Tuesday, March 30, 2010

One of Those Vowel States

One the eve of the commencement of my Spring Break, let me pause for a moment to play the Glad Game:

I am so glad that we got our annual Skunkfest out of the way this morning. I could be glad it didn't happen tomorrow, when we will be hustling off to the airport, faced with leaving our stinky dog on the porch for our hapless housesitter to handle.

Assuming, of course, that it doesn't happen all over again tomorrow.

Note: My joke about including skunks on our census form was a joke, Urban Wildlife! Ha ha! Glad you thought that was funny.

We're headed to the Midwest, via the Midwest, with miles of cornfields between the airport of arrival and our destination, the hometown of loved ones from my husband's side. Our kids are ridiculously giddy at the prospect of flying (Free drinks! With ice!), of the rental car, of unfamiliar accommodations, of Omaha and Iowa. I think we're all ridiculously giddy to be together, anywhere, and reacquaint with one another and grandparents and aunties and cousins.

One cool thing about landing in Omaha and driving to Iowa for Spring Break? Both locales happen to have eponymous songs by musicians I love.

In anticipation of our trip (far away from skunks!), I bring you "Omaha" ("somewhere in middle America"), by the Counting Crows, and "Iowa" ("And so for you, I came this far across the tracks...and I'd do it again"), by Dar Williams:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mutt and Squeak: An Homage to Our Animals

Our pets are getting old.

We're kind of preparing, as morbid as that sounds. It's not like we're treating each day as if it's anyone's last, exactly, but the signs of age are spawning almost daily dialogue. With two curious and insightful human youngsters in the house, it feels honest and appropriate to talk about our furry family members' mortality, and how important they are to us.

The eldest of five children, I had the big sister I always wanted growing up in our family dog, Mitzi. I give her some credit for raising me; she died an old, regal grandma of a German Shepherd/Collie mix when I was fourteen.

Our cat and dog were my husband's and my first kids, too. The Russian Blue was a gift to me from my sister after I moved back to California and into my very own house, sans roommates, for the first time. She was a tiny abandoned kitten the local veterinarians rescued, and they fed her with an eyedropper and cared for her until she was adoptable. In San Diego at the time, local attention was focused on a rescued wayward baby grey whale named "JJ" who was being raised and readied at Sea World for her return to the wild. The vets named their little grey kitten "JJ," and she became mine. I renamed her "Koshka," Russian for "cat" (clever, I know).

That fall, on a walk with an out-of-town friend, a German Shepherd puppy in the window of our flagging pet store caught my eye. Her ears were her most distinguishing feature besides her sad, beseeching eyes. I was smitten, and made my friend keep walking back to the storefront to give her another look.

I remember him sighing, "You're totally going to end up with that dog."

I never intended to buy an animal from a pet store, especially the proverbial "doggie in the window." But my resolve was weak, and it wasn't long before I took that little runt of the litter home. We treated her for worms, fleas, and kennel cough, and learned that she was the last pet sold from that store before it changed ownership and ceased carrying live animals. Amani (Swahili for "peace") was welcomed skeptically by her feline sister.

And then my pet-friendly landlady let me know that she was selling her properties, including my sweet little pink cottage with a yard. With the help of another property-owning friend, my pets and I moved into a pretty big apartment with a pretty small patio. Husband-to-be joined the clan, and we moved one more time together before buying our current home and adding our two daughters.

Many people don't know we have a cat; Koshie decides when and to whom she'll reveal herself. She saves most of her appearances for when she's hungry, and in winter when she uses me as a hot water bottle. Much to our youngest daughter's chagrin, she occasionally amuses herself by lurking around the corner in the kitchen, only to pop out and scratch her unwitting victim on the ankles.

Her most distinct characteristic is that she doesn't meow; she squeaks. She squeaks when she's hungry, irritated, and when someone sneezes. Ours is not a snuggly feline; she's quirky and a bit bitchy. The one time years ago when I agreed to rescue a friend-of-a-friend's unwanted cat, I had to give it back. Koshka made quick work of that kitty, and it wasn't pretty.

Amani's puppy-like enthusiasm is belied by her grizzled muzzle, but we can still surprise folks at the dog park with her age. She will manage to leap over the ottoman during lively living room dance parties, but she's slowing down, spending more time on our bed. And lately, the couch, furniture she's known all her life to Keep Off. Now she dismounts the cushions to come to the front door like the creaky Great Aunt of family operations she's become, with certain entitlements like refusing to follow rules made for youngsters.

Amani and Koshka were puppy and kitten together; together they are morphing into old age. They collaborate daily, starting with their morning nuzzle and head-butt in the kitchen. They seem to coordinate puking and potty traumas as well. I worry that they're too close in age, too close in life stages. Their bodies and hair are thinning as our daughters' relationships with them are deepening.

My parents' Grand Dame of a Golden Retriever died last year, and in the car last week my youngest daughter was thinking about Maggie and asked me why she died.

"She was very old, honey," I explained.

"Amani is getting old, too," she noted.

Yes, she is. And I know that our eldest daughter in particular gets this, and that when she lies on the floor next to her dog, petting her and deep in thought, she's mindful of this time and her bond with Amani.

It's bittersweet to set ourselves and our kids up this way: adopting pets means acknowledging the finiteness of life and the pain of love when its object is absent.

But, oh, that love! So worth it. And that's what I want my kids to know.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I've Been in the Shed Out Back

Pardon the silence.

Last Week and The Weekend conspired to throw me over their laps and whack me on the backside, a collective whooping that had me hollering for Monday.

But Monday just hissed at me to quit my whining; it wasn't that bad.

Monday has a point: There's nothing terrible going on, just too much going on.

I'm counting on Spring Break for sympathy and understanding. She arrives next week, not a moment too soon.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Before There Were Blogs

Note: I am entering Mabel’s Labels BlogHer ‘10 Contest with the following post based on the hypothetical situation that...electrical storms are going to wipe out the Internet (perhaps forever). You have one day left to write about your passions: what do you want to say to the blogosphere in 300 words or less?

Once upon a time, before there were blogs, there were young writers composing stories, poems, and essays in a high school creative writing class. Quiet poets gained volume in verse; classroom characters practiced defining themselves in fiction.

Their teacher, moved by her students’ unique perspectives and vibrant voices, asked them to reflect on “How to Live.” And so they wrote: about stargazing, about deep breaths, about sweat and tears, about adventures, about love.

She pushed them to be brave with their powerful words, to open their ideas to others, to publish, to expose their works to scrutiny. “Take your words to the streets,” she assigned them, “and chronicle the reactions.” One student read her writing aloud in a park. Another writer left his inspirational lines in chalk on the sidewalk. A poet taped her verses to a bus stop bench.

On Monday morning the creative writing teacher received a phone call from a woman living in the community. She had gone out for a walk on Sunday morning. She explained to the teacher that her husband had recently died; she described her emptiness and an overwhelming sense that things were never going to be better. She confessed to being in a dark place, thinking dark thoughts.

Then she sat down for a spell at a bus stop bench and noticed a poem taped to the seat. The poem entreated her to look up. To feel grateful. To discover the beauty all around her. To hope.

Her spirits lifted, the woman wanted the poet to know that her lines had a profound impact on someone.

In the absence of blogs, this teacher argues, we still have lipstick on mirrors, letters in the mail, signs in windows, and poems in unlikely places. We only need the courage to share.

Friday, March 12, 2010


This month's issue of Real Simple magazine has a wonderful list of "10 Secrets of One Unflappable Working Mother" by Michelle Slatalla. Among her liberating nuggets is permission to appropriately blur the lines between home and work life, to make snappy instinctive decisions (and to not regret them later), and to "assist with a history project that involves the use of glitter (by nixing the glitter)."

I read her piece shortly after reading Mom-101's lovely reflection on the occasionally wistful lives of both working and stay-at-home mothers entitled "Grass: Greener." I appreciate her graceful acknowledgement of how our choices, or how the circumstances life has dealt us, can still leave us yearning for something different, and how similar we all are in wanting to feel important, valued, respected, and influential.

I refuse, by the way, to pander to the notion that there are "Mommy Wars," and to rationalize my reality as a working mother as being in the best interests of the health and welfare of my children. I will never know if that's true, nor have I had the opportunity to test that hypothesis. Furthermore, I would suggest that no scientific experiment nor study will ever determine which scenario is actually better for kids and for society. There are far too many variables in culture, families, and child rearing. I believe we all attempt to do what we (individually) need to do, for ourselves and our families. No universal right answer.

Period. End of discussion.

Rather than debate the merits of working inside or outside the home, I would prefer to discuss with other parents of all types and circumstances how they nurture and develop deep satisfaction with themselves and their lives, and then raise their children accordingly.

As for me, I am a work in progress on the cultivation of contentment. Being a working mother is who I am and what our family needs me to be. It may very well be what I need to be too. Most often that is what I believe. For me, being happy and feeling on top of things and reasonably under control can require, as Slatalla testifies, having the forethought to load the crockpot for dinner. Mostly it means continually making minor tweaks here and there: sacrificing timesucks that are momentarily fulfilling but add stress over the long term, advocating for myself at home and in the workplace on issues that preserve my sanity, and identifying boundaries that reassure me and my family and communicate to others that my priorities are intact.

I've learned about myself that maintaining balance in my life is easier if I simply agree To Be Me under all the hats I wear. I had a conversation with a coworker recently about my home life, my work life, and Facebook. He was impressed (perhaps more curious/skeptical) about my willingness to Facebook-friend parents of students I work with and to expose myself on this blog--to, in effect, mix my private and public lives. I argued it's easier for me not to distinguish too much between my personal and professional personae where they naturally blur.

I lived and worked within the same neighborhoods for all three of my first teaching jobs; greeting students and their families in the grocery store on weekends grew customary. I had to come to terms with the inevitable exposure of my personal life via grocery cart: bottle of wine, tampons, pregnancy test. All normal, I assured myself, observing that my own confidence in Who I Am and What I Do went a long way to extinguish any sense of scandal.

As I married and had children, the boundaries separating my work and home lives naturally sharpened. I owe it to my daughters to be their mother first and not The Vice Principal. At home in my neighborhood in the evenings and on weekends, I exist in my present, unfettered by job titles and hierarchies. I am, above all, Big Sis's and Little C's Mom. Or the Lady in the House with the Big Tree in Front.

And yet, I invite glimpses into my musings and am comfortable with the wide audience for my Status Updates and Posts (grateful, however, that there was a relatively small pool of spectators--known by me, anyway!--for my spontaneous telling of a joke with the punchline, "You're a vagina!" on a college friend's Facebook thread this week).

Why this need for me to reach out and share? Because nothing I feel is new, but I've learned there's value in abstracting one's own experience in hopes of reflecting someone else's. That's how we connect. And connecting makes us less lonely.

I am woman/I am wife/I am mother/I am sister/I am daughter/I am colleague/I am teacher/I am vice principal/I am neighbor/I am friend: it's so very hard for me to define where one role ends and the other begins. I often mother while I vice-principal. My inner vice principal emerges when I mother, alas. I try to keep "mother" out of "wife," and bring more "friend" into "neighbor."

I recognize that the more I can merge the upsides of each of my roles into the best representation of me, the better off I am.

Slatalla implores us to give ourselves a break, to absolve ourselves of the guilt we accumulate as we struggle to Do It All: "Let it Go. Really. I mean it."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Breaking Up Can Be Easy to Do

A friend and fellow English teacher once passed on an excellent assignment idea: have students write "break-up letters," but tweak the model so that the recipients of their "Dear Johns" are objects, ideas, or states of being.

My students enthusiastically purged, variously breaking up with tight jeans, gossip, staying up too late, and Morrissey (!?).

The last time I suggested this project to a creative writing class, I was pregnant with my second child, and ready to part ways with partum-ness. I've been thinking about that break-up letter to pregnancy lately, perhaps because what I need to break up with now, four years later, is the idea of pregnancy.

What about you? Which relationship of yours is past its prime, had its moment? Is it time to dump the mullet, the bob, or the bad hair dye? Have you been cheating on veganism? Would you and denial be better off apart?

Before I share my letter, I want to encourage you to read my friend Missy's rather hateful break-up with a most annoying toy. If her missive and mine don't get your juices flowing (and you don't mind a few spelling errors in your Dear John letter), try this template.

And then move on, already!

Dear Pregnancy,

I’m really struggling with this letter. It’s hard for me to let you go, and for many reasons.

The first is that you might be my last...and I hope I don’t have any regrets about our times together. I hope I appreciated you enough and didn’t complain too much.

Another reason I feel wistful is because you’ve brought such good things into my life. Those things are still with me, and I appreciate them (almost) every day. I know I'm being selfish, but I’m thankful for what you've given me. I am not so sure what I brought to you, though some have said we looked good together.

You’re just not for the long term, dear pregnancy. It can’t be a permanent thing. The relationship started out so exciting, and secret, but made me a little queasy a couple months in. I questioned why I got involved with you in the first place. I was dizzy with it all and even had trouble eating; the emotions were overwhelming.

Gradually everyone knew we were together and that part was a lot of fun. People were so happy for us! Let’s admit: the best times were in months four to seven, because we got along so well then. Thank you for that special time. You made me feel so good, so energetic, so excited and complete.

But let’s face it, pregnancy. The last few months--particularly the last few weeks--have been a sort of hell. You’ve pulled at me in ways I’m not comfortable with. The pressure, the late nights wondering when this will end, getting mixed signals from you...I’ve been in need of an answer. I need to know your plans. I realize you’ve just been doing what you need to do, and I respect that. But I think I need something new, something else. I need to move on.

It’s gotten to the point where I’m willing to admit you’re just a stepping stone to another level. And because you can’t decide when we’ll part, I’m going to give you a deadline: If you don’t leave me by the 18th, I’ll have to have you surgically removed.

Sorry, sweetie. I know there are others hoping to have you in their lives. I'm sure they’ll find you just as attractive, seductive, and enriching as I have.



Tuesday, March 2, 2010


A body was found this afternoon in the area where missing teen Chelsea King went jogging last week, and a registered sex offender has been arrested in connection with her disappearance.

I've been unexpectedly preoccupied and emotionally affected by this case, and I suspect I am not alone. It goes beyond how close to home this crime occurred, and beyond the facts that I work daily with adolescent girls and am a woman and a mother of daughters as well as a runner. Like others, I am thinking about my own exposures to sexual misconduct. I am reflecting on how we represent, talk about, and promote healthy sexual relations in our society. I am pondering our approach to apprehending, punishing, and rehabilitating sex offenders. And I am wondering about how best to raise and protect our children--from being both victims and offenders.

When I was in fourth grade I kept a secret from my parents. The secret was borne of shame: an awareness that I had participated in--perhaps even encouraged--the bad behavior of an adult.

There was a man who lived with his mother at the top of the T-intersection across from the end of my block. If I stepped out of my house and looked left, I invariably noticed his house first. My best friend in our tract-home neighborhood lived in the house next door to his.

One afternoon when I was playing in her room, my best friend told me that the man next door liked to shine mirrors into the upstairs window facing his house.

"Why does he do that?" I asked.

"So we will look over," she said.

The hair on my arms prickled. I knew this man walked out on the front walk to get the newspaper each morning with his robe barely closed. And I had seen him stand behind the screen door with his robe open, the door filtering his image just enough to make me unsure of what I’d seen. I developed the habit of riding my beige ten-speed bicycle by his house with my eyes locked forward, after the slightest surreptitious glance to the side to verify he really was there, aware of me, and being strange. But I still wasn’t convinced. There was still a chance I had made it up in my mind.

Another day, while we were in the backyard of my friend’s house, she pointed to a Frisbee on the ground.

"He throws that over our wall," she explained.

"Why does he do that?" I asked.

"So we will get up on the wall to throw it back," she replied. "Wanna see?"

And so, with that irresistible curiosity of a child, and a prescient knowledge that what were about to do would be regrettable, I scrambled up on the wall with my friend to toss the Frisbee over. I stood atop the cinder blocks just long enough to see, somewhere beyond the glare of the sliding glass doors facing the yard, the naked figure of the heavyset man, holding his penis as if to urinate against the glass.

I ran home, heart pounding. But I kept my secret for a long time, until a sense of guilt and foreboding overwhelmed me.

Fifteen years later, I walked home from my teaching job in Washington, D.C., admiring the row houses in my neighborhood. Scanning the facades of the homes across the street, I caught a glimpse, I thought, of a man's nude torso in a third-floor window. I was immediately embarrassed and enraged, but unwilling to confirm what I suddenly had doubts I had seen.

But I was even more unwilling to change my route to and from school. For months I walked those blocks stubbornly, refusing to look upward at the house from which I suspected a man might be exposing himself. I wouldn't give him the satisfaction, nor would I allow him to control my life.

Then one spring afternoon as I approached that block on my walk home from work, I noticed two young girls running toward me, giggling and pointing back at the offending house. When they got close, I stopped them and asked what they saw. Their eyes grew wide and they looked at each other.

"Was he naked?" I asked.

They nodded.

"Go home and tell your mom," I urged them. "And I will call the police."

I felt vindicated at that moment; what those girls witnessed provided the proof I needed to convince myself I wasn't crazy, and to report him to the authorities.

But here's what troubles me: In both cases I waited to tell someone what I experienced. I waited long enough for someone else to experience the violations too. And while these were only cases of indecent exposure, I know my feelings about myself and the men who flashed me were complicated and likely indicative of the range of emotions victims of sexual abuse experience: uncertainty, guilt, embarrassment, shame, denial, anger, self-reproach.

I imagine the secrets burrowed and silent in our midst, and their potential implications. How do we absolve ourselves of guilt and encourage honesty? How do we safeguard ourselves and our children? How do we determine the line between protectiveness and paranoia? How do we raise healthy people with healthy outlets for natural desires? How do we recognize the dangerous outliers, and how do we prevent them from harming others? How do we know when they're healed?

How do we conduct our daily lives, freely and independently, without fearing so much potential harm?

I have more questions than answers, and a heavy heart.