Saturday, January 24, 2015

something far away

The second time I visited Singapore, in 2006, I flew alone the twentysomething hours to meet with my husband who had been there for a week already, working. I had plans for our time together - botanical gardens, night art festival, tour of Christmas lights, an old Catholic convent, Snow City, lots of eating & drinking & taking probiotics. We did all of those things, and they were wonderfully memorable (partly because of how much we sweated through every outing). But like with most vacations, the mundane can become the sublime, too, if you're paying attention. 

I wanted to wash some clothes during our stay and after an hour-long adventure in miscommunications with the hotel staff - plus one confusing trip to a restricted area - I realized there was actually no place in the building where I was allowed to do it on my own, and the hotel service would cost somewhere in the realm of the US national debt. So Stu & I took a cab with our two bags of sweat-soaked garments to the mall and handed them to the old woman at Washy Washy, an even hotter place than the sidewalk outside, where the only area not taken over by clothing was our space at the counter. It felt a little scary considering I had only the outfit I was wearing and maybe one more left in my suitcase at the hotel, but my husband had had good luck here the week before. The old woman smiled & nodded at Stu like they were old friends as she grabbed our bags, pulled at a few items on top, then tossed them to a corner full of other bags, shouting in less-smiley Chinese to a worker.  We had to prepay our 22SGD, which was so significantly cheaper than the hotel rate that I once more doubted I'd see my clothes again. 

We had lunch at the Hard Rock Café (because, Americans) then shopped along the main road. I considered replacing all of the clothing I'd just handed over to Washy Washy but settled on one Esprit shirt and a cute long denim skirt that ended up being very difficult to walk in. 

I'm pretty sure I slept fitfully that night, worrying about whether I'd get my clothes back, if they'd be wearable (I had a feeling no one was looking at labels about dryer heat recommendations), if I would have to spend my teacher pay on a new wardrobe. But when we returned to the launderer, the old woman smiled & nodded in recognition and went right to our bags. Everything inside was clean and folded with care, nothing was missing or misshapen or shrunken; in my relief, I left an embarrassing tip. 

I tried many times to toss out the receipt for our laundry but something kept it in my wallet. Every time I saw it, I remembered how much I loved Singapore (despite the breathtaking heat) and I felt accomplished somehow. I felt like an adventurer, finding a way to get something done without taking the easier, expensive, tourist way. I realized later no one at Washy Washy had spoken English, yet we did great business together. 

I hope I can go back someday. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

me today

With Mark Wahlberg and the spirit of Adam Yauch, in my classroom trying to catch up + get ready for Monday. 

I love my job teaching teenagers, but 'love' is a funny word. In our Poetry class, we call it taboo; instead of telling, show what love looks like. Feels like. Smells, tastes, sounds like. 


This is what my love looks like : a bulletin board next to my desk filled with handsome men and thoughtful quotes and notes from students, and an old laundry receipt from Wishy Washy in Singapore; I bring what makes me smile, sigh, wistfully remember and pin it to my periphery for inspiration and joy and relief. My love also looks like tables arranged for seeing each other, a raised eyebrow, hands in the air, faces awake with thinking or furrowed with disagreement or blank with confusion trying to be alleviated. Sometimes it looks like eyelids fighting sleep because that's how life is, for all of us. 

This is what my love feels like : the shaggy velour pillow against my back in the desk chair, the push of tacks and squeeze of binder clips, a swipe of Lip Rescue, the smooth glide of Flair pens on papers, tension fading in a student's shoulder, breath catching in my throat during a discussion, the empty-building concrete cold that settles in my fingers and under my socks on days like today.

My love smells woody like pencil shavings, floor cleaner sharp, deliciously acrid like playing school in 5th grade with markers that made me lightheaded, Tropical Sorbet spray when the paper mill stench stretches up the hill, and meadow gardeny when I slather on hand cream at the beginning and end of every day. 

Love that tastes like black tea sometimes hot and sometimes lukewarm, fast lunches, secret chocolates in my desk drawer & stale emergency crackers in another, salty smoked almonds for sharing. 

And this love sounds like my IHeartRadio New Order station (Van Halen on Fridays), the daily grind of a pencil sharpener, a whirring projector, scraping chairs and teenage voices negotiating for seats, maybe loud, maybe quiet from the edges, powerful words put into powerful sentences, "Good morning, Mrs. Spencer" and "Bye, Mrs. Spencer, have a nice day."

I love my job.

Friday, January 2, 2015

yellow, for sam

This print belonged to my mother-in-law. After she died I decided I would like to have it, not realizing until I brought it home that it exactly matched the walls of our bedroom. I keep it above my nightstand and think of her every morning & night.

Sam championed just about everything I did - after not killing her son with my reckless driving out of the dorm parking lot where she stood meekly waving goodbye one sunny Pullman afternoon in 1989. She did not like it when I considered myself not good/smart/capable enough so she often praised my sense of style, my decorating skills, my writing, my teaching, and later my mothering. It took awhile for me to believe her but then I realized, she was not a woman who wasted time or energy with lies. Whenever I start to feel not good or smart or capable enough, I remember Sam's earnest face and I can hear voice telling me to just get moving. Try. Stop wasting time. 


Thursday, January 1, 2015

new year sky

"I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me." ~ Anaïs Nin

Start a marvelous 2015, friends

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.


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