The First Day of the Semester: Hour by Hour

Composition

8 am

The 8 a.m. hour:

Rumpled and wild, the bedding reflects the quality of my nervous sleep. Even with relying on my new-found friend, melatonin, I woke throughout the night. By 4 a.m., I rolled around fitfully, the veil of sleep resting lightly upon me, my blood running cold with First Day nerves.

This is the start of my twenty-sixth year of teaching college English, and still, I am riddled with anxiety — some of it about having to perform, but most of it about the people in the room once I open that classroom door and walk in. Fifty eyes will challenge: “I’m bored,” “You’re not funny,” “I hate writing,” “I’d rather be texting,” “This class is stupid.” Usually, at least a few of those eyes also harbor some Crazy.

At least I can make the bed and calm that visible tussle.

9 a.m. collage

The 9 a.m. hour:

A few years ago, I discovered that the days I teach on campus unfold better for me if I spend the hours before class exercising — hard. Instead of letting the nerves roil around with no place to go, I apply them to hopping up and down on a step, doing burpees, jumping rope, lifting weights. One of my favorite classes at the gym has just enough choreography that I can pretend I’m a Bob Fosse protegee.

Jazz hands, bitches. It’s the new Xanax.

10 a.m. collage

The 10 a.m. hour:

Once the class is done and I’ve taken a bow, I am fantastically sweaty. Mixed into that sweat are the sadness and negativity that plagued my mood two hours earlier. My heart had been beating with a quaver, but now it’s thumping confidently. I lean down to the water fountain — crikey, but that water is cold! — and realize that when I think about my afternoon class, my thoughts are now trending “Let’s do this thing. Let’s see what kinds of joys and wonders those bored-looking faces end up revealing over time.”

When I was in my twenties, I didn’t exercise much. Back then, I’d go through a full roll of toilet paper on the first day of each new semester. Now, thanks to sweat, the TP will live to wipe another day.

11 a.m.

The 11 a.m. hour:

The third floor is empty and silent, save for the sound of my shoes squeaking on the track. I run two laps, stop and lift weights, run two laps, lift some more, run two laps, lift again, making sure to fold in the physical therapy exercises for my shoulder. Eventually, others meander up, focused on their own workouts. One young woman is using a YouTube video to lead her activity. Faintly, I hear the voice coming out of her phone; my earbuds are piping the voices of Marc Maron and Kristen Wiig into my skull. I quite like Kristen Wiig, but, in listening to her interview, I discover she’s guarded when not in character. She’s less interesting than I want her to be.

Not to self: be interesting when there is a listening audience. Like, say, in your 2 p.m. class today.

noon

The noon hour:

Done at the gym, showered, made-up, wearing Adult Clothes (sans diaper), I have driven to campus and plonked my bags onto one of the chairs in my office. Although I checked my online classes first thing after waking up, I know they will have seen some action during the hours of sweating, so I need to crank out some reading and grading.

Reading the introductions that have been posted, I’m delighted to see I have a certified doula in one of my classes. She’s also taught herself to sew by relying heavily on YouTube videos. I have a moment of thinking, “Well, of course, there are YouTube videos about sewing. DUH. A clever YouTuber would create a new channel, though, one that combines backstitching with backbends. It could be called Sew Sweaty, and all the 22-year-olds would subscribe.”

1 p.m.

The 1 p.m. hour:

A student who took an Incomplete in one of my classes last spring has finally, on the first day of the new academic year, gotten around to sending me her literary analysis paper and final exam essay questions. While her intentions have been good, the timing still exasperates. I granted a couple of Incompletes last year, and I will be more reluctant to do so in the future. While many students take the Incomplete and disappear forever (their grade becoming an “F” when this happens), the ones from last year have dragged out their course completions to an exhausting extent. The sheer amount of back-and-forth emails, apologies, promises, IT Help Desk tickets, and excuses more than equals the time it would have taken for them to just do the course work with an emphatic BAM.

So now, in the hour before my first meeting with new students, I am grading work from last May. Clearly, protein is in order.

2 p.m.

The 2 p.m. hour:

Moments before I grab the stack of syllabi and folders and hustle down the corridor to the classroom, a notion possesses me: since my sweat has dried up, I’m not feeling so powerful any more. Maybe a bold lip color will fool the students into thinking I’m in charge.

Plunging into my purse, I spot a lipstick I’ve never seen before. DID YOU PUT THIS IN MY PURSE, GOD, JUST FOR TODAY? ARE YOU EVEN THERE, GOD? GOD? GOD? IT’S ME, JOCELYN.

The lipstick is dark and badass; pulling a small mirror out of my top desk drawer (Pro-tip: a small hand mirror can reveal all sorts of shit in your teeth that you don’t want bobbing around while you explain the policy of Academic Honesty), I slather the plum color over my lips. And adjacent skin. Within thirty seconds, my face looks like the Senate floor after Brutus and Casca jammed their steak knives into Caesar’s neck.

First, I try wiping around my lips with my fingers. As I check the mirror to see if improvements have been made, my hand falls onto the stack of syllabi, leaving bloody fingerprints all over the section labeled “Course Outcomes.” Quickly, I grab a tissue from the box I was clever enough to bring from home two years ago. Hypothetically, the college will provide office supplies like Kleenex. Realistically, the amount of paperwork and waiting time required to get a box of Kleenex is so stupid that the guy in charge of supplies will whisper, helpfully, “If you really want Kleenex in your office, just suck it up and bring some from home.”

GOD, IF YOU ARE THERE (IT’S ME, JOCELYN), THANK YOU FOR GIVING ME THE TYPE OF SOUL THAT STOCKS HER OFFICE WITH KLEENEX BECAUSE I WOULD HAVE HAD TO RUB MY FACE ON THE INDUSTRIAL CARPET, HAD THERE NOT BEEN TISSUES AT HAND, AND FEW THINGS START OFF A SEMESTER WORSE THAN A TEACHER WITH RUG BURN ON HER CHEEKS. SO HARD TO EXPLAIN TO STUDENTS. It gets really porny really fast, see.

3 p.m.

The 3 p.m. hour:

It’s over. I did it.

My maroon mouth and I strode into the classroom and faced the strangers.

Sure, I spent the first three minutes in the classroom trying to get the projector and instructor computer to turn on. As a rule, I like the initial impression strangers have of me to be one where I’m ineffective and squatting in heels. Check and Check.

Also, the first time a roomful of strangers hears my voice, I like the words coming out of my plum-lacquered lips to be something like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Hang on for a few minutes while I run and find a tech person.”

Even better, I supermuch like it when, seven minutes later, I return to the classroom with a tech guy in tow, and he walks over to the computer monitor, pushes a button, and informs me, “With these new fuzzabytes, there’s not actually a power button on a hard drive. You just turn it on here on the screen.” Then I like it when he picks up the remote control on the corner of the desk, points it at the projector hanging from the ceiling, and turns it on. What’s more, it’s radically helpful to a sweaty instructor whose feet just got blistered to be educated: “I know this isn’t how it’s set up in the classroom where you usually teach. We’re working on getting the technology in the classrooms standardized.”

The best moment of all occurs as Tech Guy heads for the door, and I call out, “Hey, I know some of the classrooms have really wonky light switches and systems — and it’s often impossible to dim the lights. Let’s say I’d like to dim the lights now that the projector is on. How would I do that in this specific classroom?” and then he freezes and scratches his head for a minute before walking over to the screen hanging in front of the white board and peeking behind it. Yea, there are some switches there. Nope, he discovers, they aren’t the light switches. So then he walks back over to the door. Hey, more switches! Awkwardly, he punches at them. Nothing happens. Holding longer, he presses again. Gradually, the room darkens.

Cots would be nice. I, for one, am ready for a nap.

But: it’s showtime — time to explain the class to the patient students, right down to how the cutting-edge technology on our campus should make them feel they’re getting the most out of their tuition dollars.

4 p.m.

The 4 p.m. hour:

I’m back in the haven of my office. Slumping in a chair, I think to myself, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. Seems like a nice crop of fresh faces in that classroom. Okay, a couple of them might eventually reveal their Crazy, but for this minute, I’m going to call it good.”

On my lap are a stack of diagnostic essays that I asked the students to write during the last part of our 75-minute class period. Before I read them, I need a minute — to let the raw skin on my feet breathe, to file away the manila folders from today’s class and ready the ones I’ll use on Wednesday, to allow a post-anxiety sensation of joy to flood my body.

5 p.m.

The 5 p.m. hour:

I’m still reading the diagnostic essays, stapling a little feedback sheet to each one — basically something that will give each student a sense of his or her readiness to handle the class, based on what I’m seeing in the writing. The reading and feedback would go a lot more quickly if I didn’t stop every few minutes to wheel myself over to my computer and dick around on Facebook.

6 p.m. collage

The 6 p.m. hour:

Essays are read. Next class period is prepped. Online classes are dealt with once again. It’s time to lock up my office and find a celebratory frappucino. As long as I’m up on the hill, near the shopping area, I’m going to dip into the Mothership and try to find a shirt with pockets for my beloved pal, Ellen. After having breast cancer this past year, she recently underwent a long afternoon of mammography-if-ication, at the end of which her breasts were deemed Killer Awesome. That news is so great it’s worth pockets.

As it turns out, there is only one pocket shirt left in the store, and I have to stash it on the bath rugs while I use the bathroom. So help me, if anyone tries to take The Pockets while I pee, I will tackle him and give him porny rug burn.

7 p.m.

The 7 p.m. hour:

I’ve been to four stores so far, running errands (WHEN PACO NEEDS FLOSSERS, I AM ON THE MISSION), and my final stop is the Co-op, where they sell the world’s best string cheese.

On my way into and out of the store, I take entirely too much enjoyment in a wildass black woman who, with zest and finesse, is working the white liberal guilt in the parking lot. She follows shoppers to their cars, edging into their personal space with a nuanced and dramatic tale of woe. All the ponytailed guys by their Subarus and blondie ladies loading spelt into their hybrids are powerless in the face of this woman’s force. Gleefully, she racks up a handful of donated dollars while the Co-op shoppers race to unlock their cars and zip to their safe, controlled homes.

8 p.m.

The 8 p.m. hour:

Finally, I am home, dragging bags into the kitchen. From the television room, Byron calls out excitedly, “AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR IS ON!!”

I love him so much.

Once he makes sure I haven’t brought home some new interesting beer, he cracks a cold one from the fridge. Before I’m ready to settle in and ogle upper-arm strength while sipping, I head upstairs to change into pajamas and wash the day off my face. Checking with Allegra — at the computer, working on the East of Eden assignments that are due in English when the school year begins in a few weeks — I debrief her on my class, telling her they seem really young, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my students were people from her high school. Then she tells me one of my Facebook posts literally made her laugh out loud.

I love her so much.

Before I head back down, I pat Paco’s shoulder; he’s having screen time with his buddies, so his his big headphones are on, and the group of them is chasing some Thing around some Place in some World. He’s all focused intensity, but, still, his shoulder is soft. I learn he slept until 1 p.m., and in the afternoon, he and Byron went swimming in the nearby river. Also, he made another little clay guy for the art sale this weekend. It has hair.

I love him so much.

9 p.m.

The 9 p.m. hour:

Living tributes to the 1970s, Byron and I settle in front of the television with our dinner. Once we’re done catching up on our respective days, we’ll watch an episode of Bojack Horseman. 

When Byron inhales a kernel of corn into his windpipe and hacks dramatically for four minutes, I take the opportunity to monologue — LOUDLY — about my impressions of this semester’s students. At one point, it seems better to fall quiet and let him work it out, but he chokes, “Keep going. I want to hear it all.”

10 p.m.

The 10 p.m. hour:

Halfway through Bojack Horseman, Byron moves into the sitting position that indicates he’s trying to stay awake. This is also my opportunity to rub his back. Barely, he makes it through, having realized he took allergy medicine this morning, and coupling that with a night-time beer has made him groggy. Shortly after 10 p.m., a case study in substance abuse, he is DONE.

11 p.m.

The 11 p.m. hour:

Pappy’s asleep, the kids are still focused on their own stuff, so it’s my time to turn my face, once again, towards my online students. Many of them work during the days; thus, the later hours are when the number of posts picks up. As I read introductions and ask questions, I watch Jimmy Fallon in the background.

As is the case with Kristen Wiig, I am not as interested in Robert DeNiro as I’d like to be. Fortunately, the students online are extremely interesting.

Checking email, I see a message from a student, giving me a heads-up that one of my quiz questions is flat-out bizarre. Frantically, I hop into the class and realize he’s right. When I was writing new questions and editing quizzes this summer, I wrongly copied something from one of my sixteen-week sections into one of my eight-week sections and, on top of that error, it’s a summer-based question, not a fall-based question. I hate it when I screw up and, thus, thank the student heartily. In return, he thanks me for getting back to him so quickly. I send him another email reply, just so he can keep seeing how quickly I get back to him.

midnight

The midnight hour:

I’ve graded everything that’s been submitted online, so now I can think about my own writing. There’s a piece I’ve been working on for a few months; this past week, it got to the point where I needed perspective and asked a few folks for feedback. Byron just had time to read it today, so before he conked out, he told me two things he feels need editing. I agree with his instincts. In addition, my pal Ellen gave me some good ideas for finally pulling the ending together. And: I need to change “a pair of underwear” to the words “plaid boxers,” per my friend Virginia’s note. Ooh, and my lovely galpal Linda had pointed out a missing hyphen, among other things.

When the edits are done, I reach that rare and special place with a piece of writing: I think it might be “done.” Having interacted with it for so long, changing things every time I read it, it’s hard to know, of course. I could keep changing and changing. The deadline is in a week; for me, that’s close enough that I’d like to submit it now. Helping me decide it’s time is the echo of Byron’s primary response to the essay: “It’s really powerful. It’s really good.”

He’s always supportive, but because I live with him, and he hears all my nonsense on repeat, he’s hard to impress. When he told me the essay is good, that it’s powerful, that was my indication that I can let it go.

Just past midnight, I pay the $20 contest fee and toss my word baby out into the world.

Puzzle and Toast

The 1 a.m. hour:

Sometimes after a girl has just submitted an essay to a contest, she needs toast and puzzlin’.

I’m at the point of blackness with this puzzle where I have to pick up each piece and try it in each open slot before I can find a fit. After half an hour, I’ve found homes for two pieces. We call this the Maturity & Endurance phase of puzzlin’.

Bed

The 2 a.m. hour:

Byron’s been asleep for almost four hours, so the bed is again well rumpled.

I can’t wait to crawl in beside him.

I can’t wait to read.

I can’t wait to sleep.

I’m tired.

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What I Did During My Summer Vacation

Bagley TreeIn a few days, the new academic year begins. Since I’ve not quite recovered from the stresses of the summer session, and since my fall teaching schedule recently underwent an adjustment (one section cancelled, another added), I’m a bit breathless.

No matter. Whether or not I’m ready, it’ll happen anyways. I’ll hit an alarm and put on underwear and walk into rooms burbling with lots of words, and then the hours will pass, and it’ll be over until it happens again. It’s all good. I’m lucky to inhabit a life with a loud alarm and stretchy underwear and safe rooms and interesting people.

Equally, I’m fortunate to have had a first-rate summer, one that galloped along at a perfect pace. The kids are old enough that I didn’t feel the constant pressure to fill their hours, we had a good variety of outings and activities, and we had a diverting cast of visitors trip through our doors. I am well satisfied, chums.

Already, though, I have to stop and scratch my head when I try to inventory the summer’s charms. What all did we do again?

Since this space serves as a chronicle of something, why not “What I Did This Summer”?

Here, then, is a pictorial review of the highlights, something I can refer back to in future years when I wonder what the hell happened in 2016 outside of the general universal weirdness triggered by the deaths of Bowie and Prince.

Speaking of His Royal Badness, we stopped by First Avenue in June and had a quick moment of Dammit, but He Was Grand.
Speaking of His Royal Badness, we stopped by First Avenue in June and had a quick moment of Dammit, but He Was Grand.
Across the street from First Ave is the Target Center, so after we bid adieu to the stars of the great, we attended our first-ever Lynx game with pal Kirsten and a crew of her high school charges. YOU GUYS, WE WENT TO A SPORTS!
Across the street from First Ave is the Target Center, so after we bid adieu to the stars of the great, we attended our first-ever Lynx game with pal Kirsten and a crew of her high school charges. YOU GUYS, WE WENT TO A SPORTS!
As we do every year, Paco and I volunteered for a shift at the library book sale. Here, he is in the process of stealing all the money from the cash box.
As we do every year, Paco and I volunteered for a shift at the library book sale. Here, he is in the process of stealing all the money from the cash box.
With dedication and discipline, Allegra ran and attended fitness classes at the gym, along with doing a 4x/week training group with some of her friends. At her age, I was lying on the floor, my feet on the couch, moaning that the tv was too far away for me to change the channel. Then I’d start yodeling the words “black gold, Texas tea.”
With dedication and discipline, Allegra ran and attended fitness classes at the gym, along with doing a 4x/week training group with some of her friends. At her age, I was lying on the floor, my feet on the couch, moaning that the tv was too far away for me to change the channel. Then I’d start yodeling the words “black gold, Texas tea.”
Tall like the trees, our boy walked and grew.
Tall like the trees, our boy walked and grew.
We got a pickleball set. These are pickleball paddles. These are boys holding them. Yea, I know you don’t know what pickleball is. Don’t you wish there was some massive source of easy information right at your fingertips that could help you with this problem?
We got a pickleball set. These are pickleball paddles. These are boys holding them. Yea, I know you don’t know what pickleball is. Don’t you wish there was some massive source of easy information right at your fingertips that could help you with this problem?
It’s not all fun and games around here. We moved the fridge this summer and sought out a good therapist the day after.
It’s not all fun and games around here. We moved the fridge this summer and sought out a good therapist the day after.
I mean, what the holy. What kind of dipshit family of four can create this many dirty dishes in under 24 hours?
I mean, what the holy. What kind of dipshit family of four can create this many dirty dishes in under 24 hours?
The thing about owning a house is that it’s always something. Not only are our windows currently a Something, so was our rotten deck (nearly killing people for 15 years!!). Thus, Byron and his crackerjack minion spent some quality hours tearing it down. Since our back staircase also needed replacing, we had to do some prioritizing and riddle out a home equity loan. Verdict: we’ll do the upstairs windows and back staircase this year, the downstairs windows and new deck next year. Adulting sucks big donkey dicks.
The thing about owning a house is that it’s always something. Not only are our windows currently a Something, so was our rotten deck (nearly killing people for 15 years!!). Thus, Byron and his crackerjack minion spent some quality hours tearing it down. Since our back staircase also needed replacing, we had to do some prioritizing and riddle out a home equity loan. Verdict: we’ll do the upstairs windows and back staircase this year, the downstairs windows and new deck next year. Adulting sucks big donkey dicks.
After more than a year of washing dishes at a local pub to earn money, this girl went on a high school trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. The trip across the Atlantic was chaos, the crowning moment coming when the airline packed all the teenagers onto the airplane to Frankfurt and then told the overseeing teacher that there was no seat for her . . . so she jetted over on a later flight. We all want to watch that movie, right?
After more than a year of washing dishes at a local pub to earn money, this girl went on a high school trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. The trip across the Atlantic was chaos, the crowning moment coming when the airline packed all the teenagers onto the airplane to Frankfurt and then told the overseeing teacher that there was no seat for her . . . so she jetted over on a later flight. We all want to watch that movie, right?
Important development, particularly for the rat bastard chipmunks in the yard: Paco started aiming at his archery target with eyes closed. MAY YOU BE IMPALED BY A WILDLY OFF-COURSE ARROW, CHIPMUNKMONSTER.
Important development, particularly for the rat bastard chipmunks in the yard: Paco started aiming at his archery target with eyes closed. MAY YOU BE IMPALED BY WILDLY OFF-COURSE ARROWS, PLAGUE O’ MUNKS.
This pup here was in a fair bit of a panic about getting his tonsils out — even though, given the 47 cases of strep he’s had in his lifetime, we all agreed it was time. Major bonus were the purple socks he received as part of his clinic-issued Surgery Garb. Those socks now live in his bed with him, ready for jamming on at the first sign of a single cold toe.
This pup here was in a fair bit of a panic about getting his tonsils out — even though, given the 47 cases of strep he’s had in his lifetime, we all agreed it was time. Major bonus were the purple socks he received as part of his clinic-issued Surgery Garb. Those socks now live in his bed with him, ready for jamming on at the first sign of a single cold toe.
The recovery from a tonsillectomy is lengthy, taking 10-14 days. Paco milked every last hour of unrestricted screen time and life based out of bed. When his cousins stopped by and dropped off get-well cards, we were surprised at how very much they meant to him. Seeing how dramatically get-well wishes perked him up, I put out a call to Internet, and scads of gorgeous friends came through — sending cards and gifts and generally making his every day. The Eyebrow Baby card featured here (thank you, Elly!) has become legend in his lifetime.
The recovery from a tonsillectomy is lengthy, taking 10-14 days. Paco milked every last hour of unrestricted screen time and life based out of bed. When his cousins stopped by and dropped off get-well cards, we were surprised at how very much they meant to him. Seeing how dramatically get-well wishes perked him up, I put out a call to Internet, and scads of gorgeous friends came through — sending cards and gifts and generally making his every day. The Eyebrow Baby card featured here (thank you, Elly!) has become legend in his lifetime.
The get-well wishes for Paco kept streaming in! When a huge box from Georgia arrived, we all lost our minds with the amazing cornucopia of presents our pal Tara had packed inside. It is my fervent hope that the kids wear these teeth in their school pictures this year.
The get-well wishes for Paco kept streaming in! When a huge box from Georgia arrived, we all lost our minds with the amazing cornucopia of presents our pal Tara had packed inside. It is my fervent hope that the kids wear these teeth in their school pictures this year.
Tara’s box also included this t-shirt. The kid has lived in it for the past two months. I’m somewhat worried the hairs on his arms are going to grow through the fabric, and we’ll have to cut him out come November.
Tara’s box also included this t-shirt. The kid has lived in it for the past two months. I’m somewhat worried the hairs on his arms are going to grow through the fabric, and we’ll have to cut him out come November.
Byron made deviled eggs using some of the special Southern-like mayo sent in Tara’s Georgia box. Tara hates eggs and, when she saw this photo, yacked into the upturned top hat of a nearby magician.
Byron made deviled eggs using some of the special Southern-like mayo sent in Tara’s Georgia box. Tara hates eggs; upon seeing this photo, she leaned over and yacked into the upturned top hat of a nearby magician.
Another get-well present that arrived was from the kickass Yolanda. HOW ARE SPLAT BALLS NOT FUN ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY STICK TO THE CEILING AND YOU HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO STAND ON THE COFFEE TABLE?
Another get-well present that arrived was from the kickass Yolanda. HOW ARE SPLAT BALLS NOT FUN ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY STICK TO THE CEILING AND YOU HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO STAND ON THE COFFEE TABLE?
The Grandma’s Marathon course runs a block from our house. Every June, I love watching thousands of participants sweat their way past; in particular, I gawk at the elite runners — whispers of shadows as they slide by. There’s something magic about seeing a human body do something it is uniquely excellent at. All right: at which it is uniquely excellent, you pompous nitpicker.
The Grandma’s Marathon course runs a block from our house. Every June, I love watching thousands of participants sweat their way past; in particular, I gawk at the elite runners — whispers of shadows as they slide by. There’s something magic about seeing a human body do something it is uniquely excellent at. All right: at which it is uniquely excellent, you pompous nitpicker.
After I watch a marathon, I like to do a thing where I go run a few miles myself in a beautiful place, all the while reminding myself I’m part of something bigger.
After I watch a marathon, I like to do a thing where I go run a few miles myself in a beautiful place, all the while reminding myself I’m part of something bigger.
All summer, here and there, in two-minute snatches, I've been noodling away at this puzzle. I so love jigsaws depicting Turkish and Middle Eastern scenes — to the point that I’ve done most of them I can find. I’m being very quiet about the drying up of my Future Puzzle Supply because I am both stoic and brave, but truth is I’m in a fair bit of a panic about this, my poodles. You will hold me when I weep?
All summer, here and there, in two-minute snatches, I’ve been noodling away at this puzzle. I so love jigsaws depicting Turkish and Middle Eastern scenes — to the point that I’ve done most of them I can find. I’m being very quiet about the drying up of my Future Puzzle Supply because I am both stoic and brave, but truth is I’m in a fair bit of a panic about this, my poodles. You will hold me when I weep?
Our friends Michael and Forest came from Seattle and celebrated the 4th with us, and oh, Sweet Snoopy on a Cracker, yes, you’ve looked at seventy-eleven photos, yet we’re only at July 4th here. Anyhow, Mikey used an app on his phone to tune the guitar, and it was as though, suddenly, mere sixteen years into it, I understood the potential of this new century.
Our friends Michael and Forest came from Seattle and celebrated the 4th with us, and oh, Sweet Snoopy on a Cracker, yes, you’ve looked at seventy-eleven photos, yet we’re only at July 4th here. Anyhow, Mikey used an app on his phone to tune the guitar, and it was as though, suddenly, a mere sixteen years into it, I understood the potential of this new century.
You know what we have in Duluth? The world’s longest freshwater sandbar. WINNING.
You know what we have in Duluth? The world’s longest freshwater sandbar. WINNING.
Byron’s got a better sense of drama than hand-eye coordination.
Byron’s got a better sense of drama than hand-eye coordination.
he Pied Piper of Lake Pequaywan.
The Pied Piper of Lake Pequaywan.
Allegra’s so good at so much. But not this.
Allegra’s so good at so much. But not this.
YOU HAVE TO BE VERY FAIR WHEN PLAYING HIDE ‘N SEEK, AND HEARING THE DIRECTION OF “IT”S SCAMPERING IS NOT FAIR.
YOU HAVE TO BE VERY FAIR WHEN PLAYING HIDE ‘N SEEK, AND HEARING THE DIRECTION OF “IT”S SCAMPERING IS NOT FAIR.
We had a weekend in the Cities with Byron’s folks; our birthday/Mother’s/Father’s Day gifts to them were tickets to see SOUTH PACIFIC at The Guthrie and a night in a hotel. Not part of the gift: Allegra looking at her feet.
We had a weekend in the Cities with Byron’s folks; our birthday/Mother’s/Father’s Day gifts to them were tickets to see SOUTH PACIFIC at The Guthrie and have a night in a hotel. Not part of the gift: Allegra looking at her feet.
Cousin Elijah moved to Salt Lake City a year ago, so his month-long return to Minnesota was An Occasion. Good news: he was worth the wait.
Cousin Elijah moved to Salt Lake City a year ago, so his month-long return to Minnesota was An Occasion. Good news: he was worth the wait.
Yard. Adolescents. Summer. Hey, this reminds me of the Gear Daddies song that goes “Summer vacation/Nothing on tv/No one home/Except for me/For me/Just sitting in my room/Got no money/Nothing to do/Stare at the ceiling/Sonic boom” — YOU GUYS, WHERE HAVE THE SONIC BOOMS GONE?
Yard. Adolescents. Summer. Hey, this reminds me of the Gear Daddies song that goes “Summer vacation/Nothing on tv/No one home/Except for me/For me/Just sitting in my room/Got no money/Nothing to do/Stare at the ceiling/Sonic boom” — YOU GUYS, WHERE HAVE THE SONIC BOOMS GONE?
Lake. Beach on the big sandbar. Cousin Elijah. Happy Paco. Simple math.
Lake. Beach on the big sandbar. Cousin Elijah. Happy Paco. Simple math.
Not only does she have a job and a driver’s license, she now has a look that yells, “I’ll be taking the ACT this year!”
Not only does she have a job and a driver’s license, she now has a look that yells, “I’ll be taking the ACT this year!”
Like the people in this photo, we decided not to be crabby 70-year-old men when it comes to the phenomenon of PokemonGO but, rather, to dive in and enjoy it. You know what’s super-big fun? Not being cranky about an innocent trend. If you’ve been rolling your eyes about PokemonGO, may I suggest this instead: target your crankies at the crushing frequency with which young black men are killed by law enforcement in this country?
Like the people in this photo, we decided not to be crabby 70-year-old men when it comes to the phenomenon of PokemonGO but, rather, to dive in and enjoy it. You know what’s super-big fun? Not being cranky about an innocent trend. If you’ve been rolling your eyes about PokemonGO, may I suggest this instead: target your crankies at the crushing frequency with which young black men are killed by law enforcement in this country?
I have long loved Clefairy. I have a song I sing about Clefairy. Cleeeeeee-fairy/Cleeeeee-fairy.
I have long loved Clefairy. I have a song I sing about Clefairy. Cleeeeeee-fairy/Cleeeeee-fairy.
Moreover, I have long loved these two fellows, both of whom, in this image, are demonstrating the evils of PokemonGO in action.
Moreover, I have long loved these two fellows, both of whom, in this image, are demonstrating the evils of PokemonGO in action.
One shoulder, the one with the scar, took me to physical therapy a couple of times a week. Then there was the shoulder with the kinesio tape — the “good” shoulder being the one that now hurts. In related news: this blog may soon become nothing more than a litany of my various decrepitudes. Yet, at the same time: I kind of want to start taking drum lessons.
One shoulder, the one with the scar, took me to physical therapy a couple of times a week. Then there was the shoulder with the kinesio tape — the “good” shoulder being the one that now hurts. In related news: this blog may soon become nothing more than a litany of my various decrepitudes. Yet, at the same time: I kind of want to start taking drum lessons.
My brother and his younger daughter, Sofia, came again this summer — both to visit us and to attend Camp Grandma at our aunt and uncle’s place. Sure, it’s great to see them, but moreso: it’s great to finally have some Peace Tea in the house.
My brother and his younger daughter, Sofia, came again this summer — both to visit us and to attend Camp Grandma at our aunt and uncle’s place. Sure, it’s great to see them, but moreso: it’s great to finally have some Peace Tea in the house.
I happen to have a pair of awesome suede wedge boots and a niece capable of rocking them. We enjoyed an extended photo shoot on the grounds.
I happen to have a pair of awesome suede wedge boots and a niece capable of rocking them. We enjoyed an extended photo shoot on the grounds.
We were five minutes into the photo shoot on the grounds when the real Sofia emerged.
We were five minutes into the photo shoot on the grounds when the real Sofia emerged.
The Camp Grandma crew at a local school for the annual Taste of Greece food festival. Spanakopita for everyone!
The Camp Grandma crew at a local school for the annual Taste of Greece food festival. Spanakopita for everyone!
When Camp Grandma was over, and we had brother and niece back in our possession, we talked Dear Sofia into trying her first 5K race. She and I walked and trotted it while she filled me in on her criteria for giving out her phone number to people who ask for it.
When Camp Grandma was over, and we had brother and niece back in our possession, we talked Dear Sofia into trying her first 5K race. She and I walked and trotted it while she filled me in on her criteria for giving out her phone number to people who ask for it.
Social media worked its magic once again when my college pal — actually more of a friend the year after graduation — Al stopped by to drop off some cement stepping stones he’d made. Al is a complete peach, and I quiver in happy anticipation at the thought of Byron teaching him to cross-stitch.
Social media worked its magic once again when my college pal — actually more of a friend the year after graduation — Al stopped by to drop off some cement stepping stones he’d made. Al is a complete peach, and I quiver in happy anticipation at the thought of Byron teaching him to cross-stitch.
Here’s the view out our front door, a few days after a crazy-ass storm (103 mph straight-line winds) blew through and destroyed our end of the city. Even now, more than a month later, that trunk is lying there, as are trees all over town. Thousands, including us, were without power for days. Indoor camping sucks only a little less than tent camping.
Here’s the view out our front door, a few days after a crazy-ass storm (103 mph straight-line winds) blew through and destroyed our end of the city. Even now, more than a month later, that trunk is lying there, as are trees all over town. Thousands, including us, were without power for days. Indoor camping sucks only a little less than tent camping.
After going for a run, Allegra and two of her friends dropped to the grass for a quick ab session. Again, when I check back with 16-year-old Jocelyn, I am reminded the narrative was more “I crawled on the grass because vodka.”
After going for a run, Allegra and two of her friends dropped to the grass for a quick ab session. Again, when I check back with 16-year-old Jocelyn, I am reminded the narrative was more “I crawled on the grass because vodka.”
AND THEN, the day my brother and Sofia left, our beloved friends from Turkey arrived! The sheets on their beds were still warm from the dryer, I tell you. So here’s Ileyn with diaper-wearing doggie Angel. In real life, they both fulfill the tantalizing promise of this picture.
AND THEN, the day my brother and Sofia left, our beloved friends from Turkey arrived! The sheets on their beds were still warm from the dryer, I tell you. So here’s Ileyn with diaper-wearing doggie Angel. In real life, they both fulfill the tantalizing promise of this picture.
Ileyn and kids Selin and John (in Turkish: Can) accompanied Allegra and me to a class at the YMCA. It was an ovary-buster of a class, and Selin rocked the damn thing.
Ileyn and kids Selin and John (in Turkish: Can) accompanied Allegra and me to a class at the YMCA. It was an ovary-buster of a class, and Selin rocked the damn thing.
So did Allegra and I. This was one of my first times back since shoulder surgery in March. I’m easing into doing plank — still a ways off from push-ups — and will never lose the talent for shaking like a diapered poodle when I’m balancing on an upside-down Bosu ball.
So did Allegra and I. This was one of my first times back since shoulder surgery in March. I’m easing into doing plank — still a ways off from push-ups — and will never lose the talent for shaking like a diapered poodle when I’m balancing on an upside-down Bosu ball.
Meanwhile, just over my right shoulder, John was making a friend.
Meanwhile, just over my right shoulder, John was making a friend.
John makes all the friends. Several years ago, actually, he declared Allegra was his girlfriend. It’s going well. They never fight.
John makes all the friends. Several years ago, actually, he declared Allegra was his girlfriend. It’s going well. They never fight.
Like you’re supposed to change out of your workout clothes before you make brownies?
Like you’re supposed to change out of your workout clothes before you make brownies?
John doesn’t mind Uncle Byron, either. It was great fun to introduce the Turks to paddle boarding — the same way they introduced us to the concept of sitting on a picnic blanket in front of the television and eating “durum.” Mmmmm. Durum.
John doesn’t mind Uncle Byron, either. It was great fun to introduce the Turks to paddle boarding — the same way they introduced us to the concept of sitting on a picnic blanket in front of the television and eating “durum.” Mmmmm. Durum.
hat’s the whole crew out there, with Ileyn’s stance owning the harbor like a boss.
That’s the whole crew out there, with Ileyn’s stance owning the harbor like a boss.
Yes, Uncle Byron will take you out into the water, John. You don’t have to ask, with impeccable manners, twice.
Yes, Uncle Byron will take you out into the water, John. You don’t have to ask, with impeccable manners, twice.
I MEAN, COME ON.
I MEAN, COME ON.
If the Turkish pals know they love squeaky fresh cheese curds, the least an Uncle Byron can do is fry some up and blow all the minds with this new variation.
If the Turkish pals know they love squeaky fresh cheese curds, the least an Uncle Byron can do is fry some up and blow all the minds with this new variation.
An hour and a half after the Turks left, so did we. For eight days in Europe. On a cruise of the Danube with my brother and mom (she treated us, as an 81st birthday present to herself). During our four-hour layover in the Paris airport, we still had cheese curds digesting in our bellies.
An hour and a half after the Turks left, so did we — for eight days in Europe, on a cruise of the Danube with my brother and mom (she treated us, as an 81st birthday present to herself). During our four-hour layover in the Paris airport, we still had cheese curds digesting in our bellies.
Once we all converged in Nuremberg, we were transported to the ship, whereupon we clamored to the top floor and admired what a hulking beast my brother is.
Once we all converged in Nuremberg, we were transported to the ship, whereupon we clambered to the top floor and admired the hulking beast that is my brother.
The ship went through, hmmm, 27 locks on its way down the Danube. This is what it looks like when my boys are working on their cross-stitching and going through a lock.
The ship went through, hmmm, 27 locks on its way down the Danube. This is what it looks like when my boys are working on their cross-stitching and going through a lock.
Cruise director Julie McCoy hooked us up on the Lido Deck.
Cruise director Julie McCoy hooked us up on the Lido Deck.
If you are a business owner, I recommend you hire my daughter. This is the Note to Self she tucked behind the key in her and Paco’s state room — because she didn’t want to forget anything when she got up, jet lagged, in the morning.
If you are a business owner, I recommend you hire my daughter. This is the Note to Self she tucked behind the key in her and Paco’s state room — because she didn’t want to forget anything when she got up, jet lagged, in the morning.
My mom loves a tour guide. Does she necessarily recall the information from the tour later? No, she does not. Does that matter? No, it does not.
My mom loves a tour guide. Does she necessarily recall the information from the tour later? No, she does not. Does that matter? No, it does not.
What tourists?
What tourists?
Listen, if some German cities have a rivalry about who makes the best sausage, it’s only fair to jump in to the controversy and do a fair sampling. Verdict: ALL SAUSAGES ARE GOOD, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU TUCK THREE LITTLE ONES INTO A SINGLE BUN.
Listen, if some German cities have a rivalry about who makes the best sausage, it’s only fair to jump in to the controversy and do a fair sampling. Verdict: ALL SAUSAGES ARE GOOD, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU TUCK THREE LITTLE ONES INTO A SINGLE BUN.
Onboard musician Peter surely knows how to slow any tune by Martha & the Vandellas to a dirge-like pace. Because he’s AN ARTIST.
Onboard musician Peter surely knows how to slow any tune by Martha & the Vandellas to a dirge-like pace. Because he’s AN ARTIST.
These door guards went hogwild on Jagermeister last night.
These door guards went hogwild on Jagermeister last night.
One of many things European countries do right: rely on bicycles more than cars. Also: make their buildings look shabby chic — don’t you just want to pop over to Pier One and buy this facade?
One of many things European countries do right: rely on bicycles more than cars. Also: make their buildings look shabby chic — don’t you just want to pop over to Pier One and buy this facade?
Bubble Man was excited to share his soap with the masses.
Bubble Man was excited to share his soap with the masses.
…until my mom and brother literally burst his bubble.
…until my mom and brother literally burst his bubble.
You can’t take Paco and me anywhere.
You can’t take Paco and me anywhere.
During the afternoon in Passau, Germany, our family of four went on a walk down the river and up an impressive hill. This view was the payoff.
During the afternoon in Passau, Germany, our family of four went on a walk down the river and up an impressive hill. This view was the payoff.
This is from the artists’ alley in Passau, where colorful cobbles lead people to the doors of artists.
This is from the artists’ alley in Passau, where colorful cobbles lead people to the doors of artists.
This is Gottweig Abbey outside of Krems, Austria. There’s my mom, brother (so itchy!), Byron, and Paco.
This is Gottweig Abbey outside of Krems, Austria. There’s my mom, brother (so itchy!), Byron, and Paco.
And there’s Allegra.
And there’s Allegra.
What do we learn from this photo of Mom with two of her grandkids? My mom likes a statement necklace; Allegra’s hair looks great under lights; and Paco will use every button on a shirt.
What do we learn from this photo of Mom with two of her grandkids? My mom likes a statement necklace; Allegra’s hair looks great under lights; and Paco will use every button on a shirt.
AUTHENTIC.
AUTHENTIC.
He’s always feisty, this accordion player, but never moreso than when his kneesocks start to sag.
He’s always feisty, this accordion player, but never moreso than when his kneesocks start to sag.
The cruise ship did a good job with food quality overall, and you did not hear me complaining the night we sat down to pretzels and a charcuterie board.
The cruise ship did a good job with food quality overall, and you did not hear me complaining the night we sat down to pretzels and a charcuterie board.
Our family of four used our free afternoon in Vienna to visit a bustling market and have lunch. We could have visited this market as one of the “extra tours” from the ship (usually about $80/person), but we went ahead and did a thing called looking at a map, hopping on the subway, and getting there ourselves for, hmmm, $1.50/person.
Our family of four used our free afternoon in Vienna to visit a bustling market and have lunch. We could have visited this market as one of the “extra tours” from the ship (usually about $80/person), but we went ahead and did a thing called looking at a map, hopping on the subway, and getting there ourselves for, hmmm, $1.50/person.
Egad, but we love public transportation.
Public transportation does the trick.
We LOVED touring the opera house in Vienna. My guess is that at least 345 illicit liaisons have taken place in the boxes over the years. If you ever meet an Austrian girl named “Opera,” now you have a mental picture of where she was conceived.
We LOVED touring the opera house in Vienna. My guess is that at least 345 illicit liaisons have taken place in the boxes over the years. If you ever meet an Austrian girl named “Opera,” now you have a mental picture of where she was conceived.
Much was made of Vienna’s coffee and cafe culture. Here’s Paco’s coffee and Sachertorte. Onboard, all regional cakes on the trip were accompanied by the warning, “It’s a little dry, but a scoop of ice cream on the side will help.” OKAY.
Much was made of Vienna’s coffee and cafe culture. Here’s Paco’s coffee and Sachertorte. Onboard, all regional cakes on the trip were accompanied by the warning, “It’s a little dry, but a scoop of ice cream on the side will help.” OKAY.
When you stop and consider How They Did That Way Back When, and it blows your mind.
When you stop and consider How They Did That Way Back When, and it blows your mind.
Shuffleboard at dusk! I know these photos make it seem like we played a lot of shuffleboard, but the truth is that the top deck was closed for much of the journey so that passengers weren’t decapitated by low-hanging bridges.
Shuffleboard at dusk! I know these photos make it seem like we played a lot of shuffleboard, but the truth is that the top deck was closed for much of the journey so that passengers weren’t decapitated by low-hanging bridges.
A week of this never sucked.
A week of this never sucked.
Vasile, our room cleaner, wore testicle-revealing tight white pants and proved himself a whiz at making towel animals. I wasn’t sure what this thing was supposed to be, actually, until Vasile whizzed by our open door and quipped, “What’s up, Doc?”
Vasile, our room cleaner, wore testicle-revealing tight white pants and proved himself a whiz at making towel animals. I wasn’t sure what this thing was supposed to be, actually, until Vasile whizzed by our open door and quipped, “What’s up, Doc?”
Look, it’s three generations. Can you believe it’s three generations? That’s what the drunk lady from Virginia who often sat the table next to us during dinner would say every g.d. time she saw us.
Look, it’s three generations. Can you believe it’s three generations? That’s what the drunk lady from Virginia who often sat the table next to us during dinner would say every g.d. time she saw us.
Unquestionably, my favorite thing from the whole trip was Paco’s delight at having coins in his pocket. One day, not having a place to put some change, I asked Paco if we could dump it into his shorts pocket. And thus a passion was born. He took more joy in the tactile sensation of those coins — coupled with the feeling that he could buy something, if he wanted to — than in anything else on the entire tour. Six times a day, he’d exhale while jingling, “I just love these coins so much.”
Unquestionably, my favorite thing from the whole trip was Paco’s delight at having coins in his pocket. One day, not having a place to put some change, I asked Paco if we could dump it into his shorts pocket. And thus a passion was born. He took more joy in the tactile sensation of those coins — coupled with the feeling that he could buy something, if he wanted to — than in anything else on the entire tour. Six times a day, he’d exhale while jingling, “I just love these coins so much.”
Budapest’s bridges got it goin’ on.
Budapest’s bridges got it goin’ on.
The final night of the cruise, the staff handed everyone a shot of “Palinka” (it’ll kill what ails you) and took us on an after-dark chug up and down the river, to see all the buildings lit up.
The final night of the cruise, the staff handed everyone a shot of “Palinka” (it’ll kill what ails you) and took us on an after-dark chug up and down the river, to see all the buildings lit up.
On the last day of the trip, we went to the thermal baths in Budapest. There were something like 12 pools of different shapes, sizes, and temperatures. This, too, was a potential “extra” tour from the ship — but we, again, just got on the subway and saved a bunch of $$. The ticket machine in the underground was broken, so Byron was a hero and ran around a huge city square to find a store selling subway tickets. When he finally returned, he was sweaty, and you know it’s good travel when Byron gets sweaty.
On the last day of the trip, we went to the thermal baths in Budapest. There were something like 12 pools of different shapes, sizes, and temperatures. This, too, was a potential “extra” tour from the ship — but we, again, just got on the subway and saved a bunch of $$. The ticket machine in the underground was broken, so Byron was a hero and ran around a huge city square to find a store selling subway tickets. When he finally returned, he was sweaty, and you know it’s good travel when Byron gets sweaty.
As John from Turkey would say, these guys are “livin’ the life!”
As John from Turkey would say, these guys are “livin’ the life!”
We had a dumb-long return journey home and were outrageously grateful to the Paris airport for providing these chairs. I tucked my earbuds in and fell asleep right quick.
We had a dumb-long return journey home and were outrageously grateful to the Paris airport for providing these chairs. I tucked my earbuds in and fell asleep right quick.
Upon returning home, Paco started to consider what he might make for this year’s art sale, which he uses as a personal fundraiser. Since he would eventually like to get a better graphics card in his computer, he is making these little monsters out of clay, readying them for sale at the end of August. When I try to make little guys out of the same clay, it becomes apparent how very gifted Paco is.
Upon returning home, Paco started to consider what he might make for this year’s art sale, which he uses as a personal fundraiser. Since he would eventually like to get a better graphics card in his computer, he is making these little monsters out of clay, readying them for sale at the end of August. When I try to make little guys out of the same clay, it becomes apparent how very gifted Paco is.
While we were in Europe, some nice construction guys made our home equity loan worthwhile when they tore down our jinky staircase and built a new one, also adding in a wee deck. So now, as summer reaches its end, we take coffee and books out to these chairs. Setting a spell, we lean our heads back, watch the squirrels scrabbling high in a tree, and marvel at our great good fortune.
While we were in Europe, some nice construction guys made our home equity loan worthwhile when they tore down our jinky staircase and built a new one, also adding in a wee deck. So now, as summer reaches its end, we take coffee and books out to these chairs. Setting a spell, we lean our heads back, watch the squirrels scrabbling high in a tree, and marvel at our great good fortune.
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Noncomplementary

Bike Tire

His rage was immediate. “God damn it! You could have killed me! Why weren’t you looking? You God damn just about hit me!”

Panting, fueled by adrenaline, the middle-aged man glared at me, outraged, itching to transfer his upset, ready to spit more invective as soon as I engaged. He was shaking; he was scared. In the moment of crisis, his fear became sharp, upbraiding, contentious. Fueled by adrenaline, huffing righteously, he blazed, his crow’s feet constricting as he waited for my defensive reply — the permission to commence some real shouting. After a few tense exchanges, he would splutter through his mustache that I was stupid and people were idiots, capping his indignation by jamming his feet on the bike pedals and cranking furiously down the sidewalk towards home, towards his loved ones, towards the ears that would listen sympathetically to the story of how a dumbass lady almost hit him when she was driving out of the parking ramp because shewasn’tevenlookingandshewasanidiot.

Even before I responded, both of us knew how this interaction would play out.

Stunned, hands gripping the steering wheel, heart racing, I mentally tapped out the beats of the scenario. Attack. Defend. Thrust. Justify. Deride. Slam. Pffft.

We both knew how this was supposed to go.

He was right. I had just about hit him. I could have killed him. However, inasmuch as was possible, I had been looking.

Before presenting a defense, my brain whirling, I gamed out the next few moves. In response to my parry, he would thrust, yelling that NO, I OBVIOUSLY HAD NOT BEEN LOOKING, or I wouldn’t have almost mowed him down. After that, it would fall upon me to justify.

Oh, I had justifications.

The exit from the parking garage was a blind one. I had checked the round mirror hanging above the exit before pulling forward. There had not been any foot traffic.

He was on a bicycle, on the sidewalk; therefore he had whizzed into the scene much more quickly than someone walking would have. According to the law, bikes are supposed to follow the rules of the road for wheeled vehicles. He was not supposed to be biking on the sidewalk.

What’s more, he was biking the wrong direction — on the sidewalk — on a one-way street. Again, if he were following the law and the rules of the road for wheeled vehicles, he should not have been riding the wrong direction down a one-way. As a driver, I had been looking for foot traffic following pedestrian laws and wheeled traffic following vehicular laws.

And as long as we were examining each other’s behaviors, if he was so dedicated to his bodily safety, why had he opted to wear a beret instead of a helmet? People who truly care for their well-being wear God damned helmets when they bike the wrong way down a city sidewalk.

Indeed, I had justifications as to why he was equally in the wrong, pointed ripostes flitting through my head during the quick nanosecond before I responded to his shout.

But. I didn’t feel like pushing responsibility for the near-accident back onto him. Under my power, my car had almost hit a man on a bike. I had almost hurt someone. I had scared someone so badly that he was hollering at me.

He had chosen anger.

I did not have to.

Instead, my brain still whirling, swinging between defensiveness and discomfort with conflict, I burst into tears.

He hadn’t expected that. His jaw dropped as he stared at the bawling woman.

Owning the moment — because someone had to, and I was as likely a candidate as he — I sobbed, “I am so sorry. I didn’t see you, and I should have. I’m so sorry for not seeing you, and I’m so sorry that people, all of us, immediately leap to anger with each other. I’m so sorry we can’t just be peaceable. I would never want to hurt you, and I don’t want to fight with you. I only want peace.”

Words spent, I filled my lungs with a shuddering inhale.

Between us, the air became less dark.

He didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t expected this. The noncomplementarity of my reaction threw him. My sadness, unexpected in the face of his aggression, wasn’t part of the script.

To his surprise — mine, too — the tone of the play had changed. His face softened. In his fear, he had forgotten his real self, had forgotten that he, too, only wanted peace. My unexpected apology threw him, shook him from the drama of rage.

“Well, yes, so…” he cleared his throat. Tipping his head to the side, looking contrite, he shrugged. “Yea. Me, too.”

For half a breath, we smiled at each other in silence, me through tears, him through sheepishness.

“Okay, uh, you have a good day then,” he finally spluttered through his mustache, capping his words by jamming his feet on the bike pedals and cranking furiously down the sidewalk towards home, towards his loved ones, towards the ears that would listen sympathetically to the story of how

a regretful woman apologized for almost hurting him

and how, from out of nowhere,

they shared a moment of peace.


**Huge shout-out to this week’s episode of the podcast Invisibilia, “Flip the Script,” for reminding me of this encounter (which took place a few years ago) and for reminding me that there are ways, such as noncomplementary reactions, to de-escalate situations from their trajectory of amplification.


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Tender Toddler Tending

Even before he came out after school, even before he got into the car, I knew he’d be crabby.

He’s always crabby when he’s nervous. Often, he swings through a few pit stops  — quick pullovers at “I’m so tired” and “I’m really hungry” — before parking at the real destination: the thirteen-year-old is cranky because his insides are a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

His comfort zone is small, about the size of our house, more specifically the couch or his bed, even more precisely the size of the book in front of his face. Although we, as parents, don’t feel compelled to reshape his natural tendencies away from dreamy introversion, we do realize that our kid, upon occasion, should stand up. Look people in the face. Take a few steps. Become acquainted with Vitamin D. Speak to human beings who don’t share his DNA.

Thus, while we don’t have many rules (don’t need ’em, having drawn two long straws in the Progeny Games), we do force Paco off the couch every now and then. Sometimes I entice him to do a little baking. Other times, he’ll grab a sword and head to the swing in the yard, where he’ll drag his feet through the mud as battles clang inside his head. We’ve trained him into “iPod walks,” wherein we meander around a trail or stretch of sidewalk for 45 minutes, unspeaking, listening to our preferred podcasts. After a sustained “you need an activity or two” campaign last year, we got him to start attending some after-school clubs — chess, Harry Potter, D & D.

Still. Summer loomed, and the empty hours yawned threateningly. If he could find books he liked, then he’d read all day, every day, with occasional breaks for walks. But if he couldn’t find books that interested him, every hour would be sixty minutes of slow-grinding hell. Even more, we know he needs to experience a variety of inputs — as a matter of preparing him to one day exist independently in the world.

So we signed him up for a local program called The Incredible Exchange. His sister participated in this program for two summers when she was younger, and it was good for her. Open to kids who fall between the “camp and daycare years” and the “driving and working years,” The Incredible Exchange asks participants to volunteer at a partner institution for 50 hours over the course of the summer, at the end of which they can choose a reward for their efforts. Some kids choose horseback riding lessons; some choose art or music lessons; most go for the free ski pass to the local slopes.

When we told Paco he would be volunteering this summer, the crabbiness flared. Immediately, he announced he wasn’t interested in horseback, art, music, or ski rewards. The kid LOVES art. He was being ornery. However, his question of “Can I just volunteer and not have to take one of the rewards?” hit an admirable note. Yes, Pup. You can just do the volunteering and not expect anything in return. It makes me like you better, in fact.

So there I was, in the car, watching him toss his pack onto his back, watching his scowling face approach the car. He was nervous. It had arrived: the day when he would spend a few hours at one of the high schools, choosing his most-favored potential sites for volunteering, sitting down at tables with representatives from those sites, enduring interviews with them.

He didn’t want to go to the high school. He didn’t want to have to walk up to strangers. He didn’t want to have to sit down and talk to them. He didn’t want to impress anyone. He. didn’t. want. to. do. this.

To his credit, with evidence of emerging maturity, once he slid into the passenger seat, he deflected his crabbiness with a pained smile of acknowledgement. “I really don’t want to do this tonight,” he stated, the verbal equivalent of a much-put-upon sigh.

“I know, Bubs. But you’ll get through it, and then it will be over.”

It is a distinct relief to have moved past the years of cajoling and deal-making, a welcome move into the era of “Some stuff sucks. It’s still going to happen” pragmatism.

“Yea, but I really don’t want to,” he confirmed.

Fueled by the tick of minutes, his anxiety gained momentum. By the time he reached the high school an hour later, he obsessively fidgeted with his hair, smoothing wayward curls and cowlicks, fluffing, flattening, poking, channeling his nerves into grooming.

Then.

He did it.

In the big cafeteria, following the proscribed procedure, he approached the tables of his top three potential sites — the railroad for tourists, the county fair, the Boys and Girls Club — and sat down at each one. He talked to the strangers sitting at the tables. He answered their questions. He had prepared a question for each of them (“What traits would you like to see in a volunteer?”).

By the time he’d finished three interviews, he was on an endorphin high. Checking in with Byron, who sat off to the side working on a crossword puzzle, Paco announced, “I’m going to one more table, just in case. I mean, in case none of the ones I’ve talked to decides that they want me.” With that, he strode determinedly to the table of the daycare housed in the senior citizen home three blocks from our house. We had been lobbying for this site both because he would be able to walk to it and because he has long exhibited an affinity for the little buddies of the world. Earlier, when he’d been nervous and crabby, he’d refused the idea. No, not the daycare. Two hours later, once the nerves melted, and confidence replaced fear, his mindset shifted. Maybe it would be fun to work with little kids. He’d seen them being taken out for walks sometimes, and he couldn’t think of anything more awesome than being able to hold the leash-tail of a preschooler wearing a monkey backpack.

After talking to the volunteer coordinator from the daycare, Paco knew: this site would be his first choice. Before leaving the high school, he easily ranked the potential sites on the card he would turn in; he could only hope the daycare also put him high on their list of hopefuls.

They did. A match was made.

So now it’s summer, and the hours can be long, and mostly he just wants to read, yet: our long-legged, big-footed thirteen-year-old walks three days a week to the daycare. He did their training, watched their videos, filled out the forms. His task now is to face the saucer eyes of a crowd of toddlers; they cluster around the door whenever someone new, a teenage volunteer perhaps, comes into the room. From the minute he arrives, “my hands are full — because the little guys grab them.” When he sits, his lap serves as couch to every little pudgy diaper-wearer. “The only time I don’t have a toddler on me is when the groundskeeper comes by on his tractor mower. When that happens, all the faces are pressed against the window, and everyone’s yelling and waving. He never sees them, but they never stop trying. Tractor guy is apparently named Cam, but some of the kids don’t get that, so they pound on the glass and yell ‘Ham, Ham, Ham!'”

Naturally, on occasion, they throw fits. Sometimes they tell Paco long stories in which only two words are intelligible. Sometimes they need his help. Sometimes they bang at his head — gently, he assures me — with a plastic hammer. Sometimes they are crabby, and it is his task to weather their moods. For the Fourth of July, the entire daycare lined up and marched around the old folks’ home, parading flags, spreading toddler energy to the retirees. The report has it that the senior citizens loved that parade. Except one guy in the Memory Care unit who got really, really mad.

But parades are for special days. Mostly, Paco’s hours are spent on the floor, seeing the world from their perspective. He is learning to accept their unconscious violations of his boundaries as they plop in his lap, tug at his shorts, lean on his back. He sees ways he can be of help. He reads books and books and books because the toddlers love to hear about Elmo and the letter Q. Subconsciously, he is absorbing a lesson: he has power and strength in that room, and he is comprehending that, when thoughtfully applied, his power and strength can make days better for “The Littles.” He watches the tiniest girl, a wee sprite who moved from the Infant room to the Toddler room on his first day of volunteering, and he adores her. “She’s the cutest thing, Mom. She doesn’t talk very much, maybe because she’s new, or maybe because she’s so small, but I really like that about her. She’s always quiet. So we sit in silence together. I love that.”

In his hours of volunteerism at the daycare, our sometimes-sullen hair fidgeter is experiencing a monumental shift: from taken-care-of to caretaker.

During the second week of his stint, he came home and announced, “Well, I guess I’m really good at putting people to sleep. That’s what the teachers tell me.” I pressed him for details.

It was nap time. The cots were out. Some kids lay down docilely, but others, their energy hard to harness, ramped up. It was a time of transition, of muting bright energy into shadows.

Along with the teachers, Paco worked the room.

He helped tiny people take off their shoes and socks.

He covered them with blankies.

He lay next to a two-year-old boy and read him a book.

He moved towards the boy who can never settle down, whose energy always zings off the walls.

Gently, Paco enveloped that energy with his own, bringing calm to storm. He reached out a hand, started rubbing clockwise circles on the toddler’s back. Slowly, deliberately, he traced O-O-O-O around the shoulder blades, the spine, the neck.

The boy relaxed his grip on havoc, gave over to Paco’s ministrations.

Reluctantly, he released into sleep.

Once the small, sweaty form went limp, Paco kept his hand on the boy’s back for another minute, a benediction of zzzzzzzzzzs.

Then, his legs half-asleep, our tall, beautiful, tender boy unfolded, moved away from the short, beautiful, sleeping boy, stood, looked at the clock. His shift was over. It was time to go.

Whispering goodbye to the teachers, he crept out of the room.

Outside, the sun was blinding — too hard, too fierce after the dark peace of the toddler room. Cars roared past on the busy road he would cross by himself. In those cars, sad people were listening to news of another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting. All around my soft, sweet boy they raced, those cars steered by the heartbroken. Reckless violence and agonizing injustice made hands shake on wheels, tears fog rear view mirrors, rage push on gas pedals. Vibrating inside every car were disquiet, disappointment, disbelief, turmoil, misery, wrongness. The asphalt of the road shimmered with reflected grief.

There he stood on the side of that road waiting for the light to change — our boy who is just learning how to control his moods, to tend to the needs of others, to dig inside himself and pull out his gifts.

He was completely innocent, there on the side of that road. All he had to do was follow the rules and wait for the light to change. When it did, he stepped into the traffic stream of another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, into those cars steered by the heartbroken.

Alone, he took that step.

At home, my eyes on the clock, I muttered an agnostic’s prayer that all those agitated drivers would see him, watch for him, protect him, treat him like their own, guard his form with their love.

He needed the care of strangers if he was going to make it.

The light changed.

He stepped out, into the next minutes of his life, into his future, into the collective emotional aftermath of another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, into those cars steered by the heartbroken.

Firmly between the white lines, he hustled across the momentary pause of a red light, heading towards safety, trying to beat the green.

His foot hit the curb just in time, and he smiled.

That road was hard and scary and loud, but he could handle it so long as he remembered

not too far away

was a different kind of place

a peaceful sanctum

offering

the comfort

of hush and shadow:

the toddler room at nap time.

Paco Couch Corners

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Grit

I wrote this more than a year ago. I am re-running it. The world is too awful.

SONY DSC

It was a glorious spring day, the hard edges of the air softening into mildness, the sun reflecting in puddles, spirits sitting up and stretching their arms to the sky. Awaking from the freeze of winter, everyone was out running, walking, looking faintly stunned by the exposed squares of sidewalk.

In the free-flowing hour before dinnertime, Allegra was just home from track practice, still in her shorts—shorts in March!—her long hair pulled back into a sweep of ponytail. She sat at the kitchen counter in relaxed hang-out mode, her body sprawling over two chairs, decompressing from her day with goofiness and random commentary about the broken zipper on her brother’s winter coat and how much she hates reading The Odyssey, a book that’s got her staying up late each night, slogging through the mandatory chapters.

Even though I’d agreed to go outside and play H-O-R-S-E with Paco and Byron, I was reluctant to walk away from her expansive mood. Sending the boys out to pump some air into the basketball, promising to join them momentarily, I dipped a biscotti into my latte and tried to convince Allegra that of course she had found it easy to run up a long hill during practice because she’s incredibly fit from her winter on the ski team. In return, she shucked off my reasoning, refusing to believe ski workouts translate into running fitness. Her light-hearted mood enjoyed my mock incredulous “In what bizarre land of teenage rationale does cross-country skiing—one of the best cardio workouts possible—not also prepare you for running?”

Then, somehow, within the space of two sentences, the subject changed. In the giggly lightness of the air was a feeling: at this minute, I could expound to my daughter about anything, and she’d hear me. Even though I’d had no intention of “having a talk,” suddenly it seemed like exactly what we should do.

So. Inhaling deeply, I mentioned the email we’d received a few days before from her godmother, a message that asked parents to talk to their kids about the realities of racism and what it’s like for children of color to move through their days in our country. Her plea was born out of sadness at a local hate crime coupled with love for the beautiful skin of her black and Native American children.

Truly, when the message came through, I felt supportive and hopeful that individual voices could rise up and come together to erode entrenched ignorance, but, at the same time, I also was certain: “I don’t need to do a formal sit-down with our kids. From the first day of their lives, they have been cradled in a house that not only espouses tolerance but one that requires it. We have dragged them all over, put them in uncomfortable situations where they are the minority, demonstrated in every hour of every day that all human beings have equal rights to acceptance and love. They’ve helped set up chairs at gay weddings, and they saw me bat away tears as we stood in The Smithsonian reading the plaque on the Woolworth’s counter where four African-American college students staged a policy-changing sit-in.”

Yet, as I watched my healthy, happy blonde daughter, her blue eyes gleaming as she cracked jokes, I was struck by her openness and confidence—and how those traits had come unthinkingly to her as a member of our country’s dominant race. We’d never had to teach her not to raise the hood on her jacket, lest she look suspicious. We’d never had to talk to her about putting on a positive face in public even when she was having a crummy day, simply so she didn’t intimidate the people around her. We’d never had to counsel her about treating people with more respect than they might deserve so as to avoid the designation of “uppity.” We’d never had to explain to her that the culture of her ancestors had been systematically dismantled to the point of eradication. We’d never had to warn her that she’d have to achieve twice as much in life to get half as far.

We’d never directed her attention to the advantages she enjoys due to the color of her skin.

Realizing that the conversation in our house didn’t need to be about tolerance and acceptance but, rather, about the nuances of white privilege, I leapt.

“Hey, Allegra, can we have a serious minute here?”

Teenagers want adult conversation. They are ready to be talked to where they’re at, not where their parents remember them being…when they were ten, seven, four, one. Her face told me: this girl was ready for a serious minute.

“So did you hear about how some kids at Denfeld doctored a picture of one of their classmates—a black kid—by drawing a noose around his neck and writing ‘Gotta hang ‘em all’ and then sharing it on social media?”

The gasp that came out of her mouth originated in her gut. No, she hadn’t known that. She had heard something had happened at Denfeld that people were talking about, but she knew no particulars. “You mean, like, they were saying he should be lynched?”

“Exactly—and not just him. They were saying all black people should be hung. On some level, these kids might have thought they were being funny. On no level were they being funny. You get that, right? And do you know about the history of lynching in this country?”

Something like a strangled gargle came out of her mouth as she tried to respond. “Yea, I’ve read about it in some books. I know it mostly happened in the South, but didn’t it happen here in Duluth, too, a long time ago?”

Confirming the reality of that sad event, I added, “And Jenna and Anne are really upset by what these kids at Denfeld did because it’s just another ‘thing’ that shows how alive racism is in the city where they’re raising Robbie and Sadie. Because she was so upset, Jenna sent out a message to some folks, asking us to be sure we talk to our children about how different daily existence is for Robbie and Sadie than it is for white kids like you—to be honest, especially for Robbie since he’s male and black. So I’m talking to you now. I will talk to Paco, too, when the time is right.”

As Allegra’s eyes became shiny with unshed emotion, I told her about the conversations they have had with Robbie as they help him find ways to move through the world and cope with the reality of being black and male in the United States and, more specifically, in our very-white city.

“Wait, why can’t he put his hood up?” she interjected at one point.

Referencing the story of Treyvon Martin, I asked, “Do you know what happened to him?”

“Well, I know he died, and I saw his name online a lot, but I never read the stories. I have a lot of homework, you know!”

So I explained how Treyvon Martin decided to walk to the gas station to get a snack. I explained how he was gunned down by an over-zealous member of the neighborhood watch. I explained how that teenage boy, a mere seven years older than Robbie, had been killed for wanting some juice and having his hood up. And I asked her: “Can you imagine such a thing ever happening to Paco?”

Continuing to reel, she almost shouted, “It would never.”

“That’s right. Although all of life is uncertain, we can feel fairly secure that Paco could put up his hood and walk to the gas station for a snack—and that he would come home fit and fine. It’s not like that for black boys. They have to move through their days defensively. Even when they’re having fun and just joshing around, some part of them still has to be on alert.”

As we continued to talk, I discovered that although my daughter’s homepage when she goes online is MSNBC, she does a cursory scan of the headlines but generally doesn’t read the articles. Thinking of myself at age 14, I understood. Each morning, racing to read Ann Landers and the funnies, I would hustle past headlines about Israel annexing the Golan Heights—boring—or the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat—who?

Lecturing my teen, I was learning a great deal.

I continued, “Imagine how Robbie feels when he goes to Target. Odds are, he’s the only black person in the store. People stare at him. Now, you and I would stare at him because he’s so striking. That kid is beautiful, right? But a lot of Duluthians would stare at him because they think he’s up to no good. They might think he’s going to steal something, or if he’s just being an excited ten-year-old in the toy aisle, playing around with a Nerf dart gun, you can almost be sure someone will walk past and think, nastily, ‘Yea, another black kid with a gun.’”

Allegra made a noise of protest. “He’s just a kid with a toy. Are people really like that? People wouldn’t really think that, would they?”

Just then, Paco popped his head in through the door, “The ball’s inflated. We’re just waiting for you out here.” I waved him away, promising I’d be out in a few minutes, as my brain processed Allegra’s reaction. When we raise our children with values of tolerance, with a feeling that there is nothing more desirable than diversity, we are simultaneously raising our children to be ignorant of the subtle, wearing, enduring awfulness of racism. My daughter knew only the ideal, not the reality.

“People are like that, hon. And Robbie knows it. He’s a sensitive kid; he totally knows it, and it affects him. Then think about what it’s like for black kids to go to school here. Often, they are the only black face in the classroom. Imagine if a helicopter dropped you into an entirely black area, and you had to walk into the school the next day and make a go of it. Even if everyone were super friendly, still, the main thing on your mind would be, ‘I’m the only white person here.’ Even if you wanted to raise your hand or try to make a new friend, some part of you would feel inhibited.”

Allegra agreed, “Oh, I’ve noticed in all my classes. Usually there are only white kids, and if there is anyone who’s not white, there are only one, maybe two, non-white faces in the room.”

I added, “I really noticed it at your holiday concert. During that amazing finale, there were 400, 500, maybe even 600 kids on the stage. Out of that, there were probably five black kids. Those young people, in every hour of every day, know that they are different from what’s considered the ‘norm.’ On top of that, they have to worry that if they’re walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, they could get shot, possibly killed. Every week, the news covers more stories of young black men, along the lines of Treyvon Martin, getting stopped by police, and during those interactions with the law, they are shot and killed.”

Confused, Allegra asked, “Who kills them?”

“The police do, sweetie. The police do. It’s a huge problem in this country. I really thought you knew about this…”

“WAIT, WHAT?” her eyes almost spun in her head, and her tone escalated. “WHAT? THE POLICE SHOOT THEM? THE POLICE KILL PEOPLE? I THOUGHT THE POLICE HELPED PEOPLE.”

Hell if we haven’t raised her in the frothiest of bubbles. She continued to splutter; I continued to explain—extraordinarily glad to have been the pin popping the bubble I had blown.

Eventually, seeing Byron’s head out the window as he started towards the house, on his way inside to see what was taking me so long, I shifted into high gear. “Here’s the important thing, my dear duckling: the next step, after awareness, is to know that you can never be a silent witness to racism or homophobia or any kind of discrimination. No matter how much it makes you nervous or nauseous, no matter how much it feels like conflict, you have to stand up in the toughest moments. If someone is being treated with injustice, if unfair attitudes are present, if hateful words are being used, Allegra, you have to stand up against that. It might be figuratively that you’re standing up, but it might be literally—where you walk to someone who is being persecuted and put your body by and with them. But it’s essential that you don’t just try to make yourself flat and disappear while hoping that the moment passes. You are part of it, so stand up. There was one time someone came into our house and used racist and homophobic language, and the situation was so sticky that I let it go. I didn’t stand up. I will never be that person again, though. No matter the consequences, I will never be that person again.”

As I recounted that day, the details of which were complicated but with which Allegra had some passing familiarity, I burst into tears and stood up. Leaning my head out the back door to slow Byron’s progress, I wiped my eyes while calling, “Allegra and I are having a talk about Jenna’s message. I was just telling her about that day when we didn’t know what to do with the bigotry that sauntered into our house. We’ll be done soon. Why don’t you and Paco start a game without me?” Letting screen door slam shut, my eyes welled up again.

I was crying. Allegra was crying. Clearly, my work was done.

Fluffing the long blonde sweep of her hair with my fingers, I reminded her that there are movies, videos, books that can teach her more. I suggested that if she has another research assignment at school, she might consider a topic like the boarding schools Native American children were sent to or even the broader concept of “assimilation.” I reminded her that her godmothers will always be happy to talk to her. I reminded her that part of her purpose in the world is to care for all the Robbies and the Sadies as much as she cares for the Pacos.

Then, with a final squeeze of her shoulders, I headed out into the sunshine, where my healthy, happy, blonde, blue-eyed fellows waited patiently, largely unaware of the tectonic shifts that had just occurred in the kitchen.

Openly, confidently, sure of our place in the world, we played H-O-R-S-E, our only challenge the muddy ball that coated our palms with thawed dirt and pebbles.

——————–

Twenty minutes later, after washing the grit off my hands, I checked on Allegra. She stared vacantly at the computer, attempting to complete a Current Events assignment that asked her to write a summary of a news article. She’d chosen one that had Turkey in the title because, ever since we lived there for a year, she is always interested in Turkey. Yet when it came time to condense what the article was reporting, she was stumped.

“I’ve looked it up and read the words, but I still don’t get what ISIS is. Mom, what is ISIS? What country is it in? How many people are in ISIS? What is this Charlie Hebdo? Also, what are border smugglers? And why would Turkey just let people flow back and forth through its borders?”

Filling my lungs with air, I licked my lips, summoned some saliva, and started explaining a few more of the world’s complexities.

Just another Wednesday night, really.

——————————

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The Small Things

Trees Short

Guns. Bombs. Death. Terrorists. Neo-conservatism. Trump. Brexit.

As heart-on-her-shirt hard-boiled-egg of a comic strip character Cathy would say, “Ack.”

ACK.

I feel ill-equipped to have the big conversations. When it comes to politics and violence and hatred and opinions, my stomach compacts into a dark, hard knot; instinctively, my spirit folds protectively into a crouch in the corner; invariably, my brain pushes my eyebrows down and squinches my eyes.

Too often, public discourse makes me sick inside.

Part of my reaction comes from this:  I don’t feel smart enough to hold my own in the fray. Do not read me wrong: I’m very smart. My admission is not one of self-diminishment. But I’m not smart about things happening in the world. The details of the goings-on are not something I’ve internalized. I have not mastered all the angles. By and large, I avoid the news, keeping myself informed just enough to know sketchy basics. Willfully, I lack “issue smarts.”

Part of my reaction comes from this: when I do read public conversations about big events, I see how everyone has a point. I don’t agree with a good lot of ’em, but everybody has conviction and reasons. Even more, as I age, I believe more and more that all people deserve respect. The only way to get anywhere with anything is to treat all people as though they have merit. This is the attitude I take into my teaching — and, while I’m not always amazing at conveying class content, I do think the genuine regard I accord to the human beings in the room is the core of the successes. However, when I watch intransigent people debating the issues, my respect radar goes haywire, leaving me jangled.

Part of my reaction comes from this: I’m a work in progress when it comes to conflict. With each passing year, especially in my job, I have gotten better at standing firm when someone’s energy blows me back onto my heels. I’ve gotten better at rocking forward, centering on the balls of my feet, regaining my balance. I’ve gotten better at not blinking, not crumpling, not crying. Yet it’s never easy. Always, it’s exhausting. Without fail, I feel battered for days. Months. I lie. Years. In a climate where discourse and debate are more yelling and argument, this work in progress feels best with her head under the duvet, a headlamp beaming a circle of light onto a world of fiction.

Finally, part of my reaction comes from this: more often than not, the tone of public debate dances riotously across a field dense with thriving, thigh-high scorn. The crop waves brightly — condescending and self-righteous and mean, fertilized by several tons of “I’m throwing this provocative statement out there so that I can find reasons to mock you, should you dare to engage” manure. There’s something of the bully behind this tone, and I got enough of bullies when a couple of girls followed me home in fifth grade, loudly remarking “God, that ass is huge” and “Isn’t it hard to be a hog?” while the twig-like friends flanking me, having no idea attacks could happen to someone they loved, froze in horror. Already, by the age of 10, I was intimate with baleful strikes; the worst of the bullying was the futile desire, roiling around my round belly, to protect my friends’ innocence. All of which is to say: when nasty words fly around in public air, I am reminded that no matter how much I love people, I hate people.

Hating people erodes the shape of my heart, whittling it into a sharp stick good only for stabbing through soft tissues.

Thus, when the world is too much with me, and I am scared and mad and hating, I retreat into the joys of small things. The other day, when yet another headline broke, and the shouting began, and disappointment welled in me, I went for a run — the activity that reminds me many things in the world are beautiful.

  1. Living up to the name of the trail, the Lollygagger, I rolled up and down the hills, dodging the roots and rocks jutting through the clay, and my mind shifted into that sacred, peaceful space where the next footfall is all that matters.
  2. As I ran, I listened to the conversation on the WTF? podcast between host Marc Maron and guest Louis Anderson. Maron has done some great interviews, and he’s done some tense interviews, but this conversation between two comics who have reached the “Hey, man, we’re okay. We’re finally fine” stage of life delighted me. Anderson is the 10th of 11 children, the son of a “nice” mother and an alcoholic father, and how is that story not a worthy distraction?
  3. As I ran, I marveled again at the book I’d slammed through the night before, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. Maybe a half hour read, this book lodged in my head. It’s short; it’s unconventional in form; it’s funny; it’s poetry; it’s prose. A mother dies. A crow — grief made manifest — shows up and hangs out with the bereaved husband and sons. When it’s time to go, the crow leaves. Desperately, I wished to have been in the room, even watching through a video feed, as Porter wrote. How did he do that? Four scrabbled words at a time? Ten hours of marathon word vomiting? Seven years of anguish to write 110 pages? How did that writing happen? I had no answers. I could only keep dodging mud puddles.
  4. As I ran, I chuckled as I remembered Paco’s predictions about the contestants on The History Channel’s blacksmithing/weaponry program called Forged in Fire. As the show began, he tipped me off with a quick, “Just so you know, Mom, they’re all going to be men, and most of them will have ponytails. But my favorite part is that at least two of them will have intriguing accents.”
  5. As I ran, my thoughts ricocheted into the idea of sleep. When Paco had his tonsils out a couple weeks ago, I figured the pain would make sleep difficult. Yet, without fail, he sacked out, totally and completely, for a solid twelve hours. Still traumatized from the kids’ early years, when our kids slept not at all — to the point that I will get petty and engage in “No, you don’t understand. We would have paid money to have them only wake up eight times a night” competitions with other parents — I couldn’t help recalling a time when Paco was six months old. Standing as spectators at a trail race, a couple of us moms watched our kids slide down a pile of gravel. Conversationally, the other mom asked me, “So his first name sure is unsual! What’s his middle name?” Blankly, I stared at her. My baby’s middle name. Hmmm. Good question. I had to wait until Byron finished the race and ask him.
  6. As I ran, I smiled at Allegra’s excitement and appreciation during her 10-day trip to Europe with a high school group. Her messages to us detailed food, sights, hotels, similarities and differences among cultures. But more than anything, she was delighted by Italian wayside stations. Such snacks! Oh, the crackers! What a unique atmosphere! The espresso bar! In a gas station!
  7. As I ran, I snorted when a mental image flitted through my head: craving tube-shaped food, I’d gone into a speciality meat shop in town to find something sausage-like for dinner. The workers at the shop, to a one, are dear as baby pigs and are in exactly the right line of work — fulfilling all their potential there behind the counter. After some discussion with the nice young man in his white jacket, I decided to try the seasonal rhubarb bratwurst. When I ordered four, Nice Young Man advised earnestly, “You’re really going to like these. They are sweet. But they are sour. You are going to come back and buy 20. Come back soon because they’ll be gone. So come back soon and get 20. You’ll for sure want 20.”

Done running, I hopped in the car and tuned the radio to music, not talk. I wanted to protect, to store those good feelings from the trail, the comics and the crows and the contestants and the fatigue and the wayside stations and the bratwursts. Happy inside the bubble of my car, I let the goodnesses float free, let them bounce off the windows in time to the beat of the song.

On the way home, I stopped at the liquor store and bought a six-pack of Lollygagger beer.

Later, even though I poured slowly, the head of the beer foamed high.

Guns. Bombs. Death. Terrorists. Neo-conservatism. Trump. Brexit.

At least in that moment, my glass was full.

——————

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My Teenage Diaries: The Gifts That Keep Giving

Of late, I’ve been mining my teenage diaries as source material for an essay I’m writing. The collateral joy from this process has been surprising.

Because, well, I was an idiot when I was a teenager. I was cruel and bitchy and loving and fun and wishing and wanting and sad and judgmental and snide. Already, I was painfully human.

It’s hard to face one’s foibles, one’s humanity. It’s embarrassing.

Yet somehow, I’m ready to look that younger self straight in the face and reconnect with her. In the past, I’ve cracked my old diaries and thought, “Nope, can’t do it” after a few pages; other times, I’ve considered throwing them in a fire.

I’m so glad I didn’t. Those diaries, now that I’m 49, are important primary documents that link me to who I was, and I find I’m happy to re-meet her, embrace her, own her. Weirdly, this process completes something in me that didn’t know it was incomplete.

Perhaps it’s that I have a teenage daughter now, someone who is extraordinarily distanced from the kind of careening meanie I was. Perhaps it’s because I’m viewing the entries as source material. Perhaps it’s that I have curiosity about the voice in those pages. No matter what the reason, I have been deeply into digging through those jotted notes that remind me of who I was and give me a sense of how far I’ve come.

Along the way, I have become distracted from my purpose, as it relates to the essay I’m working on. Here and there, I’ve encountered sentences that make me snort, sentences that I have shared on Facebook, just so we can all have a chuckle at my expense. After doing that a couple of times, I realized I could compile them into a document and then, hitching my knickers up to my armpits, get brave and submit to a publication I profoundly admire: McSweeney’s.

So I did it.

And, guys?

The editor at McSweeney’s got how some silly snippets remind us all of our younger selves. They accepted the list of excerpts from diary entries I wrote when I was 15, and I am seriously so excited that I need a Baby Wipe. If you are interested in seeing it, please click here: “Notable Reviews from my 1982 Diary.”

As long as I have you here, though, I want to make it reallllly worth your while. To that end, I’ve copied an anecdote out of my diary from 1984, when I went on the AFS program to Denmark, where I lived for three months with a single mother in her mid-thirties (Lillian) and her three young sons (twins Povl and Peder were 5, and older brother Karsten was 6).

Accompany me now to an afternoon in 1984 when I attended a Danish festivity called “Ringriding.”

Ringriding

Page One Denmark Page Two DenmarkPage Three Denmark

Saturday and Sunday we (all five of us) went to the RingRiding fest. It’s a tradition where horseback riders attempt to spear a little ring with a lance-type instrument. All totally pointless and therefore very amusing to watch. Saturday we just walked around and looked at all the rides, but Sunday the boys rode some. Sunday there was a parade through the town with all 459 riders and bands and shit. It was cool.

Afterwards we were all walking down to the fairgrounds when I saw Lee (N.Y. boy). I stopped to talk and when I stopped and looked around, I couldn’t find Lillian. She had Povl and Peder, but I had Karsten. Nothing like being in a foreign country with a small child you are unable to communicate with. Made my day. 

After awhile, Karsten got mad ’cause I wouldn’t take him inside the grounds. He started crying and screaming at me in Danish. People were looking at me like I was some sort of child abuser. Aah, the truth at last. Finally, I stopped two people and asked them if they spoke English. “No,” he said, “What is your problem?”These Danes. They took me to the police station (rather melodramatic) and they sent us to have Lillian paged. Thank God she found us before I suffered that embarrassment!

Why is it that in every town I go to, the police get to know me within a week of my arrival?

After we left Sunday, there was a near-tragedy. A hot air balloon was being inflated, foolishly, right in the middle of all 459 horses. Needless to say, they panicked. 24 people ended up at the hospital and 5 (horses, not people) had to be shot. Hester (flaunting my Danish) were found as far away as Aabenraa. BLOODY CHAOS the newspaper headlines read. 

In Danish, of course.

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In the Still of the Night

I wrote this seven years ago. It’s on my mind again this week, as Allegra has left for ten days in Europe on a school trip. Every time I walk past her bedroom, my heart clutches. It’s dark in there. She’s not on her bed, listening to music. Her whiteboards of to-do lists are static. There are no carefully placed piles of clothes on the floor, one for each day that week.

It’s dark in there.
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Bedroom Border

It was 2:10 a.m.

As is often the case, I was up late. The day had been particularly fun, for — thanks to my aunt, who holds a yearly “Camp Grandma” at their lake home — we were kid free. My husband and I had ventured out that afternoon for coffee and pie, after which we enjoyed the rare experience of sitting in a movie theater. Later, we brought home Greek food and sat on the deck, eating gyros and spanikopita and drinking beers. To close out the day, we had a cuddle on the couch and watched The Colbert Report. At one point, we looked directly at each other. Two times during conversation, we completed full sentences.

During that day, we lived the fantasy of a long stretch of together time, just my husband and me, free of the clamor and interruptions of life with children. Since we were married only 4 ½ months before Allegra came along (so precocious was she — *cough cough* — that she only needed to gestate for 18 weeks!), during Camp Grandma we deliberately play out some of the time we didn’t have together before the onset of The Kid Years.

Beyond just wanting to get to know my husband (suspicion: I might like him), there is also the fact that, generally, getting my own self through a day is as much as I can handle. Adding small people into the mix shoves me to a place of overload where I’m chronically late, sometimes snappish, and frequently found holding Clue Junior, soccer cleats, and a dozen eggs, a look of befuddlement on my face. Indeed, I am the parent who waves jubilantly when her kids to go away for a while, allowing her the space and time to be prone, turn some pages, and fluff her hair. In the best possible way, time with my husband feels like being alone. With him, I can eat gyros and still manage to fluff my hair, and it doesn’t feel at all taxing.

So there I was during those days of Camp Grandma, relaxed and pipping and blissed out.

Then, at 2:10 a.m., after hours of reading Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and being completely absorbed in a young emigrant woman’s feelings of loneliness in a new city, I finally stood up to honor my bladder’s kvetching.

As I stumbled through the hallway to the bathroom, my glance fell to the left, through the open door to the kids’ room, and suddenly, the rich contentment of that day fell away, leaving behind an unexpected ache.

That room. Usually a brightly-lit, tumbled, tousled visual cacophony of colors and textures, it startled me with its dark quietness. Empty. No shuffles, no classroom of Animal School laid out across the floor, no chatter, no thumps, no singing.

Frozen, I felt the emptiness more than saw it; without the kids in it, their room is a place of lapsed energy, a place without its people. Frozen, I felt the future more than the present; without the kids in it, that room will become an echo of previous times. Even after Allegra and Paco move out and launch themselves into active negotiation with the world, that room will always be the setting of so much of their everything. I will never walk into that room and not feel the impulse to give goodnight kisses, to pick up a slinky, to help find a glue stick. They will move on, but I’m not sure how my heart will.

Standing there in the hall, the wrench of anguish was startling.

A sliver of my heart shaved off and dropped onto the hardwood.

It’s one thing for me to feel exhausted and overwhelmed — to want the kids gone and then savor the vacation when it happens. Knowing they will be back shortly imbues the temporary quiet with liberation and celebration.

It will be quite another thing for them to be gone, permanently, of their own volition — because the world holds more for them than I do. Knowing they will be gone for the rest of their lives, with occasional popping-in over the holidays, creates in my crusty little heart an unexpected hollowness.

There will come a day when, instead of their following my every movement around the house, I will be the one tripping at their heels, wanting to carry their suitcases, make their favorite dinners, hear about their new friends. They will hold the power as I offer an adoration that seeks confirmation.

Fighting through melancholy there in the hall that night, I caught a whiff of my fifties, a decade when my kids will become adults, when I could end up spending many a 2:10 a.m. standing in the hallway outside empty rooms.

May I not be pathetic, as I offer to wipe their bottoms when they come home from college. May I not be pathetic, as I hold out Clue Junior and a slinky to them over the Thanksgiving turkey. May I not be pathetic, as I sleep in their empty beds at night, clutching a stuffed monkey to my chest. May I not be pathetic, as I try to carve my way into the edges of their new lives.

Standing in a darkened hallway in the middle of the night, clutching at my bladder, dabbing tears from my cheeks as I realized my children will leave me one day…

I was — just possibly — a little bit pathetic.

Briskly, I wiped my eyes, threw back my shoulders

and swept up the shard of my heart from the dusty floor.

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Dirty Ivory


Piano Border

As I run the wet paper towel back and forth, thin lines of dust — dark worms of motes and lint — twine into an abstract portrait of neglect.

By the time I get to Middle C, I have refolded the paper three times, burying the filth, wrapping my fingers in new inches of pristine fiber. After each octave, I refold, lazily hoping there is enough clean towel to get me to High C.

It’s been 11 weeks since I touched the piano; I can see my fingers’ absence in the dirt that I’m rubbing from white keys — up to black — down to white — up to black. Eighty-eight times the towel leaps a crack, heaves higher, drops lower, scours the terrain, plinking out an uneven, deliberate dirge of inattention.

A few minutes earlier, restlessly waiting for the next in a series of rain showers to blow over so that I could go for a walk, I’d plopped down on the piano bench. Put my hands on the keys. Felt the gilings of disuse.

There are a variety of books on the music rack, but the one on top is open to Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” that playful, flowing, mood-shifting bagatelle. In recent years, I’ve put countless hours into establishing a relationship with it. In recent months, however, I’ve put no hours at all into nurturing the connection between notation and my brain.

Even when I have been playing, I’m a slow and lurching child at the keyboard, hacking my way through the measures, taxing the patience of listeners with expectations.

After my weeks away, “Für Elise” is an upright, outright challenge. But I have a few minutes, and I’ve been missing the piano; as my shoulder has healed post-surgery, I’ve gradually inched back into daily activities — extending my hand to turn on the faucet, driving, washing dishes, scrubbing the top of my head with both hands in the shower, pulling off my shirt with two hands — and slowly added in hobbies that bring pleasure — cobbling together a jigsaw puzzle, playing frisbee in the yard with Paco, gardening, going to the gym. Yet I still haven’t gone near the piano.

My brain hasn’t had the space for it.

Sitting down on the piano bench signifies something. It means I’m feeling fine. It means I have surplus energy that wants channeling. It means my mind fancies a float away from the verbal, my ego is in the mood to giggle at my fingers’ misadventures, my spirit pirouettes whimsically, my spine hankers to represent with its best posture, my skin craves the tactile pleasure of rubbing against the smoothness of ivory. When I play the piano, I am reconnecting with my younger self, with the girl who, from ages 7-16, slid her way around practicing, who did well enough but never cared to push into her potential, who hated playing for others, who cried her way through recitals. At the piano, I am surrounded by my father’s echo, the faint reverberation of his elegant fingers striking a chord followed by a resonant “Ah-ah-ah-ah” —  the warm-up scales during private voice lessons floating from the living room through the slatted doors into the kitchen where I dug in the pantry, looking for a snack.

Dad Piano

As an adult at the piano, I am trilling my way through more than notes on the page.

Foreseeing decades of future diminishments through the lens of a painful, limited shoulder, I realize sitting down at the piano is meaningful. In that quick breath of a moment before I start to play, I am tense with the tenses: I am everything I used to be, everything I am, everything I will be.

I haven’t touched the piano in 11 weeks because I can’t be a shell of myself when I attempt “Für Elise.” If I am feeling wan, infirm, shadowy, the music will defeat me, and I’m one for whom music’s beauty is in the rise.

But then a rainstorm comes. I have a few minutes. I’ve been missing the piano.

And I’ve been feeling fine.

Pulling my clavicles together, positioning my elbows in front of my ribs, curling my knuckles, I scan the opening measures, realize the right hand will be a cinch: I play those notes in my head as I try to fall asleep. Preparing mentally for the left hand’s entrance, for handling more than one thing simultaneously, I examine the first three bass notes of the composition. An easy run. Starting with my left pinkie on a low A, I will roll upwards.

Spine ramrod, I begin. Five notes in, I hear Byron’s voice bark involuntarily in the kitchen. He’s talking to himself, has just exclaimed, “Oh, good!”

Later, he will tell me, “I was so glad to hear you play the piano. I’ve been waiting.”

In the moment, though, the kitchen exclamation doesn’t register. I’m trying to deal with the left hand’s entrance while keeping my right hand in motion.

I mess up.

Try it again.

Whoops.

Stupid bifocals. The notes look funny on the page. The keys aren’t where my hand expects them to be. Moving my gaze from page to keys is dizzying. Stupid bifocals. My glasses are stupid, but they are no excuse: I first went into bifocals the year I started playing piano, when I was seven.

Then. There. I’ve got it: the run of three easy notes. My fingers are clumsy, and a yell forms inside my skull when I recall that three easy notes, which weren’t easy at all, are only the beginning. As is always the case, once I start playing, once I engage with what’s in front of me, my heart accelerates.

It’s almost annoying that the first measure isn’t everything. Always, there’s more. The challenge keeps coming, flooding my synapses, snatching my breath — the notes flowing predictably, then unpredictably, taking me through repeats and new variations. I know this song intimately, but I’m so rusty it’s like I’m sight reading.

What’s coming out of the piano is terrible. Were he leaning back in one of the dining room chairs, sipping a cup of chai, dipping biscotti into its depths, marveling at the transformation wrought by his new cochlear implants, Beethoven would be hard pressed to recognize his composition.

What’s coming out of the piano is beautiful. No matter how leaden or inept, live music pouring out of an instrument revolutionizes the room. Textured, layered, raw, real, unpredictable, emotional — live music is tangible in a way that recorded never is. It affects us differently, materially, these notes being played by an actual person in an actual space. My terrible “Für Elise” enriches the air, smashes invisible tensions.

Without question, my terrible piano playing is gorgeous.

It’s significant.

It means I’m fine.

After a few pages of glitchy bumbling, I am overwhelmed. Exhausted. I’m fine, but with limits.

So I stop. I’ll be back soon.

But first: I need to wipe the dust off these keys.

If Beethoven sees this filth, he’ll throw a fit.

And my shoulder, even though it’s coming along, isn’t up to scrubbing splattered chai off the sideboard.

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Who’s There?

Hand KnockingThe knock on the door startled me.

No one had ever knocked on my door before.

Quickly, I wrapped up my phone conversation, telling my parents I had to go and would talk to them soon. Then I pushed back the dinged-up wooden chair I’d been sitting on – the metal glides shrieking as they slid across the bare linoleum – and tried to pull myself together.

Grabbing a washcloth and patting the tears off my cheeks, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My face was blotchy, my eyes red. There was no quick fix for this appearance of misery.

Crying to my parents on the phone was not unusual during the summer of 1988. Crying to no one, lying on the lower bunk where a plastic-wrapped mattress crinkled beneath me, was also a frequent occurrence. I was renting a room in a fraternity house on the campus of Northwestern University, and my sadness was massively out of proportion to my circumstances.

In reality, I had it good. I was 21, healthy, about to enter my final year of college, working a summer job aimed at funneling my English major into that degree’s version of success. Drawing upon the connections of a college friend, I’d cruised into a position at a publishing house. Not only would I be getting an insider’s glimpse of the place where books were born, my resumé would be gaining a valuable boost.

As my vision of the summer came together, it thrummed with promise. I’d be doing interesting work updating travel guides; I’d have my pal Matt to hang with since he, too, had scored a position; I’d get the resident’s perspective of a famous urban center; I’d be seizing an opportunity that could transform my future.

Fortunately, I caught wind from a new co-worker who’d attended Northwestern, a junior editor named Sarah, that the empty rooms in fraternity and sorority houses could be rented during the summer months. All I really needed was a bed, a way to cook food, and some electricity for my tiny television set, so when a room at the Acacia fraternity was free for the taking, I dove.

When I reported my find to Sarah, she wrinkled her nose. In her faux East Coast Brahmin accent, she observed, “Acacia House is — hmmm — not one of the best fraternities. My fiancé was in Tau Delta Phi, and the girls in my sorority would never date anyone from Acacia. They’re kind of weird. Just keep to yourself there. Don’t buddy up with any of the guys.” I assured her there was no danger of my befriending any of the men from Acacia. Most of the rooms in the house were empty for the summer, with only a couple of the frat members hanging around the edges. “Good,” she said, patting my shoulder. “And if you have the chance to move to a different house this summer, do it. You definitely want to get out of Acacia. Yuck.”

Then, swiveling on her high heels, she turned back towards her cubicle. After a few steps, she tacked on a random afterthought. “Speaking of Tau Delts, I was telling my fiancé that a good measure of how well you’re doing is if your salary is equivalent to a thousand dollars for each year of your age. So: I’m 24. When I look at what I’m making here, that means I’m doing really well.”

She swiveled again and strode towards her work space. A second later, tugging down the puckering jacket of her suit, she halted and looked back. “Don’t you think so?” she wondered, surprisingly plaintive. “That I’m doing well?”

In many ways, Sarah presented a vision of my near-future. Like her, I could end up with a job in a publishing house, camouflaging my insecurities with an overlay of pencil skirts and pointy shoes. Pointing to a nameplate, a title, and a closet of button-down blouses, I could legitimize the money and time poured into college. Sarah was a reminder of everything I might become.

Witnessing her over-confident movements around the office, listening to her loud discussions about the value of a journalism degree and the importance of a strategic seating chart at a wedding reception, I wondered if I had it in me to become a Sarah.

I wondered if I even wanted to become a Sarah.

Although she was friendly to the newbies in the office, Sarah was irritating. Even more fundamentally, she made me sad.

Also depressing was the reality of updating travel guides. Eight hours a day, Matt and I sat in our cubicles and phoned the businesses listed in the previous year’s guide, quizzing each of them with the same list of questions: “Do you still take Visa? Discover? Mastercard? American Express? Do you still sell live bait?”

Walking out of the building at the end of the day felt like coming back to life. There was air that moved, natural light, people acting casual and real rather than Conspicuously Adult. After running a few errands, I would return to my empty room and watch Chuck Woolery host Love Connection.

****

To counteract the drudgery, I went out with a group of college friends. They were pals but not intimates, so during our evening of drinking, playing pool, and pawing through vinyl at a record store, I was determinedly my best self. It was thrilling, glittering, exhausting. At 2 a.m., I returned to my room and scrubbed the blurred mascara off my eyes. At the end of the hall, a door slammed.

****

One time, during a walk home from Walgreen’s, I spotted a crowd of protesters carrying signs. Chanting loudly, they were objecting to a theater’s showing of The Last Temptation of Christ. Inwardly debating the finer points of free speech, I returned to my spartan digs and set my new tube of toothpaste near the sink as I stared into the shadows and recalled, remotely, the invigorating energy of protest.

****

A different week, my parents came to visit. We ate out, explored the city, attended a concert. After their visit, waving at their retreating car, I felt my stomach growl. Grabbing my lone saucepan, I descended to the industrial kitchen in the basement. When the water hit a boil, I added half a bag of egg noodles and stood near the flame, breaking the silence by tapping a knife on the stainless steel counter top. Nine minutes later, mechanically, I walked to the double-door fridge, took out a bottle of Ranch dressing, and squeezed a few tablespoons onto the noodles. Upstairs, in my echoing room, I settled the bowl onto my lap and read the last few pages of Northanger Abbey while absent-mindedly lifting fork to mouth.

****

Midsummer, Matt and I took a weekend road trip to Kentucky to crash the home of a college friend. After long hours on the road spent gaping at the lush greenery between Chicago and Louisville, drinking too many beers and sleeping too few hours, I returned to Acacia House, whupped and drained. Tip-toeing as though someone might hear me, I stopped in the lounge to see if any mail had come. There was a statement from my bank, warning of overdraft. Burdened by bags, I carried the envelope in my teeth, worrying numbers in my head while digging for keys.

****

Every week, I went to the public library. I read all of Pearl S. Buck’s novels, all of Jane Austen, everything Wallace Stegner had written. I re-read Maude Hart Lovelace’s Betsey-Tacy-Tib series, a favorite of my youth. I wandered the stacks, seeking out layered, textured friends. Back at Acacia, I’d stack the books on the floor next to the metal bunk bed, building a protective tower between me and the desperate loneliness that saturated the floor and walls.

****

Frequently, when television and friends and visits and walks and warm food and stacks of books weren’t enough, I cried. I had thought all those things would be enough.

They weren’t. What was happening that summer was bigger than getting through the days intact. That summer was asking a question I hadn’t known I was posing, giving me an answer I was ill-equipped to process.

That summer was asking, “Is this what you want?”

More specifically, it pushed me to consider, “What if this is all there is?”

At the time, I didn’t hear the questions. But my gut felt the answers.

This was not what I wanted. This could not be all there was.

I didn’t want my nights to consist of loneliness in a bare, yawning room. I didn’t want my days to be packed with hours that dug a trench through me, like an adamant glacier. I didn’t want to use clothes and talk to cover an aching heart; I didn’t want to become a Sarah. I didn’t want to hang, too gratefully, on the occasional “events” that involved other people, only to crash into the depths of sadness when they were over. I didn’t want to avoid the mail because of the news it might contain. I didn’t want to use books as defense.

I wanted something Not This.

Unable to articulate even that much, I cried.

Then, one night, during a session of wailing to my parents, transferring my half-formed but fully felt anguish to them, there was a knock on my door.

After scrambling for composure, I opened it.

Standing in the hall was a well-tailored young man, his skin richly toned like the heavy oak door of the public library.

“Hi there,” he greeted me. “I just wanted to stop by – I’m in the room next door – and introduce myself. I’m Roger, a brother here at Acacia, and I was home most of the summer, but now I’m back for an internship before the semester starts.”

Haltingly, uneasy with the social niceties, I told him my name and why I was in Evanston.

Looking carefully into my eyes, Roger got to the point. “I just wanted to say that if you ever need anything, I’m here. I’m home each night around five, and so if you need anything, even to talk, you can just knock.”

Through the cinder block walls, he’d heard me crying.

He was being nice.

He was doing the right thing.

Dangling between awkwardness and gratitude, I thanked him and closed the door.

****

I never knocked.

However, after that night, some small thing inside of me shifted, and I was less chronically sad. Still, I was alone, and still the sound of a dropped fork echoed when it hit the linoleum, and still I relied on television and books to push back against the worst of it.

Yet it was different after that night.

Floating through the door during those few seconds with Roger had been a whiff of something I’d missed as I dumbly trudged from work to bunk bed: if I needed someone, someone was there.

At the end of the summer, when I returned to my final year of college, two revelations were fermenting:

What I wanted from life was Not That.

and

What I wanted from life was not only to surround myself with people like Roger but to be a Roger.

Now, almost thirty years later, I often unfold the example of his goodness, spreading it out before me, ironing the wrinkles flat with my pointer finger.

Certainly, when I channel Roger and willingly look someone’s crisis directly in the face, my reactions are more abstract than his. I type a message, rub a back, tilt my head sympathetically and murmur, “That must be incredibly hard for you.”

But inside my heart, in such moments of typing and massaging and tilting, I am replaying my memory’s reel of one hot summer night in 1988, when the sound of despair carried through cinder blocks, calling out for compassion.

I hear the knock.

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