Friday, November 25, 2016

Thankful

Even the birds seemed mindful of Thanksgiving. Late afternoon held a silence usually reserved for daybreak. The air was cold and clean with whispers of rain. The houses looked cozy, lights illuminating families and friends gathered around tables or clustered around televisions. A few windows revealed Christmas trees, which caused me to marvel at the domestic skill I myself lack. Christmas trees more than a month before the day!

I passed by the lawn to which for so long was staked a "Veterans for Trump" sign, now disappeared.

At home three people awaited me: a husband preparing turkey, a college student who'd undergone the requisite gain in maturity after only three months' time, and a teen growing so furiously that he looked starved (all evidence to the contrary). The three playing Monopoly as the turkey roasted.

And I felt lucky, despite no Christmas tree (yet), despite the fact of this Trump presidency.

People do go on. Life does go on. Fighting for what we believe, for what we know is right and wrong, that too goes on - tomorrow.

Someone else, walking by my own house, must have seen a scene of cozy domesticity, and felt as I did, not envy, but a kind of wonder and love of it all, beginning and ending with the birds that knew to hush in recognition of a day made extraordinary by being altogether ordinary.



Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Topsy-Turvy

I wake up disoriented. It takes me a few seconds to place myself, to remember what day it is. It takes me another minute or so to feel a familiar knot, an awful, choking mix of anxiety, frustration, and helplessness. Yes, yes, Donald Trump did win the election. I roll over, grab my tablet from the nightstand, and start checking the news. Anything could have happened overnight. I am prepared for anything. And yet I am also quite obviously prepared for nothing, because each fresh bit of news - today it's that President-Elect Trump called some of our most well-known reporters into a meeting to excoriate and browbeat them, as only a good fascist does - shocks and galls. I cannot be surprised anymore, I think. And then, once again, I am surprised.

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

Blogging, post-Trump, feels indulgent. I could be spending my time in a way that's more useful to others. I could be writing a letter to a senator, signing a petition, calling my representative's office. I have done these things. They feel small and insignificant. I don't know whether they will do any good.

I don't know what to tell my children. I don't know how afraid they should be. I don't know whether they will have to fight in a war we (we? they? he?) should never have started. There are so many unknowns.

As a child I read a book, an homage to Escher as I remember it now, about a world gone topsy-turvy. It's only in the last few weeks that the book, long forgotten, has come to mind. Its images and text seem to have leapt off its pages into the world I inhabit. It's as confusing as it is frightening.

What do we do now? I keep searching for answers. If I look to history, I see what we should not do. We should not stand by, we should not let what is morally repugnant become what is normal; if it's normal, it's too easy to overlook.

It is harder to figure out what to do, and to know what action of mine might make a real difference.

I cannot even sit still long enough to write coherently. I apologize. 

This will have to suffice, until things make a little more sense.

Time for more phone calls and letters.

The people walk upon their heads,
The sea is made of sand,
The children go to school by night,
In topsy-turvy land.

 (excerpt from Topsy-Turvy Land by H.E. Wilkinson)

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Voting: One Family's Legacy

My mother always took my brother and me along when she voted, even when I was so small that I couldn't see or reach the rows and columns of levers, and the massive switch underneath. So the experience was ingrained in me: the privacy curtain, the stale smell of the air in old buildings (schools, churches) not kept up, the elderly men and women who helped my mother fulfill her civic duty. In these public spaces, unlike most, children were encouraged, even celebrated, and few adults missed the chance to remind us kids that someday we too would be granted a golden ticket, like Charlie Bucket's, to vote.

Afterward we'd sit down to a special dinner. My grandmother believed in Election Day dinners. In my memory these were almost as elaborate as Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, although they involved cold foods, not hot: picnic food in November. My birthday fell a few days before Election Day (still does), and so for me the air was doubly charged.

Once dinner was finished my mother, grandmother, uncle, and aunt would scurry to the family room and watch the returns, sometimes well into the next morning. They, political junkies all, were never more animated than on election night. I would lie on the floor and half-listen to swells of conversation. I didn't understand most of it but by its pitch and tone I could suss out who was winning or losing, and whether we (unified in this if nothing else) were happy about it. No one ever remembered to put me to bed. I'm not sure they knew I was in the room.

++++++++++++++++++++ 

Three of four of those people have died, and yet they are with me on Election Day. This I know: They would be appalled by this election season. They would be inhaling it as reliably as they inhaled the smoke from their cigarettes. If they knew how to do so they would be checking fivethirtyeight.com as obsessively as I am.

I miss my grandmother, mother, and uncle most on the first or second Tuesday in November. On Tuesday I may not use switches and levers to cast my vote for HRC, but when I ink circles I will sense my departed family gathered around me much the way my brother and I swirled around my mother as she voted. I will smell their cigarettes and feel their passion for the electoral process. And I will be buoyed by their legacy as I vote for the candidate they would have chosen.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Recalibrating

It is and is not how I expected it would be, living day to day as a family of three.

Small things trip me up. Then again it's always the small things that trip you up, because the big things you know to look out for.

Changing the college student's bed and musing, "This won't need to be changed again until after Thanksgiving."

Passing by the college student's room and seeing the covers pulled up and neat, undisturbed. Even the cats have stayed away.

Racing out the door on a weekday afternoon to take the teen to the orthodontist, then stopping short to unlock the door because "older teen will be coming home and has no key," and finally, realizing the mistake, leaving the door locked.

Buying much less food, buying different kinds of food, not needing to buy particular favorites.

And the house feels quieter, of course.

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

What makes it all fine -- better than fine, really -- is how happy the college student seems. How settled, already, in only a few weeks.

Also this: At the end of a text to me about his classes and how they are going, he wrote, "And how are things on your end?"

There, spy the looking outward, the care for others (distinctly not a teenager's strength) on the screen. I had forgotten that one of the primary functions of the university is to help mold teenagers into adults. How that happens (and so quickly) I don't know, but it does.

Yet come to think of it I do remember my first trip home from college, when I walked into the apartment and all at once felt a little dizzy. The angles and planes were off, somehow. The rooms looked smaller. It was almost as if I had entered a funhouse.

So now I am eager to meet my son anew at Thanksgiving, and see for myself the growing he's done, and smile knowingly as he exclaims, "The house seems different!" The house won't have changed a bit.

Monday, August 15, 2016

When Work is Love

I am so lucky. Back in June, on the last day of school at the building where I work, we continued a lovely tradition of serenading the fifth graders as they exited the school as well as their elementary careers. Each year at this celebration I cry, with only a touch of embarrassment. Because, and this is why I am lucky, I grow to love each and every child who is in our classroom.

Impossible, you say? Every child? Oh, but you have to know that each child is so easy to love, and so worth loving. The returns on loving children are vast. Of course what there is to love about a child is unique to that child. It may be a wicked sense of humor, or an oversized heart, or a talent for writing, or a quirky way of seeing the world, or a sweet shyness. Anything, really. Knobby knees, large ears, a habit of sucking on a strand of hair when deep in thought.

Now that I have been doing this for six years, there are some hundred and fifty children (more if you count the ones who come in for math instruction, and I do - I have a good memory for people) about whom I care. My cat does something funny, and I think, "Oh, Paul would love this story." I go to a baseball game, and I make a mental note to tell Max about the lopsided score. I camp in the same park Maddy did a year ago, and wonder whether I will see a bear, as she did (and then wrote about in a wonderfully funny essay). I am so lucky.

I am so lucky, because the larger part of my job - the teaching is the smaller part, because young children are ready to learn and by and large do learn, with or without me - is to love these little people as if they were my own. And that is easy. Do parents understood how much we love their children? I'm not sure that I did, in the time and space when I was a parent but not yet working at a school.

No, I am not a teacher, and I do not decide what the curriculum should be (neither do teachers, sadly), or how the day should go. I am what is called a paraprofessional, an assistant to the teacher. "Only a para?" ask some of my friends and family. "But you were trained for so much more than that!"

If only I could help these well-meaning people understand that their question is wholly beside the point.

The way I see it is this: not having certain responsibilities (planning, grading, paperwork) allows me more time and energy to love the children. That's the way I like it. And if I have done my job by expressing the love I feel, that's the way the children like it, too.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Other Mile-High Club

In the window seat slouches a man with long blonde hair gone grey. He's pulled it into a ponytail. He has a weathered face, but look through the lines, and you'll find an aging California surfer, the Peter Pan on this flight. Because unbelievably, he packed his car keys in his checked luggage (dude, think), and one of the baggage handlers picked these keys up off the tarmac, where they had fallen out of his carelessly zipped bag, and brought them to the stewardess, who made an announcement that a set of keys had been found, described them, and then returned them to the really astoundingly hapless fellow in the window seat, who had at least had the wherewithal to press his call button at the mention of the keys. As I look on, the stewardess shoots him a half-withering, half-pitying look and begins to dress him down as if she were his mother, which she could easily be, I suppose. You must never check your keys. What a bad idea. A really bad idea! You are very lucky, sir, do you know that? He is mute, chastened by her ferocity. He knows that he has been foolish, and he doesn't understand that he might want to resent her tone. He's too affable for that. Wedged between him and me is a slight thirty-something with impossibly red hair, more hair than freckled face underneath. She does not like flying, and it shows. She tells me that she is a freelance court reporter, and while her mouth is shaping phrases like it's a way for me to make more money and the travel doesn't bother me, because I don't have children, her eyes are telling a far lonelier story. She's still attached to her parents, lives very near them, and she is protected by them in ways she may not understand for years. To wit: she places two calls, one before we leave the gate, the other after we land. Both are to her parents, who want to make sure that she's eaten dinner (she has) and that she doesn't need them to pick her up from the airport, because they will, they really will, she has only to say the word.

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

There's a cameraderie among airplane passengers that is unique, born of shared desire (we all just want to get wherever it is we're going) and intermingled fear (in one piece, thank you very much). Adults look fondly on children (unless they are under three), and because there is time to think more deeply than the frantic pace of daily living allows, they are wistful (the court reporter, who obviously wants children but feels herself to be impossibly far from a time when she might gaze with wonder and surprise at her own newborn), or knowing (the elderly woman in the row behind the boys; her looks says clearly to me, enjoy them, because before you know it, it will be too late, and you will be devastated by that discovery), or regretful (the college-aged boy with the set jaw and wary eyes, who, I think, would like nothing more than to be ten again, because somehow he overslept and missed the class on navigating the emotional complexities concomitant with young adulthood). Or they are simply amiable. The man in front of the boys banters with my five-year-old, who is all Spiderman, from his shoes to his shirt to his activity book. He keeps calling my son "Spidey," causing him to blush furiously and giggle. The forty-something man, he must have kids of his own, because his manner with Spidey is so easy and playful, and because he's enjoying flirting with a five-year-old so much. I think he must have daughters at home, only daughters.

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

As the plane lands, the openness and collegiality, moments ago as wide as the fabled Montana sky, of this cast of characters snaps shut like so many briefcases, purses, and cell phones. Faces are abruptly closed for business, and everyone's hurrying, if not with their feet (because the plane doors have not yet been opened), then with their eyes and their gestures. Now my boys are irritants, because their gangly and loose limbs, their naturally relaxed stances, are an affront to the forward progress of the same people who for a time saw themselves, or their children, in my children. It strikes me that pressed tight and close in an unforgiving and vaguely threatening metal tube, people might say and do anything. It's protected space, and it's sacrosanct. Affairs might be revealed to strangers who somehow don't feel strange at 37,000 feet, regrets articulated, secrets confessed, longings expressed, quirks admitted. Yet the instant the wheels of the plane awkwardly renew their contact with the ground, we all wordlessly agree that whatever might have gone on above those cottony clouds was a dream, merely that, like the plane's wings, which once earthbound make no sense at all. Out of flight they manage only to get in the way. 


written in 2007

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Eighteen Years in a Blink and an Essay

If I were tempted to offer parenting advice to those new to the endeavor, I'd immediately laugh at myself, because who am I? That's true, and also this: I feel as I send my firstborn off to college that I know less than I ever did about parenting. As the world becomes scarier and scarier (it doesn't really; that's just perception, but a healthy one, on the whole, because it spurs corrective action), it's trickier to figure out how to prepare one's offspring for it.

Except - and maybe this is what I have learned, after all, about parenting - you don't have to prepare your children. They end up preparing themselves quite handily for the world they will inherit.

I remember as a young parent fretting about so many tiny things. It is a luxury to fret about tiny things, all the while believing the tiny things to be large. Which teachers my sons would be assigned every school year serves as an example (one of many, many). When I was in school back in the Jurassic period, I had my share of fabulous teachers (thank you, Alice Gottlieb and Karl Kirchwey), and a few not-so-fabulous ones. As one does. I learned what I needed to in either case, and discovered inner resources I hadn't known I possessed when forced occasionally to steer the course of my own education. So that's how it goes. Every experience teaches something of value.

As a parent I have taught by example what not to do as often as I have taught what to do, and that should be expected. Who among us is a perfect model of what an adult (in the best sense of the word, as in a mature, enlightened person) should be?

So to the second piece of parenting wisdom I've accrued: do not be afraid to apologize to your children when (not if) you have been less adult than you intended to be. They appreciate an apology, and they never take advantage of one.

I wish I had sat down and played more with my kids. You don't get that time back, the time when they want to play on the floor. Grandchildren, just you wait!

One more bit of advice I promised I would not offer: do drive your kids hither and yon when they are teenagers. Because the best (most spontaneous, most genuine) conversations will take place in the car. Trust me on this. Why the car? I think because its occupants do not have to look at one another as they talk. Secrets are revealed, fears voiced, annoyances aired. Magic happens in the car.

So let's recap:

1. Don't sweat the small stuff, because children are sponges and absorb what they need from any experience, ideal or (more often) not.

2. Don't be above apologizing when you as parent are in the wrong.

3. Get on the floor -- not to scrub it. The scrubbing can wait. The time children spend building with Legos or dressing dolls or drawing is short, and precious for it.

4. Car time with teenagers is essential.

That wasn't too bad, was it?