28 May 2007

Apparently I Don't Know Enough Three-Year-Olds

After a brief quiz on facial features and presence of cute purple backpack, my sister has informed me that the little girl on my baby pants is, in fact, Dora the Explorer.

Something that apparently even a 37-year-old nun knows.

Baby Pants

Summary of a long story: earlier this week, I went into the city with my dad, and while we were there I bought a basket at Chelsea Market that had six little compartments in it, like those old-fashioned milk bottle delivery thingies. As we were walking down 14th Street back to the Path train, my dad asked what I was going to put in said basket. I told him "probably some baby plants," after which he was silent for a couple of blocks.

Finally, he turns to me in the middle of a crosswalk and says, "....ohhhhh! Baby plants!" Seems he'd misheard me and couldn't figure out why in the world I wanted to put baby pants into this basket. Needless to say, this became the running shtick chez nous, evolving into several variations (Bambi's pants, mambo pants, all my eggs, Jonas the cat, hamsters, my paycheck....anything and everything was metaphorically and occasionally literally put into this basket this weekend) but we always returned inevitably to saying, "....baby pants" out of nowhere and busting out laughing. Because, despite the impressive accumulation of graduate degrees in Three Feathers, our humour is pretty elementary, so something simple like "baby pants" can and will entertain us for weeks, if not months.

I just got back from being out all day and well into the wee hours of the midnight, and there.....on the back porch.....in three of my six basket compartments.....are three teeny tiny little pairs of underpants. With Power Puff Girls on them.

I think. I am going. To Die. Laughing.

(possibly the best part of this is picturing my 62-year-old ponytailed Birkenstocked dad going to Carter's and buying little girls' underwear for this prank. Although why this amuses me I don't know; having fathered three daughters, he's undoubtedly done it before. Just not in the last 35 years.)

26 May 2007


The following song (by blues musician Eric Bibb) saved my ass today. I have now run farther, and for longer, than I have since I turned 30. Which was....a bit ago. I have now also, quite accidentally, gotten trapped in my sports bra for several minutes while undressing for my shower, but that's another story.

It's currently humid as hell in New Jersey, to remind us all that it's Memorial Day weekend (more on the white pants issue later). So 10:00 AM was not exactly prime scheduling for the week's long run. But alas, I had justified sleeping in until 8:15, so there I was. For 5.25 miles. Which, on the marathon training schedule, is not a long time. But on the towpath, pounding past an inch at a time under your New Balance? It's pretty fucking far. Just sayin'.

Enter Mr. Bibb and his catchy bassline. Note: this would be a good time to make sure your speakers are adjusted, with the knob all the way to the right. It'll peel the paint off your ceiling, but it's worth it. This album makes a lot of good points, has a lot of good stuff to say, musically as well as spiritually and politically, and some of it is just plain damn fun. (Tuba, anyone?) But this was the song that got me through the last two miles, back to the car and the banana and fresh bottle of Gatorade.

Eric, my friend, you're a diamond to me. Shine on.

24 May 2007

Least Complicated

(a companion piece to this)

tea on the front porch in my bathrobe
cats washing their faces in a puddle of sunlight
the smell of lilacs
running along the river in the morning
train tracks
fresh-baked bread
a meal with friends
clean sheets
violets sprinkled across the front yard
belly rubs with Juno-dog
vegetable garden
taking the long-long walk while the grill's heating, with the dog and our wineglasses
a white enamel-topped desk in a room with white walls
the same walls, painted yellow
lavender blossoms
my husband's sleepy smile

But Good Means Being Simple

FK gave a homily awhile back in which he said, "It's simple. We just have to start loving, and stop judging and stop fearing," and I went into his office the next day and kind of blurted out, "Simple, my ass..."

This was part of an email conversation with my sister yesterday. What makes this particularly resonant, as well as somewhat amusing, is that my sister is a novitiate. This fall, she will enter a convent in Chicago and, if all goes well, in two years she will become a full-fledged nun. (Whether she will have to give up archaeology and watching CSI remains to be seen.)

Simple, unfortunately, does not equal easy. It takes a lot of work to be simple. Being simple is hard. It seems to be programmed into some part of our human software to try to complicate things as much as possible. Give us a chance, and we'll mangle things up beyond belief. Give us a foot of rope and not only will we hang ourselves with it, we'll construct elaborate birds' nests and macrame designs and unnecessary detours, plus tie the cat's feet together by mistake.

You've probably heard the phrase "It's as simple as falling off a log." Okay. Fine. Have you ever tried to fall off a log? Probably not. Probably those times you fell off the log and ended up in the drink were precisely those times you were paying least attention to your log-crossing duties, or you were paying too much attention to it because it was imperative that your shoes stayed dry. As a rule, people don't fall off logs on purpose. Because that involves losing control. On purpose.

Excuse you?

No thanks, I'd rather stay here on this nice, dry, cozy log, thank you. This nice, pleasant, barky log straddling the creek, that is neither here nor there, neither one side nor the other, and certainly not getting my feet wet and jumping into the creek. Are you kidding? What? Me, jump?

Like most people, I'm a little bit of a control freak. I like my comfort zone. It's...well, comfortable. The more complicated something is, the more chances I have to grasp at things and pretend I'm controlling them. I'm one of those people who works better when I'm multitasking. In fact, I find it nearly impossible to uni-task. See? It's not even a word, because nobody does it. When I have eighty finals to grade, and my car payment is due, and the sump-pump is on the fritz so there's a half-inch of water in the basement, I'm good to go.

But god forbid I have a day where I only have to do one thing, and do it well. Here's a day on your calendar: plunk. Say, next Thursday. You have nothing to do that day. All your commitments have been erased. Your calendar has been cleared. All you have to do is......(fill in the blank. Write. Paint. Relax. Whatever.)

Complete terror. We freeze. Why? Because it's simple. And we've forgotten how to do simple. We have gadgets for everything, we have cars we don't know how to fix, sump-pumps that explode, computers and TVs to entertain us, electronic gizmos galore. When was the last time you spent an entire afternoon gazing at a bug? Or watching a flower open for the day? Or listening to the river go by between your toes?

That's not a judgment. It can't be. I'm not outside either, or you wouldn't be reading this.

My assignment to myself: to find simple things.

22 May 2007

Caution: Punctuation, Ahead?!

It's time to confess something.

I have a recurring nightmare about semicolons.

Inevitably, when I bring this up to a shrink, this raises at least one well-educated eyebrow, if not the matching set. I don't know why this is more disturbing to the psychological community than people who have dreams about raping their mother, or eating until they explode, or being naked at the grocery store.

In my dream, there is not just one semicolon, but a veritable phalanx of punctuation, sproinking towards me on their unstable ends, surrounding me and forcing me down a long, narrow hallway to confront a locked door. Beyond this locked door is a two-dimensional, sort of Edward Gorey-esque tableau in pen and ink, of letters. Broken, dead letters. Of the alphabet.

What horrifies me about this dream, and wakes me up in a sweat every time, is not that this dream is reminiscent of "Mystery!" It's that these unhinged pieces of silent type are, it is made clear to me by the glowering, menacing, faceless thousands of semicolons who have brought me here, are the lost souls of every failed poem I did not write.

A friend of mine was on location in Morocco this spring, and he seems to have found the secret lair of the semicolons. This must be where they lurk during the day, when they are not haunting my dreams.

20 May 2007

I Love You Equinox

I got nothing on this the first several tries around. I didn't want to go to the obvious place, the place the psychologist in all of us tends to go when someone says the word "mask." And the only other prompts I got were the images of two of my closest friends, who are (it must be said) like night and day.

This is Zanne. This picture, from the Connecticut Renaissance Faire where she is employed summers, doesn't do her justice. Even without her mask, Zanne looks pretty much like that. (although her lips aren't always sparkly and gold.)

And this is fiat. Yes, she prefers it that way. When I met fiat, we were engaged in the arduous task of mask-removal; she's the patient after me at my counselor's office. Our second meeting, we were at a painting class on a Saturday morning. Our third meeting was at my family's Thanksgiving table. Just to give you an idea.

Each of these women uses her mask to free herself. I know, you're thinking, "But I thought she said she was going to spare us the psychobabble." Zanne isn't any different from the sun-character she plays. She just isn't. She's not dark and mysterious, but she knows what very few of us realise: that there is a great and terrible power in being a child of the light. fiat understands and (hopefully) accepts her mixed heritage. She knows she is a mixture of dark and light, and I suspect that's why she made the creation in the photo. I hope she also knows how lovely this can be in a person, and that most of us are, in fact, an amalgam.

When Zanne was in college, I sat for a mask-making experiment in her dining room. Her mom held my hand and sat and babbled cheerfully as only Jean can for the hour or so it took for Zanne to slather my face with Vaseline, insert two short straws up my nose, and wrap my face in several smothering layers of buckram treated with plaster-of-paris. Kind of a cross between a cocoon, a facial, and mummification. I sat still and tried to remain expressionless, dreaming of Nefertiti or Marie Antionette.

The finished cast of my face wasn't the end-product, by any means; Zanne has always been famous for her intricate and many-stepped art projects. I believe the purpose was to have a human-shaped model to do some weird, bird-like wire architecture with--but I don't remember for sure. All I remember is returning downstairs after several hours to find the mold finally dry, and placing it cautiously up against my face.

Have you ever worn a mask that was made from your own face? It's almost frightening, how it envelops you, how each contour settles down over you, until you think, "Hmm, it feels almost like home," but at the same time, a part of you is wondering, but what if it devours me? What if I lose myself and this is all that's left? For this, I wish I had some sage advice to offer. But you'll have to go ask Zanne. She's the only one I've ever met whose inside face perfectly matches her mask.

(Oh. And by now you might be wondering: where's my mask? What's my one true face? Not a chance, my friend.)

16 May 2007

Filing Jihad (After)

I have tamed the nation of Zionist infidel papers! Take that! And that! And.....wait, maybe I should keep that one, it looks important.... Anyway, what's a set of "before" pictures without the "after"?

A clean desk makes a happy FireCat.

Not pictured here are the three shopping bags that I filled with recycled files. Thank God for Arbor Day.

To think I might actually have time now to read some of these.

Look, Ma! I can see my floor! More importantly, I can get up to pee in the middle of the night without tripping on anything that won't meow.

And no, I still haven't looked under the bed. I'm brave, not crazy.

15 May 2007

Defiling My Living Quarters (Before)

Now that the semester is closed at both colleges, and I'm officially on vacation, I've been spending some quality time with some serious dust bunnies.

What happens when your filing cabinet is in storage.

When good filing systems go bad.

An experiment in carefully controlled chaos.

Mind you, I haven't even looked under the bed yet.

10 May 2007

Over and Over and Over

I would take these hands

these hands that know me

these hands that will be the last thing memory knows

and this time, I would never let them go


08 May 2007

We All Scream

Field Trip to the Park: After a long, hard semester of learning to use prepositions and semicolons, my English 072 class takes a break from preparing their portfolios to demonstrate the proper use of Haagen Dazs.

06 May 2007

Irony and Wine

Imagine my horror. Twice betrayed. Not only by sweet Celia, the moon-faced student who cannot for the life of her pass the exit exam, but whose writing has steadily been improving, or so I thought, while we struggled through semester after semester of Basic English so she didn't have to return to the ESL track. But also by my beloved Blogger.

Imagine: a whole series of blogs, just so that people don't have to write their own papers, and don't have to stoop to using something so transparent as e-cheat.com. (here's a hint: if it uses the word "cheat" in the URL, it's cheating. And another one, just for good measure: if its slogan has to justify itself by proclaiming, "It's not cheating, it's collaborating!"....it's cheating.) And imagine: you cite the sources from which you received these papers you've provided for students to pluck and plagiarize from, so legally Blogger is caught in the strands of your duplicitous ethical web. You didn't plagiarize. Your content is clear. It's only your intent that reeks like black rot.

And you, Celia, what will become of you? If I turn you in to the dean, you will be devoured in the gaping maw of academic justice, but what kind of justice will there be, once you are ground up and spat out to the sidewalk? You'll end up working at a bodega, losing hope in the system, in the dream, and then what?

My. I do believe this is a dilemma. It's pointy on these horns, I'd like to get down now, please.

But the thing that I find most bitterly ironic of all? The very well-thought out, well-written, and thought-provoking essay this blog has on the nasty little subject of cheating.

Ain't that a motherfucker.

05 May 2007

You Are a Welcoming Back from the Ocean

And the ones that can know you so well
are the ones that can swallow you whole

--Dar Williams, "The Ocean"

Let me set the record straight. I hate the beach. Most people I know are appalled by this, for one simple reason. I am from New Jersey (in fact, until I was in first grade, I lived within a mile of the beach, but a five-year-old's concept of geography is such that I didn't know it until after we moved inland). I do not, unless absolutely forced, partake in that barbaric New Jersey ritual known as "going down the shore" every summer. We never had a beach house, we never joined a swim club, never wore those thick macrame sailor's bracelets that you never took off and they shrank and shrank and shrank until eventually your mom had to cut it off before you permanently lost circulation to your hand. The crowds, the boom-boxes, the sand-burrs, the jellyfish, the oily coconut smell of sunscreen--hate it. Hate. It. If I never had to walk barefoot across another sandy, sticky, melting, broken-glass-strewn, sunbaked parking lot for endless rows, searching for the car we parked hours ago, all the while lugging chairs and towels and shells and books, I would die content. I really would.

But I love the ocean.

Figure that one out. The ocean makes me happy. I once had the luxury of spending ten full days in the Orkney Islands, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, waaaay up at the northern tip of Scotland. They're closer, really, to Oslo than they are to London. And even in August, the height of tourist season and backpacking and hosteling heaven, the population is slightly less than 20,000. Spread out, mind you, over 16 inhabited islands and some 55 to 60 uninhabited ones. Perfect for an antisocialite such as I, particularly as this was in the midst of my prickly twenties.

Every day, after a vague breakfast in the hostel and something resembling ablutions in the (at best) moderately-scary hostel showers, I got on my rented bicycle and headed inexorably towards the ocean. Not hard to do, when you're on an island that's 20 miles wide at its largest. And with Scapa Flow, also water, in the middle.

Every day, for ten days, I wrote. I spent hours hunched over on the rocks, trying to block the worst of the wind from tearing pages out of my notebook and sending them towards the Shetlands and Norway. I forget what I was running from, that summer (probably myself), but I remember it was looking out over the churchyard in Stromness that I realized that a little loneliness wasn't necessarily a bad thing. That I could be not only alone, but actually lonely, and still completely happy.

There's more to it than that, of course; there always is. There's whatever happened the night that I'd gone the previous week to see Hamish at the one-room flat he shared with Grace, the mystery that changed the course of our friendship; there's how my father used to play Goldbug while he waited for us on the ferris wheel at Asbury Park, and we used to try to find his white hair in a different place every time our car crested the top of the arc; there's the suicide note I was never supposed to see, written desperately one night, instructing me ashes in Atlantic in typical cryptic fashion, that was later cast aside in favour of another day but stupidly not discarded; the ocean of my mother; the salt that's in all of us

it's where we came from, you know,
and sometimes I just want to go back

01 May 2007

Upon Leaving Wyoming, You Must Be Stamped for Re-Entry

Today I was once again reminded just how out of touch it is possible to be.

I'm not talking about my students; mostly, when my students are out of touch or ignorant, it's not their fault (though occasionally--and I confess there are certain faces coming to mind right this minute--this is indeed the case) but simply a lack of opportunity, or worse yet, an active failure by the very people who are meant to guide them.

A classic example is the final placement test I administered this morning. This exam is chosen, written, and graded by unseen committee. Not only am I not a part of this committee, I don't even know who is, so I don't know who to blame for this incredible act of cosmic stupidity.

It's all well and good to give urban community college students a brief (2-page) essay about crime invading the national forests. People go to Idaho and grow massive tracts of weed in the middle of the Sawtooths. They really do. (Washington is the Evergreen State, but I'll tell ya--it ain't because of the tree.) People rob other people of these drugs, or the profits, and even sometimes kill each other over it.

It's even okay to ask these kids guided questions about their reading comprehension of this article, as well as their ability to interpret causal relationships in the article and make their own conclusions based on it. Great. No problem. The students who emigrated here from Guatemala and Colombia know from the time they are very little that the forest is a dangerous place. You don't go into the jungle, because rebels and bad men live there. They get that. Even the kids who grew up in the barrio here can postulate that one reason criminals go to the woods is because it's easy to hide there. You can't put a moose on the witness stand. Dead trees tell no tales.

But for God's sake, I entreat you, listen to yourselves before you ask the long-essay question that will determine the course of their academic future. If this entire course is based on the two parts of this test, those two parts had better count. They'd better be good. You'd better ask them something they have a prayer of understanding.

Do you know, for instance, that the average urban community college student who has never left his greater metropolitan area cannot possibly have any idea of what a national forest really is? Therefore, you simply cannot ask them what they think should be done to keep US national forests safer. Because they won't have a clue what to answer. Their idea of a "forest" is the median strip on the turnpike. Or, at best, Central Park. I seriously had students suggest that we put more lights up in the forest, so it wouldn't be so dark at night. Or that we put cameras on trees. One forward-thinking student even went so far as to opine that all forests should have only one main entrance.

And this spectacular failure of comprehension is entirely the fault of the people who wrote this exam and failed to take into account that our lives are completely foreign to our students. And it's not because of the language barrier, but rather because of our persistent inability to understand what it's really like to be them. When I ask them to write about gang violence, or racial, sexual, or ethnic discrimination, they pour forth page after page of painfully eloquent--though misspelled and grossly mispunctuated--prose. Every semester, the persuasive essay assignment brings at least one student to confide in me about either their own or their girlfriend's abortion. They write searingly about coming to this country with no money and no language skills at the age of 3, with just one stuffed mouse, and how when they were 8 and their house burned down because the landlord couldn't bother to fix the wiring for a bunch of "fucking Latinos", they ran inside the flames to rescue that one precious thing they had brought with them from home. They struggle to understand why they are here, why they have been given this chance to go to college when their parents, so many of their friends, and three-quarters of their high school friends did not get this opportunity. They tell me what it was like for them in jail, and how they ain't never going back, because in there it's mad violent, in there they'll fuck you up for a cupcake, and while they were sitting in solitary 23 hours a day, they saw Jesus and realized their life was worth more than that, so they're getting off the weed most of the time, and they coming to college, because they don't wanna be no janitor forever, man,

--but they cannot write about how we should keep our national forests safe, because some of them have never even seen a mountain, let alone the grandeur of trees stretching for farther than they can imagine. You tell them to dream big, and they think about getting out of Union City and moving to Belleville, or maybe even New York. You can't tell them that there are forests out there bigger than New Jersey, because they don't even know how big New Jersey is. All they can imagine is Tonnele Avenue, stretching for miles into the smoggy distance. And you can't even blame them for it.

And that, my friends, is where we have failed them.

Overheard in My English 102 Classroom


Polonius: O! I am slain!

Polonius falls from beneath the arras at Kevin Kline's feet, dead.)

Student A: Dude, he just totally killed the old man!

Student B: At least it got him to stop talking.