Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bad Day

The air stinks of defensive dialogue.

The stench isn't new; for some time now, tension and criticism--both constructive and destructive--have been acquiring their armies, building with each passing day. I've felt it in pockets, here and there, but lately, it feels like its getting heavier. It feels thick and pungent like smoke.

Fear feasts on our toes, impeding our steps with each nagging nibble. Comments carry unintended connotations, questions inspire angst.

Today, when I finally got ahold of someone at the senior center, defensiveness seeped through the phone. Leaking from the mouth of a perfect stranger--a woman I thought would appreciate my call--it gushed directly into my ears.

"Many people don't understand what happens here," she said curtly. "They think the seniors sit around and visit all day long. In reality, they are scheduled for events throughout the day. This is not residential, so when they're here, they are taking yoga, or strength training, for instance. They are busy. If you have students come over during the school day, those seniors are going to be annoyed."

She paused.

"If you want to send them over at lunch to wander around and see if they can find someone to talk to, then I suppose it might work, but we're only free from 11:30-12:30, so it would have to be during that time."

She left no room for discussion.

"I promise I won't send students over during the school day. I wasn't planning to do that," I tried to assure her. "I think it's great there are so many activities. I was just wondering if you had any leads. I have three students who can't find partners for their project, and I would just like to pair them up with someone who is over 70 years old. Unfortunately, I don't have anyone to match them up with. I was hoping you might have a lead for names of people who might be interested. Then the students can work with the senior to pick a time that works," I explained, a bit flustered by what seemed to be a passive aggressive suggestion that I was under-estimating what the senior center had to offer.

"I think you probably should call a retirement home for that," she instructed me and then she proceeded to list off a dozen different establishments. Returning again to her speech about how busy the seniors were with activities and how little idle time they had, she went on to assure me the nursing home residents were much more sedentary.

Slightly bothered by her unwillingness to help, given the fact that I'm sure there must have been dozens of 70 year old seniors who would have loved to tell their story to a high school student, I remained seated in an agitated state for several long moments.

Then, attempting to follow Atticus Finch's advice, I put myself in her shoes. I put myself in the position of an over-worked person who has budget restrictions, funding threats, and a public perception to manage.

As I sat in her shoes, I realized they weren't much different than my own. Beneath her edgy voice, I recognized fear, a need for validation. And I realized that she, like me, probably has piles of expectations, and gallons of fear.

Her defensiveness was simply survival.

As my day went on, I felt the same emotions well inside me. My students told me they wanted a more creative assignment, so I restructured everything so I could deliver one. I worked hard to teach them tricks of the descriptive trade. I opened up boundaries; I gave them choice.

Some of them seemed excited, but still, the same few who fail to grow excited about anything slouched in their seats and sighed. Their slouches jabbed at my fear, at my defensiveness. Their slouches make me tremble a bit.

I am fully responsible for engaging all of them, for pushing all of them to their potential; if I don't, their failure is mine.

Now, not only is that my personal motto, my personal goal, my muse for rising out of bed in the morning, and staying up late into the night, it is the law.

I work really hard; I tear open my heart and give it to my kids. I don't rely on packaged lessons or pull out binders laden with neatly organized lecture notes. I answer emails from kids late into the night. I give up every free minute I have if a kid needs help. I listen to their fears, to their joys, to their "totally random" stories. I give them practice interviews, I write letters of recommendation, I read their personal writing, I help them with college essays, I volunteer to support their causes.

While no one ever reaches a state of perfection, and each day offers opportunities to grow, just like 99% of the teachers I know, I can say that there are very few minutes each day when I am not doing the very best I can. There are few minutes in the day when I am not thinking about students and what will help them become better people.

But I worry sometimes. I worry in meetings, I worry when I hear the news, I worry when I try and try and try and I still cannot get certain kids excited about school work. I know that is my job, and it is certainly something I strive for, but sometimes it feels like I'm the enemy.

How many adults get excited about going to work? How many adults enthusiastically chose to create spreadsheets instead of hanging out with their family, playing games, watching TV or going out to dinner? How many jump with glee when they must stay up late into the night or work over the weekend on something major and unfamiliar and worth a lot of points?

I'm lucky, because I do. I'm lucky because most of my day is rewarding. Most of my day fills me with purpose. Most of my day is spent in worthy cause. I wouldn't stay if it didn't. But sometimes I have to do things I don't agree with or things I don't like. Sometimes I have to do things that don't engage me or interest me or make me believe in something important.

And sometimes when I'm knee-deep in all of those things, and I still hear that it isn't enough, I feel the gurgle, the bubble, the rising stench of defensiveness eroding the walls within me. And it makes me curl up my nose, clutch my stomach and dig deep to figure out how I can be better. How I can smile when all I want to do is cry.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ragging on Radio

"Fireside Chat"

I'm in Italy right about now.

Two classes of students are smack dab in the middle of a memoir unit, and I'm nose deep in love. Monday morning ushered in a Stephen King interview, and I thought my students would love it--the gruesome details of his accident, how the person driving the van seemed eerily similar to a character from one of his novels, and what the book itself means to him. The only reason I wasn't fully submerged in love was because I had to keep my eyes above the surface. If I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to see their reaction.

After providing a bit of background information, I pranced over to the speaker. Sadly, this prancing was met with sighs and slumps and "radio interview?"

"Just give it a chance I promised them...it's really good."

I lost nearly all credibility.

A few indulged me, and I actually believe they liked it. Most, however, seemed totally bored by the slow, steady voice, the lack of visual images, the rhythm of oral story-telling. To be perfectly blunt, the notion of a radio seemed as uninteresting to them as a Game Boy would. In their life, any sort of audio streams through earphones, and that audio has already been carefully sifted and selected. There's no fast forwarding through songs they don't like or listening to commercials or having to wait to hear whole interviews. Their life consists of their favorite songs--commercial free--and sound bites updating them on juicy details. It seems crazy to imagine anyone would actually sit and listen to an interview when you could search for the important parts later.

None of this occurred to me until I watched them suffer through every single syllable. I thought sharing this interview could help them conduct their own. I thought the story telling might entice them. I thought that maybe I could convince them there was some value in patiently listening to a radio show. But unless it was the Monday morning blahs, I'm pretty sure I thought wrong. By the looks on their faces, I'm pretty sure most of them disliked every minute, and I'm pretty sure that brief exposure to NPR resulted in 46 fewer potential listeners.

When school ended, when boot camp came to a close, and when my evening errands all fell off the list, I reflected on my interview. I know it won't be a good idea for next year, but it was a good idea for me tonight.

As King's words dwindled to nothing, I decided to go back to Italy. I decided to think about my memoir, to drink my water of life. To plan the steps I need to take to carve out the time I need to edit and to submit my work.

With such plans, came images of a fire, a radio, and a tiny little notepad. And for one brief moment, I thought that perhaps I understood why FDR's sea of Americans gathered around and waited, and listened, and imagined. And in the next moment, with the streetlight blazing beside me, I pried open my computer and began to chat.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Drink and be Filled up

I've lived under a rather dense pile of heavy, air-tight dirt for the last seven days. It's the kind of dirt that clumps inside your mouth, presses on your shoulders, and inspires you to dive head first into second base, beating--of course--with the potential of rounding third and heading home.

Adolescent performers shuddered a bit as they trudged to the front of the room, breath all out of whack until they pulled it in, focused their energy and delivered magic from the tips of their toes and the ridges of their tongue. As a judge, I sat and listened to them. I watched their nervous antics, I witnessed transformations, I observed a few tragic collapses.

Words pelted my skin like rapid fire and inspiration bled like an open wound. I wanted so badly to soak it up, but in the end, time didn't allow for any sort of manifestation. Instead, I replayed poems in my mind, and I looked a few up on the computer. Then I gazed up at a clock that informed me it was time to get to work.

I wiped stainless faucets with rubbing alcohol, I scrubbed an already clean toilet and then I dusted books on my bookshelf. My fingers tingled a bit as I pressed them back and then forward, wiping away particles that clung to the bindings with determination. As my fingers pulled those particles away, they gloated a bit over their victory, over the moments they knew they'd one day get to press their pads on the pages and open worlds of magic.

Those books made me want to write. Those books made me want to create something that moved people as much as so many of those precious papers moved me. I wanted to pour, to explode, to wander, to dive back inside my ideas and press them into reality.

The clock told me it was time to do school work. And I walked to my bag and pulled out the materials.

Marlene, one of my team members, reserved Fresh Air recordings from the library and Stephen King was one of the interviewees. I plugged him into my laptop and listened. He read from On Writing in the interview. I wanted to read the story for myself and so I walked back to the shelves. Stephen King peered up at me from his rightful spot, nestled tightly between Maxine Hong Kingston and John Knowles.

I've had that book on my self for a few years, but I have only read the back. I meant to dive inside it--in fact, I have wanted to devour it since I knew it existed--but I let life get in the way. I let the dust grip it as tightly as I would have gripped it had I opened my fingers and freed the words.

I lost myself in the couch cushions as Stephen King wrenched open his skull, and sliced open his heart, telling me why he writes, how he writes, and why I need to get reacquainted with my computer. Suddenly, time didn't matter so much.

"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book--perhaps too much--has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it--and perhaps the best of it--is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up" (King 269-270).

I will.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Isms

I started with my idea list from last night, but my mind was elsewhere.

"I don't like that the article you gave us draws a link between racism and sexism" he said very matter-of-factly. "If women are good enough to get a job they'll get it. If not, then men will. Sexism doesn't exist anymore. I shared the article with my parents and they agree," he informed me and then he sunk in his seat, held up his fully annotated article, and glared at the floor.

I swallowed.

Then I told him that both he and his parents were absolutely allowed to believe that McIntosh was "making a big deal out of nothing and pointing out problems that didn't exist."

A few girls sat up tall in their seat and burned my eyes with their's.

"But there is a lot of evidence that does suggest men and women have not been treated equally," I continued. "Things are certainly better, but the moderators in the Democratic primary debates never asked the male candidates if they preferred pearls or diamonds. And as far as I've heard, in the Republican debates, male candidates have never referred to their opposing party colleagues as "prince" Joe instead of Speaker Schmo. Those are somewhat trivial examples, but the point is that we certainly still have some reason to think about gender. As we begin To Kill a Mockingbird, I want you to keep race and gender and socioeconomic status on the tip of your mind."

I swallowed again; he wasn't listening.

"Opinions are what make our country what it is. We just have to respect the fact that other people don't always share the same beliefs. We can disagree with each other, but we need to respectful."

I focused on each syllable as it escaped my lips, attempting to cover the rage boiling in my gut, attempting to be open and accepting and respectful of his beliefs too. I thanked him for speaking up. I granted him the same air time that I granted everyone else. I asked him follow up questions; I attempted to get him to think deeper just like I pushed everyone else.

Then, a brave female in the back raised her hand. "I like that the article talks about both sexism and racism. I still see many examples of both," she said. Then she went on to talk about her experience in a more urban, more diverse school district. She referenced lyrics to rap songs. She confidently asserted that she found many truths housed in the 1988 article by Peggy McIntosh called "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

Others shared their opinions, none quite as strong as the first two. I offered a few anecdotal accounts from my own life, I quoted shared stories from previous classes, and I explained that the existence of laws did not always equate to equality.

After discussing "flesh" colored band aids, stereotypes on TV, and a black man who was pulled over for simply driving in a primarily white suburb, the bell rang.

I asked the first young man who spoke up to stay after class. I explained that a lot of people have different theories and beliefs about the "isms." I also told him that even if he disagreed with the article, it was good that he read it; it sparked discussion and it made him think.

"Racism still exists," he said. "I agree with most of the statements about that. I just don't believe males and females are treated differently."

"You are entitled to that belief," I told him. "I just want wanted to get you thinking."

"Okay, thank you, Mrs. M" he said, and then he walked out of the room.

I sat and stared at the floor. Piles of planning plagued me, and emails decorated my inbox. I couldn't tend to either. I wanted to give him example after example of why sexism is still worth talking about. I wanted to explain that the battle for equality has not been reached. I wanted to assign him research, case studies, interviews with women who could provide a different vantage point.

But I didn't do any of that.

I questioned him, but ultimately, I gave him the courtesy I suggested he needed to give to the other side. And then I let him walk out of the room. I let him go...and I had to. We live in America after all. We are free. And as long as we are not hateful, we can believe anything we choose to believe.

When enough time passed--when I replayed the discussion enough times in my head--I pulled up my email, I retrieved my calendar, and I tweaked my plans. Then, sick to my stomach, I walked out of the room and headed off to boot camp.

Teaching is so hard sometimes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


It's tremendously easy to get distracted.

My husband and I sat in a booth, waiting for our food to arrive. He chatted with my dad on the phone; I played words with friends until the battery in my phone went absolutely dead. The TV hovered far into the distance; I could hardly make out the speck of pixels running down the hardwood. The nearest table seemed far too absorbed in their conversation to take interest in conversing with me. I took a bite of my chicken wing and as I snapped the bone from my teeth, it flew across the table, ricocheted against the wall, and sunk behind the booth. Locating the errant wing occupied my attention for a solid five minutes, then I decided to glance across the room at the wall paint. This seemed interesting for a moment, but ultimately, after counting 8 sets of drips and fifteen smudges, I decided to come up with plan B.

I retrieved a spiral pad of paper from my bag. Frayed edges and several coffee stains greeted me. I bid them hello, before fetching a pen and making my correspondence.

"Ideas" I wrote at the top of the page. Then I listed airport travel, Jared's grandma, and back pain. Beneath my initial list, I tossed in some bulleted points and decided that once we made our way back to the condo, I'd have plenty of material from which to choose. Then my husband hung up the phone.

Two hours of conversation later, I walked into my condo, flipped open my computer and realized it was past 10 pm. My ideas seemed to deserve more than the time I had to write, and if I gave those ideas that time, I'd be absolutely exhausted in the morning.

And so alas, I found myself staring at the blank screen I tried to avoid by covering my small, spiral notepad with strained streaks of waning black ink.

Sometimes, our plans don't plan out. Sometimes, our ideas have to wait. Sometimes, suspense lives in real life. Sometimes, you just need to spend time with your husband.

I promise tomorrow will be better.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Bucket of Smooth

I heard it from the bathroom.

J tried to talk above the morning show buzz, but the words rose above him, skirting through the air like fumes from the oven.

"Starbucks is giving away free coffee today through Saturday."

I couldn't make out the details, but I heard the initial announcement loud and clear. My runny nose paused, my headache sighed, my eyes opened the remaining centimeters necessary before I could safely operate a motor vehicle.

"Shhhh!" I told J, popping my head out, straining to see past a half-open door. Clearly not hearing the same words, he kept talking a little; I ignored him. "Starbucks..." I explained in general caveman talk, and then I dropped to the couch and tried to extract details from the pixels, instructions from the words.

Spending $2 on coffee is absurd--but I love Starbucks. I love the thick, dark roll of smoothness. Like gasoline to my brain, I cherish the caffeine like an empty tank cherishes petrolium.

"We have DVR; we can rewind it," he said, laughing a little at my alertness, my intense focus, my commitment to block out every other competing temptation.

I shook my head decidedly, then sent my eyes from the remote in his hand to the TV. He sent us back in time, cuing up the magic words, the precious directions, the details I needed in order to obtain the object of my morning affection.

"I'll go at lunch," I declared. "I'm usually finished with my coffee by then. I've been up late four nights in a row; I'm exhausted. This is perfect timing," I rationalized; then I got up and completed my routine.

When lunchtime arrived, I set out for my Shangrila. A line of cars bent around the parking lot. I patiently awaited my place, and then I pulled into a spot. Prancing across the asphalt, I made sure to thank God for this small, brilliant blessing.

Then, I walked inside.

Two girls stood behind a stand decorated with paper shot glasses and pumping coffee carafes.

"Would you like to participate in the taste test?" they asked, inflecting their voices at all of the wrong syllables.

"Sure," I conceded, still believing my participation would usher in the gold at the end of the rainbow. They poured the new stuff first and handed me a paper cup. I pulled the cup to my lips, but steam tickled my skin and warned me not to proceed.

"It's too hot," I informed them. The woman next to me asked if she could take it to go.

"Of course," they replied, but instead of handing her a cup of blonde coffee like the news suggested might happen, they gave her a small bag of coffee grinds.

Really? We have to brew it ourselves?

Then they turned to me. "Throw it over your tongue to the back of your throat and gulp," they instructed. "This is called slurping, and that's the best way to drink hot coffee. It won't burn your tongue at all."

I couldn't help myself. Most of the thoughts in my brain gripped the "censor" bars in my personal filter, but I simply could not stop the scrunching of my eyes or the tilting of my head or the "yeah, but then I'd burn my throat and I'm pretty sure that would still hurt a lot," that came out of my mouth. I didn't even mention that my taste buds were actually located on my tongue and not along the walls of my esophogus.

"Oh you'll be fine," they said assuredly. "We drink like that all of the time." A few puffs escaped through my nose in place of a full-on laugh.

Then, my mind went crazy.

Thoughts ranged from the news broadcasting a flurry of throat burns resulting from the "blonde" taste tests at Starbucks, to images of the ditzy girls "slurping" coffee at 4 am in the kitchen of their off-campus house. This 4 am coffee episode was of course followed by an emergency room visit, and a subsequent explanation that they "do it all of the time" so they don't understand what went wrong with this instance of throwing scalding fluid to the back of their throat. Then I pitied future, unsuspecting customers--at least the ones who don't think. The people who are perfectly happy listening to the expert advice of their neighborhood Starbucks girl.

Once all of those thoughts took their final curtain call, I tuned back to the display in front of me--the now cooled shot of blonde coffee and the girls waiting to see if I liked it. I took a sip. They handed me a slightly cooler Pike Place and an equally as cool Italian Roast.

"Which do you like better?" they asked, bouncing a little on their toes. The girl to my left pointed to the sheet of stickers resting beside a tray of shot cups and explained that once I told them which coffee I liked best, she would give me a sticker. I like the stickers they give you at the voting booth; walking away from Starbucks with a sticker is just disappointing.

"'I'm mellow' is for the blonde, 'I'm smooth' is for the Pike Place and 'I'm bold' is for the Italian roast," she told me as I read the stickers right along with her. Then, as if I couldn't have guessed, she pointed to her chest and declared that blonde was her favorite.

Truthfully, I found myself on the fence between Pike and Italian, between smooth and bold. Forced to make a clutch decision though, I decided it was less necessary to announce my boldness than it would be to announce my smoothness--that is if the sticker is supposed to serve as some sort of personal trait advertising.

"I'm going to have to go with Pike," I told the girls, and then they handed me my sticker, a packet of blonde grinds and a coupon for $1 off a bag of coffee.

Disappointed, but too embarrassed to leave without buying anything, I walked up to the counter and ordered a tall Pike Place, a tall bucket of smooth. I held the sticker on the tip of one finger, as I fished through my wallet for two $1 bills. As I surrendered the money I didn't plan to spend, I felt my cheeks flush with a rush of annoyance. I gazed down at my sticker, and then I decided that maybe I should've gone with the blonde.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


I saw the steam rise from the center of the cast iron skillet.

Plain and clear.

Fumes of pepper and charred red wine wrestled with the stale air. All the while a pot of soaking potatoes gurgled into my ear drums, softening slowly beneath an explosion of starchy bubbles.

The meat sat for a moment, spitting and hissing. I watched it. As I gazed, the crust of burnt wine beckoned me. Imagining how delicious it would taste if I smeared it across exposed ridges of meat, I prodded my steak with a fork, moving it around, coating the bottom. Desiring more, I reached for the handle.

I knew not to do this--mostly, because I've done it before. Mostly because I've felt the scorching sting rip through my delicate fingertips like the candle beside me melts through string.

Time stood still in the delay. The steam gasped, clinging to the inferno holding it. My taste buds froze; the beckoning stopped.

One slow heartbeat boomed from beneath the surface; a pricking tingle followed. Growing in intensity, the pain eventually burst into the roar of a lion who just discovered his voice. My entire hand snapped back, back away from the skillet, back away from the counter, back away from the moment of absurdity. I jerked time into motion as I waved my angry hand, gritting my angry teeth.

I knew not to do this. I knew to wait patiently. I knew to use the towel beside me, the towel that wanted to help.

Instead, something erupted inside, bleeding illogical lava all over my brain, driving me to behave in ways a "sane" instinct would reject.

"I'll let you take a few bites before I talk to you," my husband said when he sat down at the table, knowing full well my hunger reached its threshold and my patience had worn thin. He knew nothing about my hand, about my burn, about my silly, stupid decision to clutch a "broiled" cast iron skillet.

I shoveled two spoonfuls into my mouth and everything relaxed.

"Did you hear that NPR story about ADHD?"

"I heard the tail end," I informed him.

"Well, I guess kids with ADHD burn so many calories they get hungry fairly often. And when they get hungry, this makes them pretty angry."

I smirked.

"They call it h-anger," he said, smiling.

I smiled back as I gazed at my middle finger, throbbing like a cartoon caricature, growling at me each time I pressed it against the cool metal fork, and drew it up to my mouth.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Climbing Out of the Ditch

I can't move.

We were promised that our first boot camp class would "be more of an introduction and assessment than a full blown workout." I couldn't sleep last night because I feared this was an understatement. I feared that my worst fears would manifest the moment I set foot in the gym. I feared that the "easy" work out would mangle my muscles and produce a week full of waddling and avoidance.

All of these fears crept to the surface of reality. There will be no squatting down or reaching up tomorrow. Shoot, there will be no squatting down or reaching up for the foreseeable future.

In our modified workout--with only one break--we had to do one straight minute of each of the following exercises:

Jumping jacks (easy)
pushups (dread)
full sit ups (okay)
squats (bad memories)
crunches (okay)
running in place with high knees ("like")
more pushups (because you can't get enough)
scissor kicks (fine)
lunges (ow)
planks (seriously?)
mountain climbers (that would have been hard earlier in the workout. This far in, really?)

and to cap off the work out...wall sits (secretly "like" in a masochistic way).

If this is an easy work out, Wednesday is going to be miserable.

My mom called just as I left the gym; I couldn't retrieve my phone. I attempted to return her call, but my muscles thundered for mercy as I tried to prop up the device.

It's been a while since I've worked out, but I vaguely recall the pain rising as I rose from bed the next morning. The fact it hurt to walk out of the gym cannot be a good sign. And yet good is the very thing this is all supposed to be. In fact, it is supposed to be fantastic. It is supposed to be enormously healthy to get my body moving, to force myself to succumb to torturous directives.

Every time I sit on this end of the "program" though, I wonder why I ever stopped, why I ever let my muscles atrophy and my cardiovascular system decondition. Why did I ever let go of my ultra healthy habits and allow myself to tumble into a pit so deep, the only way out is through lots and lots of painful, dirty climbing?


Day one is over. Day two haunts my future. I know I should be excited, but all of that action just makes me want to curl up under the covers and read a good book.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Behind Every Strong Man...

My husband loves Risk.

He is patient and strategic and persistent. He enjoys the challenges of long games, and could sit for hours pondering his moves and whether or not he should roll the dice, or simply build up his armies.

I, on the other hand, am everything Risk does not call for in a winner. I am impatient, impulsive and easily distractible. Long games which call for continual strategy regardless of whether or not your inevitable loss is apparent sets my ADD on overload.

In a sudden wave of dice attacks and poor tosses last night, I managed to lose half of my armies, while Alexandra and my husband plowed their way through Europe, North America, and Asia. I decided to fight for Africa; it was all I had left. Winning every single African country guaranteed I would earn four extra armies, in addition to the three armies I earned each time we circled the table and it was my turn to strategize and build.

Jon had other plans. Despite the fact that Alexandra and my husband were taking over the world, Jon came after me in Africa. We fought and fought over the Congo and he won. When my turn circled the table, I fought him back. Once I depleted every last bit of my army, I managed to regain control with one teeny, tiny block.

In the midst of our attacking, Alexandra and my husband squeaked out country after country, until Alexandra had a few lucky rolls in the battle for Iceland, and managed to conquer Europe, bleed into North America and begin to dominate Asia. I also believe she had some level of control in Australia. Now, Jon had a weak hold on South America, and I had an occasional hold on Africa, but for the most part, the bickering between Jon and me pretty much opened the gate for world domination on the part of Alexandra the Great.

Since it became very apparent--very early--that I had absolutely no chance whatsoever to come close to victory, I pulled out my iphone. While I waited for all of the lengthy battles to cease, I played Words With Friends with my brother, with my friend Maureen--heck, I even searched for Jon's account. My attention span reached an all-time rate of distraction, and my interest level reached an all time-rate of rock bottom.

This was beyond upsetting to my husband.

He had a rough week. A pretty time-consuming research paper squandered many hours of his "free time." He volunteered to work an extra shift to contribute to our house fund. We spent all of last weekend painting and packing and attempting to re-caulk the windows. Despite the fans and the towels and the incessant 15 some hours of effort, the caulk still isn't completely dry. It's been a week, and as I type, fans are buzzing in the windows. We also didn't win the short sale we thought we had in the bag, and to top it all off, we couldn't go out because he was "on call" to answer questions about issues that came up that night at work.

Short on options, my husband decided it would be fun to invite Jon and Alexandra over to play a game of Risk. His Risk game was brand spanking new in its dark, cherry wooden box, and after a week of obstacles, he was excited to play it. Harboring wonderful childhood memories about the game, he decided to buy it this year and label it our Christmas gift. We agreed to save money and not buy presents for each other on our first married Christmas, so this game of Risk was our solitary material treat to one another. Up until this point, it saw only one night of competition though--Christmas Eve. J wanted to bring it out for its second debut. He wanted it to inspire good cheer. He wanted to relax. He wanted to share conversation and a few laughs over a friendly game of world domination.

Not too far into the game though, somewhere between Africa and South America, things went very wrong, and unfortunately, it was mostly my fault.

I, his wife--the person who is supposed to be his biggest cheerleader, the person who is supposed to bite the bullet when he wants to do something that I do not want to do, the person who is supposed to help him out, root him on, and give him joy--sabotaged his game of Risk, insulting "our" present with blatant disinterest.

To make matters worse, when he jokingly told me to try harder, I snapped back. "How can I try harder in a stupid dice rolling game?" I edged out, rolling my eyes.

He was kidding; I was not.

"Well, you could at least fight Alexandra instead of playing Words with Friends," he said. His biting acknowledgement of my immature, insensitive behavior stung a little. I was in a corner. I hate losing. Instead of swallowing my pride--instead of continuing to endure a lengthy battle I had no chance of winning--I pursed my lips and pouted.

"She's taking over the world," he said in an elevated tone, a tone he never uses. One of the most patient human beings I've ever met, his frustration felt foreign. "You know, you and Jon could try to help instead of just letting it happen."

"What are we supposed to do?" I snapped back. "I'm bored. I can't win and there is easily another hour left in this game. How invested could I be in trying to strategize when she more than quadruples my armies? Why don't you fight her? You have all of the men. Jon and I are fighting over Africa and South America because that's all we have." Then, like a bratty five year old, I threw in the clincher, "I don't like this game."

Shortly thereafter, we decided to end it. We switched to euchre, a game my husband has hardly played, a game Jon, Alexandra and I have played thousands of times. It was torture for him to sit through hands and hands of cards and rounds and rounds of "why did you call it?" or "why did you play that card?" or "are you sure you know you need to throw a spade?" when all he looked forward to all week was a friendly board game where everyone had a handle on the rules, had an equal amount of experience, got along and relished good cheer.

I took that away, and I didn't even realize it until we were going to bed.

"The game wasn't over until you gave up. Why did you stop trying?"

"It's hard to get motivated when the game is set up so you can't come from behind to win. There was no point in trying. She got 15 some armies every time it was her turn to go; I got three. Africa was all I had."

"You could've help me."

I looked at his reflection bounding back from the mirror. I couldn't meet his eyes. How selfish I was. The week rushed back to me. He was drained. He had little energy left and selfish little me suckered away his night to share in a bit of merriment.

I felt horrible.

I learned another lesson about marriage last night. I learned that sometimes I need to swallow my pride. Sometimes I need to keep playing even if I can't win. Sometimes I need to realize that while I wake up each morning with dice in my hand and a game board at my feet, it isn't just my game I need to worry about anymore.

When I gazed into the mirror this morning, I felt nothing but shame. I might not have been able to take over the world last night, but with my help, maybe my husband could have. At the very least, if I would have rallied my troops for his cause, searching for strategies to block rather than pondering letter combinations on my iphone, I could have made him happy. And in doing that, we both could have won.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Truth About Truth

"We all turn them into stories; otherwise, they are just events," my friend Mike said in an after school meeting.

We were talking about Rocket Boys and whether or not Homer Hickam's memory was accurate, or if he exaggerated and/or altered his experiences and interactions. Given anecdotal accounts of so-and-so's grandparents who happened to attend the same high school as Hickam, a few of us wondered how true his truth happened to be.

Then Mike squeaked out a bit of wisdom. A short comment. A matter of fact comment. A comment that bared a lot of truth.

I pondered his words about the construction of stories, and our professional learning community discussion the entire ride home. I thought about whether or not it mattered that Homer Hickam exaggerated, or if Ryan Smithson relayed his experience faithfully, or if Firoozeh Dumas really grew up enduring so many funny moments. Their messages were excellent; did their details have to be perfect?

I moved on from those writers and began wondering about myself. For some odd reason--of all of the stories I could have pondered--I couldn't stop thinking about an eighth grade softball game. I tried to recall if I actually had to run laps for crying about one of my wild pitches breaking a girl's arm. I seem to remember that occurring, but I honestly don't know if it did. At some point I ran laps for not being "tough enough," and at several points, I injured opponents with wild pitches. Did it truly matter whether or not both of those things occurred in the same moment, or did it simply matter that my coach was smacking me with the harshness of competition?

My softball incident led me to scrutinize all of my stories. While I try to honor the truth in every retelling, at some point, as I live out each of my adventures, my imagination and meaning-maker kicks in. And whether it is conscious or unconscious, through the course of crafting my stories, I must decide how to balance precise accuracy and accurate messages; I must decide what to leave out, and what to squish in.

This whole internal investigation then began to tumble deeper; I began to reevaluate my beliefs about truth. Because truth seems to be wrapped in a complicated web of events, emotions, thoughts and interactions, and draped across layers of time, I began to wonder whether or not truth could ever be duplicated. Every set of eyes zones in on different details, every set of ears hears different tones or channels in on different words, and every single brain works independently to combine present pieces with past pieces; from that mixed up mess of goodness, our minds reconstruct what is true in a particular moment--or at least what is true for us.

Maybe it doesn't matter that our truths are ego-centric. Maybe whether or not everything is entirely accurate is less important than whether or not everything builds to an idea that honors the most important parts of our experiences. And maybe, just maybe, the grayness is what makes it all so delicious. After all, true or not, in my humble opinion, stories make life better. Stories make life far more enjoyable than I imagine yellow steno pads laced with bulleted events ever could.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Salt Over the Shoulder

I watched it plummet in slow motion, end over end, until the tiny hand-held mirror I've dropped hundreds of times without consequence collided with the tile and shattered into six different pieces.


Four days into 2012, and I've already managed to acquire a curse. Not a good way to start a bitter cold morning, replete with wet hair and stomach ache.

I harbored thoughts about the darned mirror all day long. Wondering when the bad luck would kick in, I held my breath the entire 12 minutes I spent driving to work. I'm not a complete moron, so of course, I took a few breaths--when it seemed absolutely necessary to do so. I did not, however, cut it close on a left hand turn, I didn't not run the tail end of four different yellow lights, and I did not speed up to deny a lane change for the jerk beside me who cut off two other cars before he zoomed to the space beside me and decided to cut off me as well.


I treaded lightly. I pried wide my weary eyes. And I gave a few extra "hellos" to strangers, hoping the good karma might counteract the bad energy inevitably coming my way.

When I finally made it home, I couldn't take it anymore; I decided to investigate.

I googled "seven years of bad luck AND broken mirror" and a whole host sites offered their wisdom. In just a few clicks, I learned that the Romans were responsible for this silly little myth. First, because they invented mirrors. Second, because they believed that mirrors represented one's soul, and if one's soul broke into pieces on the floor, then of course that couldn't be a very good thing. Third, apparently they also believed that life renewed every seven years. If a careless soul managed to live seven years past the tragic accident, well, he would be free from his past, and hopefully in his reborn future, he'd be a bit more careful.

As I read further, I learned that tossing salt over my shoulder helps, as does spinning counter-clockwise. Salt tossing apparently eliminates all bad luck and spinning the wrong way after engaging some other form of bad luck generates confusion for the evil spirits. On a few sites, I also learned that blackening glass chards with fire, storing them and burying them a year later--at night--will help reduce my curse by six years.

I decided to take my chances with spins and salt. Me + fire + stored chards of glass seems to hold more potential for danger than turning around, tossing some salt and apologizing to the universe for my careless finger fumble.

I shook a handful of grains into my palm while I sauteed mushrooms. Then I wound up for the melodramatic flick of flakes. Just after the moment of release, J wrestled with the lock on the door and I promptly spun counter clockwise, prancing across the kitchen to open it.

Then--I declared the curse over. Don't get me wrong, I love the Romans, but I don't believe it takes seven years for me to renew. I renew myself each and every night when I see my husband, share a meal, sit down, contemplate my day and vow to be better.

As I swept up the salt though, I decided it doesn't hurt to have a backup plan.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

On Being Vulnerable...

"I want to start a teenage revolution," I told a room full of sleepy adolescents. They sat up a little--but only a little--because it said "poetry" on the board.

"I know that somewhere along the line poetry stopped being fun or interesting or relevant, and I want to shift you a little bit closer to when it was everything. I want you and your friends to get together and battle with beats. I want you to read, admire, write and listen. I want you to have poetry parties where you get together and do nothing else but revel in the magic of language, and laugh and cry and say, OMG this is totally true!"

A few of them muffled their snickers; a few of them appeared excited; a few of them looked like they wanted to crawl back under the covers and sleep off the nightmare unfolding before them.

"Are we really going to have to memorize and recite a poem?" they asked.


"How long does it have to be?"

"How ever many lines it takes to burn itself into your thoughts, to grip your brain so tightly you can't shake it off."

"Huh" they said with their eyes; "seriously" they said with their sighs.

"It will be easy to memorize a 30 line poem if you pick something meaningful. It will be horrendously difficult to memorize a 15 line poem of flat-bottomed words. Find something you would be proud to recite at a dinner party ten years from now."

A few kids lost it...as respectfully as possible. A dinner party? Poetry? She is even crazier than we thought. I could read their minds. I knew exactly what they were thinking. I saw into their brains and their brains informed me that most of them thought I was the weirdest person ever.

And so I made myself vulnerable. I stood in front of them and took a deep breath.

"I know this is the hardest thing in the world. I've been on stage. I've memorized and recited my poetry. Last night, I decided it was only fair to memorize a poem and recite it for you today. I am going to do exactly what I'm asking you to do."

A few more rose from the slouched position.

"Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou," I began, after explaining the significance of the poem--after telling them my friend Katherine asked me to read those words at her wedding, after telling them poetry matters outside of school too.

"We, unaccustomed to courage
Exiles from delight
Live coiled in shells of loneliness
Until love leaves its high holy temple
And comes into our sight
To liberate us into life."

Then silence swallowed me--complete and utter darkness--and I could not see the next word; I could not feel it, I could not even fake it, make it up--nothing. My mind went blank.

Blood exploded in my cheeks. This had never happened before.


Make this into a teachable moment.

I walked to the computer, pulled up the poem and found my cue. I read the first line and the rest rushed to my brain like a herd of zebras.

"Alright," I said with a smile, gazing out over a sea of silent 1st period students, students waiting to see how I would handle my blunder. "Do over. See, I understand how hard this is. I understand what it feels like to have your mind go blank. It happens and if it does, I will give you a do-over."

"That makes me more nervous," one student said. "If you can't do it, how can we?"

Instead of getting mad at myself, instead of admitting defeat, I inhaled, I smiled, and I began again.

"You'll be fine," I assured him, and then I repeated myself. "Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou."

The words tumbled properly, flying along the ridges of my breath, slow and deliberate.

"We, unaccustomed to courage
Exiles from delight
Live coiled in shells of loneliness
Until love leaves its high holy temple
And comes into our sight
To liberate us into life.

Love arrives
And in its train comes ecstasies
Old memories of pleasure
Ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
Love strikes away the chain of fear
From our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
We dare be brave
And suddenly we see
That love costs all we are
And ever will be
Yet it is only love
Which sets us free."

When I finished, my classroom of kind kids clapped. I laughed a little, but deep down I felt a wave of relief and a flush of frustration. How could I have messed up the moment I look forward to ever year? How could I have forgotten my lines? I love reciting poetry. I live for reciting poetry. But today, I absolutely blew it.

I finished the lesson as if my blunder never caused me to waver. When second period walked into the room, I debated whether or not I should try again. But the moment my time came, I simply took a deep breath and began.

"We, unaccustomed to courage,
Exiles from delight,
Live coiled in shells of loneliness
Until love leaves its high holy temple
And comes into our sight
To liberate us into life.

Love arrives..."

And it did...in the courage to be vulnerable, in my mistakes, in the poetry.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Haunted Alarm Clock

"You went crazy on your alarm clock this morning," J informed me at approximately 9 am.

"I did?" I asked, swallowing to wet my throat. "Well, it drives me insane," I grumbled in a scratchy morning voice. And then with a perfectly straight, half-woken face, I sat up slightly.

"I think it's haunted," I finally explained.

"What?" J asked, and then, after a moment of silence, I detected minor gasps and felt the floor shake just a little. Crusty and still bleary-eyed, I couldn't make out his body position, standing at the food of the bed, but I'm pretty sure he bent over at the waist, clutched his heart and burst into laughter. Slightly confused, I propped a second pillow behind my head. I would have propped a third or fourth pillow--as that would have given me a better view--but we compromised on pillows when he moved into the condo.

"Why are you laughing? It is haunted--I swear. No matter what I do, that stupid alarm clock will not stop alarming me that it is 6:20 am."

"Did you unplug it?"

"Of course. But my mom got me one of those alarm clocks with insane back up capability in case the electric goes out. When my second roommate got married and I finally ran out of people to live with, I got nervous that I would literally sleep for a whole day. So she was being super nice and got me that one."

To this, J curled in his lips, aiming to prevent a second round of laughter.

"I seriously don't even think it has batteries in it," I told him, then I re-sealed my eyes and crawled deep inside my comforter. "It is haunted," I said again, decidedly, mumbling through down feathers and a warm, white sheet.

"I really don't think it is haunted."

Just as he said this, he crossed the room and picked up the alarm clock I have been cursing every single morning for the last five years. It always rings at the worst moment it could ring--weekend mornings, snoozed mornings, mornings when I'm actually up early and struggling to pour coffee grinds. Reliable though it is, the noise is horrendous; the noise confirms that nighttime is over.

"Yes it is," I asserted, even stronger.. "It is most certainly haunted."

As soon as I made my point, I mumbled "damn alarm," to myself the same way I mumble it morning after morning at 6:20 am. This mumble always precedes a blind swat at random silhouettes--J's alarm clock, my cell phone, Vicks Vaporub, chapstick. The alarm clock I need to hit is always the last one my fingers locate.

"No, other one...no, over there, not your phone, the one in the back..."

J is a very patient man.

I curl into the warm pillow tucked inside my arms, but I can hear J above me, prying open the battery lid, a lid that hasn't been open since the day I got the device.

"Babe, you have eight batteries in here," he informed me. I peeled back the sheets and looked up for proof. And what do you know? There, hovering above me, was a fully lined collection of batteries.

"I don't think it's haunted," he said and then he burst out laughing. Loud laughing. Full belly laughing. The kind that I can't even get mad about. "It's too bad," he said between gasps. "You could have made a lot of money off of a haunted alarm clock."

I really thought it was haunted. I've never once changed those batteries. And I really did seem to recall that in one particular fit of morning irritation I plucked each and every one of them out of the battery bay and tossed them directly into the trash.

Apparently I did not do this, and apparently that meant the ringing and whining the alarm clock makes morning after morning is directly linked to those stinking, long-lasting batteries.

And so we took them out. We performed an alarm clock exorcism.

With the removal of a single battery, my alarm clock lost his ghost. Tomorrow morning is going to be pretty weird. I've gotten rather used to my 6:20 swat; hopefully, I'll wake up in time for work.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Day After Empty Coffee Mugs and Inked Up Journal Pages

Photo: courtesy of Carrie Hampton (image source lifeofpolarnper.blogspot.com)

My friend Carrie posted this picture on my facebook page today. The cup, decorated with crusty coffee rings, and the crisp white paper, decorated with wet, jet black ink gawked at me, igniting a firestorm of speculation. This fresh page, coated with precisely placed pigment, suddenly grew to bare the weight of one person's mixture of words, words different from other combinations of words, ideas different from other iterations of the same sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and surfaces--a magical concoction only capable of being concocted by this one particular brain.

The written word is a mystery. The written word is magic. The written word is everything.

Looking beyond the page and the cup, I gazed into the reflection of the surface holding them both. A faint outline of a skyline peered back at me--but only for a moment. Seconds later, I saw a retro black speckled formica table begging me to rest my elbows on its surface. Of course, this thought was also replaced. My eyes fixated on the smeared bleep of brown light nestled between the coffee and the journal. In that mad dash of fuzziness, I saw--for a moment--my own face, my own eye, my own conscience. "Write" it yelled at me. It's the first day of the new year. Do the very thing that sets your insides ablaze.

And so I did.

I sat down, and I imagined 2012. I salivated at the journal peering back at me, like many women salivate over scented lotion, flowers or fresh potpourri. Tingles crept up my arms with the energy of a million little elves, and my mind exploded with vignettes of my future.

It's funny how grand dreams can be. I have everything I really need. Love, food, shelter--my brain, my hands, my heart. And yet as I look at this blank page, all I can imagine is what I want to accomplish, what I want to manifest from the air around me. I'm too old for the naivety that beats within the fabric of my heart, but after spending the last four days painting, packing, rearranging, and scrubbing, I find myself anything but tired.

One day soon, we will put our place on the market and hopefully it will sell. One day soon, we will find a house--maybe it will be the short sale we are trying to win, maybe it will be somewhere else. Maybe I will finish editing my manuscript and maybe an agent will believe in it. Maybe I will win the short story contest I entered a few weeks ago. Maybe I can get back into working out without hurting myself. Maybe JA will turn an essay in on time or RB will slow down his reading enough to actually comprehend the words bounding from the page and into his eyes. And heck, while we are wishing away, imagining a bunch of maybes, who knows--before this year is over, maybe J and I will make a baby.

I love this day--this first day of the new year--because it is a fresh start. It's the day where we can vow to be better. To overcome all of the silly mistakes we made or the silly things we've said. It is the day of maybes and dreams. It's the day after inked up journal pages and empty coffee mugs--where you turn the page, wash the cup, and fill it up with something fresh.

Happy new year. Happy 2012. Dream big and live your life so fully that even your crust tastes good.