Clowns to the left of me…

It’s Peace Sunday at my church today, so maybe I can finally get this damn essay finished.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever done this: You’re at a movie, and the people behind you won’t stop talking. The previews are still running, and you’ve already heard about his dog’s kidney stones, her cousin’s messy divorce, and every single calorie he’s eaten for the last two weeks. You glance over your shoulder once or twice–aggressively, you think–just to see if they might notice there are other people in the theater.

They don’t. They keep talking, and even if the movie is Taken 17 and you know he is saying “Hang on, Kim, I’m coming for you!” you still want to hear Liam Neeson talk.

If you’re like me, you are getting angry. In your head, these people behind you are losing their “peoplehood.” They’ve become idiots, or jerks, or, my husband’s favorite pejorative, clowns. Any hands up yet? Hold that thought.

Last year I started doing water aerobics, and I loved it. No matter how old you are, you probably won’t be the oldest person in the class. Ditto for how much you weigh, or how long it’s been since you’ve worked out. Unlike upstairs in Body Pump or Spin Like a Lion is Chasing You, you don’t need to be fast, perky, or own cute leggings. Sure, we’re all wearing bathing suits, but we’re standing in water up to our armpits, so no one is judging anyone else’s jiggling. It’s perfect.

Make that almost perfect. My only problem with water aerobics is that you do it with other people. It’s not like yoga, where everyone downward dogs on her own mat. Here in the pool, as soon as the music starts and you’ve claimed your turf in front of the four-and-a-half-foot marker, the Man Who Breathes Too Loudly will move into position just off your left shoulder. You take a step to the right, and the Man Who Stands Too Close will move in. Before Buddy Holly is done singing about Peggy Sue, you’ll be one flutter kick away from giving a stranger a bloody nose. Some days I think I would like water aerobics better if I could do it inside a shark cage.

Case in point. All last winter, the Man Who Won’t Stop Talking and the Women Who Egg Him On came to every class I took.  These people [by that I mean clowns, idiots, jerks] don’t care that I teach teenagers and had heard my name called by someone who needed something seven hundred and ninety-two times that day. Sensory overload is real. One time years ago when I got home from school, my husband said, “Let’s go to the grocery store,” and I started crying. Maybe water aerobics isn’t for me, I thought more than one time.

If your hands aren’t too full, hold that thought, too.

As I said, it’s Peace Sunday, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a decent person while our president does things like wake up one morning and try to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

It’s easy to be outraged, to call him a clown or a jerk or an idiot. But if I’m honest with myself, it’s not like I emerged from the womb knowing that gender is about what’s in your head and sex is about your genitals. For a long time, I was weirded out by the idea that someone with male genitalia could know deep down they were a woman, or vice versa. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so I didn’t try to wrap my heart around it.

Then a few summers ago my school did some seriously powerful training about children who get marginalized. Jess Clark from the Solace Crisis Treatment Center in Santa Fe came and talked about the trans community and how to support trans kids in schools. He talked us through the difference between things like the sex you are assigned at birth (“It’s a girl!”), your gender identity (“I’m a girl”), your gender expression (I present myself to the world as a girl), and your sexual orientation (I like boys).

Jess’s message was simple: Gender is more complicated than we’ve been raised to believe. In one of my favorite moments, he pointed out with gentle humor that in polite society we don’t tend to go around asking people what their genitals look like. Check.

I thought about the kids I teach who are gender nonconforming and how they struggle. I thought about the kids I taught years ago, kids who were living with an unspoken, and at the time unspeakable, pain. Some of those kids have transitioned since I knew them, and their stories make so much sense now.

Bear with me for one more awkward transition. Recently I read in The Sun an excerpt from an interview published in April, 1984. In it, Deena Metzger says, “I’m really interested in what I call personal disarmament–learning to disarm in the inner world so that the inner can become a model for the outer world.”

She was explaining how hard it is to think about achieving world peace when “Even on the inner plane we bring in the troops against inner characters we don’t like.”

You can put down all those thoughts you were holding now; I think I’m getting to the punch line.

One night a funny thing happened after water aerobics. The Man Who Won’t Stop Talking followed me into the hot tub. He kept talking. I closed my eyes, hoping he’d talk to someone else.

“You’re a teacher, right?” he finally stuck his arm into my shark cage and asked. At that word, I opened my eyes and dragged my better self off the bottom of the hot tub. Then he said, “I must drive you crazy.”

There it was. I laughed, agreed with him, and just like that, The Clown Who Won’t Stop Talking and The Stuck-Up Jerk Who Won’t Talk to Anyone (that would be me) turned back into people.

So then there’s Donald Trump and his terrible idea. I want to tell him to lean into the idea that makes him uncomfortable.  I want to tell him that trans kids have a higher than average suicide rate, and we should try not to make their lives harder than they already are.

I want to tell him to believe those trans soldiers when they tell him the truth about their lives.

But, of course, I can’t tell Donald Trump anything. In most of my circle, his name is code for idiot/jerk/clown. And I don’t disagree–I think he’s dangerous, and sad, and unhinged. But what I learned that night after water aerobics is that if I want someone to stop driving me crazy, I have to build a relationship, not a shark cage.

I don’t have any idea what that means on dry land. I don’t know how to keep resisting things that appall me while staying in relationship with people whom they don’t appall.

I just know it’s Peace Sunday, and that quote about disarming on the inside won’t stop following me around.


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How I Spent My Summer Vacation I Mean Inauguration Weekend and then Mary Tyler Moore!

By the time it became illegal to deny my brother health insurance because he was really sick, most of the damage had been done. Years of inconsistent coverage and subsequent self-medicating had taken a big toll on his organs. He had really good insurance for the last few years of his life, but it was too little too late for his worn out heart.

Not too long before Paul died, we learned I was following him down the trail of inflammatory arthritis. Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve been learning what it means to live with an immune system that attacks my joints. I’m lucky; when my hands swelled up and I couldn’t walk up the stairs without resting at the top, I had a pretty good idea what was going on. I didn’t have to suffer for years searching for a diagnosis as so many other people have. I got myself to a rheumatologist and we got busy trying to find medications that would get me back to something like my normal life.

We’ve done that. I have good days and less good days when it comes to managing pain and fatigue, but I don’t spend any time at all worrying about having rheumatoid arthritis. Lately, though, I spend a good bit of time worrying about having a pre-existing condition.

It seems more likely every day that one of the financial or regulatory “burdens” likely to be lifted in the rush to repeal the ACA is the requirement to provide insurance to people who are actually sick. I take two drugs to control my arthritis. One of them is Humira, which would run upwards of $2500/month if I didn’t have insurance and a “discount card” which brings my price down to a minimal copay. What insurance company in their right mind would choose to insure me if they weren’t required to by law?

One of the things I can do because I have good healthcare is play the mandolin. Last weekend the Guadalupe Mandolin Orchestra opened at a house concert by Lindsay Straw. My little group played three songs, ending with a Mozart tabletop duet, where Steve and Ken play the music from the top to the bottom of the page, and I turn the paper upside-down, basically playing from the bottom to the top at the same time. Somehow it all works out, and we reach the end at the same time. My medicated fingers flexed across the frets and we spent a cold, rainy night making music together.

Then Lindsay took over. She plays folk songs from the British Isles, and that night, all her songs featured women using their wit and their wiles to outsmart men and come out on top.

After the concert, she and I made plans to attend the women’s march Saturday morning. I haven’t marched in a long time, and honestly, I’d been a little ambivalent about going. I’ve been in the “peaceful transfer of power is a good thing” crowd, and the “let’s wait and see what happens next” frame of mind.

But I teach teenagers. If I know anything at all about teaching, it’s that what you don’t do teaches as loudly or louder than what you do. So while I hadn’t made firm plans to go to the march, I hadn’t been able to decide not to go, either. Friday night, listening to songs about women being smart, and strong, and powerful, I knew I knew I had to go. I had to go because New Mexico’s rape kit backlog is the worst in the nation. I had to go because I know teenage girls who don’t feel protected by their school. I had to go because there are young boys wearing “Not in my locker room” t-shirts who make me feel hopeful about the world.

So I went. I walked. I ran into old friends and old students. I found myself surrounded by thousands of people united by the simple idea that human decency matters, that using our voices matters. For a few hours on a cold, grey January day in Civic Plaza, ten thousand strangers created peace.

Then it was Saturday night and I went to a ceilli, an old-fashioned-let’s-get-together-and-make-music night. We sang songs like “Let it Be” and “Teach Your Children” and “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” For a few hours on a cold, grey January evening in a warm living room on Guadalupe Trail, a dozen old and new friends put our voices together and created peace.

So that’s how I spent Inauguration Weekend. I didn’t listen to politicians give speeches or watch wealthy people attend balls. I walked with strangers and made music with friends.

There’s one more thing about my pre-existing condition. I give myself a shot every other week with a “Humira pen.” It’s a simple process: you pinch the skin on your thigh or abdomen, position the pen against it, and press the button at the end of the pen to activate the spring-loaded needle. Then, all you have to do is hold the pen in place for ten seconds while the medicine rushes through a needle you never even see into your body. Simple.

The thing is, though, it hurts like hell. After the first few months, I started having a hard time getting myself to do it. I would get everything ready, position the pen, and then just sit there, unable to push the button. It was frustrating–I like to think of myself as strong and capable, and it seemed like such a stupid thing to be unable to do.

On the night I finally got frustrated enough to ask for help, Fred came in and stood near me. “Say ‘position, click, hold,'” I told him, a little mantra I had made up to talk myself through the process. “Click” was the signal to press the button, and the point I couldn’t get past on my own. With Fred standing beside me, I “clicked” on the second try. Now we do it this way every time. During the ten seconds of “hold,” I usually yell. Sometimes it’s a simple “Ow” or “man-o-man-o-man,” but sometimes, when the burn is worse, my language gets a lot more colorful. Fred stays calm while I yell, sometimes laughing with me, telling me that it’s only ten seconds, that it’s almost over. And then it is over, and we’ve done it. This one simple hard thing becomes doable when I’m not alone.

When I see Donald Trump speaking as the President of the United States, it doesn’t feel real. It feels like the voiceover at the beginning of the adventure movie where the demagogic dictator has gained power and plans to destroy the country with his evil plan. Grizzly bears are threatening the children at school, and at any moment, Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson or no, let’s make that Katniss Everdeen, is going to swoop in, vanquish the Grizzly King, and save the children.

I don’t know when or if coverage for pre-existing conditions is going to go away, but it seems both likely and imminent. I don’t know if we’re going to end up in an accidental war with China, or do away with the First Amendment, or commit untold atrocities in the spirit of nationalistic fervor.

I do know that whether or not I can get my Humira is not the most important problem in the world. I do know that if my fingers stiffen and swell and I have to stop making music, my friends will play on. I do know that, for as long as I can give myself shots, Fred will stand next to me and help me push the button.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Standing here next to each other, joining our voices–if we’re going to make it after all, I think that’s how it has to happen.



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As I write this, my granddaughter Aurora, the one who wanted violin lessons and so gave me the gift of learning to play a new instrument, is writing an essay arguing against glowing cats. This too, it turns out, is a thing in this weird world.

Her third reason (“thirdly,” she says) why glowing cats are wrong, after “we should use less important animals than cats, like rats or mice” and something about how we should get over worrying about tripping on our cats in the dark, has to do with the fact that the cats have to eat jellyfish to make them glow. I didn’t get to read enough of her essay to figure out whether she is concerned about the jellyfish, or, more likely for this cat-loving vegetarian, she thinks we are making the cats do something gross.

Many years ago I found myself saying something positive about the church I go to when I said to a friend, “Oh, you don’t have to believe in God to go there.” I’ve wondered what I meant by that for years.

“Twist me and turn me and show me the elf. I looked in the mirror and saw—[wait for it while you twirl]—myself.” I remember these ritual words from  the ceremony in which I moved from being a Brownie to being a Girl Scout, which tells me I was probably in second grade at St. Louise de Marillac. This is the year I learned to write in cursive and spent my days with Sr. Ernestine in the classroom across from the lockers. I think it was also the year when we watched, in preparation for making our First Holy Communion, a movie where we saw evil souls being damned to a fiery hell.

The rhyme appeared in my head sometime Tuesday evening before the election results were in, when it was still possible to imagine seeing something other than ourselves in the mirror.

T3 (if we’re counting these post-mirror days) it’s Veterans Day, and I show up for a professional development day at my school fresh off an evening in the emergency room.

I won’t describe the whole, healing day, but here’s how lunch went: a physics teacher I play mandolin with some Sunday afternoons sang Irish songs. Then our service learning director showed us how to bang our arms on our tables “to make our silverware dance” while she sang (in Latvian) a Latvian table song. Then a Latin teacher got up with his guitar and said “I think we should sing Hallelujah,” so we did. Then a chemistry teacher and an English teacher rocked out to bring the mood back up, before we closed with our Director of Diversity singing (in Hebrew) from the Song of Solomon.

A little bit later we lay on quilts in the grass reading “Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education” from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I can say with great certainty all the things I don’t believe about believing in God. Not Santa Claus. Not involved in the Cubs breaking the streak. Not interested in my traffic problems. No big front porch with rocking chairs in the sky. I don’t go to church because I believe in God, I finally realized. I go to church because I believe in people.

I remembered that moment this morning when my priest, who looked a little ragged on T5 after spending his week immersed in organizations that work with immigrants, said that this isn’t a time for talking about what we believe. Instead of reciting the creed we spoke the beatitudes. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we said out loud together. “For they shall be satisfied.”

I’ve cleared up some of the glowing-cat confusion. Something from the jellyfish is inserted into the eggs of the cat. (She’s a seventh grader, so that’s the gross part.) And it turns out she really would be just fine if they’d only use mice or rats or some other animal we don’t like as much.

That’s a connection I wasn’t planning to make here.

Some of the last words spoken in our faculty meeting came from the man who had chanted the psalm at lunch. He quoted Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, a Yemeni poet who said, “Even though there be no mercy in the world, the gates of heaven will never be barred.”

I don’t pretend to know what Rabbi Shabazi meant. He was speaking to people who had been driven into the desert from their homes, who were watching their families suffer and die around them. I want to think that there were warm, sad evenings in the desert, evenings when tired, hurting people gathered around a campfire and someone started to sing. I want to think Rabbi Shabazi meant, “Even though there be no mercy in the world, there will be mercy in the world.”

The first thing we did on our professional development day was write one sentence in big letters on black paper about why we teach. Then we were photographed with our signs.

The last thing we did on professional development day was watch a video showing everyone who works at our school holding up their sign set to another Leonard Cohen song. “I teach,” mine said, “because I believe love wins.”

It’s not a creed, I realized as we spoke the beatitudes this morning. It’s a call to action.


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An Open Letter to Fear

Dear Fear,

 Cute how that rhymes, isn’t it?

 I know we’ve been together for a long time (see Marvle Valley Drive, circa 1977, babysitting, running home at night while Mr. Pierson looked on to make sure I wasn’t kidnapped and buried alive on our quiet suburban street), but there are some things I just have to say to you. This morning I was the pianist in my “Loose at Nine” ensemble at St. Michaels. I was the pianist because we are “loose” at the nine o’clock service, so this cool group of really good musicians is willing to let me learn how to play with them, as if I were a real musician.

That’s you right there, isn’t it? That little voice telling me I’m not really one of them, that I’m not capable of doing this thing I work hard at and love to do?

My sister tells me that I had a stomach ache every morning before kindergarten, and that she always had to walk me places. (“Walk Heather to the birthday party;” “Walk Heather to the bus stop,” she remembers.) That was you, too, wasn’t it?

We’ve known each other a long time, Fear, so I feel like I can be honest. There was that time when my sister died. My parents were sobbing in the parking lot of the funeral home, and my mother’s hair was orange, and I realized I could never let myself love someone as much as they loved my sister. You were good, Fear. That decision not to have kids stuck. I learned to keep some distance in my relationships, curling you up like bubble wrap around my heart.

That is, until I became a teacher. Then I started loving kids with abandon. I thought I had kept myself safe—they weren’t my kids; I was just loving them from afar. Disinterestedly, you might say. I thought you’d done me a favor.

You know what happened next. One of them died, and it was terrifying. Everything in me screamed “Retreat!” It took many good friends, a few priests, and an awesome therapist to tempt me to stand up to you again. You were pissed off about that, weren’t you?

And of course you came back; you’re a seducer. You make people think they are being responsible when they listen to you. It’s good to be afraid, you whisper. You hide behind virtues like “caution” and “responsibility.” Fear is the grown up thing, you tease us. You keep us from driving recklessly down a snowy highway, from opening our doors to strangers.

I’ve been watching you, though, and I think I’m finally on to you. Let me tell you what it’s like to play the piano. When I sit on the bench behind the other musicians and in front of the whole congregation, sometimes my heart starts pounding. Sometimes my hands get sweaty, and sometimes they even shake. Then my mind leaps in, taunting me. It says things like, “Really, you think you can do this? Shouldn’t you let someone who actually knows what they’re doing play?” Those are the nice things. I don’t know why I haven’t broken up with you before now.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. When you show up, my body gets small. My arms don’t want to stretch across the keyboard. I don’t want to move my whole hand from a C chord to a G minor seventh. I try to press the keys quietly, to speak without actually speaking, to sing without making the air move. It’s a disaster every time. I crash and bang and clang and make sounds that are simultaneously timid and clashing and ugly.  

It doesn’t work. The only way to make music, I’m learning, is to be bold. To wave my arms wildly. To press down on the keys with everything I’ve got pent up in my heart. To be open to every odd sound that might come out of me and to recognize all of it as praise.

Because here’s the thing, Fear. You know we’re not really talking about playing the piano. Let me cut to the quick.  You are killing people. Everyone is closing their arms and closing their hearts and wrapping themselves in bubble wrap—no, in body armor—because you keep telling us we’re in danger. You keep telling us that the cautious thing, the moral thing, the just thing, is to buy more guns, to thicken our armor, to shoot first. And the thing is, people keep dying.

One of my old students posted on Facebook that he’s terrified. He’s a young black man and he’s right to fear that the world tilts toward hurting him and the people he loves. Everyone’s hurting everyone, and, Fear, let’s get serious, it’s your fault.

You’ve got so many people working for you, and they’ve got the microphone. Immigrants are scary! Black people are scary! Muslims are scary! Hillary Clinton is scary! This is what they keep yelling, and they are so loud that people are listening. Another of my old students, who used to mimic shooting geese while I read Wordsworth outside under a post-9/11 sky, recently wrote a serious, evenhanded explanation of why he needs to carry a gun. He will be there, he wrote, to protect me and the other shoppers at Walmart or Costco when someone else pulls out their AK47. We should be afraid, was his subtext, of all those other people buying bologna and tampons and popsicles and of those politicians (you know which one I really mean) who want to take our guns away. Reading his words made me feel sadder, not safer.

And what about this, Fear? Not long ago I realized that every single time I’ve gotten in a car as an adult I’ve locked the doors. Sometimes I’ve done it hurriedly, even frantically. I know that there are carjackings in the world and I don’t mean to make light of them, but I realized that I’ve never ever ever had a person rush to my car and try to get in. It’s never mattered (“yet” I can hear you whispering) whether or not my doors were locked, but I lock them every time.

You’re an abuser, Fear, and I’m done with you. Until you stop pointing fingers, nothing is going to get better. People who have no business dying are going to keep dying.

I know we’ve been down this road together before, and I can hear you laughing at me again. But I am stronger than I used to be, and I know some things I didn’t used to know. I know that when my old student said he was terrified, he said it out loud. He said it to anyone who was listening. He opened his arms wide over the whole keyboard and spit it in your face. The people who responded to him didn’t say, “You are brave,” or “You are courageous” or “You are strong.” That would be playing your game.

What they said was “I love you.” What they did was open their arms instead of closing them. What they did was take off their body armor and stand vulnerable with this young man before the powers of hate.

In her poem “For Black Women Who Are Afraid,” Toi Derrecotte tells the woman “who has to be so careful” to “write the poem about being afraid to write.” 

What I’m really trying to say is fuck you, Fear. You’ve overplayed your hand. Any day now, we’re all going to bare our vulnerable hearts. We’re going to open our arms wide and make bold music. Listen closely to the back beat. I want you to hear us laughing.


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Newton’s Cradle

I’m waking every morning before my alarm. If I program the coffee pot right, it makes a little sighing noise just before my alarm goes off, and by the time my phone chirps, I can smell the coffee.

At least once a week, I do something wrong. Maybe I’ve ground the beans and set the timer, but forgotten to add the water, or I’ve added the water and ground the beans but left them in the grinder. Sometimes I forget to start the coffee altogether. One night last week I did everything but put the pot under the opening where the coffee comes out.

Last night I filled the reservoir with water, ground the beans, poured them into the filter, and hit the “auto-start” button, so this morning I was confused to find a pot of lukewarm coffee at 5:00 a.m. The best I can figure out is that the power flickered and the auto-start happened at midnight. Then my coffee “kept warm” for four hours, and then it gave up and got cold.

I know what you are thinking. How does she manage to endure such hardship?

Believe it or not, that was already a lot of quantitative thinking for me at five in the morning, so you might be surprised that I’m planning to write about physics today. I never took a physics class, so I invite you to make an informed decision right now about whether or not you should continue to read on.

Despite my lack of formal study, over the years I’ve learned these two things:

  1. The faster a fluid moves the lesser is its pressure. I learned Bernoulli’s principle in eighth grade. I can still see the picture in our textbook. A big-cheeked child is blowing between two strips of paper and the papers are moving closer together. I remember this principle, though, because of the near rhyme. The feel of the words in my mouth was always what I liked about math and science. (Didn’t every kid write a poem about Pythagoras in the margins of her geometry notes?) The other reason I remember Bernoulli’s law is that I chant it and the Memorarae when I’m flying to keep the plane from dropping from the sky. So far it’s worked every time.
  1. Every action has an equal and an opposite reaction. I remember that one because of the obvious metaphorical implications. There’s a novel lurking there.

Everything else the rest of you learned in physics class is chemistry to me, even though every few years I try to read Stephen Hawkings’ Brief History of Time or Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces. I scribble poems in those margins, too.

I’m writing about physics this morning because my sisters and I tried to buy my brother a Ferris wheel for Christmas. Paul has a big picture window in his apartment that looks out over a miniature golf course where a giant dinosaur roars, and he thought the Ferris wheel would look nice sitting on a table in front of that window. The furniture store where he had seen it didn’t have it in stock anymore, but Clare found what we thought was the same thing on Amazon. The other night talking to Paul on the phone I asked if it had come in yet.

“There was a delay,” he told me. The BOJIN Company explained what happened in a very nice email.

We feel sorry to inform you that the item you purchased in our shop “name” is detained by custom and does not pass through the inspection in custom from H.K. to the U.S., so we contact related stuff immediately and they provide some reasons below:

  1. Potential risk of some metal materials of the product
  2. Huge size

Therefore, to most degree, the item cannot send to your address successfully despite we really want to make this deal and provide you our talented product.

I suppose it’s good to know that US Customs Officials are on the job, protecting us to most degree from huge Ferris wheels made of toxic metals. I know I’ll sleep better tonight. In terms of a Christmas present, though, it looks to most degree as though Paul is out of luck. I’m imagining a well-timed, sort of resigned roar from the dinosaur outside as Paul received this news.

But the BOJIN Company really was sorry for not shipping their talented product, so they arranged another product as a gift to your address.

“So, they sent me a Newton’s Cradle,” my brother told me, and for some reason this struck both of us as hilarious. You ordered a Ferris wheel, which you can’t have, so take this Newton’s Cradle!

I’m imagining the lyrics to a country song. “You broke my heart, like a cheap plastic ladle; now all I’ve got is this Newton’s Cradle.” Before you tell me to keep my day job, try this at home. It’s harder than it looks to rhyme with cradle. Here’s my second try: “I never thought that you would skedadle, but you scooped out my heart with your cold-fisted ladle…” (You have no idea how much trouble I’m having convincing auto-correct to stop putting a second d in skedadle.) 

You probably took a physics class or two, so you already know that a Newton’s Cradle looks something like the parallel bars in men’s gymnastics with a bunch of symmetric balls suspended between them on wires that hang in perfect Vs. If you imagine five or six gymnasts hanging straight down from the bars in a row, their arms and heads make roughly the same shape. To make this image work, you have to imagine the gymnasts ending at the bottom of their heads, and then those heads knocking into each other, so I guess this could get a little grisly, but there it is. Blame it on my coffee being cold this morning. If you want a less bloody visual, look it up on Amazon, and you’ll find a bunch of sophisticated items that look like things you’d buy in a museum gift shop.

Except for the one the BOJIN Company sent to Paul. His Newton’s Cradle came with seven single A batteries and blue and red flashing lights.

Before I asked about the Ferris wheel, Paul and I had been talking about his efforts to get his nitroglycerine prescription refilled and how long it was taking to get an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. I’m sure Allegheny General Hospital does some things well, but from a distance, it doesn’t seem like taking care of my brother is one of them. After the dinosaur roared again (Ok, I’m lying about that. There really is a dinosaur and he really does roar, but this miniature golf course is in Pittsburgh and it’s February. He’s probably not roaring tonight.), we started imagining all sorts of problems that might be solved by a Newton’s Cradle.

“Well, we know you wanted those nitroglycerin pills for when your heart stops beating. We can’t give you those, but here, enjoy this Newton’s Cradle!”

“We know that you really want bypass surgery. We can’t do that, but here, take this Newton’s Cradle!” We thought we were hilarious.

Of course, after we got off the phone I had to look it up. I assumed that this nifty physics toy illustrated one of the two things I know about physics. Knock the ball on the end into the next ball and (voila!) watch the equal and opposite reaction. But that wasn’t the case. Knock the ball on the end into the next ball and it just sits there. So do the next couple of balls. Then, finally, the ball on the far end shoots out, and I’m learning physics fun fact number three: the law of the conservation of momentum.

I went to the NASA web site to see if ten or fifteen minutes of deep study could teach me anything. NASA said this:

F=ma=m (deltaU/DeltaT). (I’m pleased with myself here. Where I’ve cleverly written “delta,” NASA had little triangles that I don’t know how to enter with a keyboard. If you’re curious, the poem beginning in my mental margin has something to do with little triangles of change.)

I kept reading. “Momentum is defined to be the mass of an object multiplied by the velocity of the object.” Ok, NASA, I think I’m with you so far. I can imagine a giant snowball rolling downhill. But perhaps I’m confusing myself, because from somewhere deep in my brain I’m hearing thirty-two feet per second per second, which I remember, I’m sure, because it sounds kind of like “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward.”

A week or so later “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is still stuck in my head and I’m on the phone with my sister the science teacher. She provides perspective immediately. It’s all part of that whole “energy can neither be created or destroyed” thing, Clare tells me. The first ball has energy, it transfers it to the next one, which transfers it to the next one, until there’s no one left to transfer it to, so the last little ball yells “Yippee, I get the energy!” and pops out. You can probably tell which part of that explanation I ad-libbed.

So I’ve spent the week learning about momentum and trying to find something worthwhile that could pop out at the end of this essay. My father the engineer hated when sports analysts talked about a team having momentum. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he would say.

And that’s exactly my problem. All I’ve given you is a big jumbled mess of giant toxic Ferris wheels, lonely dinosaurs roaring in the night, and conversations with my siblings. Yesterday I almost gave up when I realized I’d done all this writing just to end up at Mick Jagger. Really? All these words for “You can’t always get what you want”? It doesn’t even make sense. Who needs a tacky Newton’s Cradle all blinged out with clacking balls and blinky lights?

At the very least, I’d like to give you one new word. Maybe we can get a jumpstart on making it one of 2016’s Words of the Year.

Newton’s Cradle. Verb, intransitive. To substitute without irony an unrelated perhaps tacky item for something a person desires or needs. As in, “Why did you give me this blow-up chicken? I ordered a bowl of borscht. Are you trying to Newton’s Cradle me?”

That’s all I’ve got. Oh, except this image that was in my head when I woke up Tuesday morning after falling asleep listening to the Iowa caucus results. I offer it to you without irony as a tacky substitute for any moment of real insight or emotion that you might have hoped to find here.

I’m picturing all of the candidates’ heads, suspended from two parallel bars. The one at the end (it might be the one with the funny hair) bonks into the next one, who doesn’t move, and so on down the line, clear into summer, until one of them pops out the other side, shouting “Yippee! I got the nomination!”

I’ll close with one final thought from the BOJIN Company: Please kindly forgive our ineffectiveness and impertinence.

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Government Cheese

Remember the part of the story where Jesus says, “Take the seven loaves of bread and those few small fish, and once you have completed all the drug-testing and sorted out the people who could be working and aren’t, feed the people”?

I did not like those big wheels of cheese that for a short time took up space in my mother’s refrigerator. Nor did I like grocery shopping with my older sister, carefully scanning the cereal aisle for Kix and other foods that were on the list of things she was allowed to buy. I was actually nervous as we went through the checkout line, and I admit it, embarrassed. I wanted to tell the checker, “It’s not for me; I don’t live like this.”

The cheese came to my sister through the WIC program, and I’m guessing her refrigerator was either too small or not working at the time, and that’s why my mother was keeping it for her. My sister’s life was harder than mine. She had insulin-dependent juvenile diabetes, the hereditary kind, not the sort you can make go away by improving your diet. She gave herself shots daily and had to check her blood sugar frequently. She didn’t go to college. She had emotional problems that were built into her struggle with diabetes. She never learned to drive.

She also had an adorable son and was married to a good man who loved her. He had a mental illness that sometimes caused him to detach from reality. Their health challenges made it hard for them to get and keep jobs, but for a while at least, she worked in the laundry-mat up the street. For a good stretch, he ran his own business, painting houses. They made a living. They lived. Their son was beautiful and laughed often. She was a good mother.

After an explosion blew up their trailer, the husband’s hands were injured. His car was gone. It became hard to work, then hard to feel good about yourself. There were long trips to Texas to find jobs. I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I expect that this same time is when the government cheese moved in.

I have been remembering these things lately because the tone people use when they talk about the farm bill is making me sad, and I had to look backward to figure out why. I have also been worrying about all the kids who are growing up thinking that paying taxes is some sort of punishment imposed on good rich people to support lazy poor people.

I don’t remember everything about grade school, but I do remember learning that paying taxes was part of the privilege of living in a bountiful country. I remember specifically discussing whether an elderly couple with no children should have to pay taxes that supported the school system. The answer, given by my fifth grade teacher, Sr. Janine, was “Of course they should.” That nice old couple were going to share in the benefits as those educated children grew up and became firemen and doctors and lawyers. That’s what it meant to live as part of a thriving community.

I can imagine people thinking as they read this, “Yeah, but that’s because you grew up in the seventies, before the government started taxing everyone so heavily.” Maybe that’s it. In 1976, earnings in the top tax bracket were taxed at 70%. Today that number is 39.6%.

I was about to say that I’m not writing today in support of any particular plan or policy, but that’s not really honest. I’m writing to say I’m glad the farm bill didn’t pass. I’m writing to say those posts I see on Facebook about the poor downtrodden taxpayers make me sad. And I’m writing to say that it makes me angry that people co-opt Christianity as a plan for achieving worldly success.

My mother once told me I have the wrong opinion about everything. This was after the time when she had started watching Bill O’Reilly three times a day and before the time when the doctor suggested to my father that that habit might not be helping her.

So, if I have the wrong opinion about the farm bill, at least it’s the opinion that puts a big wheel of government cheese in the refrigerator of some potentially hungry kids. I’m willing to risk being wrong about the rest of it.



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Yesterday’s Senate action to make sure we don’t expand background checks on gun sales reminded me that maintaining the (deeply flawed) status quo is grueling work. I thought I’d take it upon myself to help our hardworking Senators by drafting a form letter they can use in the future. 

Dear Grieving Parents of [insert child’s name],

The United States Senate wants you to know that we will stand beside you in this time of deep sadness. We will light candles, send cards and teddy bears, and go to our churches and pray. We will also watch a great deal more twenty-four news than usual. Some of us may even commit selfless acts of genuine kindness on TV.

However, we think it is important to let you know what we will not do. (You might want to share this information with your surviving children so that they can better understand the illusive nature of their safety.)

1. We will not pass any laws that criminals are going to break, because that would just be stupid.

2. We will not pass any laws until we are sure that they will be 100% effective at ending all crime. Incremental steps that don’t instantly solve the entire problem are also stupid.

3. We will not give up or in any way limit our right to own military assault weapons, because military assault weapons don’t kill people, people kill people.

4. We will not give up our right to shoot dozens of rounds of bullets with a single pull of the trigger. If you were a hunter, you would understand. Game animals travel in herds.

5. We will not take any action to try to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill, because they will just get them anyway (see #1 above).

6. We will not place any limits on who can buy a gun, sell a gun, or shoot a gun. Any step in that direction makes it more likely that the government, which is secretly planning to invade your home, will write your name down and come take your guns.  Just like they took your car and your cat and your dog when you registered them.

In short, we will not take any difficult action to enhance your child’s chances of survival. We have decided that the murder of children (and adults, for that matter), while highly unfortunate, is a cost we are willing to bear.

We hope you understand how deeply saddened we are by your loss.  The teddy bears and balloons should be arriving shortly.


Your U.S. Senate

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