Thursday, November 20, 2014

About Last Night

Blue and red lights made a painting of my windshield. The night was cold, clear, quiet. The car warm and lively. "Boys," I observed, "Police." They didn't hear me so I looked on alone. There was a police car in the right lane, and another car in front of it, but ahead of them both my headlights illuminated the face of a buck, looking alert but afraid. His legs crumpled beneath him, he was just sitting. Something wrong with a buck sitting. Something wrong with a buck sitting in the middle of a busy road. His head and chest were stretched tall and proud, but as clear as the night was the fact that he would never be standing up. I knew it. He did, too. We locked eyes for a moment, a moment containing infinite time and infinite wisdom. I was wrecked. Oblivious, my boys chattered on in the back seat.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Obscenities

This is true: I never once saw my mother interact with a man who was not my father. And, because my parents were separated before I took my first wobbly step, what that came down to, practically, was that I never once saw my mother interact with any man. Now and then, my parents fought via telephone, but as all I could hear was my mother’s voice, her increasingly clipped tones, that, too, didn’t count for much. I know that when I was really young my mother dated, a little, but she never brought a man home to meet my brother and me. Later on, when I was old enough to retain consolidated memories, she stopped dating altogether. I think that by then her mental state was increasingly fragile, and it was all she could do to maintain her hold on sanity. More and more she looked inward, not out, and, likely terrified of what she found inside, mostly she slept and ate the days away.

Her sleepwear was as prim as an eighty-year-old’s when she was not quite half that age. She favored high-necked Victorian nightgowns, always cotton, always white. She was, to my child’s mind, an entirely asexual person. I didn’t even bother trying to come up with visuals to accompany the facts of my brother’s and my conceptions, so utterly removed from my experience of my mother would they have been. It was against this backdrop that a male stranger inserted himself into our lives, in the early part of my fourteenth year. Lacking any model of adult sexuality, I was, predictably, not yet interested in boys; that wouldn’t come until college, when I was out of my mother’s house. At fourteen I was a gymnast who practiced long hours, and my body was still small and girlish, no hint of woman yet.

One night that fall, the phone rang. My mother picked it up. She said nothing after “Hello” and yet hung on the phone for a minute, only to slam it down so violently that it fell off its cradle and clattered noisily onto the kitchen linoleum. “Who was that?,” I asked, curious, and eager to find a distraction from outlining my Social Studies chapter. “That,” she hissed, “was a sick man. A prank caller. Sarah, don’t pick up the phone tonight, in case he calls back.” “What do you mean?,” I pressed her. “What did he say?” “He BREATHED, that’s what he did,” she snapped, “and then he said some disgusting things.” She shook her head as if to dislodge the unbearableness of it, of him, and I understood that she was done talking.

I was not done — far from it. I was wildly intrigued, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to answer the phone, when my mother was sleeping (three-quarters of the time) or shopping (the fourth quarter). I, too, got to know the heavy breathing, and the lewd patter that preceded and followed it. I’d allow myself to listen for thirty seconds before hanging up. Meanwhile, my mother was repeatedly calling the phone company and the police requesting, then demanding, that this man’s calls be traced, that charges be brought, something, anything. But the caller wasn’t threatening (except insofar as he was threatening to an unstable woman’s sanity and to a fourteen-year-old girl’s nascent sexuality), so everyone official just shrugged, and advised, “Buy a whistle.” My mother did finally buy a whistle, and one night she blew it as hard as she could right into the phone’s receiver. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the sound she made was sufficient to rupture this man’s eardrum. Whatever the state of his ears, he never did call back.

And I remember feeling vaguely disappointed, because without this fellow and his perversions I was left with nothing at all, just my sad mother in her buttoned-up nightgowns, and my imagination, which contained one room with four white walls and nothing in it, not even a bed, and another room, dark and dank and filled up with lust, shame, and loneliness, but no room with two healthy people together, loving each other generously and well.

written in 2011

Monday, November 10, 2014

Wherein I Say No to NaBloPoMo

Here's what I believed: that being assigned a bit of writing every day would improve the quality of my writing and get me into a regular writing rhythm.

Here's what I learned: I don't want to write every day, and I don't need to write every day in order to sustain my writing mojo.

Now and then I have an urgent need to write something down. You might find me getting out of bed in the middle of the night in search of a scrap of paper and a pencil so I can write down the idea that randomly popped into my dreaming brain. You might also see me the following morning scratching my head as I struggle to decipher my 4am handwriting.

But more often than not I do not have anything to share, and I don't like feeling forced to come up with something that I would not otherwise think worthy of a post. It reminds me of the old saying about traveling across Europe just to check off various destinations: If it's Tuesday we're in Paris, if it's Wednesday we're in Rome... I personally cannot write because it happens to be Monday, November 10th. I respect those who can, but it's not for me.

The post I wrote just before this, about something that happened to me when I was fourteen years old, took time and some degree of psychological mastery over the negative emotions it called up in me. I don't feel like writing anything else until that memory and the writing of it settle a little.

Of course you can well argue that I've just written a post, and that's true, but today's post serves only to explain why my thirty-day experiment became a ten-day experiment.

To NaBloPoMo, I wave farewell and hereby recast you as NoMoNaBloPoMo.

Sorry for making a promise I could not keep. I hope those of you who still check in here will understand.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

1982: Life, Sex, and Death on East 69th Street

One night, late, my best friend and I, who'd been babysitting together in a city apartment, climbed up many flights of stairs to the roof of the family's high-rise. We grinned to find the door to the roof unlocked. Understand that we were good little girls. But opportunity begets daring. Twenty stories up makes for a fierce wind, and a bone-piercing chill. Still, the lights of the city seemed to welcome our ascent, and the remarkable beauty of the view from up high helped us ignore the cold. I remember it as January, but I cannot offer proof of the month. We were gymnasts on the same team, and so we twirled and pirouetted our way towards the edge of the roof, where a waist-high railing was the only obstacle between us and flying, between us and dying.

But then my friend was swinging on the railing, and I grew scared. "Stop!," I hissed. "You'll fall!"

She bent at the waist so that the top half of her body was dangling off the side of the building.

"Stop!," I cried, truly frightened now.

After too many seconds she moved away from the railing and shot me a cutting look. "You are no fun," she admonished.

"I know," I agreed, in a small voice.

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

I am certain, if not of the month, then at least of our ages: we were fourteen and fifteen years old. That night we went from babysitting to my friend's apartment building; we had planned a sleepover. The next morning we were awakened early by the ringing of the telephone.

After a few minutes my friend's mother opened the door to the room where we had been sleeping. "Girls," she said heavily, shaking her head as if to free it from an unpleasant image, "The Connors don't want you to babysit anymore."

Oh God, I thought, the roof.

But the truth was worse than the roof.

"After you put the baby to bed, did you... mess up the parents' bedding?," my friend's mom asked hesitantly.

My friend and I exchanged guilty looks. We'd been doing somersaults across the width of the double bed. We had attempted to straighten up the bedding when we were done with our tumbling, but obviously we hadn't done a very good job.

"We were doing gymnastics, Mommy," admitted my friend. Now it was her turn to speak in a voice quieted by shame.

"That's what I thought," sighed her mother. "Save the gymnastics for the gym, girls. The Connors thought that you were... that you were.. sleeping together in their bed."

"Sleeping together?," I echoed, puzzled.

"Sleeping together?," shouted my friend, who was always more sophisticated than I. "You mean they thought we were having SEX?"

My friend's mother nodded.

"EWW!," my friend shrieked. "That is disgusting!"

I started crying, my predictable reaction to nearly everything.

"Aww, honey," soothed my friend's mom, "The worst you did was to decide to practice front flips in the wrong place. If you ask me, the Connors have overreacted, and their overreaction says far more about them than it does about you. Forget it."

But my friend and I could not forget it, and not only did we never again babysit as a team, we were distant with each other for quite some time, as if what the baby's parents believed we had done had contaminated our relationship, the truth of the accusation somehow wholly irrelevant to its impact.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Coincidence and Connectedness

A few weeks ago we took the second graders on a field trip to the university. We went to the university's museum, ice creamery (yes, our university makes its own ice cream), and arboretum. It was a wonderful day in all ways - the weather put on her best dress, and the students were excited and interested and consequently wonderfully behaved. 

I was most taken by the students' behavior at the museum, which, as we all know, could have been problematic. Luckily for us, our docent was a retired teacher who knew exactly how to talk to children. She neither talked up nor down to them. Her tone was pitch-perfect, as was the content of her discussion. I was amazed to watch all the children perfectly engaged in mind and still in body, a few even rapt. 

The docent reminded me of some of my own incredible elementary teachers: Mrs. Kehoe (third grade) and Mrs. Gottlieb (sixth grade) came first to mind. They, like the docent, had the ability to be with children and show near total disregard for the temporal and experiential distinction between adult and child. As a result they taught children who performed at their best: engaged, mature, inquisitive learners. 

After the docent's presentation I complimented her on her way with kids, and she thanked me before worrying aloud about the one child whose attention she felt she hadn't fully captured. We're all such perfectionists, aren't we?

That afternoon I drove home while marveling at how successful an outing we'd had. I pulled into my driveway and glanced across the street at the neighbors' house. And then experienced a powerful eureka moment the likes of which I have not felt for years. The docent's last name... She is my neighbor.  

So often I complain about living in a small town. I miss the vibrancy of a large city. But on the day of our field trip, most especially after I had realized that the docent was my neighbor, I could think only of a certain magic that inheres in the connectedness of small town life. 

And once our students have completed their thank-you notes to the docent, you can bet that I will be hand-delivering them to her.

Friday, November 7, 2014

On Lena Dunham and Mining for Memoir-Worthy Material

By now many of you have heard about the firestorm surrounding Lena Dunham, creator of the television show Girls and lately memoirist as well. The controversy centers on two experiences Dunham relayed in her recently published memoir. One has to do with her exploration of her little sister's vagina (actually, labia - Dunham got this wrong) while the two were playing outside, and with what she found therein (pebbles, and huh? - but whatever). She was seven years old at the time, and her sister one year old. The other is when as a young woman she outed her younger sister to her mother without her sister's knowledge or consent.

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

I have watched Girls, and though I found it funny, it is one of the more inconsequential shows I've seen. In its way it's a successor to Seinfeld, the self-proclaimed show about nothing. In Girls the concerns of twenty-something females seem microscopic, banal, and entirely relational. I don't think the show does any service to the goals of feminism, but that's not its mission.

It is damn funny in spots, and Dunham herself has a sort of Lucille Ball self-deprecating wackiness that is compelling.

What Dunham sells is the narcissistic quirkiness that is emblematic of her generation. And she sells it well. Quirkiness has value, and appreciating it is the first step in humanizing others, in seeing them as we see ourselves, in developing empathy.

But quirkiness is not a very adult ending place. On a television show that is billed as comedy, fine. In a memoir, even one meant to be funny, it's not quite enough.

I get the sense that Dunham mined her childhood for quirkiness, and there was plenty of material to find. It's not the telling of the episodes that is problematic - all memoirists mine their childhoods for content (and c'mon, all of us explored our nascent sexuality with other children in some form or other) - but the framing of the episodes that is poorly handled. Dunham compares her childhood interest in her sister as that of a stalker in his subject, and needless to say, that is a tone-deaf comparison. She has admitted it and will, I am certain, move forward.

Telling her mother her sister's business was another mistake, albeit a youthful one. But who among us has not made mistakes like this?

Dunham is talented, so talented, but not yet all the way grown-up. She probably should have held off another few years on writing that memoir. When she learns to combine her trademark narcissistic quirkiness with a more inclusive and sophisticated view of the world around her - some might say when she realizes that there is a world around her, but I tend to be more charitable towards her - she will do great things.

Until then, try not to judge her so harshly. The principle difference between you and her is that she's made the choice to throw all her baggage outside on the curb where everyone can spot it and with a hefty dose of prurient interest spend a leisurely afternoon scrutinizing its contents.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Spelling Tests Gone Wild

When I administer spelling tests to first and second graders, I like to offer up sentences so that the words are placed in context. This is essential if the word in question is a homophone, but otherwise not. Still, I don't like teaching spelling in isolation but rather as a tool for more effective writing, so I make up a sentence for every spelling word. The children seem to appreciate these sentences, which effectively keep them from asking questions like, "Wait - which which?" Or, equally, "Wait - which witch?"

But when I have an especially chatty group of children, my preference for providing context means the spelling test can go off the rails pretty quickly.

Mrs. P.: The next word is 'toast.' "I ate toast with butter for breakfast." 'Toast.'

Boy: Did you really, Mrs. P., or are you just making that up?

Girl: I had toast, too!

Second Girl: Eww. I hate toast. It's crumby.

Second Boy: I had pancakes.

Boy: Wait, Mrs. P. - what was the word again?

Or:

Mrs. P.: The next word is 'each.' "Each one of you has a special talent." 'Each.'

Girl: My special talent is drawing.

Boy: Mine is soccer.

Second Boy: Mine is talking!

Second Girl (mournfully): I don't think I have a special talent.

Or:

Mrs. P.: The next word is 'next.' "Next we will have recess, and then lunch." 'Next.'

Boy: Did you notice that you said 'next' twice, Mrs. P.? The next word is next? That's pretty awesome.

Girl: I'm hungry. Can we have lunch before recess today?

Second Boy (pouting): I wish we could have lunch now. You're making me hungry with all these spelling words about food. Like 'toast.'

Never a dull moment in first and second grade classrooms.