Five in Five: Thursday, January 25

  1. The best thing in Paco’s freshman year of high school so far has been making the cut for the robotics team. Each day, he has practice for a couple hours after school, and during “build” season (the 6.5 weeks when that year’s robot is designed and fabricated before it must be “sealed”), the hours are often longer. In March, there will be a big regional event held in Duluth; friends and family are already planning to attend. My favorite part so far is the enthusiasm of a former student but now life friend, Keri, who is wired as superfan in general. At one of Allegra’s cross-country meets this fall, Keri pogoed around the golf course like Tigger any time she saw our girl coming. Not one to short Paco, Keri is already planning swag to wear to the regional robotics meet; she had her wife, Linda, text me a photo of her sketches. My favorite bit? THE FAN TOWELS with our kid’s name and his team number on them. Byron’s February is going to be spent at the sewing machine, adding numbers to red satin.
  2. Based on my admiration for her essay about giving birth in a hotel bathroom in a Mongolian hotel, I recently tore through Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, and my final assessment is unkind: I like her better after her baby dies.
  3. Sometimes I get to late afternoon here in Minnesota and, as I take stock of the interactions that have populated my day, I wonder if there’s an official ranking of the most passive-aggressive states because, even though it would make Minnesotans uncomfortable to be best at anything, we could be contenders.
  4. I could be a professional laundry folder, but I could never be a professional dishwasher — and definitely NOT a professional washer-outer of empty peanut butter containers.
  5. I am so in love with GIFs that at my funeral when people are hard-pressed to come up with nice things to say, I imagine at least three sad sacks will stand and note, “Well, she was selfish and blunt, but she surely did love a good GIF.” It’s at the point where I should maybe try to get a “Teaching Writing through GIFs” class put on the books since 70% of my feedback to students contains them.


 

Typing Time: 6:41

Editing Time: 3:37, including googling to see if it should be “pogo-ed” and if it’s “sadsack” or the two-word “sad sack.”

GIF-making Time: PRICELESS


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Five in Five: Wednesday, January 24

  1. It occurred to me the other day that I’ve been menstruating for nigh on 40 years, and my first reaction was: HEY, LOOK, I CAN DO A THING!
  2. My friend Ellen has started a newsletter; when she asked if she could interview me, my answer was “Hell, yes” followed a couple days later by “HEY, LOOK, I DID A THING!” You can read the first edition of her newsletter, along with my answers to some really fun questions, here: Oh, Yes!
  3. Allegra’s all done with high school, save for finishing out ski season; thus, she’s been on a diligent hunt for a second job so’s to earn enough money to travel this spring. The other day, she scored that second job. If you’re out shopping, don’t look for her by the Bed. Don’t look for her by the Bath. Look for her Beyond. That girl of ours has always been Beyond.
  4. I am actively envious — okay, let’s call it what it is: I’m miffed — that the middle and southern parts of the state got a huge snow dump the other day, and up here, where snow is supposed to live, we got none. I just went skiing today, and the tufts of grass poking through the groomed tracks made my heart weep and my feet stutter.
  5. The last handful of days at work have been “challenging” for Byron, in a way that has been a huge perspective restorer. I hate how dirty the car is? Doesn’t matter, so long as my boy is okay. Feeling fat? Is a bullshit waste of energy, if my boy’s not okay. Hating the book I’m reading? There are other books, ad infinitum, especially if my boy’s okay.

Final typing clock: 5:18.

Editing: 3:12


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Five in Five: Tuesday, January 23

In an effort to get myself writing — writing anything — I’m going to try to type every day: five minutes of freewriting and brain dump followed by five minutes of cleaning up the dump. The results will be random, but at least I’ll be making myself get words out. I have no idea how long I’ll keep up with this challenge (probably just today, knowing me and my interest in challenges), so don’t bet the house.

  1. I love having bright blue toenails when I go to yoga class because every time we do a forward fold, it’s like I’m diving into shards of the sky;
  2. Those twins on Season 16 of Project Runway were insufferable; I realize this is not breaking news to fans of the show, but we’ve only just gotten through the whole season, and so it’s only now that I’ve watched the reunion episode that my annoyance is complete. They remind me of a set of twins I had in class a few years ago who fed each other’s drama and upset the entire energy of the room. One of those twins, in finding out her final grade in the class was a “D,” petulantly told me “When I become a nurse, if you’re ever in one of my rooms, I’m going to give you poor care”;
  3. In the latest installment of my eternal battle with having a body that is both puffy and slack, I have been revamping what I eat. A few months ago, my pal Maggi told me about what she eats most days now that she’s following an anti-inflammatory diet, and it is from her that I got the idea for a daily breakfast of sauteed greens topped by a poached egg. Additionally, I add a tablespoon or so of a nice grain (all hail quinoa and farro!) to sop up the egg yolk, and it’s at the point now where I can’t wait for breakfast each day;
  4. Last week, I had about four days of eating sauteed mustard greens as part of that breakfast, and I tell you, my sinuses have never been so clear;
  5. While I am not purposely adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, I had this moment the other night where I realized that I hadn’t been taking ibuprofen during the day or before bed, as I have for quite some time. Like, it hasn’t even occurred to me to want or need ibuprofen. All this leads my sleuthing brain to wonder if staying away, for the most part, from bread, beer, and other carbs while eating more greens and lean proteins has yielded a surprise revelation: that I have not been a person who suffers from being both puffy and slack but, rather, that I’ve just been INFLAMED;
  6. Okay, all that typing in #1-5 actually took me six minutes and thirty-four seconds, so I exceeded my rule of five minutes. GOOD. I like to do things my own way, so thank you for showing up, #6! You are a welcome violation.

Check back tomorrow for further violations. Maybe I’ll take up two parking spaces or let my imaginary dog run off-leash within the city limits.

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Po’ Boy

Chin merging into neck, the guy sharing our table is persistently friendly, hail-fellow-well-met-ing his way through the world. In what feels like a bold wardrobe choice for a white suburban middle-ager, he’s wearing orange — but then again so were clusters of people around us during the long wait to get into the Parkway Tavern, home of Louisiana’s best po’boys.

I understand the business of hustling towards and milling in a queue for a good sandwich, but the masses of orange confuse me. Has Pantone declared Goldfish Orange the Color of the Year for 2018, and I missed the announcement? It is January 1st, after all, and maybe a deep bow to Pantone’s proclamations is New Orleans’ tradition when the calendar changes.

But then — aha! — I remember: there’s a sportsing happening in The Big Easy on this first day of the new year, and one of the wide-shouldered teams brands its skills with orange. So all these hungry sandwich-seekers are fanpeople, lining their stomachs with gravy and fried pickles before the chest painting.

It’s fortunate my brain catches up, for the friendly man sharing our table unthinkingly trusts that everyone is dialed into his channel. As we all wait for our food, he floats a few chatty queries, notable for being more ice- than ground-breaking, before nodding at the man sitting across the table and divulging overly casually, “This is my dad. He played for Clemson. I travel with him to all the games.”

I don’t know what a Clemson is, but the sentence structure clues: a Clemson must be a school. Or a team. Or a delicious orange fruit. Even more, the broadcast of his father’s past indicates we should be impressed. Across the table, the eighty-something-year-old man is smiling and nodding as though he expects an enthusiastic acknowledgment, and since he seems sweet as a dented helmet, I try to convey something like “WOW, IS THAT SO?” without using actual words — because I don’t know which ones to use with regards to having done something that sounds vaguely notable for a school or a team or a fruit named Clemson.

In moments like this, where I feel pinned against grimy vinyl upholstery by someone’s assumption that we share language and values, I am tempted to respond in my own tongue: “Isn’t it affirming that Jesmyn Ward not only won the National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing but also scored a MacArthur ‘genius grant’? Helluva year for a worthy author, right?”

It is not a fair bet in this country, however, to assume that a stranger would be a book reader and literary fanperson. Rather, all we can presume of the strangers among us is that they are conversant in Ball Sports, able to reel off scores and jersey numbers in between bites of sandwiches that could be tucked into armpits for a sprint to the end zone.

Such presumptions have, on more than one occasion, caused my husband — an honorary woman — to groan, “I don’t like men; they sidle up and think we’re going to connect by comparing notes on our favorite teams, but when I tell them I’m not into football or baseball or basketball, they do a kind of physical recoil and stutter a little bit. Then it gets quiet because they can’t think of anything else to talk about. MEN. UGH.”

Thus, it is shortly after the guy sharing our table has asked, “So if you’re from Minnesota, you guys must follow the Gophers?” that silence falls. I consider unleashing some tit-for-tat on him, thinking this would be a great moment to quiz him on his feelings about Jesmyn Ward, but the Parkway is a mad crush, and I worry that in the din he’ll hear “Quandon Christian” by mistake, and then I’ll end up paralyzing my facial muscles from “WOW, IS THAT SO?” overuse as our tablemate holds forth about linebackers. 

I opt, instead, to lean into Byron’s shoulder, put my mouth close to his head, and murmur: “So I don’t actually have anything to say, but to spare you from these painful conversational attempts while we wait for our food, I’m just going to keep talking intently and intensely into your ear here, okay? That way this nice guy won’t feel like he has to engage with us, and we can relax.”

Scratching his chin, Byron nods thoughtfully and responds loudly, “That’s a really good point. Tell me more.”

Patting his shoulder as though I’m talking him through a crisis, which, in a sense, I am, I continue. “So I’m super excited to have a big ole roast beef po’ boy with gravy on it, and the reviews said the fries are amazing, so I can’t wait to tuck into those, and isn’t it weird how we have to keep all those ceiling fans running in our Airbnb in order to keep the heat from rising, and I’m so glad we scored seats in this hopping joint. I thought we were going to end up outside in the cold, snarfing down our lunches. Also, I keep thinking our new friend here has a faux leather sectional couch in his rec room at home.” Making my eyes wide and sighing dramatically so as to communicate Important Words Being Said Over Here, I add, “I like how well organized this place is; they are very efficient in terms of getting people in, feeding them well, and then getting them out. I also really like that they use a microphone to call out the orders that are ready rather than just hollering, don’t you?”

Tipping his head from side to side to indicate “weighing a thought,” Byron slowly responds, “Yes, microphones are nice.”

Fortunately, the friendly guy sharing our table has managed to snag eyes with a couple passersby and, in this fashion, create for himself the feeling of community that our family is unable to provide. As nonsense waterfalls out of my mouth into my husband’s ear, we hear the guy in orange excitedly ally with other customers, using words like “game” and “ball” and “game” plus “game.” But for the grace of tight space, we would be watching an exchange of high fives.

In the midst of my murmuring, it occurs to me I have an actual thing to say to Byron. “Okay, so about the Gophers. I mean, when he asked us, it genuinely took me a second to realize he didn’t mean burrowing rodents. But when I realized people usually don’t talk about vermin while in a restaurant, I did cop to ‘Hey, this is sports talk,’ but even then I realized I didn’t know what he was talking about. Soooo. The Gophers. Is that what all the UMD teams are called? I can’t remember.”

Here’s a beautiful thing: after 19 years together, I can still surprise my husband.

He knows I’m often six steps behind public knowledge, but still. He would have guessed I would know who the Gophers are. 

I meant to know. My ears had heard of sportsing Gophers. But they hadn’t seen any reason to file the information into the brain, so one ear let it in, and the other ear ushered it out, thus leaving more memory storage available for details about what Rhianna wore to the Met Gala.

Smiling, Byron explains, “No, the Gophers are the U of M in the Cities. The UMD teams are the Bulldogs.”

Clearly, one of us reads the newspaper, and it’s not me.

“Oh, hey, that’s right! I might have known that, actually. We know so many people who go to hockey, um, hockey clashes — derbies? — that I do get an image in my head of toothless men on skates when I hear the word ‘bulldog.’ Well, anyhow, I had no idea what Dude Over There was talking about when he asked us about the Gophers. I was so glad you were able to tell him we don’t follow ball rodeos because I had no idea how to answer him.”

As we chuckle over my sports aphasia, I lean into his shoulder. He squeezes my thigh. 

Our moment of quiet communion provides opportunity; the friendly guy in orange can’t keep himself from small talk. It’s an impulse, this search for quick moments of compatibility. If we have something in common, we establish ourselves as together and somehow stronger. For a sports fan like the man in orange, this means we at the table have an opportunity to come together as a team, if only he can coach the right moves out of us. So he tries again. “Have y’all eaten here before? We haven’t. Are you first-timers, too?”

And even though this poor, lovely man was unfortunate to have plopped down at the table of standpat individualists, we let him score. 

Squaring my shoulders, facing the challenge, I enter the field. “No, we’ve never been here before. Did you read about it in a guide book? That’s where we learned about it — said it’s the best place in New Orleans to get a po’boy, so we figured we better give it a try. How’d you hear about it?”

The question makes him happy. It gets lonely with just Dad sometimes. But now we all have each other. It’s a relief.

As is the moment when the harried cook behind the counter pulls down the microphone and calls out, “Order for John.”

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Truffle Kerfuffle

She’s making a holiday gift for her friends.

17 friends.

Wisely, she is giving them homemade treats. 

At one point, she notes that a homemade gift really is the best.

So is having a younger brother who is both a good listener and a willing helper.

Because there are thirty-two squares of baking chocolate that need unwrapping.

And even though she has a recipe plan, all the ingredients on hand, and an evening set aside for this project…

…it is actually more complicated than she expected.

Initially, she is by herself in the kitchen.

But then, when the loud lament of “Oh my God, I need so many crushed candy canes and Oreos” starts to repeat on a loop, I wander in and suggest the old “put the candy canes in a Ziploc and whale on them with a meat mallet” approach.

When the time for cream cheese comes, she asks how to soften it.

“Put the little bricks of it in your armpits,” her parents advise.

The kitchen goes quiet for a bit, as she scrolls on her phone, her armpits stuffed with bricks.

The lull doesn’t last long.

She doesn’t quite know what she’s doing, but she has opinions.

Yes, Dad, I know you would use the food processor. I’m not going to.

Paco, after I dunk each one, will you dust them with candy cane sprinkles?

But not like that.

Mostly, I am watching —

laughing at my kids cutting up.

In the moment with a thing unplanned —

not on the calendar as a mandated “special day” —

listening to the teasing and mock agonies of my children —

I know this is the real holiday.

We won’t all live together much longer. There’s a sharp-edged melancholy to this phase of life’s forward momentum, so overwhelming it makes me want to grip the counter and press my gut into the hard ridge of the thing.

I make my brain stop thinking about the future and, instead, relax into this warmly lit evening of pipping and sparking in the kitchen.

When social media entered her life, I suggested she start a Tumblr named “Licking the Brownie Bowl.”

She did. It suits her.

NO ONE gets between her and a bowl that needs licking.

A few feet away, having eked out his own safe space in the fashion of a younger sibling, Paco layers of remnant chocolate with layers of candy cane shards, then more chocolate, then more candy canes, building a tower of yummy on his fingertips.

He’s six-feet tall, but that boy is still the three-year-old who put on a Spiderman mask and a pair of tights before tearing down the sidewalk on his scooter.

From the girl, there is much exasperated sighing. This process was not supposed to take three hours.

Stuff is sticky. Hard. Messy.

A few feet away, from that safe space he’s eked out in the fashion of a younger sibling, Paco critiques, “It’s not turning out because you’re not making it with love. Your food needs to be made with love. LOVE IS BOUNDLESS AND LIMITLESS, and you aren’t putting that into your cooking. Try adding boundless, limitless love, and then it will taste better.”

He is the best. She is the best.

This evening is the best.

It’s made even better once all the truffles are chilled, boxed, and labeled — because that’s when the girl, the young woman who’s just starting to figure out the power and expanse of her mess, comes into the tv room to announce a revelation:

“Those things you put on your hands shouldn’t be called oven mitts, you know. They should be called glovens.”


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And Then an American Girl Doll Catalog Showed up in the Mail

Listen, if the seventeen-year-old Allegra says I should download a crop of Instagram Stories and put them on my blog so that she can watch them again (the word “Sciiientollllogy” getting stuck in her head for days), then you better believe I will hit the downloading hard and fast.

Please, enjoy this meander through the most-recent American Girl doll catalog, won’t you?

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Puzzled

I’m feeling desperate, like it’s never going to be right. No matter how hard I sit, think, mull, adjust, examine, and strategize, it’s all just OFF.

It shouldn’t be like this. I hate it. If I have taken care and been conscious and careful, it should be right. But it’s not. It’s all just fucking OFF.

Slumped on a piano bench, tucking my cold hands into the sleeves of my massive “house coat” of a sweater, I keep staring, fiddling, futzing, trying to fix the problem I’ve created. All the joins around the border look good, and trust me, I’ve put my eyeball close to each one, looking for subtle mismatches. Frustrated, I pull out a few pieces from the upper left and try them in a spot down lower. Nope. Eventually, I count the pieces along the top and bottom — 25 and 25, not that there should necessarily be an equal number, but an equal number there is. Then I count along the sides, 40 and 40. 

So what the holy 14-year-old mother of Jesus is going on with this stupid puzzle.

Wanting the universe to know how I really feel, I hiss “Fuck, fuck, fuck” a few more times. There. Now we have clarity. I am stymied and full of fucks.

***

As is always the case, this puzzle, an image of Kandinsky’s Points, is an object lesson. There is the patient sorting of the pieces after they’ve tumbled out of the bag; there is the methodical attack of assembling the border; there is the heady rush of pulling brightly colored pieces and easily finding their mates; and then, for a very long time, there is the slow drudgery of forty shades of yellow. Beyond that, there are the missteps, when two pieces are confidently snapped together, only to realize a week later that they have fooled with a false relationship, for they don’t belong together at all.

An English teacher, I have deep appreciation for the metaphor: every jigsaw puzzle tells a story, not just of the image but of life itself.

And with Kandinsky’s Points, life is a sucking bag of fucks.

The problem is this: once I had the bright colors worked out, the middle of the puzzle was a floating island of rainbow, and everything was grand. However, once I got in deeper and started adding some of the duller bits, the island reached a point where it could be moored to the border. The mooring was my undoing — because once I attached the island, the entire puzzle was thrown off, no longer true: the top left border jutted too high, the right hand straight bulged like an inguinal hernia.

It was at that point repeated sessions of staring, fiddling,and futzing began, all accompanied by a foul-mouthed soundtrack of frustration. 

***

After a couple days without resolution, I decided to follow the advice I give to students: “Use your resources.” Tugging at the shirt of my best resource, I dragged him to the puzzle, showed him the bulge and the offset, emitted a couple whiny swears, and asked if he could help decipher the problem. 

“Of course,” said Byron. “This is my kind of challenge. I’ll sit down and look at it sometime soon, when I’m not in the middle of making dinner.”

Drawing upon a patience learned from countless jigsaws, I nodded reluctantly and thanked him in advance for sanity restoration. 

A day went by, and he hadn’t looked at thing.

Then another day went by.

A third.

HOW MUCH PATIENCE COULD A PUZZLER BE EXPECTED TO HAVE, my haywire brain started wondering. 

***

Certainly, he had cause to leave me hanging. 

One evening, a day after I’d requested puzzle help, we were eating dinner in front of an episode of Orphan Black, laughing at Helena (“Sestra”), my all-time favorite television character, when the phone rang. As always, our immediate reaction was “Who the hell would dare to make a phone call?” Since it was fairly late, there was the possibility that this call mattered, so Byron hoisted his tired bones from the couch and answered it. 

It was for him.

Eavesdropping from my warm spot under a blanket, I heard “Oh, I’m sorry to hear it” followed by “I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Well now. This sounded interesting. 

Two minutes later, he was back on the couch, explaining that the call had been from the woman who was to partner with him the next morning in a shift of newspaper reading on the radio for the blind. Turns out, she wasn’t feeling well. Turns out, she had an idea. Turns out, she has realized, during her 12 years as a reader on the radio for the blind, that if both readers don’t turn up for a shift, then the solution is easy: nothing happens. No one reads. No one is at fault. So she had called to propose to Byron, who’s been doing this volunteering gig without fail for 15 years, that they both not show up the next morning — which explained his “I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Nah, Sis. You have sadly mistaken the character of your reading partner.

***

The next morning, my puzzle still tragically askew, Byron woke up early, as is his way, and got a crock pot dinner started by 6:40 a.m. Leaving half a French press of coffee on the kitchen counter for me to enjoy when I awoke much later, he hopped onto his massive cargo bike and pedaled an hour across town to the radio station. There, solo, he prepped the day’s newspaper articles before launching into almost two hours of reading the news to vision-impaired subscribers. By 11 a.m., just as I was stroking a sad finger, and surely fingers can be sad, across an off-center maroon circle in the Kandinsky, my dear husband was back on his bike, heading to work.

From noon to 8 p.m., he hoarse-throatedly assisted patrons at the library, attended meetings, and did his part to provide a safe haven for all kinds of Fortunates, from highly to less. Then, at 8 p.m., while my tragically slanted puzzle sat in a darkened room, questioning if anyone would ever find time to care, Byron biked to a local theater where a play about a farm transfer — Duluth rolls hardcore on the arts — was being performed. Enjoying a few moments of downtime in public, he waited in the lobby for the performance to end and chatted with an old friend. Eventually, the play over, Byron was able to meet up with two of its attendees, the farmers from whom we buy a pig every year. They live in Wisconsin but had come over for a night of theater, bringing with them our butchered pig, ready to hand off.  

And this. Was the point. Where Byron earned a new nickname.

I wish it were Pig Fucker.

Alas, it is merely Pig Biker.

Because, 15 hours into his day, that man I love — PIG BIKER — loaded 120 pounds of pork onto his cargo bike and pedaled it home, his tires cutting a trail through a skiff of new-fallen snow. At the house, he offloaded the meat onto the back porch and came inside, announcing, “It’ll be fine out there for the night. I am not dealing with getting it into the freezers right now.”

Happy to see Pappy, I poured him a beer, the kids swirled around with their updates and needs, and suddenly it was 10:15 p.m. before we were sitting down to dinner.

Much to my credit, I didn’t wave my soup spoon towards the catawampus puzzle while we ate.

*** 

Two days later, though, the puzzle’s unrelenting wrongness started impinging on my ability to carry on. I’d figured out enough of the center section that some pieces were starting to overlap. It was time to get serious with my resources.

Grabbing My Best Resource as soon as he got home from a run, tugging him to the table by his shirt hem once again, I reminded my groom of nearly 18 years that puzzles are metaphors for life, and the crapass fuck-upedness of my current puzzle was starting to make me think I needed to adopt a hunch and a cane.

“Oh, yeah. I do want to sit down and figure this out,” the sweaty guy recalled. “I’ll do it a bit later.”

As he spoke, I showed him this and this and this that weren’t right, and this and this and this that I had tried, with no success. Shortly, he was sitting on the piano bench, pulling small sections apart, arranging a few bits here and there. Leaning over him, I smiled. It had been hard to get him to the table, but once there, the addiction beckoned. 

“Ahhh, hey, look,” he said after a few minutes, pointing to one piece in the moored island of color. “That line goes through the middle, but it doesn’t match up with the one it’s hooked into.” His hands worked fast, pulling the offending piece, sliding such-and-so over a bit, this-and-that up a tidge.

***

Boom.

Just like that.

Just as he had when he was solidly 28, and I was flailingly 31 —

Just as he had when I despaired that there would never be anyone whose shape would dovetail perfectly with mine —

Just as he has, again and again over the years, with quick insight that changes my entire approach — 

Just as he has, every day from dark until dark, with logistical aplomb —

Just as he has for 18 years now, with no hint of resentment or annoyance, with genuine care for my inconsequentials —

Byron fixed what ailed me. 

***

My frame was askew, bulging wrongly here, shooting crazily there.

But then he came along and put his hands on it; tweaking, observing, joking, he righted the cockeyed complexity that I brought to the table.

Eighteen years ago, on an unseasonably warm and sun-lit November day, during a weekend where he consulted spreadsheets and I talked a lot, Byron and I publicly declared our commitment to each other.

And there hasn’t been a piece out of place since.


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To the Vets

Let’s be honest.

College students are zesty, quirky, charming, and inspiring. Sometimes, their appeal is a function of their age; young people in their late teens and early twenties are fueled by possibility, surefootedly clomping through their days, energized by the conviction that they are axes around which entire worlds spin. Other times, for students who are attacking college later in life, the appeal stems from their wry observations, hilarious tales of youth, unblinking awe that they have made it to The Big Show.

But let’s be honest.

College students are also scarf-trailing messes that galumph into the classroom twenty minutes late, no apology on the tongue, spilling their coffee as they interrupt the teacher with their exclamations of “FUCK! Does anyone have a paper towel?” Others get to class on time and promptly drop chin to chest and begin drooling. Some walk into the room, up to the teacher, and explain why they can’t stay past the first ten minutes. Many others can’t get to class at all because — because, because, because — because “My car has a flat tire, and my dad isn’t home to fix it” because “My girlfriend’s mom needs help moving” because “I got in a car accident and need to figure out my insurance” because “I’m going mountain biking in Moab for a week” because “I looked at my girlfriend’s phone, and she’s been hooking up with another guy, so I need to move out, like, right now” because “I have a migraine” because “I have to tell my parents I’m pregnant” because “My sister wants me to take her kid so she can go visit her friend who just had a baby” because “I have some things to do at home” because “I was sleeping” because “I have to go to work” because “I’m going on a cruise with my family” because “My car got broken into” because “I missed the bus” because “I have to go to court” because “I have to watch my little brothers.” 

Each excuse has logic for the individual in question. Their need outweighs the demand of class. 

Piled on on top of each other, as they are for the instructor who receives them, the excuses are — let’s be honest — tiring. 

Each student with an excuse, each student who misses class, also asks, “So what should I do…” or “Can I turn in _____ next time?” or “What did I miss?” or “Can you call me back?” or “Do you have the handouts from last time?

Already, I have spent hours making the assignments digitally accessible. Already, I have explained my attendance policy, which allows everyone some “freebie” absences but which stresses No Make-up Work once students have used up their freebies. Despite the hours I’ve put into handling the inevitable excuses, the clamor persists. “So what should I do…” and “Can I turn in ______ next time?” and “What did I miss?” and “Can you call me back?” and “Do you have the handouts from last time?

135 students. One teacher. They are zesty, quirking, charming, and inspiring. But they. are. messy. Tiring.

Except.

At the start of every semester, I feel my heart lift during those golden first days, when everyone is nervous and daren’t make excuses, when everyone is fully committed to doing well, when we work on breaking the ice and getting to know each other.

My heart lifts during class introductions whenever I hear words like

I was in the Marines for ten years

I served in Afghanistan

I did three tours

I’m a veteran

Because let’s be honest.

Certainly, many vets are messy. PTSD is horrific, life-plaguing stuff. Beyond that, their time in service often has wrecked marriages, caused estrangements with children. Some live in chronic pain or with permanent disabilities. Their lives are not easy.

Yet they lift my heart, there in the college classroom. To a one, they bring wry observations, hilarious tales of youth, unblinking awe — despite all they’ve seen already — that they have made it to The Big Show. But that’s not why they lift me. 

During those introductory days, when I discover a student is a veteran, I know a few things immediately. 

This student will not miss class. If she does, it will be once, and there will be an impressive reason.

This student will not tromp in late.

This student will not tell the teacher he has to leave early.

This student will have his work done when it’s due.

This student will be respectful.

This student will know how to show up for her classmates, whether it be having extra notebook paper or a willingness to put in extra time peer reviewing a paper.

This student will be someone the teacher mentally catalogs, noting: “If we have a crisis, I am calling on you to run for help, find the fire extinguisher, pull the shades, put pressure on the wound, or block the door with a barrier of tables and chairs.”

This student will view education as an earned opportunity, not a burden.

Let’s be honest. 

Veterans are just people, like their classmates. They, too, have flat tires, cheating girlfriends, and things to do at home. Like their peers, they were raised with abuse, neglect, abandonment, poverty, and violence. 

However, thanks to the military, they’ve learned to handle all the things. The discipline they acquired during their service carries into the rest of their lives, splitting wide open the tired, tired hearts of their fortunate teachers every single day when they are in their seats on time, homework done, eyes on the podium.

It is our tradition in this country to vaunt veterans with high-flown rhetoric (“We are free today thanks to you“) alternating with mechanical parroting of “Thank you for your service.”

For me, gratitude towards veterans should be neither high-flown nor mechanical; it’s better if the gratitude is alive and nuanced. For me, my gratitude is grounded in a deep fatigue so often relieved only by the men and women who allowed their messy selves to find shape in boot camp, in sandy outposts, in running long miles with heavy packs, in salutes to superiors, in clutching a buddy’s dog tags.

I hate holidays. 

But today, I find myself slowing, wanting to say to all the veterans who enter our college classrooms:

I profoundly appreciate all that you bring. You lift the room.

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The Loaf

While I doubt it’ll make me eligible for worker’s compensation, I did suffer a trauma at the college yesterday.

Settle in with a king-sized Tootsie Roll, and enjoy this tale of A Legendary Bowel. 

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Two Words

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