“The Bear’s Money” by Louis Jenkins from The Winter Road: Prose Poems
Every fall before he goes to sleep a bear will put away five or six hundred dollars. Money he got from garbage cans, mostly. Peo- ple throw away thousands of dollars every day, and around here a lot of it goes to bears. But what good is money to a bear? I mean, how many places are there that a bear can spend it? It’s a good idea to first locate the bear’s den, in fall after the leaves are down. Back on one of the old logging roads you’ll find a tall pine or spruce covered with scratch marks, the bear runes, which translate to something like “Keep out. That means you!” You can rest assured that the bear and his money are nearby, in a cave or in a space dug out under some big tree roots. When you return in winter, a long hike on snowshoes, the bear will be sound asleep. … In a month or two he’ll wake, groggy, out of sorts, ready to bite something, ready to rip something to shreds … but by then you’ll be long gone, back in town, spending like a drunken sailor.
I graduated from college twenty-three years ago, but still, at least once a year, I have the “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod, I woke up late and am missing my final exam but can’t find the classroom” nightmare.
Considering my lax attitude towards class attendance in my college years, the notion that I can’t find the classroom isn’t necessarily the stuff of dreams. There was actually a reasonable possibility that, even by final exam week, I didn’t know where my classes had been meeting. More likely yet was the scenario where I’d find the classroom and burst through the door breathlessly, only to be met by the professor with a blank stare and the query, “Hello, breathless stranger. Are you lost?”
Just as amazing to me as the endurance of the “I’m missing my final exam” nightmare is this: once I started teaching college classes twenty-two years ago, the student point of view morphed into an instructor’s point of view. The anxiety remains the same.
Thus, I now, roughly once a year, have the “Sweet Moses, I’m missing my final exam” dream as though I’m a student who’s forfeiting her chance to pass the class…AND, I also have a variation of that dream, again roughly once a year, in which I’m the teacher–unable to find her classroom, knowing there’s a crop of nervous students waiting on her arrival. Once or twice, the issue in my teacher nightmares has been that I get near the classroom but realize I have no final exam to distribute. Once, I found the classroom and had a final exam ready to go, but the room was locked, and I spent the first hour of the students’ writing time attempting to track down a facilities guy who might have the key jingling from a ring on his belt loop. This dream ended with me calling out over my shoulder to my students, “Just get out some notebook paper, and start writing! You don’t need computers or desks. And don’t talk to each other while I’m gone.”
Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m realizing that this last “dream” scenario was reality. It most definitely has happened on many occasions during normal class meetings–this business of me trying to get us into a locked classroom–and sometimes in an iteration where we all get into the classroom, but then students work on the computers during the class period, only to find the printer has no paper. So I spend fifteen minutes trying to find the one person on campus who’s allowed to hand a ream of paper to an instructor. Fortunately, in the last couple of years, it’s become increasingly possible for students to save work online, without the benefit of a flashdrive or disc.
The disc years, though? Cripes, but those were a weird interlude.
You’d think the headaches of both reality and dreams would recede with the advent of online classes. When no one ever looks at each other face on, and everything’s done on the computer and saved to something like a cloud as a matter of course, the final exam should be easy. We never need a facilities guy; we never need paper. It’s even somewhat hard to be “late” or “lost”–although it’s fairly startling how often both can happen in cyberspace.
For me, from the instructor point of view, I’m pretty much able to find the online classroom, so that worry has been neutralized. However, I do sometimes, at the end of the semester, have a momentary gasp during which I panic, “Was I supposed to send out the final exam this week? Did I not?” If the final is a multiple-choice test I’ve created ahead of time, an instrument that can be pre-set to “reveal” and “close” at certain times, I also have a moment of anxiety when I realize I haven’t double checked to be sure it followed my directions.
All in all, I prefer online final exams to on-campus tests, simply because they don’t involve driving, finding a parking space, and being punctual. Not a one of those is a personal strength.
Interestingly, I seem to have discovered a whole new way to turn an online final exam into a nightmare, though. The other day, I emailed out a “take-home” exam question to the Writing for Social Media class. My aim with the test was to have students step back from the practice they’d done during the semester and look at the value of the various types of social media platforms more objectively.
However, by the time I managed to get around to posing the question,
which asks students to craft 650-1200 words in response,
I found I, myself, had typed 1500 words of collateral malarkey:
Writing for Social Media
A time machine is too easy.
This final exam question won’t involve one.
If I gave you a time machine, you know you’d go back twelve weeks and do that blog post you missed and make those comments you got zeroes on and toss out a few more Facebook updates and do your live tweeting session all over again.
No, the power of a time machine is too immense, and I’ll not unleash you on the world with one.
If I gave you a time machine, you’d not only go back and redo some bits of this class, you know you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from also going back a few million years and riding a triceratops in some sort of prehistoric rodeo fantasy and then flitting forward a few million years and trying to save Lincoln at the theater that night and then catapulting forward another hundred + years and putting yourself in that garage with college-aged Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak so as to get in on the ground floor of Apple’s creation.
I can’t trust you and your murky soul for a minute, and that’s why I’m not giving you a time machine here.
What I am giving you, however, is one of those vacuum-tube systems like they employ in banks when customers in the drive-thru need to send a signed check and a deposit slip to the teller behind the glass fifteen feet away. Wait. Do they not use those anymore? Do we need to take a quick field trip in my personal time machine back to 1990 so I can show y’all that vacuum-tube system? Such systems were also used for inter-office communications back in the era of Mad Men.
MMMMMMMM. Mad Men. Stop with your mysterious, charming self, Don Draper. I’m trying to focus here.
What I’m trying to tell you is that you get an inter-office communication, drive-thru-at-the-bank kind of vacuum-tube system for this final exam. It also has the unexpected power of, yes, time travel. But only the tube can time travel, and don’t even think you can pack your own adult body into that little tube and take a quick joy ride back to the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic hockey match when the U.S. upstarts beat all predictions and trounced the Russians, thus winning the gooooooooooollllllllldddddddd.
Oh, I hear you: you’re mewling, “But Jocelyn, I don’t even like hockey. I’d never abuse time-traveling vacuum-tube technology thusly.”
Yea, but admit it: if you were compactible and double-jointed enough, you’d totally stuff your body into the little tube and whiz back to the Chicago World’s fair in 1893 to try a ride on that huge, spinning wheel invented by Mr. Ferris and then dial it forward a few years to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 so as to try that new-fangled invention called Ice Cream Cone.
If neither of these things appeals to your sense of whimsical time-traveling vacuum-tube adventure, I think we all can agree we’d attempt a tube stuffing and quick zip back to 1778 if it meant we could talk John Stafford Smith out of including that impossible-to-reach high note when he composed the tune that was eventually used for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We’d be all, “John, John, John. Have mercy. Despite our time-traveling abilities, we’re all mere mortals here. And that high note you’re considering? Something only dogs can hear. Don’t write a national anthem that only dogs can hear and that every performer, from Roseanne Barr to Carl Lewis, will be forced to suffer public humiliation over for centuries to come.”
The good news is that I’m not only restricting you to a time-traveling vacuum-tube with this assignment, I’m making it a really, really small tube. There’s no earthly way you can get yourself into it.
What you can fit into it—if you fold it up into a teensy little square—is a letter, a single sheet of paper (with very small font, if need be). If you typed 650-1200 words, you’d use just the right amount of paper.
So here’s what I’mma need you to do with your vacuum tub and your letter:
I’mma need you to help out my poor sheltered friend from the past–a Mormon woman living in 1873, and since washing machines and grocery stores haven’t been invented yet, she’s got a lot of work to do just to get through a day. Despite her heavy schedule of manual labor (as 12th wife, she’s both sister-wife to 11 others and co-mother of 48 children), Ann Eliza has unbounded curiosity. What she wants to know more than anything else is what the future is like.
Here’s a note she sent me recently through the time-traveling vacuum tube:
Dear Madam, I wrote you some few weeks since and as I had not received a reply I thought my letter might be miss sent and I would write again. You wrote me some two months ago that you would interest yourself sufficiently to become my agent toprocure means of knowledge of times beyond these. I await your next missive and desire heartily some vision of the communications in your age. For me, I pen a missive to my mother every two weeks, telling her in some detail of Hiram’s work and my fellow wives’ unseemly angers. Some time later, I duly receive a reply from dear Mother. Generally, she reckons the weather will be might poor and predicts plagues upon the wheat. What I wonder is how people in your time, when not looking at each other face on, share information. Were I able to stuff my crinolines into our shared vacuum-tube thingjimmie-amabob, I should quite enjoy a hop to the future whereupon I could take stock of how you do your churning and how you cover your absences from each other. In your day, do you write words and, once the ink dries, drip some candle wax onto the envelope as seal? Do you await the hoof beats of the Pony Express rider? When you write, do you discuss the weather and the wheat? I nurse a severe hankering to know how you connect with others in your modern age. Some part of me, I guess, wants to know if I would feel less alone were I alive in your time. What think you?
Do write some kind word to me on the reception of this; it will be gratefully received. We should not neglect to answer each other so long again. I had no time today but sit up an hour later past putting the ten four-year-olds to bed (1869 was a busy year for Hiram here in the compound!) to say to you, that you are kindly remembered.
Accept my best wishes and let me hear from you soon.
Ann Eliza G. Smith
In sum, this final exam is my way of drafting you into replying to Ann Eliza. She wants to know how people in 2012 communicate. What would you tell her? I’ve already got a letter going to her regarding telephones (e.g., voice communication, texting) and email, but I don’t have time to cover some of our other technology-boosted forms of communication. What are the various options people use nowadays to make connections with loved ones and with strangers? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the various options (i.e. “platforms”)? Is she missing out on anything? Would she be less lonely if she were alive now?
Another way to think of these questions would be this: how would you explain various social media options to Ann Eliza, and how would you analyze each option for her? Based on what you’ve learned in your own personal use of social media and what you’ve learned from the activities in this class, what are the strengths and weaknesses of, say, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs? (feel free to bring in other types of SM, like YouTube)
My letter to her is going out tomorrow; I really want to fold up your letter into an itty-bitty bit and jam it into the vacuum tube by Wednesday, December 19th, at 10 p.m. That’s Ann Eliza’s night on duty with the eight twelve-year-olds in the family. She’s going to need something to look forward to at the end of that evening, and I’d like to promise her that your letter will be in the chute, awaiting her weary but excited eyes.
Because I control the vacuum tube (mwahahahahahaha!), I’ll be the one to print and send your letters. I can just visit your blog and print from there, so please be sure they’re in place by the time I swing ‘round on December 19th.
And you know, Ann Eliza will be eternally grateful to have this diversion from the drudgery of boiling Hiram’s undershirts in lye and negotiating truces with her sister-wives. Let her know how we Moderns use technology-based platforms to create entirely different kinds of communities, and let her know in what ways she’s missing out…and in what ways she should be glad to live in the era of traditional letter writing.
Almost immediately after I sent out this “question, ” I got some feedback from members of the class. First, there was:
Seriously- you are hilarious. This is why I love you.
Two days later, another student weighed in with:
Could you please explain the final essay assignment, I am somewhat confused.
Both responses made me grin.
Both responses had merit.
And somewhere between these reactions is the lesson that hides inside all my nightmares over all these years:
a final exam is nonsense; a final exam matters; a final exam is a genuine reflection of something; a final exam is a reflection of nothing; a final exam can be fun; a final exam can be hell.
No matter its true weight in the larger scope of life, a final exam affects us in some way that lingers–hence its permanent imprint in our psyches.
In fact, I’d be willing to dissertate about this at greater length to my students,
“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.”–Salvador Dali
Today, Byron turns 42.
He has been, and in some cases still is,
son, brother, friend, father, student
anthropology and earth science instructor
newspaper delivery boy
voice of reason
purple beard sporter.
In recent years, he’s also been Artist.
For this piece, Byron laid out 275 one-inch by one-inch squares, and then, for each of 275 successive days, drew a mini-diary entry. There’s a teensy ink sketch of a necktie for the day he went to a meeting with the mayor to strategize about how to re-imagine park funding in a way that could keep libraries open. There are also minute depictions of a shovel, an owl, a planter, a pumpkin…among 270 other Lilliputian moments of life, all harmonized by the presence of emerging sight lines that meet up in the lower righthand quadrant.
Byron, the least OCD person on the planet, makes art that presents as fairly OCD.
He had a show this past summer and spent weeks deciding which pieces to include before working on matting and framing and layout. Below, you can see where we laid out the final drawings in an effort to figure out how they’d fit on the public wall space to best effect.
Our time living in a Muslim country affected him. Upon our return to the States, he spent some time studying Islamic art and the use of variations within sets of geometric shapes, as we had seen all across Turkey in the tile work of madrassas and mosques. Here is one result:
He is pulling together a website to showcase his art. Here’s a link to his “galleries” page, which includes both pen & ink drawings and digital collage: Laying Fallow. I love the precision of the pen & ink and the whimsy of the digital collages (the one with the Amish figure on the ship was a commissioned piece; he bartered his services, and, gollee, have we enjoyed the blueberry-lemon bread, pickled beets, and other baked goods from the recipient).
Tonight, we will celebrate with white bean/bacon soup, pumpkin bars, limited-release Surly Darkness beer (gaspingly expensive), and a night of music seeing his favorite group, Cloud Cult (having conveniently driven their biodiesel van to Duluth to perform on the anniversary of his birth).
This talented grown-up boy,
still discovering the myriad vagaries that constitute “ambition,”
There’s a special lull in the rhythm of the semester when students are cranking away on big projects and readying themselves for the intensity that is the End of the Semester. The work isn’t flying in because they’re diligently, one hopes, doing the work. I’m in that lull right now, swinging and swaying and trailing my fingertips across the surface of the water as the rowboat drifts.
Ah, were it that relaxed. Rather, I view this lull as the only time I have to prep for next semester, which, in online teaching, means going into each course “shell” and getting sixteen weeks’ of content, quizzes, announcements, grade book items, and discussions ready for January. In courses that I’ve taught before, this is a fairly rote process of changing dates, swapping out stale activities, rearranging some due dates so as to create better flow, updating references, and the like. It takes some hours, but the meat of the class is already in place, having been copied from a previous semester.
A new online course creates a radically different time demand, however. With a new course, the “shell” is completely empty and makes the instructor staring into that space-loaded-with-potential feel like a person who’s just bought a parcel of land and now needs to design and build a house upon it before the first snowfall. The prospect is exciting and terrifying and a benefaction and a curse. So much is possible. Too much is possible. Only the application of myriad hours dotted with beads of sweat and a few fits of weeping can move the work forward, in lurching fashion, with a step forward and three back and a jump over here and a stumble over there.
Honestly, the only part of this that’s a complaint is the sheer amount of time it takes to frame up even a few metaphorical partition walls. I actually adore curriculum design; it may be my very favorite part of the job. But getting even the basics of an online class in place can take 60 hours, 70 hours, 100 hours, depending on how detailed the instructor is being during the prep phase. For me, I prefer to do a lot of the heavy lifting before the class begins; once the class goes live and has students in it, that’s a whole new dimension of work and demand, and I prefer to be focused on those needs rather than the “under construction” sign hanging on the class Content page.
Since I have two new online classes that start in January, in addition to three I’ve taught previously, I’ve been hammering away at getting one of them, Modern World Literature, constructed. Hence, my lull isn’t so very lull-ish, really. It’s been fun, however, to make some videos, write some quizzes, explain literary analysis. All of the time I’m putting into the one course means, UGH, that I haven’t yet thought about the second new course.
Enter my heroic colleague who offered me her version of that course. She’s been teaching it online for sometime, and it’s no skin off her beak to have her course content copied into my class shell. This type of course sharing has happened between other instructors on occasion, but I’ve never benefited from it before–partially because I like to design my own classes (isn’t that a significant part of teaching?) and partially because I’m a crusty loner (professionally speaking) who doesn’t consider it part of the job description to feign interest in colleagues while standing in the mail room. Seriously, I haven’t the faintest idea how to respond to a gaggle of 60-year-olds who went to the Cher concert at the convention center. When they chatter with excitement about the concert, I just stand there and wonder, “You guys really paid a bunch of money to hear Cher SING? I mean, did you know what you were getting into? Had you perhaps never heard her singing voice before?” Five minutes later, when they’re still going on about it and comparing who sat in which section and who bought a t-shirt, all I can think is, “I could have been reading a book all this time. For the past seven minutes of my life–which I’ll never get back–I could have been engaged in something that means something to me.”
So, you know, people haven’t exactly been tossing their classes at me; they’d have to find me first, and I’ve become pretty adept at a skulk. This time, though, the offer to share came, and it came from someone who is particularly special to me. I feel humbled by her generosity and as though I might need to add a 24″ x 28″ poster to the shrine for her I’ve erected in the corner of the dining room. I know she likes mustard, so I set out a new bowl of it each day next to the incense. One thing my guru always bellered before passing out was, “There. must. be. no. skin. on. the. top. of. the. mustard. in. a. shrine.” Daily fresh mustard it is.
But really. Isn’t her offer something to be thankful for? Isn’t her offer rather in the spirit of the season, when so little seems authentically to come from a place of giving?
Certainly, I’m going to switch up her class a fair bit and inject my voice and style into it, but just having the basics in place will save me maybe 30 hours, hours that I can now apply to things like hanging ornaments on a tree and baking nine million molasses cookies. I might even see my husband between now and January, thanks to her.
Let’s hope that goes well.
So my weekdays have a predictable routine, built around coffee, exercise, dealing with current teaching, and working ahead on next semester’s classes. This past weekend, with the U.S. having Thanksgiving, mixed up that schedule a bit, though. Although it’s hard to be completely present sometimes in Life That Is Not Work when one is an online teacher, since assignments and questions are flying in every minute of every day, I have to say I enjoyed the respite from thinking up quiz questions.
On Thanksgiving morning, Allegra ran the city’s Gobble Gallop 5K, as did a couple of my cousins and their kids, so the holiday started off with a feeling of family; these cousins are, in many ways, as much siblings as cousins to me, so any time spent in their orbit feels easy and natural.
Below, three of my cousins (brothers to each other) have a quick confab. I love this photo primarily as a study in comparisons and contrasts amongst siblings. Raised by the same people. Nurtured in the same environment. Sharing many of the same values. Profoundly different human beings.
As their choices in headgear indicate.
Next: here’s my girl. Every time she runs, she looks calm and happy and as though she’s not even trying. I gaze upon her, in awe, recalling how I used to walk most of the 1/2 “endurance run” during the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. I was 31 before I ran a mile.
She is 12. She just goes. In so many ways, what was hard for me is easy for her. She’s like a healing balm spread over my own childhood wounds.
After the race, we packed up and drove four hours south, to the town where most of Byron’s family lives. Seeing the beauty of his sister as a mother, enjoying the charm of her two-year-old daughter, realizing how far my own children have come, well,
I hardly remembered that I’ve only written one opening announcement for Modern World Lit and still have 15 more to go.
A couple days after Thanksgiving, we celebrated both the two-year-old’s and Byron’s birthday (hers was last week; his is this week). More than anything, that gathering proved that the transition of seasons is upon us. The winds were frigid, and when we brought the camera in from the car to snap a picture of candles being blown out, this is what it managed:
It’s kind of like those being celebrated live in a dreamy, fuzzy, foggy world of dim lights and scents of sugar. I can get behind that.
Once the fog cleared, a few presents were handed around. If you see a two-year-old coming towards you clutching a Fisher Price blood pressure cuff and stethoscope, brace yourself. You’re about to get the physical of your life.
Because Byron’s parents had been suffering from the stomach flu (Happy Thanksgiving!) and were still feeling a little fragile from the afterglow of vomiting, we opted to drive back to Duluth a day early, which was lovely.
Because the seasonal transition had hit hard up in the Northwoods. A gorgeous blanket of white covered everything, and suddenly, while it’s still Autumn,
So excited was I by the fun inherent in snow and breaking out the winter gear, I completely forgot to worry about my lack of author links on the Content page of Modern World Lit.
So occupied were we, heading to the sledding hills (bonus: neighbor boy!) and throwing ourselves down the slopes,
that the lack of an assignment sheet for the mid-term essay melted from my mind.
Turns out, the lull created by a long weekend was honored.
As the Catholic priest with multiple boyfriends can tell you:
monogamy isn’t necessarily natural.
However, despite evidence that the romantic ideal of meeting The One and living happily ever after is a crock, we are trained from birth to believe in it. Perhaps we’d do better to widen the scope of our relationship discourse, to make room for the legitimacy of bisexuality; fluid, changing sexuality; polyamory; extra-relationship affairs as a means of strengthening the relationship; asexuality. Perhaps we’d do better if we stopped trying to shape everyone with the same cutter.
I also think we would do well to put less weight on that ideal of “one relationship, for life, equals happiness.” Rather, Dan Savage‘s notion of relationships seems more pragmatic; quite simply, he asserts that “every relationship you are in will fail, until one doesn’t.” Somehow, that way of phrasing it eases the pressure to Arrive At One’s Destiny.
Even further, I appreciate thinking that redefines “successful” when it comes to relationships. “Successful” doesn’t mean sticking to each other until you’re dropped into a pit six-feet deep. “Successful” is a word that can be ascribed to any relationship, so long as you take something away from it when it’s over. Every failed relationship can be a success. For me, I dated a gay guy in high school, not that I knew he was gay until much later, and although I wished for so much more in terms of feeling desirable, I also gained great things from that relationship: I gained confidence, openness, the ability to look someone in the face and not crack when receiving bad news; I learned the power that comes from being stronger than expected. Just as importantly, I learned how to keep dancing all the way to the end of the extended six-minute remix of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Later in life, I had a taxing and joyful relationship with a troubled man; being with him taught me negotiation, self-protection, and how to appreciate my own zest and ease with regards to change and adventure. A bit after we broke up, I entered a relationship with someone who kept me in constant doubt–yet I also learned endurance and how to package my strengths and how necessary it is to listen to instincts. Beyond that break-up, I dated a quiet man, and from that relationship I became aware of my spark and convinced that zingy is as valuable as steady; as well, I got lessons in living without resentment and an ability to recognize how un-needy I actually am.
Each of those relationships, save for the last, played itself out. They failed. Ultimately, in terms of getting me to who and where I am today, they were extremely successful.
The last relationship, the one with the quiet man, continues not to fail. All predictors point towards us confounding everything I’ve just typed, in fact, as we continue to feel complete and satisfied within the confines of a monogamous commitment. A big part of why we’re so happy together is our agreement that what works for us needn’t work for everybody. Another big part of our mutual satisfaction is that we like each other better than anything.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s a good cook, and I’m a good eater.
Anyhow, I don’t entirely believe in the traditional romantic ideal, and yet I’m 100% living out the traditional romantic ideal–which grew out of thousands of years of patriarchy and out of the women’s movement of the 1970s. Men liked the idea of one man plus however many women he desired; women seeking equality then piped up and said, “We actually like the one man with one woman thing.” If nothing else, these frameworks help track parentage. For Byron and me, our traditional dynamic means we’re pretty sure both kids are his.
We had a particularly attractive milk delivery person about ten years ago, however. She was cute enough that Byron has just cause to suspect she may actually be the father.
Can I just say that any time I crack a stupid joke like that, I know Byron will enjoy it?
I also know he’ll enjoy my rants about people who refuse to be reflective.
Plus, he can’t stand a martyr, nor can I.
He’s down with a deep debriefing in the kitchen after social gatherings.
He notices small things, like how the bikes in one city in Turkey are different from the bikes in other areas.
When I’m stewing and tangled inside, he’ll stroll into the room with a glass of scotch and say, “Here. You need this.”
He takes Tae Kwon Do with self-conscious Paco. Because Byron is painfully uncoordinated when it comes to choreography, he does not want to take Tae Kwon Do. Because he sees self-conscious Paco is gifted at the sport, he takes it nevertheless, in a move of Papa Solidarity.
He explains to Allegra the choices a scientist can make when designing her experiment. He can support the rationale of including cranberries and sunflowers, if the scientist thinks those are necessary materials.
He loves logistics. He loves maps. These are felicitous counterbalances to a partner who prefers a plunge followed by a freefall.
He teaches cooking classes at the local Co-op. They are so wildly successful that I cannot bemoan the lack of leftovers.
When I tell him I’ve created a situation in one of my online classes where I could really use an image of a four-armed Cyclops (long story), but I don’t want to deal with the copyright issues attendant to finding the necessary image online, he takes ten minutes to draw me what I need.
We are married. We are monogamous (although, in the last year alone, when I’ve spoken to others about the self-awareness of couples who choose open marriages because that feeds the needs of the involved individuals, I’ve received in return gasps and questions of, “So…is…that…something…you…and…Byron…???” OH, please. Simply because a person accepts something doesn’t mean she lives it. JEEEEEEBUS, JOANIE. I also think all drugs should be legalized. Does that mean I’m on heroin right now?). We prove that a good match on paper doesn’t necessarily deliver a good match in real life. On paper, his love of chickpeas and my love of the Arby’s drive-thru would never predict an easy compatibility.
We also prove that most long-term relationships are a matter of luck more than anything. As the years tick by, and various life circumstances come ’round, I am able to see new beauties in Byron–things I wouldn’t have even known to vet for when we were courting. Everything I thought I wanted when I was looking for a beau? Well, not much of it had anything to do with getting through daily life or periods of crisis with that person. The questions in my mind were more “Does he want children?” than “Will he actively seek ways for me to be away from the children so that I can be happier when with them?”
Moreover, when we were dating, I might have thought, “I’d like to be with someone who will go to the party with me when a friend turns 40.” As it turns out, I got that. Not that it matters; I’m perfectly capable of going to a party by myself, if I want to go, and he doesn’t.
I would not have known, back when I was on the look-out for love, to include a criterion that read, “The person you choose does not need to be able to play the guitar. However, if you one day have a child together who wants to play an instrument, say, saxophone, and he’s feeling kind of nervous about putting it up to his lips for the first time, this person you’re looking for should know enough to wander into the room and pick up a guitar and talk out loud, randomly, while trying to strum it. With Daddy doing this casual sidebar music, the nerves of the over-thinking child will be distracted and defused, thus allowing him to relax and squeeze a huge BWWWHAP noise out of his saxophone.” Nope, I wasn’t looking for that one at all when I was dating.
When I was dating around, I knew I didn’t care if the potential partner could dance, but I did care that I could go out and dance when and how I wanted. I knew that much. What I didn’t know how to test for, during the dating period, was a partner who could handle this situation: “If you ever get together and then have a daughter who becomes a middle schooler and who knows she’s not a natural at dancing, and one night you take her to a dance and notice her looking longingly at the participants from the sidelines, try to get her to dance with you. When she refuses–GAWD, DAD–go ahead and open the door on the dancing by grabbing a friend and hurling your terrible-dancing self out onto the floor, so as to show the middle schooler that having fun takes precedence over looking perfect. All the better if the friend you’ve grabbed to make this point is a guy.”
When I was out trolling the world for love, I was used to traveling and getting myself from place to place. Hence, it wouldn’t have been on my radar to want a partner who would one day be in charge of the guide book, who would love to plan our movements, who would want to think through the time tables. Little did I know, if I hooked up with someone like that, I’d be free to stand around and chat and laugh instead of squinting my eyes down real tight-like and trying to figure out which direction is north.
Without yet knowing everything about myself way back when, I couldn’t have known one day a Must Have for me would be this: when we go to a museum, and there’s a display of Roman jewelry, I’d like a partner who glances at it and says, “This stuff looks like you.” When, in response, I get all clappy and shout, “YES! I am nuts for every last thing in this case,” my best life partner should then take a few minutes to play the game called If There Were A Gift Shop Here That Had Replicas of Some of This Jewelry, Which Pieces Would Jocelyn Buy?
I had no idea how to look for that, back when I was dating, because I wasn’t yet aware I cared about Hellenistic fashion.
Really, there was no way our younger selves could have predicted that discussions of oils and jams would one day be fascinating and that we could serve as support staff to each other when deciding which small container would best fit into a suitcase. All I knew, when we were courting, was that I liked his hair.
When we head to the bowels of the earth,
when I’m feeling down, down, down,
he’s the one I want next to me.
It delights me that he closes his eyes when I suck his face off.
It delights me that his cheek is very soft, moreso when his eyes are closed.
It delights me that everything ends with a laugh.
It delights me that somehow, without planning it, I stumbled into a life with someone who’s as big a cheeseball as I.
It delights me that I was fortunate enough to clod-hop my way into this relationship that is the one that didn’t fail.
Thirteen years after we married each other, thinking we knew each other–yet how could we know anything at all when nothing had happened to us yet?–we can only thank luck, affection, and jollity for carrying us through.
A shared enthusiasm for dark beer hasn’t hindered our sustained devotion, either.
We plan to crack a few tonight on this, our anniversary,
Sometimes, if I’m standing in line at the post office (mailing you a present), and the line is really long (you’re worth the wait),
I pass the time by playing one of my special mental games.
These games range from “Hey, Jaundiced Guy Eyeballing the Birds of Prey Stamp Design, You Gotta Stop Smoking” to “If This Were a Flash Mob, What Song Would We Dance To?”
A particular favorite involves me staring at pairings of people in the queue and asking Self, “Self, would you want to be part of that relationship?”
For Self, 98% of the time, the answer to that question is a screaming nooooooo–sometimes because the guy looks too jaundiced, or too queerly interested in Birds of Prey, or like he couldn’t hold his own in a good, old-fashioned flash mob. If I turn my attention to the partner in the relationship, which is most often a woman–because, HELLO, newly-re-elected Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann tells me men and women belong together (before she hums a few bars from “Love and Marriage,” alights from her horse and carriage, and works the barbeque with more than a whiff of desperation; woe to the quailing Tarleton Twins!)–I also generally find myself uninterested in the female half of the couple, as well, and not only because Bachmann tells me I can’t have a girl.
Rather, I am generally as unattracted to the Female Half of the Pairing as I am Male Half of the Pairing because the woman is wearing this
or because she’s raving about the endless salad bowl at Olive Garden
or because she’s harping on her man partner for parking so far away from the curb
or because she forgot to take out her perm curlers before leaving the house
Even when the pairing is male/male or female/female, I need only spend a few moments gaming out a vision of their lives before deciding I want no part of that dynamic. No matter the gender, there are very few winners in Post Office Episodes of “Would You Want to Be Part of That Relationship?” Invariably, I can’t stand the ugly upholstery I’ve imagined onto the contestants’ couches. As well, I am dismayed by the fear of change that I perceive in both their posture and their orthotics.
When I’m working my mental way through the assembled crowd, plucking off the couples with a “No,” “Nope,” “No way,” “Not in this lifetime,” “Please don’t make me,” occasionally a “Well, I’d take her, but not him,” my dismissive litany lurches to an abrupt halt with a “What ho?!” only if Omar, that Big, Bad Wolf from The Wire, strides in, his trench coat a’flappin’ with every stride, bold cigarette dangling from his fingers, rifle ready to strain all existing definitions of “going postal.”
If Omar comes in, the game is over. Clearly, I couldbe part of that couple, for, no matter how I line up the columns, Jocelyn + Omar always = Two Serious Badasses Meeting Their Soulmates.
Have I never shown you my rifle collection? The gun vault is hidden behind all the Ayun Halliday and Bill Bryson books.
I’m a stealth badass
…with a long history of deep attraction to every bad boy on the block.
Exhibit B (“B” is for “Byron”):
The downside of adding Omar to the long line of Badasses I Have Known and Loved is the unpredictability of his schedule. Some days when I’m in the queue at the post office (you will love your gift), Omar and his soldiers are busy pulling a heist at a stash house; thus, Omar fails to show, fails to sweep in and extract me from that day’s round of “Would You Want to Be In That Relationship?” On such days, I finish the game, my relationship prospects a wash,
and stillI’m standing in line (it’s no Slanket or electric knife, this gift for you).
With more time to pass, I riffle through my mental Rolodex of games and pull out the card for “What’s Wrong with America?”
The problem with this game is that it can veer into the land of Serious awfully quickly, and who wants to think about war and unemployment while attempting to entertain herself at the post office? If the topics are war and unemployment, I might as well be on a date with Omar, eating curry goat and oxtail while we analyze the factors that have contributed to his career choices.
Trying to keep the game light, then, I flit through a variety of less-laden possibilities for “What’s Wrong with America?”
There’s the fact that suburbs are built for cars and not for foot traffic.
There’s the fact that millions of adults guilt themselves with the question “Am I a good parent?”
There’s the fact that millions of people own two homes before everybody owns one.
There are the American Girl stores. A few years back, when my family went to the American Girl store in The Grove in L.A., the friend who was with us observed, “The first time I walked in here, I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I understand why the world hates us.’ Then I looked around and squealed, ‘Ooh, a tiny canopy bed!‘”
No matter how many options I play through in this game, however, I always end up with the same final result. The answer for me with regards to “What’s Wrong with America?” is invariably
The stupidity of it; the sounds; the violence; the idolization of coaches; the money put towards new helmets instead of smaller class sizes; the fans who dress in team colors on game days; the…
You’re with me on this, right?
I mean, you play this “What’s Wrong with America?” game, too, yes? And you always end up with the answer that the problem is football?
Wait. Are we having a moment here, like when actress Mackenzie Phillips went on Oprah to promote her tell-all memoir, a book that notably confessed her ten years of consensual adult sex with her father? Phillips’ attitude during the interview was one of bravely coming forward to name an unmapped problem: the widespread epidemic of the adult daughter sleeping with Dad for a decade, only breaking up with him when she becomes worried that the baby she’s carrying isn’t actually her husband’s (evidence that Dad’s a stand-up guy: he pays for the abortion). Phillips told her story that day, ready to be declared a hero, only to be greeted with the stunned silence of, “Yea. NO. We actually aren’t admiring your courage for coming forward and naming this problem that not a single one of us can fathom. Rather, we are suspended in the breathless catch of the appalled.”
Is that what’s happening here, when I assert that what’s wrong with America is football? Is this me being Mackenzie Phillips and you being Judgmental Oprah and Aghast Audience Members? Do you not even want the present in the box anymore? Should I just step out of the queue and head home? (what I’ll ever do with your gift if you don’t want it is beyond me, though)
Hmmm. We appear to be at an impasse. Unfortunately, there are only two people left in line in front of me–one of whom just said “…have drank…,” which puts him out of the running as a future mate–so we need to resolve our problem sooner rather than later. I really do want to mail this box to you, but if you don’t want it because you’re outraged at my Mackenzie Phillipsing of your cherished football, then I might as well save the postage (your gift is heavy).
Zoinks! I’ve got it. Here we go. I know how to establish détente. Let’s go Good Oprah and tap our inner light to find the energy to heal and repair these relationship fissures. Try this out:
The other week, I experienced something that surpassed even football in the “What’s Wrong with America?” game.
See, there’s this thing called Halloween, which is a holiday when kids put on costumes and go begging; of course, since these kids are products of an entitled nation, their begging sounds more like a demand.
Intimidated by these demanding children, adults in neighborhoods across the country throw food at them. Believing that sweets are the best way to pacify demanding children, the food given to the beggars is enriched with high fructose corn syrup. The occasional intrepid citizen hands out popcorn or pencils, but, fearing retaliation, most stick to heaving junk at Our Nation’s Future. Even if the demanding children aren’t placated, adults can count on the crash after the sugar high as insurance that their windows will remain egg free.
Held hostage by this tradition, the country shells out millions of dollars each year on Kit-Kats, Snickers, Almond Joys, Starbursts, Sweet Tarts, Milky Ways, Tootsie Rolls, Reeses, Twix. Children with fortitude often reap five pounds, seven pounds, nine pounds of candy in one night, some of them proudly managing to fill a pillowcase with packaged body rot.
Don’t get me wrong, People. I love a Snickers as much as the next eight-year-old. Don’t get me wronger: Halloween is my favorite holiday.
So we have a bunch of kids who put on masks and go out and demand loot. Not incidentally, Halloween is Omar’s favorite holiday, too.
Once the begging is over, the American kids go home and pour out their bags of candy onto the floor. Using all the skills they learned in their overcrowded classrooms, they spend some time sorting yummy from coconut-laden and counting how many York Peppermint Patties they scored; they make a pile of “Want” and a pile of “Don’t Want.” Sometimes there is trading with friends and siblings, but the end result is that most kids only want a couple pounds of their haul. Beyond personal desire, nowadays there are also all those allergic peanuts and intolerant lactoses and corn bloatings, which remove another pound of candy from the mix. What to do with the unwanted candy, then?
Well. In recent years, the trend has been for dentist offices to do a “candy buy-back” the day after Halloween. Seriously.
On one level, I can see the logic. The teeth-savers want to save the teeth. They are willing to pay a dollar a pound to children who sacrifice their candy to the scale. Okay. That’s a kind of do-gooder-ism. Tempting greedy children with $$ is fair play in a consumeristic culture, especially if it prevents some tooth decay.
What do the dentists do with this candy? In my mind, it should be consigned to the incinerator or used to spell out, in letters 29-feet high, STOP PRODUCING HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP AND FUNNELING IT INTO OUR CHILDREN.
Some of those words are hard to spell, though, so instead the dentists do this:
they package up and send the candy to that nebulous entity called Our Soldiers Overseas. (explains the tortoise-like pace of the line at the post office today, dunnit?)
Question. Are Our Soldiers Overseas not in danger already, by virtue of their commitment to defend and serve? Particularly for those posted in high-risk areas, how is sending them candy full of chemicals, dyes, and obesity bombs at all a gesture of gratitude?
If I were a soldier in Afghanistan, I know what would feel like gratitude for my service, what would add a splash of fun and joy to my dreary days. I’d be crazy excited if a helicopter landed, and a crew from Chipotle hopped out; I’d be carefully-but-enthusiastically jumping through the landmine field if I knew those Chipotle folks had been sent by appreciative citizens back home and that I was about to get a dinner of something that felt like fast food but was actually made from quality ingredients. Make me a two-pound burrito, Chipotle Crew, and toss in all the brown rice and black beans you possibly can fit without tearing the tortilla. For that, that, would energize me to serve another day.
All right. I’ll concede that flying cooks to dangerous regions is less doable than mailing candy. I hear your objections.
Presuming I can relax about the issues of loading our kids with crap and then offering to buy that crap from them so we can mail it to service people,
I still will argue that this phenomenon is so deeply flawed as to sum up What’s Wrong with America.
Once the kids turn over their candy and collect their cash, they are also given a “sport bag” full of stuff: a bottle of water, a bookmark, a new toothbrush and toothpaste.
A coupon for a free sundae at McDonald’s.
And then, on the way out the door, a nice dental hygienist stops each kid to ask,
“Would you like a lollipop?”
In summary, then:
People buy huge poundages of terrible candy and give it to children who then eat too much of it and sell the rest for profit; this transferred candy is shipped to people whose lives are already at risk, and the children who were being saved from the candy in the first place are handed candy and the promise of future highly-artificialized sweets on their way out the door.
Thus ends another challenging round of “What’s Wrong with America?”
Luckily, I’m at the counter now, ready to post this heavy box to you. If I had to stand here even three more minutes, I’d have to commence my next special time-passing game.
Unrest at work has been put to rest. Negative thoughts met with positive thoughts, a whole lot plummeted into the chasm that had separated them, and there was release.
And a big grinning howdyto my colleagues who read this blog.
What I can tell you about being a college English teacher is this: designing a new course is huge fun, never better than when it’s a literature class. I am completely, zealously happy about my job when I get to promote good words, smart words, crafted words.
I am completely, zealously happy about the parts of my job that actually pertain to what I love.
More specifically, I have recently been osmosing stories, poems, and memoirs in the anthology the class will use when I teach Modern World Literature for the first time next semester.
While the last couple weeks of my work life often felt Pynchonian, in the way they made me clutch my stomach and perplexedly splutter, “Huh?”, the hours I’ve spent reading through the anthology have been Alice Munro-ian in their simple, pure delectation. The works in this anthology (post-colonial literature, which means post-WWII pieces from those whose lives were affected by the colonization of their countries and cultures) have impressed me with their crystalline voices and deft lack of adornment.
When the world is feeling darker and as though there are storm winds knocking down branches all over your yard,
it’s complete bliss to open a book and find calm.
Because they can provide a haven and an escape–this past was not the week for me to tackle Finnegan’s Wake–books remain my most reliable companions.
Imagine that your brain and heart are hurting, and you no longer feel like you know which way is up. Then imagine opening an anthology and reading this accessible, matter-of-fact paragraph written by Armenian-American Richard Hagopian in his story “Wonderful People”:
I saw her and liked her because she was not beautiful. Her chin was not just right and something about her nose fell short of perfection. And when she stood up, well, there wasn’t much to see but her tallness, the length from her hips to her feet, and the length from her hips to her shoulders. She was a tall girl and that was all. She was the first tall girl I had ever liked, perhaps because I had never watched a tall girl get up from a table before; that is, get up the way she did, everything in her rising to the art of getting up, combining to make the act look beautiful and not like just another casual movement, an ordinary life motion.
You’re snared, aren’t you? Then, just when you think, “Hey, I like this,” the next paragraph begins, and you fall limp within its grasp:
Maybe I liked her because when I talked to her for the first time I found out that she had tall ideas too, ideas which like her chin and nose did not seem just right to me, but like her getting up were beautiful. The hung together. They were tall ideas, about life and people, morals and ethics. At first, they seemed shockingly loose to me, but when I saw them all moving together, like her body, they hung together. They looked naturally beautiful. They had the same kind of pulled-out poetry that sometimes defies the extra-long line and hangs together; hangs together when you see the whole thing finished, when you’ve scanned it up and down and seen all the line endings melt into a curious kind of unity, which makes strange music–strange because everything is long yet compact. She was music. I see it now, her getting up impressed me at the time because for the first time I felt poetry in a person rising–music in body parts moving in natural rhythms. I liked the tall girl.
A massive storm is moving in to the East Coast. I am thinking of all of you, friends, who are hunkering down, waiting to find out how bad it will be.
Closer to home, a massive storm is moving in on me in my work life–or so it seems, as I stew and await its landing.
Peace eludes us. Because I am feeling tumultuous inside, and Nature is feeling tumultuous outside, I’m trying to regroup and focus on things that actually matter. Unfortunately, that means I’ve got a fairly self-gratifying post here, full of pictures I like to look at. Apologies if you’re already over-saturated. Maybe look at every third one and, if you’re bored, critique hairstyles and accessories?
So: Peace. I find it in the faces of people halfway across the world, people who have weathered their own storms, people who remind me that we’re all, ultimately, alike. If you have some minutes, kick back now, and take a look at your fellow creatures. You don’t know them, but they are you, and you are they.
I am also finding peace–JOY!–when I look at these next photos and consider the beauty of traveling with a Friend Not Yet Overtaken By Growing Tumors and the wife who loves her with a marvelous ferocity. A lot may suck, but this chance to share the world together did not.
So played out am I right now, I can only resort to pat, cliched thinking. Cliches are oft-repeated for a reason.
Thus, I simply say that, when storms brew and a peaceful, easy feeling is just something The Eagles sing about,
it’s people and love of them that make me smile.
In one memorable snippet of life, Virginia started a song using the word “bromidal.” Shortly therafter, we added in “diatomaceous.” And when you’re 75 and 45, friends, that’s what we call Good Fun.
So, as threatening winds gust all around, what do I want to pull into my brain and my heart–to push out the negative?
Roughly 30 hours after waking up and hopping onto the shuttle to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport,
we pulled into Duluth.
A delay (we sat on the plane in Paris for 2 1/2 hours before it ever left the ground) caused us to miss our connection in Detroit and ultimately added about 6 hours onto our final travel time.
Fortunately, the plane from Paris to Detroit was a newish one and–Holy Things Unheard Of–actually agreeable. Kirsten had booked us “comfort” seats, which means we had a lovely bit of leg room. For once, Byron’s patellas weren’t rubbed raw, and I was able to cross my legs and occasionally scootch my aching cootch. Just as gratifying were the personal screens (something low-rent Delta doesn’t regularly offer); anyone who remembers that one of the highlights of my year in Turkey was watching the 1980 version of the film Fame on our flight over will understand that I’m a complete kid on Christmas morning when it comes to a personal screen.
What I learned from this most-recent trip to Turkey, thus, is that I like Girls because Lena Dunham looks like a real human being; I like New Girl because Zooey Deschanel is properly charming; and I adoreVeep because Julia Louis-Dreyfus has managed to land on yet another show that gains power from the geling of its larger cast. Such is the wisdom of this world traveler. Oh, and also: the Seljuks surely knew how to decorate the hell out of a doorway. I know that, too.
Wait. There’s a third thing, too. I found out that the Turkish phrase for “so-so” is “söyle böyle” (which is pronounced kind of like shooley-booley, and how fun is that? Once I learned that phrase, I was compelled to wend my way through the Spice Market in Istanbul and tell every single vendor in every single stall that his merchandise was söyle böyle. In a dramatic lesson of cause-effect, I fled the Spice Market that day at a speedy clip, chased by a hoard of angry men wielding plastic scimitars and bars of rose oil soap).
In sum, then, what I learned from this trip to Turkey is:
–American television actresses are doing some good work
–a thousand years ago, Seljuks were comfortable enough in their lives that they could spare the time and energy to rock an entrance
–this man may look innocuous, but he’s more than söyle böyle when it comes to waving a plastic scimitar in a threatening manner
Now, the trip is over, but the memories, the sounds, the smells, the textures, the photos, the things learned–all are still churning through my jet-lagged head. Sitting here in my quiet house, listening to the dishwasher churn, rocking gently in my chair, I also remain incredibly glad that I thought to turn on the video camera a few times. Here are a few examples, a few cross-sections, if you will, of the delights visited upon us:
Our last meal in-country was purchased from a rice pilaf (aka “pilav”) cart on the Galata Bridge. After loading a little plastic tray with pilav, the vendor tops it with shredded chicken. Although there isn’t much talk in this video, my heart gets very happy when the overlapping Calls to Prayer start issuing from all corners of the city:
In addition to buying pilav that last night, Byron and I went on a long after-dark walk around a few of Istanbul’s hills. We planned to walk by the famed Suleymaniye mosque, which we’d not yet seen. When we got there, we realized the doors were open, and people were still visiting, so we wandered in:
And finally, from the Friendship Files, our pal Elaine (who, in a previously-posed video, explained the items on her breakfast table) here analogizes Turkish tea to a family:
The thing is,
my passport’s still out on the dining room table. My underwear has been laundered. I’m a day away from complete jet-lag recovery. I could sell some plasma to earn extra income.
We spent our last day in the country perfectly. No more museums. No shopping. No guide book.
Instead, we hopped on the ferry to Kadakoy and then took the Metro to our friend Elaine’s house. She made us a gorgeous brunch and gave us laughs and insights galore. Spending time in conversation, remembering why we love her so, watching our friends absorb her magic, well,
it was the best possible way to ease into a return home.
Our shuttle comes at 3:45 a.m. to get us to the airport. Then we spend a few hours flying to Paris; after a quick layover there (can we say “macarons”?), we spend another eight hours getting over the ocean to a stop in Detroit. More layover and then on to Minneapolis. If we have it in us, Byron and I will then drive up to Duluth so as to be home when the kids get up Tuesday morning. By that point, we’ll be so rank they’ll dodge our hugs.
Fueling our engines the entire way will be memories of friends and food and culture, all highlighted in this video in which Elaine explains a Turkish breakfast in two languages: