Five in Five: Friday, February 9

A long-simmering conversation has reached a boil this week in Duluth; everyone’s a’poppin’.

I mean, I wasn’t a’poppin’ because I don’t read the newspaper, and I try to avoid public conversations because they invariably make me hate people, but I discovered just how buzzy folks were getting when questions started hitting my DMs, and every other Facebook post I saw from locals was in search of a sparky comment thread. “As an educator, what do you think?” “As a parent, what do you think?”

To be straight-up honest here: once I read the article that’s got everyone up in arms, I pretty much shrugged and thought, “Um, good? Is ‘good’ enough of a response?”

But, of course, if conversation is to happen, elaboration helps. So after I read the article about how Duluth Public Schools will no longer be requiring students to read and discuss To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I tried to work up the energy to engage in discussin’. 

Mostly, though, “Good” sums up my feelings. 

Whether to include classics that use racist language as part of the school curriculum is a debate that’s been raging for decades. That some action is finally happening indicates policy might be finally catching up with the current climate. Yes, people love these books. Yes, people worry that we’re erasing history if we don’t make teenagers read books about how it used to be. (STILL IS, btfw) Yes, people worry when a rule smacks of books being banned or censored. Got it. I got all that.

Still, of the change in curriculum, I say “Good.”

When a former student messaged to ask my thoughts, I wrote back: 

You know, it doesn’t bother me. In fact, if black people (repped by the NAACP) are saying “Teaching these books is hurtful to us — they contribute to continuing racism,” then I’m okay with listening to the thoughts of those whose lived experiences are so different from mine. Also, the books aren’t being banned; they’ll still be in the libraries and available for students. And if students want to choose to read them for an essay they’ll write, they can. Basically, this is a change in curriculum. Public school teachers never get to chose what they teach; they are told by the district. So this change is not limiting the rights of teachers to choose. They always have to do what they’re told. Rather, this change seems to be about sending a message of “Maybe we’re finally ready to move away from an era where all the classics we require our kids to read are written by white people, centered on white people, and use the language that is a legacy of white people’s oppression.”

I’d rather, in the books my kids are required to read, that the institutions sending messages about what’s “good” and “important” ask them to read some books by black authors that are centered on the black experience and POV. Removing these two classics makes room for books that do just that.

Also, the objectionable word in these books is “nigger.” When I consider a different scenario, one in which my kids are required to read books that treat women as lesser citizens, casually calling them “cunts” because, hey, that’s what women have often been called historically, my reaction is: I’m not sure I want them to receive those messages through the school curriculum.

In the last couple days, as well, a friend put out a call on behalf of a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune who was having trouble finding people who would chat with her and give quotes for a story she’s assigned to write on this Duluth debate. So I offered. After we spoke on the phone, I later sent her a follow-up message:

…my 17-year-old, Allegra, just got home from a ski meet, and I asked her thoughts about To Kill a Mockingbird. She says she’s glad she read it but that it’s not the only book that can teach young people about the history of racism in the U.S. For her, she has learned about racism from a variety of novels that she’s read, but, as she notes, not all kids are readers, so we can’t trust they will be part of racial discussions and learning unless there is some book required in high school English classes that addresses this difficult topic. Thus, she firmly believes there should be a novel required in the curriculum that asks classes to discuss race — but there’s no reason it needs to be To Kill a Mockingbird. As my husband and I talked with her about this, we noted there are many, many books that raise the issue and that we believe it would be more effective if students learn about racism through a book that is written by a person of color, with POC characters, so that the lens of the narrative is focused on the oppressed experience, not white perceptions of people of color.

Later last night, I got a message from a librarian friend in Pennsylvania, asking my thoughts. We had a good conversation about the difficulty of letting go of much-beloved books, especially when they are so ingrained in the culture. Yet I maintain my initial stance of “Good” about the change in curriculum.

It’s white people who are buzzing. It’s white people who are bemoaning the change. It’s white people who are worried that their kids won’t learn about the history of racism without these books being taught in the schools. It’s white people who need to learn to shut up and listen. 

Because it’s black people, Native people, Latino people, Asian people — the millions with brown skin — who have been the target of racism, historically and currently. They have suffered lasting traumas under the systems white people created. Their children have had to sit in classrooms and ingest the words of white writers depicting white characters as saviors, especially when it comes to those poor black folk. And it’s people with brown skin who breathe the air of racism every hour of every day who are saying, “These books are hurtful to us. They are not helping to alleviate the problem.”

So why on Oprah’s round earth can’t white people shut the fuck up about their feelings and worries and hear what they are being told? The people oppressed say “Requiring these books is not good,” and the oppressors say, “But…”

I’m very glad there will be space in the public school English curriculum for different books to be taught. There are thousands of amazing novels written by authors with brown skin, telling amazing stories of people with brown skin — rich, evocative, empathy-building books that will help kids of color in the classroom feel seen and celebrated, that will jar white kids into understanding that although the focus has always been on them, there are other ways, other pains, other lives, and it’s essential they learn about our racist realities from the perspectives of those who have been held down the hardest and the longest. If white people are ever going to dismantle the systems they have built, they first have to be able to see them for what they are. 

So good on you, Duluth Public Schools. And if you’re struggling to find new books to plug into the curriculum, and you’re not in the mood for classics by Sherman Alexie, Maya Angelou, R. K. Narayan, Jean Toomer, Margaret Walker, Lorraine Hansberry, Julia Alvarez, Jorge Luis Borges, Langston Hughes, Chinua Achebe, Osamu Dazai, Claude McKay, Paule Marshall, Zitkala-Sa, Toni Morrison, James Weldon Johnson, Junot Diaz, Sui Sin Far, Luther Standing Bear, Alice Walker, Nawal El Saadawi, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Winnemucca, Es’kia Mphahlele, Sandra Cisneros, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Baldwin, or Isabelle Allende, please feel free to consider a few of the books collaged below. 

I’m an educator. I’m a parent. And I would LOVE for my students and my kids to read every last one of them.


Typing time: Can I get all blowhardy here and say “400 years”?
Editing time: Well, I mean, the spelling of Es’kia Mphahlele is something I had to look up.

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Five in Five: Thursday, February 8

On the day Allegra and I eyeballed the various exercise stations filling the usually open expanse of the third floor of the Y, it had been months since I’d last attended the Boot Camp class.

Some of the stations looked familiar. Yup, I’d held the ends of the big ropes in my hands before and pounded them for the timed two minutes. Sure, I knew how to do walking lunges with a body bar on my back. Pushing weights across the floor while doing walking plank? Got it. Hate it, but got it.

However, as we reviewed the rest of challenges that had been set up to help us get sweaty, there were a few spots that were new to me, definitely new to Allegra. Looked like we’d be flipping a huge tire, doing some abs somehow related to the Core Pole, possibly carrying heavy weights around the track during a Farmer Walk. Before we had time to figure out the final new station — a line of blue Bosus — the teacher cranked the music and called everyone out onto the track for a skipping, jumping warm-up before we started tackling the stations. 

Shrugging at each other, Allegra and I knew we’d figure out those Bosus when the time came; all we had to do was not start at that station and then watch the first few rounds of Bosu people to see what they did. 

Except, well, each person did something different on the Bosus. Some jumped from Bosu to Bosu; others pulled out fancy footwork, a dizzying flurry of pounding and whacking. By the time we’d worked through a few stations and landed at the Bosus, we still had no idea how we should pass our two minutes of (hypothetical) high-intensity activity. Fortunately, the teacher was nearby, so I called out, “What are we supposed to be doing here exactly?”

Over her shoulder, as she went to adjust the music, she answered, “Hop up on a Bosu and run in place while you do Heinies!”


All right, then. As we each stepped onto a Bosu, I counseled Allegra, “This must be a glutes exercise; I think we’re trying to work our quads as we whack our ‘heinies’ with our feet — or get as close as we can, anyhow.”

For two minutes, we focused on balancing while doing Heinies, trying our best to kick our rear ends, all to the thumpthumpthump of the music.

Eventually, we’d worked through almost all the stations twice. It was only when I was balancing my feet on a big blue ball, pulling my legs in to do a move called a “jacknife,” that I glanced over at the line of Bosus again. As I watched a sweaty guy working himself hard on top of the bouncy surface, I took stock of his movements. He wasn’t very good at Heinies; he wasn’t getting his feet anywhere near his derriere. 

In fact, he was doing the whole move wrong, lifting his legs to ninety degrees in front of his body as he jumped. Yeah, he totally didn’t get Heinies. Poor dude wasn’t going to reap the benefits of his efforts with that kind of form!

All he was doing — silly sod — was running on the Bosu with

high knees.

Typing: 6 minutes + a big break to go take pictures of pack ice at the beach + 3 minutes + a break to make a pot of mint green tea + 12 minutes

Editing: As long as it took me to add more honey to the tea. Kinda bitter. Byron tells me it’s because I steeped for ten minutes (too long for green tea) and used boiling water (no-no for green tea). Then he assured me he still liked it, but in my head I was wishing he’d go do a bunch of Heinies.

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Five in Five: Wednesday, February 7

Ridiculous, irrational frettings that keep me awake from 4:00-7:30 a.m. even after I went to bed at 2:00 a.m.:

1. The PR lady at the college thinks my name is Joyce, and I hate the name Joyce, and so maybe I should email her and tell her. Except I’m so overwrought due to lack of sleep that I shouldn’t email anyone about anything because I’ll be awful. But maybe I should email her. No. I should not. Except maybe —

2. The slow-motion slide of a scared rodent — mouse? mole? shrew? — down an icy hill at a ski meet loops endlessly on the screen of my close-eyed cinema. Kids had been skiing on that hill all day, so the snow was tamped hard and frozen. Byron and I were talking to a neighbor when someone called out “Oh, no. Look!” We turned to see a dark, furry form gliding our direction, hundreds of skis creating a maze of danger around it. Immediately, Byron grabbed my shoulders and rotated me to face the chalet, saying, “Don’t look. Just don’t look.” It was heading towards us, and I hated it, but it must have been so scared, and was it going to get killed by some oblivious teen zipping through on slick wax? All I wanted was for it never to have existed in the first place; I didn’t want it to get squished. Was it still coming towards us? Byron was watching. He would move me, if need be. The other mom and I uncomfortably continued our conversation, but the image of a heap of dark fur gliding slowly our direction was searing into my psyche, and at 4 a.m. I know if the mouse or rat or gopher ever reaches me, if the cinematic loop in my head ever extends by another ten frames, that terrified critter will hit my feet, scramble up my body, and crawl into my mouth, down my throat — oh, fuck, there it goes again in my mental cinema, the loop starting over, and here it comes, its uncontrolled slide the stuff of waking nightmares, and again it goes, and again and —

3. I have to get up in three hours and braid Allegra’s hair before a cross-country meet, and will she have two hairbands ready if she wants two braids? Are we using her hairbrush or mine? Are we doing it in the bathroom or the kitchen? Will the braids bring her luck? How long now ’til the alarm goes —

4. I need to get overalls. Is Carhartt the best brand for overalls? How can I pack heavy work boots when I was hoping to travel light? I’m going to have to wear work boots through security in the airport because they are too clunky to pack, and I hate wearing time- and labor-intensive lace-up boots through TSA. Could I maybe just pack my Wellingtons and not take work boots? I mean, they said mud in the field is an issue, and Wellies are good for mud. But rubber boots take up a lot of space in a bag, too. Can I pack most of my clothes inside a pair of Wellingtons? 5:00 a.m. thought: CAN I FIT A HOODIE INSIDE A RUBBER BOOT? The farm where I’m doing a writer’s residency sent a list of guidelines expected of residents; they include feeding goats, cleaning the chicken coop, siphoning the duck pond, and turning off the electric fence before cleaning up any detritus because the shock is strong, especially when water is present, and I had no idea I was paying hundreds of dollars for a plane ticket, a rental car, etc. so that I could assist with work projects requiring a chainsaw — because I didn’t have to apply for this thing, and the info was linked through the application form. So how can I sleep now when I’m responsible for gathering eggs in a month? And why am I always so tra-la-la that I fail to look for the fine print? On the plus side, I now know the name of my autobiography will be a phrase lifted from the guidelines: Checking the Trough for Mildew. Even better, there’s a donkey whose braying apparently works like a rooster’s crow come dawn, so at least it’ll feel like I’m living in Turkey again. But farm work. This all probably means there will be mice, right? Are the cats going to leave mouse carcasses everywhere? Why am I even doing this thing? It’s going to be awesome, a real boondoggle, especially if I can fit a hoodie inside a Wellington. Can I add “baking goat treats” as a special skill on my CV? Why am I doing this so lucky I get to do this —


Typing: took some time

Editing: negligible

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Sixteen in Some: Tuesday, February 6

When Byron goes to bed each night, I shift into “all the world falls away” mode. The house sleeps, yet my party continues. Some nights this means I work on a jigsaw; other night it means I catch up on celebrity gossip; and sometimes this means I watch a show that I know Byron wouldn’t enjoy so much. 

Currently, I’m deep into the German program called Babylon Berlin — set in the 1929-34 era of the Weimar Republic, featuring a hefty cast of characters and produced with the largest budget ever for a television show not shot in English. Although the first episode was only “pretty good” in my estimation, what with the amount of exposition that is needed when a story intends to be “sprawling,” each subsequent episode has woven around me to the point that I’m thinking about this program throughout the daylight hours, counting down until I can hit Play on the next installment. Seven episodes into the first season, I’ve completely forgotten my pangs for The Crown. Take that, Philip, you petulant philanderer!

Babylon Berlin creates a world where I, the viewer, am more tense and worried for the characters than they seem to be. Their casual assurance, even in the face of fraught situations, is strangely comforting in this time when black is regularly called yellow, and we’re all expected to accept it. Post-traumatic stress problems? Soul-grinding poverty? Male machinations attempting to stymie the ladies? Visceral gore before dinner? Lying, deceit, and surprise victories? All run through the story of Babylon Berlin, and the characters remind me: chin up; look reality in the eye; handle yourself; fuck the fuckers; and at the end of a brutal day, nothing will restore your spirits like a wild and random dance break.

Here are even more reasons why I am crazy for this program:  

1. Glorious period detail!

2. A tortured hero!

3. Who has his ways of coping!

4. A winsome heroine living in abject poverty!

5. But she knows everything feels better when you’re at the club!

6. Dancing!

7. HATS!!!

8. The opportunity for fisting!

9. Casually accepted counterculture and genderplay!

10. A lantern-jawed landlady! And subtitles! About food!

11. Communists! Trotskyites!

12. A high commissioner with the vice squad who can be neither hated nor trusted and who looks eerily like W.C. Fields!

13. Mixed-fours rowing!

14. Horns!

15. More hats! Worn by the pious!

16. Absinthe!

Babylon Berlin dropped on Netflix in the U.S. on January 30th, and I’ve been increasingly enchanted ever since. Every night, I can’t wait to hit the club. 

Typing: Dunno

Editing: Probably half an hour of grabbing and cropping screenshots

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Five in Five: Monday, February 5

It’s the darkness that distinguishes it.

Playing outside during daylight was so commonplace as to blur, in the faint murmurs of memory, into nothingness. Being out of the house under radiant sun just meant another Saturday, another round of mud patties slapped together while perched on the curb, leaning over the gutter. If it was 3 p.m., and I was eleven, then shape-shifting swells of neighborhood kids were likely on our bikes chasing each other down as Cops ‘n Robbers, finger guns drawn and ready to shoot.

But after dark. 

To be outside past dinner time sent a slither of excitement up my nape. After dinner, televisions were turned on, projects were completed, phone calls were made. To play outside with the moon as lamp, shadows murking every corner, bats flapping overhead — cutting through the Bergendahl’s side yard, whizzing up to the horse pasture, frantically outpacing “It” to kick the can and claim safety — romping after dark held tenebrous charm.

I don’t know what lured me outside that evening. There was no gang gathering in front of the Bakers’ house, no planned meeting with Lisa next door, no reason I wanted to escape the house. 

Teetering as I was between youth and adolescence, the idea of play had been fading, crushes on boys filling the spaces that had previously been filled with Lincoln Logs and tag. Perhaps darkness offered protection from ridicule; by myself, outside, with no one to mock a girl in a bra still wanting to yip and roll and pretend, I could just be. 

Hardly ever could I just be. 

Without announcing my intentions — my sister watching a show in the den while Dad dozed in his armchair; my brother in the basement in front of a different tv, my mom cleaning up the kitchen after dinner — I went to the coat closet. My snow pants and winter coat weren’t a matched set, but, hand-me-downs, slid on easily. My boots rustled as I pushed my cotton-socked feet into the bread bags lining the cheap plastic. Tugging on hat and mittens, I slipped out the front door.

Down the cement stairs to the driveway.

Over to the mounds of snow, heaped high from shoveling after a recent storm. 

All of Forsythia Boulevard was silent; the entire Wilshire Heights subdivision felt muffled by a blanket of white and dark. 

It was just me. Free to be.

First, I jammed my feet into the sides of the mounds, creating a staircase. Then I stomped a wide plain into the section nearest to the Foleys’ house. To ring the plain — ooh, make them high! — I packed mountains in a variety of elevations and — wait! look! — I humped my rear end down the edge of the plain again and again, climbing back up, plopping my weight back down until I’d carved a high-speed chute. Oh, boy, but what about this: that bit in the middle of it all seemed hard and icy; what if I hacked an opening? 

Earnest, intent, completely focused on the world I was creating, the minutes flew. Hey, a castle tower over there, and I think I can make a second hole, like a donut to climb through, so this is a Medieval ice land where baked goods dot the landscape. And I’m the seal queen — they call me The Glissade because I glide from village to village on my belly, really fast and sleek, and I visit everyone to make sure their croissants are fluffy enough, and if they need help, I can reverse my glide and push backwards to the Plain of Yeast and get them more butter and eggs, but no matter what I’m always the best slider, and everyone is always happy to see me because I zip into town on my belly carrying jams and toothpicks for the big festival –

As I played, protected by snow and darkness, the cold press of the ice against my stomach was reassuring as I careened down the chute; when I stood up on my hind seal flipper, I dominated my landscape, a looming giant of a ruler. My snow pants hurtled me from high to low as I crawled and slid, headfirst, feetfirst, down the mountain, across the Plain of Yeast, over to the frosting river. Covered in polyester seal skin, my widening woman’s hips whizzed easily through the donut hole, the softness of my breasts providing added cushion as I stalked a pretzel deer made of sticks.

Rolling, whirling, twirling, heaping, crashing, shimmying, jumping, creeping, leaping under the glint of a moonslice — I was inviolate.

My period had ended a few days before. I was pretty sure my English teacher hated me. At a recent slumber party when we did “Slam Books,” everyone wrote, when forced to acknowledge my strengths, that I was “tall” and had “pretty hair.” No matter how hard I tried, I could never stop myself from eating ten spoonfuls of the raw chocolate chip cookie dough.

Ah, but then, for that unexpectedly hallowed hour, that out-of-nowhere gift of joy, I was The Glissade, unflinching and unencumbered. 

Eventually, I couldn’t feel my toes. It was time to go in. I had homework — needed to finish reading A Separate Peace. But did I maybe want to call through the front door and see if anyone wanted a tour of my work? If showed someone, they’d praise it, and that would mean I was good. 

Nah. If I showed someone, then it wouldn’t be just mine any more, and the beauty was in the secret.

Sitting on the Plain of Yeast, wriggling my toes, panting a little, I glanced towards the house. There. In the kitchen. I could see my mom’s head above the kitchen sink as she scrubbed a pan. Backlit by a warm glow, she looked up, spotted the shadow of my figure outside. Leaning towards the window, she raised her eyebrows in surprise and jokingly wagged her soapy finger at me. 

Scooting down a mound of snow — just a mound of snow now — I stepped onto the driveway, raised my arms, and gave her an exaggerated shrug. 

Then, turning to face the cement steps, I inhaled deeply before starting the climb.

Writing time: 37 years?

Editing time: 7:30

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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.

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.


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.









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? 


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. 


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:

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


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



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


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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