Dogs I’ve Known

Photo of Rusty lying down
Excuses, excuses.

I’ll tell you about some dogs I’ve known, but first I need to make some excuses. Last week I was ahead of the game. I wrote a full draft of a post on Sunday afternoon, so when Monday got busy, I didn’t worry. I figured I’d revise Tuesday morning, post my essay, and call another week of blogging a success.

That plan worked great until Tuesday morning, when I reread my essay and couldn’t stand it. I’m not sure what was going on in my head. I’ve fought that “it’s not good enough” demon many times before. Every other time, though, I’ve managed to wrangle my ideas into some sort of small truth, hold my breath, and press the “Publish” button.

Tuesday morning, I couldn’t even stay in the game. I bailed. That unrevised essay is sitting abandoned in my “drafts” folder, where it might just live out the rest of its days. “It will be ok,” I told myself. “I can still post something later this week.”

Then Wednesday, I got sick. By Thursday evening my eyes were streaming, my nose was dripping, and I felt like I was breathing with lungs full of honey.

So, as I languish on the couch not writing next to a full box of Kleenex and an empty box of Kleenex that I’m using as a trash can, Fred says what he always says when I say I’ve run of things to say.

“Write about dogs,” he says. “Or dead people. People like that stuff.”

So last week passed

that way, and through my coughing, sniffling, chills, and fever, I’ve been thinking about all the dogs I’ve known.

I’m not counting the Farrell’s Lhasa Apso that barked ferociously from the top of their stairs and made me afraid to feed him. Or Pepper, the Watchen’s lab who I sometimes watched for a weekend when they went away.

I’m talking about dogs I’ve known like Benny the Beagle. He was the first dog. I didn’t want a dog. Then Fred and I went to dinner one night and as we ate, he told me stories about the dog that slept under his crib when he was a baby.

We went home that night with Ben, whose sole talent in life was to look soulfully into your eyes until you gave him food. My father-in-law used to cook him steak, and eggs, and chicken. (On the same day–that was breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)

Many years later, when Peter and Ben were both much older, they would sit together on the couch watching tv and eating peanuts out of a giant can.

Then somehow

(and this part is still a little fuzzy), we got Annabelle.  She was a puppy when we got her. I remember that we used to say, “No, Ben,” a lot, but take it from me: “Just say no” doesn’t work any better as birth control than it did with drugs.

So for a little while, I knew a bunch of beagle puppies. In those days, we still had the waterbed Fred owned when I first met him. That’s where Annabelle went when it was time to bring her babies into the world. Let’s just say that wasn’t an ideal choice for any of us.

Of all the dogs I’ve known,

I remember three of those puppies. Our friend Ed and his wife and four kids came to visit as the puppies were just getting old enough to give away. Ed didn’t want a dog. No dogs allowed. He absolutely didn’t want a dog.

On the last day of their visit, we went shopping for a crate so they could take their puppy on the airplane. Sherlock was a beloved member of their family until he died happily, many years later.

I also remember the puppy that didn’t make it. I held him in my hands as Fred drove to the vet. She said some things I don’t remember, and then I held the puppy as she inserted the needle. I remember watching his heart go from beating to still. Outside Fred leaned on the hood of the car, and his whole body crumpled in one lone sob.

The last puppy I remember is CT, or Lester Crooked Tail, to be official. He was born with a gimpy tail and an opportunistic bent. Fred’s dad Peter didn’t think the dogs should be alone when we went to work, so a few days a week, we’d drop the dogs at Grandpa daycare.

CT knew a good thing when he saw it. While the other dogs romped and rollicked like normal puppies, CT glued himself to Peter. Sure enough, he got himself adopted by the man who cooked meals for his dogs.

Years later

when we sold our house and built a house that was big enough to live in with Fred’s parents, the beagle family was reunited. My sister Clare (not a dog person) once described Ben, Annabelle, and CT as furniture that followed you around.

While I’m thinking about it, Clare is the only person I’ve ever known whose houses come with pets. Every time she moves, there’s some animal that “comes with” the house. Bentley, who came with her house on the hill in West Virginia,  is another dog I’ve known.

He lived on the land at my sister’s before she moved in. He moved over and made some room for them and slept on their porch for years. When I’d visit, I’d feed Bentley ham and he’d let me brush him, much to my sister’s surprise. I was sad when I learned Bentley died. He was a good dog.

When Ben died, I learned that dying is something that happens to your mouth. Ben had been slowing down, hinting that something was going on, for a few weeks. Then, he rebounded. For a full week, he ran up and down the stairs and  followed us all around the house.

Then one afternoon, he lay down for a nap in the sun near the back door and didn’t wake up. You could see it in the funny set of his mouth.  CT died under a table in the living room. Annabelle was harder. She didn’t want to die. By the time we took her to the vet, she was so obviously close to dying that we wished we hadn’t taken her. I held her head and she was gone.

Other dogs I’ve known include Snow White, who smells bad and sits on my lap when we watch her. And Circuit, who pushes Rusty away and flops his crook-eared head into your lap, pledging affection without a price tag.

And then there’s Rusty.

Rusty has always been more person than dog. He worries a lot. Change unsettles him. He watches tv and barks at the animals, even if they are fake animals. Every time. I’m talking to you, Geico gecko. And you, Trip Advisor owl in your bathrobe. Rusty knows you’re up to no good.

Lately, Rusty has been having a lot of trouble standing up. His back legs aren’t working so well. We tried going up to bed without him, but he’d wake up after an hour or so and bark from the bottom of the stairs. Now we sleep downstairs in the guest room.

Rusty has an appointment at the vet on Thursday, and I’m hopeful that there will be something she can do to help him get more mobile again. A pill, a shot, a fancy “hip harness” device like I’ve seen online. Once he’s up and going, he’s all puppy.

So, there’s a quick tour of the dogs I’ve known. I’m grateful to them for their uncomplicated dogginess and their unwavering love.

Being sick has made for a strange day. I was too miserable even to read, so I’ve been writing a little and dozing in front of the tv.

It wasn’t a great day to watch CNN. In between writing about dogs, I’ve been looking at pictures of kids in cages and listening to tapes of children crying for their parents.

The thing I remember best about my father-in-law was that he liked dogs more than people. On a day like today, it’s easy to see why.


As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to share this post with your friends.

The Metaphorical Implications of the Butterflies

Photo of just emerged mourning cloak hanging from the eave

There is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school. So instead of talking about last Friday’s murders (or as CNN puts it, the 22nd school shooting of the year), I’m going to talk about last Wednesday’s butterflies.

I was sitting at my desk

cleaning out seventeen years of files. I was laughing over an old thank you card (“Thank you for testing our pooper-scooper. We give you our gratitude. Thank you for making this possible.”) when I heard a student say something like, “They are coming out!”

Some people wrap up their time at a job by working hard right down to the wire–crossing and dotting t’s and i’s, overturning every old stone, and finishing all those things they meant to finish months ago.  I’m not one of those people.

I stopped assigning new work and slid into a serious “winding down” phase at least two weeks ago when the seniors left. Since then, I’ve spent my days packing books, filling the recycle bin with old lesson plans, and interrupting my colleagues who are still trying to get work done.

When the student called out,

I wandered outside and looked up at the roof of the patio where, a few weeks ago, the same student had shown me a dozen or more nondescript chrysalides hanging above our heads. Today, two long rows of butterflies are peeking out of those temporary, fragile homes.

I watched them on and off all morning. One time I witnessed the exact moment when the chrysalis opened and the butterfly stepped gingerly onto the wall. Another time I watched as the wings slowly unfurled, transforming two tight cylinders into a full black cape.

A science teacher tells me their name. Mourning cloaks, she says, transporting me to an old-fashioned world where women drape themselves in heavy black capes and travel to funerals in horse drawn carriages. 

The metaphorical implications of the butterflies

are not lost on me. I’m leaving this job, leaving this place, getting ready to emerge in a new life with a new way of being in the world. But that’s too easy, isn’t it? Cliche, really.

How about this? School is the chrysalis. Kids grow safely there, out of site of the world. They change shape, mature, and, as high school ends they emerge as new beings, ready to unfurl their wings and soar.

That’s a little better, but I still don’t like it. Maybe sometimes a butterfly is just a butterfly.

That’s probably why the baby birds appeared. I’m staring up at the butterflies when I shift my gaze for a minute and see a bunch of kids staring up at the tree outside my classroom. “Baby birds,” someone calls across to me. “Right up here in the nest.”

If you were editing the movie, you’d cut the scene with the baby birds. It goes too far, you think; no one would believe it.

There is nothing new

to say about kids getting shot in school. That’s why I am writing about butterflies and baby birds. By Friday morning when I started getting texts from Fred, all the morning cloaks had flown. I saw one of them step off the eave. She flapped awkwardly for just a second, and then she soared.

On Friday morning if someone at the school in Santa Fe had said, “They are coming out,” they would not have been talking about butterflies. They would have meant the students hiding in the closet in the art room, emerging from that unexpected chrysalis as new creatures into a changed world.

When the reporters showed up

they knew what to expect. They were ready for surprise, for “we never thought it would happen here.” The reporter’s question even had that answer built right into it.

It turns out there is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school except what Paige Curry said. “I wasn’t surprised,” the seventeen-year-old  told the reporter. “It’s been happening everywhere.”

The reporter blew the moment; he didn’t see the butterfly stepping out of the chrysalis. He didn’t see that this movement from shock to expectation was a new moment in the world.

I blame Rush Limbaugh

for all of it. That probably sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. He turned outrage and bad argument (yelling, personal attack, logical fallacy) into entertainment, and then convinced people his opinions were based on reason.

My parents loved him. I loved them, but I spent a career trying to teach young people how not to be Rush Limbaugh. I wanted them to think critically: to base their opinions on evidence and sound reasoning; to avoid digging in; to be respectful even as they disagreed. I tried to teach them that yelling louder than the other person doesn’t make your ideas right.

Rush Limbaugh started all of it, and now we’re here, and there is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school. In public discourse, we’ve enshrined disrespect, elevated anger, and embraced dehumanization. Then we made a fetish out of guns.

We can argue all we want about banning guns and “hardening” schools and raising young white men to be less angry. What we can’t do any longer is pretend to be surprised.


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A Teacher is the Opposite of a Gun

1. We’re less than a week out since the most recent school massacre, and I’m avoiding writing. Since last Wednesday, I’ve spent way too much time drilling deep into the comments on Facebook and reading the New York Times.

2. One bad moment looked like this: someone posted an analogy attempting to show that blaming guns for killing people was similar to blaming women for getting raped.

3. It was a ridiculously bad argument, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The man who posted it is an old colleague. He grieved, too, that night at the funeral home when a boy I loved lay in a coffin because he had an adolescent’s degree of impulse control, a breaking heart, and a gun. Continue reading “A Teacher is the Opposite of a Gun”

Martians Against the Parade

I like a good parade as much as the next person.

When I was growing up in Bethel Park, we’d stuff streamers in our handlebars and ride down Dashwood Drive on our bikes on the fourth of July.

Some years we’d build floats and parade down Donegal. In high school we spent weeks folding Kleenex into flowers to decorate floats for the homecoming parade. I like pageantry, and ritual, and ceremony.

But last week, when Fred kept saying, “Write about how my dad was a martian,” I was still digesting the idea that Trump thought it was treasonous for people not to clap for him. Continue reading “Martians Against the Parade”

Aly Raisman Nails Another Routine

In honor of the weekend’s Women’s Marches, I thought I’d take a moment to say that Olympic gymnasts are tough.  Pound for pound, I’d put them up there with those crocodile-eating leopards that are all over my Facebook feed this week.  In fact, as my students would say, Aly Raisman is tough af.

In case you missed it, here’s what Raisman, two-time gold medal winning Olympian, had to say to Larry Nassar, the “physician” responsible for sexually abusing US Olympic gymnasts and University of Michigan crew team members for two decades.  (Let that “two decades” number sink in. I’ll get back to it in a bit.)

Looking right at the man who groomed young girls to gain their confidence so he could abuse them, Raisman said,  “Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force and you are nothing.”

Poster saying "Truth Matters" at Women's March
The number of women signing up to tell the truth at Nassar’s trial was 100 and climbing

This Larry that Aly Raisman was staring down is not only the man who spent his career assaulting young women while pretending to “treat” them. He is also the man who wrote the judge a letter explaining it was too hard on him to listen to the women’s testimony.

I heard this story Friday afternoon from my husband, who told me that the judge had laughed at Nassar’s request and told him to get over it. My first question was, “Is the judge a woman?”

“I don’t think so,” my husband said.

I don’t blame him for that. Every year I do a little writing experiment with my students. I stole this from another teacher many years ago, and it’s fascinating. Without explaining what you are doing, you give the students a list of characters defined only by their job title (doctor, lawyer, nurse, etc). You tell them the characters are waiting outside a courtroom and then have them write a short scene.

The point of the exercise is to see how students assign the sex of the characters to the different professions. In 2016, 69% of my students made the judge male. In other high-powered professions, attorneys were 79% male and physicians came in at 84%. The teachers and nurses in the story were predictably female. The teacher I stole this exercise from provided data showing that in 1987 and 1997, the judges in the story were 100% male.

That’s all just a long way of telling you that I don’t blame Fred for thinking the judge was a man. I was skeptical, of course, so I looked up the story. Sure enough,  Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is all woman. Not only that, she “became part of Michigan’s history by becoming the first female JAG Officer in the Michigan Army National Guard.”

Judge Aquilina told Nassar that “Spending four or five days listening to them [the young women he molested] is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.” Judge Aquilina is tough af.

Aly Raisman nailed this one, too. She stared Nassar down and said, “You think this is hard for you? Imagine how all of us feel.”

"Protest

I have to admit that I’m an Olympics junky. I watch all of it, winter and summer, every time. I watch the athletes process in. I watch them light the torch. I tear up when they stand on the podium. I’ve watched curling, canoe slalom, synchronized swimming, luge, bobsled, skeleton, and even that goofy gymnastics thing with ribbons.

Many years ago, though, watching gymnastics used to make me sad. These tiny elite athletes, it turned out, were basically starving themselves while competing at world class levels. It wasn’t enough to twirl twelve thousand  times ten feet in the air in a half-pike position and land with a half-twist and a giant smile. They had to do all of that while meeting their coach’s misogynistic idea of what a female gymnast’s body should  look like.

Eventually, though, that seemed to change. For the last few Olympics, the US women gymnasts started looking more like well-fueled athletes and less like fragile paper dolls. I thought that meant they were being treated better.

I spend my days surrounded by young men and women. I’m pretty good at knowing when to ask a student if something is bothering them. Watching the 2016 Olympics, I kept asking Fred what was wrong with the gymnasts. They were fierce au (is there a social media “au” that means “as usual”?), but the joy and laser concentration that we all fell in love with in 2012 were obviously missing.

Many years ago, a young woman at my school uttered words that changed my life. A group of students had attended a diversity conference and had come back newly empowered with language that allowed them to describe their experiences.

Their stories of being mistreated by classmates were hard to hear, but it was one young woman’s reaction to the faculty’s outrage and outpouring of compassion that changed me. “I had no idea you would help me with this,” she said.

In the courtroom on Friday, Aly Raisman called out the whole organization; she said that USA Gymnastics was “rotting from the inside” and condemned the US Olympic Committee for their silence.

Raisman said, “If over these many years, just one adult listened, and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided.”

Larry Nassar spent at least twenty years abusing the power of his position and molesting young women. Meanwhile, those young women were waiting for just one adult to do something courageous, and no one did.

Just one adult.

I know that I am not in charge of keeping the US Olympic Gymnastics team safe from pedophiles. (I point that out in case Sister Therapist happens to be reading–I do know that I can’t save or protect all of them.)

And yet. Maybe instead of blithely celebrating the gymnasts’ Olympic victory, I should have written an essay asking why they didn’t look like they were having fun.

I’m at the point in this essay where I need to decide where I’m going. If I’m to meet my new goal of publishing every Monday, it’s time to wrap this up. I’ve been circling; zigging left, zagging right. But I think I’m closing in.

Last week, Fred and I went to see The Post. I’m not much of a movie critic, but I think people should see this movie. In an age where every leader has to look around and take a poll before they decide what to do, the movie tells the story of one person (just one adult, you might say) who looked inside to find that answer.

Katharine Graham was tough af, too.

The 2016 US Olympics Gymnastic Team named themselves the “Final Five.” Let’s all act like adults to make sure they got that right.

(PS–My students taught me that “AF” thing. I’m finding it surprisingly useful.)

Singing We Shall Overcome with White People

“We Shall Overcome” is one of those songs you can’t help but respond to. It’s plaintive and powerful. One verse makes you weep while the next exhorts you to shout in defiance.

I have to admit, though, that as much as I love singing this song, it has always made me uncomfortable. Every January when MLK weekend rolls along and my mostly-white choir sings “We Shall Overcome” in my mostly-white church, a part of me feels like an impostor.

I worry that I’m indulging myself by revelling in the song without living the pain that necessitates its singing. It’s an easy way to congratulate myself–“Look how earnestly I sing for civil rights”–without actually having to change anything once the song ends.

Nevertheless, “We Shall Overcome” is one of those songs you mainline; you don’t just hear it, you feel it like a needle rush in your blood. Every year I tamp down the little voice telling me I should examine my motives.

This year, though, when I headed off to our pre-MLK choir practice on Thursday night, I had just listened to the news that the man we elected to live in the White House had called Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa “shitholes” and wished we could have more immigrants from nice [white] places like Norway.

Protest march showing sign reading "Better to Light a Candle than Curse the Darkness"
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” (Martin Luther King)

I had also heard that man’s apologists explain that it wasn’t  a racist comment, it was code for supporting merit-based immigration. The irony that the second comment was as bad as the first was lost on the man making it.

After we finished singing all the other songs for Sunday, we practiced “We Shall Overcome” to sing while the congregation was gathering. We didn’t talk about the arrangement. Scott launched in on the piano, and then Bob, a tenor whose voice cuts straight through the noise of the world to the quiet of the soul, started singing the first verse. “Deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall overcome, someday.”

On Thursday nights, we practice in the front corner of the church. This time of year it’s already dark when we get there, so no light shines through the stained glass windows. The altar is bare, and most of the lights in the sanctuary are turned off.

Singing at practice is more intimate than singing on Sundays. On the second verse, Margo’s strong alto adds a quiet harmony. “We’ll walk hand in hand,” she sings. The  simple concrete floors  and wooden pews bear witness.

On the third verse the choir comes in softly, oohing while Margo and Bob remind us that “We shall live in peace someday.”

Photo of protest. "Power to the people" sign in center
“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King)

In a May, 2015, essay titled The Surprising History of “We Shall Overcome,” The Atlantic traces the melody to a Beethoven setting of the 1792 hymn “O Sanctissima.” It credits the 1901  lyrics to “the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, a famed black preacher in Philadelphia,” and tells the story of how the song became a staple of American folk protest music.

We aren’t thinking about that history on Thursday night. On the fourth verse, every voice in the choir comes in singing “We are not afraid.” This verse talks about the present moment–right now.  We are not afraid today, we sing; no more waiting for some nebulous someday.

In NPR’s piece on the history of “We Shall Overcome,”  Bernice Johnson-Reagon explains how the song evolved. According to NPR, she “was a preacher’s daughter and knew the song as ‘I Will Overcome.’ She recalls the change to ‘We Shall Overcome as a concession that helped bring whites and blacks closer in the civil rights struggle.” I won’t spoil it for you, but her explanation of why “I” expresses the collective will better than “we” is both funny and insightful. (Her explanation of how she accepted the changes to accommodate white people’s needs is neither funny nor surprising.)

Sheet music for We Shall Overcome.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” (Martin Luther King)

When the instruments took over after the sixth verse, the choir dropped out. As the flute and recorder danced around each other,  I was wiping my eyes.

Then Bob came back in with a final, glorious, “We Shall Overcome,” and there was nothing for it but to all join in. Our voices rose in crescendo, filling the empty church before softening into a final “someday.”  When the last chord faded we sat in silence, a little stunned by the spirit singing through us.

The NPR piece claims that ” ‘We Shall Overcome’ is not a marching song. It is not necessarily defiant. It is a promise.”

Protest sign saying "Open your eyes, mind, heart."
“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice…But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” (Martin Luther King)

Thursday night, for the first time, I understood it that way. I didn’t hear myself singing “we” as a self-righteous, privileged white woman elbowing my way into an experience I haven’t lived. I heard myself singing “we” in community with other white people who need to get busy overcoming.

I heard myself making a promise.

As I left the church a brisk wind was driving the cold into my coat. I turned the seat warmer to high and cranked the heat. I started thinking about the things white people like me need to overcome if we want to keep this promise, if we want to create a more just society, if we want to move beyond “self-deception and comfortable vanity.”

When we talk about race in my classroom, I tell students about the time I stole a Wii game from Best Buy. My husband and I were buying Dance Dance Revolution for our grandkids. I picked up the game and was carrying it around reading the package (to the unsung writer who creates copy for video game packaging, know that at least one person on the planet is reading your work!).

After we checked out, we walked past security, and the alarm went off. The security guard looked at us, shrugged his shoulders, and waved us through.

When we got in the car my husband handed me the bag with the game. I was puzzled, the way you are when you go upstairs and can’t remember why you went there. I looked at the game I was holding in my hand and realized we had two of them. We had the one we had paid for and the one I’d been carrying around.

I went back into the store and told the guard I had just accidentally stolen the game and handed it to him. He looked confused, but took it from me, and I left.

I draw two conclusions from this story. First, and most obviously, the world has been taught that people who look like my husband and me (white, straight, middle-aged) aren’t thieves. It didn’t matter that the alarm was going off to tell this man that we were, indeed, stealing something. We didn’t look the part so he waved us through.

The second thing I’ve come to realize about the Best Buy story is that I’ve grown up expecting the world to be kind to me. I had no fear associated with returning the video–I would smile and laugh at my foolishness and the guard would understand and smile back and we’d all go on about our business.

When I tell teenagers my story, I’m reminded that those lessons don’t apply to everyone. Every year, my students of color tell me about the time their family was followed around a store, refused service, called names.

This telling is itself an improvement; only recently have my students been willing to share these stories with their white teachers and classmates. We’ve only begun to to admit that what we look like shapes how we live in the world.

And there is still a long way to go. It’s not uncommon for another well-meaning person to jump in to explain those experiences away, to attribute their occurrence to causes other than race. I, too, have to keep learning that the most basic form of respect is to believe what someone tells me about their own experience. I’ve realized it’s a special form of arrogance to believe that I possess more insight into someone’s life than they do.

Thursday night with “We Shall Overcome” still ringing in my ears I drove past the dark field where the cranes feed.  When I reached home, this essay was ringing in my ears. The late shows were talking about the shithole comment.

By Sunday morning there were denials, telling silences, a few tepid denunciations.  I went to church and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The congregation stood as we sang the final verse, visibly moved.

Protest sign reading "Love Still Wins"
“Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.” (Martin Luther King)

This time, I didn’t feel uncomfortable; I felt empowered.

In a sermon he preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King called love “the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” In an interview with a reporter today, Donald Trump said, “I’m the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

It’s 2018 and we’ve all got to up our game. Love has its work cut out for it.

+++++++++++++++++

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.

—————————–

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.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Minutiae

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.

 

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.