some serious life changes. Fortunately, the students in the night class–while full of the standard issues and agonies–were loves. They couldn’t believe they were in college, and, despite deep deficits, they wanted to be worthy.

I almost didn’t know what to do with this delightful lot.

Each week, as I stood at the front of the room, I struggled with recollections of how scared and out of control last year’s students had made me feel. Not only had they failed me, I had failed them; we had all failed each other. For an entire semester, I had felt sick and full of tears.

Indeed, in comparison, I almost didn’t know what to do with this charming, eager night class.

What I did was this: I battled nerves all afternoon before the class. Then I strapped on my Big Girl Spanx and got to campus. There, I sat in my office and felt nauseous for an hour. Finally, when the clock got to 5:54, I steeled myself and headed to the classroom, carrying a stack of handouts clutched protectively to my chest.

When I hit the door and was fogged by the heat of the poorly ventilated room, my armpits got clammy. I was there. I was carrying too much. I was sweating. I was wearing heels. Wearing heels reminded me I was the adult. They pitched me up and made me taller, more powerful. They kept me, literally, on my toes.

Into the classroom I walked, clammy, clutching, pumped.

Then they turned their faces to me, checking out who had just come in.

When they saw it was me, they smiled.

At 5:59 p.m., they were in their seats, notebooks open, glad to be there. Twice, a student baked cookies for the class. Another time, one brought four boxes of donuts. Every week, the fellow we called Snack God toted in a bag of treats, which he offered to his classmates, most of whom hadn’t eaten or, if they had, it was from the vending machine.

When I got to the front of the room and started setting out all the instructional materials—handouts, stapler, laptop, grade book–they didn’t mob me with excuses and problems, which we then sorted through, one by one, for the first fifteen minutes. They didn’t race up to buy mercy with pleading eyes. They didn’t waggle a finger and ask if they could talk to me in the hall, whereupon they’d disclose a problem with lice or show me a missing tooth or tell me they’d punched a cop.

Rather, these students stayed in their seats, chatting easily. The girl who always waved her hand in the air–wanting clarification on thesis statements, topic choices, and comma splices–called out to me, “Hey, when you wore pants last week, it was the first time you didn’t wear a dress!”

She twirled happily in her rolling chair and leaned to ask her table mate if he had his rough draft done. Of course he had his rough draft done. They all did.

Then: it was time, 6:00, and as happy chatter flowed, the last few students hustled in, not wanting to be late. If they were late, it would be disrespectful. When I mentioned that the first night of class, they were listening. They heard me.

As soon as my mouth opened to make the first announcement, those with phones out tucked them away. Every set of eyes focused on me.

In that moment, for all the very best reasons, I wanted to cry.

Seizing It

We stood in the kitchen, eating Sunday morning biscuits and working out a quick schedule of the day–as families do–figuring out

who would drive downtown to take two boys to the matinee

who would drive up the hill to help the fourteen-year-old pick out black dress pants for her band photo

if anyone had moved the wet laundry into the dryer

if the phlegm in the lungs had loosened up

how many online assignments needed grading

what kind of matte and frame would work for the newly finished embroidery

how many of us would be attending the upcoming cross-country banquet

who would be returning the on-loan tubs of Lego Robotics tubs to the middle school

what was the plan for dinner

how was the execution of that going to happen

and at what time we might all see each other again later in the day, to debrief on various adventures in the world: the play performance, the new dress pants, the clean gym clothes stashed into backpacks, the amount of mucus coughed into Kleenex, the graded assignments, the framed handiwork, the completed banquet form, the packing up of the Legos, and the smell of focaccia baking because of course Byron was making focaccia for dinner on a day when he had turned out biscuits for breakfast.

During the scheduling discussion, I piped up that, as has been my way in recent weeks, I also intended to go for a run, buoyed by sunshine, crunching through fallen leaves. At some point in the busy day, I would park the car and stop eating the carbohydrates long enough to demand my portion of autumnal bliss.

Indeed, of late, I’ve been powered by an insistent internal voice that reminds me, “Do not take these glorious days for granted. Do not sit at the computer or walk around a store when the world outside is glowing, bursting with fireworks before it ebbs into six months of darkness. Get out there; get out there; get out there.”

That’s the conundrum of fall: it’s a time of heightened glory underscored by the melancholy of fading beauty.

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For me, the only way to deal with the melancholy that threatens is to savor the current colors and crunches, tucking images of them into my heart so that I can unfold them in February on a day when I want to gnaw off my forearm during a fit of winter desperation. In the darkest hours, I need to bolster my spirits with remembrance of times when the world was still awake, brighten my mood with the promise of future beauty.

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Packing all these feelings into a simple declaration about going for a run, I then shifted into True Jocelyn mode and unpacked the simplicity into perhaps-unnecessary complexity. I turned to Allegra–all the poor girl really wanted was another biscuit–and said, “There’s a feeling in the fall that we’re on borrowed time, that there’s a clock ticking down, so I want to be sure I suck up all the warmth while it’s still here.”

Ever the pragmatist, she responded, “Isn’t that how all of life is? Aren’t we always on a clock that’s ticking down?”

For even more insight into this amazing fourteen-year-old’s brain, I present to you the whiteboard that lives in her room. It is the home of her to-do list, account balances, and inspirational life lovelinesses.

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After taking a quick second to appreciate the girl’s point, I attempted to fine tune it. “Yes, of course all of life is basically a clock that’s ticking down. Well played, 9th Grade Philosopher. But it’s also true that sometimes we are provided with the gift of an enhanced awareness of that clock.”

Byron chimed in, as well, with some illustrative examples, but mostly, he was kneading bread dough while standing next to the apple cake he’d made the day before, so I was only able to perceive him in that moment as Master of the Carbohydrates. We can assume he said good things, though. I might have married him for his muffins, but I’ve stayed for his ability to talk smart stuff while elbow deep in flour.

When he paused to take a breath and flip the dough, I cut in, “You know, Allegra, it’s fairly common to hear from people dealing with cancer that their disease, while awful, actually has an upside in that it re-awakens them to life’s magic and makes every single day feel like the gift that it is.”

Verging on blowhard with that last bit, I felt the need to rein myself in, lest I lose her ear forever. I continued on a less didactic note: “When I was reading one of my celebrity gossip magazines a few months ago, I saw a quote from an actor named Michael Douglas–don’t worry that you’re unfamiliar with him; you’re not missing much–who has been battling throat cancer. In describing the journey he was on with illness, he said something like ‘Cancer didn’t bring me to my knees; it brought me to my feet.'”

She was listening, but she also had finished spreading jam on her biscuit, so I knew the teenager was about to bolt for the safe confines of her room and its comfortingly quiet whiteboard. I sped up.

“What Douglas means there is that having a feeling of being on a clock made him greet life with all new vim.”

Puzzled, the girl gave me a look that asked, “Vim?”

Clarifying, I added, “You know, verve.”

Tired of Mom’s constant vocabulary lessons, she slid her stool back from the counter and picked up her biscuit. I had about four seconds before she was gone.

“Like, energy and enthusiasm. He was saying that having a reminder that time is short made him bring new energy and enthusiasm to each day. That’s what I mean, too, about fall causing me feel like I need to grab all the beauty before it’s gone.”

Heading toward the staircase, the fourteen-year-old capped–and won–the conversation. “I get what you’re saying, but it still seems too dramatic. Because, Mom, all the beauty doesn’t go away when winter comes. Winter’s the most beautiful of all.”

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**This last image is one of Byron’s drawings; he drew it using a digital pen on a board about the size of a mouse pad. Himself is good at more than making biscuits. I know where his daughter gets her charms, for sure.

 

Holding a Balloon

I first became aware of Caitlin Moran a couple years ago, when her book How to Be a Woman was creating a splash. In search of a read that was smart but didn’t make my tired brain hurt, I grabbed a copy. Almost immediately, I wished it was 1985 and that I was back in my freshman year of college, a time when multi-colored highlighters were always close at hand, prepped for assiduous application to the text. Each time I ran a thick, bright-yellow marker over a particularly meaningful paragraph of Balzac or Hegel, it meant I was engaged and, even more, able to spot the important things. Had I read How to Be a Woman in 1985, I could have slapped the book closed after reading the last page and then grabbed the volume with both hands and wrung a puddle of neon highlighter onto the industrial carpet in my dorm room. Every word would have been saturated with yellow ink.

For me to get all fangrrrly about Moran is no stretch. She’s funny, talky, full of gusto, a mother to two kids. Despite her easy appeal, though, I appreciated that How to Be a Woman challenged me to consider the immediacy and relevance of feminism in a world that I had dismissed as post-post-post-feminist. As well, my reading of this book intersected with arguments being made by a college friend of mine, Robin, in her blog posts such as the one titled Wherever I Go, Whatever I Do, I Have a Uterus. It also intersected with reports from watchdogs like VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) that juggernaut publications like The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, and New York Review of Books devote a mind-blowing 75-80% of their annual coverage to men’s writing. My brain may be tired and actively avoiding circumstances of hurtingness, but when smart voices make points with forceful words and convincing statistics, the grey matter has nowhere to hide. After some mulling, in fact, the grey matter had to accept that feminism isn’t merely an historical movement from forty years ago. It’s a here-and-now issue, and my uterus and I needed to take it off the shelf.

Not incidentally, my uterus is wondrously dextrous. Last week, it put a stamp on an envelope. Woefully, the video camera’s batteries died during filming of this event.

Because I enjoyed How to Be a Woman so very much, my hands got clappy when I saw that Moran had written a new novel, a coming-of-age story based loosely on her own experience growing up poor in the Midlands of England during the 1990s. As is true for Moran, the protagonist in How to Build a Girl is from a big, loving family, one that she nevertheless escapes during her teen years after lucking into a job in music journalism. Powered by her spirited voice, Moran’s writing here appeals to my criterion of No Brainy Hurty, yet it is appealingly full of brio–funny, thought-provoking, and incisive–and many passages made me want to elbow my sleeping husband and whisper loudly, “I just need to read these two pages out loud to you. No need to respond. Just lie there and look dopey. As you do.”

It was only the fact that Byron was a sleepwalker for several decades that kept my elbow tucked to my ribs. Actually, these days, the sleepwalking tendencies have been harnessed; it’s rare that he leaps out of bed to take a random wander around the property (sometimes a guy’s just gotta go stand in front of the open fridge for three minutes, in case someone put his car keys, or a rabbit, in there). Rather, when roused, he usually stays in the bed–while rearing up dramatically and pinning me to the thread count with an intense, brain-disconnected, baleful glare that would melt a lesser Feminist Wife.

All in all, even though I was nodding knowingly, shouting internal affirmations, and wanting to share some of Moran’s insightful passages with somebody, it seemed wise to let sleeping beaux lie. Instead, I simply reread the best passages three times and smugly noted that poor zzzz-ing Byron sure was missing out over there on his poofy pillow.

What I appreciated particularly about How to Build a Girl is that it weaves social commentary into the story line. It’s just this tendency that caused the New York Times‘ review of Moran’s latest to note, with some affection, that the book is occasionally “sloppy.” Long-time readers of this blog, and neighbors who have walked through my living room, know that I’m okay with “sloppy.” It’s sloppy, after all, that allows for asides about the postal abilities of a uterus and the potential presence of a rabbit in the refrigerator. Tight is over in Human Resources, taking messages on a tiny pad of paper. Sloppy is dancing on top of the copy machine, a half-drunk bottle of peach schnapps swinging wildly around her head, and she’s not coming down until someone cobbles together a ladder out of the goldenrod.

There are a few sloppy passages about class and poverty in How to Build a Girl that I want to copy, laminate, and hang up in my office. Then, when I have had it up. to. here with students not getting to class, or only sporting one shoe when they do get to the room, or not having the textbook by week eight, or munching pizza-flavored Goldfish for an hour while announcing it’s the only thing they’ve eaten all day,

I can retreat to my office and rediscover compassion in the laminated paragraphs sagging from the walls (damn cheap Scotch tape), in clunkily incorporated passages that remind “…the poor are seen as…animalistic. No classical music for us–no walking around National Trust properties or buying reclaimed flooring. We don’t have nostalgia. We don’t do yesterday. We can’t bear it. We don’t want to be reminded of our past, because it was awful: dying in mines, and slums, without literacy, or the vote. Without dignity. It was all so desperate then. That’s why the present and the future is for the poor–that’s the place in time for us: surviving now, hoping for the better later. We live now–for our instant hot, fast treats, to pep us up: sugar, a cigarette, a new fast song on the radio.

“You must never, never forget when you talk to someone poor, that it takes ten times the effort to get anywhere from a bad post code. It’s a miracle when someone from a bad post code gets anywhere…A miracle they do anything at all.”

Later in How to Build a Girl, after the main character of Johanna has banged around her teen years, collecting sexual experiences, applying ever-thicker eyeliner, tromping into clubs in her torn tights, she realizes her attempts to be cool and adult have, in fact, made her cruel. As Johanna reconsiders the kind of person she wants to be in the world, Moran works in a gorgeous tangent about cynicism and how it’s a way of coping with fear.

As someone who cultivated an attitude of irony through her teen years, eventually channeling it into a coat of cynicism, I had to adjust the reading lamp on the bed’s head board while reading these pages. I didn’t want to miss a word. Much of my adult life has been spent stripping away the shellac of cynicism, but I hadn’t necessarily realized that until Moran articulated it. Her Johanna, reflecting on why she had become so jaded, realizes it’s “Because I am still learning to walk and talk, and it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish. Because I still don’t know what I really think or feel, and I’m throwing grenades and filling the air with smoke while I desperately, desperately try to get off the ground: to get elevation. Because I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.”

Thank you, Caitlin Moran, for convincing me feminism still matters; for illuminating the ongoing problems with our classist cultures; for making me want to go out and buy a balloon and a birthday cake.

I’m counting down the years until I can hand your books to my daughter.

Hitting the Motherlode at Mamalode

I’ve been writing this blog since 2006 and, before that, pouring words into wild Christmas letters that took so long to read my friends were still working through them come New Year’s. All this fun writing is great. But recently, I decided to start submitting essays to a few publications, just to see what that process of writing, editing, submission, and rejection feels like.

I’ll tell you when the process feels really good: when something gets accepted.

Last week, I heard from Mamalode.com. They accepted an essay I submitted. Then they let me know it would be published on October 7th.

Friends, it went live this morning, and I’m just so happy.

Please, if you have a minute, click on the link below, and give the thing a read.

Sweet Like Sugar

Being Able to Climb a Princess’ Hair Is Pretty Ludicrous, Too

Once upon a time, two white, middle-class Midwesterners decided to invite all the townspeople to a feast called Potluck.

Listen, not all fairy tales begin with mentally-unstable witches making mischief. Sometimes they begin with swans hatched into the wrong family; hungry wolves; vain emperors; magic shoes; and, yes, middle-class white people who like to eat.

In fact, I’d argue mentally-unstable witches making mischief are all too real, particularly in tales of the modern-day workplace. I’ll take a ravenous wolf at the door any day. At least we soft little piglets stand a fighting chance against that type of beast.

Those summoned to Potluck were also issued a challenge: they were to present a dish that connected to a children’s story, nursery rhyme, or book. This was a very literate kingdom, unlike the neighboring duchy of HatesBooksLandia (a place of strapped economy, depressed citizens, and limited, ummm, how you say, word thingies).

On the evening of Potluck–an uncommonly fair day!–the townspeople gathered and entered their dishes into competition. The competitor known as Keg of Beer (based on the tale of John Barleycorn) served as a natural meeting point for discussions of weather, health, shoes, work, home repair, children, and appalling dresses at celebrity weddings. Excitement reigned, for the victors at Potluck, both young and old, would be handsomely rewarded. Two youths would win gift cards to the general mercantile known as Target. Two elders would tote home baskets of goods that would make bed-bound grandmothers far and wide wish for a visit.

Potluck proved to all neighboring duchies that where there are books, there is creativity.

And the occasional scary cousin toting a tray of poison apples.

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Robert Munsch’s MMMM, COOKIES (however, these were not made out of clay!)

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The princess and the pea “mattresses”
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The Seven Dwarfs worked in the mines. They took pasties for lunch.

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Sneetch cupcakes–ready to go through the Star-Bellied Sneetch machine that Paco made

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After feasting upon the various delights, the townspeople exercised their rights as citizens of a democracy (one guest brought the recently deposed king baked into a tasty lasagna) and voted.

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There were two categories (Best Taste and Best Tie-In to Story) and two age groups (under and over age 15). When the winners were announced, the elders received their baskets, the youths their gift cards. Darkness fell. Everyone returned to their cottages. Kindly John Barleycorn left a growler of beer for the hosts.

Some time later, this delightful tale gained a ridiculous coda.

You see, young Paco’s Star-Bellied Sneetch machine had been such a hit that he won the Best Tie-In to Story award in the Youth Division. When one is eleven, one gets special dispensation and can win a prize even as a host of the party. It’s in the handbook.

Thus, our lad had a ten-dollar Target gift card living in his wallet. After a few weeks of illness (Every good story requires suffering, all the better if it involves a weak cough, yes?), the boy, believing in the healing power of pixels, decided he wanted to invest in a new video game for himself. So we went to Target and tested the game there. The thing was very fun.

However.

It turns out he could buy a used copy of this game at a different store, for significantly less. He wondered, therefore, if we, as people who shop at Target with some frequency, would be willing to buy his gift card from him so that he could put the cash toward the used game. It made perfect sense, really.

Indeed, it made perfect sense for us to have paid for the initial purchase of the gift card and then, some weeks later, to buy that same gift card off our own child.

Speaking of situations I could never have anticipated back when I dreamed of becoming a parent.

Fortunately, the video game has made Paco feel as perky as Jiminy Cricket; we now have funds to buy the emperor new clothes from the Merona, Xhiliration, and Mossimo lines at Target; and the chain of events from having a wonderful party through paying my child for something I already bought has made me feel like Euna, the princess who laughs as she watches a mouse, a beetle, and a catfish attempt to help a man extract himself from the mud.

In other words,

we all lived happily ever after.

 

 

No Dull Boys, Not Even You, Jack

It’s not for lack of trying.

Ever since they were old enough to kick a ball, turn a somersault, and weave a multi-colored tote bag on a floor loom, we’ve signed our kids up for activities. Partly, we did this because it helped to pass some of the long hours that make parents look at the clock and think, “How can it only be 8 a.m.? We’ve made playdough, cut out paper people, walked down to the busy road to count red cars, read fifteen books, and baked cookies. Sweet Clock in the Sludge, but how can it only be 8 a.m.?” However, we also enrolled them in gymnastics, soccer, archery, day camps, ski lessons, and language groups with an eye toward that elusive thing called Personal Betterment. Basically, we wanted to give our kids opportunities to find interests, to develop potential passions, to realize abilities and affinities. As a bonus, sometimes they would whirl out of an art class, excitedly holding an off-kilter clay blob, and I would think, “Hallelujah! Looks like we can mark ‘Find Grandma a birthday present’ off our to-do list.”

There was also a long-term eye being cast to the kids’ futures as Taller People. For both Byron and me, it was extracurriculars that eased the potentially tough years of our teens. In the case of Byron, with his family having strong Norwegian and Minnesotan roots, he was on cross-country skis from the time he was four; eleven years later, his ease on the slopes led him to the high school ski team, which then took him to the off-season-training sport of cross-country running, which then opened up an understanding that he had endurance abilities, which now, in his forties, has developed into a new passion for swimming, particularly in open water. Thanks to this chain of interests, he’s approaching his mid-forties as a man who is fit, spirited, and motivated. Side bonus: he also has an enviably thick hoodie gained this past summer when he completed a 2.1 mile swim in Lake Superior, from Bayfield, Wisconsin, out to Madeline Island, and back again. Even bigger side bonus: his ability to endure has made him singularly well-equipped for life with me.

In my case, the string of extracurriculars started in elementary school, when I joined the Brownie troop, and continued when I launched into ballet and piano classes. Eventually, I played flute in the school band and learned the mysteries of a double-reed instrument one summer when I took up bassoon. Always, there was music. Always, there was movement. As I age, my every day is still full of both, for I take a few moments every evening to chassé my way over to the piano bench before hacking out some Chopin. I also continue to reap daily benefits from my primary high school extracurricular: the speech team. Once I joined forensics, I found My People, and that in itself is a significant moment in the life of the teenager. Unlike many who attended my Montana high school, My People didn’t have rifle racks hanging on the back windows of their pick-up cabs. Rather, my people wore thick glasses and knew how to ace standardized tests. In a fascinating correlation, those with rifle racks in their pick-up trucks still live in the same town thirty years later, having changed most significantly in the model of truck they drive; in contrast, the myopic test-takers busted out of town and are now scattered around the globe. They have been to open-air markets. They have tasted spices whose names they can’t pronounce. Even though we haven’t seen each other for decades, they are still My People.

In addition to community, the speech team brought me skills and insights that I draw upon every day in my adult life. Competing in speech meets showed me that I will forever be a person who has to hole up in the bathroom before standing up and speaking in front of a group of people. As well, it showed me that once I’m done speaking before a group, I will manage to be both elated and in need of a quick cry. Knowing that I function this way, I now plot both bathroom and weeping time into my teaching schedule. Further, when I’m in the classroom, standing up there feeling dehydrated, I am constantly drawing upon the training I received from those high school years in forensics. Gestures happen above the waist. I am aware of “body blocking”–that I should accompany a change of subject with a change in where I’m standing, and when I’m heading left, it’s my left foot that should start the move (and vice versa). I look my audience in their bloodshot eyes, and I modulate my voice, using a range of dynamics and tempos to engage those listeners who aren’t staring at their crotches and tapping away on the screen that they’re “hiding” in Central Genitalia. All the many things I absorbed during my career in Original Oratory (with the occasional foray into Memorized Public Address–for I HAD A DREAM, PEOPLE!) play into my current career. Without that extracurricular, I might not be a teacher. At the very least, I’d be a very different kind of teacher, one who faces the whiteboard for the entire hour, never turning around measure the impact of my words and actions. In other words, I’d be teaching math.

The upshot is that both Byron and I believe that extracurriculars are important to a young person’s development. One of our kids has conformed perfectly to her parents’ values–as every child should, without question–for Allegra loves running, skiing, photography, and writing. Having just entered high school, she’s thriving on the cross-country running team, both in terms of her strength and health but also when it comes to finding Her People. She doesn’t talk much, our girl, but she’s a rock solid teenager of admirable character, and gradually, her chatty, less-together teammates are discovering the beauty of having Allegra’s yang to their yin. In many ways, teenage social groups don’t reward peers for being people who show up on time, who have all their equipment, who have prepared a wee giftie for their secret buddies (despite never receiving any wee giftie in return), who are diligent and focused, who know the names of all 135 runners on the team, who lead with reserve but who are deeply observational. But get this: cross-country runners, as a type, do. For the young woman who lives in our house, participation in cross-country is providing her with a kind of confidence and sense of belonging that she could never get from her family or her teachers.

And then there’s *typist pauses to emit a long, weary sigh* eleven-year-old Paco. This would be a good point to take a breather, Dear Reader. Go ahead and take a second to scroll up to the top of this post and reread the opening sentence.

I’ll wait.

Waiting

Back now? Okay, then there’s Paco.

In this kid, we have perhaps the only boy on Planet Earth who dislikes moving his body. Sports? Not so much. As a rule, he also really hates group activities because, y’know, people. Even more, he wants no part of anything that involves a clock or competition. Truth be told, I understand. He is who he is, and his charms run deep. It’s just that we want him to face situations where he has to cope, deal, adjust–where he isn’t always within the safe parameters of his comfort zone (a place that looks a whole lot like a couch with a book on it). Just as importantly, parents shouldn’t be the ones to bring the whole world to their children; sometimes parents need to get out of the way so that Whole World is allowed a direct line.

Don’t get me wrong: Paco has hobbies. He reads. Also, he reads. I’m not complaining because another thing he really likes is reading. On occasion, he agrees to accompany his mother on her Walkies, mostly because she’s extremely clever and spends the walk interviewing him about what he’s been building in Minecraft and what level he’s at in Cube World. Moreover, as someone who loves weaponry, he will spend some time in the yard with his bow, shooting arrows at a target. At heart, he’s an artist; fortunately, he got the right father to feed that habit. Currently, the two of them have put in weeks and weeks making polished mud balls using a technique called dorodango. Once the project is finished, rest assured I’ll post about my son’s and husband’s balls. With pictures.

For sure, the kid is interesting. It’s just that he won’t have his photo scattered throughout the high school year book. That’s okay.

However, last week, we received an email from his school about various after-school clubs that will be running this year. Jumping out at us was mention of a Robotics club. The one camp Paco agreed to do this past summer was Robotics. Basically, with Robotics, kids learn how to write mini-computer programs and then use them to control “robots” they’ve built out of various materials, often Legos. There are battles between the robots; there are winners. Because Paco participated in the camp with a hyper-competitive friend (whose need to always be best sometimes exhausts our lad), their robot, Cutiepie, ended up winning the overall camp championship–the campionship!–at the end of the week.

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Thus, the camp brought to him programming, design, teamwork, and the thrill of victory. Since it had been such a positive experience for him, we stood in the kitchen last week, urging him to sign up for the Robotics club at his school. If he gets into Robotics through his school, he could one day be on a high school team, and their competitions are huge, held over the course of a weekend at the convention center, with cheering fans, pep bands and a festive colosseum-battle feel. It’s also possible I get my geek on when we attend the annual ‘bot battles, going a little crazy with picking my favorites and then holding my breath when they compete–which is, umm, to say: I want this for my kid.

Robotics

As Byron and I asked our boy to consider joining the Robotics club, Paco, not surprisingly, resisted. He worried that he wouldn’t know anyone else in the club, especially since his hyper-competitive friend is already in so many extracurriculars that he wouldn’t be able to add Robotics to his tight schedule. When we suggested that it’s okay to join something, even if you’re the only person you know in the room, he became even more reluctant and asked, “Why? Why do I have to do anything? School is a lot, and I like to come home.” At the same time he voiced these thoughts, it was apparent in his eyes that he wanted to do this thing; it’s just his nature to worry. Fortunately, it’s his parents’ nature to shove him past his objections and into occasional action. In such moments of cajoling-leading-to-a-form-being-filled-out, their opening tactic has historically been to become preachy.

Poor kid. All he had wanted was a quick snack before heading to the couch to read about fantastical worlds. But now. Stuck sitting at the island in the kitchen, listening to blowhard adults unleash their arguments.

Byron’s opening salvo was to mention a newspaper article he’d read the day before that noted the single most-essential time in a person’s life to take risks is middle school. While Byron didn’t have text or citation on hand, his Internet-trolling wife later discovered that the Washington Post had published the article, which points out, “…middle school should be seen as an important time to let kids begin to develop their identities apart from their parents. Who a child will become is not a foregone conclusion, and without trying a lot of new things, how can a young person truly know who she is?”

Unmoved by mentions of newspaper articles, Paco dipped his biscotti into his tea before recommitting to his stance: “I just want there to be someone I know in the club, and then I’d join.”

Inserting myself into the coercion, I announced, “No matter what, I think you need to do this club. You have no other activity outside of school. We’re going to insist on this. And what your dad just said about taking risks and how the article argues that it takes bravery to become an adult is really true. Now, having affirmed the rightness of you joining the club, even if you don’t know anyone, I’m about to undermine everything we’ve just been saying by suggesting something. Aren’t the clubs  open to grades 5-8? And isn’t your favorite person on the planet in 5th grade at your school? And isn’t his dad my cousin? And don’t I know how to send a message to Elijah’s parents? Why yes, yes, I do.”

BAM. With that idea, which basically fulfilled all of Paco’s personal criteria and let him have his own way, he was in.

As he bounced excitedly in his chair, spilling his tea and smearing biscotti chocolate onto the island, I warned him, “Okay, so we have an answer that pleases us all. However, since this process went a bit too easily for you, I’m going to need you to sit there and listen to my points about extracurricular activities and why they matter at any stage of life. Gather in a deep breath, Son, and grab yourself a piece of beef jerky, for I’m about to become seriously pontifical.

All right, so you know how I like to go running–especially out on trails?”

Cautious nod.

“And you know how I did that trail race last weekend?”

Gaze deliberately focused on jerky.

“Well, as I was running out there on those trails, throwing myself into an activity that makes me thrum but at which I’m not naturally gifted, I had a lot of time to consider what I was doing and why I do it. Here are the lessons that trail running brings to me, and do not even try to slip off that stool just as I’m getting revved up:

1) It’s okay to feel nervous. Although I move my body every day, and although I adore running on trails and have done myriad trail races, I still lost sleep the night before the race. Would I dress warmly enough? Should I wear a ball cap? Would my body rebel and decide to announce, ‘Uh, yea: I don’t think so’? Would I walk to the car when it was all over and think, ‘I could have done better’? Would my bowels decide they’d been feeling neglected and want my full focus? Trail racing reminds me that if I worry, it means I care. If I ever have signed up for something–made an agreement to be somewhere and do something–and my innards don’t send me a few messages of joy, excitement, or, yes, even nerves, then I’m not truly invested. The lesson to be gleaned from my anxiety is this: I have a limited number of decades in my life, and I should pack them with situations that make me nervous so that I can feel all the feels. Ultimately, the payoff for weathering nerves is significant.

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2) Pay attention to the details. As I ran the race out on those gnarly trails, I had to clap my eyes hard onto the roots and rocks. I needed to have a sense of what was coming down the trail–because when I’m oblivious, I get tripped up, start crushing things, and miss nuance. Indeed, if I’m not seeing the small stuff, I’m skimming across the surface of life’s magic. Even more, when I focus on details for an extended period of time, something happens to the way my brain works. When I was running that race, time passed differently, for I was unable to measure the distance. I couldn’t look at street signs and count blocks; I couldn’t see the next mile yawning in front of me. Because the race took place on particularly technical trails, I had to keep my eyes on my feet constantly, in an effort to stay on them. The second I looked up and lost concentration on the minutiae, I caught a toe, went flying, and bit into my tongue. Thus, it was essential that I train my eyes on every jutting rock, leaning tree trunk, haphazard log, half-buried boulder, and random bird carcass; blissfully, in that process, my brain became meditative. Worries about students, meetings, colleagues, family, overdue books, dinner plans, oil changes, purchase orders, unfolded laundry, putting the garden to bed, grading papers, sending emails–all fell away. There was only me, in the moment, in that place, setting down one foot, then the other, deeply absorbed by the specifics.

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3) Stay with the flow. When presented with an obstacle like a swampy puddle, I need to trust my rhythm and ability. It’s disruptive to lurch to a stop, stutter my feet, and dance around, figuring out what to do. Not only does that make me look like a three-year-old who needs to ‘make tinkles,’ it signifies I am willing to give way to indecision in a moment when action is called for, and I don’t want to be that person. I can tarry and stare at the muck before attacking it, or I can just get down to business attack the damn stuff. Either way, I’m getting past it, and I’d rather err on the side of efficiency.

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What’s more, the domino effect of indecision slows down everyone around me; it shuts down the group’s forward momentum. When I approach an obstacle on the trail, my inner voice cautions, ‘Stop over-thinking, and just take the leap. The second your foot hits the other side, you’ll feel like you own the world. Plus, once you’re over it, you can turn around and extend a hand to the person behind you.’

Joce Jumps

4) Get dirty. Somewhere during the third mile, as I hit a particularly huge patch of mud, I realized there was no way around it, so I plunged right in. I sank, and then there was sucking, and within two seconds, I was buried up to my calf. When I started to pull my foot out, my shoe started to peel off. In the past, race organizers have recommended participants wind duct tape around their shoes, to keep them on, and suddenly I cracked up at the notion of my shoe becoming a bottom-feeder while I hobbled the rest of the course with one bare foot. As I reached down and gave my shoe an assist, I giggled. Hours later, as I stood in the shower, scrubbing my calves, I enjoyed another good snortle.

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5) It isn’t about other people. The winner of this race completed the course in literally half the time that it took me. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t running his race; I was running my race. The whole endeavor was about applying effort to turn in my best performance–to see what I was capable of, on that given day, on that difficult course. If we measure our success against other people, if we define ourselves in relation to others, then we never see our own selves clearly. I can only be myself, doing my own thing. Plus, that poor guy who won the race had to stop after a mere forty-four minutes–while I, in full rock star mode, had almost an hour-and-a-half of juice in me. As the skinny, fleet-of-foot guy sat in the grass, recovering, my less-runner-like physique kept going and going. If anyone was intimidated that day, he should have been afraid of me. Seriously, he might have headed home, showered, gone out for sushi, and had a beer, and I still could have been running. When it comes to my day on the trail, I was a powerhouse of elephantine endurance, and that helps me believe I’m awesome.

6) Understand that friends come and go. During the race, I started out behind a long-time friend whom I hadn’t seen in months; we were quickly joined by an acquaintance. The first minutes of the race were spent catching up, getting to know each other, chatting easily. After a bit, the fastest of our group took off at her natural pace, and then a couple other runners fell in with us. I learned that Amy’s husband of twelve years screwed her over last year, but now she’s dating a first-grade teacher, and, man, is that different from dating a lawyer. I learned that Amy and Rita are both alcoholics. I learned that Liz is a nurse and that she knows my cousin. Then Liz took off into the woods, and Rita fell back a bit, and Amy and I carried on. After awhile, Amy fell back, too, yet in the final mile, she tore past me. Indeed, even when friends disappear from sight, there’s still every chance I’ll run into them again at some point down the path. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Joce Bangin in the Brush

7) Find your own space and delight in the peace. Speaking of Amy and all I came to know about her difficult and tragic life, a great motivator behind my running is the desire to get away from others. At some point, I realized I was tired of hanging in there with Amy’s litany of woes, and so I sped up, wishing her well as I pulled away. During that middle stretch, before Amy regained ground and passed me, I was by myself in the woods, unable to see any other runners. It was quiet, warm, blissful. To be in the woods alone is this agnostic’s idea of heaven. Soaking in the peace, I marveled at the beauty.

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8) Don’t forget to look up and survey the big picture. Despite my focus on every rock and root as I ran, I also made sure I lifted my face to soak in the glory of the trees. I turned my cheeks to the sun and, as it shone its face upon me–a benediction–I felt alive from my scalp to my toenails. Seeing myself as a small part of a bigger picture is profound, affirming, and rousing.

Ultimately, when we challenge ourselves on trails, plunge ourselves into races, engage in activities outside of life’s daily tasks, value ourselves enough to develop new abilities, explore the world around us with curiosity and interest, push beyond the known and comfortable,

the rewards we reap are immeasurable.”

DSCN2303With that, Paco stood up, put his tea mug in the dishwasher, and wandered out to the couch, where a book awaited.