I Recommend

This Little Red Hen has spent a great deal of the past year with her beak tipped to the clouds, anxiously clucking “The sky is falling!”

I could detail the challenges of 2016, but we all know what happened. For some people, it actually wasn’t that tough of a year. Their presidential candidate won the electoral vote; their pretty lives still feel pretty; their heroes didn’t die. They watch their shows on cable, eat some take-out, shoot some cans off a fence post. 

However, for the people whose voices fill my ears most frequently, 2016 was devastating. Gutting. Wrenching. A betrayal of fundamentals. For us, the candidate who won the electoral vote is a horrifying example of everything except narcissism and late-night Twitter insanity. At those, he excels. My head nodded hard when I read the words of Thessaly La Force, editor-in-chief at Garage, when she noted of Donald Trump: “Given how he’s stacked the administration with men whose careers have never reflected the kind of world I want to live in nor the one that I want for the generations who will follow me — I don’t have much hope at the moment.” This is not a liberal snowflake’s whining complaint. Progressives weren’t thrilled with Reagan or the Bushes, either, but the reservations there were purely political; with Trump, it’s different. With Trump, the objections are moral, mental, social, ethical. With Trump, there is a sense of foreboding. With Trump, we will have a petulant toddler — his dyed melon peeping over the top of the wheel — steering the ship.

For us, many of whom also enjoy pretty lives and a greasy box of take-out lo mein, the continuing disparity between our random luck and others’ lack of it is crushing. We see the news about Syria and think not, “It’s their business; keep it over there” but, rather, “Those poor people, being strangled by the tentacles of an epic tragedy. Can anything be done? What can be done?”

For many of us, indeed, 2016 felt like a series of punches to the ribs — with the deaths of Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams, anyone?), Phife Dawg, Pat Harrington (Schneider!), Garry Shandling, Patty Duke, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel, Garry Marshall, Gene Wilder, Janet Reno, Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, Sharon Jones, Florence Henderson, Fidel Castro, Ron Glass, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael, Ricky Harris, Richard Adams, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. As the hilarious and zesty Elizabeth Hamilton-Argyropoulos summed up:

It’s a wonder this Little Red Hen didn’t drown in the rain, so frequently was her beak turned upwards, her mournful cluck echoing through the birches.

But I didn’t drown this year, and the sky is still affixed above my head — for, as much as it taxed, 2016 also rewarded. Always, always, always, there is good. In the small moments, away from the news and the clamor of online distress, I found joy and escape; I found intelligence and laughter; I connected, expanded, learned, and played. Here, then, are a few highlights and recommendations:

Books: Goodreads tells me I read something like 60 books in 2016, and when I consider that I also read the work of 12 sections of writing-based classes (25-35 students in each section, usually writing 6 papers each, most of which can be revised and resubmitted, along with daily and weekly smaller assignments) and that my bifocals, no matter how much the doc ups my prescription, always leave the words blurry and my eyes squinty, I am impressed with myself. In a few days, I will be having LASIK eye surgery (I’M SO SCARED, BUT THEY SAY THEY WILL GIVE ME A HAPPY PILL, AND I’VE NEVER TAKEN A HAPPY PILL BEFORE, SO MAYBE IT WILL HIT ME HARD, AND I’LL CHUCKLE QUIETLY AS THE LASER CUTS MY EYEBALL OPEN); to be honest, I love the accessory of glasses frames, and I don’t particularly love my looks without them, but, as my pal Ellen has been known to say, “Sometimes my face gets tired of glasses.” And sometimes — lots of times — I’d like to be able to see when I wake up, see when it’s cold or rainy and I’m outside, see clearly and not through smudges and scratches. Since I’ll need cheaters for reading, and since I read about half of the hours of my life, I’ll just enjoy frames on my face that way. Anyhow, as I was saying, I read some books this year. Some of them were overrated (Sweetbitter and The Girls, I’m lookin’ at you), some were not worth the time (The Mountain Story made me shouty), some were intriguing but uneven (We Love You, Charlie Freeman), but many of them were glory. 

  • Loitering: New & Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio — I do appreciate a writer who uses all the words available to him, and D’Ambrosio’s vocabulary is rich. But that’s not why I love his writing. Dude is smart and honest and teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for a reason. There is no easy slapping of words on the page with him. He’s a craftsman. Here’s an interview with him from The New Yorker: “Instead of Sobbing, You Write Sentences.”
  • Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe — This charming novel works as a stand-alone, but it is the sequel to Stibbe’s earlier Man at the Helm (equally charming). In her latest, Stibbe continues the story of 15-year-old Lizzie as she takes a job at a home for senior citizens. I do enjoy a wild cast of characters, their appeal hinging on their myriad flaws.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles — This was probably my most-satisfying read of the year. Due to the strife in public discourse, I have been leaning more easily into writing that is “sweet,” and there’s something perfectly, not sappily, sweet about this story of a Bolshevik-era Russian count sentenced to live out his days inside a hotel. From first to last pages, this novel provided everything I wanted.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi — Many people still don’t understand what’s being discussed when the word “racism” is used. The discussion is not about you, the individual, avowing you take each person as he/she comes, no matter the skin color. Rather, the discussion is about deeply ingrained systems that make success in life easier for people if they are white. Go to any institution in the United States — yeah, we have the portraits of presidents to gaze upon, but also look back at the faces of all the presidents of the college you attended, the heads of the bank you put your money into, the CEOs of the major corporations you patronize. Take a minute to scan the photos of their faces. 97% of those faces will be white and male. That’s racism; that’s privilege; that’s the heart of the discussion: what needs to change so that everyone has an equal shake at success? To get our heads around racism, it’s necessary to look beyond current realities and consider how they came into being. Okay, so black men kill each other at incredibly high rates. Violence in many communities of color decimates the lives of inhabitants. WHY IS THAT? Read Homegoing, an easy-to-absorb generational tracking of two African women (one of whom is sold into slavery and one of whom is not) and their descendants. Connect the dots. The injustices of the past have lasting resonance.
  • Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements by Bob Mehr — Too often, rock journalism seems promising, but then, not halfway through, I lose interest. This empathetic dissection of one of my favorite groups, in particular the dark difficulty of lead singer Paul Westerberg, kept me invested ’til the end.
  • The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits — This book is a series of diary entries written by a woman in her forties, most dealing with kids and aging and relationships. Even better is that the entries aren’t presented in chronological order, a conceit which creates more depth and sense of a real life than strictly arranged daily entries, one after another, would. More than anything, I loved Julavits’ voice.
  • The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor — I respond well to intelligence and an original point of view. Even better if a person has a passion for peahens.
  • Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter — This is an uncommon book. I would love to have been in the room, or in conversation with, author Max Porter as he came up with his ideas. Whoa.

***

Podcasts: If I could keep only one form of media in my life, it would be podcasts. They unearth overlooked individuals, create new methods of storytelling, and provide superior company. While I listen to quite a few different podcasts, I vigorously recommend the one that made my (and Byron’s) year. Please, if you aren’t one to take pride in the refinement of your tastes (and if you are, sit up straight; you’re slumping), consider listening to both seasons of My Dad Wrote a Porno. The title tells you what it is. No surprises. In each episode, the son reads aloud the erotic novels his father has written, and he and two delightfully witty friends react in real time. It helps that they’re British because clever. While listening to the episodes of this podcast, Byron and I both startled strangers with our guffaws. I almost broke the toes on my left foot when I dropped a 20-pound weight at the gym, due to an unexpected hoot. Broken toes would have been worth it. This podcast is everything.

For those who aren’t enthusiastic about listening to ridiculous porn as its idiocies are laid open, I would recommend Gimlet Media’s Heavyweight. In each episode, quirky host Jonathan Goldstein helps people redress moments in their personal histories that remain unresolved. In the first episode, Goldstein reconnects his 80-year-old father with his long-estranged 85-year-old uncle; in another story, Goldstein helps his half-jerk of a friend, Gregor, come to peace with the loss of a set of CDs he loaned to musician Moby a few decades ago. I quite like whimsy and difficult characters and uncomfortable moments, so this podcast is a huge find.

***

Lipsticks: He was about thirty, his beard admirably filled out. The name tag on his smock read “Nathaniel.” My credit card had gone through, he was waiting for my receipt to print, and I could tell he was fighting an impulse. Two times, he opened his mouth, only to close it through an act of will. Finally, he gave over. “Um, I don’t mean to sound weird or anything, but I want to tell you” — gesturing in a big circle around my face and torso — “what you’re doing with color is awesome. I mean, the lipstick is just great, but then there’s your coat and your purse, and it’s all so fun. I really like all the color.”

Unfortunately, workers in the drugstore aren’t allowed to accept tips. All I could do in return was thank him, tell him that I was on a blew-in-on-a-hot-wind lipstick kick, and, yes, as far as my coat and bag were concerned, I always had been a fan of saturated jewel tones and the color chartreuse.

“Well, I wasn’t sure if I should say anything because I didn’t want to be weird, but then I realized if I didn’t say anything, then how would you know?” he summarized, sliding the bag with my purchases across the counter.

My lipstick was purple that day, a bold color that catches some folks off guard, delights others, and makes me feel like I’m skipping down the sidewalk holding hands with a special friend. In recent weeks, I’ve upped my number of friends from the Liquid Suede line of lipsticks put out by Nyx cosmetics, and every day of late, my smile has stretched ear to ear as I play with bright, wild, unusual, goofy colors.

***

Television and Movies: I group these together because the best movies being made these days are television series. Certainly, I went to some movies this past year, but most of them were major franchise movies that I saw because I love my boy and (sub-plot) I love a huge, refillable vat of popcorn. So in terms of movies, I can say this:

I am enamored of Dr. Strange‘s cloak and can’t believe how epically online shopping options, including Etsy, failed me in my quest to buy a decent one for myselfIMEANMYSON, for under, ummm, $250; 

Kubo and the Two Strings was gorgeously rendered;

It took me by surprise, the way my eyes filled with tears and my heart did a slow rrrrrrrrriiiiiipppp during the last moment of Rogue One;

Oh, and although Paco didn’t watch it with me, I found a perfect kind of joy in Sing Street, for its rich callback to the ’80s, its hero whose interest didn’t come from a crisis of confidence, and its purely upbeat vibe of hope.

More frequent in my life is the watching of tv series on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. ALL HAIL THE ERA OF STREAMING. I was wowed by a lot of shows this past year — from Jessica Jones to Daredevil to Bojack Horseman to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Making a Murderer. Particular stand-outs were:

  • Catastrophe: This British comedy following a couple figuring themselves out after a surprise pregnancy makes my every hair curl in the swirl and whirl of a happy girl.
  • Fleabag: Can a show be perfection? This one was for me. Six episodes and only six episodes, adapted from an award-winning play, this show is raunchy and honest and flays the heart.
  • Chewing Gum: When a 24-year-old whose family is strongly evangelical decides it’s time to lose her virginity, that quest is worth watching. The star, Michaela Coel, is a gifted comedienne, reminding me of a couple other women with an ability to win an audience through bumbling earnestness: Lucy and Carol Burnett.
  • The Crown: Because Byron and I watch shows together, yet he gets tired at night while I do not, sometimes I look for a program that I know will appeal to me more than to him. This show’s lush, detailed, intimate depiction of England’s royal family is currently my most-delicious late-night snack.
  • Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: This show is even better than its summary promises — it’s so much more than the story of a sad woman who uproots herself from a successful career in NYC and moves to the random suburb of West Covina, California, in the hopes of winning back her teenage summer camp boyfriend. Despite that premise, the women in this show avoid most of the common tropes (Yay! They talk to each other; they are smart; they like each other — as creator Rachel Bloom explains, “I wanted to invite women in”). Even better, the show is a musical: every episode features songs that leave me snorting. For example, the song about protagonist’s big breasts made me limp. Listen to the lyrics, guys:

***

Music: There were some great albums released in 2016, some of which will remain on permanent rotation in my playlists. 

  • Beyonce’s Lemonade
  • Frank Ocean’s Blond
  • A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here . . . ; Thank You for Your Service
  • Solange’s A Seat at the Table
  • Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!

***

Thinking: Yes, yes, yes to this:

Example: if you strongly feel that the protesters at Standing Rock are noble and just in taking a stand . . . and that Native Americans’ rights have been trampled for hundreds of years . . . how can you celebrate Thanksgiving — that artfully crafted tribute to Native American and white colonialist collaboration — with truth in your heart? 

It’s okay for us to question what we do and have always done. Inspection often proves we creatures of ritual don’t make much sense. Analyzing the disconnects between what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is an excellent critical thinking exercise. It could, just could, lead to change.

Wow. That blowhardy last paragraph is a clear indication I’m revving up for another semester of teaching. Anyhow, my dudes: thinking. It’s recommended.

*** 

Shoes: I have a decades-long emotional relationship with hoof covers, but each passing year has confirmed we get what we pay for with shoes. Whereas, when I was a teen, there was nothing more exciting than a cheap pair of flats bought for $9.99 at Payless, I’ve discovered in the subsequent decades that quality is worth the price. 

In fact, let’s file that as the true lesson of this final sub-heading. Say it out loud. Internalize it. It’s a tough lesson, particularly because there are exceptions, but I would ask you all now to jot down in your journals of Jocelyn Wisdoms these words: “Quality is worth the price.” This is true with shoes, foundation garments, food, and life partners (Byron cost me a cool seven trillion).

Recently, I got a new pair of spendy shoes, thanks to two of my best friends, Virginia and Kirsten. Virginia has been writing a book about one of her former pets, Lurch — a hunchbacked, club-footed cockatiel — and she asked for my help with editing and revisions. As payment for my time, she offered me money or shoes. 

DUH. 

Shoes.

So one weekend, Kirsten took me to the Fluevog store in Minneapolis while Virginia remained in our hotel room, writing a new chapter of the book. Even weeks later, I am giddy that a new pair of clompers came home with me. There is no rational reason for the joy I get from these shoes, the same way getting excited about lipstick is frivolous and, oh yes, shallow. Trust me: I can see a frantic energy behind my devotion to fripperies; I can see it’s a way of deflecting feelings of worry and fear; I can admit a certain amount of my excitement about platform boots named Gear is actually a desperate counter-reaction to the grimness of the public landscape — dancing as fast as I can and all.

Then again.

When I stomp around in my new boots, I think of Virginia. I think of Kirsten. I think of friends and love. Hell, I put those things on, and I actually smile while doing housework.

They make me feel powerful.

They make me feel

— like I can kick 2017’s ass.


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I Suck at Badges. Reading Emails. Following Rules.

“Do you have your badge with you?” He smoothed his lapel, his gum chewing at odds with suit and tie. 

“Yeah, I do,” I assured him. “It’s buried somewhere in my bag, but if you hang on a minute, I’ll set this other stuff down and dig for it.” My arms were laden with folders, grade book, stapler, pens, and the invisible but weighty emotional baggage of sixteen weeks. Next to my feet sat a maroon satchel containing dry erase markers, staples, paper, keys, phone, lipsticks, bandaids, snacks, clips, and extra ballpoints. “Do you want me to find it?” I asked the man helping me gain access to my classroom. 

“No, that’s okay,” he eased back, grabbing the badge hanging from a lanyard strung around his neck and swiping it in front of the door.

Then, after a pause, he couldn’t help himself: “But do you have your badge? I’d like to see if it works.”

As we negotiated, dozens of students pushed past, nerves hustling them to seats so that they could boot up the computers and get ready to write. 

It was final exam day. We were running late. To everyone’s surprise, the classroom had been locked, leaving students milling in the hallway, wondering if the teacher was going to show, joking that maybe the final would be canceled. 

The teacher showed. The exam wasn’t canceled. 

Unfortunately, the teacher had no key.

****

When it comes to my job, there isn’t enough Me to engage with All.

Many of my colleagues have more adaptable circuitry and thrive when they explore the breadth and depth of All. Teaching? Just go in there and do it. Meetings? A meaningful way to make an impact. Changes of staff in the various campus offices? Chances for new friends. Updates in policies? Not hard to track; just read the emails! Planned social hours? FUN! It’s great when we hang out and get to know each other better!

Not so for me. Teaching is exhausting; meetings of questionable worth; revolving personnel impossible to track; new policies a buzzing that will change pitch again in a few years; planned socializing an outright hardship.

Confoundingly, I present as expansive, breadthy, and depthy, yet the truth is I am someone who has X to give, and in my equation, there are seven-foot-thick cement walls forming parentheses around X.

Indeed, if I hope for career longevity, I have to pick and choose which things matter the most, which things dovetail with my abilities, which things not only tap but also fill. I have X. Work pushes for All, striking chinks into my walls.

Many days end with me, squatting, piling sloughed off cement chips onto my open palm. There. I stacked them into a little tower, I reassure myself. 

****

He stood in the door frame, peering into the classroom with curiosity, his eyes alert, watching with wonder the energy of students settling into their seats. Thanking him again for his assistance while dragging a trash can to the doorway and using it to prop the thing open — “in case anyone needs to run out in the next couple hours and use the bathroom” — I promised the man in the navy suit I would dig out my badge and test its efficacy before leaving the classroom that day. 

Shucking off my thanks, he asked one last time, “Do you usually meet in this classroom?” YES. “And you’re scheduled to have a final exam in here right now?” Um, YES. “And the door has never been locked before?” 

No, never in the entire semester of class meetings held in this room, on this day of the week, at this time, had the room when locked when we arrived. Never before had we been locked out. Of course, haha, isn’t it just the way that something unusual would happen on the very last day, when everyone’s already stressed out?

****

As much as I projected bright and confident to the suit wearer, I felt sheepish that I hadn’t remembered faculty badges are programmed so they can open classroom doors with a quick swipe. I mean, months before I had read the email about it.

Skimmed it.

As I hit “Delete.”

I was probably eager to move onto the string of student emails — the daily peppering of “Could you maybe…?” “I messed up…” “When you told us to _____, did you mean…?” “My grandma…” “I don’t have the textbook…” “My meds aren’t….” “I have to be in court…” “How do you cite a government document when there is no author?”

Even more, although the gum chewer wasn’t overt about it, I knew I was busted.

I’d also read the emails about staff and faculty being urged (some might say “required”) to wear their badges at all times while on campus.

Here’s something really interesting that goes on behind my thick cement walls, though: we don’t wear badges and name tags there. Rather, we use words to say our names to each other. We look at each other and talk. Or, if a stranger breathlessly topples over the top of the 15-foot-high barrier and stirs up a puff of dust as he lands at our feet, we might just pat his shoulder and point, wordlessly, to the barrel of beer next to the blacksmith’s forge. We don’t need to know his name; he can just be there. Maybe later we’ll get to know him. Without the gimmick of a name tag. Moreover, if we get brave and drop the drawbridge so we — in full armor! — can gallop our fine steeds across the moat, say, to a fundraiser in a fancy house or to a cocktail party, we know immediately that we’ve made a terrible decision if we spot “Hello, My Name Is” tags in the foyer. 

One time I pinned a stack of fifty such tags to some William Morris wallpaper with my lance before clanking out in a rage.

I do understand why a workplace might want employees to wear badges. I get it. However, I’m an ornery juvenile — or maybe I cleave to an old-fashioned notion of college dynamics; at any rate, I sidestep the policy.

My badge is in my bag.

****

As the man in the suit, his cud in full chew, started to turn, raised a hand to indicate his departure, I offered a suggestion.

“You know, there were a couple of classes, not just mine, waiting in the hallway when I first ran down to the administrative offices to ask if anyone had a key. That’s never happened before today. The doors have always been unlocked when we show up — until today. But when the assistant in your office, the one who handles the switchboard, tried calling Security and Maintenance to see if anyone could come help, no one answered the phone. Then she realized that they all are out of the building right now, down at the main entrance to the college, because there have been multiple accidents in the last half hour on that stretch of road heading to the stoplight. It’s super icy, I guess, and a bunch of cars have slid off or crashed into each other. It’s apparently quite a pile-up. So I’ll bet the people who usually oversee opening the classrooms are otherwise engaged.”

His eyebrows jumped off his forehead and hovered two inches above his hairline. Cars crashing and sliding at the main entrance? What?

“Yeah,” I affirmed, turning to face my students as I reiterated. “Everyone might want to use the back exit after finishing the final because the main road is a mess.” I didn’t tell them the switchboard operator had cupped a hand to her mouth while whispering confidentially, “They never put salt or dirt out there. They can’t be bothered.”

The man in the navy suit had follow-up questions, but as his mouth opened, his voice was overridden by those of the students. Just as the president of the college started to ask me for details about the crashes, a firefighting student in the second row, his face scrunched, called out, “Wait, what do you mean ‘back exit’? Where is that? How do I get to it when I’m done today?”

The president’s mouth continued to move, but he couldn’t be heard, for the tall-haired guy in the back row shouted an answer, “So, when you get in your car, you’ll follow the main road, but the other direction. You’ll want to head that way.” He gestured out the window.

Simultaneously, three other voices chimed in with instructions and commentary. 

Taking a step backwards, eager to return to his natural habitat, the president gave me a wave, and I reiterated, “I’ll be sure to test my badge, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll get it updated. Thanks again!”

****

Two hours later, the room was empty. As I sat marking essays, cross-referencing paper and online grade books, wondering if the tennis player was going to earn enough points to pass the class, the room went dark. I flailed my arms like an orangutan feeling the beat; the lights switched on. A few minutes later, it went dark again. I put my hands over my head and swayed back and forth, my body bending side to side. I pretended it was 1986, I was at a Boston concert, and they were playing “Amanda.” An imaginary Bic lighter reached high. The room stayed dark. 

While this felt like an insult to Boston, I knew automated technology was finicky. Sometimes it took standing and walking to trigger the sensors. Then again, maybe it was time to pack up and head to my office, a place with thick walls and eternal light. 

Before loading my arms with papers and folders, I leaned down and dug through my bag. Ah, yea, there was my badge. It was clipped to an anchor and on a retractable string. Well now, that had been very organized of me. Apparently, at some point, I had carefully attached it for easy future access. Huh.

Killing the just-back-to-life lights, stepping into the hall, I let the door fall closed against the dim, hushed classroom. Satisfyingly, it clicked as it locked. 

Then, in a moment of anticipation and “What if…?” — the best kind of moment — I waved my badge in front of the key pad.

There was another click, the sound of a door unlocking. 

It worked. All along, like Dorothy longing to get back to Kansas, I had everything I needed. I just didn’t know it.

****

In his suit, behind his desk, protected in the confines of his office, he was a perfect figurehead.

Yet.

Even though I had the key, even though I was fully capable without involving him, I’m glad the president was pulled from the easy comfort of his snug office. I’m glad my need extracted him from his cocoon. I’m glad he rubbed shoulders with the people he serves, glad he entered the fray, glad he saw how easily his voice could be drowned by those of his constituents. It was important that he be relegated to the sidelines while the chaotic masses created an energy that rendered him superfluous. It was important that someone’s desire for help woke him to the disorder just outside his door. 

The president may have a badge.

But the rest of us — with our muddy boots and overflowing arms and shouted ideas and stressed-out hearts — together, we are the power.


 

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Walk of Shame Snow Woman

Three years ago, back in 2013 when good things still seemed possible, I started a serial on Facebook involving a snow lady we’d made in the front yard. Periodically, when we weren’t shoveling out from the latest blizzard or fending off mid-winter fluesies, I’d toss out another post about this snow lady and her imagined life. 

About six people got really into it, and the rest of FB either ignored it or were bamfoozled by it. 

No matter how many understood the snow lady’s very particular vibe, I kept tossing out updates on her until one day I stopped — probably because it was so blasted cold outside that my camera kept seizing up whenever I’d go out to stage another photo shoot…or because my fingers went to frostbite before I could get the shot…or because I was sorry for how thoroughly I’d freaked out the mail carrier. All he wanted to do was drop some envelopes through the slot, but every time he got near his house, he saw this crazy white-fingered lunatic dancing around, stomping her feet, hollering swear words at her camera and carrying on an animated conversation with a snow person. 

And then, because it was the snowiest April on record that year, a few more crazy storms dropped inches of fluff, and eventually the scene out our front door was obscured by nature. There will come soft rains and all that jazz.

Anyhow, the other day on Facebook, a friend saw a photo of the snow lady crop up in his memories from past years, and he commented on it. This, of course, in the weirdness of Facebook, meant that the photo showed up in the feeds of a few other folks, and eventually, it became obvious that I should go back and dredge up the posts about my snow lady and pull them together somehow.

That somehow is here. Now. 

Please, then, very kindly: enjoy the exploits of our spirited heroine.


The mustachioed man at the bar had her in fits of laughter by her fourth gin & tonic.

After her fifth G & T, they hit the exit together.

The next morning, her head pounding, her mascara smudged, nursing a little hair of the dog, she stumbled home, vowing “Never again.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I present Walk of Shame Snow Woman.

walk-of-shame-snow-woman

***

Their eyes had met across a crowded bar.

eyes-met

Dapper. Mustachioed. How could a tipsy girl resist?

mustachioed

After last call, they stumbled back to his place. During the walk, she tried — that minx! — to grab his rear end.

Her vision blurred, she missed her target and punched him in the testes.

Fortunately, his balls were made of ice. He never flinched.

***

Forty weeks later.

baby-mama

***

It was only after part of her face fell off (warm temperatures and sheer fatigue) that Walk of Shame Snow Woman’s postpartum issues became obvious.

She was tired of standing in the same place all day, every day, feeling like she was never getting anywhere. She was tired of the baby’s clove-scented breath wafting into the hole where her carrot used to be. Damn it. She was just. so. tired.

Those once-lovin’ arms weren’t so lovin’ any more.

baby-drop baby-drop2

***

It was fortunate she’d taken his phone number during their one night together. Even more fortunate was the fact that she’d entered his digits correctly, given the five gin & tonics sloshing through her system.

It was fortunate she’d taken his phone number because now, nearly a year later, she needed him. She needed his help. She needed her Baby Daddy to step up.

As Walk of Shame Snow Woman applied herself to postpartum recovery, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up guy, having just learned he was a father, revealed a strength of character that would have surprised both the Boy Scout troop leader (“NO, THAT IS NOT HOW YOU TIE A FARMER’S LOOP. IF YOU’VE DONE THE KNOT CORRECTLY, I SHOULD NOT BE STRAPPED TO A TREE RIGHT NOW”) and the pastor (“WHEN I SAID ‘LIGHT THE ALTAR CANDLES,’ I DIDN’T MEAN ‘SET FIRE TO THE ENTIRE NAVE'”) from his youth. Dismissed by so many, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up guy came into his own as a father. The babe, so recently tumbled from his mother’s overwhelmed arms, was surrounded by love at Daddy’s house.

baby-daddy

***

In the meantime, rallying emotionally and physically from the demands of new motherhood, Walk of Shame Snow Woman decided it was time she did something for herself, something that would help her look forward to the future with hope and a positive attitude.

She scheduled a visit with the plastic surgeon. A few weeks later, recovering from rhinoplasty, Walk of Shame Snow Woman eyed herself in the mirror, smiling as hugely as her straight stick allowed.

Finally, she had the little button nose she’d coveted her whole life.

button-nose

***

He called her and left a message: “Could the baby stay with me for a few more weeks? I know you’ve been feeling better since getting that little button nose, and I’m sure you’re eager to have the baby come back, but, well, we’re having a really good time and enjoying all the new toys I bought, so maybe if we could extend the stay…?”

daddy-babybaby-toys

***

And although she was feeling more like herself again as the post-partum haze lifted and her new nose settled into its pit, Walk of Shame Snow Woman knew that the baby was still better off with Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy, for the time being.

…because she still had some livin’ to do before settling down, returning to motherhood, and introducing Baby to its first solids (softened ice cream sandwiches). Thus, two days after agreeing to let MBH-UBD continue to care for their child, WoSSW left him this gleeful voicemail: “I did it! I’ve always wanted some ink, so I did it! Thank you for helping me find the time and space to make some of my tattoo dreams come true! I’m sending you photos of the work I had done last night after last call. They closed the bar, and then Charmaine and Patricka and I walked down to The Poison Pin and got inked! Check your phone; I’m texting pictures! I got one tatt on my bottom ball and one on my middle ball–wanted to get one on my head ball, too, but chickened out. Probably a good thing I didn’t have that seventh Fuzzy Navel, actually!”

He checked his phone. He saw the images of her tattoos.

hungry-hippos tattoo

He wondered how hard it would be to gain permanent custody.

***

Whistling “The Wheels on the Bus” as he and the baby exited their Daddy and Me Gymboree class, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy checked his messages.

Well, there: a message from Walk of Shame Snow Woman. She was finally checking in. It had been a few days since he’d heard from her. MBH-UBD had been starting to worry she’d been hospitalized for Tattoo Infection or jailed for Exuberant Denial of Motherhood.

She picked up her phone on the first ring, bursting out, “HI! How’ve you and the baby been doing? Bonding a lot? I’m really glad you two are having this time together–”

“Yes, about that–” he tried to interject, but she interrupted.

“I know I sure am having a blast. Charmaine and Patricka liked my new ink so much that we had to go back the next night and get some work done on them. And then today, I thought to myself, ‘Girl, you need to pamper yourself; life is short!’ so I went to the salon and had LeTrice do my make-up and give my hair a blow-out, and now I’m feeling like a kajillion!”

the-blowout

***

Although his first reaction was to redefine “pampering” as “selfishness,” he counted to ten and aimed for compassion. These last months hadn’t been easy on WoSSW, and, to be honest, he, too, had gone through phases of self-exploration, like the time he got into ear gauges and stretched his lobes to the point of sporting 3/4″ plugs.

gauges

“Well, okay, then,” he replied slowly. “I’m glad you’re flying high, albeit from your same frozen spot, and I’m sure that blow-out looks appropriately storm tangled. I’d like to propose an idea, though: why don’t we have the baby continue to stay with me while you work on some things that are less, well, body oriented. Since you’ve put in some time on your appearance, could I ask that you now focus on strengthening and improving the other parts of your life? I really feel like our baby could use a mother who can read books more than pour drinks; who can tell stories that aren’t about hours in the tattoo artist’s chair; who can make food instead of eating other patrons’ Happy Hour leftovers off the bar; who can play freeze tag instead of quarters.”

There was silence on the line. Finally, she spoke: “Huh to the what at the where?

Trying to clarify, he asked more directly: “I ask this with complete empathy — I mean, I’ve definitely sown a few wild oats in my day what with being the drummer for a major rock band and all — but how about you take some time now to grow up and become a parent?”

***

Still on the phone with Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy, registering his strong words regarding her need to grow up, Walk of Shame Snow Woman felt defensive.

What was wrong with getting a nose job? She’d have him know her confidence had skyrocketed since getting that little button nose! She was handing out her number to all the elves at the Horn O’ Plenty since the rhinoplasty! And what was so bad about her new tattoos? They were symbolic…of…you know…things. Like how sometimes she got hungry just like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo.

However, the same sense of self-preservation that had gotten her through eight months in juvie when she was fifteen kicked in now. If she lit into him and tore him another carrot hole, he might get peeved in return and refuse to keep the baby for a few more weeks.

She wasn’t quite ready for the baby to come back to her place yet. She and Charmaine and Patricka were going to the casino to play some keno Friday night, and then she wanted to go get her nails done at Klassy ‘Cures like that one lady at the bowling alley who never bowled. It wasn’t easy, having a broken lacrosse scoop for a hand; what girl wouldn’t want to freshen that look with a kick-ass mani?

manicure
Her cuticles were shredded.
never-bowled
The lady at the bowling alley who never bowled.

What she needed to do was buy herself some more baby-free time.

Thus, Walk of Shame Snow Woman tamped down her urge to shriek and instead warmed her voice so as to sound less icy:

“You know, MBH-UBD, you’re right. I do need to start being less selfish. I do need to start improving other parts of my life besides my own appearance. At some point, a girl should just say to herself, ‘Sweetheart, relax. Your bottom ball of snow is already as taut as a watermelon rind. It’s okay to miss a day or two at the gym.'”

Stuttering a bit, for he’d rather expected to melt in the face of a blistering response, he managed, “Tha-, that’s great to hear. So maybe you can get your life pulled together, and then the baby can have some time with you.”

“Yea, sure. Just give me a few weeks to, y’know, do some laundry and find the toaster and catch up on Springer. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”

Attempting to rub his head with frustration, but finding his arm couldn’t bend, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy put on the pressure: “You might need to fast track some of that. The thing is, I actually need to you take the baby next week, because I’m going out on tour with the boys.”

***

What? What boys? What tour? Whaddya mean you’re ‘going on tour with the boys’? Wait a moonshine minute: do you lead rich dicks on some sort of Grand Tour and drag them through Les Invalides or something? Do. not. tell. me. you are a cicerone who exposes the upper crust to fencing and the Alps? Do you bend the ears of callow youth in the Uffizi as you babble about about the subtle use of light in di Cosimo’s ‘Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi’? Well, well, well, slam the rusty gate on my festering big toe and get me a tetanus shot!” she bellowed, scratching her armpit and inhaling as she lit a Marlboro (menthol).

Completely exasperated, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy clipped out, “Come ON. No, I am not a cicerone — and by the way, your accent is amazing — nor do I lead lads from the Hamptons around Europe. You know full well what I mean when I say I’m ‘going on tour with the boys.’ I told you the night we met that I’m a drummer in a band, that I’m known for my unique style of not using drumsticks. I told you how I just use my arms because they percuss and chshshshsh and whama-whama-whama like no manufactured stick ever could. I told you all this.”

Although his words beat a faint bada-bing on her mental hi-hat, WoSSW didn’t exactly recall all this information, what with the five gin & tonics she’d had the night they’d met. Attempting to appease him, WoSSW asked, “You know, although I was very clearly attracted to your sassy knit cap that night at the bar, I actually am a little fuzzy about the rest. Like, for one, how we got a baby out of it. Also, um, that you’re in a band. Do you do, like, a drumline? Whenever drums go by in a parade, I jump around like I’m moshing and can’t stop until the woodwinds body surf me over to the clown candy.”

Sighing deeply, once again blaming the eleven shots of Jägermeister he’d had at the bar that night for messing up what had previously been a relatively simple life, MBH-UBD informed her, “NO, I do not make my living playing in a drumline. No one does, you powder-for-brains goose. I’ll send you a picture of me with the guys, and then you’ll get it. And once you realize who the lead singer is, you’ll understand why I’m so good at taking care of babies. Hang up. I’m sending it.”

on-tour-with-the-boys

***

Given a timeline, motivated by the hope that she might gain access to Slash, she reassessed. Frick yea, she could do this.

Giving it her best “wastrel tramp who likes Jim Beam” effort, Walk of Shame Snow Woman started to make some changes. Two days later, MBH-UBD’s phone rang; it was she. Breathlessly, WoSSW announced, “Dude, I rule. I got a job. Sure it’s seasonal, only a couple of days this week, in fact — but that just means I have more time to work on getting my trash heap of a subsidized apartment ready for the baby to move in while you’re touring with Axl and the boys. And the great thing about this job is that I totally get the idea of working now. Working is killer! I just stand there and vape a little Peach Schnapps e-cig and chat with my colleague Aunistee while people drop stuff off. I get seven bucks for every sixty ticks — and that’s totally two margaritas at Happy Hour!”

Wanting to be supportive but feeling flummoxed, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy managed, “That’s great, Walk of Shame. Yea, work can be all right, depending on the job. I know with Axl, sometimes things get tense, especially when I suggest he consider a little bit more in the pants department, but mostly, being a drummer rocks. Soooo: what IS your new job?”

axl

A bit distracted by the notion of Axl’s lack of pants, WoSSW didn’t answer at first. Eventually, though, she revealed, “Oh, I’m a Christmas Tree Drop-Off Site Logistician and Coordinator. I run the chipper.”

wood-chipper

***

And that’s where we left this romance of and from the snow: with two lost souls lurching through their days, banging their way through the world. The baby is now three — benefiting from the enrichments of Head Start. Currently, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy is drumming for Kings of Leon.

And our heroine? 

Sometimes she still gets overwhelmed. Sometimes she spends her rent money on new ink. Always, she drinks too much. Every week, she spends two hours at her job — emptying the quarters out of the machines at a laundromat, pouring them into a heavy plastic bag that she then thumps onto the desk of a cigar-chewing guy named Lenny. 

And twice a week, she has a session with her therapist, the renowned Dr. Paco. Known for his unorthodox methods, he reclines on a snow chaise longue while WoSSW stands rigidly in the corner. But as soon as the kindly doc looks her in the leafy eye and asks — with the only compassion she’s ever known — “Why do you suppose you’re so bent on self-sabotage?” — 

she melts.

ending

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Heal

What I want is to tuck myself under the duvet and stay there, head covered, for four years.

I don’t want to get dressed; I don’t want to leave the house; I don’t want to go to work; I don’t know where to find the performance energy; I don’t know how I’ll paste a smile on my face and act as though apostrophes matter. I don’t know how to walk into the classroom and pretend it’s just another day.

Yet. 

I put on a dress that swishes against my legs, reminding me there is joy in the tactile; I get into the car and blow bubbles as I drive to campus; I staple and organize in my office to prepare myself for class; I stitch a smile onto my face and scan the editing activity, reminding myself even apostrophes send messages. I walk into the classroom, and although it’s a day like no other, I float to the front of the room, deposit my bag, boot up the computer, lay out my folders, open the grade book, and survey the faces.

I’ve done this before — taught while heartbroken. 

That’s what it is to be an adult: you show up even when your only fuel is despair.

***

The fresh-faced twosome in the front row waves me over. They have a question: “Because we are best friends — the very best friends ever — can we do this activity together?”

The activity is a series of questions about one of the three Cause/Effect essays they have just read. Yes, of course they can choose the essay to which they both responded most strongly and answer the questions together. Their answers will benefit from collaboration.

Always engaging, they snare me with chat. The male of the duo, Joe, offers, “You’d never know we’re best friends because, whoa, we are fighting a lot lately. Every little thing that comes up, we’re at it.” As he speaks, his partner beams and nods in agreement. Clearly, they are not getting along at all.

They are joking. They are adorable. Before this class started three months ago, they had never met. Outside of class, they don’t interact. However, the two have become friends — joking, adorable classmate-friends who work together on every assignment. With great humor, they give each other grief, disagreeing about pineapple on pizza, the shape a pizza slice should be, the quality of the Cause/Effect essays they just read, and what makes a good president. 

They are 18. For both of them, 2016 was their first chance to cast a vote.

Before I am able to weigh in with some diplomatic words, the female of the duo, Allie, announces, “Even though I’m mad at him right now, we do have one point of agreement: we both like pink.”

Surprised, I look at him with a fresh gaze — the 18-year-old young man in a baseball cap, the 18-year-old young man with phenomenal eyelashes, the 18-year-old young man who thinks hockey is the only sport that matters, the 18-year-old young man who works as a pizza cook, the 18-year-old who loves rolling around our carpeted classroom on the sliding castors of his chair — and ask, “You like pink?”

“Yea,” he answers, scrunching his eyes as as considers my question. “I think I do. Yea, I like pink.”

Okay, they both like pink. Alternatively, maybe they both like P!nk. Either way, what are they fighting about?

It’s not pizza, and it’s not essays.

Allie is indignant that Joe cast his vote for Donald Trump. An analytical young woman who brings originality to every assignment, Allie wrote her last paper about the hair of the leading presidential candidates, turning the state of the hair into a metaphor for the quality of the individual. Before landing on this topic, she considered writing about the merits of going braless versus wearing a bra. 

In every way, this 18-year-old braless, spirited, pink-loving girl is a weary teacher’s dream.

***

Amazingly, Joe is not defensive about how he cast his vote; rather, he is sheepish. 

“I didn’t want to vote for him. I hate that I had to vote for him. But no way could I vote for Clinton. She’s just too yuck.”

I concede his reservations had foundation, but then I push. “Why, if you didn’t like either choice, did you opt for the one that is more overtly offensive?”

“Until the moment I walked into the voting booth, I was going to vote Third Party. No question. But once I got in there, and it was real, I didn’t know what I thought or what I wanted to do. I don’t know why, but I just did it. I voted for Trump.”

I wince. I sigh. So does Allie. I try not to lock eyes with her, try not to turn us into a force unified against him, try not to take his honesty and confusion and use them as a basis for condemnation. “Wow. That’s interesting — because I have wondered about people’s thought processes. So, in that moment when you stared at the ballot in front of you, when you decided to flip away from a Third Party candidate, why did you flip that direction?”

I see it in his frozen expression. He doesn’t know.

***

A quick shove in a rolling chair across the aisle from Joe, another student — a woman a week overdue with her third child — keeps her head down as she scratches out her answers to the discussion questions. 

***

Joe’s not proud of himself. His vote was committed in a moment of flutter. He doesn’t quite know why he went with Trump, someone who repulses him, over the other option that made him recoil.

Watching Joe struggle to explain, to even understand, his quick, oval-shaped impulse, I realize I could help him formulate an answer. He is 18, white, lives in a relatively homogeneous area, loves hockey, is never seen without his baseball cap, has never been anywhere “foreign” or rubbed up against trauma. His life is insular and privileged. Of course he voted for Trump. 

But I stay silent. I’m not sure a teacher needs to tell a student who he is, in the larger context of the world. The point of his being a student is that he gets to figure that out.

Less measured is Allie. An audible harumph of disgust issues from Joe’s classroom best friend as she rolls her eyes. “This is why we fight! How can I be okay with him voting for Trump when he doesn’t even know why he did it?”

Not wanting to reproach anyone, but too heartsore to be noble, I give over and unleash — smiling at Joe as I lecture. “This has been a devastating day for so many people. And it would have been a devastating day for many people if Clinton had won. You voted for a man who has never held political office or served in the military, a man who has mocked people with disabilities, called immigrants ‘rapists,’ black people ‘thugs,’ and women ‘piggies.’ If you cast a vote for those demonstrated values, you need to be honest and acknowledge you have a place inside yourself that can accommodate his offensive words and derision of others. For sure, you have every right to vote for whomever you choose, and that includes a Third Party candidate, no matter what anyone tells you. But: you need to pressure yourself to know why you make the choice you make — because your vote means you support everything that person stands for. And even if you only like the part where Trump says he’ll work on infrastructure, your vote for him was a vote for all of him, not just the parts that appeal to you. The same would have been true, if you’d voted for Clinton; you’d have been acknowledging to yourself that you could tolerate the bad parts of her along with the good. My guess, if we wanted to figure out why you surprised yourself and voted for Trump, would be this: as you stared at the ballot, you were aggravated by the dismal reality of the choices, so you tipped towards the voice that hits a tone of aggravation. Anyhow, kiddo, just remember that no one makes up your mind but you, so really try to know your own mind. Also: DON’T MAKE US SHOUT AT YOU ANY MORE, Joe, because you are our best friend.”

***

In the back row of the classroom, a soccer player from a European country is googling the origin of a word. Five minutes earlier, I’d complimented him on his pom-pom hat, telling him it make him look “jaunty.” When I ask him if he already knows that word or needs to look it up, he admits he tends to retain words that come from French or German, as those are the languages he’s most familiar with.

From his research, Mathis discovers: jaunty descends from the French gentil.

It will stick with him. It’s connected to his roots — from his tradition.

***

Up front, listening to my admonishment, Joe is grinning. He hated his first outing as a voter, hated the vulnerability of “What the hell should I do?” in the moment of making an important choice.

Cutting him some slack, I acknowledge, “In Allie’s paper about Trump and Clinton’s hair, she conceded that she was not completely thrilled with Hillary as a choice. I will second that and say that I hope we never again have an election like this one that just ended. I hope you, as a voter in your lifetime, have choices that feel clearer and more authentic to you.”

Startled, Jake half agrees. He’s not entirely sure what I mean. So I carry on. “The point of voting for a candidate is that you’re putting your support behind the person who best represents your values and hopes. In this recent election, many people felt neither candidate did that for them. In your case, that caused you to fall into a regretted vote. It is my fervent wish that, in the future, you have stronger choices, ones that make you feel like voting was a proactive statement and not a passive rollover.”

Ah, okay. I just want the best for him. That, he understands.

Turning towards my desk, I throw one more glance at this power duo and ask, “Hey, are you two really best friends?”

Nodding and shaking their heads simultaneously, Allie articulates why the answer is both yes and no. “Sort of. We never knew each other before this class — but think the reason we’re such good friends is that we can fight with comfort. We totally call each other out and shout when we smell b.s. I know we can say anything to each other, and he’s still going to sit up front and work with me. So, yea, that feeling of safety makes Joe a special kind of best friend, for sure. EVEN IF HE WAS A DUFUS AND VOTED FOR TRUMP.” Reaching out, she whacks him on the shoulder, her mock anger a gesture of affection. Lowering her voice, she leans close to his face: “See, I’m right next to you so that I can teach you stuff, like this: if a man ever tells others that it’s okay to call his daughter a ‘piece of ass,’ you may not vote for him for president. Even though I could tell you more, you actually don’t need to know anything beyond that. It is what we’d call ‘sufficient evidence.'”

Dropping his head into his hands, Joe responds, “Aghgh. I know.”

 They are so young, so artless, so willing to say the words.

Steadying myself, I put my fingers to my lips and push in on them, forcing a quiver into a smile.

I haven’t cried yet, but these two might break me.

fingers

***

The classroom is almost empty, with the last two students — Mathis in the back, pregnant Kara in the front — wrapping up their answers to the activity.

Finished, Mathis comes up to hand in his assignment. Giving me a preview of his answers, he tells me how, of the three Cause/Effect papers written in previous semesters by students taking this class, he chose to analyze the one titled “Chicks on Bikes” because he likes motorcycles. He also was intrigued by the one about homeschooling, but, oh man, he was bored beyond yawns by the one about domestic abuse. 

Kara’s head pops up. Her pencil stills. She is listening

Ruffling the pom-pom on his hat, Mathis explains, “All my life, I’ve been reading stories about domestic abuse, and now they just slide off my back. It’s blah, blah, blah to me. My eyes glaze, and I check out. I just turn the pages, hoping it will soon be over. I mean, I’m not a fan of domestic violence, of course; that’s not what I mean. I just mean it’s always the same stuff over and over, so it doesn’t connect. My brain shuts off because it’s so boring.”

He’ll never know it, but my self-control in that moment is hard won. He doesn’t see it, but I make myself inhale slowly, exhale even more slowly, before I speak. He does not deserve my raw reaction, which would be a sarcastic, “Yea, whenever women tell nuanced stories of how their husbands of thirteen years punched them in the face, it’s super boring. Whenever women try to convey the mucky helplessness of being hobbled by what a man in power is doing to them, it’s a real yawner.” 

My exhale fills the space between us, and I tell Mathis that, while I understand feeling besieged by information to the point of deafness, his reaction really is a shame, for the writer of the paper that bored him, a petite five-foot woman who started running marathons once she stopped running down the alley at 2 a.m. with her husband chasing her, was an example to make a person’s heart swell. Mathis shrugs and notes that the paper should have contained more personal information to make him care. 

So, anyhow, he liked the motorcycle paper. It wasn’t boring since bikes are cool.

As Mathis and I talk, Kara never speaks. Her pencil is moving now, but slowly. She is listening with a focused interest that tells me which of the three papers she chose to respond to.

The same topic that bored the 19-year-old boy resonates with this in-transition mother of almost-three who left her husband a few months ago.

Mathis bounces out the door, his pom-pom perky as he heads home for ten hours of playing video games. Although she needs to pick up her kids, Kara bends her head over her paper. She writes and writes.

I haven’t cried yet, but these two might break me.

***

Eventually Kara hands in her activity, yet she stays — as she always does — to talk for a solid twenty minutes.

The class ends at 3:15. She has kids to retrieve. But every single time: she lingers.

I, myself, have too much to do. I’m late for a meeting. But every single time: she lingers. It’s often 4:00 before I get back to my office.

She needs my ears.

In particular, on this day when she’s just written a lengthy explanation about why the Cause/Effect paper on domestic violence resonated with her, she’s primed for a verbal spill.

More than anything, her twenty minutes of talk prove that — like rape — domestic violence is often unclear, rarely has sharply defined edges, rarely is the TLC made-for-tv version of “a woman done wrong.” Rather, it’s muddy stuff, a complicated web of manipulations, nicks to the spirit, give and take, befuddlement, reconciliation, hope, knotted obligations, all playing out in ways often so subtle neither participant is aware of them. 

For Kara, right now, she’s trying to figure out how to set boundaries with her ex . . . yet she’s sometimes still with him a little bit, but they are for sure over, except not.

At one point, she had an Order For Protection against him. Then she dropped it so that they didn’t have rely on his power-hungry mother as the conduit of communication any more. Wanting to win me to her side — not understanding that her presence in my classroom assures my advocacy — she details the ways he is controlling and manipulative.

A few weeks ago, he got into her truck (“I was being nice; I never let him in my truck”) to drive to one of the kid’s conferences at school, and his first words were, “Why is it so clean in here? And why is the seat set so far forward?” Issuing an exasperated sigh, she adds, “If the truck had been messy, his first question would have been ‘Why is it so filthy in here?’ And the seat has to be that far forward for the kids to get into their car seats. He’s 6’4″; it always only occurs to him that he needs space, not that there are others with needs, too.”

Recently, Kara has landed a subsidized place to live, but she hasn’t told her ex about it because then he’d want a say in it. She and the kids are “sort of” staying at his apartment so that he doesn’t find out she has her own place. He is upset with her for not chipping in towards the rent on his apartment, for letting the three-year-old climb on the jungle gym, for leaving her purse on a bench at the park while she assisted the kids. And, yes, sometimes he has put his hands on her in violence.

Standing in front of me, her belly filling the space between us, Kara admits she wishes her ex was the type to become a deadbeat dad, simply so that negotiating her days was less complicated. If he’d just leave, this guy who tugs her around emotionally, mentally, and physically, at least she’d have clarity. She could move on. As parents, however, they are permanently ensnared.

These are the things Kara was thinking about when she read the “boring” paper about domestic violence.

Neither Mathis nor Kara voted in the presidential election. Like Allie and Joe, they would have cancelled each other out.

***

Finally alone, still wishing I were head-under with my duvet, I read all the activities the students turned in. In their responses, I see the election played out, in the abstract. There are nine women in this class of 25 students. Seven of those women identify the domestic abuse paper as the one that they identify with, that has the most impact, that makes the most important statement. Three of them admit they have lived with and through violence at the hands of men.

Of the 16 males in the class, 12 have chosen an essay other than the one about domestic abuse. They see merit in the homeschooling essay and in the paper about women on motorcycles. Outside of one young man — who has lived in eight places during his 19 years, both domestically and abroad — the only other males who have written their responses about the domestic abuse paper are those who have opted to work in groups or as partners with females in the class. 

Joe worked with Allie.

By virtue of working with Allie, she who challenges him, she who teases him, she who makes him feel seen and safe, Joe agreed to analyze how the domestic abuse essay affected him as a reader, a thinker, and a person.

I daresay, though, that it’s the experience of sitting next to, laughing with, hearing from, and fighting with Allie that is affecting him most profoundly. 

Certainly, our class provides him with a structure. Some materials. Ideas to explore. But the person next to him, ribbing him, presenting her reality to him, pushing him?

The mother of soon-to-be-three who lumbers in late and sits across the aisle from him? 

These are the true instruments of his education.

Surrounded by the random, motley crew that is our class, Joe is exposed to Otherness. He is not speeding along the expressway, alone on the back of a motorcycle. He’s not living in a cookie-cutter house in a gated community, homogenized to the point that diversity feels threatening. Opening himself to a variety of sources of information, he’s risking the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. In the college classroom, he’s not safe in an insular world, chilling on a Barcalounger inside an echo chamber that only reflects back to him reiterations of his own voice. Oh, no. In the college classroom, Joe, Allie, Kara, Mathis, Jocelyn — we’re all given the opportunity to wonder if we know anything at all.

Every day, I hear Joe, awed, trying, sheepish, interested. I hear Allie and Kara, speaking from their experience. I hear Mathis, avowing his distaste for violence against women at the same time he pleads to never hear about it again.

We clunk up against each other, all of us, and we’re the better for it.

***

I haven’t cried yet.

Maybe I won’t need to after all.


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Stumped

stumped
I don’t mean to co-opt his story.

Then again, no story — even if its cast is a single character — can be told without rubbing up against someone else’s story.

Indeed, even when there is only one character in a narrative, the way that person behaves, the choices he or she makes — those things reveal a great deal about everyone else whose lives have ever converged with that solitary protagonist.

The nature of stories is that they’re intersectional, always a swirl of cause and effect, always a matter of “this thing happened to this one guy, but then ripples from that guy’s thing rolled outwards and bounced other people around, too.”

So I don’t mean to co-opt his story.

But even I, someone who hasn’t seen Dave Mackey in a few years, someone who married into friendship with him, am feeling ripples.

Before I read his announcement on Facebook the other day, I was at a point of disgust with social media — exhausted by both liberals and conservatives, depleted by everyone’s revelations of their truest selves. When it comes to politics, people not only discuss ideologies, they also discover that although they love many of their friends and family, they don’t actually like them. In fact, many are agonizing through internal debates within themselves, asking questions like: “If my uncle can look at footage of Donald Trump mocking a person with disabilities, if he can hear the audio of Trump boasting about predatory behavior towards women, if he can see all the reports of women coming forward and recounting how Trump pushed them against walls and jammed his tongue down their throats while grabbing their ‘pussies,’ if he can hear the racism in the rhetoric, yet he, my uncle, can still decide to vote for Trump, is that not an indication of my uncle’s character that I cannot ignore?” On the other side, there are people who despair, “If my son can support that woman who is essentially a corporate creation, a candidate with decades-long history of scandals, a person whose campaign is riddled with cynicism, corruption, and cover-ups — if my son still supports Clinton, does that not indicate something to me about my son that I cannot ignore?”

It’s all making me sick inside. In recent days, a fog of sadness clouds my head and my heart. My brain keeps returning to a few articles that have stuck with me — reading that I hoped would offer some clarity, some support, some shared sense that others are heartsore, too. Months ago, I read an article, “I Lost My Dad to Fox News,” and still, every day, I think about it (and the extended comment section after it, in which person after person relates similar sorrow). Then my brain wanders back to the writer’s points in “Dear Dad, Please Don’t Vote for Donald Trump,” an essay in which the tone is almost woebegone as a son contemplates the disconnect between the father who raised him and his father as a person who could vote for Donald Trump: “The choice is simple because it’s hard for me to think of a single person who violates more of what you taught me as a child . . . It was from you that I learned to respect just how hard Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants worked to make a life for themselves here. You told me what it was like picking fruit in the California heat, and explained how they took jobs that other people weren’t willing to do — because they wanted to support their families just like everyone else.” And I keep thinking of the betrayal a Latina daughter feels from her Trump-supporting father: “Donald Trump, you may argue to me, is making women strong again by forcing them to suffer insult after insult and grin and bear it. You may think, Dad, that the reason both of your daughters spent time in the hospital with eating disorders 15 years apart has nothing at all to do with insecurity or issues with lack of control in our lives because of our gender and the amount of pressure placed on a young woman from birth until the very end.”

My head hurts too much. My heart hurts too much.

Too often, when social media gives me insights into the values of friends and family, I flinch. I flounder. I wonder if I should stuff my disappointment into a shoebox and shove it to the back of the closet, pretending that careful containment of dismay will allow me to forget we are fundamentally divided. I wonder if those shoeboxes will fill my closet to bursting, if I’ll trip over them as I cling to flimsy shams of relationships.

I’m trying to breathe, yet I can’t fill my lungs.

But then the other day, just when I sat staring at Facebook and thinking, “I reallllly have to shut this tab and focus on creating a quiz for my class because I officially hate everybody,” a particularly shocking post showed up in my feed.

For at least five minutes, I sat in front of the monitor, reading, rereading, gasping, putting my hand over my heart, gasping more, feeling sick, wanting to drop my head to the desk and leave it there as I dabbed away tears.

I was looking at a post from Dave Mackey, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Dave is a long-time friend of Byron’s. They were interns together in the early ’90s at an environmental learning center in Northern Minnesota. Living in an isolated place, driven by a common passion, linked through communal living, the interns became each other’s People for Life.

After his time as an intern, Dave moved to Colorado and started to unpack the potential of his genetic and hard-earned talents. Specifically, Dave can run long, he can run hard, and he can run fast. Wikipedia sums up his largest career accomplishments thusly:

In 2011, Mackey won the Montrail Cup, which he also won in 2004. He won the Ultrarunning Magazine North American Ultrarunner of the Year in 2011, and was runner-up in 2004. He won the USA Track and Field Ultrarunner of the Year in 2004 and in 2005, and also has won several USATF national trail running titles at three different distances: 50K, 50 mile, and 100 kilometers. In running from one side of the Grand Canyon and back, also known as the rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R), Mackey holds the former record of 6:59:57, which has since been lowered by Rob Krar.

Mackey also holds speed climbing records in the Boulder, CO, area, including the fastest round-trip time climbing and descending the Third Flatiron from Chautauqua Park in Boulder.

In 2012, Dave set the master’s course record for the Western States 100 trail race, covering the 100 miles in 15:53:36, finishing fourth overall. The first time Dave ran the Western States, in 2004, he and Scott Jurek pushed each other beautifully — with Jurek setting a new course record, thanks to the threat of Dave, who finished second. As that race unfolded, Byron and I, far away in Northern Minnesota, frantically refreshed our browser every few minutes as we tracked Dave’s progress through live streaming. Running on a mountain trail for 100 miles? Now that’s a sport we in our house can geek out on.

When Byron and I got married, Dave was there. When Dave and his phenomenal wife, Ellen, got married, we drove out to Colorado to celebrate with them. Whenever we’ve been in Colorado and able to make it happen, we’ve had a few hours together, falling easily into shared company. Life carries on, and he’s become a dad and a physician’s assistant. Always, with every step he’s ever taken, Dave has been gracious, sweet, even, goofy, and full of thousand-watt smiles.

Then, last year, Dave had an accident — one of those quick nanosecond blips that change everything.

After the initial shock and worry, we fell back into normal life patterns, shrugged, and figured Dave would mend and be back to fighting form in no time.

However, those of us who figured Dave was invincible were too cavalier.

This is what thousands of fans and friends discovered a few days ago as we sat in front of Facebook, gasping:

It’s been a long 16 months since I fell off Bear Peak above my house, sustaining an open tibial/fibula fracture to my left leg. The long rescue followed, 13 surgeries, including skin, muscle and bone grafting, washouts of the open-fracture contaminated surgical sites, being in an external-fixator (think “iron lung”, only on the outside of the leg) for three months, and bone infection (which still resides). I have achieved a degree of success in mobility and some improvement. I went from not walking at all, to walking with a cane until this past July, to walking cane-free now. Running has not been an option in the least just yet. Riding a mountain bike most every day now is almost real freedom. But there is still pain whenever I walk and throbbing at night, and now intramedullary nail (a rod) is wobbling and the bone grafting at the middle if the fracture sight is not dense.

So I am at a cross roads. Do I continue with more surgeries with very high likelihood of failure? More time in a hellish external fixator? And even then there would always be pain.

But there is another solution, the definite, non-reversible one, to be 100% to where I was before the accident and almost completely pain-free. There is a way to get here and I’ve decided to go this route. This would mean the freedom, if I choose it, to walk the kids to school without a thought, ski, run in 6-8 weeks, compete in races again, even take down Mike Wardian’s treadmill world record (okay, this will NOT happen). So the big news is that next week I will have my left leg amputated below the left knee here in Boulder.

I’ve spoken extensively with orthopedic surgeons and other healthcare professionals and co-workers about my options. And there are other surgical options than amputation, but the chances of success are slim, and it feels time to move on. Being below the knee, this is “good” amputation to have. The technology of prosthetics is incredible these days, and improving, so I will be out in the mountains as before with my family and friends, to completing or competing in events again, having the ability to run any distance.

Dave posted this announcement a week ago, and the response was immediate and unified: if this is what Dave needed to do, then all love on him, and may his decision result in greater quality of life and a return to him feeling like his full self again.

There were no trolls. There were no naysayers. There was no outrage. There was no disappointment.

In a rare and beautiful moment, thousands of people poured out unadulterated support. If a man who can run a hundred miles without complaining announces “I can’t live like this any more,” then that’s all anyone needs to know.

After a party on Halloween night — a gathering of loved ones and running luminaries — Dave had the amputation surgery the next day. Yesterday, he posted:

Finally an update here on the big surgery yesterday. First of all thank you for all your voices of support, thoughts, prayers, and good energy. Once again, as it was last summer when the accident occurred, I am so blessed to have such good friends. The party two nights ago at Flatirons Running company was a complete blast. It was worth busting up my leg just to see some of the folks who came out I hadn’t seen in years. Thank you to Real Athlete Diets, Avery Brewing, and Southern Sun for the delicious food and beer, and to Hoka and Suffer Better. Generous funds were collected for the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

So medically speaking yesterday was a huge day, as well as today. The procedure was scheduled for 2 1/2 hours and took five hours. It’s a pretty involved process as amputation, many nerves, blood vessels, muscle, skin and bone need to be excised and moved around. Much of the surgical procedure is creating an effective interface to work well with a prosthetic in a few weeks, and I am fortunate to work with one of the best lower limb surgeons, Dr. Rob Leland.

I am in a full leg/stump cast now, which I will have for up to two weeks, then be fitted for a prosthetic. Another ortho pod buddy of mine, Mike Hewitt, says I will be running in six weeks and running Leadville or Leadman next summer. For my part I plan on taking it literally one step at a time and not screw up all the work that’s been done on my leg!

Billy Yang has been around and documenting much of the process over the last few days and will probably be putting out a cool documentary. I hope he edits out some of the graphic stuff though!

Sorry I have not replied to many posts. I did read them though and appreciate the good feelings. Thank you so much. Now that I’ll be out and about more I look forward to connecting.

dave

So.

I don’t mean to co-opt Dave’s story. He is living it. It is his journey.

But.

I find that this week, this year, last year, next year, I need Dave’s story. I can’t stop thinking about him. He is all the things my hurting heart has been wishing for during this election season: a dignified, genuine person who is humble, intelligent, heroic.

In these days of being overwhelmed, disappointed, disillusioned, of feeling like the shoeboxes of dismay are threatening to spill out of my overstuffed closet, I find something sustaining in Dave’s thoughtful approach to his days.

In the midst of all the clamor and mud-slinging, Dave’s courage has reminded me that every important choice can be distilled into two questions.

“How do I want to live?” and “How can I make that happen?”

Trump and Clinton be damned.

I vote for Dave.


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Halloween Thoughts

halloween-collage-one

There is one holiday, and one holiday only, that I truly enjoy: Halloween.

When I announce this to others, reactions vary. Some are confused — “Whaddya mean you don’t love Thanksgiving? How can you not melt into Christmas?” Others are interested, hoping for a psychological reveal — “Oh, yea? And why’s that?” Still others, and I regard such folks as my people, nod knowingly. They, too, find the cultural phenomenon of “the holidays” to be exhausting or hollow or hypocritical. They, too, would rather take a few precious hours to read a book than to hang ornaments on a dead tree. They, too, would prefer to have some time to themselves rather than sitting at a table making small talk. They, too, can see how bizarre it is to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus when they, themselves, are agnostics or atheists. They, too, can acknowledge a fundamental disconnect between feeling outrage about a pipeline in North Dakota and eating turkey to commemorate the harmonious relationship between white folks and Native Americans. These people, my people, are okay with questioning the easy acceptance of tradition.

But I kvetch about the holidays too much, I fear. When it comes to this topic, people either get it, or they are threatened by it. Thus, I’ll simply say this: last night, as we wandered around the dark neighborhood together, I was very genuinely happy to be with kids, Byron, and my cousin Eric and his wife Raquel. Nobody was spending hours basting, chopping, and grabbing extra chairs from the basement, and nobody felt pressure for things to be “nice.” Some of us had hoppy beers stashed in our pockets; some of us had two heads; some of us felt energized by the hustle of costumes and kids and flashlights and families, all coated by the fine mist in the air, all fueled by sugar and eager gimme.

Then there was a beautiful moment, somewhere around 44th and Robinson Street, when Raquel whispered, as the kids moved from one house to the next, “This is all I need for a holiday — not all that other stuff, you know…that comes later.”

I contemplated laying a wet one on her.

halloween-trick-or-treat-collage

Halloween feels honest to me. Its ancient roots of rejoicing in the harvest and chasing each other around a fire and getting wild in the dark smack of real stuff. So yesterday was good.

Here’s why:

  1. A few weeks ago, Paco wondered if he even wanted to go trick-or-treating this year. Perhaps he was getting too old. Immediately, I reminded him that his younger cousin, Signe, still needed company. She and her family live in the country, so they come to our neighborhood each year — and Sig needs her compatriots. Most certainly, I guilted the kid into participation (a hallmark of every holiday!). Yet, when the time came, as they trotted from house to house marveling at how heavy their pillow cases were getting, Paco announced, “I don’t think I’ll ever get too old for trick-or-treating. I’m going to keep doing this every year, forever.”
  2. Paco was extremely excited about the ease and coolness of his costume choice. At school, they’ve been reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and he is loving it. It was a no-brainer, therefore, to dress up as a greaser in the style of Ponyboy and Sodapop.
  3. Dads can do hair just as well as moms can. I mean, IN CASE THE WORLD STILL WANTS TO ACT LIKE IT’S THE LADIES WHO HAVE TO HANDLE THAT STUFF.
  4. Because the kid dressed up as a greaser, we invested in some bubble gum smokes as an accessory. By the end of the night, all three kids had cigarettes hanging from their mouths, and introducing kids to smoking is just good fun.
  5. Allegra, in trying to decide how 16-year-olds can still celebrate the big night even though they’re not interested in trick-or-treating, yet they’re too young to go out and slosh around at a rager, decided to gather her crew at our house for some treat-making. All night, girls trickled in and out, making punch, eating pizza, enjoying homemade Pumpkin Spice lattes, laughing, posing, and turning out a very fine graveyard dessert. The feel of them in the house made my heart grin.halloween-girls-collage
  6. I took bags of popcorn to my afternoon class and became, for a hot thirty seconds, each student’s favorite teacher. Truisms: college students are hungry, and college students like free stuff. There was an anticipatory energy in the room — they had plans once they were done with their schoolin’ — but eating popcorn settled them into some focused crunching and writing.
  7. It’s always a good day when I have a beer in my pocket.
  8. At one house we went to, they’d strung a ghost from a tree and dropped it on unsuspecting visitors. My head spends most hours in a digital world, so the sheer 1970s vibe of this trick was beautiful — reminding me that a sheet and a rope will always be more fun than a puppy-dog filter.
  9. Because I zipped from class to a meeting to home and into the night-time whirl, a sheaf of activities from the popcorn-eating class sat in my work bag, awaiting my attention. When, at 10:30 p.m., the boys went to bed, I sat at the dining room table and graded. As I read answers to discussion questions, I listened to a posse of teenage girls in the next room giggle and talk about colleges and teachers. Eavesdropping, I fell a little bit more in love with each one of them.
  10. At midnight, I took the hand broom to the front door and swept up the evening’s detritus: blades of grass, twist ties, candy wrappers, smears of dirt, crunched leaves. With each swipe of my hand, I delighted in evidence that the house I live in isn’t pristine, untouched, sheltered. Dirty feet tromp in, bringing with them life and energy and fire and zest and laughter. People toss their coats on a chair, carry their bags into the kitchen, unpack their loads, ask questions, chatter about how tired they are, ask where we keep our spoons. When they leave, the house falls quiet, yet a faint imprint of the bustle remains. They were here. Now they are gone. And I am sweeping. 

halloween-end-of-nighthalloween-kids

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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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