28 April 2007

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

For the first 18 years of my life (and it only stopped there because I went to college), my mother's greatest grievance against me was that I was medically incapable of putting my dirty clothes in the bathroom hamper. Due to the chronic disease called "adolescence", my laundry instead coagulated on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my older sister, steeping carefully in a scientific mix of wool and cotton and denim until I needed to re-wear a particular item.

This problem actually afflicted me until my mid-twenties, but it ceased being my mother's problem as I had moved out of her domicile. Even moving into a bungalow on Spokane's South Hill that had a washer and dryer in the basement and a clothesline in the backyard didn't solve things.

What finally solved things was a cat named Pickles. Towards the end of her life, Pickles developed her own particular affliction: kidney failure. (You see where this is going.) After several months--and two new futons--I came to the simple discovery that Pickles could not pee on clothes that were hanging up, in the dresser, or in the hamper. And so my life as a recovered slob began. (After several months of marriage, my husband once asked if the new cats only peed on his clothes because they didn't like him, and I had to gently explain to him that cats don't have opposable thumbs and therefore can't get to my clothes.)

Saturday is Laundry Day here at Three Feathers. Actually, every other day is laundry day around here, with my father and I both running three to five times a week and three quarters of my underwear in storage. But Saturday remains official laundry day when sheets and towels are stripped and washed, then hung out to dry. To that end, my mom is already on her umpteenth load of dishcloths and socks and no one will be able to take a shower for hours, since she's using up all the hot water.

Thinking it was just an idle comment, she wondered aloud why it seemed like there was so much more laundry lately. (Um, because there's half again as many people in the house as you're used to? And both of them are taller than you?) No, she explained. It doesn't even seem like growing up she did this much laundry, when there were five of us. I actually had to remind her how incapable we were of hitting the hamper with any degree of accuracy--or, to be fair, effort--until adulthood. She still didn't think that accounted for all the extra trips up and down the cellar steps.

She's found me out. I've got a secret lab in my closet, where night after night I've coaxed dirty spandex leggings to multiply. I've discovered how to actually create matter in the form of identical pairs of Levi 550's. Because it couldn't possibly be that, now that I spend my days as a role model for young adults, I actually don't want to look like a schlep and could therefore be putting the exact same pair of jeans in the laundry over and over, every weekend, God forbid.

Seriously, though. She needs to look at the bright side. At least I don't wet the bed anymore. Because I only have, like, three sets of sheets out of storage right now.

27 April 2007

The Thing with Feathers

At the moment, this does not particularly describe me.

It's been a bad running week. I feel more like, say, a camel or a tapir than something that flies. Or a cheetah. Or even a lion, which, though it carries a substantial amount of heft, runs with a regal (though ponderous) grace. Over the years, I've come to realise something very important about my training: the first three miles always suck. Whether I'm running three miles or fifteen, that always stays the truth. One day it occurred to me that I'm like my old VW squareback. She takes a good twenty to thirty minutes to warm up and really get going into her comfortable, distinctively Volkswagen purr, even if I drove to work eight hours ago. It's just the way she is. And so for me.

Very occasionally, though, I am able to remember that there exists in this world something known as "perspective," and that the way I am feeling right this very now is not necessarily an accurate picture of the entire cosmos for all eternity. In fact, it's not even necessarily an accurate picture of anything. (My friend Keith once made a similar observation about the relative size of my chest, but that's a story for a different time.)

To wit:

Nine years ago this very minute, I was trying to fight my way out of general anesthesia after four-plus hours of cancer surgery. I had three thoughts upon waking: when can I see Joel, were my vocal cords okay, and--most pressing--when could I get ahold of a sandwich? Even then, I had priorities. To hell with am I going to die, will I lose my hair, how long will I be in the hospital, will I ever be cured, did they get it all. I was hungry, and when I am hungry I am to be taken seriously.

It will sound strange, perhaps even impossible, but that week remains one of the most hope-filled of my life. From my Saturday morning pottery class at the local community college (where we had an outdoor pit-firing in the wind and Lauren Silver said to me frankly, "What are you doing here?" I mean, really--what else would they have me do in the last 36 hours before my surgery?), to the Saturday night service at my beloved church (where Bill and I sang our favourite Rich Mullins song and I prayed it wouldn't be the last song I ever sang), to the deer leaping through the field next to the hospital entrance on Monday, straight through to the following Saturday afternoon (when both the emotional enormity and the sheer physical trauma of what had just been done to my body dawned on it) the world was one big, wide, inexplicable blessing.

I certainly didn't have wings, myself. I couldn't lift a chair. And yes, stupidly, I tried. Christ, for a few days I couldn't lift a soup spoon without some sort of assistance. My beautiful beloved night nurse angel (whom I will never, ever forget, do you hear me Tish Plum? I did read A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, and cried right where you said I would. You saved my life as much as the doctors.) broke into the freezer for me and we had a midnight celebration of strawberry ice cream when I could finally pee without a catheter. Which is usually about as much of a problem for me as eating. By the time I was released, I could stay awake for about an hour before sitting up became too much work and I needed a nap.

I was physically tethered for much of my stay, too. IV lines for fluids and drugs, drainage tubes, not to mention that the bed was so damned far from the ground that I mostly couldn't get out because I didn't have the strength to jump back in without a boost. And yes, Tish laughed at me for that, in case you were wondering. And morphine wasn't helping any, either. Oh, it helped with the pain all right (it didn't stop it, but it removed it from my body and threw it up into the corner of the ceiling where I didn't have to worry about it too much) but coherence and motor control--never my strong suits to begin with--were severely impaired.

But I cared not. I was alive, and I loved every minute of it. And it wasn't just the morphine talking, either, because I was only on that for about 18 hours. This was, of course, before I learned that after major surgery, it usually takes a few days until you really feel like hell on a hard roll; that a surprisingly large percentage of post-surgical patients suffer from mild depression; that your thyroid gland really does control just about everything relating to your hormones, your metabolism, your weight, your energy level, and thus a great deal of your sanity, and that not having one can be like one giant months- or even years-long Horrendous PMS Event while the doctors struggle to find the right dosage of replacement hormone, which they then have to take you off of every six months for three weeks to bring you to the verge of bloated, unenviable and worst of all unsalted, bland, white-rice-and-bananas-diet death so they can radiate the crap out of you for three days (which compounds the horror by giving you mouth sores, salivary stones, and the worst skin trouble you've seen this side of 13). It was also before I gained 15 pounds permanently--fortunately mostly onto that much-maligned chest I recently mentioned--but still had to figure out what an appetite felt like, because hunger was different now. It was before the long slow slide into serious depression that finally woke those around me up enough into getting me professional help.

(To be fair, it was also before fighting my way out of that depression; before running my first 5k and then Bloomsday and then deciding I wanted to run a marathon--deciding I could run a marathon; before loving to be alone; before loving my husband; before loving myself.)

But that first dreamlike week after hearing the word "cancer", I remember waking up at sunrise day after day in the room my mother had painted yellow after I left for college (the very same room I've returned to yet again) just to listen to the birds, after which I would go back to sleep for several hours. Or days. The sunlight on the yellow walls was holy. My hands on the sheets were holy. Everything was holy.

25 April 2007


The other day, I looked up and realised I was surrounded.

These several acres used to be all of a parcel. Before the Revolutionary War, Daniel Sebring made nice with the local Indians and got himself a sizeable chunk of land along the river, which was subsequently passed down through his family, sold to Obadiah Taylor, and eventually divided into two large farms on opposite sides of the Old York Road.

A century later, in 1859, one George Vlerebone sold his farm--which up until then had encompassed the entire eastern half of what has since turned into my hometown--to his son John, who promptly subdivided the land. Meanwhile, on the other side of the road, John Hoagland's estate was doing pretty much the same thing. On our side, the original Vlerebone farmhouse (once the Sebring Tavern, one of the few stage stops between New York and Philadelphia) remained and two additional buildings were built: our house sometime between 1859 and 1861, and a general store sometime after 1868 when the railroad came through. After that, things get a little hazy for a while, but by 1950 this property and the adjacent Sebring Tavern were again owned by a father and his daughter, and the general store was eventually bought by the Knights of Columbus.

Fast-forward to 1978. The father dies, and his daughter puts his house and property up for sale. That's where we come in. The Knights of Columbus still own the building next door, but it's mostly vacant except for a small apartment, which is occupied by crazy Mrs. Norkevich and her pet crow, which frankly scared the bejesus out of me when I was little. There's a horse farm across the street, owned by the other johnnies-come-lately to the neighbourhood. (This is, of course, relative; most of the names in the local cemetery are the same names that appear on deeds of sale from Messrs. Hoagland and Vlerebone back in the 1800s.) Through a freak of zoning, we own the middle third of a semi-circular driveway, the ends of which are both owned by someone else; we do, however, purchase an easement along the back of our property, should our neighbour ever get possessed by demons and decide we can no longer use "her" driveway for access and egress.

1995. Knights of Columbus building is purchased by the people across the street and renovated into two apartments and an artist's studio. The owner's mother moves into the smaller apartment, and her youngest son into the larger.

2005. Our beloved next door neighbour, now 88, dies. Guess who buys the Sebring Tavern and its riverfront acreage. We are now the Munchkin in her doughnut. In a matter of weeks, the oldest house in town is occupied by eight Mexican immigrants who work in the stables across the street. This seems somehow fitting and right, and I think our neighbour would have gotten a kick out of it. And my comment is not a racist statement by any means. They're from a small town about 100 miles outside of Mexico City, and there are (in fact) eight of them. Tomás, Maria, Tony, Maria, Tomás's cousin, the two kids, and someone whose name or kinship to the others I've never been able to remember. We also have some other new neighbours: Rocky, Sweet Pea, and Buck, the miniature horses; Eddie, the actual life-sized horse; and Pedro, the shaggiest, stupidest-looking baby donkey I have ever met in my entire life. Seriously. He looks like a chia pet. Only he's not green.

When I was growing up, I was not a fun person to be around. Adolescence hit me hard, doubled with an undiagnosed serious clinical depression, and I spent much of the time between the years of 12 and 17 plotting my escape from these heartless people, to whom I was surely not related, and their oppressive household. Seriously. And that evil person who shared my bedroom? Surely she was conspiring with them.

When I went away to college, my relationship with my father sweetened again. We'd always been two parts of a whole, which was probably what made my teenage years so impossible--he knew when I was bullshitting him, because he could see right through me. He used to be me, once upon a time 30 years ago. My mother was a different matter. My two sisters had been much like her, so she was totally unprepared for this strange blond child who thought sideways and had extreme opinions and dated people she routinely couldn't stand. Oh, how we fought. Our relationship improved somewhat after I graduated college and moved 3,000 miles away to Washington State, but once we got back in proximity with each other, it was all over but the shoutin', as they say. Oil and water? We were more like water and sodium metal. Flash. Hiss. Boom.

Eventually, though, this problem was solved. Nine years ago this week, with one phone call. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and I managed to catch her before she left work. "Mom? The doctor called. The results are in. It's cancer. They want to take it out Monday." My dad met us at the hospital, making the forty-five minute drive from his office in just under twenty minutes during the Friday night rush hour.

I was in and out of the hospital, radio-isotope treatment, and my parents' house for almost two years after that, before finally getting it together enough to move back out on my own into an apartment that I stayed in for over five years, until my husband proposed. I never dreamed how much I'd grow to love that second-floor garden apartment, crammed as it was with bookcases, cellos, cats, and my writing desk where normal people keep their couch. The sliding glass door had a habit of locking whenever you
closed it, so I spent a lot of time both air-conditioning the neighbourhood and shimmying down the balcony to pound on my friend Samira's door to retrieve what became known as my "idiot key."

This semester I taught a section on poetry to the students in my Monday night class. "The Death of a Hired Man" was required reading, which they all groaned about. Not only was it poetry, it was long. Weren't poems supposed
to be, like, haiku? Or rhyme? Or be about someone from Nantucket? Soon, though, they eventually got it, what Robert Frost and I were driving at, what my mother had been quoting to us for most of our lives:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there
, they have to take you in.

I should have called it
something you somehow haven't to deserve.


This afternoon I spent a very entertaining ninety minutes outside potting my philodendron cuttings, which had gotten too big for their britches and were taking over a glass beaker with their ghost-white snakey roots. It didn't actually take me an hour and a half to do this, of course; during the middle of it the next-door neighbour came over and we got into a protracted discussion of why things never travel in straight lines. This includes the property line, the access easement rights (as she now owns land on both sides of us and could theoretically one day tell us we can't use either end of the driveway), and the paddock fence that was probably supposed to run along the property line, but instead wobbles back and forth across it as if it's had too much dandelion wine. The reason for this discussion was proposed fence repair to keep her damned horses in.

(Let me just interrupt myself for a moment to say that if it seems that everything I write lately ends up being about my marriage and my return to this house, it's probably because everything I write lately ends up being about my marriage and my return to this house. Somehow it just seems to be on my mind lately, and yes, that was sarcasm you just detected.)

This time last year, a small, shady perennial garden in upstate New York was the only thing saving me from utter despair. I knew that chances were slim that the flowers, herbs, and I would still be there in the fall, but I also knew that if I didn't make some firm commitment to putting down roots, I might as well walk out the front door of our small cottage and into the lake. And so I dug. I planted; I moved rocks and cut back stubborn hydrangeas that wouldn't stay gone; I arranged a small cairn of stones at one corner of the garden that was marked by a ridiculously large outcropping of bedrock (though the area was christened "place of many lakes" by the Mohican Indians, they could have just as easily called it "place of too damned many rocks" as far as we could tell) and tucked a pocket-sized brass statue of Durga astride her lion under the overhang. I watered. I weeded. I sat on the rocks and willed the spiderwort to open. Sometimes, I wrote in my journal. Mostly, I just sat.

May came. On Memorial Day, my parents came up and while my dad packed box after box of books and photographs, my mother and I painstakingly transferred my precious plants to pots and planters for the trip south. The alyssum that had just come into its own. The miniature irises Jayne exchanged for some of my silver lamium, whose small fuchsia flowers were threatening to overtake everything unless I intervened. Mint and chocolate mint, grandbabies of plants from Mother Ruth's garden, which had multiplied so much that I'd had to give some to Robin, and when I moved upstate to his neighbourhood I wandered over the hill one morning and stole some back. By then he had so damned much of it he didn't notice. My kitchen herbs, which I'd selected for my husband. My beloved lavender, in the only sunny spot in the front yard.

Refusing to believe I would be there longer than a few weeks, I left the garden in its various terracotta pots and window-boxes and put just about everything I owned in storage, with the exception of about four sundresses and some of my most precious books. Surprisingly, the plants lived through the summer. Even more surprisingly (to me, at least at the time), so did I. I don't think it's fair to say we thrived, but we lay still and close to the ground and waited out the sweltering heat that pressed down on us all through July and August.

By summer's end I had settled into the possibility that this was going to be a very long year, indeed. Somehow I got hired by not one but two community colleges, as well as my local library, in the course of 72 very frantic hours, after nearly nine full months of unemployment. One of the colleges hired me precisely sixteen hours before the start of their semester in a cosmic gesture of either serendipity or sheer insanity. I changed my address, and my driver's license. I even joined the local gym when it got too cold and dark to run after classes. Eventually I confessed to my mom how much I hated the daybed in what had once been my bedroom, and retrieved my futon from storage. We brought the houseplants inside, and my perennials as far as the screened-in back porch, and hunkered down for the winter.

I brought the perennials back outside a couple of weeks ago, and just this past Thursday I noticed the tips of Jayne's irises starting to show through the soil. The lavender isn't going to make it, but I've yet to successfully winter over lavender, so I'm not really too surprised. The lamium and mints don't seem to have fared well, either, which is a surprise. This is mint that has survived multiple transplants over three state lines, years of piss-poor watering, northern exposure, too much sun, not enough sun, near-catastrophic heatstroke in the back of my husband's Blazer, and Juno the 90-pound malamute. It must be true, then, that my mother is the fabled Great Cosmic Mint-Killer Deva, Destroyer of All Bearing the Genus Name Mentha. It's legend, how this woman can kill off a mint plant in less than a season. And we all know how hard it is to kill mint. Some of us spend our entire gardening careers trying.

I still can't bring myself to uproot these plants yet again and stick them in the ground in my mother's garden. I have no idea how long I'll be here, but I'm not ready to admit that it may be another summer. Not a day goes by that I don't utter some variation of "I actually have [insert object, title, article of clothing or furniture, etc.]--but it's in a box somewhere." If I have to spend another semester without the other four-fifths of my poetry collection and writing references, I may in fact flat-out commit seppuku. Sometimes, driving by the storage facility on the highway, I wave. Hello, Jack Gilbert. Hello, Nance. Hello, Paula and Eavan and dark-eyed Julia. Hello, Medbh McGuckian. Hello Hamish and James, read over and over in Scotland one summer. Hello, hello, sweet Jim McAuley, signed and dedicated Easter Sunday 1995 in the same watery blue fountain-pen hand that edited countless drafts of my master's thesis. Hello, life-in-a-box. Hello, memories of the smell of my husband's flannel shirt. Hello, dishes we picked out together. Hello, photographs of us. Hello, everything he left behind. Hello, everything that was once ours, that is now mine alone. And then, before I know it, the facility is in my rearview mirror and I'm still waving: goodbye, past.

14 April 2007

Vonnegut's Rules for Short Stories

Here's some lovely advice on writing short stories, from Kurt Vonnegut's collection "Bagombo Snuff Box", though I got mine here:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vaya con Dios, Mr. Vonnegut. You will be missed.

I'd Tell You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You

I don't know why I'm finding this week's prompt such a challenge; I've had secret identities all my life. Just this morning I mentioned to my mom that when I was much younger, I used to be convinced that I was adopted--and what pre-adolescent girl hasn't, especially ones who, like me, looked nothing like any of their immediate family at that point--and actually used to hope that this was true. Not only because it was somehow romantic, like something I would read in a library book, but also because, frankly, it would have explained a hell of a lot about the first 20 years or so of my life. Now, of course, I know better, because it's becoming more and more obvious that I am simultaneously turning into the weirdest parts of each of my parents, not to mention that as I age, more and more people tell me I look just like my dad. Which, come to think of it, is a little disconcerting, since the most common assessment of my mother is "stunning" (or, as one of my hipper friends put it several years ago, "Kid, you're all right....but your mom is smokin'...")

Anyway, in addition to planting the theme song from "Secret.....Aaaaaa-gent Man!" in my cranium in a continuous loop (thanks a lot, Meg and Laini), this week's topic has got me going in circles. In case you can't tell. I remember one journal entry from about eight years ago, my first attempt at navigating the Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, in which I explored all the possible alternatives to my current life. The journal itself is presently in storage (along with just about everything else I own), but I remember several lines, that echo through my head at odd moments:

...rock star, lesbian, firefighter, I would swim with dolphins. Artist, explorer, missionary, monk. Small white flower. I would climb mountains. I would come back as a writer again and again...

That's pretty telling, that last line. Maybe that's the secret to my secret identity. Look at anything I've ever written, and you'll find me there. From the first novel I ever finished to the one I'm currently thrashing around lost in, somewhere around page 140 (and don't get me started on that). Each one of those characters is me. Annie, her dead sons, lost David, even lonely wolf-pup Durango--they're all me. Even Tilly (remember Tilly?) She's me too. The freight train always off in the distance: me. And yet, each of them is their own distinct selves by now, too. Some of them do things I would never dream of....except I did.

My therapist, too, has uncovered many secret identities of me, some of which I was startled to find out I even had. (And I'm not talking about the rose dewy knickers kind, either, exactly.) And it's stunning, when I'm in therapy, stretched out on the couch with my eyes closed, in my "safe room", trotting out all the different aspects of my personality, because some of them are nearly identical to some of the characters I've created. And some of them are just.....well, weird. I mean, that three-inch long electric lime-greem glow worm? Ash and the Naked Lady? Frog Baby?? Far out.

And she tells me this is normal, and that they're all supposed to be in there. But sometimes it seems awful crowded.

13 April 2007

When Good Science Goes Bad

I had a bad moment this week, while grading papers and watching the high school student at the next cafe table struggle through his chem homework. I was overtired, and had drunk too much tea, and this was the result. I apologize in advance for what you are about to witness. Don't say you haven't been warned.

09 April 2007

In the News, Redux*

So, this weekend I got really pissed off about racism. You may have noticed that a whole bunch of Latinos tried to rob a bank in my neighbourhood, and an FBI agent ended up dead. Of course, this being white-bread country and the internet being every idiot's soapbox (see here), the common reaction on many news boards was, "How much you want to bet these guys are a bunch of illegal immigrants?" Which, last time I checked, was damned racist. Several people tried to tell me that they weren't being racist, it was a legitimate question to ask.

Since when is it legitimate to ask a question that's based entirely on the ethnicity of someone's surname? (For the record, the four men are all US citizens, natives of New Brunswick. Their parents were immigrants, but they're as American as I am.)

This morning, still in somewhat of a froth over the matter, I faced my 9:00 Fundamentals of Reading and Writing Class. Which, it is worth mentioning, is composed of 26 students of Latino or Spanish origin. Some of them were born in this country, some emigrated soon after, some in recent years--but not a single one of them has a surname that could be mistaken for any other group of nationalities.

I gave them the background, for those who had not been following along at home (which, also evidenced below, was a good two-thirds of them) and then, when they were all righteously outraged that people were discriminating against others based on their ethnicity, I listed nine names on the board. I informed them that four of these names were the bank robbers, three were policemen, one was FBI, and one was the dead agent. (I gave them that one: Barry Lee Bush.) I then dared them to identify these players.

Only one student refused to take a guess, maintaining that you really couldn't tell by a person's name. Which was, of course, my point. Then we wrote about the whole experience, after I pointed out that the guy they were sure was one of the bank robbers was, in fact, the Commander of the NJ State Police, and another was the Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Newark FBI office. And that the "cops" they identified were all bank robbery suspects. Oops.

Then I made them freewrite about the whole experience and what they'd learned. Because I'm just a mean lady, that way.

*this is an addition to the regularly scheduled Sunday Scribblings post below.

08 April 2007

It's Official

I've been tax-formed to death by New York State. And I don't even freaking live there.

In lieu of flowers, please send contributions to the National Arbor Day Foundation (aka the John Denver Sing-Along Holiday Fund) to replace some of the damn trees they killed to perpetuate this grievous act upon my recently deceased-ed self.

Thank you.

07 April 2007

My Name Is FireCat, and I Am an Internet News Whore

I will confess this right up front, before anyone gets any illusions to the contrary. I spent Thursday afternoon glued to my best friend's laptop getting and relaying updates on the weirdness in my neighbourhood while she tended to her son, who had a fever. The intensity with which I followed the story unnerved her.

I wasn't always like this. All the way through college I managed to ferret out the New York Times crossword puzzles without looking at any of the headlines. My whole family was like this when I was growing up. At the dinner table, instead of talking politics and current events like "normal" families, we talked about theology and sex (and often not in that order). Then I met Robin. In the fifteen years I've known him, I have become convinced that Robin has a direct uplink to the Reuters newswire in his cranium. It is virtually impossible to have an intelligent conversation with the man without some sort of base knowledge of world events, and even then he usually leaves me in the dust. (There are two rules at Robin's house: no coffee near the prints (he's a photographer), and don't call during "60 Minutes.")

In order to hold my own over dinner, or at least not feel like an uneducated moron, I started paying attention. The first thing I learned, of course, is that what passes for news in this country does not cut it by the rest of the world's standards. If you want to know what's going on, check the BBC, not NBC. Eventually I spent a stint as his research assistant, surprising him with 150 pages of relevant documents during the first week (I promptly got a raise). Occasionally, I'll still beat him to a source, or send a link to an article he hasn't seen....but not usually. He calls me his border collie, in charge of making sure he has all his research, not to mention keeping track of where he left his glasses, his keys, and occasionally his dog.

But there are times when I feel like a vulture. Thursday was one of them. On 9/11, it was understandable that everyone I knew was glued to their TV, or their ISP, or the radio. But after several days, it started to feel voyeuristic. It started to feel like rubbernecking. And I have a problem with that. When does my need to know what's going on in my surroundings turn into a desire to gawk, to watch the horror show? After 9/11, the Red Cross very neatly solved the problem by calling me in to actually work at ground zero, where not only was there no time and energy left over for watching the news, three-quarters of the time they got it wrong anyway. Not to mention, after 8, 12, or a few times 18 hours at the site, when we finally got back to our rooms, images from ground zero were the last thing we wanted to see.

So where does that leave me?

I teach approximately 85 students during any given semester; most of them are between the ages of 17 and 25, though I've had my share of adult learners too. Two-thirds of these students are one step above either ESL or remedial basic English. One of the first lectures I give is why we must read, and why we must write. This inevitably comes up. One of my students will say, "Yo, Miss." (they all call me Miss, even after they learn my name. I've learned to take it as a badge of honour.) "How come I gotta learn to write? Why I gotta read Fahrenheit 451? I'm gonna be a nurse, not a English teacher." Or a chef, or a phys ed teacher, or fill in the blank. Whatever they pick, it's clearly not "a English teacher."

So I tell them. I tell them about how, maybe, if everyone learned to figure out what they thought, what they really thought, about just one thing, then maybe they could learn how to tell someone else what they really think. And that maybe one day we would stop having to blow each other up to tell people what we think. Or having to cap people just because they're wearing the wrong colours. And they get this.

And then, several weeks later, when we're deep into discussing why books have been banned, why they burn your house down if they find a book in it, and how it came to this point in Ray Bradbury's fictional futuristic society (which is frighteningly accurate; read the "Denham's Dentrifice" scene and think about the last time you got onto your crosstown bus and couldn't find one rider who wasn't wearing an iPod and nodding to his own private beat) and why real news is "dangerous," and I ask them: anybody see the news over the weekend? I'll get some general assents; word gets around, even though nobody watches Ed Murrow anymore, god rest his soul. But the news they know isn't the same news that I know. They know who won the ball game, who got booted off American Idol, what Letterman's Top Ten was. (Okay, I know that too if I can stay up late enough.)

This semester, this conversation came up on a big news weekend. A major celebrity death, and a bunch of car bombs in prominent areas around Baghdad. I asked them, "Okay, how many of you heard that Anna Nicole Smith died over the weekend?" Every hand went up. A lively discussion concerning her more famous attributes ensued for several minutes before I was able to quash it by whistling as if I was hailing a cab. "Now. Anybody know how many people died in Iraq over the weekend?"

Dead silence. A couple of people's faces actually registered: Oh, yeah. Iraq. We still over there? Nobody knew. Nobody could venture even a guess. (In writing this article two months later, I had to do a fair bit of digging. The number of deaths that day was roughly 145-150 civilians--but those are just the reported ones. It does, however, include 45 killed in a suspected insurgent safe house that came as a surprise even to me.)

And they only knew about the one with the biggest tits. Something's seriously wrong with that.

More Sunday Scribblings; more on this post.

06 April 2007

Words from My Pagan Friend Hollie

On Good Friday: What is the worse torture I wonder. The things that happened to him on earth or having to watch his message get lost in translation and having to watch the outcome?

On Easter Sunday: I've told my coworkers that I don't believe in Easter, but chocolate is nondenominational and therefore I believe very strongly in easter eggs and bunnies.

She's got some pretty good points, if you ask me.

01 April 2007

Because I Had to Look It Up for My Students

May I present to you My Absolute Favourite Poem Ever (So Far):


I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife's hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko's avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.

(Jack Gilbert, The Great Fires, Knopf 1996)