Five in Five: Sunday, February 4

It’s that time again: students in my advanced composition class are choosing topics for their research papers. While there is a whole sheet of instructions that I give to them, there are a few bulleted “big” points that I want to really drive home for them as they rev up and get going with their ideas. Here is one:

Your topic for this paper must be original and must be focused on a change in the last ten years. You cannot use a paper or topic that you’ve written on for another class, and I, the benevolent dictator, am beseeching you not to write on hackneyed topics that have been overdone. Specifically, please do not write on the death penalty, abortion, cloning, gun control, prayer in schools, evolution vs. creationism, the obesity epidemic, animal testing, or marijuana legalization. I’ve read 3,113 papers on each of these topics already. It is virtually impossible to find a new angle or point of view on such already-well-covered topics.

Having reviewed the guidelines, students are asked to post brainstorms of possible ideas — to which I respond  — and then select the topic they intend to commit to for their paper. This must be submitted to me along with an accompanying open-ended research question. Famously, some past topic blunders for this paper about “a change in the past ten years” have been “the Amish,” “gold,” “Egypt,” and “sharks.”

The current class is doing better than that, but still. Here are some topics and questions proposed today:

1. Abortion: What is it and should the government be managing it?

2. Marijuana and its legal uses

3. What are the positive health benefits to the legal medical use of marijiana [sic]?

4. Gun control laws

5. Medical marihuana [sic] becoming more legal, and the good effects.

6. Marijuana Medical Use is Becoming More Accepted

7. Gun laws

8. Should Marijuana be legal?

9. Is fast food the cause of obesity, or is it the persons?

10. should marijuana be legal?

11. Abortion? A right or should it be governed?

12. Should guns be illegal? What would happen if they were?  

In contrast, the students who push themselves to come up with specific, original, fresh ideas make the teacher’s day and, even more importantly, open their peers’ eyes to greater possibilities. Thus, on this Sunday afternoon, as I am besieged by quick, easy lists, I am also applauding loudly for the students who came up with these ideas:

1. 3D printing’s popularity has increased drastically, as more materials and printer variety becomes available. How does this affect hobbyists and companies?

2. There has been an increased focus on how batteries are composed and operate, possibly leading to a battery revolution.

3. Has the use of debit cards and credit cards, influenced younger generations in their thinking about money? Has this contributed to an increase in personal debt?

4. Under most health insurance plans, circumcisions are not covered by insurance. Why has our culture shifted its views on it that it is now considered cosmetic?

5. Has Common-Core Math really improved math scores, and is it really more beneficial to children to learn math this way?

6. Are trend diets like Whole-30 and Paleo really healthy to live on?

7. Should there be a minimum weight limit for the models presented in the media?

8. The causes/effects of anorexia nervous and how it plays a part on the young persons mind. (What new technology or counseling is now present and available to patients that was non existent 10 years earlier. How do people notice someone with this condition before its too late. (Eating disorders)

9. Does the cost of a college student’s tuition and supplies affect the outcome of their education? Is there anything that could be done to help struggling students? 

10. The fall of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden but the new Islamic State and their objectives

11. The new discovery of a new dinosaur called Mansourasaurus Shahinae in Egypt

12. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel

13. The recognition of the transgender community

14. How has the popularity of super heroes and the idea of someone having special powers changed? What has contributed to this?

15. How is the “millennial” mindset changing the workplace? What are the positives and negatives. 

16. Why is Brazil’s middle class growing so rapidly? 

17. Has there been an increase in the formation of non-profits over the last ten years and do they actually make a profit?

18. What is the effect of crypto-currency on our current economy?

In summary, today’s quick take-away: when given a task, bother yourself to do it right and do it well.


Typing: Maybe 3 minutes?

Editing: 10 minutes of copying and pasting

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One in Five: Saturday, February 3

I can’t spot him. Where is he? Byron already pointed him out, his curly blonde hair below the Exit sign, and we’re not that far away, so why can’t I find my kid?

Ah, there! Paco’s head pops up. I can just make out his profile, his head small from this distance, his body invisible as it blends into the other band members surrounding him on the bleachers. Why was he bending down, head out of sight, when the rest of the pep band is ten measures into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”?

A few songs later, when I’ve moved closer to the band to record them, his head is gone again. JEEZUS. Where’d the kid go?

Pop. His head is back. Once again, he’d been leaning down, scrambling on the floor — gathering up his stack of music, it seems from the way he’s frantically stuffing pieces of paper into his lyre. 

Pep band is new to the fifteen-year-old; playing at this girls’ hockey game is only the second time he’s tooted his baritone saxophone in such a fun, casual setting. Until now, all his musical performances have been formal, tightly orchestrated, formal affairs.

But pep band is a wild ride around the moon compared to a holiday concert. A zamboni smoothing the ice behind him, wearing a black knit cap, the music director is relaxed, and the mass of kids in their quarter-zip fleeces are having a blast. No wonder Paco has announced the only good part of band is pep band. In a regular concert, the music is staid, the lights hot, the audience hushed in the dark. But with pep band, the music is contemporary, goofy, punctuating the highs and lows of the game, creating an energy that lifts the arena. 

Even though I’m hard pressed to spot his constantly ducking head, we should be glad the kid is playing at all, considering we got halfway to the arena when he realized he’d left his reeds at home. Five minutes later, we dropped a sheepish Paco off at the arena to make his call time, after which Byron and I drove back up the highway, across town, to get his reeds. It was no big deal.

It was also something that would never have happened with his sister (she who has already saved on her laptop a color-coded itinerary for upcoming travels).

Anyhow, he has his reeds, and his head disappears and resurfaces as he collects the music he keeps dropping.

When I hear the strong duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duuuuuh-duhhh of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” I move closer to the band to take a video; I’ve been warned that “Seven Nation Army” has some great moments for the bari sax — but when I near the band, I see a hole where his head should be. Is he missing his moment? It seems like he’s missing his moment.

But no. That would be a wrong reading of this evening when our endearing freshman has forgotten his reeds, repeatedly drops his music, and enters several songs late. He might be blundering a little, but don’t we all, we people who move through long hours with eighteen things to handle? His day started at 6:12 a.m. so that he could be at school for Knowledge Bowl practice by 7 a.m. Then, after a full day of classes, he had Robotics practice for two hours, leaving early to get home, change clothes, and grab his dinner, which was eaten in the car as we drove to the hockey game. It was to his credit that he remembered, mid-bite, that his reeds were in his regular band folder and not in his instrument case — since he has one instrument for home and another for school. When he gets home at 9:30 p.m. after pep band, he’s more than entitled to crave soft jammies and a nice lie down on his feather bed.

No, this kid is not missing his moment, not by any stretch.

Rather, he’s zigzagging his way into realizing what his moments will be. That’s what it is to be a young person. When he quits band next year, he hopes to take art classes. He’s good at art. And he’s good at music, writing, cooking, caretaking, empathy, math, science, and observation. The swirl of his days right now — all those moments of coming in ten measures late — is part of the sorting process. I am grateful he’s got so very much to shake out before any of it has to land. 

So, okay, he forgot his reeds. His pep band music keeps exploding down to the cement floor, lodging under fifty neighboring feet. He’s allowed a few tatterdemalion glitches. 

For there’s so, so, so much that’s firing true and hard in our beloved boy. 

The night before he missed the best notes in “Seven Nation Army,” this same kid wandered into the tv room around midnight, diving his hand into a bowl of popcorn regularly while telling me how tired he was and handing me the five-page outline he had just completed for his research paper about binary code.

Crunching as he spoke, he told me, a glint of excitement in his eye, that he learned from his initial research the way we talk about digital memory and storage is actually a recasting of binary code — because a series of eight 1’s and 0’s = a byte. 

Later, the kid who would forget his reeds at home explained that hex code is used for colors, like #ff0000 for red — and that letters are used more in languages like ASCII. 

When he speaks technical talk at me, I listen hard. I hear what he’s saying. I kind of understand it — although, for me, magic beyond written words is wrought real in musical notation. But my way isn’t the only way. 

For him, though, the abstract lives when it’s cast in 1’s and 0’s, “ons” and “offs,” hex code, languages created not from black dots placed on horizontal lines but, rather, that require a different type of cognitive load, one weighted with programmed functions.

The years are flying. I want to cement the midnight scene into memory.

Stretching his neck, he stands in front of me, popping corn into his mouth and explaining basics of binary as I leaf through his outline. His pajamas, his skin, his voice — all are impossibly soft. But his explanations remind me: this kid is sharp. His intelligent late-night tutorial has me nodding. Oh, yes. Languages are infinite in possibility, with the ability to unite or divide. So, if we care, as I do when it comes to tracking his outline and research project, we bother ourselves to learn some cognates, pay attention to the foreign grammars. My boy speaks computer. He and I both share music. And we’ll always meet in the kitchen over an oil-spotted recipe.

As I look up at him to ask for clarification, the well-used rocking chair I’m sitting in creaks loudly. We bought it when I was first pregnant so that I’d have a comfortable place to nurse our babies. And now one of those babies towers above me, explaining transistors. 

Possibilities, for this curly-haired cruncher, are limitless. Sure, sometimes he may be feeling around blindly on the floor while everyone else is already playing, but this young man is not missing out. He’s getting there. In his own way. In his own time. He’s on his way.

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Typing: 35:32
Editing: Forgot to start the clock. It’s like I forgot my reeds at home, really.

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Five in Five: Friday, February 2

And I’d been sleeping so deeply, too.

But then came the moment when my bladder was so full my brain started to surface, and my body’s first impulse, a sort of readying itself to stand, was to roll over.

Holy mother of lightning in the fascia. 

Pain radiated from seven different places in my right shoulder — the shoulder I had NOT been sleeping on all night. If I put my arm to my side, pain. If I curled my elbow, pain. If I tried reaching above my head, pain. If I pushed upright to seated, pain. When I reached for toilet paper, pain. 

The location of the pain was familiar. Infrequently but regularly throughout my lifetime, I’ve suffered from a pinched nerve in my shoulder and clavicle. Usually, it lasts for a few hours, rates about a 2 on the pain scale, and then recedes. Always, I have dismissed it as a side effect of boob poundage being harnessed through straps cutting into my shoulders. So, y’know, the pinched nerve has always been a thing that’s not a thing.

But the other morning, with that roaring wake-up, that holy mother of lightning in my fascia at dawn, I experienced that familiar pain magnified by a thousand, a 6 or 7 out of 10 on the pain scale, if a 10 is a baby’s head crowning.

I took some ibuprofen. I tried to stretch and move to loosen up. But no, no, no. It hurt too much. 

Twenty minutes later, the pills took the edge off enough for me to fall back asleep, but when I awoke again a few hours later, the gnashing heat beast in my shoulder and arm was raging. I took two more ibuprofen, texted Byron that, no, I didn’t need a ride to the doctor or anything but that I wouldn’t be meeting him at yoga over the noon hour. 

Fuck me, but this was dumb. Thanks to the ibuprofen, my shoulder felt okay, but I figured I shouldn’t tax it with Downward Dogs and slow eases to the floor. As I went for a run later that afternoon, I tried to riddle out what might have triggered such a bizarre “Hello, this is Jocelyn’s shoulder, and I hate you” episode. Nothing. I had done nothing hard or unusual that might have caused such pain. Naturally, it took about three leaps of thought before I decided maybe I was developing a “frozen shoulder,” and I didn’t even have to visit WebMD for that diagnosis. The same way I often become convinced I have colon cancer the morning after eating beets, I was well able to self-diagnose myself into misplaced hysteria without the aid of technology. 

Fortunately, in the happiest story I’d lived since the time my cousin set me up with a tall blonde guy, once the ibuprofen took over, it pretty much solved the problem. The next day and the day after, I had only residual soreness — kind of like I’d been in a car crash, had my head jerked back dramatically, and then felt that trauma bone-deep for a few days afterwards.

By Thursday, yoga actually seemed recommended, as a means of getting the soreness to dissipate. Body perked, “Let’s toss out a few warriors, Jocey, and show that shoulder who’s in charge of the ligaments!

Yoga. was. great. It was the perfect remedy to the stunned soreness that lingered — because yoga does that full-body stuff so many other activities neglect. Fifty minutes on a mat puts the body through its full range of motion, which is the only way to take stock of what’s really going on in there. For me, it was shortly after the teacher made some nominal announcements, did an easy warm-up, and started moving us slowly through Sun Saluation A that my body sent a shouted message: HEY, LADY IN CHARGE OF THE LIGAMENTS, ARE YOU NOTICING HOW EVERY TIME YOU DO CHATURANGA AND EVERY TIME YOU STEP BACK INTO WARRIOR ONE, YOUR EXACT SORE SPOTS LIGHT UP AND CREATE A LINE FROM YOUR NECK, THROUGH YOUR SHOULDER, DOWN YOUR BACK, PAUSING IN THE HIP FLEXOR BEFORE OOMPHING INTO YOUR SCIATICA? DID YOU NOTICE HOW YOUR SHOULDER PAIN IS ACTUALLY LIVING IN YOUR BUTT? HUD, DIDJA?”

Body has a terrible indoor voice, but Body was right. What I had perceived to be localized shoulder pain was, in fact, a long line of connected pain running through the right side of my body. Yet. Each time I moved through another Sun Salutation, each time I stretched and held and focused, some of the soreness released — oozing out of me to the corner where it slid around the floor lamp in a slow-motion ring-around-the-rosy. 

By the end of class, nothing had changed. Everything had changed. 

This has been the case for the past twelve years, ever since Byron and I started attending yoga classes at the Y together. The kids were finally old enough to tolerate the Kids’ Club sometimes, so we would toss them towards the toys and dash upstairs to sit in a darkened room and slow our breathing. Over the years, I’ve gotten stronger — despite the set-back at one point of, yeah, shoulder surgery — and I’ve gotten better at balance, which is essential to graceful aging, and I’ve learned that all the woo-woo talk about “the breath” isn’t bullshit at all but is some powerful woo-woo ju-ju that has gotten me through root canals without slapping the endodontist like he deserved.

Yoga is alive for me because it changes as I change; it mirrors my life back to me in unexpected ways; it challenges me to challenge myself; it provides me a safe place — that mat the same length as my body — in a mean, mean world. 

Along the way, I’ve had five yoga teachers, each of whom has had a different impact (MY DUDES: LOOK AT ME GETTING TO FIVE THINGS IN THIS “FIVE IN FIVE” EXERCISE):

1. There was Julie, with cascading red hair and a silver bell voice, young, newly married, deeply into the Yoga Fit training she’d recently completed. Julie was our first, and Byron and I shared a glorious crush on her. Julie’s class was one of the few spaces just for me during those years when the kids were small and dominated my body as their own. She taught us the “Breath of Fire,” she took time to make us relax our jaw muscles, and her teaching nurtured me into accepting the clear weaknesses in my abilities. 

2. After Julie moved away, there was Laura, sister-in-law to a kinda-famous musician guy. Her husband was in the Coast Guard, which usually means “passing through,” but still, her whole being felt rooted. Did I like Laura? I’m not sure. But I respected her knowledge and serious focus in the studio. And one day, when she audibly passed gas while we were doing Wind Release pose, I felt we could be friends.

3. Once Laura’s husband was assigned a new post, we started going to classes offered by Amy, teacher at the charter high school, sister to a renowned snowshoe runner, and yes, I realize it’s a very specific place in the world where snowshoe runners can be renowned. Amy’s classes were hard, and while she tuned into many of her students, I didn’t register with her at all. During this time, I was particularly dumpy and big, just trying to get through days with little kids without crying, and so it felt okay to remain in Amy’s shadows. Eventually, she got pregnant and stopped teaching at the Y. Nowadays, I see her in group fitness classes or running around the track with her now-elementary-school-aged daughter, and I know her exactly while she recognizes me not at all.

4. Then we moved into attending classes with Kristin, a wonderfully trained and detailed master teacher, but someone who intimidated me terribly for a years because I initially perceived her classes as cliquey; all my adolescent demons cackled during Kristin’s classes, jeering that I couldn’t touch the floor in Half Moon Pose, thumbing their warty noses at my lack of the classic “lean” yoga body. But then this thing happened where I just kept going to Kristin’s classes, and I just kept being okay with me, and even when Byron broke his wrist and stepped away from yoga for a few years, I just kept going and getting okayer and okayer with looking at my strong, capable body in front of that mirror, and eventually I realized Kristin had been awesome all along; the problem was me. When I had that shoulder surgery a couple years ago, my physical therapist asked me to articulate some benchmarks that would help us decide when I was “done.” Easily, emphatically, I told him, “When I can start going to yoga class again, I’ll know I’m back.” 

About a week before I was ready to try yoga again, I ran into Kristin outside the locker room at the Y — certain she didn’t know me, despite my years in her classes — and, bless, bless, bless her, she stopped and said, “You ARE still around! I thought maybe you were one of those people who disappeared because she got a job somewhere else and had to move.” Nope. Shoulder surgery. And getting back to her classes was a kind of finish line for me. After I filled her in, she smiled and said, “I love having people in class who are recovering from something. They teach me so much.”

5. Alternating with Kristin is a newer teacher, Kerry, a man who was a student in Kristin’s classes alongside me for years. At some point, he disappeared — turns out he’d gone to Sweden to eat candy fish, study yoga, and complete teacher training. Now he’s back, and it was this week as I entered the yoga studio with worry about my zappy shoulder in my head that I was able to experience Kerry as a teacher for the first time. He’s earnest and connected to the people in the room, sometimes miscuing, laughing when he catches himself, and I enjoyed the ease in the room.

In that dim studio with Christmas lights dotting the dusky corners, Kerry, my fifth yoga teacher, is learning teaching at the same time I’m learning to face myself in the mirror without flinching, to tuck my shoulder blades into my back pockets, to come to yoga as I can, to get from it what it gives, to nod as I realize the power of this thing is the slow burn, where I walk into the studio again and again, year after year, my children small to grown, my husband next to me or not, my self-esteem increasingly intact, my aches and pains flaring and fading, the stresses of family and students and money all set aside for that hallowed hour when the only thing I can control, the only thing I have power over, is myself on the mat.

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Typing: 55:46, so you can see how there are two 5’s involved, which makes this true to “Five in Five”

Editing: 16:04

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Eight in a Million: Thursday, February 1

Representation matters. Messaging matters.

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These ads, half of them drawn from my mom’s formative years of the 1950s, the other half drawn from my formative years of the 1980s, tell a story about the values and expectations that shaped us. If we are willing to accept that media messages reflect and shape culture, we can see that the 1950s hammered unrelenting messages of subservience, homemaking, and “pretty wins.”

Yes, I realize this is not hot news.

Side-by-side with ads from the ’80s, though, we can see interesting similarities and changes between the decades. By the time I was in high school and college, the messaging allowed women agency, independence, and autonomy. At the same time, it was still true that Mom was in charge of family food, and ladies needed, needed, needed to be pretty. Even more horrifyingly, we see the start, in the 1980s, of sexualizing girls at increasingly young ages. That Love’s Baby Soft ad fills me with a hundred colors of flaming rage.

Beyond that, the representation in both eras casts white people as the center, the normal, the visible. By the 1980s, blonde hair had emerged as even more strongly preferred, and the representation of those with any kind of “darkness” was nearly non-existent. How does the world feel to those who never see themselves depicted as exemplars? 

YES, YES, YES, I REALIZE NONE OF THIS IS HOT NEWS. 

I’m just trying to get your brains working here because I have a favor to ask. In about a month, I will be going to Tennessee for a stretch of days to do a writer’s residency at the Sundress Academy for the Arts, and I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to use the gift of those days. All that’s coming to me so far is this: I am very interested in playing around with ideas about how the eras we grew up in formed us — or, more interestingly, didn’t. I am interested in how people experienced the pressures of expectations, whether from parents at home, from teachers at school, from coaches in sports, from movies, music, etc. I am interested in how people moved beyond the pressures of expectations, if they did, and, as I like to put it, “exceeded their programming.” Some women live their whole lives with two goals: get a man, and be thin. Yet others, born and raised in the same time period, shed that conditioning and decide that a successful life consists of community engagement and improving the planet. Some men live their whole lives under the weight of being primary breadwinners and stoic steak eaters. Yet others, raised in the same time, even the same household, toss off those values and surround themselves with boas and stacks of books.

I’m curious what patching together a jigsaw of stories might yield. 

This is me, crowd sourcing. 

YES, YES, YES, YES, I REALIZE YOU ALREADY GOT THAT.

So here’s what I’m after, if you feel like contributing: a specific anecdote that illustrates your experience with pressures and expectations as you were growing up (into college even). As well, I would love specific anecdotes that illustrate ways in which you exceeded that programming. Either way. Or both. 

Also, these anecdotes do not have to be focused on you. In truth, sometimes we see this stuff more easily in others than in ourselves. Maybe you have a story about a parent or a grandparent or an uncle that really exemplifies the ways in which time periods determine behaviors.

You may have noticed I use the word “specific” here; ideally, your anecdotes would revolve around incidents or moments (“One time, my mom wouldn’t let us leave the driveway until I went back into the house and got a pair of gloves to wear to church” or “My grandpa upended the dinner table when the butter wasn’t next to the rolls” or “When the neighbor lady saw me talking to a black boy, I was grounded for a month”) rather than abstracted lists (“I just knew I was supposed to go to college” or “I always knew I would work”).

If you have a story to share with me, one I can use in my writing (always happy to change names and obscure identities, of course), I would be giddy to see it show up in my email: omightycrisis@gmail.com

I’m asking now since it’s one month until I head to Tennessee. 

YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, I REALIZE YOU ALREADY DID THAT MATH. 

Anyhow, it is with hope in my heart that I toss this challenge out. 

Please.

and

Thank you.

(’cause no matter when you grew up, manners always matter)


Typing time: a million minutes

Editing time: as long as it takes to find a bunch of vintage ads, screenshot them, crop them, collage them, crop the collages because I was doing screenshots of those, too, since PicMonkey is an ass about letting people save images unless they sign up for a seven-day free trial, and then mess around with them in the html editor when the spacing got fucked. So, like, 44 minutes?


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Five in Five: Wednesday, January 31

1. Needing to choose a topic for a research paper in English class, Paco asks for ideas. It’s not so much that he will accept any of our ideas but more that he needs to go through the process of hearing and discarding them so that he can feel increasingly certain the topic he already has stashed in the mists of his brain is going to be the best one. Thus, he asks us for ideas because he needs the conversation to help him trust the soundness of his own thinking.

Wandering into the kitchen shortly after he’s already shot down my suggestions of “the privatization of space travel” and “the practical uses of drones,” Allegra shouts an offering: “CULTS!” We muse for a bit about the existence of cults in 2018 and how it feels wan compared to the front-page, fear-driven, deprogramming-for-hire cult culture of the 1970s and 80s. Allegra’s stance is that cults are definitely still part of the national conversation in this modern age — since there’s a “vegetable cult” on Gilmore Girls, a series she’s currently watching in its entirety for the third time;

2. When I met with the new public television station manager the other day, she asked about my kids’ relationships with PBS, and while I was able to point to the children’s programming when they were younger, and I was able to offer up Paco’s love of cooking shows and Rick Steves, I had to admit to her that our 17-year-old has never been attracted to images flying through the air — to this day, she often announces, hastening the death of her mother’s heart, that she doesn’t like movies. When she was young, I craved the chance to sit in a theater, so when she was five or six, one of my students and I took her to see an Ice Age film. Setting the tone for all future movie viewing, Allegra spent the first twenty minutes sitting backwards in her seat, watching audience members watch the movie, after which she asked to go to the bathroom twice, after-after which she asked to leave because she wanted to play outside. In summary, she’s never been a strong “watcher,” except of people in dark rooms. That noted, she has, over the years, found shows that keep her attention, like Hannah Montana and Pretty Little Liars. And, of course, we must not forget her much-beloved Gilmore Girls, which taught her all she knows about cults;

3. Cults were such a big thing when I was growing up that I chose to do a major research project on them in ninth grade; as we tried to come up with a topic for Paco’s research assignment the other day, I yanked the kids down memory lane, recalling that, my topic firmly committed to, I had written to a Congressman requesting information about cults — because of course an elected representative would be an excellent source for alarmist information — and he mailed me a thick envelope of pamphlets about the dangers of and escape from cults.

Republican Ron Marlenee served in the United States House of Representatives from the U.S. state of Montana from January 3, 1977 to January 3, 1993. He was born in Scobey, Montana.

At age 15, getting mail from a dude with a head of thick, wavy hair and a far-flung office was about the most glamorous thing that had ever happened to me, except for all the days after school when I’d raced home to watch re-runs of the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club because I was obsessed with the serial included within the show called Walt Disney Presents: Annette; it starred Annette Funicello stretching herself to play a character named Annette, a poor, orphaned country girl who had recently moved to the city to live with her rich aunt and uncle. WOULD ANNETTE WEAR THE RIGHT CLOTHES? WOULD SHE GET A BOYFRIEND? These questions left me breathless.

Glamorously armed with pamphlets from an elected official, I ended up doing well on both the written and oral portions of my cult report, so pretty much

I AM A CULT AUTHORITY

4. I’ve been listening to the podcast Heaven’s Gate this week, which is about the cult members who committed suicide in San Diego in 1997 — although they didn’t regard it as committing suicide but, rather, releasing themselves from their “vehicles” so they could board a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet. It’s fascinating storytelling for a variety of reasons: the host of the podcast was, himself, raised in an End Times evangelical cult, so his exploration of this topic has layers; as wack as the members of Heaven’s Gate seemed for thinking they could board a spacecraft by killing themselves, the podcast makes the point that ANY religion is wack when its beliefs are unpacked; the podcast has all sorts of voice recordings of the leaders of the cult, along with interviews with members who got out before death day and surviving family members who, all these years later, explain what it’s like to live with that legacy;

5. In the early 1980s, when I was maybe 13 or 14, there was a knock on our front door one afternoon. When I pulled it open, there, on the other side of the screen was a striking blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy — cuter even than Luke Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard, if such a thing were possible. Pushing open the screen door — I didn’t want our interaction to feel like a Confession — I greeted him, my eyes locked on his high cheekbones and lanky form. Gravy, but our kids would be beautiful. The corners of his eyes crinkling, he opened easy, asking how I was doing, noting how fun the neighborhood kids seemed, complimenting our gardens.

In short order, the topic changed. Softening into vulnerability, he started pondering life’s challenges, admitting that, at one point, he’d been struggling. But then, just when things were at their darkest, he found a new group, a group that accepted him with all his failings, a group that gave him a home like he’d never experienced before. Ever an attentive listener when strangers get vulnerable, I nodded sympathetically while discreetly fluffing my bangs, leaning casually against the door jamb, and remembering how Annette always jutted her torpedo breasts high and proud to indicate rapt attention when a man was speaking. After a few minutes, my fiancé apologized for taking up my time but said he felt we really had a connection; he wondered if it would be okay for him to come back a little later to “rap” again about his amazing friends who banded together under the name of Hare Krishna. Maybe I’d like to meet them. Maybe my brother and sister would like to hear a bit about his friends, too. Would there be a good time for that?

When my dad got home an hour or two later, I let him know that if a Nordic god showed up at the front door again, I’d be available, and he should just call really loudly down the stairs for me. He had to be loud because I might have the channel called MTV turned on at max volume, but I for sure needed to talk to the guy at the front door. So CALL LOUDLY. Interested, Dad asked a few follow-up questions. In my innocence, I mentioned learning more about the Hare Krishnas, at which point my dad did an impressive test run of his loud voice when he barked, “The Moonies? That guy was a Moonie! Nope. No way. You don’t need to talk to him again.” I gave him my best “But, Daaaaaad, he wasn’t wearing freaky robes, and he had all his hair, so he was different,” yet he remained unconvinced.

Later, there was a knock at the front door. Quickly, heeding the advice pouring from Pat Benatar’s Juilliard-accepted soprano — “You better run/You better hide” — I raced to turn down the volume and creep stealthily to the bottom of the staircase. 

Above me, the footpiece of the La-Z-Boy snapped into its cradle, and a moment later Dad trundled down to the landing that split the levels of our ranch house. The door opened. My dad’s voice was stern.

Mortified, eavesdropping as my dad broke up with my fiancé, I skulked in the basement —

crabby —

embarrassed —

wishing I could catch the tail of a passing comet and glimpse the face of Eternity. 


Typing: 22:34 + 35 minutes before I started the stopwatch

Editing: Well, I mean, I spent at least an hour in the basement looking for a copy of that cult report but only finding mentions in my ninth-grade diary


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Five in Five: Tuesday, January 30

(Image by Lonely Planet)
  1. Watching a Nova documentary about the ruins of Petra in Jordan reminded me that my idea of heaven, if I get to write that script, is this: for all of eternity, I will be reclining a third of the way back in a movie theater, a naturally refilling Large popcorn on my lap, watching reels of actual human history project onto the screen in front of me. Since I have forever for this exercise, the images flickering on the screen will be detailed and take me inside the story of every last human experience, all while I sip on a Diet Coke that won’t kill me because I’m already dead. Naturally, in addition to snacks and all the mysteries of history explained, I’ll have good company in the seats around me, not a one of them with his hand on his penis as we compare reactions to finally discovering the truth about Jack the Ripper;

2. As soon as I finish my plate of sauteed greens for breakfast every day, the spaces between my teeth are ridden with green shards of kale and spinach. Thus, I have become incorrigibly sanctimonious about the pink and glowing health of my gums since I now floss two times per day. I’LL NOT BE DYING OF GINGIVITIS SO KEEP YOUR BETS ON A STROKE;

3. There’s this nice woman, Elena, who works at the neighborhood post office. She is a straight-shooter when it comes to the choice between paying the metered versus a flat rate, and for that I love her hard. Elena is from some Eastern European country; I venture the tests and rules of civil service have felt like a natural transition from the Old Country to the New. Yesterday, as I was packing up a fencing jacket for return, I experienced a revelation. See, this guy came in, and he started speaking Russian to Elena. Full disclosure: when they started talking, there were two seconds during which the walls got blurry, and I genuinely thought I might have entered a parallel reality wherein I had been transported to Russia; before my grounded brain re-engaged and reassured me I was still in Duluth, I zipped through a freak-out as I wondered how I would communicate “Please mail this to New Jersey” in English if I were, in fact, in Russia. I also — truly! — patted my pockets to see if I had any stray rubles tucked away, for to have neither payment nor language would stab with double humiliation. ANYHOW, once I felt certain I was still in Minnesota, I returned to packing, sealing, and addressing the box while eavesdropping on Elena and Guy. They said many things to each other, and I don’t have time to recap them all here now, but I can report they said hi, yes, no, please, and good-bye. Full of manners, these two caused me to inhale sharply as I realized I didn’t need to worry about not being able to communicate my mailing needs if this were actually an alternate reality — because, cher bitches, as my deciphering of their exchange indicates, it turns out I speak Russian!;

4. A student just submitted a Brief Summary Report activity, in which he was to take three articles on the same topic and synthesize the ideas into a short essay including a thesis, quotes, paraphrases, and summaries (along with the requisite parenthetical citations). The document he submitted was entitled Synthrdizing, which makes me wonder what in life he actually cares about since it’s clearly not the easy stuff;

5. In 2001, when we moved northwards and left Austin, MN, we were unable to sell our house for 26 months. For the first phase of that financially difficult time (carrying two mortgages, which ate up 55% of our monthly income), we rented the Austin house to one of my former students — a single teen mom — with the caveat that she would pay what she could, and any amount would be helpful to us. She had a full-time job as a bank teller, and her parents were simultaneously very involved and strongly in favor of her and her daughter learning to live outside of their home. Her mother had been my student, as well, so I thought this girl seemed like a good bet — and we wanted to pay back some of the many kindnesses the world had reaped upon us in our time. So we told her that since it was a relief to have someone in the house, she should take the first couple months to get on her feet and not worry about paying rent, but after that, if she could come up with $150 or $200 each month for us, then she would learn to manage a budget, and we might actually eat something more than rice and beans every once in a while. Another part of the deal was that the house would remain on the market, and she would keep it “showable” with the understanding that she would move out when we closed with the buyers. After a handful of months, we got a call from the realtor that this former student was, indeed, the living expression of a single teen mom after all. We knew she’d never paid us any rent yet had managed to buy a brand-new living room set of matching furniture, but we hadn’t known she was throwing parties or that our formerly tidy lot was littered with cigarette butts left behind by drunken lads who deeply dismayed the undertaker next door. In essence, the realtor said, “You guys need to get down here and put a clamp on this girl.” So we dedicated a weekend trip to driving the four hours south. She knew we were coming. But. When we entered the house, it was clear the place was not “showable” at all and that we’d need to evict her immediately. Most memorable were the carpeted stairs heading to the second floor. Every riser was laden with hot-dog-sized clumps of lint, hair, and weary world residue — so thick we didn’t need to vacuum but, rather, just picked up the debris sausages by hand.

Today, as I ran on an inch of newly fallen snow, I was reminded of those clumps and that strapped time of crystallized disappointment. The texture and movement of the snow was so much like untended staircase accumulation that I feared burping rice and beans.


Typing: 23:06 but I swear it felt like 7:00

Editing: 13:42


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Five in Five: Monday, January 29

1. For the past five years (I think?), I’ve been on the Board of Directors for our local public television station. What I’ve proven really good at so far is people-watching during the meetings. About six months ago, the station hired a new general manager, and she’s great — bringing energy and vision to an institution that has to evolve if it is to survive. One thing she wanted to do in her first months was meet with each member of the Board, to feel us out about our thoughts on and relationships with public television. Because I’m skulky and elusive, it was only today that we finally met. Fortunately, having just laughed out loud last night about the welcome incongruity of seeing Run the Jewels on Austin City Limits, I had a great opener for her about how much I enjoyed hearing the line “I’m a bag of dicks” broadcast by her station. Then, applying restraint, I stopped myself from further talk about foul-mouthed rappers on sedate airwaves — even though I feel certain she would have enjoyed some conversation about Big Mike’s statement necklaces — lest I get carried away and start parsing the RtJ line that goes “Got suspended for bullyin’ a bully/When I go back to class I’ma punch him in his shit again.”

2. I knew our meeting this afternoon was going well when we crept towards the three-hour mark, during which time she had twice declared “I can’t believe I’m telling you all this stuff.” That’s really all I need for a meeting to be successful, really. TELL ME MORE ABOUT HOW HER DOES THAT AND HIM DOESN’T WANT TO.

3. This article makes good points about the inequalities that crop up when real prices are charged for growing and raising non-industrial food: “Clean Food: If You Want to Save the World, Get Over Yourself”. Byron and I both work with populations that struggle with healthy eating due to unaffordable prices. While I have long maintained that it is possible to eat good food on a limited income, a big part of doing that that is education: a bag of lentils might be cheap and able to feed a family of four for a couple nights, but if someone has never eaten lentils and has no idea how to prepare them, then the point is moot. Or “mute,” as a colleague at a previous workplace used to say. I do think there’s a place in our society for a program that shops and cooks with low-income families interested in eating better. 

4. Yesterday, when we were driving to Y, Byron looked out the window, saw something, and then noted, “So I guess the next era we’re moving into will be one where we don’t see plastic bags hanging from trees, blowing in the wind, but rather one where we see reusable tote bags caught in the branches.”

5. Speaking of the awesomeness of Byron, he recently finished a cross-stitch of a favorite game: Boggle. He did a shake of the game board and then stitched it as it landed. Raise your hand if you see a T-W-A-T!

Typing time: 12:40

Editing time: 3:23, a large portion of it spent trying to figure out why WordPress says “unaffordable” is mispelled


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Five in Five: Sunday, January 28

  1. Last night we turned on PBS, and there on Austin City Limits was Run the Jewels, mics in hand. Turning to Byron, I laughed, “Wow. In about thirty seconds, we’re going to hear the words ‘bag of dicks’ for the first time ever on public television. Do not tell the Dowager Countess!” Discreetly, the broadcasters opted to bleep out every third word of the entire concert;

2. There’s a term for small talk! It’s horror vacui (also called kenophobia) — which means the fear of empty spaces, usually in artistic works, but I also want it to apply to things beyond design, like conversations that involve people yammering about the weather, knicknack-ridden living rooms, and the inside of our refrigerator;

3. A few months ago, I bought some amazing leggings from a company called the Girlfriend Collective; I’d read about them online and was interested that all their clothing is made out of recycled bottles — yet it’s so soft and fine. (If you want to know more about how some business people are putting their values into their products, you can read their explanation of recycling in Taiwan and their use of water bottles as the basis for fabric here). Sure, the cost is not insignificant since it reflects the realities of manufacturing and distribution rather than an artificially deflated price, yet I’m so crazy in love with these leggings — How can I be in love with leggings? But I tell you, they are quality stuff — now I really want a pair of their biking shorts, and let’s be honest: a big part of my enthusiasm is that I am in love with the muffin top suppression in their high-rise styles. It’s no fun getting sweaty unless your waistband reaches your bra-line, right? CAN I GET A WITNESS?;

4. The remnants of colonialism live strong, right down to the fact that people with colonialist mindsets still believe those who serve them are happy to do it. Getting real: the person wiping up after you is muttering curses under her breath and, when she’s not peeing into your soup, wishing you a hard fall into a shallow grave;

5. Paco’s been doing fencing for more than a year now, so every Sunday his doting parents get to run around the track and lift weights while watching all sorts of thrusting and parrying. Get this: today’s kids come into fencing classes with poor habits already in place thanks to the influence of cinema; the teachers have to caution youngsters, “Hey, Cody and Orlando, you’re light-sabering again.” Something else I enjoy: a good fencing jacket has a front-zip, not a back-zip, because all Big Boys Like to Dress Themselves.


Quick update from Friday’s post: I have hardly seen Allegra these past few days because she’s always at work, but I did message another girl on the ski team to ask for an update on the hurt skiier, and she replied that she doesn’t know much, other than the girl in question is fine.


Typing time: 8:50

Editing: 4:30

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Five in Five: Saturday, January 27

    1. I was walking along today, listening to the Atlanta Monster podcast, when I peeped over my shoulder and was startled by a creeper on the path. Seeking to defuse the threat of him, I married him 18+ years earlier and fell in lockstep with his gait;
    2. Atlanta Monster is a podcast exploring the murders of young black boys in Atlanta in the late 1970s. The fear and threat of that scary season reached as far as Billings, Montana; I remember watching the news as the numbers of deaths rose. In this podcast, listeners learn how Wayne Williams was eventually caught and imprisoned for two of the murders — and then it goes further, to question whether Williams was actually responsible. I’m all in on this storytelling that seeks to upheave easily accepted prison sentences. Even more, I learned from this podcast, as I listened today, that it wasn’t until the 1946 Democratic Primaries in Georgia (and other states, too, I do believe) that blacks were allowed to vote. My mom still isn’t over stuff that happened in 1946, so how on earth can those who call today’s discussions “race-baiting” rather than “an attempt to acknowledge deep and continual racism” think that black Americans should just “be better” (read: “act more white”) and “get over” (read: “stop being rightly pissed as fuck”) the systemic quashing of their every chance not to get ahead but just to get onto the playing field? Without the right to vote in primaries, blacks had zero chance at representation and influence;
    3. This past fall, I taught a literature class that was loaded with students who were bright lights — absolutely burning up the discussions, always apologetic if they missed a post or a deadline. Currently, I’m teaching that same class again, and students this semester are, so far, “a bit more messy.” They are still getting up to speed with expectations, of course, but it’s interesting that weaker students come at the teacher harder, complaining that things are confusing or that the deadlines aren’t clear. I struggle sometimes to stay even-keeled and not reply: “Strangely, 35 students last semester all found the class clear and straightforward.” Anyhow, I’ve been musing about how strong students apologize when it’s not necessary and weaker students blame when responsibility could be taken. Can I end this one with a shrug and a sigh about human nature?
    4. I heard on the radio yesterday that Minnesota is one of the states with the fastest-warming temperatures in recent decades (with cities Minneapolis and Mankato two of the top five fastest-warming spots in the nation). Blech. If Minnesota doesn’t have claims to frigid temperatures, what does it have? Big mosquitoes and silent grudges, that’s what.
    5. So the public library is super nice and buys me books when I ask it to. Oh, okay: it buys books, and they aren’t actually just for me — but I am very good at using the form for requesting new materials be bought, which makes it feel like certain books are “mine,” at least for a few weeks. So a while ago, I requested the library purchase Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties since it was nominated for the National Book Award and has been getting rave reviews all over the place. The other day, My Personal Library Dude brought it home for me, and I am not disappointed. What I really like is how Machado’s writing feels so unique and wonderfully weird, but there’s no sense that she’s trying to be these things. More, it’s like she is perfectly able to express on the written page what her brain feels like, and it’s a wondrous place to visit. Mind you, her book has eight (??) stories in it, and I can only read one or two at a time, as the cumulative effect is too much. My favorite so far, and I’m only halfway through it, is “Especially Heinous,” a story that uses 272 fictional recaps of Law and Order: SVU episodes to take readers on a slow screech off the rails with Detectives Stabler and Benson. Although there are some crabby reviews of this story on Goodreads, it’s making me snort with laughter and feel pangs of envy that Machado could create an oddball structure that is achieving itself perfectly.

Examples of episodes:

“Or Just Look Like One”: Two underage models are attacked while walking home from a club. They are raped and murdered. To add insult to injury, they are confused with two other raped and murdered underage models, who coincidentally are their respective twins, and both pairs are buried beneath the wrong tombstones.

“Hysteria”: Benson and Stabler investigate the murder of a young woman who is initially believed to be a prostitute and the latest in a long line of victims. “I hate this goddamned city,” Benson says to Stabler, dabbing her eyes with a deli napkin. Stabler rolls his eyes and starts the car.

“Sophomore Jinx”: The second time the basketball team covered up a murder, the coach decided that he’d finally had enough.

“Uncivilized”: They found the boy in Central Park, looking like no one had ever loved him. “His body was crawling with ants,” Stabler said. “Ants.” Two days later, they arrest his teacher, who as it turns out had loved him just fine.

“Misleader”: Father Jones has never touched a child, but when he closes his eyes at night, he still remembers his high school girlfriend: her soft thighs, her lined hands, the way she dropped off that roof like a falcon.

———–

Typing Time: 15:39, which is a pretty healthy five minutes

Editing Time: 12:11 because I had to go find those Machado excerpts, and reading them as I copied and pasted cracked me up all over again, and also I had to scream and gnash teeth while fighting this blog template’s desire to enumerate every last thing whenever I hit Enter. This report brought to you from the hells off the html editor


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Five in Five: Friday, January 26

  1. I used a facial mask the other day — since every last thing on me is properly dry and flaky now that it’s January. I had no idea what Resveratrol means, but based on the picture on the packaging, it seemed to me “Resveratrol” meant “red wine,” so after pulling the mask out, I sucked on it real hard like and got tipsy; my skin looked both refreshed and blurry by the time I spit that sucker out.
  2. Yesterday, I went to a new Strength Training class during which we used real barbells and did lots of reps, and today, if anyone puts my chocolate higher than waist level, I’ma have to cry.
  3. With hopes of sleeping better, I cut out afternoon caffeine a few months ago; for Christmas, Byron gave me a bevy of herbal teas, and as soon as I post this thing, I get to go downstairs and make a huge mug of Toothless Chai, which will be awesome because I’m cold to my marrow right now.
  4. Last week I went to the one-year follow-up appointment for having had LASIK surgery, and mostly I like to see that doc because I get to ask her for updates on her daughter who’s a freshman at GW this year, but also I like to see that doc so I can confirm I still sometimes experience a high-up back-of-my-eye feeling of grit and irritation. She directed me to a night-time gel I can use to try to alleviate the problem, and let me tell you it’s bizarrely satisfying to squirt a quarter-inch of what is essentially Vaseline into my eye before I sleep because then my blurry vision has nothing to do with the Resveratrol. 
  5. The reason I’m cold to my marrow right now is that I spent a lotta hours outside today at a ski meet, running in the woods, and back at the ski meet. Those teens are so ferociously focused and fierce they make my heart sing. What made my eyes wet was when a girl on Allegra’s team had some sort of crash in the woods wherein she hit her head a couple times, lost consciousness, and threw up repeatedly — before the firefighters and paramedics got to her on their snowmobile and snow ATV machine. After a knuckle-biting wait for gathered onlookers, they hauled her out, such a small figure wrapped in blankets, being machined down the hillside in the open back of a rescue vehicle. It looked like she maybe had a tube coming out of her mouth, but what I know for sure is the firefighter riding in the back with her had his head bent low over hers. And all I could think as they drove past and I wiped my eyes is that the young woman being bundled towards help could have been any of those kids out there today, and, lordy, do I hope she’s okay.
  6. Because here’s the thing. 
  7. These teens are ferocious and focused and fierce.
  8. And this world needs them.
  9. We need our ferocious, focused, fierce future to be okay.

Typing time: 10:32
Editing time: Fuck it. I kind of edited as I typed. And I need some tea now.

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