Going the Distance

Track

It’s almost 11 p.m.

We’re waiting for her call.

Byron would like to go to sleep. Yet I would like him to be the one who responds to her. My legs are tired. I’m in my pajamas, a glass of wine on the side table.

When she calls or texts, she will tell us she’s home from the track meet, that the bus is in the high school parking lot. One of us will walk the three blocks to the school to retrieve her.

If I could drive over, I’d be more willing to be the parent on retrieving duty. There I’d sit in my old car, idling, burning gas, staying warm, hoping the buses pull in soon so I can grab my kid, smile internally while pointedly not talking to her, go to bed, and leap up again too few short hours later.

But when I joked a few months ago about driving the three blocks to get our daughter after a ski meet, my pure, principled, stand-up husband said, “That’s a slippery slope. We live really close to the school. We shouldn’t open the door on opting to drive over. There’s no reason we can’t walk.”

One of us comes from a family where members have gone years without eating meat, sugar, or caffeine.

I come from a family where we stood in the garage at the open deep freeze, holding a spoon, hovering over a box of ice cream, waiting for the edges to soften so we could dig out triangles from the corners.

Despite my corner-cutting upbringing, it is easy for me to agree with my husband’s sentiment that it’s best not to hop in the car just because we’re tired, and our day feels Done. I get exasperated with the American habit of driving a hundred yards, from the Best Buy to the Target, rather than walking. I am conscious of the limited resources and borrowed time we heedlessly gobble up, like they’re an Egg McMuffin with a side of French Toast Sticks. I am frustrated by people who complain about the price of gas and own remote starters for their cars.

Show me a tree. I will hug the bark off that sap-dripper.

So, okay. We won’t get into the habit of driving over for late-night pick-ups.

We’ll walk.

Blessedly, the walk is bliss.

Darkness. Cool air. Shadowy branches swaying gently overhead, their claws finger painting the sky. The hush that reminds us everyone else is hunkered down inside, watching Fallon, making tomorrow’s lunches, reading three pages before the book hits the nose. To walk outside late at night feels delicious, nearly illicit.

Sometimes Byron and I flip a coin, draw straws, make a case, just to be the lucky one who gets to walk over. Those seven minutes are an unparalleled swing through an alternate universe, a private meditation broken only by arrival at the high school, that hulking building with lights ablaze, where the reek of diesel, the line of chugging parent pick-up cars, the heap of bags being offloaded from storage compartments–all yank the dreamy walker back to crisp, hard reality.

For me, whenever I reach the parking lot, I am buzzing with happiness. Usually, because it’s late at night, my hair is slightly damp from an earlier shower. Usually, because it’s cold or I’m worried I’ll be late, I trot my way from home to the school. Usually, I’m breathless.

And then I stand outside the buses, scanning their windows, trying to spot my girl.

I stand, waiting in darkness.

Somewhere inside the bus, she mills in the light.

Sleepy, soft, yawning, reminding me of toddlers waking from their afternoon naps, the teenagers adjust their ponytails, elbow their friends, bend down to pick up back-packs. Inside the illuminated bus, the sprinters, pole vaulters, and hurdlers gather themselves, preparing to face the cold, to meet their parents’ questions, to remember unfinished homework, to make their way home and dive under the covers, only to leap up again too few short hours later.

There she is. My specific girl.

She won’t be talkative. Questions about how her race went will be deflected. Yes, she ran a personal record, shaving fifteen seconds of her previous best time. She’ll shuck off my enthusiasm. On her talented team, at her big school, a 6:28 mile is nothing. She was only put into the race because the juniors were taking the ACT that day. A 6:28 mile places her middle-to-back of the pack, forty seconds behind the front runners, the last of the four runners from her team, for sure.

Side by side, we’ll walk home, the shadowy branches swaying gently overhead, their claws finger painting the constellation of a runner darting across the sky. I’ll try not to monologue, lecture, effuse about how, in the larger scope of the world, her ability to run stands out as a gift. I’ll refrain from putting her performance into a larger, more meaningful, context. I’ll let us glide home on the quiet of the world. I’ll let her figure out, deep in her hidden recesses, what today’s performance on the track means.

I’ll offer to carry her clarinet. I won’t ask if she read the assigned 112 pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.

None of this will not happen tonight, though.

My legs are tired. I’m in my pajamas, a glass of wine on the side table.

It’s Byron’s night.

When he reads her message, the one that notifies, “15 minutes,” he’s brushing his teeth. He comes in to say, “I’m heading out now,” and his eyes are bleary, tomorrow’s whiskers already sprouting.

Looking at his face, adjusting the fleece blanket draped across my lap, I offer, “I’m happy to go, you know. You need bed. I’ll get her.”

“No,” he assures me. “I want to go. I love the walk.”

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Dear Diary: A Few Hours Later

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Dear Diary:

I’ve scrubbed the pressure cooker, eaten some delicious ham-and-white-bean soup, and have a few minutes now to finish up this entry about that Saturday last month when nothing much happened. You know me: it’s not a “nothing much happened” kind of day until I’ve written 5,000 words about it. No wonder you’re always bulging at the binding.

When last I left you, I’d just loaded up on coffee and Trader Joe’s–both providing respite after the sequined-t-shirt-storm that was Macy’s clearance.

As I pulled onto I-35 and pointed the nose of the rental car northwards, I eyeballed the radio and rued the lack of an iPod port. Not only had I found a piece of dog food rolling around the floor of the car when I picked it up from Hertz, the upholstery reeked of stale cigarette smoke. I daresay the Hertz people didn’t truly respect the $13/day I was throwing at them.

I could deal with the dog food (ate it!) and get past the smoke smell (lit a cigar!), but being limited to the radio for three hours on a Saturday afternoon in Minnesota qualified as genuine hardship. Most of my state-mates would be delighted at the prospect, as Minnesota Public Radio offers up some fine fare–all the car talk, thoughtful interviews, dinner-party downloading, ironic wits, and “used to be called Speaking of Faith but now called On Being” shows that white people with incomes over $50,000/year could want.

And, of course: there is that Garrison Keillor show.

You know the one.

Where all the children are above average.

With the sound effects.

Fiddles.

Rhubarb pie.

Folksy shit.

It’s a household eye-rolling joke between Byron and me that we can’t turn on MPR during the weekend without being assaulted by (all you rabid fans, please read assaulted by as allowed the pleasure of) the signature tickling of the ivories that opens A Prairie Home Companion. We actually compete to see who can slap the change-station button first, to find relief  in whatever inane pop tripe Iggy Azalea is currently shilling. It’s the closest to violence my beau and I have ever come: knocking fists as we scramble for the dial in an effort to escape “It’s been a quiet week on Lake Woebegon…”

You know how it went, then, don’t you, Clever Diary? It was actually okay for the first hour of my drive north, when I was still within range of the Twin Cities. There were urban-ish choices (men’s voices yelling “Concrete! Factories! Graffiti!” punctuated by the sound of breaking bottles) which allowed me to avoid the Garrison.

But then, there’s a halfway point, right around a town called Hinckley, and in that sad, rural technological Bermuda Triangle, radio waves go in, but they don’t come out.

Static, static, and fuzz, only interrupted by eerily crystalline sound bytes of “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegon…”

For twenty miles, I slammed “Seek,” hoping not to hear a fake ad from the Catchup Advisory Board (the name is spelled that way as a compromise between the two common words, ketchup and catsup) each time the blur of numbers on the dashboard halted. No such luck. It was all “catchup,” all fiddles, all Guy Noir, all Powdermilk Biscuits, every time I hit the button. There were five stations playing the same drive-me-up-a-frickin’-wall show.

Now I know that Prairie Home Companion is the creator of many treasured moments for the upper-middle-class pasty people, Diary. Fans find nostalgia and comfort in that program, the same way you provide those things for me. They love Keillor’s homey storytelling and the whimsy of clip-clop hoof strikes like radio programs used in Ye Olde Depression Era radio showes. Abstractly, I see how all the predictable beats of that program constitute companionship for multitudes of listeners.

The problem is that Keillor’s predictable beats don’t align with the ones drumming inside my head. Oh, Diary, as you know from years of observing it, my interior is not set in Lake Woebegon, nor does it care to take a pontoon ride to that burg’s shores. The sounds inside my head are staccato; the landscapes of my mind are riddled with well-worn ruts and dangerous divots; the people who live inside my skull scrawl the word COZY in blood on a piece of cardboard, let the blood dry, and then chase Garrison Keillor around Main Street with it, bashing his shoulder blades while screeching “NO. MORE. STORIES. ABOUT. THE. 4TH. OF. JULY. AND. THE. CHATTERBOX. CAFE.” In my milder moments, I’m a softie cornball, but still not the right kind for “the little town time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” My softie cornball moments involve a desire to see Rick Astley wearing a trench coat and singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” as I trim my bangs in front of the mirror at midnight while contemplating how a re-boot of television’s Full House might not be a bad idea. Then I check the pantry for Twizzlers.

Obviously, my gripe about PHC doesn’t stem from some sort of superior taste. I have terrible taste. I was genuinely worried when Marie Osmond fainted on Dancing with the Stars. I swear by Arby’s roast beef sandwiches, and do not get me started on the glory of their potato cakes. On more than one occasion, I’ve worn a plum-colored top with a purple skirt. Just the other day, I put on striped capri pajama pants (and I realize this example could stop here, as it’s made its point) and then was possessed by a Spring Cleaning bug that made me empty a huge drawer in the kitchen and tote it out to the back yard, where I spent five minutes wiping the crap and crumbs out of it with a heap of wet paper towels. There I squatted, a spectacle for the neighborhood, scrubbing away remnant cumin, wondering if maybe I should’ve put on underwear beneath my clown pants.

So it’s not that I’m better than A Prairie Home Companion. Just different. My beats are pounded on a drumline 6,945 miles from Lake Woebegon.

My beats did stick twirls when, after hitting the radio’s “Seek” button one more time, the airwaves finally provided a bonanza: the classics station.

Diary? Remember how we went and saw Barry Manilow? Remember how Rush’s Geddy Lee took our elbow and saved us in Macy’s clearance? Remember all those other ecstatic entries I scribbled in you in the ’80s–about seeing Black Sabbath and Loverboy and Blue Oyster Cult and Quarterflash? ‘Member?

The classics station is friends with all those people. And all those people, from Loverboy’s Mike Reno to Black Sabbath’s Ronnie James Dio, would not deign to toss Garrison Keillor the scarves from their microphone stands. They are a very exclusive club, the artists on the classics station, snobbish in the best possible way. They have two rules: 1) No brown M & Ms; 2) No Garrison Keillor.

By landing on the classics station, my internal beats found a home. I cranked the volume until the tinny speakers in that $13/day rental car shook the smoke right out of the upholstery. I felt my ears pin back against my head when The Cars sang “I guess you’re just what I needed.” I lost my mind when the Steve Miller Band’s “Space Cowboy” came on because it was a damned gift to be reminded that I’m a picker, a grinner, a lover, and a sinner– except not when cars passed on the left, at which point I had to act overly casual and like my mouth was moving because it was chewing gum and not because it was whistling “WHIT-WHOO” along with Mr. Steven Miller.

By the way, Diary, I really love your peaches and eversomuch want to shake your tree. Guard your bloomers!

Free from Woebegon, in the full flush of rocking out to tunes from my formative years, I took a happy moment to raise my face to the sky and tell God I wish she existed so I could praise her for the sunshine. Pleased by the sentiment, Non-Existent God whispered back, “I wish I existed, too. If I did, I could have stopped millions of senseless deaths carried out in my name. What a bunch of dumb fucks, trying to ride on my coat tails.”

Driving the next 50 miles, I sorted through mental images of God’s coats (my favorite: the one made out of chicken wire, cling wrap, and Jesus’ beard clippings) while my voice strained to keep up with Messieurs Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

And then, Diary, I was home. As I parked behind the house, the back door opened, and out came Byron, his jeans stuffed into Wellingtons in an act of righteous cuteness, ready to help me carry in bags of groceries and weekend-away luggage.

You know how you have about 70 pages devoted to youthful heartache and wishing for some yummy boy to like me?

I won’t be adding to them. All that mournful nonsense ended when Byron came along. I found the yummy boy, and he likes me.

Once everything had been toted inside, we set to unpacking the groceries from TJ’s–pumpkin seeds and trail mix promise brain health, so I’m stuffing some between your pages now, Diary. At the same time, I needed to catch up with what I’d missed in my absence, notably Allegra’s having been put into a race at a track meet earlier that morning. Her high school is big, and the talent on its team runs deep; thus, we didn’t expect that she’d be running at any of the “competitive” meets. However, through a confluence of events and missing runners, the coach decided to have her run the 1600. That’s a mile, Diary. I know math has never been your strong suit. Remember all those times you still thought it was 1982 when we were well into 1983? Duh.

Because I love my daughter, and I love watching running, and I love teenagers being strong, I had requested that Byron and Paco record Allegra’s race. Holding a bag of trailmix in one hand, I squinted at the little screen on Byron’s phone and watched my baby girl–tall now for a baby–turn in a 6:43 mile. Only in a select young people’s meet would a 6:43 mile put her at the back of the pack. Fortunately, all the rest of us, those not in high school, know that a 6:43 mile shines all the mirrors with vinegar and a loud squeak. Leaning over her shoulder, staring at the video on phone, talking through her form on each of the eight laps of the tiny track, I grinned like dancer in “stand battle” on the riveting cable program Bring It.

You can call me Selena. But NEVER call me Sunjai.

When the video was over, Allegra admitted, “I wish I could do it again. Because now I know I could have been running faster from the start.” Fortunately, I was able to put her performance in context and tell her that if someone offered me $10,000 to run one 6:43 mile, ever, I would have to respond with “Could I please have another challenge? One that’s feasible? Something like eating 643 snickerdoodles in 6:43?”

Patting my tall, strong, fast girl on the back, congratulating her one more time, I snagged eyes with Byron and asked, “Naturally, because I’ve been home for five minutes, it’s time to head out again, right? We need to go get Paco from his pal’s birthday party at the water park and then head to the Kia dealership to pick up our half-repaired car there [parts had been ordered] before caravaning to the Hertz store to drop off the rental car?”

Yup. Down the road we drove, pulling over to grab a soft, moist Paco from the water park and shout a prayer to the Tiki god that dumps a massive bucket of water on 30-pound preschoolers every three minutes: “Please, god of this scummy water park, protect our son from staph infections and pink eye. And may none of his toenails fall off in the next six months.”

While Byron sacrificed a snack stand chicken patty sandwich on the Tiki God’s altar, I drove next door to fill the tank on the rental car.

Diary. You know me and cars.

I not so smart.

After four minutes of attempting to find a button to push or pull–something that would pop open the gas tank cover, I gave up. Damn rental.

Instead, we drove to the Kia dealership and retrieved our car. Now in two vehicles, we pulled over at a different gas station, so Byron could help me find the gas tank button.

He walked up to the rear of the rental car, touched the flap covering the hole to the gas tank, and pulled it open. Manually. ‘Cause he a man.

As I watched him handle the car’s gassing up for me, I took a lace fan out of the glove compartment and fluttered it around my face. My, my. I do declare.

In quick order, we returned the rental car, returned home in our so-so Kia, and listened to our stomachs growl. Mine was actually growling for a beer I’d brought home from The Big City, a place where workers in breweries yelled “Concrete! Factories! Graffiti!” while breaking bottles. First, though, I wanted to unpack the dirty clothes from my bag. Checking on the laundry situation after a few days away, my suspicion was confirmed: no one had touched the stuff in my absence. Retributively, I tossed all their whites and reds into a hot water load and pushed the button reading “Mix these suckers HARD.”

An hour later, the kids had eaten, and I managed to be passively supportive of Byron and Allegra as they headed out in search of Northern Lights. Settling into the rocking chair, sighing loudly as I pulled a fleece blanket over my legs, I told Paco that, of course, he could stay up late and finish his Pokemon battle. I mean, what if Clefairy was about to triumph over Charizard, at long last? Who am I to get in the way of long-simmering Pokemon grudge matches? Just as I got comfortable, I realized that we adults still needed to eat once Team Borealis returned from its mission and that the pot of water in which to boil cauliflower still needed to be turned on. Oh, Diary, my problems ran deep. I was very nearly woebegone. Except no–Keillor! Ptui!

Eventually, the unsuccessful Lights Hunters came back, the boy finished his Pokemon battle and went to bed, and my favorite time of day arrived: dinner plus drink plus watching a show with my beau. We settled on the Turkish couch, hip-to-hip, dug into our cauliflower, and laughed at Tina Fey’s impersonation of Marcia Clarke in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Dear Diary, both Byron and I would like to lick the make-up off Tina Fey, no matter the costume, so it was a rollicking half hour for us, only made better when I realized I still had ice cream cake left over from my birthday and that it might be wise to pour a glass of wine to help me mull over when eating that cake would be advisable.

It was 10 p.m. My yummy husband was yawning. My soft, moist, pink-eye-free boy was snoring. His strong-legged sister was checking her Instagram. The kitchen was full of fun treats. I’d sung with Steve Miller. It had been a phenomenal day.

As I opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of white, I thought of you, Diary, and all the memories you’ve recorded for me, preserving the minute details of a half-formed life on your pages. And, Diary? You know I love you, even though you embarrass me in public, but I have to admit I had an epiphany there, that Saturday night in front of the fridge:

as much as I treasure the time capsule of my adolescence that you represent, particularly when you provide nuggets like this one

"The Blues Brothers is on t.v. I made popcorn & I'm taping John Cougar on King Biscuit."
“The Blues Brothers is on t.v. I made popcorn & I’m taping John Cougar on King Biscuit.”

–there’s no time like the present.

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Dear Diary, Thirty-Three Years Later

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Dear Diary:

Me again. Hey, so I visited one of your predecessors a few weeks back, and, boy, did that totally bitchin’ trip back to the early 1980s reaffirm my love for Rush’s lead singer Geddy Lee; since then, my Spotify’s been cranking “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” ’til a thin trickle of blood dribbles from my ear and down my freckled cheek.

That glance back in time also reminded me how no one, back in 1982, really knew Barry Manilow was gay–but now, 33 years later, Barry’s gotten married! To a guy named Garry! So they are Barry and Garry! And that hurts me a lot! Because imagine if my husband’s name were Hocelyn! And we only found out about Barry and Garry’s union because Chrissy Snow from Three’s Company talked about it on a gossip show! As it turns out, Barry met Garry a couple of years after I saw him in concert, so I’m thinking I still had a shot with Barry when he performed at The Metra in Billings, if only I hadn’t been seventy-eleven rows back and toting boobs! Clearly, it was only after something deeply internal in Barry realized “no Jocelyn for me” that he felt free to embrace the Garry!

Basically, Diary, you remind me that things change while remaining the same and that I’ve evolved over the years so as not to be, as Geddy would put it, “ill equipped to act, with insufficient tact.” He also told me to “put aside the alienation and get on with the fascination”–wise words!–and so if you’re not doing that yet, Dear Diary, I recommend you get on with it. The fascination, I mean.

Anyhow, I’m so glad you’re here, in the present with me, now; I have lots to report because a few weeks ago it was Saturday, and nothing big happened.

I’d been down in Minneapolis for a couple of nights to participate in the annual “delegate assembly” for the faculty union. I KNOW: I still can’t believe I’m a member of a union, either. Unions were so profoundly not a part of my upbringing that I am floored every time I remember I’m a worker who enjoys benefits and protections thanks to collective bargaining. Here’s an interesting development in recent years, Diary: unions are under attack by certain conservatives, such as the google-eyed hand-puppet who governs Wisconsin, dismantling unions within their states and opting, instead, for something called Right to Work. I won’t go into the details of Right to Work here, lest they get your pages in a flap, but here’s one tidbit to give you a taste of the issue: corporations love Right to Work states, and workers in Right to Work states make approximately 10% less than in union states. So, you know, I was at a union meeting, mostly because the union covers the cost of my hotel room, and there are a lot of episodes of Chopped that need me to watch them, but also because I savor the spectacle of parliamentary procedure in action (this year’s highlight: it took an hour to defeat a motion to issue a thank-you to a retiring administrator, after which the registered parliamentarian overseeing the discussion began pulling out her eyebrow hairs, one by one, with terrifying deliberateness).

On the Saturday in question, I got up at 8:30 a.m., having listened to drunken colleagues splash red wine on the carpet outside my room until 2 a.m. That’s the suck of getting stationed next door to the Governor’s Lounge (aka “social suite”) for a couple of nights at a work conference. I didn’t actually mind staying up that late, to tell you true, because it afforded me an hour’s obsessive watching of the hypnotic Lifetime network program called Bring It. Diary, this reality show follows groups of “hip-hop majorettes” as they train with over-the-top coaches and compete against rival troupes. That night in my hotel room, by the time the Dancing Dolls got to the final Stand Battle against the Divas, I was wishing my beloved Geddy could pop in to the gym to advise the girls and coaches that “glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.” Sadly, his lesson would be lost on thirteen-year-olds who throw eyeball shade at competitors while doing the splits between two chairs.

At any rate, despite a short night’s sleep, once I woke up that Saturday morning I had more than enough energy to grab the remote and turn on HGTV, salivating at the thought of houses being flipped. I had to settle, though, because Love It or List It was on. Before I could pour a cup of water into the coffee machine, I was embroiled in the quandary of a couple whose lovely view and rotting deck left them craving a better view and a sounder deck. By the time I was wincing at the powdered creamer drifting into my crappy coffee, I was ready to have Geddy call the couple and blast their self-absorption with a quick “How can you be worried about your deck when ‘the hypocrites are slandering the sacred halls of truth’?”

It wasn’t even 9 a.m., and already I’d watched people with too much money bitch about their lot and had a mental visit from Geddy Lee. Oh, Diary, it was shaping up to be an amazing day.

Slamming my coffee, I headed down to the fitness center to rollick on a treadmill with a television attached to it. Racking up some miles, I did an interval workout, bumping up the speed during the commercials since few things make me want to run like my butt’s on fire more than an ad for hemorrhoid cream. After some satisfying sweating, I hopped off the treadmill with a flourish–always the key to a successful dismount. As I moved to the weights, a kind 70-year-old man perched on a bike observed, “You certainly were exercising vigorously!” Thanking him, I noted, “I have a friend named Geddy who might have described me thusly, ‘Daughter of a demon-lover/Empress of the hidden face/Priestess of the pagan mother/Ancient queen of inner space.'”

Hoisting a twenty-pound weight towards the ceiling, I added, “But he’s one for words, that Geddy. You can just call me Ancient queen of inner space for short. ‘K?”

All too soon, Diary, I fluttered my fingers adieu at my bike pal, coyly patted my butt like it was burning, and returned to my room for a shower before checking out. When I opened the door, I noticed the message light flashing on the room’s telephone. It was good news: my friend Kirsten’s phone charger, which she had left behind when she checked out the day before, was in the possession of the front desk, so I needed to stop by on my way out and grab it for her.

Oh, Kirsten, Kirsten, Kirsten. Tsk, tsk. Don’t forget your stuff at the hotel, Silly! Where’s your head, Goose?

Just before noon, I zipped my bag shut, stroked the television’s face fondly, and headed out, in the process leaving my phone charger and brand-new tablet on the desk next to a take-out menu.

Never fear, Protective Diary, I had a carefree nine hours before I realized they’d been left behind, and once I did, it only took repeated phone calls and ten days before they made their way to Duluth.

My mind wasn’t on chargers and tablets, you see, for I was aiming my car towards the second-largest mall in the state. Why head straight home when I could stop and gape at suburbanites while eating teriyaki chicken and noodles so offensive that the chef would literally have lost his face if he’d served it it in Japan? Also, I was needing a new racerback sports bra and figured a good pawing of the clearance at Athleta and Macy’s might yield a bargain.

You know what I learned from my pawing, Diary? Good sports bras sell at regular price, so I just need to pony up and pay top dollar. Also, did you know that there’s a “trainer’s discount” at Athleta? And that if we tore out one of your pages and wrote “Jocelyn is a trainer” on it with very firm print, we could maybe score a slightly cheaper bra? I learned about this discount when I was stuck in the check-out line behind a tiny wall of muscle topped by a blonde pixie cut. This woman had told everyone waiting for the fitting room about how she’d just been to Florida to watch some baseball, and then she told a worker near the skorts about how she’d just gotten back from Florida where she’d gone to watch some baseball, and after that she told the cashier about how she’d just gotten back from Florida where baseball had been watched. It was a damn relief when she finally shut up about her glamorous baseball trip to Florida long enough to tell the cashier that she’s a trainer and would like to use her discount. However, she couldn’t find her official trainer card to prove it, and she sure as hell didn’t have a diary page upon which to forge one (fitness trainers ain’t ‘zactly littrit types), all of which made me hope the cashier would issue a “trainer’s challenge” to this sack of skin bulging with guns and tell her, “I’ll let you have the discount if you drop and bang out thirty plyo burpees with push-ups while I blare a Pitbull song.”

Alas.

Challenge un-issued, the cashier simply looked up the woman’s name in the computer system and gave her the discount. Just as I was pouting “Stupid technology takes away all the fun,” I heard Geddy’s voice, a whisper in the ear of my mind, singing to me of the beauties of modernity: “Invisible airwaves crackle with life/Bright antennae bristle with the energy/Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength/Bearing a gift beyond price.” Powerless in the face of his argument, I took out my phone and tapped out some emotional feedback on timeless wavelength: a text to my husband, telling him I’d be home for dinner.

In thrall to the blonde bit of cut buffness packed into spendy leggings, I followed the baseball-watching trainer out of the store and into Macy’s, whereupon she promptly disappeared, like the panty panel of a leotard up Jane Fonda’s cooch.

Sweet Diary? Macy’s on a Saturday afternoon during end-of-season clearance is nuuuuuuuuuts. Rather than browsing the clearance, I mostly wanted to take pictures of the heaps of intermingled, chaotic blouses, jeans, sweaters, blazers, t-shirts, toddlers, purses, and dresses under the “80% Off” sign. Who could find anything of interest in that mess?

About two hundred women wearing bedazzled sweatshirts, pushing strollers, carrying three pounds of product in their hair and kids named Dakota on their hips. That’s who.

For a long time, I stood there, unmoving, surrounded by frenetic shoppers. Limply, I reached out for a few garments, realized they were Size XS and covered with rhinestones, and let my hand fall back to my hip. Grabbing my elbow, Geddy analogized, “You know how that rabbit feels, going under your speeding wheels, bright images flashing by, like windshields towards a fly, frozen in the fatal climb? That’s you right now, girlfriend. You’re the rabbit, and clearance is the wheels. We need to get you out of here.”

He steered me to the relative oasis of the “Wear to Work” section of the store, which is where Right to Work employees buy Anne Klein dresses, if they can afford them on their limited wages.

Looking around, I realized this part of the store was calm, organized, and shoppable. I also realized I was standing next to a rack of Calvin Klein dresses that were chanting my name. Or maybe my husband’s name, if it were Hocelyn. Either way, he wasn’t there, and I was. It was time to get my “try on” on.

I grabbed a Size 12 and headed in to the fitting room, a place where previous rampagers had left the detritus of their “No” clothing while wheeling out gleefully with arms full of “Yes, yes, yes!” Stepping over the mountains of fabric, I found a spot where I could shed my clothes and wrap myself in Calvin–the nearest thing to Barry Manilow’s arms I’ll ever experience, actually.

It started out terribly.

Yea, I got into the sheath dress.

After that came the despair.

Why? Why? Why had Calvin designed a dress so ridiculously sleek that I couldn’t get the zipper closed over my formerly burning buttocks? Why must the fitting room always hurt?

Sighing sadly while Geddy crooned words of comfort–“Some need to pray to the sun at high noon/Need to howl at the midwinter moon/Reborn and baptized in a moment of grace/We just need a break/From the headlong race”–I stripped off the dress and returned it to the hanger.

As I zipped it closed, readying it for a shopper built more like a trainer, I looked at the tag.

Diary.

In a moment of grace, I was reborn.

Diary.

It was a Size 6.

Diary.

I HAD VERY NEARLY GOTTEN MYSELF INTO A SIZE 6!!!!

Diary, dear, dear, Diary. I was having an amazing Saturday, indeed.

It was so good, in fact, that I didn’t need to buy anything at Macy’s after all. What I really needed to do was grab Geddy, strap his invisible presence into the rental car (long story; you’d be dead before I finished it) next to me, and hie off to the Trader Joe’s, a place so fabulous to this rube visiting the Big City that it almost felt like I’d gone to Florida to watch baseball.

At the Trader Joe’s, I stocked up on Australian licorice and bottles of limeade, tossing a random “speculoos” chocolate bar into the cart right at the end. As he scanned my purchases, the adorable cashier gave me directions to the nearest coffee shop, confessing that his addiction to the stuff ran so deep he had launched a recovery program consisting of a steady drip of tea. Geddy and I counseled him on how to break a habit and urged that he also try sparkling water as a replacement for caffeine, postulating that the textural satisfaction of bubbles might retrain his mouth. (That last sentence is Classic Geddy, inn’t?)

Outside, I packed the car with groceries and, gearing up for the drive home, ran over to the Starbucks next door. There, as she made my mocha, the worker joked about whole milk and three inches of whip cream to the point that I recommended she write a book of barista humor.

It would be a slim volume.

–Oh, dang. Diary? I have to go! Here I am, only part way through my amazing Saturday where nothing happened, and there’s so much more to tell, but I need to go scrub the pressure cooker (Hocelyn loves him some beans!).

Save me a page or two. I’ll be back later to fill you in on the rest of the day. Gad, we haven’t even gotten to the part where I listen to the classics station on the radio yet! Just hum these lyrics from “Tom Sawyer” a few times ’til I come back, to tide you over:

What you say about his company
Is what you say about society
Catch the mist, catch the myth
Catch the mystery, catch the drift

Don’t worry: I’ll leave Geddy with you for the humming. He hates pressure cookers.

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Dear Diary

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Dear Diary:

Let me begin with an apology. I know I’ve neglected you these last few years–since 1985, in fact, when I went to college, and life took off. During my freshman year, for example, I spent at least two weeks giggling over the name Balzac. Then I made some friends, and quite often we were compelled to dance to “Sweet Child of Mine” until 1 a.m. It left very little time for recording my thoughts, unfortunately. As it turns out, reflection isn’t a priority when one is counting down to Steak Night in the cafeteria.

The good news is that, in these lapsed years, I’ve gotten much better about many things: I don’t fall in love with gay men any more; I don’t crank Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” at 5:30 a.m. while applying baby blue eye shadow with a heavy hand; and I’ve figured out a new approach to doing my hair. I fear I erred on the side of “perky” for a few years there.

Joce 80s005

Rest assured, I’m also doing better with the glasses frames, too.

But you’ll never stop me from sporting a sassy scarf, Dear Diary, so don’t. even.

All along, over the decades, even when I was neglecting you, I did turn to you–for sustenance, insight, perspective, and bone-deep mortification. Every few years, as I cleaned out the basement closet, I’d come across you tucked into a jumble of old photos, and I’d crack you open.

Then, even though I was alone, I’d blush as I leafed through your pages. What a moron, I’d think. I did not really, I’d mutter. Sweet mayo on rye, but I was pathetic, I’d wince. What a tragic whiner, I’d judge. I was so sad sometimes, I’d remember, peering at the words through slits between my fingers.

Diary, you’ve been witness to my most-vulnerable self, the aching girl who threw her heart into the world as though others would protect it for her. You saw before I did that this tendency towards abandon was the source of my greatest joys and pains. No matter how often I cried or touched a private part or called a friend a bitch, you never told. Save for the times family members’ wayward hands snaked between your covers, you kept my secrets. You have been the best of friends, for you’ve cradled the worst parts of me, steadfastly, unflinchingly, a testament to agonies and awards, to fumbling missteps and passionate mosh pit thrashing.

To be honest–and if I can’t be honest to you, where can I deposit my frankness? Certainly not on the Midwesterners who surround me. I’ve already had a moment with one of my colleagues who, fiddling nervously with her lanyard, noted, “You certainly say what you think, don’t you?” As she spoke, she looked at the floor, almost as though the rug was channeling the warming comfort of tater tot hotdish bubbling in a crockpot–anyhow, to be honest, you hold not only my hipster memories of mosh pit thrashing. You’ve also saved my earlier accounts of seeing

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Although my excitement about seeing RUSH!!!! In concert! is clear, this entry is also noteworthy as an historic document, for it chronicles that

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Yes, I know I still enjoy a delicious Arby’s roast beef sandwich, Dear Diary. However, I was attempting to direct your attention to the fact that Princess Grace died from brain hemorraging. Even though it’s misspelled, it still killed her, so let that be a lesson to both of us: what you misspell might kill you. Like cnacer or hartt atak.

And as long as we’re recalling my early, pre-mosh pit, days of concert attending, thank you for preserving this moment for me:

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It’s a surprise to me that the Billings Gazette didn’t run parts of this entry in its review of the show, in fact. Despite the unfortunate and random incident of sitting on my glasses (Let ye among you without sin cast stones, but the rest of y’all know you’ve sat on your glasses, too–especially when Barry Manilow comes to town, what with all the leaping out of your seats to tear your bras off and throw them on stage), I very astutely summed up the evening’s appeal: “He is a real performer & he really brought down the house!!” That’s something we call “excellent critical thinking,” Diary.

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Oh, Diary! From concerts to phone calls to French exams to first dates with gay boys, you freeze me in time, providing snapshots of my long-forgotten self.

I’ve missed you–the way you remember the details I forget; the way you reflect my growth back to me; the way you keep me humble. Would it kill you to smudge the embarrassing moments just a tidge?

Last Saturday, an unremarkable day in the scope of life–not like the time in 7th grade when Tiffany Peterson got new Nike shoes with the blue swish, the very style I’d been coveting but couldn’t afford–I found myself writing notes to you in my head. I was driving home from Minneapolis, a 2.5 hour journey, and at the point where all the urban radio stations cut out, I was relegated to the limited options of Northern Minnesota. This meant I ended up hitting the “seek” button every twenty seconds for about 80 miles. Of ten static-ridden stations, five were broadcasting A Prairie Home Companion, and since the keys were in the ignition, I couldn’t use them to stab at my ear holes in an effort to pry Garrison Keillor’s voice out of my head.

Yes, I know you hang out with a crowd of diary friends who adore Keillor and his homespun whimsy. I know they clutch their hearts as they avow their love of his storytelling and the show’s sound effects. You should have a talk with those other diaries, though, chum: I have it on good authority that Keillor fits the textbook definition of “sociopath.” And you know what else? Even if I ignore who he is in real life, I still can’t abide the actual program. Then again, I am a huge fan of television’s American Ninja Warrior. You, better than anyone, know my judgement is magnificently unreliable.

At any rate, as I was driving home, begging the radio to cough up even Katie Perry’s “Roar,” my brain had no choice but to drift, and then it happened: my vibrating neurons wanted to talk to you.

All of this is my way of telling you I’m back. And I’d like to tell you about last Saturday–because it was as special and mundane, as significant and forgettable, as all the other groups of hours that make up a life. It was like the day when I was 15, and I returned some shoes at Payless. Then I called Nancy to ask her if she had gotten her pictures from the Barry Manilow concert developed yet. A day like that, only thirty-three years later.

Aww, but crap. I can’t write about it now–Byron just rang the dinner bell.

…the same way my mom used to ring the dinner bell to call us in from circling the neighborhood on our bikes.

But I don’t need to remind you of that.

You already know my everything, don’t you, Diary?

‘K–more soon!!! I’ll tell you all about how I found the classics station on the radio!!! And they played the Steve Miller band!!!

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Bappy Hirfday to Me

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I turn 48 today, and, oh, the joy of it! Behind me are the days of wishing, hoping, longing, wondering. Here now are the days of loving, laughing, appreciating, and clarity. I’m in the thick of it, this business of a happy life, wanting to hug it all to me, hard, while it’s happening. There are things I still want to do, places I would love to explore, adventures I’m eager to have. And, of course, there are people I can do without, too many hours spent in windowless rooms, the agendas of dissatisfied minds.

But still. Even when I get a leg cramp at three in the morning that is like no Charley horse I’ve ever had, and I have to stomp around the bedroom, then the bathroom, jamming my thumb into it, eventually grabbing the side of the sink, bending over it, and lowing like a cow in labor–as happened the other night–I can’t fathom my fortune. Then it happens again three minutes later, and I can’t fathom my pain.

My leg cramped like a mother-plucking chicken de-featherizer because I had exercised so much, so hard, so well.

At least I have legs to battle.

I have a sink to grapple with.

I have water to regret not drinking.

I have fluffy covers to crawl beneath when I’m shivering.

And even when my ancient car suddenly starts doing a scary shuddering thing whenever I push on the gas–as it did a couple days ago when I was driving to pick up Paco from Pokemon Club–making me whisper under my breath, “Please, let me just get to the school so that my sensitive lad isn’t the last one there, waiting in uncomfortable silence with the recess monitor who agreed to stay past six p.m.” as I simultaneously plan how I’ll push the car to the shoulder of the road if it does break down, I can’t help but turn my face to the sun at a stoplight. Then the shuddering gains a companion in the form of a loud clanking noise, and I’m back to whispering “Please…”

I get to worry about my car breaking down because my life has been felicitous.

At least I have a car to make me anxious.

I have a son, and he gets to go to school.

I have a boy who is a boon companion, who has good ideas about where the closest auto shop is and who counsels me into doing an after-hours key drop.

I have a cell phone, friends to call.

I have neighbors who launch themselves away from the dinner table, saying “No problem. Be right there” when I send out an SOS about my deadbeat car and hungry son.

I have lungs and quadriceps that power me five miles uphill the next day when the repair shop informs me my car is fixed, that they close in an hour.

I have a credit card to hand over when the car repair shop presents me with a staggering bill.

I have a husband who got a new job, a darling of a guy who is proud that his income will help pay that bill.

I have a daughter who, as I start to grouse internally about the cost of “labor and parts,” asks, “Why don’t you join Instagram, Mom? You have that tablet now. If you join, you can follow me and see all my pictures!”

Indeed, it’s the stressful moments that slap me in the face and remind me of my good fortune. How can I think anything’s going wrong, when so very much has gone gloriously right?

Our first years are about developing.

Our next years are about figuring things out.

Past that, we have a time of learning nuance and gauging our course.

Then comes a period of growing, moving, settling.

And now: the season of gratitude.

I’ll take 48 for the win.

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Grit

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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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A Message for the White People

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Photo: “Clayton-Jackson-McGhie-memorial-Duluth-Minnesota” by Carol M. Highsmith – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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The teens found a photo of their classmate and made some changes to it.

The classmate is a young black man.

They drew a noose around his neck and added the words “Gotta hang ‘em all” and shared the edited photo on social media.

When this story hit the news in Duluth, Minnesota, last week, our city of 86,000 reeled. The act itself was hateful—but for it to happen in a city that is still coming to terms with the day in 1920 when six black circus workers were wrongly accused of raping a white girl, a day when a mob lynched three of those innocent men on a corner downtown, well, it made people wince. In an effort to acknowledge that terrible day, to publicly commemorate the city’s darkest moment, a memorial was erected on that corner in 2003. Since then, citizens have been able to point to the memorial with a feeling of “That’s how it was. But never again. We aren’t like that now.”

Heartbreakingly, as the altered photo of a high school boy demonstrates, that’s not how it was. From fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma using a racist chant to the police shootings of unarmed black men, we are like that now.

In response to the photo circulating on social media, the school district issued a statement that it was “taking appropriate action.”

Is there such a thing? Can any action in response to this bald, awful hatred be considered appropriate? Shock, maybe. Tears. Nausea. Anger. But those are reactions, not actions. Those are emotional responses to something horrible; in contrast, action implies intent, reason, forward movement.

So the school district will take action by applying policy. Consequences are one way to effect change. However, because what happened in our small city last week grew out of matters of the heart and mind—because racism is an infinitely human problem—we also need to engage in grassroots, person-to-person education. Particularly with our children, we need to convey our values not just through policy and not simply through parental example. We need to talk to them, explicitly and clearly.

To be honest, I hadn’t fully realized how necessary such talks are before last week when our good friends, Anne and Jenna*, sent out a plea from their family to their larger community. Anne and Jenna have been together for more than fifteen years, having moved from dating to falling in love to a commitment ceremony to a legal marriage a few years ago, when the state of Minnesota changed its laws. During the course of their relationship, they have bought houses, taken trips, become godmothers to my kids, changed careers, and adopted two children of their own. While Anne and Jenna are white, their ten-year-old son, Robbie, is black. The birth mother of their daughter, four-year-old Sadie, is Native-American.

Due to the realities of their family, these beloved friends have to wade through the world very deliberately. While all parents want to raise their children to greet life with open hearts, Robbie and Sadie—and all children of color in the United States—also have to learn to live defensively.

That is wrong.

Spurred on by the altered photo of the boy (at the high school where Anne teaches), Jenna sent out the following message—a call for action:

I am sending this email to you because we care about you and your family, and we hope that feeling is mutual on some level. Know that as I write this, I don’t mean to offend or presume (tho’ to be honest I am getting beyond caring about that because this is too too important.). My request: please teach or talk to your kids about what it’s like for kids like ours to grow up in this world–what it’s like for kids of color to grow up in this world. In the United States, skin color does matter. You may feel or say that “I don’t see color.” But much of American society does.

Please teach them that we walk around stores now with Robbie and watch OTHER people stare at him and wonder if they are thinking he will do something wrong. Teach them that Robbie, at 10 years old, feels these stares too, and that shakes a person’s confidence and sense of self. Please talk to your kids about the fact that we teach Robbie he has to be MORE polite and MORE respectful than any of his white peers because he could get hurt, badly, if he’s not. Teach them that we talk to Robbie every few weeks about the police. Right now, Robbie doesn’t like police and he says “Police shoot black people.” At age 10, he knows this is unfair and unjust. Ten-year-old white kids don’t have to carry this burden; no child should. Please tell your kids that we teach Robbie not to wear his hoody and to act polite and happy even if he doesn’t feel that way.

Please talk to your kids about Native American history and the stereotypes of Indians. Teach your kids what white people in this country did with the boarding schools, almost destroying a culture and how those stereotypes are so prevalent still today.

Please teach your kids or help them recognize that while they don’t HAVE to think about any of this, many other kids have to deal with it every single day. What a privilege for white kids not to have to carry this burden.

Please know I am not being overly sensitive or trying to be overly dramatic. You may already have these conversations in your household and if so, thank you. If not, please do or call us or talk to us. We are doing our damnedest to make this world feel less difficult for our kiddos, but gosh would it be great to know there are other white kids, peers, friends that will stand by their sides and have our kids’ and other kids’ backs.

Thank you for caring about our family. Thank you for reading this. Thank your for being part of our community.

Suggested Resources:

Beverly Tatum “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
Anton Treuer “Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were
Afraid to Ask”
Peggy Macintosh https://www.isr.umich.edu/home/diversity/resources/white-privilege.pdf

Get Home Safely: Video: https://vimeo.com/116706870

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*Names have been changed

**I did have a conversation with my fourteen-year-old about all of this last night. That’ll be in my next blog post.

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The Fitting Room

Fitting Room

I’m leaning against the clearance rack when Justin Timberlake’s voice fills the store. He’s singing about his suit and tie, which seems appropriate since my daughter is in the fitting room trying on semi-formal dresses.

As I lean, I look at the space below the fitting room door and see her feet—bandaids on the heels thanks to the chafing of those darn flats—standing on an island of discarded yoga pants and t-shirt. Timberlake croons “…can I show you a few things?” and my girl’s feet move and turn. The choreography that’s happening inside the fitting room tells a story. First, her toes face the mirror. She’s staring at herself, full-on, for a long time. Then her feet change directions; she’s looking at the back of the dress, craning her neck over her shoulder. Back and forth, her feet move, as she assesses the dress. A minute later, she stands still, and then her hand appears in the space above the door as it takes the hanger off a hook.

Because she took a heap of dresses into the fitting room, this dance continues for some time.

My daughter is fourteen, and the upcoming “ball” is the first major dress-up event of her high school career. Always a reserved, low-key kid, she teemed with excitement when she told me about the dance, asking first if it we had anything planned for that night, and if not, could she please go? Beyond that, she wondered if we could go shopping for a dress—nothing too fancy but something kind of fancy? She didn’t think she’d need new shoes or jewelry or anything. Maybe just a comfortable dress, perhaps a little sparkly?

This is the girl who fell into a lake when she was four, getting stuck between a pontoon boat and the dock. Never uttering a peep, she just stood silently in water up to her chest as the pontoon buffeted her against the wood and metal of the dock. When, later, I learned about this event, I felt sick to my stomach at the possibilities of that scenario and told her, “Oh, sweetie, you have to make noise. I know you’re a quiet person, but sometimes in life, when it really matters, you have to push beyond your natural tendencies, and you have to raise your voice. You have to make people notice you. Please, please, please, if there is any hint of danger, for the rest of your life, shout, yell, scream, thump—but make some noise.”

Her response was a placid, “I knew eventually someone would see me.”

She is unflappable, this girl—the rock around which the water flows. Thus, when she talks about a high school dance with excitement flickering in her eyes, I listen.

Yes, of course we could go dress shopping. It would, in fact, be a pleasure. Partially, the pleasure would come from watching my daughter transform into someone she has longed to be: a high school girl who gets to go to a big-time dance with a group of her friends. For years, she’s seen this scenario in movies, television shows, and books; now, finally, it would be her turn to take a twirl as the starring character.

On another level, watching my daughter try on dresses would help repair some lingering wounds from my own years in high school, a time when I never felt pretty or wanted or popular. Even though I did attend formal dances, and even though I enjoyed stuffing myself into a fancy dress and putting baby’s breath in my hair, the result was never what I hoped for. Photographs prove this: I didn’t look “gorgeous.” I looked like someone who had tried too hard to become a swan, in the process highlighting all things duckling.

It’s not that I’m a mother who lives through her daughter. When my daughter looks beautiful, it doesn’t convince me that I, too, am beautiful. I don’t take her reflection and apply it to myself. Rather, as I stand there, leaning against discounted halter tops while my strong, healthy, pragmatic daughter tries on fancy dresses, I’m considering how different her teen experience is from mine. Quite easily, she likes herself. She likes her body. She likes her hair. She cracks herself up. When I poke around the edges of her plans for the ball and ask, “So, are any of your friends going to the dance with a date? I mean, is that something that seems fun to you?” she scrunches up her face and declares, “No. I actually want to enjoy myself! I look at the girls who are worried about boys, and it seems so exhausting. I don’t have that kind of energy.” Ultimately, as I watch her delight in her own image, watch her like what she sees, watch her feel confident within herself—all of that easy acceptance of Self shows me a whole new way to be a teenager.

When I was 14, I was malleable and suggestible, looking to others for confirmation of my worth. My emotions ran high, and every day saw me clinging to a façade of good cheer to counteract myriad tiny devastations. Certainly, I had friends; I did well in school; I had a good enough time. On the other hand, I cried a lot and carried a lump of despair in my softest parts.

My daughter, however, isn’t a crier. In her bedroom, she has a whiteboard that lists short-term and long-term to-do lists. Every Sunday, she plans her outfits for the week and sets them in neatly wadded piles in front of her dresser. As soon as she gets home from cross-country practice, she takes out her clarinet and practices because once it’s done, she doesn’t have to think about it any more. Then she does her homework while eating dinner and watching episodes of Pretty Little Liars. She and her good girlfriends are drama free. Pals since elementary school, they have never had a falling out.

When I ask her if anyone is ever mean to her, she says, “Nope. Everyone’s always really nice to me. I think it’s because I don’t bother anyone.”

When I ask her if she wishes she had even more friends, she says, “Nope. I like my friends. Also, Mom? I have lots of friends.”

When I ask her if anything at school is feeling tough, she says, “Nope. Well, actually, you could ask anyone about doing proofs in geometry, and they’d say it’s tough, but that’s about it. Oh, and I really don’t want to wear that gross band uniform in public.”

When I ask her if there’s anything she needs or wants, she says, “Nope. I’m good. I mean, if you wanted to take me a on a trip to Norway or Italy or Fiji, I wouldn’t complain. Oh, and I could use some grey socks for Spirit Week.”

Naturally, there is a lot that a mother doesn’t see. In a few decades, I may discover that my daughter was full of agony or that someone hurt her. There could be disclosures and revelations that make my brain spin back in time and re-frame my perceptions. All I know for sure now is that I’m paying close attention, and every indication tells me she’s radically and dramatically fine—in a way that inspires me. I respect my fourteen-year-old more than I respect most people, in fact, and I want to embrace that feeling with the most open of hearts.

To that end, I rein myself in. Yes, my teen years were emotionally fraught. That doesn’t mean I have to try to trigger those same feelings in my daughter. If she says everything’s good, I don’t need to treat her report with suspicion, as though it’s something that needs to be debunked.

That’s why, when the door to the fitting room opens, and she walks out holding all the dresses in one big pile, my question is studiedly neutral. “Did you find anything you like?”

Matter-of-factly, she says, “There are a couple that are okay. I don’t love them, though. I’d rather just wear a regular dress with a really pretty necklace than have us spend money on something I don’t love.”

That becomes the back-up plan as we walk toward the next store.

Yet.

I keep thinking about her excitement when she told me about the dance. I keep thinking about how sweetly she’d asked for a fancy dress, maybe “something sparkly.” I keep thinking about how that request had been an instance of my daughter raising her voice.

She needs to know I heard her.

We get to the next store, and as she heads off to the bathroom, she sighs, “We probably aren’t going to find anything. When I’m done, we can just go home.”

During the next few minutes, waiting for her return, I grab four dresses from the racks. As she walks up to me—so tall these days!—I say, casually, “You might not have chosen some of these, but look at the cut and the color. You know you always look great in blue. Plus, this one is both sparkly and comfortable. Want to try any of these?”

Ah, there it is. The light in her eyes is back. Sure, she’ll try them.

This time, when the door of the fitting room opens, she wants to show me how she looks.

Striking, vibrant, liking what she sees, eyes shining, she smiles at me tentatively. Carefully, I take in her loveliness, from the bandaids on her heels to the rubber bands on her braces to the smudges on her glasses, and I become a teenager again:

I burst into tears.

Her tentative smile, her shining eyes. They are making a noise.

And, because life is full of grace, I am there to hear it.

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The Ultimate Splinter

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Zowie, but the kid was a screamer.

First, she had colic, a condition that also made me cry a lot. Poor Byron would desperately knead my hand, pleading, “What can I do? Just tell me what I can do.” That’s what it looked like as I read his lips, anyhow. For all I could hear, he might actually have been saying, “Do you have a hoe? Joe has a nice rainbow.”

Some months later, half-deaf and -dead from the colic, we attempted sleep training.

After an exhausting week, our ears blistered by her all-night crying, having followed all instructions to the letter, we roasted marshmallows over the sleep training books as they disintegrated into ashes. Then we pulled our girl into the bed with us. Instead of teaching her to say prayers before we flipped off the light, we taught her to flip off Dr. Ferber and leave the lights aglow.

Then, a year beyond that, Allegra got her first splinter.

I’m sorry, did you say something? My left ear isn’t back to full functioning yet because of the part where our two-year-old got a splinter. I also have this one knee that has a hitch in it–maybe a floating bone chip–since one of us had to pin her down bodily while the other one dug around for the offending bit of wood. To be frank, our toddler put up such a fuss that we were fine with leaving the thing in and allowing an accrual of pus to work it out, but Sweet Louis Pasteur I can’t tell you the screaming when we announced that option. So, really, I’m sorry if you’ve been talking to me, but you’re going to need to speak up.

Then, when she was four, after an evening of playing with a ball in some tall grasses while we clapped for Daddy Doing a Trail Race, she came home hosting four ticks looking to set up their sleeping bags in her warm, moist crevices. Once I laid my body over top of hers, and Byron started plucking them out with a tweezers, plaster fell from the ceiling. One report had it that the tide in the Bay of Biscay reversed direction for a short time.

When she was seven, something called The Shark Game was being played on loose gravel. She slipped. The skin on her knee was torn open, and the wound filled with dirt and gravel. The clean-up, which I can still tell you occurred on Sunday, April 22nd, 2007, at 1:34 p.m., involved a modicum of drama.

A few years later, her Girl Scout troop took a field trip to the hospital to look at the babies in the newborn unit, and Allegra fainted.

By the time the girl finished elementary school, we were tired, bruised, deeeeeef, and more than a little afraid of her. She possesses immense charms, most certainly, but when it comes to anything “of the body,” the kid has always been a Tasmanian Devil. Or unconscious on the floor.

Thus, although I’d like to think that all possibilities are still open to our now-14-year-old, I can confidently state she’ll never be a doctor, nurse, phlebotomist, EMT, or maintenance worker in a health care facility. If we discuss someone else’s illness in the abstract, her knees get weak. On occasion, she’s half-joked that she’d like to have children but isn’t sure she could ever deal with pregnancy and delivery. We’ve done some initial counseling on the merits of adoption.

Mostly, I accept that “freak out at matters of the flesh” is part of her wiring. She’s so steady and laid back about all other things that this shrieking hand-flapper of a mother can’t begrudge her daughter the right to run a little hot when it comes to skinned knees and blood.

This trait has been such a part of her since birth that my brain struggled to catch up the other night when she walked in to the room carrying a whiteboard upon which she’d written:

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For those not parenting kids with braces, the concept of “blue floss threader” might be opaque. Here. This is a “blue floss threader.”

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To get a sense of scale, compare the blue floss threader to the whiteboard:

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With the same intensity that she’s recoiled from bodily issues, our girl as always loved a whiteboard. So fun! So multi-functional! So capable of sending out an S.O.S when one is unable to speak BECAUSE A BLUE FLOSS THREADER IS JAMMED THROUGH ONE’S TONGUE!

The explanation for how that happened entails one of Jocelyn’s Patented Random Rambles. Bear with me. Okay, so some of you must have watched The Dick Van Dyke Show at some point, right? In one episode, Mary Tyler Moore’s character of Laura Petrie takes a bath; while in the tub, Laura notices that the faucet has a drip hanging from it, so she puts her toe to the faucet to “play” with the drip. Her toe becomes caught in the faucet opening, and classic comedy ensues.

In Allegra’s version of this scenario, the drip was a wily chunk of orange pith, and the toe was a blue floss threader. The faucet opening should have been the space between her teeth but had become, in a huge moment of “whoops,” her tongue.

You follow?

Adjust this picture so that the nose is a tongue and the bone is a blue floss threader. Yea, like that.

bone through nose

Byron and I read her whiteboard message, but it took a minute to figure out the meaning. Even when we sat, agape, and stared at the end of her tongue where the flosser threaded through her taste buds, it still didn’t quite sink in.

The tears in her eyes helped convey the message, though.

Well, hell.

Fortunately, the flosser wasn’t too deeply embedded–more sewn into the tip–so pulling it out could be done at home, by us. I immediately went into Splinter Mode with her, suggesting she sit between my legs and let me hug her while Byron worked the thing out.

NO.

I suggested she sit or lie down, and I would work on it, so gently it would be like a unicorn’s sigh floating by on a cloud.

NO.

Tears on cheeks. Frantic eyes.

It’s not wrong of me to have had a flash of gratitude that she was virtually unable to speak, is it? ‘Cause by extension: no screaming.

As I tried to get my eyes into her mouth, to see how much flesh would have to be broken, should we have to pull it out forwards instead of easing it out sideways, she stridently waved me off. NO. NO. NO.

Teetering somewhere between hysteria and control, she let me accompany her into the bathroom.

There, I unleashed another one of my patents, something called “Soothy Voice While Imperceptibly Rubbing Lower Back,” as she stared into the mirror and considered the options.

[Full disclosure: patent is still pending. Do not steal my idea, you effers, before it gets approved. We need the money.]

She put her hands into her mouth, withdrew them hastily, and, as a hail of tears fell and bounced off her cheeks, she started working at the thing. Then she stopped, produced some Novacain-sounding speech, looked wild-eyed, and put her hands back in.

This went on for several minutes. The tears were perfect beads, almost plinking as they landed in the sink over which she was leaning. Mixed into the tears were a few moments of laughter. How could we not laugh? Could anything be more ridiculous? Several times, I offered to help. At one point, I noted that we might have to cut a very thin layer of the top flesh off–softly, not aggressively–to free the flosser.

NO.

So I rubbed and talked, much the same way I snared my first boyfriend.

Eventually, slowly and painfully, she did something. And it worked. The flosser came out.

No one fainted. No one screamed.

As is always the case when I witness my kids being more than they knew they could be, I fought back emotion. Instead of bawling at how damn proud she should be of herself, because in so many ways she’d just defeated more than a piece of plastic embedded into her soft tissues, I went light.

“Good Lord, my girlie girl. I just had a moment here, watching you cry and laugh and get down to business, all at once. You better believe it: I just had a moment where I realized that if you ever decide you want to, you’ll absolutely be able to deliver a baby. If you can pull a needle out of your tongue, I’m pretty sure you can handle childbirth. You have grit, chicabell.”

Later, Allegra gave me her analysis of why she’s always been such a screamer yet was able to handle this latest. The way she sees it, all the other injuries of her life weren’t actually painful, so her brain was able to go wild and ramp up the drama. But when something genuinely hurt, as did the flosser, she needed to deal with it, all nonsense aside. The pain kept her brain grounded.

Ultimately, after watching her lurch her way through that crisis, I was full of admiration: not only will this young woman one day be able to deliver a baby, should she so desire, she’ll also make one hell of a mother. And if she never has a child, never becomes a mother, that’s great, too–

because she’ll be there for herself.

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Perhaps a Late Paper Isn’t the Worst of Her Problems. She Also Thinks It’s a Heron That Drops Off Babies.

Her eyes filled with tears as I spoke.

“Yup, you will lose twenty points on your essay if you submit it today. The policy is that you lose ten points for each day that it’s late, and since today is Wednesday, and the paper was due Monday, that’s what you’re dealing with.” I stood in front of her, having fielded her question as I made my way around the classroom during a group activity. Moments before, I had been checking in on everyone’s progress; when I reached her and her partner’s corner of the room, the student had stopped working to ask if she truly had to lose points for turning in her essay past the deadline.

Upon hearing my answer, she slumped down in her chair and leaned her head onto her bent arm, propping her upper body against the wall. Blinking rapidly, trying to get a hold of herself, her speech was agitated. “But I don’t want to lose twenty points. That means I might as well just take a zero–”

“NOOOO, don’t think of it that way,” interrupted her partner, a thirty-six-year-old mother of three. “You have to turn in your paper today. Do it today, right after class, when you go home. You can email it to Jocelyn or put it in the Dropbox online, and you can still get most of the points!”

I agreed with the partner’s advice and emphasized the logical option: “At this point in time, losing twenty points is the best possible deal you can get, so please, please, please salvage what you can, and submit the thing today–tonight, before midnight. Use the Dropbox as soon as you get home, and turn that paper in. Twenty points does some damage, but you can still get a passing grade.”

“But I don’t want a grade that’s twenty points lower than what the paper should get. It’s a really good paper. I don’t want a lower score on it.” Her face was flushing with emotion as she teetered between tears and anger.

When I responded to her, it felt–as it all too often does with teaching adults–like I was counseling one of my children. Actually, I was counseling this adult in a way my children wouldn’t require, for they would have turned their work in on time. But I tried to help her understand I wasn’t going to make an exception to the policy simply because she wanted me to. Trying to inject a supportive tone into my voice, I told her, “The thing is, you can’t go back in time and change your behaviors from two days ago, when you didn’t turn in your paper. All you have is the chance to make the best possible decision you can today, right now, with the reality that’s in front of you.”

To her credit, she was frustrated with the situation, not with me. Reaching her limit, she threw her hands up and announced, “Screw it. I’ll just take a zero.”

“Wait a minute,” I challenged her. “What’s that attitude about? Do you realize you literally just threw your hands up in the air as you dismissed something that’s bothering you? You have to know that if you don’t turn in this paper, even for meager points, you literally cannot pass this class, as all four out-of-class essays have to be submitted, no matter how poor their scores. Submitting them all is a baseline requirement. So why are you rolling over on this? What’s the benefit to having an attitude of all-or-nothing?”

Even more to her credit, she gave a giggle of self-acknowledgment as she confessed, “Because that’s how I’ve always dealt with everything in my life. If I can’t have it all, my way, then screw it; I’m done.” As her memory flicked back through various life events–becoming pregnant in high school, drug addiction, getting kicked out of her dad’s house–she drew in a huge breath. “I was so sure things were going to change now. I just got a new job, so I’m not unemployed any more, and I was going to prove that I could do my new job and not have it hurt my schoolwork…this was going to be the time I didn’t mess up.”

Her helpful partner chimed in again, “So don’t let it. If you take a zero, then you lose. Turn in your paper today, take the hit, and then you’ll prove something to yourself.”

The partner was a qualified counselor. She had been through Stuff. When she was pregnant with her third child, it was her male OB/GYN who told her she had to leave her husband since the husband was a tyrannical addict. Not only did this advice wake her up to the grimness of her life, it also provided her a life-altering epiphany as she realized, “There’s actually only one man I’ve ever known who’s listened to me and asked me questions. It’s probably not a great sign about the state of my existence that the only caring male I’ve ever known–my doctor–is in my life because he’s paid to be here.” After issuing an ultimatum, she ended up kicking her husband out.

Since making that change, life has not been easy. Divorced, she lost the nice house and comfortable lifestyle she’d enjoyed during her marriage and, as a single mother of three, working as a hairdresser at Great Clips, she has raised her children in poverty. On the day that this hard-working student advised her classmate not to give up, her sixteen-year-old daughter had just received yet another ten-day suspension from school; apparently the ten-day suspension the teenager had received a few months before hadn’t had any effect. In explaining the situation with her daughter, my student provided important perspective: “Do those people at the school not know how hard it is to get her there in the first place? And then they keep kicking her out? I mean, it’s killing me, but at least she’s there.”

As I stood and listened, my wander around the classroom paused at these female students’ table, a handful of thoughts zipped through my mind. Long ago, I learned that judgment is never constructive–yet, naturally, it still tried to nudge its way in. I also battled against frustration. Fatigued by 160 students, all of whom were in the middle of something, my most authentic self wanted to shout, “No matter what’s going on in your world, do your work already, and if you don’t do your work, own the consequences.” Simultaneous to pushing back against judgment and frustration, I was also holding defensiveness at bay. Being a policy enforcer requires an emotional separation from the pleading eyes and tragic words; holding the line made me the bad guy, and it’s difficult not to jut the chin self-righteously in that role. And then there was appreciation–affection!–for the single mother of three who used her voice as Peer more effectively than I could use mine as Teacher. When it came to weathering challenging experiences, trusting that education might transform her existence from one of not enough to one of plenty enough, understanding how exhausting it can be to fight to an upright posture after being ground under life’s heel, she provided her stressed-out table mate with an emotional fist bump. Because my life has been very fortunate, I wasn’t speaking to the late-paper student from a place of “Hey, honey, I’ve been there” empathy–nor, it could be argued, should I have been. However, what I knew in the moment was this: we needed the voice of that poverty-stricken hairdresser in the room. Her energetic and informed point of view, dovetailing with my inflexible standard bearing, created something unexpectedly powerful.

Woefully, easy happy endings are the stuff of Disney and the citizens of Jan Karon’s Mitford.

They are much more rare in the community college classroom.

The agitated student whose essay was doomed to lose twenty points was not magically reformed by the words of Teacher and Peer. She did not race home and submit her “really good paper” to the Dropbox before midnight. Possibly, she had to work. Or she had to pick up her two-year-old from the daycare since they had given her notice that leaving her son with them 16 hours per day was too much. Or she smoked a few outside a brick building while laughing with friends. Or she called up her mother and had a fight. Or she lay down on the couch, wanting to put her feet up for a minute, unable to turn in her paper electronically because she couldn’t afford Internet service in her subsidized apartment.

Another day ticked by. No essay.

Then another. Still no essay.

Four days past due, a semi-good paper slammed into the Dropbox, submitted just late enough to convey an attitude of “Here. Take it. And what-EVER about your lateness policy. But give me points. Or don’t. I don’t care. Except please do.”

And so it goes.

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