Phonology and Flirtation

Phonology: an inventory of sounds and their features; rules specifying how sounds interact with each other.

Flirtation: a short period of casual experimentation with or interest in a particular idea or activity.

Phlirtology: a short period of inventorying how strangers interact with each other.

ipa-collage

***

Still sweating from my bike ride across campus, I pulled out a piece of notebook paper for the daily quiz. For the next five minutes, as the linguistics professor deliberately articulated difficult made-up words, we graduate students would agonize over his aspirations, transcribing every phone, phoneme, and intonation with the letters and diacritics of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Shhhvarkzookelinduh.” Pained, I watched the prof’s beard move up and down, willing his whiskers to spell out the sounds. Quickly, as he finished the word, I  jotted down a quick approximation of what I had heard.

Waiting a few beats, he pronounced the word again. “Shhhvarkzookelinduh.” Whereas the first articulation was about inducing panic, the second go-round allowed the panic to settle deep into the gut where, swirling uneasily, it morphed into a shape: question-markSquinting my eyes, I examined his mouth as he spoke. What were his lips doing? Was that vowel sound an “uh” or an “eu” or an “oo”? Scrawling on my paper, erasing frantically, scratching my scalp and tipping my head, I added a few more markings.

Damn. My instincts were still battling when he began his third and final pronunciation: “Shhhvarkzookelinduh.”

What the hell. It sounded totally different that time. Agitated, I wrote down four more possible interpretations of the word, considered how to synthesize them, flipped through a quick but thorough catalog of self-doubt, erased five times, tore a hole in the paper where it had become weak from overuse, tossed wild eyes around the room, and finally, sighing with a sibilant “sssss,” committed to my final verdict.

It wasn’t right. I knew it was wrong. But I didn’t have time to care. He was already halfway through his articulation of the next word on the quiz.

Too bad it wasn’t “fuck.” That word, burbling near my surface, was one I could have grafittied on the side of the classroom, blindfolded, blitzing fuck in letters two-feet high with the can of spray paint tucked into my backpack next to a granola bar and seven pounds of textbooks.

By the time Professor Adams reached the fifth and final word, I was sweating more than when I’d locked my bike to the rack in front of the ivy-covered brick building.

It got worse. Once we graded the quiz  (fuck), he announced our first big assignment of the semester: we each would need to find a subject to study — someone who spoke a language “exotic” to us — and, after engaging in a few weeks of field research, submit a paper explaining our process and findings about the phonology of that language.

Great. There I was, in militia-movement friendly Idaho a few months before the Ruby Ridge shooting. Somewhere in a panhandle of homogeneity, I was supposed to find someone exotic.

This was going to take some doing.

***

haddou-informant

***

Haddou lived downstairs — the friend of a boyfriend of a friend of a friend. Easily, he agreed: he’d be happy to help a fellow graduate student with her project.

Every night after dinner, clutching my notebook to my chest, I’d walk down a flight of stairs in the residence hall, inhale shakily outside Haddou’s room, and knock. Settling into side-by-side chairs, we’d spend an hour or two engaged in the work of creating a phonetic dictionary of two hundred classical Arabic words and analyzing that index to unlock the patterns and behaviors of the language’s sounds. I’d give him a word in English; he’d tell me the Arabic translation; using the IPA, I’d transcribe what I heard.

Whereas Professor Adams limited his enunciations to three repetitions, Haddou was endlessly patient, happy to have me sit near his knee and stare at his lips as they rolled out difficult words — again and then again. Sometimes he’d smoke. Often, we’d chat about our lives.

One night, with a combination of humor and distress, he recounted an interaction from his day:

In the office, the lady asked me to check a box that would indicate my race. I checked “White.”

She looked at me and said, “You’re not white.”

“I’m not?” I asked her.

“No,” she told me. “Choose another race. One with brown skin.”

All my life, I think I am white, but when I come to America, I discover I am brown.

Through such exchanges, we relaxed.

friendship

***

I started to look forward to our nightly sessions. In working with a real person to study a real language, I was harnessing abstract ideas from the classroom and seeing them realized. Certainly, linguistics did not come naturally to me, but, with this project, some dormant part of my brain was awakening.

Not only was I learning some Arabic, I was learning the conventions of phonology. With practice and control of the IPA, I could capture any language — all language! For a person who had spent much of her undergraduate career skipping classes and sleeping late, it was unusual to have focus and determination about academics. Definitely, anchoring concepts to a live subject — coupling his daily downloaded anecdotes with objective book learning — was unlocking an interest inside of me. I could get into this stuff. It was lively, luscious, novel.

lateral-approximant

***

As Haddou and I gained ease with each other, I became a sounding board for his cross-cultural frustrations. One night, in a heightened state of emotion, he recounted a moment from one of his classes earlier in the day.

The boy across from me, he leans back. And he crosses his ankle over his knee.

How can he do this thing?

I am so insulted I cannot breathe. He is pointing the bottom of his foot directly at me — the lowest part of the body, the most unclean!

I lean over and say to him, “You must put your foot down. It is too rude.”

But this boy, this young boy who thinks he is something, tells me, a man, “I don’t have to do anything. I’m just crossing my legs. It’s a free country.”

I am so angry; I cannot stay near this bad attitude, this rudeness, so I pick up my bag and move to a new chair. How can he point his foot at me like that?

Even hours later, the insolence of an 18-year-old country boy from Idaho incensed Haddou. The scenario had been a scathing slight that scolding couldn’t save.

lamino-palatal

***

Despite difficulties in acculturation, Haddou was always kind, attentive, and accepting of me, eager to learn about my parents, my siblings, my friends, my boyfriend several states away. In return, I asked about his family, what his home city was like, what kinds of foods he ate, what he would do with his American graduate degree. We learned tidy pieces of each other, packaging each complicated facet of our lives within the strictures of his ten months of English and my small-but-growing inventory of Arabic.

His mother and sisters would cut off the outsides of the carrots when making couscous, paring down to the tender insides — because including only the choicest bits sent a message of love to the eater.

My parents shared a passion for classical music.

Few things brought him greater joy than fly fishing.

Few things brought me greater joy than a thick book.

If I cared to visit Morocco, I would be welcome with his family for up to three months — sheltered in the compound that was their hub.

concerns

***

At some point, it became apparent our friendship would endure beyond the project. Maybe we could go out to dinner sometime, he suggested. Perhaps I could proofread your papers for you, I countered. Possibly we could see a movie together, he wondered. Maybe a group of us could attend some performances at the jazz festival together, I supplied.

As I considered the months that would unfold after submitting my paper, it was reassuring to have a friend, a person, in this foreign place. Both of us were new to Idaho. Neither of us came in with allies.

Half my heart was in Colorado, where the man I’d been dating lived. Most of Haddou’s heart was in Morocco, where people kept their feet on the floor, and the carrots were always tender. But so long as we’d been fortunate enough to meet on these acres of land boundaried by straight lines drawn southwards from Canada, we would foster this connection. If I got sick and was stuck abed for five days, I knew Haddou would run to the drugstore for me. Similarly, if he found himself flummoxed by paperwork or manners, he had someone to whom he could turn.

We drew comfort from knowing the other was just a floor away, ready to provide company and perspective, to assist with the details of life.

softer-than-salad

***

One night, as I opened my notebook — hmmm, maybe twenty more words to record before we were done with the data gathering — and asked about his day, I could see he was nervous. Uh-oh. Now what had that callow boy with the waving foot done in class? Was I going to need to go knock a cowboy-hatted skull?

Clearing his throat, his eyes dilating a bit, Haddou began to speak. “I would like to ask your advice.”

“Sure. Of course. What’s up?”

“I am not sure how to handle a conversation I want to have — because I do not always understand how things are done in this country. I want to do the right thing and not make a problem.” He flicked his lighter and stared at the dancing flame.

Clicking into Hostess mode, I pressed, “So what do you need to say, and what is worrying you?”

He set down his lighter before answering. “There is someone, and I have something important to say to this person. There is someone I have been getting close to, and I think my feelings are becoming serious. I would like to tell her I am falling in love with her, but I’m not certain that is the right thing to do in this country. Should I tell her I love her, or should I wait until I am certain she feels the same way, too?”

love

***

The air in the room thickened; dust motes hung in front of my eyes as though suspended in aspic. I could hear my pleura inflating. The room was too quiet, the lights too bright. Why was it so hot?

Quicker than an unrounded vowel before a nasal stop, my brain tizzied from pert to flustered.

It took me one flushed second to parse this new data, to slide from “Oh, he likes someone! Isn’t that sweet?!” to “Who does he think he loves?” to…

Who.

Would.

He.

Think.

He.

Loves.

Whoa.

Then: an extended aspiration. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. 

It appeared, while I’d been using my alveolar ridge to become softer than salad, Haddou’s dipthong had been rising.

haddou-collage

***

He wanted to know if he should tell me he was falling in love with me. In my lifetime, there had been no precedent for this problem.

The voice in my head rhotacized “Arrrrrrrrrrgh” as I scrambled to compose a response.

  1. A very nice man to whom I’d become close was interested in changing the tenor of our relationship
  2. I had a boyfriend to whom I’d recently declared my love
  3. My boyfriend’s response to my declaration had been — would, for five more years, always be — “I don’t think I love you”
  4. I had learned early on that there was value in cleaving to a nonreciprocal commitment of the heart

Clearly, I would need to save Haddou from #4 while chasing it myself, chasing it hard, for years to come. It was all I knew how to do.

Gathering myself, I inhaled slowly, pulling motes into pleura, and looked him in the eyes. Smiling gently, I suggested, “In the United States, it is best to wait until you are certain the other person feels the same way. It can be embarrassing or difficult if one person proclaims love while the other does not. I think you should not say anything.”

conclusions

***

A mixture of regret and understanding flickered on his face. Then, pulling his shoulders back, he ruefully acknowledged, “That is good for me to know. Thank you for your help. I would not want to create a situation of embarrassment.”

With that, we drew closer, shoulder to shoulder, and stared at a blank page in my notebook.

“We should begin,” he said, softly, softer than salad.

“Yes, we should,” I agreed. “Only twenty more words, and then we can be done. After that, I will leave you alone and start writing my paper.”

Cheek. Earth. Freedom. Hands. Hope. Husband. In-law. Moon. Mother. Shower. Strength. Wedding. Wife. Dance. Laugh. Learn. Smell. Touch. Sad.

Done.
summarization

***

We remained friends. Even the following year, when he lived in an apartment, and I lived in a remodeled hotel, we continued to see each other. He took me out to dinner, asked about my boyfriend, laughed at my apologies for Americans’ rudeness. I took him to see A River Runs Through It, felt my heart fill when he, like a little boy, clapped his hands with joy in the movie theater at the sight of a beautiful trout emerging from a sparkling river. When I asked his help in carrying a donated exercise bicycle to my room, he cautioned me, “Do not use this too much. You are already perfect and should not change.”

When Thanksgiving time rolled around, I invited Haddou and another friend to share the meal with me and my parents, who were driving the ten hours to Moscow. Since my former hotel room only had a couple of stove top burners, we asked Haddou if we could cook the turkey in his apartment’s oven.

But of course.

Every few hours, my mom and I would pop over to check on the bird. Every few hours, my mom would ask the nice Moroccan man a few questions about himself. As I basted the turkey, I heard her query: “And what about family? Do you have a wife and children?”

She heard his answer, but she didn’t feel the weight of the pause that filled the room before he spoke.

“Yes, Madam. Yes. I have a wife back home.” Torn, he tipped.

aspirated

***

After that year, Haddou returned home to Morocco, to his wife, to continue his career, to have children.

I moved to Colorado, to be nearer to the boyfriend who didn’t love me, and began teaching composition at the university.

After graduate school, I never again used the IPA, never applied phonology to any practical purpose, never transcribed difficult words with a shaking hand.

Yet.

The lessons endured.

endnote

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Burned Nipples

nipples

“Do you smell something?” my employer wrinkled his nose and looked around the house suspiciously as he set down his briefcase.

He was a doctor, as was his wife. I was the nanny.

It was the summer of 1987. Whitney Houston wanted to dance with somebody, a gallon of gas cost $.89, the FDA approved AZT as a medication to fight AIDS, and televangelist Jim Bakker was mired in sexual and financial scandal while rivulets of mascara spelled out “FAKE” as they drizzled down his wife’s cheeks. Having given birth under contract, Mary Beth Whitehead seized custody of the baby, thus launching a court storm that called into question the issue of surrogacy and parental rights. In theaters, Cher was smacking Nicholas Cage in an effort to get him to “Snap out of it!”

Me, I was in a Boston neighborhood, working for the summer as a live-in nanny, taking care of an infant. The baby’s big sister went to preschool/daycare each day when her parents headed off to work, leaving the little guy and me to rattle around the duplex together while the rest of them interacted with the world.

***

My sister, attending college in Boston and babysitting for a variety of families throughout the school year, had scored the opportunity for me. By spring, she had her own nanny job arranged for the summer, but when she heard that the family of doctors for whom she sometimes babysat was looking for someone, she drew on her good credit with them and suggested me. Before the school year ended, I needed to interview with them, so I flew from Minnesota, where I attended college, to Massachusetts; there, I spent a weekend hanging with my sister in her dorm, seeing the big city, eating jaw-droppingly good lo mein, and — just for fun — meeting the little boy, Eli, who would be my sister’s charge for the summer.

Generously, his parents invited us over for dinner. As liberal, forward-thinking people, they didn’t put limits on their son’s questioning brain and verbal development; indeed, they welcomed any topic during mealtime. The dinner conversation with this family I’d met minutes before, therefore, consisted of the two-year-old exploring his current area of passion: genitalia.

The napkin had barely hit my lap before the curly-headed toddler turned to his father and queried, piercingly, “Daddy hab a penis?”

Even profuse mortification can’t keep a well-educated, upper-middle-class parent from supporting his child’s efforts at learning. Although his face was frozen, the father answered his son: “Yes, buddy. I have a penis.”

Gaining energy, the boy’s head swiveled, and he continued. “Mommy hab a penis?”

“No, honey,” Mommy sighed. “Mommy has a vagina.”

Mommy’s grilling wasn’t over. “Mommy, Dee Dee hab a penis?”

I kept my gaze lowered, locked onto my plate. If I looked at my sister (Dee Dee), I would burst into the kind of uncontrollable barking laughter that resolved only when I was dabbing tears from my face à la Tammy Faye Bakker.

Mentally, I filed away a reminder to ask my sister later, and again two days after that, and once more, three years after that, if she had a penis.

His eyes brightening as he connected some dots, the inquisitor yelled, “DEE DEE HAB A ‘GINA?”

Heroically, the boy’s father stepped in and answered. As Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ben Affleck, Jude Law, and Gavin Rossdale would one day discover: yes, son, the nanny had a vagina.

Bouncing in his seat with excitement, the two-year-old gained steam. “Daddy! Daddy! Dawson hab a penis?”

I was Dawson.

Dawson did not hab a penis.

As Daddy quickly explained, Dawson hab a ‘gina, a fact that was re-established repeatedly throughout the meal.

Dessert came in the form of two scoops and one rod: the toddler, pulling his diaper away from his waist, conducted an examination that ended with a joyful shout: “ELI HAB A PENIS!”

***

Also that weekend, I met with the doctor family and had an interview in their living room. Yes, I had taken care of kids of all ages. Yes, I was a Nice Girl. I read books and had friends. Yes, I had taken CPR classes. No, I would not shake the baby.

No doubt impressed by the whiteness of my Keds, they offered me the job.

Thus, a few months later, I found myself inside a duplex in Jamaica Plain, watching Oliver North testify day after day on the big box of a television that dominated my bedroom. The cute little softie baby would hang out on a blanket on the floor, and I’d plant a leg along either side of him — assuring myself it was an excellent hamstring stretch — and rattle toys above his head while pretending to understand the machinations behind selling weapons to Iran so as to raise funds to pay a Panamanian general to overthrow the ruling party in Nicaragua. Sometimes, bored by all the white guys wearing medals swearing to tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth, I’d get up and fluff my spiral-permed hair in front of the mirror. If the baby was napping, I might put on massive chandelier earrings and fluff my hair again. Other times, I’d strap the baby into his stroller, and we’d walk down the street to the roundabout and back. Occasionally, my sister and I would get together with our wee ones and dink around. During my time off, I’d take the bus into the city — there was this thing there called Filene’s Basement that blew my mind — and splurge on a Big Mac.

I liked the baby because BABY, and the family was lovely. They’d given me a fine private room and always invited me to accompany them to Cape Cod for the weekend. Craving time off-leash, I always refused. But we’d eat dinner together each night, once everyone was home, and I’d learn about how the father was a cutting-edge AIDS researcher and how the mother had spent her early years in the Philippines because her dad’s work had taken the family there. Even when the mom-doctor cooked fish, and I recoiled in horror at the sight of a face and eyeball on my plate, I managed to choke down a few bites of the body. Living on the East Coast, where people did strange and glamorous things like eat fish with eyeballs in ’em, was broadening. This summer gig? It was all good.

***

Then one day Oliver North’s crewcut must have looked particularly sharp and neatly edged — like a lawn freshly mowed by a Midwestern retiree.

Or maybe the July light dazzled, highlighting all the sparkly facets of my dangly earrings as I tilted my magpie head in front of the hand mirror.

earrings-edited

Possibly, the baby had one of those epic diaper blowouts that ended with me mopping out both his and my armpits as we wiped our way back to civilized skin.

No matter the cause: I got distracted.

In fact, it was only when I wondered, abstractly, who in the neighborhood had decided to set fire to a pile of old tires that I remembered I’d been sterilizing all the baby bottle nipples in a pan of boiling water on the stove top.

HOLY-BO-DEREK-IN-A-SWIMSUIT: THE NIPPLES!

Stuffing pillows around the roll-about body of the baby, I thrashed frantically into the kitchen and to the pan on the stove.

It was hot. It was empty — completely, utterly dry.

Aureolas notwithstanding, Dawson no hab nippos.

For a few seconds, I stood, staring at the pan, trying to riddle out where the nipples had gone. Feeling my brain bend, I tried to remember if I had maybe come in and removed them from the pan. Then I wondered if the person who had set fire to a pile of old tires in the neighborhood might have taken them.

Then . . . apostrophe before the t . . . carry the seven . . . capitalize the W . . . show my work . . . brush away the eraser scat. . .

I arrived at my final answer.

Rubber or plastic — or whatever golden, translucent, chiminea-shaped material I’d been shoving into the little guy’s mouth every time he got hungry — could, in fact, be boiled into oblivion.

The baby’s next feeding wasn’t for a couple of hours, so I had a window of time to find replacement nipples.

Speaking of windows, maybe I should crack some. Or all of them. The house reeked.

 ***

As fresh air poured into the house, I loaded the baby into the stroller, grabbed my wallet, and bumped the kid down the front staircase. Thump. Thump. Thump.

For the next hour, we walked to every drug store in the neighborhood. None of them carried the exact nipples that I’d decimated. Finally, desperate, I bought a few packs of a different shape and brand.

Maybe no one would notice.

***

“WAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

The baby

“WAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

noticed.

His next feeding made us both sweaty; back rigid, he recoiled from the unfamiliar nipple, dramatically turning his head and protesting loudly. It was as though someone had put a fish eyeball on his dinner plate.

Eventually, after intense struggle, he ate enough to calm down and fall asleep.

See? These new nipples were going to work out.

Powered by the magical thinking of a twenty-year-old who hated to make mistakes, I decided I probably didn’t even need to mention the whole sterilization fiasco.

***

“Do you smell something?” my employer wrinkled his nose and looked around the house suspiciously as he removed his coat.

Maybe I needed to mention the whole sterilization fiasco.

Quickly, sheepishly, I broke it to him that the nipples had gone to a better place. I apologized, told him how I’d gone out and bought replacements, watched his face for clues that it was okay to have messed up.

At the end of his day, he was tired, stressed, done. Yet there’s no such thing as done when it comes to parenthood. Sighing deeply, like someone who’d just been publicly interrogated about the presence of a ‘gina between his legs, he told me he’d call his wife, and they’d figure it out.

An hour later, she came home, a bag of new nipples stuffed into her purse. They felt it was best if the baby stuck with the nipple shape and size he was used to.

No one had much appetite that night — since the house smelled like a flaming trash heap. I felt dumb. They were kind.

It was a silly, no-big-deal situation, but, still, a cloud swirled in my stomach. I hated to have made a mistake, especially in someone else’s house. Damn that Oliver North and the freshly mowed lawn on top of his head.

After a few days, the house smelled less like someone had been holding matches to a frisbee. I never again left the nipples as they boiled. Instead, the baby and I would dance a wide circle around the kitchen table, peering nervously into the pan after every circumvolution. He ate; he grew; the months passed. As fall approached and my time as a live-in nanny reached its end, I looked forward to the day I’d head to the Boston airport and climb onto an airplane with my two best friends: we three were flying to Dublin together for a semester of study.

***

Always, in my youth, my attitude was “This was great! Now: onto the next thing.” Months were grouped into chunks called semesters or summers, and I’d dive into the demands of each experience, do some things, and move on. Everything was important, and none of it really mattered.

Over time, though, I have come to see that it all matters. Getting distracted and melting a heap of nipples mattered — not because it taught me never to get distracted; I maintain distraction is essential to a life happily lived. Rather, three decades later, as I look back on that day, what stands out to me is the absurd belief that I could pretend nothing had happened. Despite sensory evidence attesting to A Minor Event, I embraced denial. Maybe, if I acted perky, we in the house wouldn’t notice our burned-rubber headaches. Maybe, if I acted blasé about the new nipples, the parents would never notice there were new nipples. Maybe, through adamant bluffing, I could envelop those around me into my preferred reality.

More than anything, the nipple melting matters to me now, thirty years later, because I teach 20-year-olds. Often, they bring me to despair: they fail to do something, yet they desperately want me not to notice or want me to accept their story. Many times, I react with disgust or eye rolling or mockery; they don’t actually think I’m unaware of what’s really going on, do they?

Well, maybe they do. Or perhaps their desperate desire not to be idiots despite having been idiots conjures a less-painful alternative reality, the reality of denial.

I’ve been there.

I’ve done that.

I’ve melted a pan full of baby bottle nipples and then scuffed my toe against the floorboards when asked if I knew anything about it.

It is not beyond me to be empathetic to the 20-year-old brain.

So this, then, is why I tuck away each silly story and dumb moment, unfolding them periodically to see what shakes out. In them, there be lessons.

Plus, I’m always looking for new icebreakers to use in class, and it occurs to me now that I’ve never gone around the classroom on the first day, quizzing each bright, hopeful face.

“Caitlyn hab a penis?”


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Turning Ten

Turning Ten Border

Ten years ago this week, I posted for the first time to this blog. Ten years. That’s like high school plus college plus graduate school.

It was the start of a new semester, and I’d had the revolutionary idea to ask one of my composition classes to try out this new thing — “blogging” — in the hopes that writing assignments would feel more authentic when actually published where other human eyes could clap onto them.

Then the semester ended, the students roared off into their respective futures, and I kept writing little stories and snippets and nonsensicals, putting them on my blog, and feeling simultaneously motivated and lonely.

One day, a person I didn’t know — a person not a student in my class — left a comment. Her name was Kristin, and she lived in Scandanavia. Then Kristin told one of her blog friends, Lilian, that she should come check out my writing; so then Lilian, in Quebec, started leaving comments on my posts. I couldn’t believe such an amazing and glamorous thing was happening.

After that, I visited their blogs and left comments, and then I left comments on the blogs of people who read their blogs, and then those people visited my blog, and out of nowhere, a beautiful momentum had taken hold, and I had A New Tribe, one that felt more close and caring than many “real” people in my life.

A few years after that, a lot of bloggers started nailing CLOSED signs onto their blogs, for a variety of reasons, and the comments and interplay started tapering off. Still, though, I felt the stories and snippets and nonsensicals burbling up inside of me, and the blog still felt like the right repository, meeting my needs and purposes. At the same time, other forms of social media kicked up, and I discovered that nearly all of my favorite current and former bloggers and I could connect on Facebook.

Sometimes, people would share links to my blog on Facebook, and eventually, I got a message from someone, Alexandra, who waxed enthusiastic about my writing, who told me I should try to reach a larger audience, who showed me channels for submitting my work to sites Not My Own.

The years passed, and still I wrote on my blog, to suit myself, and I wrote other pieces — stuff that challenged me with word counts and editorial expectations and forced me to sculpt my skills — and between the two, I learned. I made connections. I realized a whole lot of things. I found my people. I pissed off people. I got sick of people. I loved people.

The key to continuing to write, to not shutting down, to posting again and again, even when no one really cares or when I know what I’m turning out isn’t so good or when someone is giving me a deliberate and mean squint-eye, is simple: I like to write. Sure, it’s a powerful experience to have an audience, but even if no one’s looking: I like to write. With a blog, I have a place to experiment and make mistakes and throw sand in the air and be really dumb and occasionally stumble across something meaningful. Even when I make mistakes, I like to write.

At the same time I’ve been engaged in this surprising and transformative journey, I’ve made a heap of bloggy friends, meeting a few face-to-face, and we’ve exchanged gifts, private chats, and support in tough times. I had no idea when I started the engine in this rig back in 2006, but the blog world is a compassionate, generous-hearted community.

Now, a decade later, I’m still blogging; I still love this space. It’s the start of a new semester, and although I’m not having my composition students blog, I am teaching Writing for Social Media, a class I was able to envision and propose, thanks to all I learned here. Students in the course tweet and Facebook and blog — and, as of this semester, because I’m all about pretending I’m having a new revolutionary idea, they are also each in charge of doing a “takeover” of a class Instagram account for a day.

Social media math: Blogging in 2006 = Instagram Takeover in 2016.

No matter how you splice it, I’m grateful for the connectivity of a modern technological world. It’s, to be boring and cliche (after ten years of yammering, I’ve run out of original words), made me better.

In case you are reading this now and aren’t named Kristin or Lilian — in case you haven’t been here since the beginning — I’d love to direct your attention to a few of my favorite posts from the past ten years. Many times in my posts, I’ve been too “try hard” or have been an out-and-out idiot. Unintentionally, I’ve gotten things wrong. Occasionally, I’ve gotten things too painfully right. I acknowledge these difficulties.

At the same time, I’ve been someone who created a space for herself and then showed up in it, again and again, fiercely, dumbly, enthusiastically, wistfully, angrily, joyfully.

Ten years of stabbing repeatedly at a blank, white, yawning expanse, filling it with font and doubt and flourishes.

I click on “All Posts,” and 733 entries pop up. Without blogging, there would be zero.

I’ll take it.

And to all of you who have visited, read, left comments, and supported this space: thank you.


Below is a sampler of some of favorite posts from the past ten years. Each post takes me back to a specific moment where I had something I needed to get out of me. Maybe, if you have a minute, you’ll click on one or two that you haven’t yet read.

Here, then are posts:

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The First Day of the Semester: Hour by Hour

Composition

8 am

The 8 a.m. hour:

Rumpled and wild, the bedding reflects the quality of my nervous sleep. Even with relying on my new-found friend, melatonin, I woke throughout the night. By 4 a.m., I rolled around fitfully, the veil of sleep resting lightly upon me, my blood running cold with First Day nerves.

This is the start of my twenty-sixth year of teaching college English, and still, I am riddled with anxiety — some of it about having to perform, but most of it about the people in the room once I open that classroom door and walk in. Fifty eyes will challenge: “I’m bored,” “You’re not funny,” “I hate writing,” “I’d rather be texting,” “This class is stupid.” Usually, at least a few of those eyes also harbor some Crazy.

At least I can make the bed and calm that visible tussle.

9 a.m. collage

The 9 a.m. hour:

A few years ago, I discovered that the days I teach on campus unfold better for me if I spend the hours before class exercising — hard. Instead of letting the nerves roil around with no place to go, I apply them to hopping up and down on a step, doing burpees, jumping rope, lifting weights. One of my favorite classes at the gym has just enough choreography that I can pretend I’m a Bob Fosse protegee.

Jazz hands, bitches. It’s the new Xanax.

10 a.m. collage

The 10 a.m. hour:

Once the class is done and I’ve taken a bow, I am fantastically sweaty. Mixed into that sweat are the sadness and negativity that plagued my mood two hours earlier. My heart had been beating with a quaver, but now it’s thumping confidently. I lean down to the water fountain — crikey, but that water is cold! — and realize that when I think about my afternoon class, my thoughts are now trending “Let’s do this thing. Let’s see what kinds of joys and wonders those bored-looking faces end up revealing over time.”

When I was in my twenties, I didn’t exercise much. Back then, I’d go through a full roll of toilet paper on the first day of each new semester. Now, thanks to sweat, the TP will live to wipe another day.

11 a.m.

The 11 a.m. hour:

The third floor is empty and silent, save for the sound of my shoes squeaking on the track. I run two laps, stop and lift weights, run two laps, lift some more, run two laps, lift again, making sure to fold in the physical therapy exercises for my shoulder. Eventually, others meander up, focused on their own workouts. One young woman is using a YouTube video to lead her activity. Faintly, I hear the voice coming out of her phone; my earbuds are piping the voices of Marc Maron and Kristen Wiig into my skull. I quite like Kristen Wiig, but, in listening to her interview, I discover she’s guarded when not in character. She’s less interesting than I want her to be.

Not to self: be interesting when there is a listening audience. Like, say, in your 2 p.m. class today.

noon

The noon hour:

Done at the gym, showered, made-up, wearing Adult Clothes (sans diaper), I have driven to campus and plonked my bags onto one of the chairs in my office. Although I checked my online classes first thing after waking up, I know they will have seen some action during the hours of sweating, so I need to crank out some reading and grading.

Reading the introductions that have been posted, I’m delighted to see I have a certified doula in one of my classes. She’s also taught herself to sew by relying heavily on YouTube videos. I have a moment of thinking, “Well, of course, there are YouTube videos about sewing. DUH. A clever YouTuber would create a new channel, though, one that combines backstitching with backbends. It could be called Sew Sweaty, and all the 22-year-olds would subscribe.”

1 p.m.

The 1 p.m. hour:

A student who took an Incomplete in one of my classes last spring has finally, on the first day of the new academic year, gotten around to sending me her literary analysis paper and final exam essay questions. While her intentions have been good, the timing still exasperates. I granted a couple of Incompletes last year, and I will be more reluctant to do so in the future. While many students take the Incomplete and disappear forever (their grade becoming an “F” when this happens), the ones from last year have dragged out their course completions to an exhausting extent. The sheer amount of back-and-forth emails, apologies, promises, IT Help Desk tickets, and excuses more than equals the time it would have taken for them to just do the course work with an emphatic BAM.

So now, in the hour before my first meeting with new students, I am grading work from last May. Clearly, protein is in order.

2 p.m.

The 2 p.m. hour:

Moments before I grab the stack of syllabi and folders and hustle down the corridor to the classroom, a notion possesses me: since my sweat has dried up, I’m not feeling so powerful any more. Maybe a bold lip color will fool the students into thinking I’m in charge.

Plunging into my purse, I spot a lipstick I’ve never seen before. DID YOU PUT THIS IN MY PURSE, GOD, JUST FOR TODAY? ARE YOU EVEN THERE, GOD? GOD? GOD? IT’S ME, JOCELYN.

The lipstick is dark and badass; pulling a small mirror out of my top desk drawer (Pro-tip: a small hand mirror can reveal all sorts of shit in your teeth that you don’t want bobbing around while you explain the policy of Academic Honesty), I slather the plum color over my lips. And adjacent skin. Within thirty seconds, my face looks like the Senate floor after Brutus and Casca jammed their steak knives into Caesar’s neck.

First, I try wiping around my lips with my fingers. As I check the mirror to see if improvements have been made, my hand falls onto the stack of syllabi, leaving bloody fingerprints all over the section labeled “Course Outcomes.” Quickly, I grab a tissue from the box I was clever enough to bring from home two years ago. Hypothetically, the college will provide office supplies like Kleenex. Realistically, the amount of paperwork and waiting time required to get a box of Kleenex is so stupid that the guy in charge of supplies will whisper, helpfully, “If you really want Kleenex in your office, just suck it up and bring some from home.”

GOD, IF YOU ARE THERE (IT’S ME, JOCELYN), THANK YOU FOR GIVING ME THE TYPE OF SOUL THAT STOCKS HER OFFICE WITH KLEENEX BECAUSE I WOULD HAVE HAD TO RUB MY FACE ON THE INDUSTRIAL CARPET, HAD THERE NOT BEEN TISSUES AT HAND, AND FEW THINGS START OFF A SEMESTER WORSE THAN A TEACHER WITH RUG BURN ON HER CHEEKS. SO HARD TO EXPLAIN TO STUDENTS. It gets really porny really fast, see.

3 p.m.

The 3 p.m. hour:

It’s over. I did it.

My maroon mouth and I strode into the classroom and faced the strangers.

Sure, I spent the first three minutes in the classroom trying to get the projector and instructor computer to turn on. As a rule, I like the initial impression strangers have of me to be one where I’m ineffective and squatting in heels. Check and Check.

Also, the first time a roomful of strangers hears my voice, I like the words coming out of my plum-lacquered lips to be something like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Hang on for a few minutes while I run and find a tech person.”

Even better, I supermuch like it when, seven minutes later, I return to the classroom with a tech guy in tow, and he walks over to the computer monitor, pushes a button, and informs me, “With these new fuzzabytes, there’s not actually a power button on a hard drive. You just turn it on here on the screen.” Then I like it when he picks up the remote control on the corner of the desk, points it at the projector hanging from the ceiling, and turns it on. What’s more, it’s radically helpful to a sweaty instructor whose feet just got blistered to be educated: “I know this isn’t how it’s set up in the classroom where you usually teach. We’re working on getting the technology in the classrooms standardized.”

The best moment of all occurs as Tech Guy heads for the door, and I call out, “Hey, I know some of the classrooms have really wonky light switches and systems — and it’s often impossible to dim the lights. Let’s say I’d like to dim the lights now that the projector is on. How would I do that in this specific classroom?” and then he freezes and scratches his head for a minute before walking over to the screen hanging in front of the white board and peeking behind it. Yea, there are some switches there. Nope, he discovers, they aren’t the light switches. So then he walks back over to the door. Hey, more switches! Awkwardly, he punches at them. Nothing happens. Holding longer, he presses again. Gradually, the room darkens.

Cots would be nice. I, for one, am ready for a nap.

But: it’s showtime — time to explain the class to the patient students, right down to how the cutting-edge technology on our campus should make them feel they’re getting the most out of their tuition dollars.

4 p.m.

The 4 p.m. hour:

I’m back in the haven of my office. Slumping in a chair, I think to myself, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. Seems like a nice crop of fresh faces in that classroom. Okay, a couple of them might eventually reveal their Crazy, but for this minute, I’m going to call it good.”

On my lap are a stack of diagnostic essays that I asked the students to write during the last part of our 75-minute class period. Before I read them, I need a minute — to let the raw skin on my feet breathe, to file away the manila folders from today’s class and ready the ones I’ll use on Wednesday, to allow a post-anxiety sensation of joy to flood my body.

5 p.m.

The 5 p.m. hour:

I’m still reading the diagnostic essays, stapling a little feedback sheet to each one — basically something that will give each student a sense of his or her readiness to handle the class, based on what I’m seeing in the writing. The reading and feedback would go a lot more quickly if I didn’t stop every few minutes to wheel myself over to my computer and dick around on Facebook.

6 p.m. collage

The 6 p.m. hour:

Essays are read. Next class period is prepped. Online classes are dealt with once again. It’s time to lock up my office and find a celebratory frappucino. As long as I’m up on the hill, near the shopping area, I’m going to dip into the Mothership and try to find a shirt with pockets for my beloved pal, Ellen. After having breast cancer this past year, she recently underwent a long afternoon of mammography-if-ication, at the end of which her breasts were deemed Killer Awesome. That news is so great it’s worth pockets.

As it turns out, there is only one pocket shirt left in the store, and I have to stash it on the bath rugs while I use the bathroom. So help me, if anyone tries to take The Pockets while I pee, I will tackle him and give him porny rug burn.

7 p.m.

The 7 p.m. hour:

I’ve been to four stores so far, running errands (WHEN PACO NEEDS FLOSSERS, I AM ON THE MISSION), and my final stop is the Co-op, where they sell the world’s best string cheese.

On my way into and out of the store, I take entirely too much enjoyment in a wildass black woman who, with zest and finesse, is working the white liberal guilt in the parking lot. She follows shoppers to their cars, edging into their personal space with a nuanced and dramatic tale of woe. All the ponytailed guys by their Subarus and blondie ladies loading spelt into their hybrids are powerless in the face of this woman’s force. Gleefully, she racks up a handful of donated dollars while the Co-op shoppers race to unlock their cars and zip to their safe, controlled homes.

8 p.m.

The 8 p.m. hour:

Finally, I am home, dragging bags into the kitchen. From the television room, Byron calls out excitedly, “AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR IS ON!!”

I love him so much.

Once he makes sure I haven’t brought home some new interesting beer, he cracks a cold one from the fridge. Before I’m ready to settle in and ogle upper-arm strength while sipping, I head upstairs to change into pajamas and wash the day off my face. Checking with Allegra — at the computer, working on the East of Eden assignments that are due in English when the school year begins in a few weeks — I debrief her on my class, telling her they seem really young, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my students were people from her high school. Then she tells me one of my Facebook posts literally made her laugh out loud.

I love her so much.

Before I head back down, I pat Paco’s shoulder; he’s having screen time with his buddies, so his his big headphones are on, and the group of them is chasing some Thing around some Place in some World. He’s all focused intensity, but, still, his shoulder is soft. I learn he slept until 1 p.m., and in the afternoon, he and Byron went swimming in the nearby river. Also, he made another little clay guy for the art sale this weekend. It has hair.

I love him so much.

9 p.m.

The 9 p.m. hour:

Living tributes to the 1970s, Byron and I settle in front of the television with our dinner. Once we’re done catching up on our respective days, we’ll watch an episode of Bojack Horseman. 

When Byron inhales a kernel of corn into his windpipe and hacks dramatically for four minutes, I take the opportunity to monologue — LOUDLY — about my impressions of this semester’s students. At one point, it seems better to fall quiet and let him work it out, but he chokes, “Keep going. I want to hear it all.”

10 p.m.

The 10 p.m. hour:

Halfway through Bojack Horseman, Byron moves into the sitting position that indicates he’s trying to stay awake. This is also my opportunity to rub his back. Barely, he makes it through, having realized he took allergy medicine this morning, and coupling that with a night-time beer has made him groggy. Shortly after 10 p.m., a case study in substance abuse, he is DONE.

11 p.m.

The 11 p.m. hour:

Pappy’s asleep, the kids are still focused on their own stuff, so it’s my time to turn my face, once again, towards my online students. Many of them work during the days; thus, the later hours are when the number of posts picks up. As I read introductions and ask questions, I watch Jimmy Fallon in the background.

As is the case with Kristen Wiig, I am not as interested in Robert DeNiro as I’d like to be. Fortunately, the students online are extremely interesting.

Checking email, I see a message from a student, giving me a heads-up that one of my quiz questions is flat-out bizarre. Frantically, I hop into the class and realize he’s right. When I was writing new questions and editing quizzes this summer, I wrongly copied something from one of my sixteen-week sections into one of my eight-week sections and, on top of that error, it’s a summer-based question, not a fall-based question. I hate it when I screw up and, thus, thank the student heartily. In return, he thanks me for getting back to him so quickly. I send him another email reply, just so he can keep seeing how quickly I get back to him.

midnight

The midnight hour:

I’ve graded everything that’s been submitted online, so now I can think about my own writing. There’s a piece I’ve been working on for a few months; this past week, it got to the point where I needed perspective and asked a few folks for feedback. Byron just had time to read it today, so before he conked out, he told me two things he feels need editing. I agree with his instincts. In addition, my pal Ellen gave me some good ideas for finally pulling the ending together. And: I need to change “a pair of underwear” to the words “plaid boxers,” per my friend Virginia’s note. Ooh, and my lovely galpal Linda had pointed out a missing hyphen, among other things.

When the edits are done, I reach that rare and special place with a piece of writing: I think it might be “done.” Having interacted with it for so long, changing things every time I read it, it’s hard to know, of course. I could keep changing and changing. The deadline is in a week; for me, that’s close enough that I’d like to submit it now. Helping me decide it’s time is the echo of Byron’s primary response to the essay: “It’s really powerful. It’s really good.”

He’s always supportive, but because I live with him, and he hears all my nonsense on repeat, he’s hard to impress. When he told me the essay is good, that it’s powerful, that was my indication that I can let it go.

Just past midnight, I pay the $20 contest fee and toss my word baby out into the world.

Puzzle and Toast

The 1 a.m. hour:

Sometimes after a girl has just submitted an essay to a contest, she needs toast and puzzlin’.

I’m at the point of blackness with this puzzle where I have to pick up each piece and try it in each open slot before I can find a fit. After half an hour, I’ve found homes for two pieces. We call this the Maturity & Endurance phase of puzzlin’.

Bed

The 2 a.m. hour:

Byron’s been asleep for almost four hours, so the bed is again well rumpled.

I can’t wait to crawl in beside him.

I can’t wait to read.

I can’t wait to sleep.

I’m tired.

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What I Did During My Summer Vacation

Bagley TreeIn a few days, the new academic year begins. Since I’ve not quite recovered from the stresses of the summer session, and since my fall teaching schedule recently underwent an adjustment (one section cancelled, another added), I’m a bit breathless.

No matter. Whether or not I’m ready, it’ll happen anyways. I’ll hit an alarm and put on underwear and walk into rooms burbling with lots of words, and then the hours will pass, and it’ll be over until it happens again. It’s all good. I’m lucky to inhabit a life with a loud alarm and stretchy underwear and safe rooms and interesting people.

Equally, I’m fortunate to have had a first-rate summer, one that galloped along at a perfect pace. The kids are old enough that I didn’t feel the constant pressure to fill their hours, we had a good variety of outings and activities, and we had a diverting cast of visitors trip through our doors. I am well satisfied, chums.

Already, though, I have to stop and scratch my head when I try to inventory the summer’s charms. What all did we do again?

Since this space serves as a chronicle of something, why not “What I Did This Summer”?

Here, then, is a pictorial review of the highlights, something I can refer back to in future years when I wonder what the hell happened in 2016 outside of the general universal weirdness triggered by the deaths of Bowie and Prince.

Speaking of His Royal Badness, we stopped by First Avenue in June and had a quick moment of Dammit, but He Was Grand.
Speaking of His Royal Badness, we stopped by First Avenue in June and had a quick moment of Dammit, but He Was Grand.
Across the street from First Ave is the Target Center, so after we bid adieu to the stars of the great, we attended our first-ever Lynx game with pal Kirsten and a crew of her high school charges. YOU GUYS, WE WENT TO A SPORTS!
Across the street from First Ave is the Target Center, so after we bid adieu to the stars of the great, we attended our first-ever Lynx game with pal Kirsten and a crew of her high school charges. YOU GUYS, WE WENT TO A SPORTS!
As we do every year, Paco and I volunteered for a shift at the library book sale. Here, he is in the process of stealing all the money from the cash box.
As we do every year, Paco and I volunteered for a shift at the library book sale. Here, he is in the process of stealing all the money from the cash box.
With dedication and discipline, Allegra ran and attended fitness classes at the gym, along with doing a 4x/week training group with some of her friends. At her age, I was lying on the floor, my feet on the couch, moaning that the tv was too far away for me to change the channel. Then I’d start yodeling the words “black gold, Texas tea.”
With dedication and discipline, Allegra ran and attended fitness classes at the gym, along with doing a 4x/week training group with some of her friends. At her age, I was lying on the floor, my feet on the couch, moaning that the tv was too far away for me to change the channel. Then I’d start yodeling the words “black gold, Texas tea.”
Tall like the trees, our boy walked and grew.
Tall like the trees, our boy walked and grew.
We got a pickleball set. These are pickleball paddles. These are boys holding them. Yea, I know you don’t know what pickleball is. Don’t you wish there was some massive source of easy information right at your fingertips that could help you with this problem?
We got a pickleball set. These are pickleball paddles. These are boys holding them. Yea, I know you don’t know what pickleball is. Don’t you wish there was some massive source of easy information right at your fingertips that could help you with this problem?
It’s not all fun and games around here. We moved the fridge this summer and sought out a good therapist the day after.
It’s not all fun and games around here. We moved the fridge this summer and sought out a good therapist the day after.
I mean, what the holy. What kind of dipshit family of four can create this many dirty dishes in under 24 hours?
I mean, what the holy. What kind of dipshit family of four can create this many dirty dishes in under 24 hours?
The thing about owning a house is that it’s always something. Not only are our windows currently a Something, so was our rotten deck (nearly killing people for 15 years!!). Thus, Byron and his crackerjack minion spent some quality hours tearing it down. Since our back staircase also needed replacing, we had to do some prioritizing and riddle out a home equity loan. Verdict: we’ll do the upstairs windows and back staircase this year, the downstairs windows and new deck next year. Adulting sucks big donkey dicks.
The thing about owning a house is that it’s always something. Not only are our windows currently a Something, so was our rotten deck (nearly killing people for 15 years!!). Thus, Byron and his crackerjack minion spent some quality hours tearing it down. Since our back staircase also needed replacing, we had to do some prioritizing and riddle out a home equity loan. Verdict: we’ll do the upstairs windows and back staircase this year, the downstairs windows and new deck next year. Adulting sucks big donkey dicks.
After more than a year of washing dishes at a local pub to earn money, this girl went on a high school trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. The trip across the Atlantic was chaos, the crowning moment coming when the airline packed all the teenagers onto the airplane to Frankfurt and then told the overseeing teacher that there was no seat for her . . . so she jetted over on a later flight. We all want to watch that movie, right?
After more than a year of washing dishes at a local pub to earn money, this girl went on a high school trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. The trip across the Atlantic was chaos, the crowning moment coming when the airline packed all the teenagers onto the airplane to Frankfurt and then told the overseeing teacher that there was no seat for her . . . so she jetted over on a later flight. We all want to watch that movie, right?
Important development, particularly for the rat bastard chipmunks in the yard: Paco started aiming at his archery target with eyes closed. MAY YOU BE IMPALED BY A WILDLY OFF-COURSE ARROW, CHIPMUNKMONSTER.
Important development, particularly for the rat bastard chipmunks in the yard: Paco started aiming at his archery target with eyes closed. MAY YOU BE IMPALED BY WILDLY OFF-COURSE ARROWS, PLAGUE O’ MUNKS.
This pup here was in a fair bit of a panic about getting his tonsils out — even though, given the 47 cases of strep he’s had in his lifetime, we all agreed it was time. Major bonus were the purple socks he received as part of his clinic-issued Surgery Garb. Those socks now live in his bed with him, ready for jamming on at the first sign of a single cold toe.
This pup here was in a fair bit of a panic about getting his tonsils out — even though, given the 47 cases of strep he’s had in his lifetime, we all agreed it was time. Major bonus were the purple socks he received as part of his clinic-issued Surgery Garb. Those socks now live in his bed with him, ready for jamming on at the first sign of a single cold toe.
The recovery from a tonsillectomy is lengthy, taking 10-14 days. Paco milked every last hour of unrestricted screen time and life based out of bed. When his cousins stopped by and dropped off get-well cards, we were surprised at how very much they meant to him. Seeing how dramatically get-well wishes perked him up, I put out a call to Internet, and scads of gorgeous friends came through — sending cards and gifts and generally making his every day. The Eyebrow Baby card featured here (thank you, Elly!) has become legend in his lifetime.
The recovery from a tonsillectomy is lengthy, taking 10-14 days. Paco milked every last hour of unrestricted screen time and life based out of bed. When his cousins stopped by and dropped off get-well cards, we were surprised at how very much they meant to him. Seeing how dramatically get-well wishes perked him up, I put out a call to Internet, and scads of gorgeous friends came through — sending cards and gifts and generally making his every day. The Eyebrow Baby card featured here (thank you, Elly!) has become legend in his lifetime.
The get-well wishes for Paco kept streaming in! When a huge box from Georgia arrived, we all lost our minds with the amazing cornucopia of presents our pal Tara had packed inside. It is my fervent hope that the kids wear these teeth in their school pictures this year.
The get-well wishes for Paco kept streaming in! When a huge box from Georgia arrived, we all lost our minds with the amazing cornucopia of presents our pal Tara had packed inside. It is my fervent hope that the kids wear these teeth in their school pictures this year.
Tara’s box also included this t-shirt. The kid has lived in it for the past two months. I’m somewhat worried the hairs on his arms are going to grow through the fabric, and we’ll have to cut him out come November.
Tara’s box also included this t-shirt. The kid has lived in it for the past two months. I’m somewhat worried the hairs on his arms are going to grow through the fabric, and we’ll have to cut him out come November.
Byron made deviled eggs using some of the special Southern-like mayo sent in Tara’s Georgia box. Tara hates eggs and, when she saw this photo, yacked into the upturned top hat of a nearby magician.
Byron made deviled eggs using some of the special Southern-like mayo sent in Tara’s Georgia box. Tara hates eggs; upon seeing this photo, she leaned over and yacked into the upturned top hat of a nearby magician.
Another get-well present that arrived was from the kickass Yolanda. HOW ARE SPLAT BALLS NOT FUN ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY STICK TO THE CEILING AND YOU HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO STAND ON THE COFFEE TABLE?
Another get-well present that arrived was from the kickass Yolanda. HOW ARE SPLAT BALLS NOT FUN ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY STICK TO THE CEILING AND YOU HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO STAND ON THE COFFEE TABLE?
The Grandma’s Marathon course runs a block from our house. Every June, I love watching thousands of participants sweat their way past; in particular, I gawk at the elite runners — whispers of shadows as they slide by. There’s something magic about seeing a human body do something it is uniquely excellent at. All right: at which it is uniquely excellent, you pompous nitpicker.
The Grandma’s Marathon course runs a block from our house. Every June, I love watching thousands of participants sweat their way past; in particular, I gawk at the elite runners — whispers of shadows as they slide by. There’s something magic about seeing a human body do something it is uniquely excellent at. All right: at which it is uniquely excellent, you pompous nitpicker.
After I watch a marathon, I like to do a thing where I go run a few miles myself in a beautiful place, all the while reminding myself I’m part of something bigger.
After I watch a marathon, I like to do a thing where I go run a few miles myself in a beautiful place, all the while reminding myself I’m part of something bigger.
All summer, here and there, in two-minute snatches, I've been noodling away at this puzzle. I so love jigsaws depicting Turkish and Middle Eastern scenes — to the point that I’ve done most of them I can find. I’m being very quiet about the drying up of my Future Puzzle Supply because I am both stoic and brave, but truth is I’m in a fair bit of a panic about this, my poodles. You will hold me when I weep?
All summer, here and there, in two-minute snatches, I’ve been noodling away at this puzzle. I so love jigsaws depicting Turkish and Middle Eastern scenes — to the point that I’ve done most of them I can find. I’m being very quiet about the drying up of my Future Puzzle Supply because I am both stoic and brave, but truth is I’m in a fair bit of a panic about this, my poodles. You will hold me when I weep?
Our friends Michael and Forest came from Seattle and celebrated the 4th with us, and oh, Sweet Snoopy on a Cracker, yes, you’ve looked at seventy-eleven photos, yet we’re only at July 4th here. Anyhow, Mikey used an app on his phone to tune the guitar, and it was as though, suddenly, mere sixteen years into it, I understood the potential of this new century.
Our friends Michael and Forest came from Seattle and celebrated the 4th with us, and oh, Sweet Snoopy on a Cracker, yes, you’ve looked at seventy-eleven photos, yet we’re only at July 4th here. Anyhow, Mikey used an app on his phone to tune the guitar, and it was as though, suddenly, a mere sixteen years into it, I understood the potential of this new century.
You know what we have in Duluth? The world’s longest freshwater sandbar. WINNING.
You know what we have in Duluth? The world’s longest freshwater sandbar. WINNING.
Byron’s got a better sense of drama than hand-eye coordination.
Byron’s got a better sense of drama than hand-eye coordination.
he Pied Piper of Lake Pequaywan.
The Pied Piper of Lake Pequaywan.
Allegra’s so good at so much. But not this.
Allegra’s so good at so much. But not this.
YOU HAVE TO BE VERY FAIR WHEN PLAYING HIDE ‘N SEEK, AND HEARING THE DIRECTION OF “IT”S SCAMPERING IS NOT FAIR.
YOU HAVE TO BE VERY FAIR WHEN PLAYING HIDE ‘N SEEK, AND HEARING THE DIRECTION OF “IT”S SCAMPERING IS NOT FAIR.
We had a weekend in the Cities with Byron’s folks; our birthday/Mother’s/Father’s Day gifts to them were tickets to see SOUTH PACIFIC at The Guthrie and a night in a hotel. Not part of the gift: Allegra looking at her feet.
We had a weekend in the Cities with Byron’s folks; our birthday/Mother’s/Father’s Day gifts to them were tickets to see SOUTH PACIFIC at The Guthrie and have a night in a hotel. Not part of the gift: Allegra looking at her feet.
Cousin Elijah moved to Salt Lake City a year ago, so his month-long return to Minnesota was An Occasion. Good news: he was worth the wait.
Cousin Elijah moved to Salt Lake City a year ago, so his month-long return to Minnesota was An Occasion. Good news: he was worth the wait.
Yard. Adolescents. Summer. Hey, this reminds me of the Gear Daddies song that goes “Summer vacation/Nothing on tv/No one home/Except for me/For me/Just sitting in my room/Got no money/Nothing to do/Stare at the ceiling/Sonic boom” — YOU GUYS, WHERE HAVE THE SONIC BOOMS GONE?
Yard. Adolescents. Summer. Hey, this reminds me of the Gear Daddies song that goes “Summer vacation/Nothing on tv/No one home/Except for me/For me/Just sitting in my room/Got no money/Nothing to do/Stare at the ceiling/Sonic boom” — YOU GUYS, WHERE HAVE THE SONIC BOOMS GONE?
Lake. Beach on the big sandbar. Cousin Elijah. Happy Paco. Simple math.
Lake. Beach on the big sandbar. Cousin Elijah. Happy Paco. Simple math.
Not only does she have a job and a driver’s license, she now has a look that yells, “I’ll be taking the ACT this year!”
Not only does she have a job and a driver’s license, she now has a look that yells, “I’ll be taking the ACT this year!”
Like the people in this photo, we decided not to be crabby 70-year-old men when it comes to the phenomenon of PokemonGO but, rather, to dive in and enjoy it. You know what’s super-big fun? Not being cranky about an innocent trend. If you’ve been rolling your eyes about PokemonGO, may I suggest this instead: target your crankies at the crushing frequency with which young black men are killed by law enforcement in this country?
Like the people in this photo, we decided not to be crabby 70-year-old men when it comes to the phenomenon of PokemonGO but, rather, to dive in and enjoy it. You know what’s super-big fun? Not being cranky about an innocent trend. If you’ve been rolling your eyes about PokemonGO, may I suggest this instead: target your crankies at the crushing frequency with which young black men are killed by law enforcement in this country?
I have long loved Clefairy. I have a song I sing about Clefairy. Cleeeeeee-fairy/Cleeeeee-fairy.
I have long loved Clefairy. I have a song I sing about Clefairy. Cleeeeeee-fairy/Cleeeeee-fairy.
Moreover, I have long loved these two fellows, both of whom, in this image, are demonstrating the evils of PokemonGO in action.
Moreover, I have long loved these two fellows, both of whom, in this image, are demonstrating the evils of PokemonGO in action.
One shoulder, the one with the scar, took me to physical therapy a couple of times a week. Then there was the shoulder with the kinesio tape — the “good” shoulder being the one that now hurts. In related news: this blog may soon become nothing more than a litany of my various decrepitudes. Yet, at the same time: I kind of want to start taking drum lessons.
One shoulder, the one with the scar, took me to physical therapy a couple of times a week. Then there was the shoulder with the kinesio tape — the “good” shoulder being the one that now hurts. In related news: this blog may soon become nothing more than a litany of my various decrepitudes. Yet, at the same time: I kind of want to start taking drum lessons.
My brother and his younger daughter, Sofia, came again this summer — both to visit us and to attend Camp Grandma at our aunt and uncle’s place. Sure, it’s great to see them, but moreso: it’s great to finally have some Peace Tea in the house.
My brother and his younger daughter, Sofia, came again this summer — both to visit us and to attend Camp Grandma at our aunt and uncle’s place. Sure, it’s great to see them, but moreso: it’s great to finally have some Peace Tea in the house.
I happen to have a pair of awesome suede wedge boots and a niece capable of rocking them. We enjoyed an extended photo shoot on the grounds.
I happen to have a pair of awesome suede wedge boots and a niece capable of rocking them. We enjoyed an extended photo shoot on the grounds.
We were five minutes into the photo shoot on the grounds when the real Sofia emerged.
We were five minutes into the photo shoot on the grounds when the real Sofia emerged.
The Camp Grandma crew at a local school for the annual Taste of Greece food festival. Spanakopita for everyone!
The Camp Grandma crew at a local school for the annual Taste of Greece food festival. Spanakopita for everyone!
When Camp Grandma was over, and we had brother and niece back in our possession, we talked Dear Sofia into trying her first 5K race. She and I walked and trotted it while she filled me in on her criteria for giving out her phone number to people who ask for it.
When Camp Grandma was over, and we had brother and niece back in our possession, we talked Dear Sofia into trying her first 5K race. She and I walked and trotted it while she filled me in on her criteria for giving out her phone number to people who ask for it.
Social media worked its magic once again when my college pal — actually more of a friend the year after graduation — Al stopped by to drop off some cement stepping stones he’d made. Al is a complete peach, and I quiver in happy anticipation at the thought of Byron teaching him to cross-stitch.
Social media worked its magic once again when my college pal — actually more of a friend the year after graduation — Al stopped by to drop off some cement stepping stones he’d made. Al is a complete peach, and I quiver in happy anticipation at the thought of Byron teaching him to cross-stitch.
Here’s the view out our front door, a few days after a crazy-ass storm (103 mph straight-line winds) blew through and destroyed our end of the city. Even now, more than a month later, that trunk is lying there, as are trees all over town. Thousands, including us, were without power for days. Indoor camping sucks only a little less than tent camping.
Here’s the view out our front door, a few days after a crazy-ass storm (103 mph straight-line winds) blew through and destroyed our end of the city. Even now, more than a month later, that trunk is lying there, as are trees all over town. Thousands, including us, were without power for days. Indoor camping sucks only a little less than tent camping.
After going for a run, Allegra and two of her friends dropped to the grass for a quick ab session. Again, when I check back with 16-year-old Jocelyn, I am reminded the narrative was more “I crawled on the grass because vodka.”
After going for a run, Allegra and two of her friends dropped to the grass for a quick ab session. Again, when I check back with 16-year-old Jocelyn, I am reminded the narrative was more “I crawled on the grass because vodka.”
AND THEN, the day my brother and Sofia left, our beloved friends from Turkey arrived! The sheets on their beds were still warm from the dryer, I tell you. So here’s Ileyn with diaper-wearing doggie Angel. In real life, they both fulfill the tantalizing promise of this picture.
AND THEN, the day my brother and Sofia left, our beloved friends from Turkey arrived! The sheets on their beds were still warm from the dryer, I tell you. So here’s Ileyn with diaper-wearing doggie Angel. In real life, they both fulfill the tantalizing promise of this picture.
Ileyn and kids Selin and John (in Turkish: Can) accompanied Allegra and me to a class at the YMCA. It was an ovary-buster of a class, and Selin rocked the damn thing.
Ileyn and kids Selin and John (in Turkish: Can) accompanied Allegra and me to a class at the YMCA. It was an ovary-buster of a class, and Selin rocked the damn thing.
So did Allegra and I. This was one of my first times back since shoulder surgery in March. I’m easing into doing plank — still a ways off from push-ups — and will never lose the talent for shaking like a diapered poodle when I’m balancing on an upside-down Bosu ball.
So did Allegra and I. This was one of my first times back since shoulder surgery in March. I’m easing into doing plank — still a ways off from push-ups — and will never lose the talent for shaking like a diapered poodle when I’m balancing on an upside-down Bosu ball.
Meanwhile, just over my right shoulder, John was making a friend.
Meanwhile, just over my right shoulder, John was making a friend.
John makes all the friends. Several years ago, actually, he declared Allegra was his girlfriend. It’s going well. They never fight.
John makes all the friends. Several years ago, actually, he declared Allegra was his girlfriend. It’s going well. They never fight.
Like you’re supposed to change out of your workout clothes before you make brownies?
Like you’re supposed to change out of your workout clothes before you make brownies?
John doesn’t mind Uncle Byron, either. It was great fun to introduce the Turks to paddle boarding — the same way they introduced us to the concept of sitting on a picnic blanket in front of the television and eating “durum.” Mmmmm. Durum.
John doesn’t mind Uncle Byron, either. It was great fun to introduce the Turks to paddle boarding — the same way they introduced us to the concept of sitting on a picnic blanket in front of the television and eating “durum.” Mmmmm. Durum.
hat’s the whole crew out there, with Ileyn’s stance owning the harbor like a boss.
That’s the whole crew out there, with Ileyn’s stance owning the harbor like a boss.
Yes, Uncle Byron will take you out into the water, John. You don’t have to ask, with impeccable manners, twice.
Yes, Uncle Byron will take you out into the water, John. You don’t have to ask, with impeccable manners, twice.
I MEAN, COME ON.
I MEAN, COME ON.
If the Turkish pals know they love squeaky fresh cheese curds, the least an Uncle Byron can do is fry some up and blow all the minds with this new variation.
If the Turkish pals know they love squeaky fresh cheese curds, the least an Uncle Byron can do is fry some up and blow all the minds with this new variation.
An hour and a half after the Turks left, so did we. For eight days in Europe. On a cruise of the Danube with my brother and mom (she treated us, as an 81st birthday present to herself). During our four-hour layover in the Paris airport, we still had cheese curds digesting in our bellies.
An hour and a half after the Turks left, so did we — for eight days in Europe, on a cruise of the Danube with my brother and mom (she treated us, as an 81st birthday present to herself). During our four-hour layover in the Paris airport, we still had cheese curds digesting in our bellies.
Once we all converged in Nuremberg, we were transported to the ship, whereupon we clamored to the top floor and admired what a hulking beast my brother is.
Once we all converged in Nuremberg, we were transported to the ship, whereupon we clambered to the top floor and admired the hulking beast that is my brother.
The ship went through, hmmm, 27 locks on its way down the Danube. This is what it looks like when my boys are working on their cross-stitching and going through a lock.
The ship went through, hmmm, 27 locks on its way down the Danube. This is what it looks like when my boys are working on their cross-stitching and going through a lock.
Cruise director Julie McCoy hooked us up on the Lido Deck.
Cruise director Julie McCoy hooked us up on the Lido Deck.
If you are a business owner, I recommend you hire my daughter. This is the Note to Self she tucked behind the key in her and Paco’s state room — because she didn’t want to forget anything when she got up, jet lagged, in the morning.
If you are a business owner, I recommend you hire my daughter. This is the Note to Self she tucked behind the key in her and Paco’s state room — because she didn’t want to forget anything when she got up, jet lagged, in the morning.
My mom loves a tour guide. Does she necessarily recall the information from the tour later? No, she does not. Does that matter? No, it does not.
My mom loves a tour guide. Does she necessarily recall the information from the tour later? No, she does not. Does that matter? No, it does not.
What tourists?
What tourists?
Listen, if some German cities have a rivalry about who makes the best sausage, it’s only fair to jump in to the controversy and do a fair sampling. Verdict: ALL SAUSAGES ARE GOOD, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU TUCK THREE LITTLE ONES INTO A SINGLE BUN.
Listen, if some German cities have a rivalry about who makes the best sausage, it’s only fair to jump in to the controversy and do a fair sampling. Verdict: ALL SAUSAGES ARE GOOD, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU TUCK THREE LITTLE ONES INTO A SINGLE BUN.
Onboard musician Peter surely knows how to slow any tune by Martha & the Vandellas to a dirge-like pace. Because he’s AN ARTIST.
Onboard musician Peter surely knows how to slow any tune by Martha & the Vandellas to a dirge-like pace. Because he’s AN ARTIST.
These door guards went hogwild on Jagermeister last night.
These door guards went hogwild on Jagermeister last night.
One of many things European countries do right: rely on bicycles more than cars. Also: make their buildings look shabby chic — don’t you just want to pop over to Pier One and buy this facade?
One of many things European countries do right: rely on bicycles more than cars. Also: make their buildings look shabby chic — don’t you just want to pop over to Pier One and buy this facade?
Bubble Man was excited to share his soap with the masses.
Bubble Man was excited to share his soap with the masses.
…until my mom and brother literally burst his bubble.
…until my mom and brother literally burst his bubble.
You can’t take Paco and me anywhere.
You can’t take Paco and me anywhere.
During the afternoon in Passau, Germany, our family of four went on a walk down the river and up an impressive hill. This view was the payoff.
During the afternoon in Passau, Germany, our family of four went on a walk down the river and up an impressive hill. This view was the payoff.
This is from the artists’ alley in Passau, where colorful cobbles lead people to the doors of artists.
This is from the artists’ alley in Passau, where colorful cobbles lead people to the doors of artists.
This is Gottweig Abbey outside of Krems, Austria. There’s my mom, brother (so itchy!), Byron, and Paco.
This is Gottweig Abbey outside of Krems, Austria. There’s my mom, brother (so itchy!), Byron, and Paco.
And there’s Allegra.
And there’s Allegra.
What do we learn from this photo of Mom with two of her grandkids? My mom likes a statement necklace; Allegra’s hair looks great under lights; and Paco will use every button on a shirt.
What do we learn from this photo of Mom with two of her grandkids? My mom likes a statement necklace; Allegra’s hair looks great under lights; and Paco will use every button on a shirt.
AUTHENTIC.
AUTHENTIC.
He’s always feisty, this accordion player, but never moreso than when his kneesocks start to sag.
He’s always feisty, this accordion player, but never moreso than when his kneesocks start to sag.
The cruise ship did a good job with food quality overall, and you did not hear me complaining the night we sat down to pretzels and a charcuterie board.
The cruise ship did a good job with food quality overall, and you did not hear me complaining the night we sat down to pretzels and a charcuterie board.
Our family of four used our free afternoon in Vienna to visit a bustling market and have lunch. We could have visited this market as one of the “extra tours” from the ship (usually about $80/person), but we went ahead and did a thing called looking at a map, hopping on the subway, and getting there ourselves for, hmmm, $1.50/person.
Our family of four used our free afternoon in Vienna to visit a bustling market and have lunch. We could have visited this market as one of the “extra tours” from the ship (usually about $80/person), but we went ahead and did a thing called looking at a map, hopping on the subway, and getting there ourselves for, hmmm, $1.50/person.
Egad, but we love public transportation.
Public transportation does the trick.
We LOVED touring the opera house in Vienna. My guess is that at least 345 illicit liaisons have taken place in the boxes over the years. If you ever meet an Austrian girl named “Opera,” now you have a mental picture of where she was conceived.
We LOVED touring the opera house in Vienna. My guess is that at least 345 illicit liaisons have taken place in the boxes over the years. If you ever meet an Austrian girl named “Opera,” now you have a mental picture of where she was conceived.
Much was made of Vienna’s coffee and cafe culture. Here’s Paco’s coffee and Sachertorte. Onboard, all regional cakes on the trip were accompanied by the warning, “It’s a little dry, but a scoop of ice cream on the side will help.” OKAY.
Much was made of Vienna’s coffee and cafe culture. Here’s Paco’s coffee and Sachertorte. Onboard, all regional cakes on the trip were accompanied by the warning, “It’s a little dry, but a scoop of ice cream on the side will help.” OKAY.
When you stop and consider How They Did That Way Back When, and it blows your mind.
When you stop and consider How They Did That Way Back When, and it blows your mind.
Shuffleboard at dusk! I know these photos make it seem like we played a lot of shuffleboard, but the truth is that the top deck was closed for much of the journey so that passengers weren’t decapitated by low-hanging bridges.
Shuffleboard at dusk! I know these photos make it seem like we played a lot of shuffleboard, but the truth is that the top deck was closed for much of the journey so that passengers weren’t decapitated by low-hanging bridges.
A week of this never sucked.
A week of this never sucked.
Vasile, our room cleaner, wore testicle-revealing tight white pants and proved himself a whiz at making towel animals. I wasn’t sure what this thing was supposed to be, actually, until Vasile whizzed by our open door and quipped, “What’s up, Doc?”
Vasile, our room cleaner, wore testicle-revealing tight white pants and proved himself a whiz at making towel animals. I wasn’t sure what this thing was supposed to be, actually, until Vasile whizzed by our open door and quipped, “What’s up, Doc?”
Look, it’s three generations. Can you believe it’s three generations? That’s what the drunk lady from Virginia who often sat the table next to us during dinner would say every g.d. time she saw us.
Look, it’s three generations. Can you believe it’s three generations? That’s what the drunk lady from Virginia who often sat the table next to us during dinner would say every g.d. time she saw us.
Unquestionably, my favorite thing from the whole trip was Paco’s delight at having coins in his pocket. One day, not having a place to put some change, I asked Paco if we could dump it into his shorts pocket. And thus a passion was born. He took more joy in the tactile sensation of those coins — coupled with the feeling that he could buy something, if he wanted to — than in anything else on the entire tour. Six times a day, he’d exhale while jingling, “I just love these coins so much.”
Unquestionably, my favorite thing from the whole trip was Paco’s delight at having coins in his pocket. One day, not having a place to put some change, I asked Paco if we could dump it into his shorts pocket. And thus a passion was born. He took more joy in the tactile sensation of those coins — coupled with the feeling that he could buy something, if he wanted to — than in anything else on the entire tour. Six times a day, he’d exhale while jingling, “I just love these coins so much.”
Budapest’s bridges got it goin’ on.
Budapest’s bridges got it goin’ on.
The final night of the cruise, the staff handed everyone a shot of “Palinka” (it’ll kill what ails you) and took us on an after-dark chug up and down the river, to see all the buildings lit up.
The final night of the cruise, the staff handed everyone a shot of “Palinka” (it’ll kill what ails you) and took us on an after-dark chug up and down the river, to see all the buildings lit up.
On the last day of the trip, we went to the thermal baths in Budapest. There were something like 12 pools of different shapes, sizes, and temperatures. This, too, was a potential “extra” tour from the ship — but we, again, just got on the subway and saved a bunch of $$. The ticket machine in the underground was broken, so Byron was a hero and ran around a huge city square to find a store selling subway tickets. When he finally returned, he was sweaty, and you know it’s good travel when Byron gets sweaty.
On the last day of the trip, we went to the thermal baths in Budapest. There were something like 12 pools of different shapes, sizes, and temperatures. This, too, was a potential “extra” tour from the ship — but we, again, just got on the subway and saved a bunch of $$. The ticket machine in the underground was broken, so Byron was a hero and ran around a huge city square to find a store selling subway tickets. When he finally returned, he was sweaty, and you know it’s good travel when Byron gets sweaty.
As John from Turkey would say, these guys are “livin’ the life!”
As John from Turkey would say, these guys are “livin’ the life!”
We had a dumb-long return journey home and were outrageously grateful to the Paris airport for providing these chairs. I tucked my earbuds in and fell asleep right quick.
We had a dumb-long return journey home and were outrageously grateful to the Paris airport for providing these chairs. I tucked my earbuds in and fell asleep right quick.
Upon returning home, Paco started to consider what he might make for this year’s art sale, which he uses as a personal fundraiser. Since he would eventually like to get a better graphics card in his computer, he is making these little monsters out of clay, readying them for sale at the end of August. When I try to make little guys out of the same clay, it becomes apparent how very gifted Paco is.
Upon returning home, Paco started to consider what he might make for this year’s art sale, which he uses as a personal fundraiser. Since he would eventually like to get a better graphics card in his computer, he is making these little monsters out of clay, readying them for sale at the end of August. When I try to make little guys out of the same clay, it becomes apparent how very gifted Paco is.
While we were in Europe, some nice construction guys made our home equity loan worthwhile when they tore down our jinky staircase and built a new one, also adding in a wee deck. So now, as summer reaches its end, we take coffee and books out to these chairs. Setting a spell, we lean our heads back, watch the squirrels scrabbling high in a tree, and marvel at our great good fortune.
While we were in Europe, some nice construction guys made our home equity loan worthwhile when they tore down our jinky staircase and built a new one, also adding in a wee deck. So now, as summer reaches its end, we take coffee and books out to these chairs. Setting a spell, we lean our heads back, watch the squirrels scrabbling high in a tree, and marvel at our great good fortune.
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Noncomplementary

Bike Tire

His rage was immediate. “God damn it! You could have killed me! Why weren’t you looking? You God damn just about hit me!”

Panting, fueled by adrenaline, the middle-aged man glared at me, outraged, itching to transfer his upset, ready to spit more invective as soon as I engaged. He was shaking; he was scared. In the moment of crisis, his fear became sharp, upbraiding, contentious. Fueled by adrenaline, huffing righteously, he blazed, his crow’s feet constricting as he waited for my defensive reply — the permission to commence some real shouting. After a few tense exchanges, he would splutter through his mustache that I was stupid and people were idiots, capping his indignation by jamming his feet on the bike pedals and cranking furiously down the sidewalk towards home, towards his loved ones, towards the ears that would listen sympathetically to the story of how a dumbass lady almost hit him when she was driving out of the parking ramp because shewasn’tevenlookingandshewasanidiot.

Even before I responded, both of us knew how this interaction would play out.

Stunned, hands gripping the steering wheel, heart racing, I mentally tapped out the beats of the scenario. Attack. Defend. Thrust. Justify. Deride. Slam. Pffft.

We both knew how this was supposed to go.

He was right. I had just about hit him. I could have killed him. However, inasmuch as was possible, I had been looking.

Before presenting a defense, my brain whirling, I gamed out the next few moves. In response to my parry, he would thrust, yelling that NO, I OBVIOUSLY HAD NOT BEEN LOOKING, or I wouldn’t have almost mowed him down. After that, it would fall upon me to justify.

Oh, I had justifications.

The exit from the parking garage was a blind one. I had checked the round mirror hanging above the exit before pulling forward. There had not been any foot traffic.

He was on a bicycle, on the sidewalk; therefore he had whizzed into the scene much more quickly than someone walking would have. According to the law, bikes are supposed to follow the rules of the road for wheeled vehicles. He was not supposed to be biking on the sidewalk.

What’s more, he was biking the wrong direction — on the sidewalk — on a one-way street. Again, if he were following the law and the rules of the road for wheeled vehicles, he should not have been riding the wrong direction down a one-way. As a driver, I had been looking for foot traffic following pedestrian laws and wheeled traffic following vehicular laws.

And as long as we were examining each other’s behaviors, if he was so dedicated to his bodily safety, why had he opted to wear a beret instead of a helmet? People who truly care for their well-being wear God damned helmets when they bike the wrong way down a city sidewalk.

Indeed, I had justifications as to why he was equally in the wrong, pointed ripostes flitting through my head during the quick nanosecond before I responded to his shout.

But. I didn’t feel like pushing responsibility for the near-accident back onto him. Under my power, my car had almost hit a man on a bike. I had almost hurt someone. I had scared someone so badly that he was hollering at me.

He had chosen anger.

I did not have to.

Instead, my brain still whirling, swinging between defensiveness and discomfort with conflict, I burst into tears.

He hadn’t expected that. His jaw dropped as he stared at the bawling woman.

Owning the moment — because someone had to, and I was as likely a candidate as he — I sobbed, “I am so sorry. I didn’t see you, and I should have. I’m so sorry for not seeing you, and I’m so sorry that people, all of us, immediately leap to anger with each other. I’m so sorry we can’t just be peaceable. I would never want to hurt you, and I don’t want to fight with you. I only want peace.”

Words spent, I filled my lungs with a shuddering inhale.

Between us, the air became less dark.

He didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t expected this. The noncomplementarity of my reaction threw him. My sadness, unexpected in the face of his aggression, wasn’t part of the script.

To his surprise — mine, too — the tone of the play had changed. His face softened. In his fear, he had forgotten his real self, had forgotten that he, too, only wanted peace. My unexpected apology threw him, shook him from the drama of rage.

“Well, yes, so…” he cleared his throat. Tipping his head to the side, looking contrite, he shrugged. “Yea. Me, too.”

For half a breath, we smiled at each other in silence, me through tears, him through sheepishness.

“Okay, uh, you have a good day then,” he finally spluttered through his mustache, capping his words by jamming his feet on the bike pedals and cranking furiously down the sidewalk towards home, towards his loved ones, towards the ears that would listen sympathetically to the story of how

a regretful woman apologized for almost hurting him

and how, from out of nowhere,

they shared a moment of peace.


**Huge shout-out to this week’s episode of the podcast Invisibilia, “Flip the Script,” for reminding me of this encounter (which took place a few years ago) and for reminding me that there are ways, such as noncomplementary reactions, to de-escalate situations from their trajectory of amplification.


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Tender Toddler Tending

Even before he came out after school, even before he got into the car, I knew he’d be crabby.

He’s always crabby when he’s nervous. Often, he swings through a few pit stops  — quick pullovers at “I’m so tired” and “I’m really hungry” — before parking at the real destination: the thirteen-year-old is cranky because his insides are a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

His comfort zone is small, about the size of our house, more specifically the couch or his bed, even more precisely the size of the book in front of his face. Although we, as parents, don’t feel compelled to reshape his natural tendencies away from dreamy introversion, we do realize that our kid, upon occasion, should stand up. Look people in the face. Take a few steps. Become acquainted with Vitamin D. Speak to human beings who don’t share his DNA.

Thus, while we don’t have many rules (don’t need ’em, having drawn two long straws in the Progeny Games), we do force Paco off the couch every now and then. Sometimes I entice him to do a little baking. Other times, he’ll grab a sword and head to the swing in the yard, where he’ll drag his feet through the mud as battles clang inside his head. We’ve trained him into “iPod walks,” wherein we meander around a trail or stretch of sidewalk for 45 minutes, unspeaking, listening to our preferred podcasts. After a sustained “you need an activity or two” campaign last year, we got him to start attending some after-school clubs — chess, Harry Potter, D & D.

Still. Summer loomed, and the empty hours yawned threateningly. If he could find books he liked, then he’d read all day, every day, with occasional breaks for walks. But if he couldn’t find books that interested him, every hour would be sixty minutes of slow-grinding hell. Even more, we know he needs to experience a variety of inputs — as a matter of preparing him to one day exist independently in the world.

So we signed him up for a local program called The Incredible Exchange. His sister participated in this program for two summers when she was younger, and it was good for her. Open to kids who fall between the “camp and daycare years” and the “driving and working years,” The Incredible Exchange asks participants to volunteer at a partner institution for 50 hours over the course of the summer, at the end of which they can choose a reward for their efforts. Some kids choose horseback riding lessons; some choose art or music lessons; most go for the free ski pass to the local slopes.

When we told Paco he would be volunteering this summer, the crabbiness flared. Immediately, he announced he wasn’t interested in horseback, art, music, or ski rewards. The kid LOVES art. He was being ornery. However, his question of “Can I just volunteer and not have to take one of the rewards?” hit an admirable note. Yes, Pup. You can just do the volunteering and not expect anything in return. It makes me like you better, in fact.

So there I was, in the car, watching him toss his pack onto his back, watching his scowling face approach the car. He was nervous. It had arrived: the day when he would spend a few hours at one of the high schools, choosing his most-favored potential sites for volunteering, sitting down at tables with representatives from those sites, enduring interviews with them.

He didn’t want to go to the high school. He didn’t want to have to walk up to strangers. He didn’t want to have to sit down and talk to them. He didn’t want to impress anyone. He. didn’t. want. to. do. this.

To his credit, with evidence of emerging maturity, once he slid into the passenger seat, he deflected his crabbiness with a pained smile of acknowledgement. “I really don’t want to do this tonight,” he stated, the verbal equivalent of a much-put-upon sigh.

“I know, Bubs. But you’ll get through it, and then it will be over.”

It is a distinct relief to have moved past the years of cajoling and deal-making, a welcome move into the era of “Some stuff sucks. It’s still going to happen” pragmatism.

“Yea, but I really don’t want to,” he confirmed.

Fueled by the tick of minutes, his anxiety gained momentum. By the time he reached the high school an hour later, he obsessively fidgeted with his hair, smoothing wayward curls and cowlicks, fluffing, flattening, poking, channeling his nerves into grooming.

Then.

He did it.

In the big cafeteria, following the proscribed procedure, he approached the tables of his top three potential sites — the railroad for tourists, the county fair, the Boys and Girls Club — and sat down at each one. He talked to the strangers sitting at the tables. He answered their questions. He had prepared a question for each of them (“What traits would you like to see in a volunteer?”).

By the time he’d finished three interviews, he was on an endorphin high. Checking in with Byron, who sat off to the side working on a crossword puzzle, Paco announced, “I’m going to one more table, just in case. I mean, in case none of the ones I’ve talked to decides that they want me.” With that, he strode determinedly to the table of the daycare housed in the senior citizen home three blocks from our house. We had been lobbying for this site both because he would be able to walk to it and because he has long exhibited an affinity for the little buddies of the world. Earlier, when he’d been nervous and crabby, he’d refused the idea. No, not the daycare. Two hours later, once the nerves melted, and confidence replaced fear, his mindset shifted. Maybe it would be fun to work with little kids. He’d seen them being taken out for walks sometimes, and he couldn’t think of anything more awesome than being able to hold the leash-tail of a preschooler wearing a monkey backpack.

After talking to the volunteer coordinator from the daycare, Paco knew: this site would be his first choice. Before leaving the high school, he easily ranked the potential sites on the card he would turn in; he could only hope the daycare also put him high on their list of hopefuls.

They did. A match was made.

So now it’s summer, and the hours can be long, and mostly he just wants to read, yet: our long-legged, big-footed thirteen-year-old walks three days a week to the daycare. He did their training, watched their videos, filled out the forms. His task now is to face the saucer eyes of a crowd of toddlers; they cluster around the door whenever someone new, a teenage volunteer perhaps, comes into the room. From the minute he arrives, “my hands are full — because the little guys grab them.” When he sits, his lap serves as couch to every little pudgy diaper-wearer. “The only time I don’t have a toddler on me is when the groundskeeper comes by on his tractor mower. When that happens, all the faces are pressed against the window, and everyone’s yelling and waving. He never sees them, but they never stop trying. Tractor guy is apparently named Cam, but some of the kids don’t get that, so they pound on the glass and yell ‘Ham, Ham, Ham!'”

Naturally, on occasion, they throw fits. Sometimes they tell Paco long stories in which only two words are intelligible. Sometimes they need his help. Sometimes they bang at his head — gently, he assures me — with a plastic hammer. Sometimes they are crabby, and it is his task to weather their moods. For the Fourth of July, the entire daycare lined up and marched around the old folks’ home, parading flags, spreading toddler energy to the retirees. The report has it that the senior citizens loved that parade. Except one guy in the Memory Care unit who got really, really mad.

But parades are for special days. Mostly, Paco’s hours are spent on the floor, seeing the world from their perspective. He is learning to accept their unconscious violations of his boundaries as they plop in his lap, tug at his shorts, lean on his back. He sees ways he can be of help. He reads books and books and books because the toddlers love to hear about Elmo and the letter Q. Subconsciously, he is absorbing a lesson: he has power and strength in that room, and he is comprehending that, when thoughtfully applied, his power and strength can make days better for “The Littles.” He watches the tiniest girl, a wee sprite who moved from the Infant room to the Toddler room on his first day of volunteering, and he adores her. “She’s the cutest thing, Mom. She doesn’t talk very much, maybe because she’s new, or maybe because she’s so small, but I really like that about her. She’s always quiet. So we sit in silence together. I love that.”

In his hours of volunteerism at the daycare, our sometimes-sullen hair fidgeter is experiencing a monumental shift: from taken-care-of to caretaker.

During the second week of his stint, he came home and announced, “Well, I guess I’m really good at putting people to sleep. That’s what the teachers tell me.” I pressed him for details.

It was nap time. The cots were out. Some kids lay down docilely, but others, their energy hard to harness, ramped up. It was a time of transition, of muting bright energy into shadows.

Along with the teachers, Paco worked the room.

He helped tiny people take off their shoes and socks.

He covered them with blankies.

He lay next to a two-year-old boy and read him a book.

He moved towards the boy who can never settle down, whose energy always zings off the walls.

Gently, Paco enveloped that energy with his own, bringing calm to storm. He reached out a hand, started rubbing clockwise circles on the toddler’s back. Slowly, deliberately, he traced O-O-O-O around the shoulder blades, the spine, the neck.

The boy relaxed his grip on havoc, gave over to Paco’s ministrations.

Reluctantly, he released into sleep.

Once the small, sweaty form went limp, Paco kept his hand on the boy’s back for another minute, a benediction of zzzzzzzzzzs.

Then, his legs half-asleep, our tall, beautiful, tender boy unfolded, moved away from the short, beautiful, sleeping boy, stood, looked at the clock. His shift was over. It was time to go.

Whispering goodbye to the teachers, he crept out of the room.

Outside, the sun was blinding — too hard, too fierce after the dark peace of the toddler room. Cars roared past on the busy road he would cross by himself. In those cars, sad people were listening to news of another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting. All around my soft, sweet boy they raced, those cars steered by the heartbroken. Reckless violence and agonizing injustice made hands shake on wheels, tears fog rear view mirrors, rage push on gas pedals. Vibrating inside every car were disquiet, disappointment, disbelief, turmoil, misery, wrongness. The asphalt of the road shimmered with reflected grief.

There he stood on the side of that road waiting for the light to change — our boy who is just learning how to control his moods, to tend to the needs of others, to dig inside himself and pull out his gifts.

He was completely innocent, there on the side of that road. All he had to do was follow the rules and wait for the light to change. When it did, he stepped into the traffic stream of another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, into those cars steered by the heartbroken.

Alone, he took that step.

At home, my eyes on the clock, I muttered an agnostic’s prayer that all those agitated drivers would see him, watch for him, protect him, treat him like their own, guard his form with their love.

He needed the care of strangers if he was going to make it.

The light changed.

He stepped out, into the next minutes of his life, into his future, into the collective emotional aftermath of another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, another shooting, into those cars steered by the heartbroken.

Firmly between the white lines, he hustled across the momentary pause of a red light, heading towards safety, trying to beat the green.

His foot hit the curb just in time, and he smiled.

That road was hard and scary and loud, but he could handle it so long as he remembered

not too far away

was a different kind of place

a peaceful sanctum

offering

the comfort

of hush and shadow:

the toddler room at nap time.

Paco Couch Corners

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Grit

I wrote this more than a year ago. I am re-running it. The world is too awful.

SONY DSC

It was a glorious spring day, the hard edges of the air softening into mildness, the sun reflecting in puddles, spirits sitting up and stretching their arms to the sky. Awaking from the freeze of winter, everyone was out running, walking, looking faintly stunned by the exposed squares of sidewalk.

In the free-flowing hour before dinnertime, Allegra was just home from track practice, still in her shorts—shorts in March!—her long hair pulled back into a sweep of ponytail. She sat at the kitchen counter in relaxed hang-out mode, her body sprawling over two chairs, decompressing from her day with goofiness and random commentary about the broken zipper on her brother’s winter coat and how much she hates reading The Odyssey, a book that’s got her staying up late each night, slogging through the mandatory chapters.

Even though I’d agreed to go outside and play H-O-R-S-E with Paco and Byron, I was reluctant to walk away from her expansive mood. Sending the boys out to pump some air into the basketball, promising to join them momentarily, I dipped a biscotti into my latte and tried to convince Allegra that of course she had found it easy to run up a long hill during practice because she’s incredibly fit from her winter on the ski team. In return, she shucked off my reasoning, refusing to believe ski workouts translate into running fitness. Her light-hearted mood enjoyed my mock incredulous “In what bizarre land of teenage rationale does cross-country skiing—one of the best cardio workouts possible—not also prepare you for running?”

Then, somehow, within the space of two sentences, the subject changed. In the giggly lightness of the air was a feeling: at this minute, I could expound to my daughter about anything, and she’d hear me. Even though I’d had no intention of “having a talk,” suddenly it seemed like exactly what we should do.

So. Inhaling deeply, I mentioned the email we’d received a few days before from her godmother, a message that asked parents to talk to their kids about the realities of racism and what it’s like for children of color to move through their days in our country. Her plea was born out of sadness at a local hate crime coupled with love for the beautiful skin of her black and Native American children.

Truly, when the message came through, I felt supportive and hopeful that individual voices could rise up and come together to erode entrenched ignorance, but, at the same time, I also was certain: “I don’t need to do a formal sit-down with our kids. From the first day of their lives, they have been cradled in a house that not only espouses tolerance but one that requires it. We have dragged them all over, put them in uncomfortable situations where they are the minority, demonstrated in every hour of every day that all human beings have equal rights to acceptance and love. They’ve helped set up chairs at gay weddings, and they saw me bat away tears as we stood in The Smithsonian reading the plaque on the Woolworth’s counter where four African-American college students staged a policy-changing sit-in.”

Yet, as I watched my healthy, happy blonde daughter, her blue eyes gleaming as she cracked jokes, I was struck by her openness and confidence—and how those traits had come unthinkingly to her as a member of our country’s dominant race. We’d never had to teach her not to raise the hood on her jacket, lest she look suspicious. We’d never had to talk to her about putting on a positive face in public even when she was having a crummy day, simply so she didn’t intimidate the people around her. We’d never had to counsel her about treating people with more respect than they might deserve so as to avoid the designation of “uppity.” We’d never had to explain to her that the culture of her ancestors had been systematically dismantled to the point of eradication. We’d never had to warn her that she’d have to achieve twice as much in life to get half as far.

We’d never directed her attention to the advantages she enjoys due to the color of her skin.

Realizing that the conversation in our house didn’t need to be about tolerance and acceptance but, rather, about the nuances of white privilege, I leapt.

“Hey, Allegra, can we have a serious minute here?”

Teenagers want adult conversation. They are ready to be talked to where they’re at, not where their parents remember them being…when they were ten, seven, four, one. Her face told me: this girl was ready for a serious minute.

“So did you hear about how some kids at Denfeld doctored a picture of one of their classmates—a black kid—by drawing a noose around his neck and writing ‘Gotta hang ‘em all’ and then sharing it on social media?”

The gasp that came out of her mouth originated in her gut. No, she hadn’t known that. She had heard something had happened at Denfeld that people were talking about, but she knew no particulars. “You mean, like, they were saying he should be lynched?”

“Exactly—and not just him. They were saying all black people should be hung. On some level, these kids might have thought they were being funny. On no level were they being funny. You get that, right? And do you know about the history of lynching in this country?”

Something like a strangled gargle came out of her mouth as she tried to respond. “Yea, I’ve read about it in some books. I know it mostly happened in the South, but didn’t it happen here in Duluth, too, a long time ago?”

Confirming the reality of that sad event, I added, “And Jenna and Anne are really upset by what these kids at Denfeld did because it’s just another ‘thing’ that shows how alive racism is in the city where they’re raising Robbie and Sadie. Because she was so upset, Jenna sent out a message to some folks, asking us to be sure we talk to our children about how different daily existence is for Robbie and Sadie than it is for white kids like you—to be honest, especially for Robbie since he’s male and black. So I’m talking to you now. I will talk to Paco, too, when the time is right.”

As Allegra’s eyes became shiny with unshed emotion, I told her about the conversations they have had with Robbie as they help him find ways to move through the world and cope with the reality of being black and male in the United States and, more specifically, in our very-white city.

“Wait, why can’t he put his hood up?” she interjected at one point.

Referencing the story of Treyvon Martin, I asked, “Do you know what happened to him?”

“Well, I know he died, and I saw his name online a lot, but I never read the stories. I have a lot of homework, you know!”

So I explained how Treyvon Martin decided to walk to the gas station to get a snack. I explained how he was gunned down by an over-zealous member of the neighborhood watch. I explained how that teenage boy, a mere seven years older than Robbie, had been killed for wanting some juice and having his hood up. And I asked her: “Can you imagine such a thing ever happening to Paco?”

Continuing to reel, she almost shouted, “It would never.”

“That’s right. Although all of life is uncertain, we can feel fairly secure that Paco could put up his hood and walk to the gas station for a snack—and that he would come home fit and fine. It’s not like that for black boys. They have to move through their days defensively. Even when they’re having fun and just joshing around, some part of them still has to be on alert.”

As we continued to talk, I discovered that although my daughter’s homepage when she goes online is MSNBC, she does a cursory scan of the headlines but generally doesn’t read the articles. Thinking of myself at age 14, I understood. Each morning, racing to read Ann Landers and the funnies, I would hustle past headlines about Israel annexing the Golan Heights—boring—or the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat—who?

Lecturing my teen, I was learning a great deal.

I continued, “Imagine how Robbie feels when he goes to Target. Odds are, he’s the only black person in the store. People stare at him. Now, you and I would stare at him because he’s so striking. That kid is beautiful, right? But a lot of Duluthians would stare at him because they think he’s up to no good. They might think he’s going to steal something, or if he’s just being an excited ten-year-old in the toy aisle, playing around with a Nerf dart gun, you can almost be sure someone will walk past and think, nastily, ‘Yea, another black kid with a gun.’”

Allegra made a noise of protest. “He’s just a kid with a toy. Are people really like that? People wouldn’t really think that, would they?”

Just then, Paco popped his head in through the door, “The ball’s inflated. We’re just waiting for you out here.” I waved him away, promising I’d be out in a few minutes, as my brain processed Allegra’s reaction. When we raise our children with values of tolerance, with a feeling that there is nothing more desirable than diversity, we are simultaneously raising our children to be ignorant of the subtle, wearing, enduring awfulness of racism. My daughter knew only the ideal, not the reality.

“People are like that, hon. And Robbie knows it. He’s a sensitive kid; he totally knows it, and it affects him. Then think about what it’s like for black kids to go to school here. Often, they are the only black face in the classroom. Imagine if a helicopter dropped you into an entirely black area, and you had to walk into the school the next day and make a go of it. Even if everyone were super friendly, still, the main thing on your mind would be, ‘I’m the only white person here.’ Even if you wanted to raise your hand or try to make a new friend, some part of you would feel inhibited.”

Allegra agreed, “Oh, I’ve noticed in all my classes. Usually there are only white kids, and if there is anyone who’s not white, there are only one, maybe two, non-white faces in the room.”

I added, “I really noticed it at your holiday concert. During that amazing finale, there were 400, 500, maybe even 600 kids on the stage. Out of that, there were probably five black kids. Those young people, in every hour of every day, know that they are different from what’s considered the ‘norm.’ On top of that, they have to worry that if they’re walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, they could get shot, possibly killed. Every week, the news covers more stories of young black men, along the lines of Treyvon Martin, getting stopped by police, and during those interactions with the law, they are shot and killed.”

Confused, Allegra asked, “Who kills them?”

“The police do, sweetie. The police do. It’s a huge problem in this country. I really thought you knew about this…”

“WAIT, WHAT?” her eyes almost spun in her head, and her tone escalated. “WHAT? THE POLICE SHOOT THEM? THE POLICE KILL PEOPLE? I THOUGHT THE POLICE HELPED PEOPLE.”

Hell if we haven’t raised her in the frothiest of bubbles. She continued to splutter; I continued to explain—extraordinarily glad to have been the pin popping the bubble I had blown.

Eventually, seeing Byron’s head out the window as he started towards the house, on his way inside to see what was taking me so long, I shifted into high gear. “Here’s the important thing, my dear duckling: the next step, after awareness, is to know that you can never be a silent witness to racism or homophobia or any kind of discrimination. No matter how much it makes you nervous or nauseous, no matter how much it feels like conflict, you have to stand up in the toughest moments. If someone is being treated with injustice, if unfair attitudes are present, if hateful words are being used, Allegra, you have to stand up against that. It might be figuratively that you’re standing up, but it might be literally—where you walk to someone who is being persecuted and put your body by and with them. But it’s essential that you don’t just try to make yourself flat and disappear while hoping that the moment passes. You are part of it, so stand up. There was one time someone came into our house and used racist and homophobic language, and the situation was so sticky that I let it go. I didn’t stand up. I will never be that person again, though. No matter the consequences, I will never be that person again.”

As I recounted that day, the details of which were complicated but with which Allegra had some passing familiarity, I burst into tears and stood up. Leaning my head out the back door to slow Byron’s progress, I wiped my eyes while calling, “Allegra and I are having a talk about Jenna’s message. I was just telling her about that day when we didn’t know what to do with the bigotry that sauntered into our house. We’ll be done soon. Why don’t you and Paco start a game without me?” Letting screen door slam shut, my eyes welled up again.

I was crying. Allegra was crying. Clearly, my work was done.

Fluffing the long blonde sweep of her hair with my fingers, I reminded her that there are movies, videos, books that can teach her more. I suggested that if she has another research assignment at school, she might consider a topic like the boarding schools Native American children were sent to or even the broader concept of “assimilation.” I reminded her that her godmothers will always be happy to talk to her. I reminded her that part of her purpose in the world is to care for all the Robbies and the Sadies as much as she cares for the Pacos.

Then, with a final squeeze of her shoulders, I headed out into the sunshine, where my healthy, happy, blonde, blue-eyed fellows waited patiently, largely unaware of the tectonic shifts that had just occurred in the kitchen.

Openly, confidently, sure of our place in the world, we played H-O-R-S-E, our only challenge the muddy ball that coated our palms with thawed dirt and pebbles.

——————–

Twenty minutes later, after washing the grit off my hands, I checked on Allegra. She stared vacantly at the computer, attempting to complete a Current Events assignment that asked her to write a summary of a news article. She’d chosen one that had Turkey in the title because, ever since we lived there for a year, she is always interested in Turkey. Yet when it came time to condense what the article was reporting, she was stumped.

“I’ve looked it up and read the words, but I still don’t get what ISIS is. Mom, what is ISIS? What country is it in? How many people are in ISIS? What is this Charlie Hebdo? Also, what are border smugglers? And why would Turkey just let people flow back and forth through its borders?”

Filling my lungs with air, I licked my lips, summoned some saliva, and started explaining a few more of the world’s complexities.

Just another Wednesday night, really.

——————————

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The Small Things

Trees Short

Guns. Bombs. Death. Terrorists. Neo-conservatism. Trump. Brexit.

As heart-on-her-shirt hard-boiled-egg of a comic strip character Cathy would say, “Ack.”

ACK.

I feel ill-equipped to have the big conversations. When it comes to politics and violence and hatred and opinions, my stomach compacts into a dark, hard knot; instinctively, my spirit folds protectively into a crouch in the corner; invariably, my brain pushes my eyebrows down and squinches my eyes.

Too often, public discourse makes me sick inside.

Part of my reaction comes from this:  I don’t feel smart enough to hold my own in the fray. Do not read me wrong: I’m very smart. My admission is not one of self-diminishment. But I’m not smart about things happening in the world. The details of the goings-on are not something I’ve internalized. I have not mastered all the angles. By and large, I avoid the news, keeping myself informed just enough to know sketchy basics. Willfully, I lack “issue smarts.”

Part of my reaction comes from this: when I do read public conversations about big events, I see how everyone has a point. I don’t agree with a good lot of ’em, but everybody has conviction and reasons. Even more, as I age, I believe more and more that all people deserve respect. The only way to get anywhere with anything is to treat all people as though they have merit. This is the attitude I take into my teaching — and, while I’m not always amazing at conveying class content, I do think the genuine regard I accord to the human beings in the room is the core of the successes. However, when I watch intransigent people debating the issues, my respect radar goes haywire, leaving me jangled.

Part of my reaction comes from this: I’m a work in progress when it comes to conflict. With each passing year, especially in my job, I have gotten better at standing firm when someone’s energy blows me back onto my heels. I’ve gotten better at rocking forward, centering on the balls of my feet, regaining my balance. I’ve gotten better at not blinking, not crumpling, not crying. Yet it’s never easy. Always, it’s exhausting. Without fail, I feel battered for days. Months. I lie. Years. In a climate where discourse and debate are more yelling and argument, this work in progress feels best with her head under the duvet, a headlamp beaming a circle of light onto a world of fiction.

Finally, part of my reaction comes from this: more often than not, the tone of public debate dances riotously across a field dense with thriving, thigh-high scorn. The crop waves brightly — condescending and self-righteous and mean, fertilized by several tons of “I’m throwing this provocative statement out there so that I can find reasons to mock you, should you dare to engage” manure. There’s something of the bully behind this tone, and I got enough of bullies when a couple of girls followed me home in fifth grade, loudly remarking “God, that ass is huge” and “Isn’t it hard to be a hog?” while the twig-like friends flanking me, having no idea attacks could happen to someone they loved, froze in horror. Already, by the age of 10, I was intimate with baleful strikes; the worst of the bullying was the futile desire, roiling around my round belly, to protect my friends’ innocence. All of which is to say: when nasty words fly around in public air, I am reminded that no matter how much I love people, I hate people.

Hating people erodes the shape of my heart, whittling it into a sharp stick good only for stabbing through soft tissues.

Thus, when the world is too much with me, and I am scared and mad and hating, I retreat into the joys of small things. The other day, when yet another headline broke, and the shouting began, and disappointment welled in me, I went for a run — the activity that reminds me many things in the world are beautiful.

  1. Living up to the name of the trail, the Lollygagger, I rolled up and down the hills, dodging the roots and rocks jutting through the clay, and my mind shifted into that sacred, peaceful space where the next footfall is all that matters.
  2. As I ran, I listened to the conversation on the WTF? podcast between host Marc Maron and guest Louis Anderson. Maron has done some great interviews, and he’s done some tense interviews, but this conversation between two comics who have reached the “Hey, man, we’re okay. We’re finally fine” stage of life delighted me. Anderson is the 10th of 11 children, the son of a “nice” mother and an alcoholic father, and how is that story not a worthy distraction?
  3. As I ran, I marveled again at the book I’d slammed through the night before, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. Maybe a half hour read, this book lodged in my head. It’s short; it’s unconventional in form; it’s funny; it’s poetry; it’s prose. A mother dies. A crow — grief made manifest — shows up and hangs out with the bereaved husband and sons. When it’s time to go, the crow leaves. Desperately, I wished to have been in the room, even watching through a video feed, as Porter wrote. How did he do that? Four scrabbled words at a time? Ten hours of marathon word vomiting? Seven years of anguish to write 110 pages? How did that writing happen? I had no answers. I could only keep dodging mud puddles.
  4. As I ran, I chuckled as I remembered Paco’s predictions about the contestants on The History Channel’s blacksmithing/weaponry program called Forged in Fire. As the show began, he tipped me off with a quick, “Just so you know, Mom, they’re all going to be men, and most of them will have ponytails. But my favorite part is that at least two of them will have intriguing accents.”
  5. As I ran, my thoughts ricocheted into the idea of sleep. When Paco had his tonsils out a couple weeks ago, I figured the pain would make sleep difficult. Yet, without fail, he sacked out, totally and completely, for a solid twelve hours. Still traumatized from the kids’ early years, when our kids slept not at all — to the point that I will get petty and engage in “No, you don’t understand. We would have paid money to have them only wake up eight times a night” competitions with other parents — I couldn’t help recalling a time when Paco was six months old. Standing as spectators at a trail race, a couple of us moms watched our kids slide down a pile of gravel. Conversationally, the other mom asked me, “So his first name sure is unsual! What’s his middle name?” Blankly, I stared at her. My baby’s middle name. Hmmm. Good question. I had to wait until Byron finished the race and ask him.
  6. As I ran, I smiled at Allegra’s excitement and appreciation during her 10-day trip to Europe with a high school group. Her messages to us detailed food, sights, hotels, similarities and differences among cultures. But more than anything, she was delighted by Italian wayside stations. Such snacks! Oh, the crackers! What a unique atmosphere! The espresso bar! In a gas station!
  7. As I ran, I snorted when a mental image flitted through my head: craving tube-shaped food, I’d gone into a speciality meat shop in town to find something sausage-like for dinner. The workers at the shop, to a one, are dear as baby pigs and are in exactly the right line of work — fulfilling all their potential there behind the counter. After some discussion with the nice young man in his white jacket, I decided to try the seasonal rhubarb bratwurst. When I ordered four, Nice Young Man advised earnestly, “You’re really going to like these. They are sweet. But they are sour. You are going to come back and buy 20. Come back soon because they’ll be gone. So come back soon and get 20. You’ll for sure want 20.”

Done running, I hopped in the car and tuned the radio to music, not talk. I wanted to protect, to store those good feelings from the trail, the comics and the crows and the contestants and the fatigue and the wayside stations and the bratwursts. Happy inside the bubble of my car, I let the goodnesses float free, let them bounce off the windows in time to the beat of the song.

On the way home, I stopped at the liquor store and bought a six-pack of Lollygagger beer.

Later, even though I poured slowly, the head of the beer foamed high.

Guns. Bombs. Death. Terrorists. Neo-conservatism. Trump. Brexit.

At least in that moment, my glass was full.

——————

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My Teenage Diaries: The Gifts That Keep Giving

Of late, I’ve been mining my teenage diaries as source material for an essay I’m writing. The collateral joy from this process has been surprising.

Because, well, I was an idiot when I was a teenager. I was cruel and bitchy and loving and fun and wishing and wanting and sad and judgmental and snide. Already, I was painfully human.

It’s hard to face one’s foibles, one’s humanity. It’s embarrassing.

Yet somehow, I’m ready to look that younger self straight in the face and reconnect with her. In the past, I’ve cracked my old diaries and thought, “Nope, can’t do it” after a few pages; other times, I’ve considered throwing them in a fire.

I’m so glad I didn’t. Those diaries, now that I’m 49, are important primary documents that link me to who I was, and I find I’m happy to re-meet her, embrace her, own her. Weirdly, this process completes something in me that didn’t know it was incomplete.

Perhaps it’s that I have a teenage daughter now, someone who is extraordinarily distanced from the kind of careening meanie I was. Perhaps it’s because I’m viewing the entries as source material. Perhaps it’s that I have curiosity about the voice in those pages. No matter what the reason, I have been deeply into digging through those jotted notes that remind me of who I was and give me a sense of how far I’ve come.

Along the way, I have become distracted from my purpose, as it relates to the essay I’m working on. Here and there, I’ve encountered sentences that make me snort, sentences that I have shared on Facebook, just so we can all have a chuckle at my expense. After doing that a couple of times, I realized I could compile them into a document and then, hitching my knickers up to my armpits, get brave and submit to a publication I profoundly admire: McSweeney’s.

So I did it.

And, guys?

The editor at McSweeney’s got how some silly snippets remind us all of our younger selves. They accepted the list of excerpts from diary entries I wrote when I was 15, and I am seriously so excited that I need a Baby Wipe. If you are interested in seeing it, please click here: “Notable Reviews from my 1982 Diary.”

As long as I have you here, though, I want to make it reallllly worth your while. To that end, I’ve copied an anecdote out of my diary from 1984, when I went on the AFS program to Denmark, where I lived for three months with a single mother in her mid-thirties (Lillian) and her three young sons (twins Povl and Peder were 5, and older brother Karsten was 6).

Accompany me now to an afternoon in 1984 when I attended a Danish festivity called “Ringriding.”

Ringriding

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Saturday and Sunday we (all five of us) went to the RingRiding fest. It’s a tradition where horseback riders attempt to spear a little ring with a lance-type instrument. All totally pointless and therefore very amusing to watch. Saturday we just walked around and looked at all the rides, but Sunday the boys rode some. Sunday there was a parade through the town with all 459 riders and bands and shit. It was cool.

Afterwards we were all walking down to the fairgrounds when I saw Lee (N.Y. boy). I stopped to talk and when I stopped and looked around, I couldn’t find Lillian. She had Povl and Peder, but I had Karsten. Nothing like being in a foreign country with a small child you are unable to communicate with. Made my day. 

After awhile, Karsten got mad ’cause I wouldn’t take him inside the grounds. He started crying and screaming at me in Danish. People were looking at me like I was some sort of child abuser. Aah, the truth at last. Finally, I stopped two people and asked them if they spoke English. “No,” he said, “What is your problem?”These Danes. They took me to the police station (rather melodramatic) and they sent us to have Lillian paged. Thank God she found us before I suffered that embarrassment!

Why is it that in every town I go to, the police get to know me within a week of my arrival?

After we left Sunday, there was a near-tragedy. A hot air balloon was being inflated, foolishly, right in the middle of all 459 horses. Needless to say, they panicked. 24 people ended up at the hospital and 5 (horses, not people) had to be shot. Hester (flaunting my Danish) were found as far away as Aabenraa. BLOODY CHAOS the newspaper headlines read. 

In Danish, of course.

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