Saturday, November 27, 2010

Got to Make the Morning Last

This morning we took the girls and dog for a hike.  We packed turkey sandwiches and PB&Js, sliced apples, and water, and set out to do something free.  And familyish.  And fun. 

Fun we had.  It was a delightful morning and a beautiful Southern California day.  Yellow leaves shimmied in the breeze; bird-sized bugs whizzed by; squirrels chattered.

Our daughters enjoyed each other's company, not always the rule these days.  They sang and skipped and giggled. 

In this photo, they're gently poking at a furry caterpillar crossing the path. 

We saw dozens of them, crawling at remarkable speed out of the meadow and onto the trail. 

Where were they going in such a hurry? we wondered. 

In contrast, our girls couldn't be rushed.  They moseyed along, kicking stones, sharing sticks, climbing on logs, pointing out flowers and holes in the ground. 

And we had nowhere to go, but where we were. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Thanksgiving morning.  It's quiet; only the pets and I are stirring.  Soon I'll head out on a run, thankful that my body is sturdy and compliant. 

I am thankful that we're having our family meal on Friday this year, and that we will continue our tradition of delivering student-made desserts to Christie's Place, a resource center for individuals and families afflicted with AIDS and/or HIV. 

I am thankful for our students.  They're baking desserts.  They're cheering one another at championship games

They're grieving. 

Yesterday they lost a peer.  We lost a student.  Not a former student, but a saw-you-on-Friday-and-I'll-see-you-on-Monday-in-your-usual-spot-on-the-quad current student. A young man whose furtive, defensive way of looking down when I greeted him was as familiar to me as his kind smile and Bob Marley tee shirt.

Have you ever watched a group of teenage boys mourn one of their own?  I hadn't, until yesterday.  A junior in high school, our friend grew up with a crew of boys since preschool, and some closest to him were with him at the accident. 

Their grief was powerful, difficult to describe.  As if enacting an ancient rite for which they had no model, no leadership, the boys--sixteen and seventeen-year-olds--tightened their circle and focused on taking care of one another and their friend's family. 

A teacher on her morning jog at the beach watched them surf their buddy's board out into the Pacific. They arrived at school together to retrieve a mosaic he was constructing and present it to his mother. When my husband and I visited the tree last night, they were huddled around it together, hoodies and beanies, candles burning, remembering. 

What emerged yesterday was that the young man we mourn for was the most loyal of friends.  His comrades honored this trait in a simple and meaningful way:  holding on to one another, forgiving one another, loving one another.

As I lay in bed this morning, just barely awake, I thought of the mother and father who rise today without their son. 

His parents, his siblings, and his inspiring circle of friends will be in my thoughts today as we celebrate all we have to be grateful for. 

Enjoy your family, friends. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

ReOrg Update

Don't get excited; the Pile of Denial is still intact. 

I tackled the freezer today, though, after some subtle hints from The Husband, and threw out some unidentifiable icebergs.  I also noted (from the back of the freezer) that hey, we don't need more sausage.  Also, we've got plenty o' flatbreads for pizza.  Let's go buy some tomato sauce and mozzarella already. 

I organized the items I salvaged into sections invisibly labeled "Meat," "Chicken," "Dessert," "Nuts," "Bread-like Stuff, Including Dough and Pie Crusts," "Fruits and Vegetables," and "Ice." 

This morning I had breakfast with a friend who organized her pantry around times of day:  "Breakfast" on the bottom shelf, with "Lunch," "Dinner," and "Dessert" ascending from there.  She explained that she and her Other Half were still working out the distinctions between "Lunch" and "Dinner" foodstuffs; he was often confused.

Her "Dessert," I noted, was closest to the heavens. 

"Or," my friend winked, "just out of reach."  

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sticks and Stones

Before I became a vice principal, conflict made me extremely uncomfortable.  One of the times I remember feeling most scared in my whole life was at the roller rink when I was in fourth grade.  A fight broke out near the bathrooms and I cowered in a stall for a very long time. After that, I meekly tiptoed away from shouting, arguing, and confrontation.  I married a non-yeller on purpose. 

The first time an angry parent directed her furor at me the vice principal, I cried.  I am an easy crier, I will admit, but you might have cried too under these circumstances.  Some blows are low, below the belt, and some barely skim the top of your head.  This one cut deep.  But I can look back now and be grateful for the experience.  Under similar circumstances these days, I would hang tough. 

Part of my job is dealing with people.  I don't love that verb, "dealing"--it's like "tolerance"--not quite all the way to being real with other humans.  Most of my job, thankfully, is about "supporting," "guiding," "assisting," "empowering," and "reassuring."  Nevertheless, I have to deal with some people from time to time.  I am happy to report that most of them are strangers.  This is reassuring because if we can at least count on the people who know one another to respect one another...that's good.  That's a start. 

Last night a college sophomore tried to fight me.  I don't think I am exaggerating here, because he also nearly got into a fight with an innocent parent spectator at last night's championship game.  He was an alumnus and fan from The Other Team, The Rival Team.  The Team We Love to Hate. 

This contest goes back so far I sheepishly compare it to the Yale-Harvard rivalry:  one in which we ultimately (secretly, inwardly) concede grudging respect for the other institution.  There's a reason we go up against one another, and it's that we're both awesome at the same things, which are academics, and that particular sport which fuels the rivalry. 

So here we were at the championship game.  Expecting rain and dressing like someone almost on vacation, I sported fleece in our school's color, sweats, and a black wool hat acquired circa 1991.  The final game is an annual event between our high schools, so we could expect light-hearted taunting from either side.  Anticipating such, our Athletic Director and I positioned ourselves in the student cheering section. This year our crowd came somewhat subdued--no students in full green body paint, no signs taunting the refs or the private-school fans from the other side. 

But about one minute into the game a rival fan started taking on our section.  He wasn't outrageous, just obnoxious, turning to our students to comment loudly on every play.  When he began heckling our coach, though, I decided he could use a little intervention. 

"Hey, how about focusing on cheering for your team, and leave our coach alone?  This is going to be a great game, and we all want to enjoy it." 

He quickly stood up and over me, exerting his rights as a fan to say and do whatever he liked.  Who was I, anyway?  I didn't assert my office; I wasn't his vice principal, after all, and I am not, conveniently, Vice Principal of the World (frankly, I don't think my heart could take it; my hat is off to cops who deal with anonymous irrational people on a daily basis).  The Athletic Director and I plunked ourselves down at the edge of our section, right across the narrow aisle from our rivals and his seat, while he got a talking-to from an official.  We were now practically sitting next to each other, he and I, much to his chagrin. 

He continued to challenge our crowd, but it wasn't until he took me on personally that he earned his partial ejection.  While talking to my neighbor, I absentmindedly gave a few claps after a call against our side.  He stood above me me to ridicule my mistake, asking me if I understood what a five-yard penalty was, and was I stupid, etc.  I just shook my head ruefully and noted that his attention was misdirected and that he was making a fool of himself.  He didn't stop berating me; I had to tell him to back up and take his hands off of me at one point.  A league official finally intervened and removed him to an area behind the players. 

Our students, I am proud to say, had stayed classy, refusing to take his bait while his team continued to score against us.  I was able to sit quietly for the remainder of the game, taking deep breaths to compose myself and noting that my heartrate and blood pressure were coming down from the tenth floor.  It's scary when someone big gets in your face.  Someone college-sophomore-athlete big. 

When the game was over, he came back through our crowd en route to the exit.  He attempted to rile up one of our alums as he passed and I interceded just in time, urging him to move along.  He was none too happy to see me, offering a few more shots, including his parting one, "Get a new hat."  I should have responded with, "Next time wear a jacket that doesn't have your name on the sleeve, Genius."  I refrained.  Also, I thought of that snappy comeback later. 

We made sure our fans exited without incident, but he did not--he caused a near-fight in the parent section when he started swinging after someone accidentally jostled him.  He had to be escorted out by a cadre of friends and family members.

The Athletic Director and I congratulated and consoled our disappointed second-place players as we handed out medals and wished them a restful break.  One of the coaches came over to thank us.

Appraising my hat, he grinned.  "Thanks for your support tonight, Paddington!"

Moral of this story:  when friends and foes alike agree on the hat, I think it needs to go.  And it's definitely not worth fighting over.

Friday, November 19, 2010

List: Disclaimers

1. We didn't know we would still be living here nine years later.
2. I am the oldest of five siblings; he is the youngest of five siblings, and we are married.
3. My "clean" might not be your "clean."
4. I ran out of the real kind.
5. I don't measure the ingredients.
6. I am planning to own this car for, like, twelve years.
7. I am not doing this for the money.
8. We've gotten used to my salary.
9. I learned a lot from that experience.
10. We're just going to see what happens.
11. I might need it later.
12. Studies show dark chocolate, coffee, and red wine have health benefits.
13. First-borns are bossy by nature.
14. My first pregnancy changed that part of me (forever).
15. I am not a very private person.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Am What I Put in My Basket

I waited in the long line at the drug store patiently, clutching a pregnancy test and some toothpaste. When it was my turn the next available clerk beckoned me to her register. Recognizing my item, she exclaimed, "Congratulations!" I paused and laughed nervously. "If," she added, "you know, you get the outcome you desire."

Whoah there, Nellie. I'm pretty sure commenting on the merchandise, particularly personal products, is against the rules.

I've assumed over the years that there must be expectations laid out for clerks concerning the subject matter of their small talk as they ring up our items, having grown accustomed to prolonged silence and birds chirping as my personal items make their long journey down the conveyor belt while I fumble for my club card. I'm grateful that my box of ultra-super-plus tampons becomes the elephant in the room when I am spared comments ranging from the benign ("Stocking up, huh?") to the inappropriate/obvious ("Suffering from heavy flow, I see...").

Perhaps it is okay to inquire about recipes and food combinations, though, because cashiers have asked me, "Whatcha gonna do with this here pork butt?" and "Are you going to marinate your chicken with those limes?" I'm more than happy to swap cooking tips and have talked carnitas, curry, and kale smoothies with curious clerks.

Last night was our daughter's elementary school fundraiser at the new Fresh & Easy grocery store in our neighborhood. If you aren't familiar with "Stale & Difficult," as we in our small family jokingly dub it (they're not! Thanks for supporting our schools!), I would characterize it as similar to Trader Joe's--their specialty is fresh prepared meals. They keep prices down with self check-out and concrete floors.

Self check-out makes me slightly anxious (I fear that I am holding up the line) but Big Sis loves trips to F&E, where she can methodically scan each item. If there were only a keypad, I would be able to live out my childhood fantasy of working the cash register. With long fingernails. Clackety-clack-clack-clack. Ching.

Volunteering at Fresh & Easy on behalf of the school during Monday evening rush hour meant Big Sis got to do some sign twirling on the corner and I got to bag groceries. For these efforts, the store was offering our school 5% of donated receipts.

Bagging others' groceries permitted me to assess the contents of my neighbors' carts, sort and stash their groceries imposing my own organizational structure and underlying philosophy, and maintain an internal commentary on their purchases.

First of all, I have none of this three-items-per-plastic-bag and double-bagging nonsense. Whether or not you bring your own bags, I'm filling them up, within reason.

Cartons of eggs, for example, don't need their own separate sack; they can handle light fare like crackers and bags of lettuce stacked on top. I just let the customer know which bag is which so they don't use the egg bag to slam the car door.

I'm a little lazy: if I can't carry all my grocery bags from the car to the kitchen in one trip (and I am willing to cut circulation in fingers and arms to this end), then I want to leave some sacks in the car to retrieve later. Therefore, I would like my freezer and refrigerator items grouped unfailingly together. This strategy helps lazy grocery unpackers prioritize AND keeps cold groceries icy.

Only one guy asked me to double-bag his heavy sack. I am left wondering about others' intact eggs and whether or not I earned appreciation for separating goods by temperature.

I do know it was hard to stifle my commentary. Like when that gentleman sent one small single-serving prepackaged cup of caramel rice flan down the conveyor. Only one, really? A whole trip to the store for that? I admired his resolve and his restraint. And then mine, for not saying anything.

I wanted to high-five the couple who bought buffalo-chicken pasta in cream sauce. Never even heard of it! Good for you for finding it! Yum! (I think).

You want to buy something weird? I suggest buying a full cart of food. Strange stuff gets lost in there. If you purchase only two items and pig knuckles are one of them, you're asking for raised eyebrows. Okay, so Fresh & Easy doesn't sell pig knuckles. But what's up with the guy who chose diced red onions and frozen dessert? Was he sent to the store for the onions and then detoured for sweets? Just how essential were those onions? Intriguing.

I recall a writer friend feeling inspired to fashion a story around a grocery list she found on the ground in a supermarket parking lot. The contents of our cart provide a glimpse of our culture, our habits, and indulgences.

I have renewed admiration for the cashiers out there who respectfully stifle analysis of our items. One hour of withheld observations had me bursting with inappropriateness.

At the end of my shift I took a whirl around the store to restock our own fridge and pantry. Big Sis's school principal bagged our goods, refraining from commentary on individual items but noting that I had "some cool stuff in there."

Sweet. Thank you for shopping, Fer. You saved $5.46 this evening and your dignity, too.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Give a Way

I checked some of the blogs I regularly read today, and many of them are conspiring to give away a Windows Phone 7. There's a marketing scheme at work: Bloggers of Note are asking readers to respond to how they do more with less, and then there will be random drawings all over the internet. I don't have a Windows Phone, and even though it might seem, with all these giveaways, that my chances of winning one are better than ever, my guess is that in two weeks I will still be doing more with less smartphone.

I could also do more if I spent less of my time entering contests I don't usually win. And maybe I will do more if I don't have a Windows Phone to distract me. Look, folks! I have almost convinced myself I already won something!

Anyway, here on my blog, I don't have anything tangible to give away. Except my secrets, and you already have some of them. Here, I found one more.

Instead of a giveaway, I am going to give a Way. You know, a Way. A way to do more with less. It's only one way, mind you, and it's my way, so feel free to choose the highway.

A Way to Organize Your Canned Goods and Jars

You're really wishing I had a Windows Phone to give away now, aren't you? And, if you read a recent blog post of mine, you're also questioning if I have any authority to give away any organizational strategies.

But bear with me.

We've got a very small kitchen in our bungalow, with very little cupboard space, and because I like to store away my pots and pans and plates and bowls (and also because we have a LOT of bowls), we only have two shelves left for food. That is, if you don't count the top of the refrigerator, where we store cereal, flashlights, squinkies, and a picnic basket full of paper plates and plastic utensils.

I have to make good use of those two shelves, and I want to know where (right or left? Up high or down low?) to go deep for the can of diced olives. My good buddy once bought me a label maker, and after I giddily labeled various toy bins in the girls' room ("Plastic Littlest Pet Shops," "Plastic Goody Bag Loot My Kids Won't Let Me Throw Away," "Plastic Polly Pockets," "Plastic Polly Pocket Clothes," "Plastic Animals Which Are Not Pet Shops," "Unidentifiable Plastic Choking Hazards," and "Cars"), I labeled sections of the shelves in my wannabe pantry.

I only need four categories to make my food-finding life easier, it turns out: "Italian," "Mexican," "Asian," and "Beans." We buy a lot of beans in the cross-cuisine category: garbanzo beans go in curry, after all; garbanzo beans can feature in chili. Sometimes, garbanzo beans complement pasta.

I've got canned diced tomatoes in "Italian," and jars of green chile sauce to the right in "Mexican." Cans of pineapple and chutney go in "Asian," because they're for curries. Soup and cans of pumpkin and tuna go in the catch-all unlabeled section. I can handle only one of those "junk drawer" categories before chaos takes over.

So, if you come to my house, you can open the cupboard door, and say, "Fer, let's see you do something with 'Mexican' tonight." And I can hand you a margarita instead of the cascade of cans I would need you to juggle as I emptied the shelf for an elusive jar of refried beans.

It's not genius. It's not even that interesting to read about, my Way of Stereotyping Canned Goods.

And there's probably a smartphone app for it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Heart of a Soldier

In my 12th grade English class, our AP Literature teacher taught a unit on Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now. There are a number of lessons in high school which stuck with me--which struck me--but I distinctly recall my scalp prickling as my brain opened wide with that awesome ohmygoodnessIneverthoughtaboutitthatwaybefore epiphany as I watched Kurtz from Apocalypse Now demonstrate the contradictions inherent in being a good soldier.

When I taught AP Literature years later (and alongside my former teacher), I included that unit in my syllabus. My last year teaching English before becoming vice principal five years ago, I had a 6th-period 12th grade English class that was nearly all boys (except for two girls). Teaching seniors in the last period of the day was challenge enough; keeping these boys engaged through graduation was my ultimate aim. We read The Stranger before tackling Conrad and Coppola; when the movie Jarhead was released that year and the film's main Marine ("Swofford," played by Jake Gyllenhaal) carried a copy of Camus's existential novel, I gave them extra credit for explaining why that was apt.

Three years later I received an email from one of my students:

I really had an epiphany the other day when I was watching the movie FullMetal Jacket, because I realized that the character "Joker" is the epitome ofthe anti-hero that you tried so hard to get me and all the other thick skulled kids in the class to learn. I was in love with this dude's character. He had such an honest and caring way about him but with this kind of rebellious attitude. I remember your lecture returned to me when he sarcastically said to the interviewer "I wanted to see exotic Vietnam... the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture... and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill!" I sat there and felt kind of dumb that I am just now grasping the concept of your lecture.

As this graduate wrote his email, several of his classmates from 6th period were deployed abroad, and since then, more have enlisted.

Heart of Darkness is not an easy novella to read, despite its relative brevity. The descriptions are thick and rich, and grow even more so as Marlow delves deeper into the Congo. Conrad was vilified for writing this racist work, for depicting colonized Africans as dehumanized "shapes." I viewed his novella as if it were a photograph, taken through the lens of the colonizer. The nature of the colonist's mission, of his role--subjugating others--requires that he views natives as lesser beings. Conrad's portrayal mocks the assumptions and vanities of Europeans as they set out to exploit the resources and peoples of "exotic" lands.

Coppola ingeniously connects the Vietnam War with the colonization of Africa and its inherent evils in Apocalypse Now, suggesting there is a "heart of darkness" at work in each episode in our history. Both Conrad and Coppola shrewdly recognize that the intriguing conflict here transcends the killing or the abuse required of colonization and war. The conflict they exploit is the one which arises from attempting to reconcile these "necessary" aspects of the institutions with attempts at civility and maintenance of "normal" life. Conrad ridicules the Company's accountant, who appears superficially preoccupied with immaculate and elegant dress. An unforgettable scene from Apocalypse Now is of troops surfing waves amidst defensive napalm blasts. The viewers are meant to question the appropriateness of each. Our discomfort lies between our desire for those following the directions of higher-ups to get their due, and the discordant setting. Why shouldn't the Accountant wear what he would back home? Why shouldn't the soldiers surf? Every working stiff deserves a break. And yet, in the background are naked folks, dying people.

My "aha" moment was this, an important reality check for a high-school senior who once spent hours punching studs into her sweatshirt in a peace-sign design and puff-painting the quote, "What if they held a war and no one came?" on the sleeve: All is not fair in love and war.

We're asking a lot of our service people.

We're expecting them to be prepared to kill, but not to massacre, or torture.

We're expecting them to recognize the "enemy," and distinguish who is not.

We're expecting them to put their lives on the line for their comrades, and for us, appropriately.

We're expecting them to believe in their mission, and represent it faithfully.

Meanwhile, they have time off on deployment, but it's not private, and they're held to higher standards than you and I: they're accountable for over indulgences and infidelities.

Both Conrad's and Coppola's works feature men who struggled with the line--the boundary--between appropriate and absurd, expected and unacceptable.

In the 12th grade I began to understand there were many shades of grey between purple hearts and dishonorable discharges, and that humans occupied that zone.

The heart of a soldier is heavy, I began to understand. What we need from those who serve on our behalves is so big and so unfathomable it inspires art, film, fiction. Most manage it with grace, and a courage and determination to return to us no worse for wear.

As Kate wrote so succinctly today, "I am oblivious." But not so oblivious to know that judging is dangerous. We, who so comfortably flip others off from the comfort of our cars, ought to wonder at what happens when the enemy we so easily vilify from afar is met by our young neighbors, my former students from down the block, overseas.

Hate that we have war; don't hate the soldier.

I am in awe, veterans. I have respect for all you are willing to face, all you have surmounted, and have yet to tackle.

I fear for a generation of vets whose wounds may not be visible. We ought not to ask what these young men and women have done for our country; ask instead what we must do for them. And for their families.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fumbling Toward Forty: The Pile of Denial

It's tempting to treat or to view this upcoming milestone--turning 40--like New Year's, by making resolutions and vowing to myself a whole new lease on life. I've thought of a few ways to improve myself, like sign up for yoga. Try vegetarianism. Get up earlier and...get some stuff done. Quit shopping. Read a parenting book.

But that is not how I want to usher in my next decade. Because I can already see myself, next year: Forty years old, happily eating a hot dog and wearing a new shirt from Target after sleeping in on a Sunday (Corpse Pose, hey!) and then putting the kids in Time Out for the ninetieth time. While dragging around the ball and chain of all that was going to be different between age 39 and, well, a few months later. Honestly, I would just tear that ankle bracelet off and dare myself to track me down. 'Cause, really? Then what would I do? I'm so forgiving of myself that my threats would just make me shake my own head and then give myself a hug of understanding.

So it's nonsense for me to embark on that kind of mid-life metamorphosis. I know it from the olden days when I actually tried to turn on a dime and eat better and exercise more and save more money and be less snarky. Cold-turkey quests are quickly abandoned; I gotta ease into these things the lukewarm way. Such that they slowly but surely and despite me become part of me.

No grand pronouncements.

And yet, there's an area of self-loathing in my life. There's this thing I do, that whenever I love myself a little too much, I remind myself of it to keep myself honest and humble. I point to it with my best look of disdain and disappointment, and make myself actually feel guilty.

I think this proclivity is genetic, but that's no excuse. It's ugly; it attracts vermin; it results in unpaid bills. It's a damned shame, and I need help.

I'm a Piler.

You may not know this about me, because I hide it at work. I get things done; I mostly don't let people down.

But at home, I let it all hang out: corners askew, envelopes torn, pages marked and unread, The Pile of Denial threatens to overtake its desk.

You should be worried, friends. Your wedding invitation is in there. A letter I wrote you and never sent is lost in a sea of bills urging me to sign up for "paperless."

I'm not proud. The Denial part is Me convincing myself you don't need my RSVP; you already know I'm coming. It's Me hoping that just because I said on the phone I would send in my $25 pledge IMMEDIATELY, it doesn't truly matter if it's in this calendar year. It's Me swearing that I am going to read that article in that magazine, someday. SOON!

Dang it, why can't there be blizzards in San Diego??? When we were snowed in for a week in Washington, D.C. back in 1995, I got my ever-loving Affairs In Order. And it felt good.

But now, I need intervention. The Pile of Denial is why my car registration incurred a $150 late surcharge. It's why I don't have the discount coupon for LEGOLAND and will probably pay full price when we take Little Sis on Thursday. It's why I reprinted the directions to the pumpkin patch. It's why Big Sis's adorable drawing from kindergarten is a wrinkled, silver-fish-chomped-on mess.

How do you organize the paper influx? The mail? The kids' work? The magazines and catalogs? Is there hope for me by 40? This, my friends, is the last frontier in the battle for Me, Loving Myself Completely. In every other way I am perfect (OK, well, I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong.).

I'm taking suggestions. But no paper, please.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Longest Day of the Year

I was up at 6:30 AM this morning; make that 5:30, with a run with a friend scheduled for 7, which was really 8:00, the only reason that plan sounded like a good idea. I had 1.5 hours to caffeinate and get my groove on, far more time than customary.

The kids, including extraneous cousins spending the night, got up at 7, which would be like sleeping in, except it was actually 6. By the time I returned from my run at 8 AM, the cousins were fully revved. As I approached our block, I could hear one cousin repeatedly blowing a shrill whistle. This was when I hoped the neighbors acknowledged 8 AM this morning was really their 9 AM. Certainly that was the kids' way of thinking...they'd been up for two hours but seemingly hungry for three.

My conclusion about "falling back": we spend the day confused, and ravenous. Not to mention tired. Which is how you start the day, since you did not mean to get up one hour earlier than normal. If only all those wee-hour flights were scheduled for this day, the day half our clocks auto-reset themselves, and the rest only serve to make us late, early, or skeptical.

I ate scrambled eggs, a bagel with cream cheese, a twice-baked potato, a turkey/cheese/avocado wrap and a leftover piece of pizza: all before noon. The kids were right there with me. It's as if the Little Hand taking one giant step backward meant we all donated 1000 calories to some cosmic (but artificial) energy bank. I'm still waiting for interest on that investment.

We ate dinner at 6, which was more like 7 PM, and my whole house of living beings, including furry friends but excepting me, was sound asleep by 8. Which was really 9. Groundhog-Day us for one extra hour, and we can't take it; 25 hours of Sunday is too many.

I know I'll be wide awake at 5 tomorrow morning, urging myself to take advantage of my early wakefulness and go for a run, but I'll peek outside the window and decide it's still too dark.

Our attendance clerk is rubbing her hands with glee, imagining all the high school sleeper-inners accidentally arriving to school on time tomorrow. But I am betting they note the extra hour of sleep, roll back over and doze, and end up oversleeping.

Whatever, Time Change, you ruiner of soccer practices, last vestiges of summer, and daily routines. Give me my sunshine back.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I'm not really sure how to write about suicide. I've written a poem about it. And I've thought about suicide. Not seriously, but enough to add my fear of my own self and of finality to the hundred reasons why I will never keep a gun in the house. It's a pretty legitimate fear, I think: the fear of my own potential to harm myself or others. I believe I understand myself well, but when someone I know kills himself unexpectedly, I wonder. I wonder about the dark corners and alleyways the brain can wander into, all by itself. With no one but itself to talk to.

Right before heading in to teach a guest lesson to some 11th grade English classes today, I got the call from my husband that a former student had taken his life.

He was just home from serving in Iraq. We were excited he was safe, successful, that he had come so far, through hardships he faced earlier in his life. By all accounts he was happy, optimistic.

But what do we know?

My lesson was on Sylvia Plath, on her poetry, in particular "Lady Lazarus," in which Plath chronicles her three attempts at suicide. "Dying is an art," she writes, "I do it exceptionally well." Yet Plath, of course, lived to write this poem, barely: on her fourth attempt to take her own life, she succeeded. I dissected the piece with our students, admonishing them to characterize Plath as "mentally ill" versus "crazy." Depression, I reminded them, isn't crazy. Attempting to kill oneself three times may be. I honestly don't know.

Depression isn't glamorous; nor is suicide. And my audience was teenagers. I felt conscious of my language, of judgments I might imply. Sylvia Plath didn't enjoy the life she artfully documented. She was unequipped to fully cherish her children, acknowledge her own creative genius, keep on keeping on. Persevere, I wanted to implore these kids. Reach out.

It gets better, those who understand have been pleading.

Suicide, people say, is selfish, and horrible, and an untenable reality to leave loved ones. Several years ago a single mother killed herself in the midst of her daughter's senior year in my class, leaving a beautiful and creative young woman behind. What was she to do, we wondered? How could she balance her mother's supposed love for her with her mother's need to leave her behind?

I've concluded I cannot judge a parent whose pain is so deep she's willing to hurt her children. I can't fathom that pain, can't excuse it nor condemn it.

A high school classmate, a college classmate, my brother's best friend, my cousin: all ended their own lives.

Today, as when my cousin died, the details left me wondering. Maybe, I think, he didn't mean it. Maybe it was an accident--a gesture or a stunt, gone awry.

Now: the despair and confusion. Next, the sewing together of signs, the guilt, the should-haves and might-have-beens, the frustration and anger over losing a young, promising life.

How do we support the living under such circumstances? Already, on Facebook, I see his classmates and friends remembering, reaching out, resolving to stay connected with one another.

We resolve to talk about sadness and despondence. To listen. To trust our instincts, to risk being a nag when we're being shut out. To recognize signs in ourselves, to replace the burned-out bulbs or check the wiring.

We resolve to not allow the manner of death to overshadow the manner of his living. We resurrect the beauty.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Like a Drawer in a Dresser

Last night I watched a 20/20 episode chronicling three teens' battles with heroin addiction. I was reminded that not all my former students have found their way. One of the benefits of having worked in the same schools for more than a decade now, though, is that I have been around to see some phoenixes rise from their ashes.

A woman I now call friend had an inauspicious start as my middle school student. I helped her out of some tough spots in high school, and wrote this poem about her several years ago. We met for dinner in September and over Indian food reflected on how our lives have changed since the day our paths crossed. My life has intersected with the lives of many incredible and resilient people, and she is one of them.

(Note: this poem is a pantoum, a form in which lines are repeated in a pattern)

For You, M.

I forgot to tell you yesterday how it felt
When you went wheeling, wailing by
Slid into the ambulance like a drawer in a dresser
I cried; my body felt weightless and light

When you went wheeling, wailing by
I didn’t look; I didn’t think it was anyone I knew; later
I cried; my body felt weightless and light
The first time I remember forgetting myself

I didn’t look; I didn’t think it was anyone I knew; later
I wondered how I could ignore your desperation
The first time I remember forgetting myself
Concentrating on you concentrating on pain

I wondered how I could ignore your desperation
And how you could ignore my outstretched arms
Concentrating on you concentrating on pain
I watch you forgetting yourself

And how you could ignore my outstretched arms
Is a question not worth asking, as
I watch you forgetting yourself
Trembling, shaking, cold and anxious

Is a question not worth asking, as
Other things are more important
Trembling, shaking, cold, and anxious
I want to wrap my happiness and comfort around you

Other things are more important
Slid into the ambulance like a drawer in a dresser
I want to wrap my happiness and comfort around you
I forgot to tell you yesterday how it felt