Tuesday, February 28, 2012
I'm sitting in Starbucks waiting for three other English teachers to show up for a meeting. We are to plan a unit for our classes that follows something called the Common Core Standards (CCS). This is the new list of what we teachers are supposed to teach and what the kids should learn. There's nothing in them that I can get worked up about. The CCS outlines what good teachers already do. They just divide things by grade level and lay them out lock-step. To this I can easily say, whatever, which is better than what I usually say (none of which would be appropriate to state here). It is better to accept them than it is to fight. Acceptance allows me to see how little the CCS will interfere with learning. The unit should be interesting enough because we are four thoughtful people as teachers tend to be.
The thing I'm watching out for is that we teachers are also largely disgruntled. It hasn't been this way throughout my entire career. Sure, there are always some who are angry with kids and administrators, but there is a different, more prevalent feel to it now.
It's easy to believe that the profession is crashing and burning and that we teachers are pariahs. Stories on the news tell us this and politicians state plainly that we are the problem with the world. Governor Scott Walker went so far as to outlaw collective bargaining for teachers and other union workers. The idea was that we have it too cushy: summers off, short work day, great health care, and still we do a crappy job compared to (name your country).
I have been down this road to depression, and occasionally I wander into the darkness again, but I'm trying to stay away from that. I work as a teacher but don't define myself as a teacher any more. I like teaching and find the work with students to be almost as good as anything else I imagine doing. I'm good at the job too. I know how to help kids learn. There are times when I still love the work, but I'm not defining myself as a teacher because it's no longer enough.
Consider this meeting I'm about to have. I'm okay with a unit plan and looking at the Common Core Standards. It's no big deal. But soon my work will be measured almost entirely on how my students test and how closely my lessons follow the CCS. Neither measure has much to do with what we do in class. I can prep kids for the test in two weeks. They learn to game the test and score well. Prior to the test prep we read and write to feel comfortable with language. The test doesn't measure their facility with language and ideas, it measures how well they take the test. It's no great measure of what we do.
This is the direction education has been taking for at least a decade and it has a long way to go before it pulls out of this flight plan. Defining myself as a teacher puts me in the plane, back in coach stuffed between two enormous people and ducking gigantic carry-ons. I'm not much interested in running schools either because the highest I could go is pilot or co-pilot and the air traffic controllers would still steer us into the mountain.
I'm not as angry about this as I used to be (thank goodness, because I was really angry and it cost me). I'm not as angry as many of my colleagues are. I accept that this is education today and I have a chance to carve out a small niche where I work. Today's meeting is one in which I want to keep pushing (gently) toward carving out safe places for learning no matter what standards we follow, no matter who looks over our shoulders, and no matter what mood we are falling toward.
As for me, I define myself as a writer these days if for no other reason than I keep going with the words and day in day out I write on.
Monday, February 27, 2012
I've just begun reading Tamar Adler's book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace and it seems to me an intimidating thing to learn to cook in the ways she is describing. It's not that she prescribes anything difficult. On the contrary, everything in the opening chapter "How to Boil Water" seems as easy as doing just that. It is her sense of the system of cooking that intimidates me. It is in many ways so new to me that I don't know what to do.
(The book, by the way, is gorgeously written. Go to your library or bookstore and get a copy. She is clear, poetic, and ingenious. I don't think I can so recommend any other book about cooking and living. And all that after only one chapter.)
Learning to do something in a new way is a tremendous task. I have written about the work I have done to make big changes in my life. Three years ago I couldn't have imagined accepting something that went against my way of thinking. I thought the only response to such a thing was to fight but that is only one option and often the least productive choice. I'm beginning to learn that the first step is to accept change. From there, almost anything is possible.
Adler's ideas about cooking begin in places where I haven't even begun to think. She really does talk about how to boil water. I had never thought about such a thing beyond discussing with my wife whether to begin with hot or cold water.
I've undergone a similar experience running without shoes. It was a radical thing to go barefoot, yet it makes perfect sense. I was hurting myself by running even as I was also making myself healthy. That is, the exertion was good, but not the pounding. I didn't know how to run. I started wearing bare-foot shoes and that was alright, but it wasn't the real beginning. Chucking the shoes was a beginning in that my body had to learn the most basic motions of running.
It hadn't occurred to me that encasing my feet in wondrous protection robbed me of the simple knowledge of how to run. That, however, is exactly what had happened. It's the same with food. Buying microwave popcorn is ridiculous. A pan, some oil, and kernels are easy and make better food. It's a good beginning.
Learning something new is a process of peeling layers we have put over our world. I understand that with running. I stopped wearing headphones when I run. They interfere with being in the moment of running. I don't think deeply while running because meditating on the sound of my feet and breathing makes me more aware. And I try not to wear shoes when I run because they take me away from the ways in which my body needs to run. Running barefoot, letting my mind meditate, and listening to my body make me a better runner, free me of injury, and bring me happiness. Tamar Adler is helping me do the same things with cooking.
If I keep peeling away the layers, accepting the world as it really is, instead of following prescriptions, I just might discover a way to be just who I have always hoped to be.
To that, I say, write on.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
In the dream I could barely move my legs. I was still walking, but every ordinary step was an ache and I was slowed to barely moving. I felt this ache all the way up from my heavy legs through my shoulders and chest. My arms though were light. Their lightness frustrated my every movement as I wondered how I could so easily move part of me and not the other. In the dream, others moved at normal speed while I slogged through trying just to get where I needed to be.
That was this morning as I dozed. I've had the dream before, countless times. I may have published something about it here. I usually wake from it discouraged and acting as though my legs were aching outside the dream as well, acting as though movement was too much effort and I simply needed to lie still. This morning however, I'm up. I'm inspired by it. I want to attend to the things I couldn't in the dream.
Last night I wrote that I want to start posting in the morning and so I am. Later today I'll write another piece and have it timed to publish in the morning. It's a small step but there is no ache in my bones as I take it. And it makes me wonder what other steps I can take.
This past week I sank into a funk. Then my family and I visited Philadelphia. We saw the artifacts of our country's independence and, at the art museum, saw a Van Gogh show that was sublime. In Philadelphia, the only times I felt myself slipping were when I was writing in the hotel lobby, tired from the day's walk and surrounded by people meeting other people. I got stuck on the past and my regrets. But each time I took the elevator back to my family, it all washed away.
The lessons of this will be things to ponder most of this week and likely for months afterward, but this morning's dream reminds me of the first lesson: movement is good. All too often I sit still to think. I keep my pen moving or my fingers typing when I write, knowing that constant motion is the solution. I need to help myself understand that movement aids thinking. Motion and progress are essential. Rest is too, but I need to know good rest from lethargic stillness.
I'm up writing. I'm getting set to move to the next thing. I'll invite my parents and brother over to hear about our trip and thank my mother for looking after the dog. I'll do laundry. I'll pick up my girls and swing them around. I'll read some poetry. I'll enjoy myself. And when I sit, I'll ask myself if it is good sitting or something else entirely. I'll make sure that my legs aren't sore.
All of this is my plan for today. I feel like I want to carry it over to tomorrow and the rest of my days, but tomorrow is beyond me. There's just now, this moment. There is this word I'm typing and the ways in which it leads to the next and the one after that. I can't think about what the last words are and I don't need to. I just want to set one word after the other as I continuously write on.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
I tried tonight to explain this thing that I'm doing. It wasn't easy. I started by explaining the idea of writing 750 words every day. While my audience was willing to believe me, to get behind this thing I am doing, I don't know if I was really getting through to her. It's the same old problem I have of not knowing the words to express how something like this can be important enough to do it every single day and to publish the writing I'm doing. In fact, I'm not sure I entirely know why I'm doing it. Well, that's not true. I know why I'm doing it, but I'm not great at articulating it.
Here's the thing: it all comes down to doing something I love.
I think that all too often we cast aside the things we love in favor of the things we feel we have to do. We are willing to put up with buckets of shit in the pursuit of making a living. (I know I could have said that in a prettier fashion, but the message is more accurately stated with a word like "shit".) We have been taught that the natural way of life is to put up with whatever we have to in order to earn a buck. That's how so many of us trap ourselves in terrible work because it pays the bills. When I talk about how I choose to write a lot, people wonder a couple of things: One, how can a person enjoy that crap, and two, how can anyone make a living at it?
These are pretty good questions, it's just that I don't give a damn about them when I'm writing. I would love to be able to make a living doing nothing but writing and maybe someday I will, but for now writing is about something other than the dollar. I publish every day of the week and don't make a cent from it. I put the words up on a blog that doesn't even have Google Ads on the side because I don't believe that that is any kind of long-term solution to making money. I'm also not thinking about how to make a ton of money from this writing right now. The goal is to learn how to write and how to do something on a regular basis. I've learned a lot already, some of which I have taken to heart, some not so much. Until I have learned a great deal more, there's no need to think too much about money.
Besides, thinking about money gets in the way of doing something worth much money. Put it this way: too many of us are in jobs that pay the bills but don't feed the soul. I'm fortunate in that my day job is one that also feeds my soul albeit in diminishing amounts. I teach alternative education high school English to at-risk kids which is a thing I'm good at and which gives me a good amount of happiness. I'm not digging ditches or pushing a lawnmower, two things that would bring me to misery.
When I was describing the 750 words I write to my friend this evening, I should have said that I enjoy it even when it's painful. Or I could have invoked those old bumper stickers that say, "I'd rather be doing whatever" or "A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work." I'd rather be writing and a bad day of writing is still way better than a good day at most anything else. It's a joyous creation. Even tonight, when I feel as if my writing isn't going anywhere great, it's still good.
One thing is for sure, publishing at 11:45 at night is no good. I need to publish in the morning so that people will see it in the day. I will be making that shift over the course of this week. So there may be a day of no post or of two posts (depending on the level of gumption I have) so that I can get used to publishing in the morning each day. I hope that this will get more people reading, but I also need to adjust and get my writing on to topics that engage people's interest. I've begun to see some of the patterns of that and will be working in those areas more.
Still, no matter what else, this has to be a labor of love, an effort that brings about joy. Otherwise, why write on?
Friday, February 24, 2012
We went to the museum today for a Van Gogh exhibition and toured as much of the place as we could without dropping. My girls and I aren't much for the Arms & Armor types of displays, so we stuck with the painting and sculpture. My wife leans toward the impressionists and I pull toward modern. Our two girls, eight and ten, are getting a fairly good exposure to art. We were ticking off the museums we've been to in New York, Washington, and now Philadelphia, as well as at home in Syracuse. It's a good list and something they are coming to appreciate. All of which gets me to thinking about the ways in which we educate ourselves and our children.
I teach English which, aside from the arts themselves (art, dance, band and orchestra) is the most artistic subject in the curriculum. My girls are still in weekly art classes and both take an instrument at school (though my wife and I do a poor job of enforcing practice and the like). They also are tested half to death at school and their teachers are constantly talking about how to deal with the tests and still educate our kids. I feel the same way but am spared most of the testing since, in New York State high schools, at least for the time being, there is only one test and it is content free. My children are not nearly as fortunate.
The New York Times will soon publish the ratings of teachers in New York State. The idea, according to the politicians, is to measure teachers and perhaps shame those who are failing into doing a better job. Eventually, and not too long from now, these ratings will come to my neck of the woods and infect the school my children attend. This, among other reasons, is why I'm on the look out for something to do other than teach. I have lost a lot of hope in the profession as more and more control of it is wrested from the people who trained to teach by those who have been voted into office. I say, let the politicians teach the kids. I'd like to see Andrew Cuomo in a seventh-grade public school classroom in any of the major cities of New York. I want him to teach there for one year. Then, after he's done so, let him make policy.
The same is true for our President, but with a twist. Barack Obama is too busy to take even a day off to teach in a high school, so instead, he and Michelle should send their children to an impoverished D.C. school. They could join the PTO there and meet with the teachers on parent night. It would be intriguing for the secret service to report to the President about the fight that went on in the sixth-grade bathroom, the drugs sold outside the cafeteria in the middle school, and the quality of lunches in the cafeteria. This would be especially interesting if the school and District of Columbia had failed in their race to the top and was no longer qualified for increased funding.
I know some of what we need to do to improve education in the United States. We need to examine what is offered in the best schools public and private and then offer those same things in every school. If a school in the suburbs offers orchestra, football, AP Biology, a planetarium, and a library filled with the latest books, then that's what every school should offer. If kids are being brought to the theater, taken to challenge courses to build team skills, and being visited by politicians and NBA players in one school, these things need to happen in all schools.
But it's a question of money and fairness and schools are no longer funded and have never been fair. White, upper-class kids get the best schools. Black, lower-class kids get the worst. This is education policy in the United States. Publish all the rankings of teachers you want, but real change in this country will come only when we tell kids that every one of them matters just as much as the others.
I teach at an alternative school filled with poor kids. I do my best to honor them in a system that says, "you suck and your failures are all your fault." Some of their failures really are their fault, but less than half. They have been forgotten by our government and now their teachers will be chased out of the profession. I consider myself a good teacher and I think every day about how to get out and do work that is easier, more lucrative, and respected by the public and policies of our land. Teaching is my calling (if such things exist), but ranking me on how well my kids score on some test, that's just ridiculous and insulting.
Instead of teaching, I would much rather write on.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Well, this is new.
My family and I have taken a trip to Philadelphia. I haven't been here in years and neither has my wife. The girls have never been here. Arriving today, we did the walking tour including the Liberty Bell (which is surprisingly cool and still easy to access), Independence Hall, Besty Ross's and Ben Franklin's houses, along with a few other places. We came back to the hotel and I took the girls to the pool and jacuzzi. They are in the shower now, washing the chlorine out of their hair, my wfie is busy planning tomorrow's adventures and I have come to the lobby to use the free wi-fi.
Let me just take a moment for a short rant: Why do hotels still charge for Internet access? I mean, seriously. I can't imagine that there's that much money in it after they have finished paying to lock it down. I say free wi-fi for all, especially at $160 a night. Sheesh.
Anyway, I have come to the lobby to write my 750 words and a unique thing has happened to me. It was unique for me as I've never had the experience. I was getting logged in when a guy asked if I was staying at the hotel. I looked up at him confused and figuring that it was a scam of some sort. He must have noticed the look because he changed gears immediately and apologized. What he said gives me a smile: "I was just going to say that you're cute, but you're not gay are you?" I told him I wasn't and he apologized some more and headed for the door.
It is, after all, the city of brotherly love.
The encounter has me considering a few things the first of which is that it was probably still a scam and that he decided it wouldn't work and aborted the plan. I still have both my wallet and room key, both of which never left my pocket, so at least that much is good.
The second thing is that maybe he really did think I was cute and hey, even if it is a gay man saying it, I'll take that. The day I complain about someone telling me I look good, well, that day hasn't come yet.
The third thing is that I thought, "hey, there's the perfect thing to write about tonight," only to then think, "no, I couldn't possibly write about that." For a moment, I thought I needed to keep it perfectly secret like some kind of sin. And that made me laugh enough that I knew just what to write about.
We're in Republican primary season which means that I'm hearing all about the liberal agenda, the evils of contraception, and the perils of gay marriage. Why, just look at how that gay man tried to ensnare me! For goodness sake!
Except, that's not at all what happens and there are other ways to look at what is going on. Had the man been a voluptuous blonde in knee high leather boots, I would have been advertising that I had been hit on by her and it would be nothing but good news. That a man talked to me is simply a matter of someone trying to meet someone (unless he was scamming me) and there isn't anything wrong with that. It's not as though he dropped his pants or grabbed me in any way. He simply said a something quickly and, when he found that I wasn't interested, he moved along and left me alone.
There is a line of thinking that gay people are wrong and have to be changed. There is a parallel line of thinking that says that gay people are out to get us straight people. Please. And if that guy goes out, finds a lovely man to be with, and ends up marrying him, I'm absolutely sure that it won't harm my life, my marriage to and love for my wife, or the lives of my children. In fact, the idea that we can all be compassionate toward one another is the thing that will make the world a hundred times better than it is today (and a thousand times better than if the anti-gay ideas of these Republicans ever become law).
So, a man hit on me today. First time for that. I say that's fine. In fact, aside from a bit of question as to how I might come off more manly, I'll take it as a compliment.
Live and let live. Love and let love. Write and write on.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
I struggle with balance. I can do four out of five things, but keeping all five going, that's tough for me. I suppose I'm not alone. Lately, I've been struggling with food and eating. I can feel things slipping a little because I keep thinking about a new phone that I want to buy, I have trouble getting myself to go to bed (even though I fall asleep almost immediately after lying down), and because I'm not finishing any books or writing many poems. It all adds up to something going on and something for me to look out for.
Knowing that there is a problem is a start, but at times such as this I find that to be small comfort. I would much prefer neon signs with solutions instead of vague notions that something is wrong. Life, at least my life, doesn't work quite like that and it never has. I should probably be adjusted to this by now. Oh well.
The thing about writing my troubles is that they sound so easy to fix when I write them. I can't write the complexity of it, can't write the sound reasoning of the thing. Watch, I'll try:
I am having trouble getting myself out of bed because I wake each morning cold and still tired, but more than that because I find the thought of getting out of the bed to be beyond me. I know that I enjoy life much more when I get up. Lying there, I know that I'm not going to get back to good sleep and that I will be happier getting up. I even know that lying in bed will leave me feeling very unhappy. But I still lie there and don't know what to do about it.
Writing that down, the answer is simple: get up. Doing that is another matter. Maybe, each morning, I should get a pen and write out the reasons for staying in bed. Solutions seem so easy to me in the evening as I get ready for bed. The way forward is obvious and I can commit to it firmly each evening before going to sleep but then I can reject it even more easily the next morning as I lie in bed cursing myself for not getting up.
Some of this sounds like depression and maybe that's what it is. It feels like what some people describe as depression. It also feels to me like a state of being outside myself. When I do these things I'm not me. I don't feel like me. I don't feel as though I'm in the world. I'm just a thing inside my own head.
Honk if you've felt the same way.
I don't have any big commitments to make tonight for tomorrow morning. Instead, I want to remember a time today that I was absolutely present and felt as good as I have all week.
Evelyn, my youngest, was suffering from her temper and the punishment that came with it. She had told her sister that she hated her. For that she got to sit on the couch in the living room and not play with anyone. After a bit, I asked her to come to the kitchen and talk with me while we unpacked groceries. She did, telling me the story of how her sister had wronged her and why she hated her. I listened and, though I interrupted her a few times, it was to retell what she had said rather than to tell her she was wrong. I was just interested in having the conversation, with hearing her, with being with her.
Evelyn is as emotional as I was as a child, before I forgot most of how to be so open, and as we talked I saw that she was starting to cry. I knelt down and put my arms out to her. She came in and got a hug from me without putting her arms around me at all. This is the sort of thing I have often worried about--not getting enough love from my child. Today I didn't think about that. Instead, I gave her all my love and it was just so easy. I didn't have to tell myself to listen, remind myself to stay quiet, or analyze my every act as I spoke with her. I was there. Body and soul. All of me.
If nothing else, I would like to dream tonight of living my life that way and then wake up ready to be there in the morning sun. Ready to get up and see what the day holds. Ready more than ever to write on.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Today, while driving home from my parents' old house for the last time, I called my wife to see what she was up to. After a bit I asked, was there any mail? She said that there was and her tone suggested that it wasn't the electric bill. It turns out that today's post brought a hard copy of the poetry journal in which I have had two poems published. There on pages 46 and 47 were my poems. It was kind of neat.
That might not sound like the most effusive reaction I could have to publication, but it's a reasonable reaction and one that I'm happy with. As she told me that the journal was in her hands and that she had found my poems, I smiled. I saw it in the rearview mirror as I glanced down the highway. I'm happy about having those two pieces published and I'm happy with the idea that publication is no longer mythical to me, an imagined thing that someone like me could never achieve, but I also know that I'm the same person I was before the publication. It's just that now, I see things a little differently. Publication hasn't changed me very much, but it has shown me the way that things can look.
I drove the rest of the way home remembering again that there are possibilities in this world and that all I really need to do is get myself out there and have a little faith in myself, in others, and in the world itself.
That's why I'm still smiling about all of it.
It's good to be reminded of these things while driving home from helping move my parents. Yesterday was the big day of moving, the day with a moving truck and trailer, my father's pick-up truck and another trailer. Today was mopping up, grabbing a few things that we couldn't fit yesterday but that he couldn't lift on his own or with just him and Mom. I walked one last time around their house and, though I felt a little sad as I always do at the end of most anything, I was able to move on easily enough. It's a house on a piece of land and no amount of moving erases the memories of that place. It was a nice enough house and we had some lovely times there, but that's that. And now...
Well that's the thing. Like being published, the move isn't really the big deal. Moving is just a way to remember that we all can start again. My parents are 73 and 71. It has been fourteen years since they last moved and started in this way, yet even they can do it and do fine with it. The world is open to them again.
Those two poems of mine in the journal are really good poems but I'm happier today that I wrote a draft of something new in which I imagined myself a cowboy having just driven cattle across the prairie. The cattle are my parents chairs and tables, the boxes of books and pans. I'm a cowboy living in the city, typing in my basement on a computer. But I've got spurs and they make the most delightful sound when I walk, bowlegged up to the bar for another drink.
The poem I wrote today isn't nearly as good as either of the two that were published, but the newness of it makes me happy, makes me smile. So too does the simple idea that I wrote it today and that I will rewrite it tomorrow. It's a fluid thing, changing and still out of shape. Those other two pieces are paintings on the wall of a museum. If I throw more paint on them, the authorities will take me away. I can paint all over this new one.
I hope that my parents can come to think of this move in similar ways. We'll have to see and I might try to help them with some of that. It's the least I could do. And, at some point I'll have to show them the journal and turn the page to where they'll see the name that they gave me and find in the moment proof that they have done the job that they set out to do so long ago when they were young and so much of the world was new. Maybe they'll remember themselves from back then and all the challenges they came up against and got over. Maybe, in some small way, it will help them to remember the quiet little smiles that they have worn in moments of small triumph which are the proof we all need that it is safe to go on.
Monday, February 20, 2012
I'll warn you, this isn't going to be very interesting. If you have better things you should be doing, if you're just reading this to be courteous, you are excused. Hell, you're encouraged to move along. And if you have stumbled upon this, you should stumble elsewhere. Finally, if you are here because you've liked the things I've written in the past, expect substandard prose and, if you have any sense at all, move on. My mind is a jumble, I'm tired, and I don't really have anything good to say tonight. I'm just writing because that's what I do. Really, you should go empty the dishwasher. It's okay. I'll see you tomorrow.
Now that I've gotten rid of most of you, I look about at the motley group that feels about as I do right now and just has nothing better to do with their lives than read on past a warning of impending boredom. I have to tell you, you're a sorry lot. We should all commit now to invigorating our lives and getting into some new hobbies. I mean, look at us, sitting in on a Monday night or a Tuesday morning reading this drivel. It's President's Day, for goodness sake. We all know that the partying on President's Day doesn't just stop because day turns to night. That's when the powdered wigs come off, baby! Yet, here we are, almost 250 words in, a third of the way, and this is the best we have to offer.
Look at what I've done today: Helped my parents move their stuff from the 1000 Islands down to my brother's garage in Syracuse. I entrapped my wife into a day of full-time day-care with our children in order to pull off this trick and I snared my best friend into helping us unload. Tremendous.
I also found time to argue with a Mormon who believes that Elie Wiesel has it all wrong being offended by the Mormons baptizing dead people who were never members of their church-like cult thing. That was a hoot! The guy was justifying the practice of bringing people into their big, crazy tent after death and saying that the dead can simply opt-out. I think those were the original terms for iTunes also. Those nutty Mormons! I checked with a few of my dead friends, but none of them have gotten back to me about which religion they want to be baptized into. But, in a stroke of luck for the LDSers out there, none of the dead folks said that they didn't want to be baptized as Mormons. Score! Suck on that, Elie Wiesel! And thank you Mormon church for providing this fine service.
By the by, as a service to the LDS folks, I'm baptizing all their dead into Ahteism with me! It's really the least I can do and, just to be fair, I'm willing to let any of them out of the deal so long as they contact me after death and sign a few papers. No biggie.
So, my parents are moving to Syracuse and I, Mormon God willing will be moving on up to the pearly gates of LDS heaven. I'm thinking that I got the better end of that deal, but I'm hoping my folks will be as happy under grey skies as I hope to be above the clouds when I die and the Mormons get around to inducting me into their club. I wonder, will it be like the pledging ceremony I had in college? I hope so. But then again, I'll be dead and not give a damn. Oh well.
In other news, Rick Santorum...oh, forget it.
Back to the moving of my folks. I'm glad that they were able to make the move. My dad was a funeral director here in town and my mother was a teacher. Both of them taught me to cherish my friends and to honor my elders. My dad, through his profession also taught me to honor the dead. Together, they tried to teach me to have faith in God. That one didn't take so well, but as I've written before I'm glad to have had the education in those matters. Taken together, I think about how good it will be to have them nearby and how much I want to embrace taking care of them. I want to be sure that they are comfortable as they get older, that they feel loved, and that no one rapes them when they are dead by baptizing them into a strange religion that they have no faith in now that they are alive. The first two I can take care of. I'm hoping those kooky Mormons won't do the third thing to them. We'll have to see.
I told you not to read on. You know, no matter what and even when I'm tired and loopy like this, I write on.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Tomorrow my brother and I are driving north to the 1000 Islands to pack that last of my parents' stuff in a moving truck and drive it down to Syracuse. They are moving back after fourteen years of living on the St. Lawrence. The reasons for their move include worrying about proximity to doctors and hospitals as well as the fact that the Islands are pretty desolate for eight months of the year.
I'm getting ready for bed now and feeling tensed up about a lot of things. I have to get up early to await my brother picking me up to drive up there, it will be a full day of work, and there is all the familial stuff to deal with as well.
For years I have been the idiotic little brother/younger son in the family, or at least this is how I have felt and how I have believed I've been treated. I was the kid who made mistakes, who lied, who was consistently not working up to my potential. If my report card had four A's the focus was on the B- in whatever subject I had let slide. If I wanted to do something, I needed someone to watch over me as I did it. If my brother had done something at ten years old, I probably needed to wait until I was eleven or twelve. I was always a little kid.
Since then, I've grown up in most ways, and things have changed. Tomorrow, my family is expecting me to make the decisions about how to load the truck, where to put things when they come down here, and how to get the move accomplished. I'm sitting here tonight, thinking about all this, and trying not to lose myself in anxiety. It's not easy for me.
I have long wished for my family to listen to the things I say and to give me faith in my own abilities. Now, with that happening, I'm resistant. What am I, fickle? I suppose I am. But I'm also struggling with the idea that I am not the person I was framed to be, or that I always felt I was framed to be.
I don't know how many of you were pigeonholed by your family as the funny one, the angry one, the talkative one, the dancer, the athlete, the worker, the slacker, the success, the failure, the good son, the bad daughter, or any number of other labels. Those labels stick. It's something I try hard to resist doing to my own daughters and yet I find myself falling into that habit. My wife catches me most of the time and pushes me in other directions, but still, there I am.
And I am most guilty of doing it with myself as well. I have seen myself as all the things that people have labeled. Now, I'm trying to envision myself as... I'm not sure. I'm not really trying to label it so much. Instead, I'm just trying to be aware of what's going on and not get too anxious about everything. Still, it's hard.
When my mother calls me and tells me that tomorrow I'm in charge of everything, my first instinct is to scream, "no, I'm not!" but I have to calm myself and say instead, "I'm not sure any one of us has to be in charge. We can do this together."
When my brother says, "we had better have the whole house packed and be on the road by noon," I want to ask him if we're not who he's going to punish. Instead, I tell him that there's no good way to guess when we will finish and that we might just want to take care of what time we get started. That's all we can control right now.
And when I realize that I have lost the external hard drive for my computers, I want to scream at myself, "you idiot! You careless, irresponsible, child! What is wrong with you?" I hear it in my voice even now after I have searched the house and come up empty handed. I feel like the child I was framed to be instead of the man that I've become and am becoming. It's difficult to breathe and take the time to remind myself that it's okay and that I can handle it. It's hard not to be the child I no longer am.
Tomorrow will be an interesting day filled with all sorts of challenges. Tonight, all I have to do is to remember that I get to invent myself in any way I choose even if history and other people seem to be pushing against me. I get to choose. I get to create. I get to, in a manner of speaking, write on until I figure out who I mean to be.
So, I might as well write on.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
I bailed on my running group mid-run today. That's unusual and I imagine it surprised them. Explanations are in order.
Early, before heading out with the group, I took the dog for a romp around the neighborhood. I felt my back twinging just enough to bother me. I figured I was stiff from playing basketball yesterday and that if I eased in, it would work out.
I was running in my oldest pair of Vibram FiveFingers which I bought in August 2008. I've been running in a newer pair but was soaking them to see if they could be rendered a little less funky. Looking down at the old shoes I noted the frayed strap on my right foot and smiled. It has been in the same state for a year, I thought. These things are indestructible.
Just before heading out, I wasn't sure if I should try to use the bathroom. Non-runners may not understand, but every runner I know understands that bathroom thinking is high priority stuff. There's not much worse than needing to go on the run. I thought carefully, then decided to skip it. I needed to get going so I wouldn't be late.
I still felt that twinge in my back, but as I ran down the flat road to our meeting point, it loosened up just as I had hoped. Great! And I wasn't feeling the need to use the bathroom.
The six of us met up and started running. I fell in with Mike but had trouble keeping up. Mike's a much stronger runner, so this wasn't shocking. I figured we were burning up the pace, but my watch said that we were doing just barely under ten-minute miles. Uh-oh. Why, I wondered, am I feeling this tired?
I went out last night with Mike and a few others for beers. Maybe that last round had been a mistake. But I've had more to drink the night before a run and not had problems. Weird stuff.
We headed up an incline, I can't call it a hill, and my back said hello again. I hoped it would loosen again, but it didn't until the road flattened. We were headed for Peck Hill. Not good. Turning onto Peck Hill Road I knew it wasn't going to work.
Here's where things get unusual.
I quit, told them that I had to bail, and turned around. I usually push through and regret it later. I'm not especially good at listening to my body. Today, though, it was best to surrender and so I did. Usually, when I quit, I berate myself for it, but today I didn't feel that for a second. I felt happy.
Then I felt something else.
I should have gone to the bathroom before leaving the house. I was a mile and a half from home and needing to take care of business that's not easy to do outdoors in deserted areas let alone in a city neighborhood. And this wasn't a sort-of feeling, this was three-alarm. I picked up my pace and clenched trying not to feel what I was feeling.
Then I felt something else.
That frayed strap was now torn free and flopping with each step. It made me run with an odd gait made even odder by the recurring urges to poop and the continuing ache in my back.
That last mile and a half will remain, I hope, the most "interesting" distance I ever run.
Now, at home, out of the flopping shoe, my bowels relieved, showered, and sitting in a straight chair to type this, I have one strange thought about all this:
I feel good.
As many things that went wrong, all of it was easy to survive. I can even cherish the image of myself limping with floppy shoe and squeezed butt cheeks through the neighborhood hoping desperately to make it home and into the bathroom. I feel good about having gone out to run with friends and making what turned out to be a great decision to bail on the run.
I have a feeling that they're going to be glad I turned around too.
Run and write on.
Friday, February 17, 2012
"Grammar: The difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit."
I've been trying to articulate an idea to students over the past few years but never really set it down in writing. I'll start today by telling the story of working with Frank (not his real name, never his real name).
Frank, first thing this morning, said to the math teacher, "I ain't got no math class today, yo." She told me that as the English teacher I needed to do something about that. Kids don't know how to speak these days, she said.
I walked in and he asked what the big deal is with the way he talks. I shrugged and made a face. Then I talked with him about how to be smart and why it's a good idea.
I said, It's good to be smart. It gives you advantages that stupid people aren't going to have. That's not nice, but it's true. Dumb luck only works once in a while. Most of us have to concentrate on being smart, making good decisions, and thinking deeply. Speak like you're dumb and people will believe you're dumb.
So? he asked. I don't care what nobody thinks.
I said, put it this way: I'm thinking of hiring you for a job, but there is another applicant. You say, I ain't got nothing to do today but sit and talk to you, yo. But the other applicant, she says, I'm free to speak with you as long as you would like, sir. Who gets the job? She does.
She may or may not be a good worker, but she sounds smart and I want to hire smart people.
Yeah, he said, but what if she dumb and just faking it?
She might be, but she was smart enough to sound smart which makes me think that she might be smart and so I treat her as though she really is smart. Most people get accustomed to being treated that way and continue to act and behave like smart people. Along the way, they pick things up and get smarter. It's a cycle. Meanwhile, the guy who sounded dumb, even if he's really smart, doesn't get the job doesn't have the chance to be smart that day. People get used to that cycle too.
What you do is try your best to seem smart and along the way you work to get smart. You fake it, 'til you make it.
He asked, I just gotta fake being smart?
It's a start, I said. You concentrate on one thing, how you speak, and make a point of saying things the way they ought to be said.
How do I know how things supposed to be said?
Surround yourself with smart people and listen. Pay attention. When you watch television, listen to how the smart characters speak. Imitate them. And before you say you ain't got no math class, stop and rephrase.
I waited too and gestured for him to give it a try.
"I don't have math class today," he said.
You sound smarter already.
So how did you get smart? he asked.
I corrected him: How did I get to seeming smart?
I'm still working on it. I know really smart people and talk with them every day. I married a brilliant woman and she sets me straight. My kids are too smart to believe and keep me on my toes. When I publish my writing I don't want to sound stupid, so I work hard to get things right. I read and listen to NPR. I soak things up.
Then I asked him if he gets it.
He said, "I gots it."
We have some more work to do. But it's a start. Pick up your pen, I told him. Time for us to write on.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
I went for a run this afternoon in the rain before dinner. I took a new route that brought me into the university and past several construction sites. Passing those, the people working there occasionally looked up to watch me pass. I thought about them toiling there mixing concrete, ripping siding down, and operating a crane. I imagined them looking at me as a privileged fellow who gets to run in the later afternoon when they are still working hard at jobs that I wouldn't want. I imagined them considering the silver spoon they imagined I was born with.
I went through a couple of reactions to this imagining. One was pity. I felt bad for these guys doing hard work in the bad weather while I was able to go for a run (something I enjoy) and still go home to a lovely home and enough cash in my bank account to keep me secure. Another reaction was to indignantly wonder why they would deny me my advantages when I have worked hard for them and made smart choices in my life. Neither reaction struck me as all that interesting and instead I went with something like this: I live one life, they live another life, and who is to say which is better or worse. I'm happier with my life every day, and especially when I go out for runs on a regular basis and then sit down to write about things, and maybe they are satisfied with their lives too. It's not as though they are begging by the side of the road or waiting in a Hospice bed for death to take them.
It got me thinking though about the fallacy of the self-made man. It's a notion I hear often enough. A guy I went to high school with argued with me a couple years ago about how those who have worked to make themselves wealthy do not have any obligation to those who have not worked as hard. Maybe that's true (though I doubt it) but I think he was confusing the ideas quite a bit. He is a doctor, as is his father, and he was brought up in a very wealthy suburb that was home to a phenomenally well-funded school and he didn't want for food or shelter. It's not like he had to pick himself up by his bootstraps and take on the world on his own. He thinks of himself as self-made and those who can't afford his luxuries as lazy. I think otherwise, but I'm not here to argue his life and his ideas.
I'm thinking instead of myself and how I have gotten to the place I am in right now. I want to think about how hard I have worked and the ways in which I have made my way, and I have done a fair share of that. But I keep thinking also of all the people who have made this life of mine possible.
Begin with my parents. They provided me not only with food, clothing, and every convenience, but they also gave me a sense of comfort in that none of these things were ever in question. I didn't ever think that we wouldn't be able to afford dinner or the electric bill. Hell, it never occurred to me that there wouldn't be an embarrassingly large pile of toys and clothing under the Christmas tree. My parents never let me worry about that. And when it came time for me to earn my own money starting with a paper route and moving through the jobs I held until college, they showed me how to take care of things.
My wife took over a lot of my care and feeding after that. She made me feel as though I was capable of anything and she made it possible for me to take chances. She organized things so that the life I wanted was not just possible, but reasonable to expect.
Friends, teachers, employers, and a list that goes on for many more than 750 words made possible the luxurious life I now lead. I had a hand in it too, but it's not like I'm a self-made man. I don't know anyone who is though I've heard a lot of people speak as though they are.
So, as I run past those guys working construction I thank all the people who have helped me to live the life I want to lead. I thank them for setting me up to succeed. And I think about how I can help my children, my wife, my parents, my friends, and anyone else. It's the least I can do to repay all that I've been given.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
I'm not a religious man.
I was raised Catholic and am glad to have been taught that way. Back in first grade I remember Sister Philomena telling us that God is, always was, and always will be. As you can imagine, we first graders asked, "when was he born," "when will he die" and, of course, "what's his birthday." Sister impatiently repeated that he wasn't born and wouldn't ever die. God, she said, had no beginning or end.
This is the sort of thing I'm glad to have run into when I was small. I spent the walk home and most of the next few days trying to come to some sort of grips with the idea that something could be without beginning or ending. That the concept was attached to God doesn't amount to much for me now. It's more that I realized that there were things beyond my ken. I usually try to apply the same type of thinking to ideas like the universe when I hear a physicist try to explain to me that there is no "outside" the universe because the universe is everything even though it's not infinite. These things make my brain hurt in good ways.
What makes my brain hurt in ways that are anything but good are things like the Mormon church "baptizing" people after they are dead or even beforehand without that person asking for such a favor. Elie Wiesel today spoke out about this and asked Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to stand up on this issue. Wiesel, whose book Night is the single most powerful book I have ever read, has been "baptized" by the Mormons against his will and he is outraged. So am I.
Mitt won't touch this issue for anything. He's not a stand up type of guy. He's a smarmy politician who doesn't seem to give a damn about much of anything other than getting elected. If he talks much about being a Mormon, he reduces his chances. And I don't think he believes he should call the Mormons out on this.
Oh, and Harry Reid, another Mormon, is unlikely to say anything either. They're not impressive people, Reid and Romney.
It has been a hell of a week for the religious. The Mormons have this to explain and the Catholic bishops, a true boy's club if ever there was one, are condemning the funding of contraceptive care for women. I wonder why they aren't speaking up much about funding of vasectomies for men. I got mine through my health insurance provider which is provided by my employer. Shouldn't that be curbed by the Catholic bishops as well? Or is it different for men? Yeah, I'm sure it is.
I think that I could have remained a Catholic if not for the politics. I wish they had just stuck to the sorts of things Jesus is supposed to have said. Jesus, it seems to me, was a great guy and someone I would listen to any time his number rang my cell phone. He would be a great Google+ friend just like the Dalai Lama is. When I read the Dalai Lama I hear the message that the nuns and some of the priests told us Jesus was all about. Kindness, generosity, compassion, empathy, and understanding are at the heart of what I believe. All that and the constant work to better understand and explore the universe.
Oh, and having a good time in bed with our wives without worrying about having more children. I believe in that too.
Yeah, and not inducting someone into a club they never joined, a club that would offend them. I believe in that one too.
I don't believe in a god who condemns. I don't believe that Jesus would have wanted women and the poor to suffer. I don't think Jesus would have thought less of people who had darker skin than me. (I bet all the money I have that Jesus was a lot darker than I am.) And I know that Jesus wouldn't have cast stones at homosexuals.
And here's something else: I believe that it's a good idea for my kids to get some religious education if for nothing else than the literature. We'll help them think deeply about the political stuff instead of taking it carte blanche from anyone's interpretation of God's thinking. My daughters have heard the same thing I heard in first grade and they struggle with those big ideas about as I did way back when. I imagine that even thirty or forty years from now they will be trying to make sense of the world and ideas that remain over their heads. Maybe they will, like their old man, write on toward understanding.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Sometimes I just need to return to something that is comfortable. Tonight it's Steely Dan music, starting with "Pretzel Logic" and going from there. I've heard the stuff a thousand times or so starting with tapes I played in a cheap knock-off Walman with terrible headphones as I walked from my house to Chris's. Once I got there, chances are we threw a football around or did something but then ended up in his basement listening to some more music, most of it familiar and thoroughly analyzed by the two of us. It was soothing, it was something I always knew how to feel about. It was a comfort and it still is.
I find myself returning to lots of things lately. I've written about my daughters here over the past week or so, talking about the things I learn from them, the things I'm trying to learn in order to be their father. I haven't written much about Stephanie in a while and I think it's time to return to that subject as thinking about her makes me feel warm and happy, serene and excited, content with the world and expectant of everything that is coming my way.
Stephanie's story is hers to tell, but our story is something I'm sure she would entrust me to talk about. She all too often trusts me to speak and I don't hesitate to take her up on the offer. Telling all of our story is too much, and so on Valentine's Day I want to concentrate on just one small story that, for me, is the epitome of who Stephanie is and has been since I've known her.
It's the story of our daughter's ruptured appendix and this telling of it begins with me returning to the hospital from having gone home to tuck our younger daughter into bed and check on my brother who was watching her. I came back into the emergency room wing where Stephanie, Julia, and I had been for eight hours. Julia was only four and so very tiny in my memory. As I came in, Stephanie was with the doctor, behind the counter, looking at some sort of scan of Julia.
You have to understand that heretofore Stephanie had been someone who passed out in hospital waiting rooms. She wasn't the sort to make it into the depths of a hospital or to be able to look at scans of people who were sick and this was her first-born daughter. As I arrived, I saw that Stephanie was shaken but still there. She looked relieved to see me, as though I would know something to do. I didn't and she had it all in hand anyway.
Shortly thereafter, Julia had a central line put in through her tiny arm down to her beating heart. I waited with Stephanie who glowed with fierce and almost frightening love for her child. I remember feeling it. Might sound crazy, but it was there like heat coming off a sunburn. She was alive with it. She cried, she paced, she sat waiting and all the while she burned with love. It was a thing that astounded me. I've always thought I loved our girls and I surely do, but this was beyond anything I had ever known.
They wheeled Julia out and as the anesthesia wore off she cried and whimpered. Stephanie was having some trouble holding herself together, but she nearly climbed onto the gurney with her girl and rode with her to the recovery room and on up to the room in which she would stay for the next few days. I knew that Julia would wake each day to find Stephanie there, that she would go to sleep each night knowing that Stephanie was there, and that she would be kept warm by that love I had felt as we waited for Julia to come back to us from the operating room.
I'm not a guy to say that my wife is awesome. It sounds trite. It is trite. Instead, I will say that now, six years after the fact, I am sitting alone typing these words and I still feel the awesome power of Stephanie's love for her first daughter. I feel it for her second daughter. And I feel it for me. Indeed, that love is awesome in that it is more powerful than anything I have felt before and because, truth to tell, it scares me just a little to know that someone can love so much and so completely.
Write on. And Happy Valentine's Day, Stephanie.
Monday, February 13, 2012
It is halftime at the Syracuse-Louisville game with SU down by two. Both girls are up in their beds. The one with strep is likely already asleep. The healthy one is planning to read for another half hour. My wife is out at the PTO meeting and likely going for a drink with her friends afterward. I sit alone in the den with music paying, a cat on the couch asleep, a dog on the floor asleep, the television muted, and enough time to write for a few.
These have traditionally been times of struggle for me. Time alone. I always thought that I wanted time alone, that I wasn't getting enough of it and that maybe I couldn't get enough of it, but when I did get some I found myself at loose ends. Worse than that, I found myself anxious and lost. It was as if there were too many options and the pressure on me was too great. I still get that way from time to time, but not tonight.
Today has been a day of accepting things. First, last night we learned that our youngest daughter had a fever and that we would be keeping her home today. I knew that my wife couldn't take the day off from work and that I could. I wrote lesson plans (much more challenging to write plans for someone else than for myself) and got things together. It wasn't any big deal, just something to do.
And today, I woke early enough to go over to school, make copies, fix up the classroom the way it needed to be, and then come back home. I stayed with the girl as she rested on the couch, read her book, watched things on the computer. I stayed in the room with her because it just felt like the place to be. I wasn't analyzing anything, wasn't wishing, wasn't trying to be anything. I was just there in the moments. And because of that it was joyous. There's no other word for it. I loved being home with my girl today. And I think she loved it too.
Now, with everyone either up in bed or out on the town, I'm happy to be spending time by myself, watching the game, writing this essay, not worrying about what is next, what tomorrow will bring, what I could be accomplishing tonight. Even writing this, I have a sense that I'm not writing tight prose, that I'm going a little off my tracks, but I also know that it's just a matter of writing, continuing to punch the keys, and then coming back to it after I finish. There's no reason to get too worried.
I sound like a surfer dude, I suppose. I'd rather sound like a Tibetan monk, but I take what I can get. You know, dude? Besides, there are worse things to aspire to than being a surfer dude or maybe Zonker from Doonesbury. The calm is a good start. The dedication to being in the moment, that's the real skill. I suppose that surfers have to cultivate the skill of accepting what is thrown at them. It's not like football, basketball, or tennis, where the groundskeepers and maintenance people can set the field or court just so. In the ocean, you have to wait for the wave. You can't manufacture one. And when the wave comes, you have to be there. You have to be ready for it and set to act.
My day wasn't as cool as all that, but the comparison seems to me to still be right. I was in the water, I was feeling the movements, and each time a good wave came by, I was already on it as it rose. It's just that my waves were moments of talking to and playing with my eight-year-old daughter. Pretty much the same, right? Sure.
I'll end this piece with something I'm struggling to accept. The big news right now is about the Obama administration and the Catholic bishops fighting over contraception. I looked into it and found out that according to the faith my parents tried to raise me in, I have sinned by getting a vasectomy. Here I thought I was acting responsibly, but a bunch of guys want to tell me that I have sinned against God. This is yet another reason why I don't practice Catholicism or any religion any more.
I want to rail against this whole thing. I want to scream from the rooftops about the insanity of it. But more than those things, I want to learn how to accept and be calm through these passing storm. I suppose I'll get there eventually. Until then, I'll just wait in the water for the next wave, keep my fingers tapping, and write on.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
And since yesterday I wrote of Evelyn, it seems only fair to have today be about my older daughter, Julia. She is ten years old and today gave a presentation at her Hebrew school about Sasha Cohen, the figure skater, as part of their study of Jewish people who have achieved fame. Julia dressed in tights and brought along a pair of skates. Her mother pinned her hair in a bun and Julia looked for all the world like a young figure skater. She was, as she so often is, statuesque. Tall, lean, poised, and oddly unflappable.
I say that last bit because Julia is usually somewhat shy. Friends say hello to her in passing and Julia rarely acknowledges beyond a look, a slight smile, a turning of her head. To which I invariably say, "Julia! Say something!" because I'm horrified that her friends will think she ignores them. You would think that I would have noticed by now, six years into school, that her friends continue to say hello to her, that they like her, and that no one other than me is concerned in any way with her silence, but I'm a slow learner. I've always thought of Julia as shy, but, on closer inspection, I can see that she is not at all.
Today, as the kids were getting ready to give their presentations, a friend who has her own child in the class asked if Julia was nervous. My wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads. This sort of thing, we agreed, doesn't bother Julia in the least. She has had time to prepare, she knows the shape of the thing, and she looks at it as a simple task she is more than capable of. She has no nerves about it. In this way, she reminds us of me. Talking in front of people isn't a problem. Not in the least. Engaging with people one at a time is troubling on a different level and in much more mysterious ways.
Julia spoke to the gathered crowd without a second's pause. Her presentation was perfectly fine and she was well satisfied with it. Afterward, asked how she felt, she said, "I'm hungry."
There are a few things that come to mind from all of this.
One, I often mis-characterize who she is. I think of her in one way when in fact she steadfastly refuses to be one thing. She is a moving target, constantly becoming what she needs to be in the moment. Aren't we all? Isn't most of the problem that we are categorized as one thing and that we choose to categorize others as one thing? That person is a Republican, that one is funny; he's a dog-lover, she's a lesbian; and so on. Julia, each time I think I have her pegged, becomes something else. It is surprising to me every time because I've been taught that people are easily identified. That's so only if I'm willing to stop looking, listening, thinking, and feeling about them.
Two, things that seem difficult or frightening are often just the opposite. Public speaking is nothing really so long as we don't think of it too much before hand. Julia, I think, never gave a thought to having to stand before a crowd. It wasn't something to fear, it just was. I'm a man who has over thought nearly everything in his life. I say nearly everything because there were a good two dozen mistakes that could have used some forethought and a handful of times when I just let it be. Watching Julia I can see where she is both practically fearless and also struck dumb by the simple fright of someone saying hello or asking her a question. This is a spot where I think I can be of use to her as much as she has been my teacher.
Three, it is awfully nice to come away from a big event feeling hungry. In Julia's case the hunger is real. She is rail-thin, tall, and burns calories at an alarming rate. The hours she sleeps are as long as she can go without eating. Around the house, day to day, she is hopelessly hungry and badgers us with the question of what she should eat next. Feeling hungry is health itself and it says, in one way or another, what's next? Julia, having finished with the presentation, having sucked the marrow out of it, was simply ready for dessert or, better yet, the next meal. We should all go through the world in this way.
Having written one thing, our only thought should then be to write on.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
I've been excusing myself throughout this week in these essays, almost apologizing for telling things that I feel like I should already know, things that I should have known for a long time. I have that feeling often enough and ask myself how I could have gotten by this long without knowing x, y, or z. I tend to curse myself for stupidity in such instances. I don't imagine I'm alone in that.
Then I get a reminder that not everything is obvious and that we have to learn even the simple things. Sometimes we even have to be taught those things. Today's reminder came in the form of working with my youngest daughter, Evelyn.
We hadn't planned on cleaning Evelyn's room this afternoon, but things just worked out that way. First, as my wife and daughters were preparing to go out to a store for Valentine's Day supplies, Evelyn melted down. She's an emotional kid and suddenly, the idea of going out to the store was the last thing in the world she felt able to do. She was feeling as though her sister had been mean to her all day (they had had one scuffle five minutes before but otherwise been happy as can be) and that the day had been awful start to finish. I've heard this sort of thing from her before and it tends to push all my buttons.
Evelyn, like me, sees the world as either/or and she changes her decisions in a heartbeat. When one thing goes wrong she sees that the world has fallen apart. The skill I am developing of living with anxiety is one she hasn't learned yet. It's one I need too help her learn. We didn't get in that deep today. Instead, as her mother and older sister went out the door, I sought to get Evelyn involved in some other things.
We did the dishes. She was in charge of drying and needed to be taught how that goes. Most of the dishes she could put away herself, but some of them she had never put away before and again I had to show her where they went. It was the sort of thing that she expected to already know and I could hear her frustration when she realized that something as simple as drying the dishes wasn't perfectly easy for her. Talking quietly and often distracting her from the task by getting her to talk, I found that I could get her through the mild anxiety of it. By the time we finished, she was in a different mood than when we had begun.
"Have you ever taken warm sheets out of the dryer?" I asked.
We went downstairs and she pulled the warm sheets out of the dryer. I carried them upstairs and she helped me make our bed. It's the sort of thing she can't do on her own but she knows how to put on a pillowcase and she learned how to tuck the fitted sheet around the mattress. We laughed about having to move the cat and keep her off the bed until we had made it. Evelyn, without really knowing it was learning how to make the bed and how to get through anxiety. It's one part distraction and one part living with it. She doesn't know that yet, but she's had a little more experience in it now.
I have too. Seeing these things work with her teaches me the power of motion, the simple antidote to spiraling down.
Finally, we moved into her room and I told her the bad news: "Evelyn, we're going to have to clean this room before we can make your bed." This sent her down again. Evelyn has the smallest room in the house (it's little more than a nursery) and might just have the most stuff. She's a pack-rat. I kid you not, there was not a place where I could see the carpet on her floor. It was like an episode of that hoarding show on TV.
Faced with this task, Evelyn was ready to crumple. She couldn't see any way to clean it. She doesn't get that she can pick up one thing at a time and eventually get to the end. She has to be taught that skill. And so, one thing at a time, we worked together to find a clean room and find a way to feel good about doing the work. It's the sort of thing that, were I in her little shoes, I would have recoiled against and wondered, "how do I not know how to do this?" I would have been sent down a hole thinking that I was a fool.
None of these things are easy. Learning to avoid gossip isn't easy. Letting go of the past is not easy. Climbing out of mistakes is not easy. And figuring out what to do with myself and who to be is not at all easy. There is a steep curve to learning these things and along the way, I'm going to need some patient teachers to whom I listen carefully. Evelyn and I are more and more ready to take these things on every day. To that, I say, write on.
I love you, Evelyn.
Friday, February 10, 2012
I have the juiciest thing to tell you!
This is not a good conversation starter. I heard something like it three times today and invoked my new rule which is to act as though someone is calling me somewhere else. It worked two out of three times, which is a pretty good average, and the third time I pretty much ignored what was being said.
Thus begins a short lesson in workplace survival.
Years ago, a friend said this about gossip: I don't listen to gossips because I can only imagine what they say about me when I'm not around. Gossips don't stop when the subject turns to you. The person spreading manure about Joey and Frank today spreads it about you and me tomorrow.
Knowing this is a good start, but still, I'm drawn gossip like a fly to their manure. Gossip is alluring. I want to be in the know. As Toby Ziegler says in The West Wing: "It's great to be in the know. It's great to have the scoop, to have the skinny." To not gossip is an oddity.
Still, at each place I've worked, I've known at least one person who stayed out of it. One guy stayed out of everything. He was a hermit and ridiculed for it. People talked about him incessantly (me too, alas), but he could not be drawn into the discussion.
Another guy simply smiled, laughed a fake little laugh, and walked away from the discussions. And, perhaps my favorite, was a woman who stared blankly at the gossip until that person, confused and perhaps a bit shaken, walked away.
My method is to have pressing business elsewhere. Today I printed a few pages that had no business being printed just so that I could walk out of my room to the copier and stare at them as though they required deep concentration. Another time I excused myself, hand on stomach, and went into the bathroom. The third time I went into my classroom, but the person followed me. Still I tried the staring blankly thing. It's not easy. You try it. Don't nod or shake your head, don't speak. Be a void.
In my previous job I mired myself in gossip. It didn't get me anywhere but unhappy. I don't know any happy gossips. People who dwell on trouble, who look for it or work to create it are unhappy. They don't enjoy their jobs and function only on the energy of us-against-them anger. That sort of thing doesn't energize me long enough and it doesn't make the day go by any faster or more pleasantly. Still, it has taken me a long, long time to figure it out.
I don't have any good gossip for you. I don't have any bad gossip. I'm just here and, if you're bored, I'll tell you this kid in my class who hates reading but today picked up a book and after a while declared, this doesn't suck balls. What higher praise? I'd like to hear that story about your daughter's game or how your dog steals and hides your socks. Tell me about the dinner you prepared last night and the movie you saw last weekend. Don't tell me what Joey, Linda, Frank, or Sharon did unless they're here to listen too. If you don't want to say it in front of the person, don't tell me. And this goes for talk of students too.
I suppose that all of this is common sense, yet it's uncommon in the places I've worked and in me. I'm working on making it a habit to get away from gossip fast. I want it to become just as natural as my usual habit which, as always, is to write on.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
A few minutes ago I was reading Ryokan, a Japanese poet who knocks me right out. As I was reading, I worried a little about it. My worries interrupted the reading. They said, "Am I smart enough to be reading this? Do I really even get it?" I had the feeling that has so often overwhelmed me since childhood, that I am a fraud and should just give up all these pretensions. I re-read the poem but my anxiety interrupted me again, again, and again. I put the book down and took a warm shower.
There, in the steam, I did something that seems to help. I admitted that I was feeling anxious. I said it out loud. "I am feeling anxious." I repeated it a few times. There was nothing I could do to solve this problem in the shower. I couldn't take a graduate class in 19th-century Japanese poetry. I couldn't get the Cliff's Notes and check my progress. I had no one there to whom I could compare myself. I was alone in a warm shower with my anxiety and my own voice saying that I was feeling anxious. There were really only two choices I could make. One, I could fight it and stuff that feeling of anxiety down the drain. This has long been my default move. It's what I have trained in my whole life. But I chose the other way which was to accept the feeling of anxiety and rub shampoo into my scalp.
Right about then the worst thing of the night happened. I got that damn song from "South Pacific" stuck in my head, complete with new lyrics. "I'm gonna wash that panic right out of my hair..." Ugh. But other than that, I felt better just saying it, feeling it and moving on.
It got me to thinking how I've really been liking some of Steve Reich's music lately even though I don't yet understand what he's building. That got me thinking about Brad Mehldau and how I think I get a lot of what he is doing and how it mesmerizes me. Which got me to thinking about Mark Strand's poetry which dazzles me and about which I'm no longer baffled. I can actually see the shape of what's going on in his work. I wasn't sure I would ever be able to claim such a thing.
Anxiety has long kept me from belief in myself and trust in my instincts. I'm working to set that aside and to be open to the things I know as well as the things I don't. Part of that is realizing what I have done already and seeing how much is available to me ahead.
The other day my good friend said that she couldn't possibly run a half-marathon this month. I said, "Of course you can," because I feel sure that she could. She said, no, and when she did I heard something different than the "no" I would have said in her place a few years ago. I would have been trying to get the other person to tell me that I could, to push me, so that I could decline but still feel that someone believed in me. I wouldn't have to test myself, but I'd get an attaboy nonetheless. She wasn't saying it that way. She wasn't troubled by the fact of what she knew about herself which is that she can run a half-marathon but that she has to train herself up to it.
She didn't even have to stand under a warm shower for ten minutes to come to the conclusion. Go figure.
The other part of this that I'm liking is this: I'm absolutely sure I could run a half-marathon tomorrow. I wouldn't do it very fast and I'd be pretty sore afterward, but I have no doubt that I could do it and enjoy myself in the process. I don't feel over my head in that. I know myself well enough to not only make the claim, but to do so calmly and without boasting. It's not anything spectacular that I could run 13.1 tomorrow. Having the awareness of myself is what's spectacular.
I'm moments away from finishing this essay. I'll post it online. I'll shut down the computer. And before bed, I'll read a couple more of Ryokan's poems without the distractions of my anxiety. It turns out that accepting the anxiety and not trying to do anything else about it is just enough to get through. I'll sleep well tonight, I think. And tomorrow, who knows how far I'll run. Anything is possible.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
The talk on NPR today has been about how President Obama using a Super PAC in his reelection. From what I hear, he wasn't planning on doing this and it's more than likely that he said he wouldn't use a Super PAC, and there is plenty of talk about him being hypocritical on this. Maybe. I'm not much concerned with that. Still, I understand where people are upset by him not taking the high road he talked of taking. I'm upset by him not taking the high road on some other things. Politics used to be an exciting thing for me. I watched it like an SU-Georgetown game. It fascinated me and I enjoyed the ups and downs. Not so much any more.
New York State imposed a 2% cap on property tax increases. Sounds like a good idea except that it hurts schools and will likely be devastating to the BOCES that employs me. President Obama killed Reading is Fundamental (a program that provided my children with new books) and The National Writing Program (something that gave me hope to continue in teaching). And the list goes on. Politics has become so divisive, petty, impotent that I can't enjoy it much any more and find myself less and less interested in being involved. There was a time when I would go to work for a campaign and when I donated cash. That time seems to have passed. Maybe someone will come along and revive my interest.
Here's the funny thing: The person most responsible for sapping my political enthusiasm is President Obama. I voted for him, got excited, and now blame him, in part, for getting me out of the game.
I blame myself too.
Candidate Obama was a poet. I know a little bit about poetry. I love it. And when I heard some of his speeches, I was just carried away. I still think back to the speech he gave on election night. My wife and I couldn't sleep after that. We were too excited. It was soaring rhetoric. It was, for lack of a better word, poetic.
And then the poetry dried up. Compare the election night speech with the inauguration speech. You'll find your heart racing through the first and you'll have to have someone wake you from the second.
I've been thinking about this on and off all day and decided to believe in poetry. It doesn't sell many books (unless it's written by Billy Collins) and it's awfully difficult to find fellow readers of the stuff. It's strange to write and it is a stranger thing to identify yourself as a poet. There's no way that I can imagine making a future as a poet and yet that's about all I want to do.
So why not?
I believe in poetry. I know that most of you don't. Poetry was crammed down your throat by English teachers. You remember it as the impenetrable block of words followed by six to ten multiple choice questions and an essay. A locked box to which someone else has the key.
But I believe in it because it's the thing that makes the light behind my eyes.
I have written before that I can't imagine voting for Barack Obama again. Nor can I imagine voting for any of the Republican nincompoops. I'm waiting for a poet who can lift me up with words. I'm waiting for the person who can sell that poetry, turn it into law, and bring about real change.
You're thinking I'm a fool and will have to wait forever. But it has happened before. Listen: We hold these truths to be self-evident; With malice toward none, with charity for all; There is nothing to fear but fear itself; and Ask not what your country can do for you.
I heard some of that in 2008. I hear it in the thoughts I have as I look out at the world. And I hear it in some of the words I set down on the page every day as I write on.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
At the end of staff meeting, I got up saying that I didn't want to talk about the future. The meeting was over and people had moved to gloom and doom talk about the future of our school and our jobs. None of it sounded good and I really did want to flee from the talk, but I kept my voice light, tried to sound as though I was joking. Others started out of the room as well. My joke had worked. Escape was at hand.
A woman in the meeting who tends to "joke" with me about things that aren't at all funny said, "I know what your future is, Brian." If there had been a way I would have kept walking. She said that I will likely be transferred to a different school because one of their teachers is leaving. I've known that the teacher was leaving, but kept it to myself. I had come to the same conclusion that I will likely be moved. It makes sense, but I don't really want it to happen. Adjusting to a new job is tiring and not something I'm interested in doing. She knows that and just wanted to see how I would react.
What she doesn't know is that I'm learning the art of acceptance.
Earlier today a kid asked how I stay cool when a kid goes off. I said, put your hand up. Have someone put their hand against yours. Push a little. What happens? They push back. When they do, what do you do? You push back. I'm learning to not push back. He asked, "isn't that just surrendering?" It can be seen that way, but surrender isn't always a bad thing. It's tough to fight someone who surrenders. Besides, allowing my hand to be pushed lets me concentrate on something more important: balance. My hand is moved but I remain balanced.
The woman at the meeting pushed, hoping I would push back. I wanted to, but I didn't. I shrugged. She talked some more. I shrugged again. I breathed in and out. I smiled and said, "we'll know when we know," as I walked away.
It wasn't long before she sprang her other joke on me. As she and another woman left for lunch she said, "Come on, Brian, time to go." I have never gone out to lunch with them and likely never will. She knows this. She doesn't like something about it. She "jokes" with me about it every single time.
I told her to go ahead without me. As I said it, I was reminded of Naomi Shihab Nye's poem The Art of Disappearing:
When they say Don't I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
When they say We should get together
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage
And most of all the ending of the poem:
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
I rejected her invitations, both of them, and spent the time writing. I could tumble any second. Deciding what to do is easy: write on.
Monday, February 6, 2012
I often enough read blogs, books, and essays by people who seem to have it all together. I visit my therapist weekly and am suspicious that she just might be as happy and balanced as she seems. For all my writing here about growth and understanding, I thought it was long past time for a bit of balance.
First, the things at which I'm doing well.
I've become more compassionate. I'm learning that skill and I find that the more I learn and the more I practice compassion and empathy the more valuable they have become for me. Here's a silly example: I don't get upset in traffic much any more. I was that guy who, when someone was riding my bumper would slow down just to piss them off. I have been the guy who swings wildly around the slow car and slams back into the lane just to show them who's tough. And I have been the guy with his middle finger in the air to any perceived slight. More than all this, I was the guy who would brood over these things for hours after the fact. I'm not very much like that any more. I don't worry about the other people on the road. I let people in even if they did just do something foolish. I shrug my shoulders when something happens. And I breathe.
Breathing is the best part of all this. I'm learning to breathe, silly as that sounds. When something bad happens, I breathe three, five, or maybe ten times. I focus on that action and find that it gets me through the bad thing and into a place where I can be myself. I'm signing up for a class in meditation and I can't wait for it to start. I'm excited about being more calm and at peace.
I've been a better husband since I started writing these entries. I'm listening more than talking. I'm understanding that my role is not to solve problems but to be in the moment, available and of use to my wife when she has something she's dealing with. If she becomes depressed, I don't have to fight that feeling (or flee from it). I can simply be with her and talk with her. I can go for a run with her. I can think of it as a problem that she is suffering through and not make it all about me.
As I said above, these are the things I'm doing better with. But there are other things that I'm still struggling mightily with and the first thing on that list is my health. I'm a pretty healthy guy in that I don't get sick often, I have very few aches and pains, I don't wear glasses, my teeth are sound, I have an iron stomach, and so on. My issue is with eating and exercising. I'm at my best when I eat well and get out for a run. I haven't done well with all that lately.
I weigh 209.2 pounds as of this morning and have been stuck at that weight for a while. My stomach is large enough to be uncomfortable physically and emotionally. I have been eating out of something other than hunger and doing that a lot. For me, this is a sign of something going on, a product of my long history with food, and an issue I haven't yet found the solution to.
This morning, in the shower, I was trying to think of one habit I could initiate that would help me with this problem. The list went something like this: get back to running every day, don't eat after six in the evening, stop drinking coffee, and other suggestions of that ilk. None of them feel like they are the right choice. Most I've tried before and had trouble with. Others feel foolish or too strict to be of much use. I need to do something, but I don't know what.
Before I go any further I need to say that I'm not looking for suggestions on this. I'm not in a place yet where I'm ready to accept that. Maybe later.
Right now, my goal is to continue with the project I set out for myself this morning: to get stuff done. It's not that I've made a long to-do list. On the contrary, I'm just taking up each task as it presents itself. Like this writing. I thought of it, was at the computer, and it needed to be done. Now that I'm set with it, I can move on to something else.
I have a feeling I'll be on this subject for a few more days. Hell, I'll be working on this stuff my whole life. I probably won't need to write about it every day, but at least for the next few, this is the topic on which I'll write on.