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A Day in the Life: The Director of Social Services

serenity

I am the Director of Social Services at a not-for-profit continuing care community in Tucson, Arizona. The facility, Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, offers a multitude of living options, all on one campus. We provide independent living (where residents come to the dining room for meals, but receive no other assistance), assisted living, advanced assisted living, secure dementia/memory care, long term care, and my specialty, short-term rehab services (sometimes referred to as “sub-acute care”). I work very closely with rehab patients, their families, and our interdisciplinary team to ensure that each patient has a successful rehabilitative with us. Patients come to us following hospitalization for planned procedures (hip or knee replacements, for example), traumatic events (falls, fractures, accidents in the home), or illnesses. Our job is to help them in regaining as much function, mobility, and independence as possible before discharging them either back to their previous setting, or helping them explore alternative discharge options as needed. On average, I am overseeing 40-45 rehab patients at a time, with 13-18 admissions per week. That means there are also 13-18 discharges each week. No two days are exactly the same.

This was today:

0700 Arrive all shining and happy to my office, check my email, and print the daily update from our admissions office, letting us know what’s happened over the past 24 hours. Who was admitted? Who was discharged? Who changed units or rooms? Was anyone sent out to the hospital? Today’s tally from yesterday’s rally: 5 admissions, 4 discharges, 1 to the hospital. Print out face sheets (demographics) for each of the new admissions, put them in my tracking book, make a set for my officemate, who is still basking in the glow of a 5-day weekend.

0715 Check voice messages, answer emails

0730 Son of a rehab patient and his wife are at my door, distraught because patient is not doing well, and they need guidance. Dad is 91, has experienced multiple emotional and physical traumas over past 3 months. Wife of 72 years passed away 4 weeks ago, 16 year-old dog died 2 weeks after that. Patient himself has multiple chronic conditions — is legally blind, hard of hearing, experiencing increased confusion and presenting with “failure to thrive.” He also suffers from poor appetite, poor intake, lack of progress in therapies, repeated requests to “just let me beeeeeeee.” Forty-five minutes of counseling, presenting options, encouraging them to work together as a family and help patient achieve HIS goals, which may be completely different from the kids’ goals. Discussion included hospice option if their goal turns out to be just getting dad home to his own environment and not putting him through more therapy and aggressive medical treatment.

0830 Daily morning meeting with department heads to review admissions, discharges, potential admits, incoming respite stays, upcoming discharges. Update followed by clinical reviews…who’s developed an infection? Who’s out of isolation, has abnormal labs, or is on IV antibiotics? Who’s had a change in condition, needs a psych consult, or has follow-up ortho appointments today?

0930 Review list of rehab patients who are due for a team review/care conference on Thursday. Contact a family member for each patient and invite them to join us for a 30-minute review of therapy progress, nutritional status, clinical status, and to discuss discharge planning. Family members may attend in person along with the patient, or they may join us by speakerphone. By the end of the day, had successfully made contact with 8 family members from 8 different families and explained 8 different times what to expect at the meeting. I also wrote out 8 reminder cards for patients, letting them know the day and time of their conference. Along the way, I addressed concerns such as Medicare coverage, lost pajamas, need of assistance completing power of attorney paperwork, guidance on advanced directives and living wills, “too much Kosher food,” adult sons who haven’t seemed to have mastered the weaning stage (!!), and anxiety over one patient’s upcoming PET scan (new cancer diagnosis). One of the patients with whom I met is finally ready to admit that perhaps returning to home on her own is REALLY not an option and needed much support and guidance about what a “Plan B” might look like. Referral made to placement agency for assistance.

1030 Assessments!! Assessments! I administer cognitive, mood, behavior and discharge planning assessments for rehab patients on Day 5, Day 14, and Day 30. Cognition assessment looks at orientation, attention, organizational thinking, and short term memory and comes in the form of a one-to-one, standardized interview. The mood assessment is also a standardized interview which asks specific questions about signs and symptoms of sad mood or depression over the past 14 days. The behavior assessment information can be found in electronic, daily charting by the nursing assistants or via progress notes from licensed nursing staff. And, finally, the discharge planning assessment. What’s the goal? What are the barriers? Is patient on track to meet his/her goals? Is an outside resource needed to assist with planning? What supports are in place already? What additional supports might be utilized to make patient’s discharge the most successful? After all assessment information has been gathered, it’s time to analyze the results and modify care plans accordingly. Has the patient had a change in mood or behavior? Are they showing signs and symptoms of increasing depression? Does their post-anesthesia confusion and disorientation appear to be clearing? Are they having increased behavior symptoms — refusing care, being verbally or physically aggressive, or being socially inappropriate? If so, what might be the cause? Dementia diagnosis? Cognitive impairment? Language barriers? Hearing or vision deficits?

1215 Phone calls to follow up with patients who have recently discharged. I call and touch base with each patient 5-7 days after they leave the facility and usually start the conversation with this open-ended question: “How are things going since you discharged?” I find out whether or not their home health services have started, whether they’ve gotten their prescriptions filled and meds set up for administration. I find out if they’ve made a follow-up appointment with their PCP (primary care physician, not hallucinogenic drug), and if they haven’t yet, I strongly encourage them to set this is up as an important piece of the continuity of care and prevention of re-hospitalization. During these phone calls, I often field questions about additional resources such as meal programs, additional custodial care services, or hear how their bowels have responded to being home.

1330 Meeting with a Pima Community College social work student who needs to visit with a real, live social worker and ask some fine, cookie-cutter questions about the organization, the academic and licensure requirements, the services provided, the clients who receive said services, etc., etc. I accepted this request because I, too, was a student not so long ago, and I had a similar assignment early on. I had a little less facial hair, and I hope my hands shook less from nerves than this young man’s.

1400 Update progress notes from assessments, conversations, discharge planning conversations, referrals. Complete or update appropriate care plans.

1530 Difficult conversations with 2 families about prognosis and needs for alternative discharge plans, referrals to placement agencies. More importantly, support for making decisions that would be most in line with patient’s beliefs and goals. Meeting again with son from earlier this morning. Family has decided to get Dad home with 24/7 care and the additional support of hospice services. “He just wants to be done,” they tell me. I already knew that. They were not planning on losing Dad so quickly after saying “good bye” to Mom. Orders obtained from physician, referral made to TMC Hospice, family updated.

1610 Notices of non-coverage received from Caremore (HMO) regarding the upcoming discharge of two of its members. Notice lets patients know that their insurance coverage will end 2 days from now, March 31, and that they are expected to discharge from the facility (or become self-pay) the following day. (Note: Caremore was not dropping their members because it’s the end of the month! These two particular patients had met their therapy/rehab goals, and were ready to return home. The rounding nurse practitioner had seen the patients that morning and determined they were ready for discharge, from an insurance/payer prospective. Fortunately for me, on this day, the patients also felt like they were ready for discharge and were expecting the news. This is not always the case, but that’s a whole other story.) I met with each patient, explained the notice, discussed discharge plans, equipment needed, services that will be ordered by Caremore, obtained patient’s signature acknowledging having received and understood the notice, provided them with a copy, and notified a family member of planned DC for April 1st. Advised patient and family of optimal discharge window, discharge process, answered questions regarding services, etc., etc. Wrote progress notes reflecting same.

1700 Notified that patient scheduled for discharge tomorrow has critical lab values, is starting on IV fluids, and will remain on a skilled stay until clinically stable. Called and put home health agency services on hold, notified new adult care home that patient would be delayed in her admission there, and cancelled transportation.

1720 Shut off the lights, closed the door to my office.

office

And that was Tuesday.

So, now, you may say to yourself, “Wow! That’s a whole lot of people time for an introvert, isn’t it?!?” The answer is “YES! Yes, it is!” So, now, you may say to yourself, “I wonder how she balances intense people time with home life?” The answer is so simple. My wife works in the wild, wild, muy intensivo world of cardiology at a teaching hospital here in Tucson and is at work each morning by 0345. That’s correct — 3:45am. By the time I slink home from my day in the trenches, she has been home for several hours and is, in fact, in bed already, in order to rise and shine at 1:30am for a pre-work run or boxing work-out. When my alarm goes off at 0430, she’s already well into her work day. We are like two ships passing in the night, which is actually really good for us both. We both get quiet time at the home we share with our four dogs and one cool cat. We communicate by texts and notes on the counter and can usually laugh across the distance together at least once a day. To prep for my day ahead, I usually get a 3-mile run in each morning at 5:30. It helps me center myself and run 2 or 3 of the dogs to prep THEM for several hours of waiting for their “other mother” to come home.

doggies

Sometimes, on the way home from work, if it’s been a particularly tough day, I may shed a tear or two for my people. I often meditate while driving home and breathe out all that I have breathed in throughout the day. I go to yoga class 2 nights a week and catch up with friends and family through the wonder that is social media. On the weekends, my wife and I hike together, do yard work together, take in a movie, work on a creative art project, or just hang out together. We each love our jobs, thrive on the intensity of our days, and because we each have space during the workweek to recharge, we can fully enjoy one another’s company on the weekends. Plus, she’s really cute. And funny. I like that.

back yard

I think, too, that we because we see daily how quickly life can change — a misstep, an accident, a catastrophic medical event — we have a deeper appreciation for our physical health, freedom, and independence, and are less apt to sweat the small stuff in our daily lives.

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Linda and her wife, Keri
Linda and her wife, Keri

Linda Solstrand returned to college as a non-traditional student at the age of 35. Her first go-around at higher education did not end Super Well. The administration at North Dakota State University actually encouraged her NOT to return the following quarter, which was fine with her, because she had a whole lot more partying to do. Eventually, however, the call to “knock it off and get back to learning” came, and she started back at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, with one little class that first semester, then 3 little classes, and then “What the heck, let’s just DO this,” until she had completed her BA in Sociology with a double minor in Psychology and Women’s Studies in 2005. But she wasn’t done yet! She was accepted to the Master of Social Work program at UMD, and after 2 years of full-time study, 2 internships, and roughly 4,385 papers, she completed her master’s degree! (She notes: the morning after commencement, she was walking around her home, feeling a slight discomfort…what could it be? Oh, yes! Her pants were on backwards. Her BFF since second grade, who had come from New York for the festivities, shook her head in sad disbelief and uttered, “And YOU have a master’s degree.” And then they laughed until they almost peed a little bit.)

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A Day in the Life: I Am a Hat Rack

Four years ago, a new semester started in my online classes, and I got scared.

In one of my sections of research writing, a section that was very lively from the first day and never ceased to have excellent energy, there was this one student, and she made me nervous. You see, during the first week of class, students were asked to post personal introductions of themselves and then reply to two classmates’ messages. This activity is a nice way to break the ice and to get at least a few connections going.

This one particular student, however, didn’t reply to just two classmates.

She replied to every single person’s introduction. And there were 50 people in that class.

Whoa, I thought to myself. I’m going to have to keep my eye on this one. She could be a real handful. 

As the semester progressed, though, my fears were allayed; this student, a woman named Deanna, was not crazy or too much or out of control. Nope. Rather, Deanna was a steady, positive influence for the entire class. She never missed an assignment. She never turned in work late. She never made a single excuse — even when her father died, and she had to make a through-the-night drive across several states right when an important assignment was due. She was a damn delight.

After that semester ended, it occurred to me that Deanna would make an excellent student mentor. Our college has a program that allows online instructors to draft stand-out students as mentors who are then embedded within online sections. Flattered, Deanna accepted my offer, and for the next few years, she and I became a team within the online classroom. In addition to the instructional materials that I would provide to students, Deanna would post a weekly tip for the class, answer questions if she saw them before I had logged in, participate in discussions when they were lagging, and complete a critique of every student’s rough draft of the research paper. She did all this in addition to taking her own classes and working full time.

During these years as a team, we became friends more than anything. Eventually, Deanna approached me to ask if I would be willing to serve as the faculty advisor for Phi Theta Kappa. If anyone else had asked me, I might have said no. But since Deanna was the president of our campus’ chapter of PTK, I was willing.

For the next two years, Deanna and I worked together to bolster the health and presence of the PTK chapter. Not only did we hold monthly meetings, we started having chapter officers do presentations during Student Success Day, and one semester we ran an ESL group on campus, in an effort to forge connections with our international students. Even more, we traveled to various PTK conferences, both regional and national. There is a very specific intimacy that comes from hanging out in airports and staying in hotels with a student/friend. Put another way: I could walk up to a Starbucks counter and know what kind of drink to order for Deanna.

Just last week, on the day before my birthday, Deanna came over with a four-pack of my favorite beer in one hand and a screamingly fine chocolate cake in the other hand. After days of pain and isolation, I felt myself emerge from behind my sling a little bit that afternoon as three of us shared beers, gossip, and cake.

Over these past four years of getting to know Deanna, I have learned a great deal about her. I have learned about her years with her emotionally abusive ex-husband: one of his weekly demands of her was that they go into the bedroom and spread a towel onto the floor near the bed; then she would stand on the towel while he sprayed tan lines onto her body. I have learned that this ex-husband also constantly told his wife, who has battled anorexia since her teen years, that she was “fat” at 5 feet 4 ½ inches and 120 pounds. I have learned that she has the softest of hearts: her house, which she bought from her parents when they wanted to move, has often served in recent years as a halfway house for young people dealing with issues of finances, sexuality, and homelessness. I have learned that even though she became a nurse several decades ago, she is willing to push beyond the easy comfort of a known career and retrain herself, now that she is in her 50s, for a new life as an English teacher.

And I have learned that during the first week of our research writing class, the reason Deanna responded to every single classmate’s introduction was this: she couldn’t bear the idea that her classmates had devoted time and effort to creating descriptions of themselves, yet their introductions might go unacknowledged. As she explained to me, “I know how terrible it feels to try at something — but not be seen.”

It came as no surprise, then, that when I put out the call asking if anyone would be willing to share the details of “a day in the life,” Deanna willingly agreed to give me an assist. Here, then, is Deanna.

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I have decided that sometimes I wear too-many-damn-hats! It wasn’t always this way. There was a time in my life where I possessed just enough that I could either juggle them quickly – or sometimes wear two at a time. I possessed the hats of trophy wife, mother, and nurse. Though I had children, life was simple then. However, over time, the hat of motherhood wasn’t needed as much. Additionally, one of those hats just didn’t seem to fit quite right. It was too constricting, restricting, controlling, and confining — plus I was required to wear it 24/7. So, after 23-years, I decided I’d had enough, and I held a small bonfire of hats and walked away. Ran actually.

I discovered that once I was rid of the “constricting and confining” hat of trophy wife, I could take on bigger, better, and even MORE hats!

With my day beginning from the time I walk out the door at 5:30 am (sometimes at 5:15 am) and going until 10:30 pm at night, many of these hats are in a continual rotating basis.

Monday through Friday typically looks like this, with some slight time variations depending on what classes I have:

5:45 am-10:00 am – nurse hat

10:30 am-3:20 pm – student hat

3:45 pm-6:45 pm – nurse hat

7:15 pm-10:30 pm – student, girlfriend, and Phi Theta Kappa advisor hats

The open times in between are spent driving to and from campus. When I have volunteering, work time shuffles as I can be flexible just as long as I get those 40-hours in. Most of my phone calls are made during drive time <gasp> yes I wear a headset! It really is the only time I have figured out where I can make phone calls to family or PTK members.

On weekends, while there is no time constraint, I’m girlfriend, student, PTK advisor, writer, and archer or hunter (depending on the time of the year). Happily, I don’t have to get up until 8:30 am on the weekends – yet I’m typically not in bed until 1:00 am.

Am I insane? Perhaps. Yet I believe if there is something that interests me then damn it – I’m going to buy that hat and see if I can wear it.

My current hats:

Girlfriend: this is the easiest, most carefree, and most fun hat that I wear – non-stop. Of course it is a younger hat, but one that I love wearing. It fits me very well and never goes out of style. At the age of 45, I found the love of my life: a man 13-years younger whom I had been good friends with for two years before my divorce. I was surprised as heck when he told me he wanted to date me. I can honestly say that I am no longer who I was because I have blossomed without the restriction I had been placed in during my marriage. It is this relationship (of more than 7-years) that has afforded me the freedom to pursue new hats. In this hat I have traveled to France, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This hat will eventually see me (with Shawn) living and teaching in Thailand six months out of the year.

Full-time Student: taking 14 credits at a time – in the classroom five days per week — with too many outside of class hours to think about. It would scare me if I did the calculations. Happily – this hat does not resemble a cone-shaped dunce hat. This could also be called my “planning and preparatory hat” as it is this hat that is needed for the dream of living in Thailand. Admittedly, it was difficult getting used to wearing the hat of student after being out of the classroom for 27 years. Starting with an Associate’s Degree, now working on my Bachelor’s Degree, and then heading into Master’s in English is a time commitment but necessary for the life we envision for tomorrow.

Nurse: though I initially burned this one, I did get a new one in a slightly different model. I wear this hat 40-hours per week typically. However, sometimes I have to put the traditional nurse’s hat back on for family and friends — you know, when they have questions that they don’t want to bother their doctor with. After graduating from practical nursing in 1983, I spent the next 27 years as a pediatric nurse, an OB/GYN nurse, and a medical surgical nurse in a hospital. Now I use my nursing skills in Quality Review. This is a job (and hat) that is flexible enough that I can don my student hat over it.

Phi Theta Kappa Advisor (PTK): the honor society for 2-year colleges. This hat has undergone some style changes since I first put on a PTK hat in 2011. It initially started as a chapter officer and then regional officer and morphed into the eventual advisor hat. Sometimes this involves giving workshops, just listening, or helping with scholarship applications. The transition in style has definitely been a learning process, and there are times when this hat gets a bit uncomfortable to wear.

Volunteer: while I was wearing the trophy wife hat, I was not allowed to volunteer because, after all, what would I get out of it? Since my divorce, I have found that I enjoy wearing the hat of volunteer. Wearing the hat of the fryer queen at the VFW burger nights (this hat looks more like the tall paper chef hats we see on TV) along with keeping their wireless internet up and running has been a great way to give back to those who have served.  Donating blood and working with elementary kids as a Rolling Readers classroom reader looks like a baseball cap with the words – “Just Ask Me & I’ll Do It” written on it. If I can fit it into my schedule, I will happily accept any volunteer hat that is offered.

Writer: this invisible hat allows me to blog under a pseudonym so I can be deep, snarky, give advice, or be serious; my “Avie Layne” hat is a fun one to wear. I’ve honestly tried this hat on from time to time since I was a teenager. Undeniably, as a teenager, what I wrote was truly horrible – but it was a learning process. During the later years of my marriage, I dabbled in writing, but it wasn’t a hat I could bring out very often.

Archer/Hunter: YES – this hat is camouflage (or bright orange) and is typically worn from August through January. A full camo ensemble accompanies the wearing of this particular hat. This is the newest hat in the bunch. I’ve never been athletic, but trying archery at a fellowship event showed me this was something I could do. I discovered, in this past year, that I’m actually quite good at it. Later, I decided it would be a fun hat to wear with my dad during deer hunting season. This year the hunting hat was in practice as I think my quarry knew that my hat was very new and stayed away. Next year, however – my hat will be quite broken in.

Not-and-April-Fool27s-JokeWriter-Hat

Future Hats: While I will always have the hat of girlfriend, there is the possibility of changing the style slightly to that of wife. Of course, this time it won’t be the trophy style – rather it will continue to be comfortable, carefree, and easy. While we are living in Thailand, my hat will be teacher of English language, lover and chef of Thai cuisine, all while keeping my writer’s hat close at hand. In the months each year that we will be back in the States, at the property we lovingly call “The Lake House,” I will don the hat of gardener and make a slight variation to the teacher hat while teaching community classes on cooking. This little tree of hats could happily sustain me for the rest of my life.

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Deanna 3 (1)

Growing up under the hot Kansas sun, Deanna Keller spent many hours sitting under the apricot tree with her nose either in a book or writing in her scruffy notebooks, carefully composing stereotypically bad teenage poetry with a Number Two pencil. Exploring writing as an adult, she found her voice by blogging about her observations and musings surrounding life using a ghost name, which she has done for the past five years. Creative Writing classes at college opened her eyes to the idea of short stories for young adults and ignited new writing passion. Many are based on the stories of her parents’ poor childhoods growing up in the Ozarks of Arkansas in the late 1940s early 50s. Currently, as student at The College of St. Scholastica pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in English, she will continue on to a Master’s in teaching and a certification in online education in order to teach at the high school or community college level. She plans to pass along the love of writing to future students and assist young writers in finding their own writing voice. Deanna’s motto is, “Never let anyone prevent you from reaching for your dreams. The only failure is in not trying.” Deanna blogs at: Avie Layne.

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I Want to Hold Their Hands, Part 2: A Day in the Life of a Stay-at-Home Father and English Teacher

Day in the Life

Below is Part 2 of my friend Andy’s “Day in the Life” essay, detailing his hours as a stay-at-home father and English teacher. This one focuses on the teaching. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

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When we finally get home, I see that it is almost 2 pm. This means by the time we walk The Boy to school, he’ll probably have less than 90 minutes until dismissal. I make his day by granting him a reprieve. As I put Baby down for a nap, the other two settle down for their afternoon screen time, and I try to sneak in some more grading of memos and finalizing the night’s lesson plan. Before I can start grading, though, I see a few students have emailed me.

Just like the memos I’m trying to grade, the emails vary from insightful questions about the assignment to the completely mundane, almost child-like need for help. “The website won’t let me hit the submit button right now. What should I do?” (Evidently calling IT never occurs to them.) This afternoon’s emails, though, all seem to be about a problem with their latest VoiceThread assignment, a third-party app that allows them to make video or audio comments on slide presentations. It is notorious for being finicky. The rest of my grading time is spent solving the problem, which is how I discover that I clicked the wrong buttons when I set up the assignment. What I took to be my students’ struggles really stems from my mistake.

Parker Palmer famously wrote (at least famously to teachers) that “You teach who you are.” I am disorganized at best. Forgetful too. You know, just like I am as a father. I forget diapers, even the diaper bags. I’ve lost coats and hats, even shoes: I once had a baby kick off a shoe at a thrift store, not noticing it until I was buckling her into the car. By the time I got back inside, the shoe was gone. Evidently the thief must have a peg-legged pirate baby that really needed a new shoe badly enough that taking one single shoe off the thrift store floor made sense. I’m not terribly different as a teacher. I lost papers regularly. Or spilled coffee on them while grading, or had kids spill milk on them while grading–me grading, not my babies who tend to be frustratingly illiterate. So I don’t collect papers anymore. I just use the online portal instead. But even that doesn’t keep me from making mistakes.  I try my best to be fair in each situation, so when it is my fault, I admit it and try to fix it.

After I fix the problem, I get the kids a snack before 4:30, when my wife usually arrives home on my teaching days. Some days, we literally play tag-team parenting, with me throwing a baby at her as she walks in the door. Lucky days are where we change together (unfortunately not in a sexy way), her out of work clothes, me into them–mine, not hers. We give each other quick status updates: Baby didn’t nap well, Preschooler needs a bath from crawling on the waiting room floor. I peck her on the cheek, then I am out the door, my patch-less elbows pumping towards the car and work.

The hour before class is spent in mandatory office hours. This is the only time that I really remember my adjunct status. Let me be clear that the director of my program and the administrators in the English Department have been nothing but good people. The pay is pretty good for adjuncts, and we get healthcare benefits and retirement, all things that a lot of adjuncts don’t get at many universities. I’m treated as well as a part-time worker can be treated in a workplace still so codified and stratified by the academic hierarchy and new business models.  But that hour before teaching is full of reminders that I’m not a professor, despite what my students call me. One of those is the pens.

When I get to work, I first check my mailbox and pick up some new office supplies from the cabinet in the mailroom. For some reason, we aren’t trusted with the more expensive white board markers: those are kept in a locked cabinet in the main program office, which is closed by the time I arrive in the evenings. If I need one, I know where I can get one. But that is at least understandable: the department doesn’t want people stealing dry erase pens for their own ubiquitous white boards. The pens, though, are worse than that. The pens are all Papermates, the ones that cost a nickel each; if you used one on a two-hour exam, it’d run out of ink after one hour, 50 minutes. Upstairs where the professors’ offices are, supposedly there are boxes of Pilot G2s in all the colors of the spectrum. Even purple for those rebel graders. But down here, nothing reminds me more of my disposable status at the university than the pens: adjuncts are the Papermates of academia.

I make my way down the hall to the office I share with five other adjuncts. We share four desks and two computers. Tonight, I have the office to myself, meaning I won’t get distracted gabbing with my colleagues instead of working.  Most office hours I have between 0 and 1 student come to talk to me. I think it is because I am such a brilliant teacher, everything I say makes sense in the classroom. It was the same way when I taught junior high and we had 45 minutes of “extended study” at the end of the day. While I don’t have to do much classroom discipline in college aside from talking and policing smartphone usage, the rest is the same as teaching junior high: the kids might be bigger and be able to buy beer, but they still need reassurance and help and questions answered.

The first thing I do when I open my computer classroom is login to the computer which takes at least ten minutes to get fully operational, then I check for those valuable whiteboard markers. As usual, the woman who teaches before me took all the markers with her, evidently to sell on the writing weapon black market, so I am stuck going to the IT desk to borrow one. The IT desk is staffed by undergraduate employees, all glued to laptops and scarfing fast food. The one at the window barely looks up when asking for my university ID to prove I’m not some random whiteboard marker thief wandering in off the street. I hand it over the row of hot sauce bottles that inexplicably line the customer service window. (I make a mental note to ask my hot sauce student if he works at the IT desk.) I then have to sign for the marker, evidently so they can dock my pay if I don’t return it after class. Just like buying beer, tobacco, or any opioid painkiller, whiteboard markers are a controlled substance here.

In class, I teach with a blend of humor and purpose. I have a class planned out, but I don’t mind answering questions ad infinitum and going on digressions. My teaching super power is the ability to digress on long tangents but then find a way to bring them back in a relevant way. Hence discussions of “What Does the Fox Say?” and why “Call Me Maybe” drives me crazy because of both dangling adverbs and direct address.

While teaching, I try to remember how I felt when I was one of those seated in the classroom. That’s why I try to make class fun whenever possible. I also try to support my students through each of my responses to their comments, no matter how off-base or wrong they are. I’ve never been able to just say “no, you’re wrong” like one of my favorite teachers, Professor Alan Williamson, could do. That “No” is something I aspire to.

Despite his inability to have sustained conversations in office hours, his tendency to address his lectures to the overhead projector in the front corner of the classroom, and his preternatural ability to recite long chunks of memorized poetry without reading from the book (He was especially fond of “This Be the Verse” by Larkin, reciting “They fuck you up/ Your mum and dad/ They don’t mean to, but they do. . .”), Williamson could teach.

Professor Williamson not only gave us the basic building blocks of poetic analysis and exegesis, but he helped us understand how the poems we were reading fit into the larger issues of literature and art too. This occasionally came across in a well-placed “No, you are completely wrong,” from Williamson during discussions, which earned my respect: I don’t think I’d ever had an English teacher in high school tell a student clearly grasping for some deep–yet unsupported–insight that they were full of shit, like Williamson did in not so many words. All this flashes through my head like a nugget-induced flashback while I think of how to respond to my own students’ responses. I don’t yet have the courage to tell students they are completely wrong. I chalk it up to having a lot left to learn as a teacher.

Tonight being my tough class doesn’t help matters. They sit there, stonily, resisting my charm and not laughing at my jokes, even the brilliant ones. They don’t raise their hands to answer my questions, only to ask their own. Exercises don’t take long to discuss and no digressions are to be had. No super powers are flexed this night. Even discussing good and bad examples of student writing doesn’t inspire discussion like it usually does: students love to shred apart these anonymous examples. I let them go a few minutes early, both them and me glad to be free of the awkward silences. They probably head out to the bars being a Thursday. I, though, drive home.

Even though it is close to 10 pm, I know I’m too wired to go to sleep. I’ll eat dinner finally, then perhaps read for a few minutes. I’ll talk to my wife and find out how dinner and bedtime went with the kids for a bit before she heads to bed. I try not to grade because to paraphrase Jack White, my brain feels like pancake batter. Plus, I’m sure it will put me to sleep.

I’ve done marathon grading sessions at night before, but I end up making too many tired mistakes, writing down the wrong student name or wrong subject of the paper. If I grade past 2am, I’ll often find myself falling asleep briefly to short, intense dreams: once I dreamed about stealing a truck and, when I awoke, found that I had typed the word “truck” in a comment. Another time I dozed briefly while typing, only to find that I’d written, “These audience analyses could help you tailor your argument moreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”  Even for a mistake-prone teacher like me, nothing loses your credibility faster than one simple mistake in a comment. The student could turn in Jack Torrance’s stacks of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” from The Shining, but if you write “stupid” instead of “dull” in the comment, they’ll think there is nothing wrong with the paper because that mistakes proves this wasn’t their paper. Inevitably, the reply will come. “Professor Delfino [sic], I don’t understand your comment. Was this for someone else? I expect my grade to be fixed to the A++-+-++ I deserve.” Now I avoid grading late at night, and instead get up early.

The house is finally quiet again, and I sit in the dark living room before heading to bed, enjoying the silence. I know that these days of adjunct-ness are temporary. Eventually kids will continue to grow as I feed them and hold their hand in parking lots. They’ll all be in school one day, and I may even find a non-teaching job for the first time in my adult life. But for now I work 1.5 jobs to keep my resume from becoming a black hole. The stresses won’t be gone, just different. But still there will be coffee, and quiet, and crepuscular light. And, I know, enough hands to hold.

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Andy

Andrew S. Delfino is a stay-at-home dad of four and a teacher. With a wonderful for a wife and three daughters, he’s not afraid to be called a feminist, but does hate being called the babysitter, though. He blogs occasionally at almostcoherentparent.com and Tweets at @almostcoherentp.

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Also: if, after reading this, you’d be interested in writing and letting me post an essay about your own “Day in the Life,” please let me know in the comments or through omightycrisis@gmail.com. I am endlessly fascinated by the minutiae that make up our days!

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I Want to Hold Their Hands, Part I: A Day in the Life of a Stay-at-Home Father and English Teacher

Day in the Life

A few weeks ago, when I posted “Salt on the Road,” a rundown of a day in my working life, I put out a call to others: I love knowing what people do for their work; more specifically, I wondered if there was anyone who would be willing to write an essay detailing his/her daily life, in terms of its work, and allow me to publish it. Several folks responded with willingness. The first to come through with words on the page is my blogger pal, Andy. A stay-at-home father of four and teacher of English, Andy’s “Day in the Life” posts will present, first, his life as Father…followed in a few days by his life as Teacher. Enjoy Part 1 below.

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I am up no earlier than 5:15 am, though it is usually closer to 6. I enjoy the quiet moments as I make coffee, where the bulb over the sink is the only light as I shuffle around getting the beans from the pantry, turning on the kettle. Eventually, crepuscular light creeps in the kitchen’s east facing windows as I pour my cup of black coffee. I like my coffee plain, and strong enough that you need to cut each sip with a knife and fork; a friend once asked me if I knew that my stove-top espresso maker made nine (smaller) espresso servings, not just one cup of strong coffee like I drink it. But with four kids and 57 students, I need a muscular cup of joe this morning as I start to grade before the sun comes up.

I have two workdays, but they blend into each other throughout the day. My first is as a stay-at-home parent to my and my wife’s four kids. I’ve been home since my second-oldest, The Boy, was born six years ago. When my wife was pregnant with him, she got a job offer in Washington, D.C. She would make slightly more than we were both making together in Atlanta. The only problem was, the job offer came in late April, when all the teaching jobs were already taken, making finding a job difficult, especially in an area 650 miles away. And that was before we realized that my entire teaching salary would probably go to daycare for a toddler and an infant. So I became a defacto stay-at-home parent “just for a year,” I would say, to ease our transition.

I thought about returning to work, though. The next Spring, the only job offer I got was at a start-up school where the principal wanted us there every day from 7am to 6pm, all for the same low, low, low salary I made my second year teaching in Atlanta. Now we would have to pay MORE than my salary for daycare. No thanks. We discovered that me staying at home wasn’t perfect, but it was better than daycare, and less stressful than daycare drop offs. Our quality of life was higher: no rushed daycare drop-offs and pick-ups, no weekend family time fighting lines at the grocery store, no need for horrible slow cooker meals we’d pretend were delicious and not just borderline burnt. And after teaching, I’m used to the repetition and measuring out of the day in hour-long teaspoons. I’ve been home ever since. We have 100% more kids now, bringing us to 3 girls (ages 8, 3, 1) and one boy (6).

Some days it isn’t perfect, like those days when I don’t talk to another adult between my lovely wife leaving for work and her return. But I’m happy to spend time with the kids, working at a job where I can wear pajamas all day, read books to squishy little people, and have our house run smoothly. I respect families with two working families because I don’t know how they do it. Life is hard enough with a parent at home doing all the stuff that needs to get done.

I also work a second shift as a writing instructor to bigger kids two evenings a week at  the large public university nearby. When I got the latter as a way of keeping my resume from having a decade-long black hole on it, I thought being a college instructor would be glamorous: I’d use words like “crepuscular” and wear a sports coat with patches on the elbows. Unfortunately, I found out in orientation that you get the elbow patches only when you get tenure. And it only went downhill from there as I became familiar with the academic ghetto of adjunct work. I don’t think about all that, though, in the mornings. I’m only thinking about the 57 memos I have to grade, where I get to discover what topics my students have chosen for their term paper projects.

Like most teachers, my students make my job endlessly entertaining, especially when it comes to what they choose to write about. This morning is no exception. Amongst the serious, highly useful and prescient term paper projects (e.g., pedestrian safety on traffic-congested campus, helping tutor local middle schoolers in STEM subjects, redesigning a computer science course to make it more welcoming to female students), there are some highly amusing ones. For example, the campus gym needs to make another weight room with no less than $3 million worth of weights to be useful. The dining hall needs more hot sauce (an in-depth comparison of Tapatio versus Cholula to be included). McDonald’s needs to get rid of the dollar menu because it attracts homeless people who make one student feel unsafe since “everyone knows homeless people commit crimes regularly.”

I sit on the couch, quietly using comments to help my students see past their stiff thinking and solidly mediocre writing. I wake up early to work because my kids wake up early: especially my 8-y-o daughter and 6-y-o son. I’m lucky if an older kid isn’t sitting next to me by 6:15. I tell them to learn something by reading a book. Then I try to ignore them. And even though my wife and I share parenting duties until she leaves for work, when either my 3-y-o daughter or my 15-m-o daughter wake up, no grading gets done. So my teaching hat gets replaced with my main hat: at-home parent. I don’t need to spend much space here convincing anyone that parenting is a full-time job, even if it only pays in hugs and kisses–none of which can pay the mortgage.

The morning routine soon gains momentum like $3 million worth of weights rolling downhill. Breakfast. School lunches. Getting kids dressed. Convincing the 3-y-o preschooler that a sleeveless nightgown isn’t a good idea when it is 39 degrees outside. Compromising with said preschooler and dressing her in tights. Telling the 6-y-o that he can’t have tablet time any of the 54 times he asks. Explaining to the 8-y-o budding chef that cooking scrambled eggs on high heat isn’t a good idea. Helping the oldest scramble eggs again, and teaching her how to soak a pan full of burnt egg paste in soapy water.

Today is different, though, since The Boy has a doctor’s appointment. As I start thinking about getting out the door, my wife texts me that the Beltway has been shut down because a truck was on its back, 18 wheels in the air; she helpfully warns me I should get going. But since hustling all four kids into the car is only slightly more complicated than Eisenhower’s D-Day plans, we only leave 10 minutes earlier than I planned. I drop the older one off at her bus stop on the way out of the neighborhood, then steel myself for what I will find. As soon as we turn out of the neighborhood, I find ourselves into a scene from Mad Max, if Mad Max had no high speed chase scenes and was instead just stop-and-go traffic and honking.

There isn’t much to be done, as all the streets on this side of town are filled with cars being shunted off the freeway. I quickly learn that there are normally a lot of cars on a freeway. After thirty minutes, the baby has decided she has had enough of the “Chair of Despair,” and starts crying. This is not good because the baby has the preternatural ability to hit a pure note that is like a spike of sound piercing my skull and setting it ringing. She has learned this is very effective in getting whatever she wants, from water to more ice cream. Except we are in a car, and as much as I want to, I can’t get her out of her seat and drive with her on my lap like I imagine every child was required to ride by law during the Depression.  Eventually I figure out an alternate route that gets me within 2 miles of the doctor’s office. Things are going great. We are moving. When we get close enough to see the doctor office’s street, half a block from the main road that the Beltway is closed and all cars are required to exit. It takes us 39 minutes to go those last three blocks.

We entertain ourselves despite The Baby’s banshee impression. From a certain blogger’s story, I loudly demand, “Where’s my hot ham?! I need a little fish!” The bigger two kids will pretend to throw them at me. “Here’s your ham! Here’s your fish!” Then we all laugh. Except the baby, who continues to scream. When we hit the hour mark, I rummage through the diaper backpack on the passenger’s seat next to me and find a chocolate bar. “After an hour in the car, everyone gets chocolate!” I proclaim to cheers from all non-screaming children. The Baby sees what the others have and starts crying differently in the universally accepted message “I want what they have!” She stops crying long enough to eat the chocolate, and rub her tummy with her latest word, “Ummmmmm. . . “

We reach the doctor’s office and park, 35 minutes late, 95 minutes after we left the house. I unbuckle The Baby and Preschooler and we all begin walking toward the office. Because it is a parking lot, I carry the baby and hold the Preschooler’s hand as we make our way through the parking lot. I realize that I had just been complaining that the road was a parking lot because we were moving slowly; now that we’ve parked, and are in an actual lot with mostly non-moving cars, I hold the Preschooler’s hand because “Careful! We are in a parking lot!” so evidently everyone drives maniacally fast here. I make a note of it to use this linguistic paradox and similar ones (e.g., we drive on a parkway but park in a driveway, etc.) to start my class tonight with something fun. I usually use YouTube videos, but this one seems more relevant to a writing class than last week’s digressive, 5-minute tangent about what “What Does the Fox Say?” and “Call Me Maybe” teach us about knowing your intended audience.

Everyone is late because of the traffic this morning. The doctor is just treating the day like the starting time got bumped 30 minutes. The two bigger kids play a game in the empty waiting room of being kings and princesses (always a princess, never a queen), while slithering from chair to chair. The Baby practices climbing up chairs and sitting in them. I praise the kids for their creative play. I praise Baby for her new skill. She claps along with me as I cheer for her and her newly discovered way to hurt herself: evidently she realizes innately that this would be the perfect time and place to fall and split her skull open.

By the time we leave the office, it is 12:30, and these kids need lunch. As a reward for their good behavior on the drive and in the appointment, we go to McDonald’s but don’t see any homeless people mugging customers, a gun in one hand, a $1 McDouble in the other. I make a mental note to ask my student which McDonald’s he goes to in order to avoid it.  I know I shouldn’t like McDonald’s, either as a parent or as an academic. The list of negatives is long, even without counting marauding bands of homeless. Factory farmed food. Working conditions. Low wages. Too much sugar. Too much fat. Too much Americaness. But when I bite into one of the kids’ leftover nuggets, I am 8-years-old, back at my grandmother’s kitchen table, eating nuggets and fries for lunch–one of the few treats to look forward to about going to visit my mother’s mother. In the same second, I’m both parent and child. The paradox makes my head spin for a second, where I find myself surprised: “Where did all these kids come from? How can they be mine? And I live in Maryland?” But that lasts less time than it takes a French author to swallow a madeleine, and I am back to being daddy.

Especially since the preschooler does a ballet leap right into the side of the table, splitting her lip. I hold her on my lap and comfort her; ever since she was really small, whenever she’s hurt she wants me to say “cuddle, cuddle, cuddle” while rocking her. Even as she gets older, this works, even if less frequently than it used to.  When her tears finally end, we pack up and hold hands walking back to the car.

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Andy

Andrew S. Delfino is a stay-at-home dad of four and a teacher. With a wonderful for a wife and three daughters, he’s not afraid to be called a feminist, but does hate being called the babysitter, though. He blogs occasionally at almostcoherentparent.com and Tweets at @almostcoherentp.

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Also: if, after reading this (and Andy’s next post in a few days), you’d be interested in writing and letting me post an essay about your own “Day in the Life,” please let me know in the comments or through omightycrisis@gmail.com. I am endlessly fascinated by the minutiae that make up our days!

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when your kid is sick (guest post)

Social media inspires mighty lots of moaning. So much is lost! No one talks face-to-face anymore! Everyone on [insert social media platform of choice] is dumb! Rude! Annoying! People waste too much time clicking on stupid stuff! When these kids grow up and try to get jobs, they won’t know how to function in the real world! And their grammar! Harrumph!

When I hear these crotchety complaints, I consider the response shortened skirts and bobbed hair received in the 1920s. I think about the advent of Swing music in the Great Depression and how arbiters of mainstream tastes declared it would cause a rise in juvenile delinquency. Mentally, I watch Elvis’ hips swivel in 1956 as fathers scramble to turn off their new-fangled television sets, lest their daughters’ virtue be compromised.

Indeed, when people grouse about social media, it’s as though it’s 1964 again, and The Beatles are landing at JFK, taking a stunned look at the screaming crowd assembled on the tarmac, and jousting with waiting reporters (“What do you think of Beethoven?” asked one. “Great,” Ringo answered, “especially his poems.”) before taking the stage at The Ed Sullivan Show. On that night, gaping at the irreverent lads shaking their mop tops while avowing they wanted to hold all the girls’ hands, millions of people predicted the end of civilization.

Social media is the new Beatles. It’s radically upended the culture, and that never sits easy with those who were enjoying their armchairs and antimacassars just fine thankyouverymuch.

When a massive cultural shift occurs, people can either:

  1. Scream loudly, locked somewhere between joy and torment, while tearing at their cardigans and shrieking, “I LOVE YOU, PAUL!”
  2. Stare in shock at their broken strands of June Cleaver pearls, unable to catch the translucent balls before they slide off the string, plinking into the Sunday roast.

In other words, people have the choice to get on board with revolution or stand at a safe remove, mourning times gone by. Sometimes this choice is a function of age; sometimes it’s a matter of personality. In other cases, it’s simply a matter of not caring to engage.

For me, I’m the type to shed my crinolines, do The Lindy, mimic the thrust of Elvis’ hips, and weep from the sheer intensity of my adoration for four lads in matching suits.

I love Beetles

Hell, in the 1980s, I managed to combine the bow-in-the-hair look of Young Madonna, the off-the-shoulder sweatshirt style of a wanna-be-dancer-cum-welder a la Flashdance, AND the semi-unstrapped overalls vibe of Dexy’s Midnight Runners–all into one stunning outfit.

When the culture shifts tectonically, I’m happy to dive head first into the resulting crevasse. Listen for my echoing “Mayyyybbbeee IIIII shhhhhooouuulldd hhhaaavveee ttthhhouuuughhht tthhiiisss tttthhhrrroouuughhh” as I plummet.

In short, I love social media. Mistake me not: it also drives me batty. I know it’s a time suck. I see how people’s feelings get hurt. I’m aware of the dramas. I acknowledge it’s not always the healthiest form of communication. I can see why tweeting and posting and updating and commenting have made many a wise person log out and rest her weary head on a neglected antimacassar.

However, for the way I’m wired, the pros definitely offset the cons. Plus, I know how to use the Custom settings, which allows for a comfortable level of control over the cacophony.

The biggest boon of social media for me has been the way it’s reinvigorated friendships that were languishing. Just as amazingly, it has brought me a whole new world of friendships. I’ve never actually met about 25% of my Facebook friends, for example. The majority of those never-met friends are fellow bloggers and writers, and they are an invaluable source of teaching, supporting, and advising. In profound ways, they provide me with perspective; they help me gain confidence; they provide me with a sense of community.

One highly valued member of my online community is a writer named Brooke. When, last winter, I proposed a piece of writing for syndication, posting the link within a private FB group, Brooke read the piece and reacted with a “Where have you been all my life?” Her reaction took me from nervous to glowing to wondering. Who was this kind, enthusiastic person?

Through private messages, I learned a fair bit about Brooke. She’s Canadian, which may be why she’s so pure, so lovely, so unfailingly thoughtful. I suspect, though, that she’d be equally amazing no matter where she’d popped up on the planet. Innately, Brooke supports those around her, brings humor and light to the space she occupies, and is generous to a fault. Her kindergartener is the luckiest of girls, to have such a person for a mother.

I have never met Brooke, yet I value her friendship deeply.

Thus, I’d like to share one of the great gifts that social media has brought to my life: the words of Brooke, who blogs at missteenussr along with contributing to a host of other online publications. Below is a post that originally ran on her blog, a story of parental love and fear, one that she is kindly allowing me to share here.

In summary, a million happy cheers for a world where there is Brooke!

I Love Brooke

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when your kid is sick

I take my health for granted, which is why when I get sick, you want to avoid me like the *plague. (*Quits day job to go write for Big Bang Theory.)

I’m suddenly the introspective ancestor of the most depressed Bronte sister, all long lopes out of rooms with tears prickling the corners of my eyes, non-blinking gazes out windows, and martyr-like dramatic declarations. “I’ll be FINE. It’s FINE. It’s just a FULL BODY INFECTION really.”

Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I think I’ll go eat more germs.

So when my kid gets sick and she is not a huge pussy, I am proud as fuck. Genetics may have bequeathed her my 17,000 body moles and horrific singing voice but she’s tough as nails in the face of any and all illness.

Overall, over the years, we’ve been so lucky. Kids are typically giant dump trucks of whine, worry and warts. Not mine. My 4 year old has weathered goo-filled common colds with grace; kicked croup’s ass with ease as we wrung our hands; let us slather eye ointment into each eye for a week with no fuss; and every bang and bruise is totally negated by our kisses.

She has never vomited. Weird, right? And if she did, afterwards I imagine her staggering to her feet, wiping her mouth and sighing, “Woof. Pass the mouthwash Ma. I’ve got funky year old Cheerios wedged in my molars.”

She’s tougher than the skin on the back of Mick Jagger’s neck.

I’m as fragile as Mick Jagger’s taint hair.

It makes me so proud.

Cue up Friday night.

(I joke and joke and exaggerate and fill those meaty sentences above with fewer commas than they deserve because I was scared.)

An autumn cold had morphed into something treacherous. Her guts were being forcefully pushed out and then in with each laboured breath. We took her to the Emergency Room to figure out if she had an Alien in her chest or some other reasonable explanation.

(I joke and joke and complain and lament and roll my eyes about this parenting gig, but if you ever took it away, I would break into shards of lost bones.)

While we waited to be seen by a nurse, the 4-year-old heaving warmth on my lap asks the room loudly, “Does she have nails?” I look to our left and see the woman beside us has cultivated an almost Guinness World Record set of yellowed talons and I swallow a deep sour mouthful of spit.

(I don’t believe it when they say if you lost a child, one day, you could feel alive again. I just do not.)

She lounged on her hospital bed, ankles crossed, arms above her head like she was on a Mediterranean yacht, as I paced around the tight room. Not imagining the worst but rather holding a hand over that part of my brain that muffle-whispers terrifying things…

(Children are just a loose sac of parts that work in tandem, because, why? What if I continue taking that for granted? What happens then?)

The diagnosis was bronchiolitis; something that sounds like something Barney Rubble would catch. She was asked to inhale steroids through a hissing misting mask and she pulled the mask on with a matter of fact face, like YEAH YEAH YEAH, I’ve got my programs to watch at home so let’s get this shit started.

Our heart rates slowed to a number the Doctor liked.

(When your child is sick, your child, you are more sick in the head, and your heart pounds out I MADE THIS HAPPEN because I paid more attention to blogging about her instead of being with her.)

My husband carried her back to the car, her socks pulled high on bare legs. Feet stuffed into sparkly Mary Jane’s and her Elsa dress thin against the night.

~

I slept on the couch in her room and didn’t sleep at all. Every time she coughed my eyelids flapped open like cartoon character venetian blinds.

(By next Tuesday I’ll have exfoliated this guilt and fear. I’ll have found something thisbig that I turn into THIS BIG. And then get 46 flu’s because I firmly and completely deserve it.)

She woke me up the next morning at 10:50 am, over-the-moon delighted to see me in her room, hovering with her blinding breath, already launching into a story about our day.

(I’ll learn a little from this, then press it away in the back of my head that remembers my Mom is going to leave me one day too.)

She’ll get better.

I’ll get better too.

I’ll tweet about her being a dick and the black oil in my brain will rear back and remind me of that night in the hospital. So I’ll put my phone down and ask her 47 questions about Frozen and actually listen as she tries to break down the plot with sweeping arm gestures and repeated “true love heart.” I’ll tell her I think I know what that is and she’ll shush me for interrupting and I’ll think this, this right now is what I want to take for granted.

whenyourkidissick
stay gold, super girl
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Coffee Break

I’m feeling very fortunate. During these busy summer months when finding even ten minutes to sit down and write seems impossible, I’ve been lucky enough to have a fine writer named Shelly become a Facebook friend. Shelly has been wanting to share a story of something that happened while she was traveling–yet she hasn’t wanted to publish it in her usual place. Put differently: this particular bit of writing needs a different audience. That’s where you come in, Gentle Readers. So take a minute to get comfortable, pour yourself a cup of java, and kick back to enjoy Shelly’s story.

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Women in white head coverings and long black robes parted from the middle of the road languidly, too involved in their conversations with their walking companions to divert their attention despite the steady forward movement of our tour bus.

“This Druze village is typical of the way the Druze live here in the Jezreel Valley,” our urbane Israeli guide shared. “The Druze are an offshoot of Islam, having broken away in the 14th century, and they have some beliefs that are unique only to them. For instance, you can only be a Druze if your father was a Druze. Men are still the only authority in the families, and they believe in reincarnation. If there’s not an available baby for a recently departed soul to enter, they believe that a soul can find other resting places, even animals, until a newborn is available.”

My teenaged daughter looked at me, raising her eyebrows and distending her mouth in mock horror. I put a finger over my mouth, to suppress any inappropriate levity from the both of us. This was our fourth morning in Israel, and long days and little sleep thinned my usually sturdy social filters.

The bus eased into a parking spot near a small restaurant overlooking a river. “Mom, I think Grandpa would have enjoyed this place. Look- they have all those old men outside,” she said as she tapped the window and gestured towards their group on the steps. “He would have been right in the middle of them, matching them story for story.”

I nodded, even as I shook my head a little. Had it actually happened? Was he really gone, or did I dream it? My father in law, stubborn, prickly, often at odds with his own daughters, had always had a special place for me. I am not a coffee drinker, but he’d always have the blackest of the black coffee ready when we visited, seasoned with a couple of liberal dashes of Tabasco, the whole concoction his favorite daytime drink. Although I never drank it, he would set the cup down in front of me at the kitchen table as we all pulled up chairs and say loudly, “Drink! It’ll put hair on your face!”

His sudden passing two weeks before we left for Israel was still surreal. The guide’s instructions interrupted my thoughts. “We’ll have an hour for lunch, or shopping, whichever you prefer, but we have a tight schedule, so don’t be late!”

I pulled my purse onto my shoulder as we filed down the bus stairs. I grabbed my daughter’s arm on a whim and said, “I don’t think I’m going to eat lunch. I just can’t take more falafel right now. You go ahead with your friends and I’m going to wander into a couple of these little shops.”

“Ummm, ok,” she shrugged. “Meet you back at the bus?”

“Yes- right on time,” I assured her. “See you in a little bit.”

I wandered into the closest shop and aimlessly moved from rack to rack, touching the silky scarves and even hefting a few of the colorful purses, but none held my interest. My thoughts were still entangled with my father in law’s passing and the guilt I felt about not visiting him for several weeks before he was gone. I resolved to do better by our other relatives when we returned home.

I continued down the street until I neared the group of elderly men my daughter had pointed out from the bus. The smoke from their unfiltered cigarettes and their hearty laughter masked a small, dark storefront, possibly a grocery store. I squeezed past them, interested to see what a Druze market held.

My eyes worked to adjust from the dazzling sunlight to the windowless, shadowy interior. A young Druze woman, in the standard black robe and white head covering briefly glanced at me, looked back at the clerk she was talking with, and then swung her head back to me again. “Ah, there you are. Welcome!” she said in heavily accented English. “Are you thirsty?”

“Uhh, well, I would like to buy a Diet Coke,” I explained, having already spotted them in a cooler near the door.

“No, no. Here, we family. Come, come, sit.” She gestured to a small table at the back of the store. “I’ve got coffee ready, our good, black Arabic coffee. None blacker anywhere!”

I clutched my purse tighter to me and looked back to the front door. “Oh, uh, thank you,” I stammered. “I’m not a coffee drinker. Never have been. I do appreciate it. I really need to get back to my bus, though.”

“No, no, just a little visit, before you leave. Achmed, bring the coffee!” A small boy about seven, thin legged and wearing red shorts, came in shyly with a cup of coffee he set on the table.

“Come, come, we’ve been waiting!”

The hair on the back of neck snapped to attention as she reached into her robe. I stepped slowly backwards, my breath caught somewhere in my chest.

“See, see, we have what you Americans like, eh, Stevia?” She held a small container of Stevia. “Coffee is good for you, good, you learn to like it, eh?”

I exhaled in tiny, quiet bursts and shook my head.

She looked at the table. “Achmed, all of it! Go ahead, bring it out, come on!”  She looked me in the eye and slowly smiled. “Just like you like it!”

I was already out the front door and bounding down the street to the bus before the bottle of Tabasco Achmed fumbled onto the table had quit spinning.

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guest blogger

Becoming a Badass

When I first started blogging in 2006, I learned to make the rounds of other people’s blogs. As we do.

First, I read one person’s blog, and then I’d click on the comment of one of the readers of that blog and be taken to his/her blog, and so on and so on and so on. Over time, I figured out which blogs appealed to me and, over even more time, I started to develop relationships with a few of my fellow bloggers. That community then transferred to Facebook, where I’ve gotten to know multiple bloggers in a way that feels even more real and immediate.

In fact, thanks to reading blogs and friending up on Facebook, my family was given a free place to stay in Connecticut a couple years ago when we took a road trip to the East Coast. For several nights, blogging pal and Facebook friend Meredith and her family extended huge hospitality and allowed us to have a few days in New York City without paying NYC accommodation prices. We took the train into the city from her place and then returned each evening–most memorably, one night to a bottle of scotch she’d left on our bed as a gift.

Yea, she’s rad like that.

At any rate, when I met Meredith face-to-face, she was confident, kind, fabulous. It surprised me, then, that she jokingly mentioned not loving her weight, as it was higher than it had been earlier in life. This also surprised me, for in my view, Meredith looked perfectly perfect.

What we in the world see so often differs from what’s going on inside the heads of those around us, though.

In the time that’s passed since Meredith and I met, as I’ve watched her challenge herself to a place of change, I’ve gained even more admiration for her. In fact, I asked her to write something that chronicles what she’s achieved in recent months.

*drumroll, please* Therefore, Readers, I ask you to welcome Meredith and her story of change.

Here is her story:

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My exercise journey.

For starters, I have always been very content with sitting, hanging out, relaxing. And snacking. Chillin’ and snacking. And drinking. Chillin, snacking, and drinking. Yah, really. But, one day I realized I wasn’t content. My body would wheeze as I climbed stairs, shoulders would hurt just hanging curtains, mowing the lawn was too big a task, and a simple walk on a trail was exhausting. My body size increased little by little over the years, and I didn’t even really notice. Until, I noticed. And then I stopped and really took a look. I needed a change. I had already taken control of my digestive issues (celiac and dairy intolerant). I’d given up gluten and dairy – with that, my system was doing better – it was time I started exercising. This was scary because I’d never really intentionally worked out. I mean, I had an elliptical, but that was just for hanging clothes on. And I had sneakers, but they were just to wear when walking the dog on the front lawn.

For my 40th birthday I decided to do a Warrior Dash. The Warrior Dash is a 5k race over mixed terrain with several obstacles including lots of mud, water, and fire. When it’s done you get a free beer and a big turkey leg and enjoy the party. It was exciting sounding. I spent all summer building up to run just two miles. It would take me 24 minutes on a good day to run 2 miles and I needed my inhaler, a lot of water, and my husband who would run with me – encouraging me. It was a hard summer filled with tiny milestones that made me feel I was doing something. Some days my kids would get involved and run with me. While I was slow and plodding I felt I was doing something good. I did the Warrior Dash with family and friends and yes, it was loads of fun! Then winter hit and I did nothing but hang out and hibernate all winter.

By spring I was ready to practice running again to do another Warrior Dash, and maybe a local 5k too. I was demoralized at how hard it was for me to build up back up to one mile again and how winded I was and how slow I felt. It took me 45 minutes to run a 5k. I remember a friend of mine laughing jokingly about it. I was surprised at how personally I took it and had bad it made me feel. I didn’t want to be that wimpy and slow. I remember thinking I needed more work and more encouraging friends. That fall I did the Warrior Dash again with family and friends, and again it was a blast. Winter came and I put away my running shoes. I bought P90X for my husband and some days we worked out together – I gave up by March, my husband kept going.

A month after I turned 42 I decided I needed something more. That November I joined a Crossfit gym for their introductory package. I didn’t make it through all four weeks. It was hard, I couldn’t squat, I couldn’t do a push up; heck, I couldn’t do most of it. Everyone was nice, and very encouraging. I had panic attacks at the thought of going. I made excuses. I quit. I thought to hire a personal trainer. I quit after my introductory classes too. Not because he wasn’t good. He was. They gym wanted way more money than he was worth though, and I was doing a number of the same moves Crossfit had done.

The holidays came and went, winter turned to spring, and my family signed up for Warrior Dash again. I went for a run. One mile almost killed me. With tears in my eyes and an inhaler in my shaking hands, I thought I would have to cede to the muumuu and let life pass me by – this was too hard – I should just give up, accept the fact that I’m middle aged and not supposed to be pushing myself this hard. My sweet husband talked me off the ledge and after a couple puffs of the inhaler, a glass of water, and a talk, I was still not ready for the muumuu. He joined Crossfit in June – a different one fromwhere I went. A better one, he said. He and my son went to the “on ramp” classes and finished.** By July 4th he convinced me to start the on ramp classes too. I couldn’t finish the workout in my first intro class. I was so embarrassed I didn’t want to go back. But I did go back. I finished the intro classes, learned all the moves, and even met some very nice and encouraging people. After one excruciating workout, we had to finish with a 100m run. I was the last person. I don’t remember who it was, but one Crossfitter joined me; she actually ran with me, encouraging me every step. While my mocking nature wants to say something snarky or jokingly dismissive, I can’t: I needed that at that very moment and I will always be super appreciative of her actions. When I finished the 100m, I fought off tears and vomit – I had pushed myself pretty hard, and for the first time I felt great.

The rest of that summer I did Crossfit. My husband was right; it was a better one. My coaches were 100% committed to making sure I was doing everything right and constantly reminded me to breathe. It seems I forget to breathe when hyper-focused and moving at the same time. I thought I was going to die or throw up a number of times. I needed a sandbag on my feet to do sit ups, and rowing 500m was like 500 miles. Running 400m might as well have been 2 miles, push-ups were modified on my knees, box jumps were step ups, and barbell work was just the bar. To an outsider – I looked SUPER wimpy. From my perspective I was giving it all I had. My body loved and despised what I was doing to it.

My 43rd birthday came and went along with another Warrior Dash, only this time, I didn’t train for it, and I beat my previous year’s score by 15 minutes. I was bowled over. It’s coming up on one year at Crossfit, and this weekend I’m doing the Tough Mudder. I’m no skinny Minnie, I still eat junk food, (gluten free/dairy free junk food), and have the “occasional” recreational beverage, but the muumuu is definitely not in my immediate future. I can now do tons of sit ups without help, run two miles without the inhaler (I’m still not a fast runner), row 500m without breaking into a drenching sweat, lift barbells with some weight now, and even climb a rope half-way up. I can do yard work, climb stairs, and hang curtains and workout now.

I have no plans on being Miss Crossfit America, or competing in the Games, or even deadlifting 200 lbs. BUT I do plan on hiking, skiing, kayaking, doing yard work and running fun mud runs – and that takes wind in your lungs, and muscles in your arms and legs to carry you through it all. So, while I still get a little anxiety before going to work out still, and I argue with myself that some things are “just too hard,” that doesn’t mean I’ll be giving up any time soon. I like how I feel when I’ve given my body exercise.

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**On Ramp is Crossfit speak for intro classes. All boxes (Crossfit speak for gym) have an intro period where you are introduced to all the movements used in Crossfit mixed with workouts designed to ramp you up to being able to jump into a Crossfit WOD (Crossfit speak for workout of the day) at the end of your intro period. Every box varies in how many classes are required before joining their regular workouts. All boxes have their own personality too – not all are equal. If you are interested in Crossfit, I suggest going into several and meet the owners/coaches to find the best fit for you.

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guest blogger not only can't you go home again but you don't really want to Palm Springs

A Guest Post from My Pal Jim Who Grew Up in Wisconsin, Spent Many Years in Minnesota, and Now Lives in Palm Springs

So, yes, the post below is the latest pinch hitting by my friend, Jim; in past times, he’s also written about performing in GREASE and seeing Elizabeth Taylor. In this latest, he considers his move to California a couple of years back. Enjoy his musings, as I jet off to Colorado this weekend to help my sister organize her clutter! (I’ve been practicing a severe expression as I announce, “You don’t need that. You don’t need that either. Get rid of that. Take that one to the Goodwill. Burn that.”)

My only addition to Jim’s post are a few quotes about the phenomenon that is Governor Schwarzenegger’s state:

“As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.”–Alison Lurie

“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”–Edward Abbey

“Southern California, where the American Dream came too true”–Lawrence Ferlinghetti
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“A View From the Porch”

It’s been two years and three months since I arrived in the desert. High time I wrote some thoughts about living here.

I’m sitting on what I’m going to start calling my “Writing Porch.” It’s one of three patios at my apartment. And I’m sitting in the sun, laptop on the table, and the sun is so bright the apple on the other side of the screen is showing through. Do you think I’ll write more if I call it the Writing Porch? Michael Chabon has a writing studio in his back yard. Just sayin’.

I’ve been such a crank lately, bitching over cocktails about everything from problems at work to my dismal love life. (No offense to the two guys who have dated me this month; not talking about you.) I better get some thoughts in about what is good about living in this beautiful area.

For the beauty of it, I will just give you this photograph.


There is little more beautiful than the view of snow from a distance.

(Photo by Tony DiSalvo)

Okay, just took off my shirt. (Take that Michael Chabon.) Yep, it’s warm here in Palm Springs. Eighty-five degrees on November 1st is, let’s just say, insane. In a nice way–not like Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, more like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Puerto Vallarta.

What’s really insane, in the way of ET having a frontal lobotomy against her wishes, is this place in the fracking summer. Alex: “June, July, and August.” Jim: “What are the best three reasons to be a teacher?” Not so much here. Three to four months of heat in the 120 degree range. It’s a dry heat my mother’s aunt! An oven’s an oven, sweeties.

Having lived in extreme cold, though, I can tell you this: extreme heat is more bearable. You can sit still on a hundred-degree day if you’re in the shade and drink a nice shandy. Outside. Then you can go into your air-conditioned apartment and watch Keith Olberman. Can’t do that in the tundra of Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Maine (other places I’ve live) when it’s 30 below. (Okay, you can watch Keith if you have cable, a hot toddy, and a snuggie.)

It’s no use, you northerners, saying how much you like the cold or value the Change of Seasons. You might as well say you enjoy the Change of Life. My stalwart brother even posted on Facebook the other day the opening line to “California Dreamin’”: “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.” I couldn’t help but reply that he knew where and how he could be safe and warm.


The view from my Writing Porch.

On the other hand is the bitching. A couple of years before I moved here, a friend talked about weekending in Palm Springs. Well, talked is a bit generous. He ranted: “There’s nothing to do there! There’s NOTHING to do there.” And he’s pretty much right. Sure, there’s hiking in the mountains, drinking in the bars. And tennis for those who play. And that Scottish game that takes up all that lovely parkland. But nightlife? Forget it. One museum: good. Movies: good. International Film Festival: two weeks in January.

There’s no one under sixty who is single (see above re: love life). Why even yesterday there was a rather fetching guy my age getting his haircut next to me. “I think he has a partner,” says my Guy with Scissors. Natch.

So we’re saved from boredom by our proximity to Los Angeles and the coast.

But Jeeves! I think my laptop’s overheating.

And did you see those mountains?
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Epilogue: just this week, Jim decided to start his own blog, Long Slow Distance. If you have a minute, please go visit him and his post at their new crib:

http://jimbergsblog.blogspot.com/

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did anyone find my Triscuits yet? Grease guest blogger Slumdog Millionaire

Herein My Former Dean and Always Friend, Jim, Gives Me A Guest Blogger Assist During a Week Where I Might Lose My Mind Otherwise

Sometimes helping a friend and engaging in public navel gazing are the same thing. In this case, I offered to write a guest blog for Jocelyn because I know she’s just started school, has all her junk all over the house, and can’t find her Triscuits.

Recently I was remembering an annoying woman I met in college, and how one particular branch of her annoying tree reminded me of the film Slumdog Millionaire.

Her name was Rachel Katz, and I use her real name, because I believe everyone googles themselves occasionally (or, in my case, daily) and should find their name somewhere unexpected. So, yes, Rachel, you were bright and funny and a good dancer, but you were also amazingly annoying. To me, anyway. I’m sure the rest of the cast of Grease that summer at the University of Wisconsin-Superior all loved you. (See, now Joce will get Google hits with many other types of searches.)

Rachel was dance captain of said musical, and I played one of the lesser greasers, Doody. I know; I have been typecast from the beginning as good boys, priests and whatnot. One reviewer, bless him, mentioned my “baby-faced Doody,” which is better than being a doody-faced baby anyday. I was twenty; I looked fifteen; I am now forty-five and look forty-five. (This is what forty-five looks like, as Gloria Steinem would say.)


I’m wearing my own clothes (second from left)! That may be Rachel Katz immediately behind me. Jocelyn’s editorial: the gal in the middle looks like Susan Lucci to me; did Erica Caine get her start in Wisconsin musical theater?

One day in the green room a bunch of us were playing Trivial Pursuit. I don’t remember who else was there but probably Doug Ronning, our Danny, who I was crushing on since high school. We were all good in the entertainment category, natch, and it was a close game.

Rachel was in the habit of explaining why or how she knew every answer she got correct. “I only know that because when I was in the fifth grade my mother gave me a scarf that was this amazing color of orange and she told me that it was actually saffron, and it comes from the spice saffron, which is really expensive and you only need a little bit of it in the rice to make it saffron rice, and so now whenever I see that color I know that it’s actually saffron. Plus I really like Indian food, so…” (I’m sure she said “actually” a lot, and her explanations were invariably in the form of the run-on sentence.)

This went on for the entire game. “The only reason I know that is because I was in New York last year and toured the U.N. and so I met the ambassador from Swaziland who told me about the net worth of their exports. So…” I ground my teeth and tried to catch someone else’s eye to share my pain. I don’t think anyone else was irritated, which shows that I was a crank when I was twenty and that my irritability did not come on to me in middle age.

Even then I recognized Rachel’s mannerism as more of a nervous tick than anything else. It was probably a result of being a smart girl in school and trying to minimize that intelligence, making herself more ordinary as if to say, “I’m not smarter than you are really, I just know this because…” Sort of the way smart girls in the Midwest often end every sentence as if it is a question? With a little raise of the voice at the end? (“I know my paper is late? But my boyfriend is in jail? And my mom threw my dad out of the house? And my dad was my daycare provider? So…”)

Rachel had the opposite effect on me, however. Not only did the needless repetition ruin the fun of the game, the subtext of her remarks (the “I’m not smarter than you” part) came off to me as a slight dig at the rest of us, sounding more to me like “I am smarter than you and this is why.”

What does this have to do with Slumdog Millionaire? I’m just getting to that. You’ll recall that our slumdog, Jamal, is a contestant on the Indian version of the gameshow, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He’s condescended to (and worse) by the show’s host, who continues to refer to him as a Tea-Wallah. (You’ll have to google that one yourself, it’s fun.) The entire plot of the film is structured around Jamal’s memories: whenever he gets a question right, the film flashes back to his memories of (yep) why or how he knows that particular bit of information.

Thus we get thrilling, beautiful, horrific scenes of Jamal’s life, from swimming through a fecal swamp to get a glimpse of a matinee idol to scamming tourists (and stealing shoes) as a fake tour guide at the Taj Mahal. And he does all this in order to find Latika, whom he refers to as his destiny. “I went on the show because I thought she would be watching,” he says.

It’s a brilliant narrative move by screen writer Simon Beaufoy. One of those I-wish-I-had-thought-of-that moments. So I couldn’t help but wonder, what if I hadn’t just been annoyed by Rachel Katz’s stories but instead had seen them as a creative way to tell a story? Would I have developed my own version of Slumdog Millionaire? Okay, so mine wouldn’t have the lovely Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, in her long saffron scarf, doing their Bollywood dance in a train station.

And I only know that because…

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi3946185497/

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Grant Park guest blogger hope Obama presidents

Twenty-Three Years and Thirteen Days

 

In terms of female friendships, I have sixty-eleventeen inspirations but only three true Women of My Life. One of these three I met in 1985, in a dorm lounge, where she was being way too cute and cynical and cutting for her own good. Intimidated, I decided I didn’t like her.

She kept being cute and cynical and cutting, however, and at some point, I realized I loved her. Eventually, I went with her to Ireland for a semester; I listened with her to The Pretenders; I cried with her under a sink; I stood up with her at her wedding; I learned new dimensions of pain and guilt from her during her divorce. Twenty-three years later, she can make me blow open a kidney with laughter and provide the comforting feeling that someone in the world knows everything about me and still doesn’t make a citizen’s arrest. She and I? Lifers.

This dearling gel, called Colleen, has spent the last few decades shedding her armour of cynicism and allowing kindness and vulnerability their rightful place.

She is so cool.

Who better, then, to relate a pivotal moment for the U.S., the moment when millions of citizens felt–hokey as it sounds–a renewed sense of possibility?

I refer, of course, to the recent presidential election. Colleen lives in Chicago with her beau, Tim, and threw her energy on election day towards hope. Of that historical day, in an historical place, she writes:

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I spent the afternoon of Nov. 4 curled up next to the elevator on the floor of the tiny lobby of a nondescript downtown Chicago office building, peering at a list of Pennsylvania voters, clutching my iPhone in one hand and plugging my ear with the other to block out the cheery voices of a dozen others who’d fled the steamy warren of basement offices crammed full of Obama campaign staff and eager volunteers. I left lots of cheery voice mails reminding people to vote. A few of the people who picked up the phone were curt; two hung up on me as soon as I said “I’m a volunteer with the Obama campaign” (which I found thrilling to say), but most were delighted to tell me that they’d voted for Obama.

Making calls did what I hoped it would: distracted me from my anxious, audibly-whamming heart, and made me feel like I’d done some little thing besides sending money to fight the good fight. I hopped the El to Tim’s office at 5:00. We sat at his desk eating takeout sushi and obsessively refreshing news Web sites until we joined the river of people heading to Grant Park around 7:15.

It’s impossible to be a misanthrope in the midst of an enormous, good-natured crowd. Nobody shoved, nobody was drunk or obnoxious, nobody bitched about the long lines for the metal detectors, everybody joshed good-naturedly with the cops, everybody was smiling and laughing. As the field slowly filled, people were glued to the Jumbotron screen showing CNN. (Seriously, Bill Bennett, shut your giant head the fuck up. Best comment of the night, from an incredulous James Carville: “After the last eight years, I hardly think y’all have any authority to tell Barack Obama how to govern.”) Roars went up every time CNN projected a state for Obama. Boos for each state called for McCain. Roars whenever the screen showed the live feed from the park. That’s us! Wave! Woooooooo hooooooo! We’re in the middle of history! When the California polls closed and CNN declared Obama the winner, people screamed, cried, hugged strangers. I felt a funny mixture of giddiness and gravity: We did it. Take that, haters. I can finally let go of eight years’ worth of anger & embarrassment over what’s been done to my country. Oh, god, there is so much to heal and to fix.

The crowd was surprisingly quiet during McCain’s concession speech, booing only when the camera shifted to Sarah Palin. We waited another hour for Obama to come onstage, turning to one another every few minutes and saying incredulous things: Holy shit, this is real. I can’t believe I’m here for this. Oh my god. Yes, we can.

I said the Pledge of Allegiance and really meant it.

When Obama and his family appeared at 11:00, a quarter of a million people whooped and cheered and hallelujah’d. I’ll never hear anything like it again as long as I live. I teared up at the sight of him and his young family, beautiful and smiling and willing to take on this tremendous task for us. When he began to speak, I started to flat-out weep, big gasping sobs of joy and pride and relief (and a little bit of fear for him, too). Yes, we can, everybody chanted along with him. Yes. We. Can.
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Here’s a picture for you. Tim is dead center in the “frame” formed by the two flags; Colleen is to his left, leaning on him.

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