Sunday, November 23, 2014

lucky? or, in the presence of decent humans

This morning I stood next to my 14-year old daughter in the kitchen. She blithely dismantled a pomegranate while I read the Rolling Stone article about campus rape. Every few paragraphs I reached out to stroke her back and hair, grounding her here in her footie pajamas and innocent teen girl bedhead. I wondered if my own mother ever worried like this about what might happen to me at college; we never talked about boys, really, much less what kinds of situations I could find myself in with them. I considered what kind of conversations I should have with my daughter now.

Of course there is the "Avoid ____________________" [fill in the blank with sketchy scenarios like Frat Parties, Secluded Areas, or Anyplace After Dark] mantra repeated to girls whenever they are sent out into the world. This seems like common sense for an intelligent person, which my daughter has shown herself to be. But I was (am) an intelligent person, and I found myself in these scenarios during my years at Washington State University. Often. Even (especially) when drunk and sometimes (frequently) alone. And I was never sexually assaulted. According to the statistics, 1 in 5 women will be at some point in their lives and according to some points of view, it is more likely to happen when a woman places herself in those sketchy scenarios that most with so-called common sense avoid.

So what kind of an example can I provide? Was I just a lucky idiot?

Maybe yes - because I should take responsibility for my actions, and if I were to fall off of a cliff because I stepped too close to the edge, no one would blame the rocks for slipping out from under me.

But more emphatically no - because rocks are not sentient beings deciding to slide under my foolishly placed feet to teach me a lesson. People who deliberately take advantage of others - whether or not they walked into ill-advised situations - are jerks at best. At worst, they are never ending nightmares.

I specifically remember two encounters from my freshman year at WSU that I have shared with my daughter - and my son too because, according to those damned statistics again, he will likely find himself positioned to either participate in or stop an assault during his lifetime. During the telling I fully admit that I made poor choices - underage drinking, getting separated from friends, walking alone in the dark. But I also point out the people I remember who chose to help me instead of harming me.

At a fraternity party, I innocently followed a polite young man into the basement to see their house dog. There really was a dog in the basement, and I petted his sweet head for at least 10 minutes of meandering small talk before realizing Polite Young Man had slowly moved his face to within an inch of mine. When I turned toward him, this boy I'd known for about 20 minutes, I immediately felt sick and told him so. Polite Young Man backed off and escorted me to the bathroom.

At another party, I could not find my friends after a couple hours of drinking and was being followed around by a mammoth guy, who was undeterred when I explained my type was a more wiry, funny nerd. I finally ditched him and wandered through a surprisingly dark number of blocks before stumbling into the parking lot by my dorm. I realized then that I had no key and no way to contact my roommate. As I considered my very bleak options, I realized someone I knew was listening to Paul Simon in his car nearby. I knocked on his window and waved; he was an upperclassman from the men's dorm next to mine. He waved, turned down the radio, reached across to open the passenger door for me. I told him my situation and he said he would let me stay in his room for the night. We listened to the rest of the songs on the tape before Nice Guy led me to his room, put out a blanket and pillow on his bed, then woke up his neighbor so he could sleep there and give me privacy. "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" always reminds me of Nice Guy and that safe feeling I had after making a series of stupid decisions one night.

We can shake our heads now, almost 30 years later, at my naïveté or what my kids perceive as my inherent "confident/scary" demeanor but the simple fact of the matter is this : in those scenarios, the men around me decided to behave like decent people. Of course they had hormonal desires, most certainly they considered at least for a moment what they could do to me for their own gratification. But they also overrode those desires and chose to see me as a fellow human who needed help, and they understood that meant more than satisfying urges.

I don't like thinking of myself as "lucky" to have avoided sexual assaults in college. Saying I was "lucky" promotes the idea that most men simply cannot control themselves in the presence of a vulnerable woman. Or it might tempt people to believe the men in my situations were gay, excusing them from the overwhelming impulses of heterosexual males. This is all nonsense - just like discussing what a person is wearing when attacked. Luck should have nothing to do with it.

I hope I am teaching my children to be smart in the world, to make safe choices. But we all make foolish decisions, for a variety of reasons, and nothing should excuse us from decent behavior toward each other. Otherwise we are all just as dumb as rocks.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

fifth draft

This week in my Teacher As Writer workshop, which has been a million fucking times more difficult and emotional and exhausting and interesting and valuable than I expected, we wrote [and rewrote and rewrote] a Personal Narrative. I am posting here what I will take to professional writers for feedback tomorrow, which when I think about it (like I just did there, typing that sentence) makes me feel like throwing up. But it'll be cool, I'm sure. It's only my guts on a page.

Feel free to give me your thoughts, too. Gently, though, please.


I spend the day pretending not to feel contractions. One cinches my stomach, a yanked seatbelt feeling, as I navigate Portland’s noon traffic. I grimace and turn up the radio, smile dumbly at passing drivers. At home I reread the chapter in my pregnancy manual about false labor, eat a sandwich, rub my belly.

Later, I watch Monday Night Football and compare the slamming linebackers to this tiny human tackling my internal organs. I groan, poke a heel from under my ribs. I wander to the computer room, move a stack of papers from one shelf to another, return to the game. When my husband comes in, I mention the contractions. His eyes narrow, he counts the days to our due date, but I repeat facts from the manual. He nods, convinced, and we go to bed.

I cannot sleep. The baby gyroscopes whenever I adjust my body, creating a brisk countermovement. I try to lie still, stare at the ceiling, but even my breathing inspires him to reorient with each exhalation. My husband asks if everything is okay. Yes, I growl, I’m fine.

I sit up, click on the light and lean for a book on my nightstand. The baby rolls like a child’s bowling ball bumpering down its lane. My eyes skim over words mechanically until a stab across my abdomen snatches my breath. I hiss through my teeth expertly, a skill learned in childbirth class. When the pain passes, I wait with teeth bared for the next. I turn pages until it attacks, slashing harder than the others. My husband opens an eye. What is going on? he mumbles. I've got this, I say, hissing.

I slouch out of bed, the baby a giant roiling marble under my skin, and shuffle toward the stairs. I consider them but decide instead to move papers in the computer room again until another mean squeeze stops me. I lean against the wall, stare at the clock. Eight minutes tick away before the next contraction. Like my husband earlier, I recount the number of days left.

I run a bath and heave into steaming water. My husband opens the door, peers into the bright bathroom. What, he pauses, staring, are you doing? One leg contorts over the edge of the tub, I hold a razor in my left hand. He blinks. Should I call? I glance at the clock - almost 4 a.m. - press my lips to a white line. Another contraction. Hissssss. Okay. I twist back to my stubble, concentrating. Razor steady, I shave both legs.

We negotiate construction zones and tighter, faster contractions. At the hospital, a crowd of medical students surrounds us, fixes me with a paper gown, monitors, probes, punctures. Carefully packed suitcase abandoned. A beeping heartbeat quickens then slows. I sink to hands and knees, slide a clipboard placed on my right across the bed so I can sign the release. Husband? I can see only unfamiliar eyes alert and tense under so many masks. I lie down, wait, breathe, one last hiss. Then there is my husband, changed into sterile clothes, eyes wide and ready under his mask. He holds my hand as we roll to the operating room.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

it's only kind of funny

I watched the movie version of this a few years ago and loved it - the characters seemed real & relatable, and it felt hopeful in a not-treacly Afterschool Special way. I wanted to get the novel then, and especially after a student - who had experienced a startling variety of mental health issues in the few years I'd known him - mentioned it was his favorite book. I finally remembered to look for it a couple months ago while shopping the Friends + Family 30% off Sale at Powell's in Portland; as I browsed and tried to remember every title I wanted in the history of publishing, this cover caught my eye, a stack of copies facing outward on the shelf. I vaguely registered the Staff Recommendation card tucked under the stack but as I stepped away, pleased with myself and considering how soon I could start gleefully reading, I noticed this written on the bottom of the recommendation card: "RIP Ned" 

Wait, what?

I knew the story was semi-autobiographical but it had ended well; Ned survived adolescence and a troubled young adulthood. I set the book in my basket and shakily Googled Ned Vizzini on my phone. My stomach lurched as I glanced over ugly words like "dead at 32" and "suicide" and "blunt force trauma." I wanted to not read entire sentences, as if that would make the facts untrue; as if I could bring him back by sheer force of disassociation.

It took me a few weeks to start reading this book. I was angry at the author - for taking his own life, for doing so in a particularly brutal manner, for leaving his parents and wife and child with questioning despair, for abandoning fans - I felt he had betrayed people like my former student who were inspired to stay alive by his once-positive outlook. I didn't want to read about his journey to a happy ending knowing the real ending was so awful.

But I wanted to revisit those characters who had captivated me in the movie version. I also thought reading about his experiences, even fictionalized, would help me understand him better. And, I guess, for what it's worth, forgive him. I know, intellectually, that mental illness is terribly complicated. I know it takes over all rational thought, that even when people are conscious of their mental illness, they still feel powerless over its demands. Emotionally, though, I just want people to keep fighting. I want them to fight and fight and fight until they win.

I read it. I loved it even more than the movie, which was quite satisfying, though the film's scene of patients singing 'Under Pressure' together is a soul-stunningly joyful addition. It took me longer to finish than most books I read because I kept setting it aside, postponing the end of my connection to its author.

Every word felt authentic - because essentially it was - and that anguished but hopeful teen boy voice haunts me. I want my son to read it, to see how other kids his age have the same overwhelming, terrifying, hopeless feelings he sometimes has; I want him to know how they deal with them, how they laugh at them, and how they can live through them.


Some people don't, no matter how much we wish they would.
No matter how much they wish they could.

Do, please, RIP Ned.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

sad mad sad

This may come as a surprise to anyone who has never read or met me before, but I have a pretty active fantasy life in which I pretend to not only know celebrities but consider them friends and/or potential future spouses. Having such an [imaginary] intimate connection can make their unfortunate choices or untimely demises especially difficult for me; after I feel the basic human empathy, I start to experience weirdly personal reactions, as if their actions reflect on me somehow. Like they were rejecting my [unknown] allegiance, snubbing my telepathic attempts to offer them loving devotion.

I remember feeling this way about James Dean when I discovered him in college - I developed an odd adoration that was tinged with a melancholy annoyance at his early death three decades earlier. Every time I read about him or watched a movie, I wondered why no one could keep him from acting so reckless and dying so young. Repeat 20 years later with Heath Ledger, and every time I teach Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, and today with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Of course these feelings do not only apply to celebrities but they are spotlighted and magnified by them - my first thought is often WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE THAT F*CKING HARD ABOUT YOUR LIFE? I compare their supposedly blissful swag-filled LA mansion/Manhattan flat lives to my mundanely satisfactory thrift store-filled suburban neighborhood life and imagine them chuckling at our blandness. But one minute later I think of how irritating it would feel to know someone is always waiting to snap a picture as I wave my kids to school or grab personal hygiene items at the store. To know that all of their very human fears and anxieties will be dismissed because they are presumed to have reached a state of superhuman perfection due to their fame + fortune. When people think you're amazing, you let them down when you are a mere mortal - unless you look sweaty after the gym or buy lattes at Starbucks Just Like Us, because THAT'S FUN! Otherwise, don't let your issues cloud our shining vision of you.

I am sad when people die. Period. I am especially sad about the death of people who have shown so much promise in their given area because I selfishly want more of what they were bringing - performances, writings, general good will in the world. When their deaths seem preventable, I feel mad. Why not seek help? Why hurt your family with this final act replaying in their minds? Why leave everyone asking, helplessly, why? And then I'm back to sad.

Monday, November 25, 2013

bucking up

I do not jest when I say there are days that I awaken desperate to do anything other than teach teenagers. Some days I stay in bed until the last possible ridiculous moment; I groggily consider what I could do from the comfort of my pajamas that would pay for a few summer nights in NYC; I mentally map out our budget and decide where I could scrimp to account for a few thousand less. But I always trudge downstairs, make some tea, eat cake if I'm lucky, nag my kids into semi-meaningful conversation while they have breakfast, and imagine telling my principal (who also, mercifully & thankfully, is a friend) that I cannot do my job anymore. First, in my imaginary scenario, I see her jaw set in a way that makes me want to run, and then I see her squinting, trying to listen to my reasons. Which are, honestly, stupid.

Managing my time is hard.
Coming up with interesting, relevant, useful lessons is hard.
Going to meetings is hard.
Filling out paperwork is hard.
I want to do something easier.

I never get to the place where I articulate these things because scary principal friend just thinking about them while I shower and blow dry my hair and do my makeup remind me that they are truly stupid. Of course my job is hard - I am helping new people navigate the world in meaningful ways. Yet that includes my own people, the ones I birthed and am raising but somehow inexplicably still do dumb things amidst the cool things. Plus I want to spend time with my husband, that isn't always centered around wine & The Walking Dead after the kids are in bed (though these moments are golden, yo). And I have friends whom I'd also like to see occasionally for a few hours, without having to compromise lesson plans or meeting notes or grading.

So yes, all of the parts of my job make living life hard - as do many parts of many people's jobs. I think it's a sign that something is truly worth doing if it is difficult and we do it anyway, with pride; if we care enough to put in the time it takes to make our jobs satisfying to ourselves and meaningful to others, that is valuable.

And here's the cool thing about those few days when I wake up in a state like this: At least one student somehow rocks my teacher world within a few hours. I've found an anonymous note saying my hair & smiley faces are awesome and that the writer admires my wit. A very reluctant/borderline contentious poetry student got engrossed in putting together a presentation of his Where I'm From poem, asking excitedly if he could use as background the picture of his house he got from Google Earth. A quiet girl made a point of telling me Technology is now her favorite class because I'm teaching it. Another girl whom I had reprimanded for stirring up drama later brought me a Keep Calm button for my bulletin board.

Then today, this exchange happened with a boy who loves the Philadelphia Eagles:

Him - Hey! The Cowboys won yesterday! [pause] I watched the game; I think the Giants are pretty crappy.

Me - I KNOW! It was a terrible game, but it was a win. Now we're tied with the Eagles' record!

Him - Yeah.

Me - But I wore green today, just for you. [I wear black if my team loses]

Him - Oh, and I'm wearing blue! Cool!

....then we have to start class, but that. It's exactly why I get out of bed, and forget about the stupid stuff.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

vision check

I guess I am lamely late to this controversial party and I anticipate some backlash against my perspective yet here I go...

This article about the Robin Thicke song/video "Blurred Lines" has a few valid points : it is absolutely not ever okay to assume consent from anyone for anything, Mr. Thicke could cool it on some language & imagery and do a better job of obviously mocking misogynistic attitudes, and no one would be paying all that much attention if YouTube hadn't banned the video [for a minute].

However - here is where I might go sideways with some very sensitive, intelligent, well-respected women I know and I hope they will still like me - I think this song & video are essentially supposed to be about how sex should be fun for everyone, and naked lady bodies are a joy to behold. Clearly it has an embarrassingly hetero-centric viewpoint, which I think makes it an easier target for those (rightfully) concerned about the objectification of woman. And I certainly do not condone treating a woman (or any partner) as a thing or property, without rights, incapable of thinking, or disallowed choices. 

But in this song & video? It seems to me Robin, T.I., and Pharrell are being silly boys getting all jazzy about pretty girls. That happens, it's natural (with variations for different orientations), and frankly, it's a compliment [ALTHOUGH I do not want to be called a 'bitch' EVER; that is indeed a grave lyrical error on their part]. But if we're looking to engage in conversation & change perspectives in any way, we have to address the reality of physical attraction and base sexual desires.

I don't think I can say anymore at this point that could smartly compare to these women's creatively astute responses:

A strongly-homosexual take that is brilliant though quite naughty in some places so NSFW or around children who haven't yet seen some South Park, Arrested Development, or any Kevin Smith movies: "Ask First" by J. Mary Burnet & Kaleigh Trace.

And the Mod Carousel gender-swap version helps make even more clear the point of sex=yummy & saucy & empowering. Some of the half-naked boys are wearing makeup, and ALL of them are freaking adorable + having fun. Also NSFW but less terrifying for your pre-teens in terms of references to activities that make 40something high school teachers blush [see above].
Overall, what I talk about with my teenage boy & girl when examining popular music/movies/books/TV/websites, is that no one looks menacing or acts demeaning at a partner or, conversely, no one seems scared or dominated (without delighting in the domination, which is possible amongst consenting partners). While the song played on the radio seems more catchy & teasing than awful, the video is admittedly obnoxious and potentially confusing. The lyrics and the behaviors displayed definitely need discussion with young folk who are trying to figure out how this whole relationship stuff works - when we like + trust each other, we say sassy things and think we're cute (or we tell each other when we're uncomfortable and respect each other's lines, which should not be blurred because we're being honest). If we don't know each other, we are not allowed to make any such comments without fear that - as the straightforward ladies say in "Ask First" - someone will "break your f*cking knees."

Hey hey hey?

Monday, July 15, 2013

live wire love

Though I am a longtime listener of public radio, somehow I never thought about the audiences I hear reacting to the shows being actual people in an actual venue enjoying an actual performance in front of them. It's obviously an audial medium - I just didn't consider it a visual medium as well. Yes, I have multiple teaching degrees and am in charge of many young people's futures. Anyway.

A few years ago my lovely & socially well-connected friend invited us to watch the radio show Live Wire, which is recorded and broadcast in Portland [but now syndicated across the country - tune in!]. I pictured us sitting in a cramped room staring at people wearing gigantic headphones leaning into microphones to deliver lines. Okay, I there wine? I'm in.

The first time we went, I had no idea who any of the guests were. None. Yet it was one of the funniest, most interesting & engaging & satisfying experiences I've ever had in public. We promptly bought tickets for the next recording featuring Storm Large, Dan Savage, and Stephanie Schneider; it was incredible. There are expertly written & delivered comedy skits, songs from often little-known (though sometimes wildly known - The Dandy Warhols - or well-known artists joining other groups) but immensely talented musicians, plus interviews with authors or activists or politicians or businesspeople or actors. And aside from the actual performances, the best part of watching a radio show is hearing the off-tape asides and watching the do-overs, which almost always include lots of good-natured swearing.

To be clear, it is not in a cramped room - though the theater is comfortably intimate - and the participants do not wear headphones. They do wear some great shoes though. And there is, indeed, wine.

Because of the smaller venue and the very kind + tolerant members of Live Wire, I've been able to stalk stick around and chat with performers & guests after shows. Some people are incredibly gracious and sign my program or carefully stolen poster, which I then hang in my classroom to prove I am at least a tiny bit cool for having met Carrie Brownstein, Chris Shiflett from Foo Fighters, a writer for Family Guy, and the voice of SpongeBob.

We have become part of the League of Extraordinary Listeners because they give t-shirts & vodka and invite us to special events* this group of people deserves as much support as I can give - for sharing their talents, for exposing me to brilliant authors & musicians & regular people doing amazing things. I am personally enriched, of course, but I can then take these discoveries back to my students - I can make important connections with them, and I'm not only sharing new and interesting things but showing how they too can brighten the world with their passions; how they can get involved in important movements, locally & globally; how simple, small ideas from one or two people can become revolutions.

*They really do offer these and other fantastic incentives for donating money. It IS public radio, people. Pledge & get swag!

Yes, a radio show can be watched. It can be a marvelous entertainment. And it can be used to change hearts & minds.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

living in fear

For the last 22 hours, I have had a hard time enjoying the moments. A thought keeps poking at my brain: I want to live somewhere else. Like, a different country. Or planet. My 14-year old son says this regularly in his indignant teenage angst, and I remember that feeling. I listened to Cronkite, snuck notorious books from the library, and subscribed to Rolling Stone so I became well informed about Charles Manson's family and the Jonestown massacre, about apartheid and Stephen Biko, about energy crises and hostage situations. It seemed like everything I read or heard indicated a doomed future world. I felt so helpless being able to only fume over the nightly news, join Amnesty International, commiserate with The Smiths.

Then I got older, did a little bit of letter-writing & fist-waving in college, spoke out in PTA & at school board meetings, then settled into adulthood and considered myself Doing My Best by teaching open-mindedness, critical thinking, and questioning to teenagers and being properly outraged on social media regarding timely topics. This is the approach I've encouraged with my children, after acknowledging that things seem bleak but pointing out that there is always hope.

This week has tested my silver linings outlook.

I will not now get into the arguments people have about marriage and sexuality and abortion and guns and self-defense and race but just say this: I want so much for the citizens of my country to just have a heart for each other. To simply say "Hello" before any other words. To ask questions when we're confused, or suspicious. Or maybe even just walk the other direction if we feel we cannot have a rationale discussion.

Live and let live.

Because if we can't do these things, I'm afraid to stay here much longer.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

things i'm actually bad at

Before we begin in earnest, I must address the preposition upon which I ended this post title. I am typically a stickler for proper grammar - a Grammar Nazi if you will, though I would never murder people for misusing language; subject them to long, boring explanations, yes, but not murder. However, I also believe strongly in poetic license and the concept of breaking rules as long as you know what they are. Moving on.

I don't really think I'm a *bad* mom (see explanation of blog name); I think I make a shit ton of mistakes but that doesn't make me bad, it makes me human. And I think I'm pretty good at admitting my mistakes [by the way - important distinction - mistake does not equal wrong, I'mtalkingtoyou,1sthusband] then learning from them.

I am, however, bad at a bunch of things and because I profoundly hope no one gets the idea that I excel at everything, I will list them here. But in no particular order other than numerically off the top of my head because really, I'm bad at prioritizing.
  1. Meeting deadlines : I visualize calendar boxes in my head with appointments & meetings written in different fonts & colors and happy balloons hovering in birthdates; deadlines just look like bear traps.
  2. Making meal plans : I have tried a thousand great ideas from Family Circle and Woman's Day and Real Simple and countless painfully cheerful websites, to no lasting avail. I have three apps on my phone for pulling together balanced meals; I have carried recipe cards and vague weekly schedules in my purse. The only thing I'm good at in this arena is planning to plan.
  3. Pulling off "Fashionable" : This is not a call for compliments nor a sad self-image issue; I am perfectly pleased with my basic/boring wardrobe of jeans, t-shirts, camisoles, and cardigans. I have tried trends but I just feel weird in my own body. I don't get how to do belts, or jewelry combinations, or scarves, or lipstick, or anything called an 'ensemble.' I happily live Coco Chanel's directive, "It is always better to be slightly underdressed."
  4. Sewing : The fact is, I just don't do it. Except popped buttons, and then only if wearers of the garments are embarrassed by safety pins.
  5. Housekeeping : I like to tell myself it's my way of just enjoying the important things and ignoring the little stuff for awhile. But I really really hate cleaning toilets.
  6. Returning phone calls : Especially since the advent of texting, I avoid actually speaking to people on the phone. I think I don't like the lack of a visual but I'm also a notorious multi-tasker so if I'm just supposed to be listening but can't see the speaker, I'll do other things [except clean the toilet] and miss half of what they're saying. Pointless, and I get a sore neck trying to hold the phone with no hands. Plus texts are a time-stamped record of what was actually said in a conversation, which is handy in preparing for a job with the NSA.

There are plenty more but I need to go validate myself for awhile. I think I'll correct some grammar errors on people's Facebook posts.


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