Monday, December 28, 2009

Where's Waldo?

In the past three days, I've been to the cinema three times.

Up in the Air.
Alvin and the Chipmunks Take Manhattan. (Or something like that...)

Alvin? Took the little squirrels.
Up? Took the man.
Avatar? Took the big squirrel.

Now it is widely known in these parts of Bear Swamp that the English instructor who once taught a semester-long class of science fiction doesn't really care for science fiction literature. So what in tarnation was she doing at Avatar?

Falling in love with a 10-foot blue creature with a tail of ticklish fancies.

I confess that when films are released in 3D, I typically avoid them. I'd rather save the extra 3 bucks for a four-ounce bag of Swedish fish. But when I asked Ann to go with me to see Avatar, I knew I had to sweeten the deal: "We can do the 3D and go out to dinner." It was an offer she couldn't refuse. So we went to the theatre rather early so as to not get caught in the front-row frenzy of late arrivals. With 30 minutes to previews, we situated ourselves with a trough of popcorn in two seats set off to the side, so as to avoid people who would need to hit the loo. After all, the film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long.

Long-story-short: we had a wonderful time. We probably annoyed some people with our small whispers and impromptu chortling. And I confess that I don't get to spend a lot of one-on-one time with her, largely because she's got her own thing, and I have mine. And then there are our differences, ones which have at times sharply divided our worlds. Still, at the root of it all, she is my kid, and she bears so many idiosyncrasies that she has adapted from my persona. A compliment to me, such as it is. Afterward, we ran through the rain, grabbed dinner, ran back through the rain, soaked our jeans, laughed heartily.

When we got home to an empty nest, she said she was heading out. I felt sad in a way, but happy that she has someone to love for now. So we took a picture of our Waldo 3Ds before she ran out the door. I put on some Frank Sinatra and began baking toll house. The holiday season is closing down, my child is leaving her teens, I think I've come to the point of where I can let go.

Grey vortex.

I stare down into the grey vortex as it spins beneath me and grows wider, deeper. My conflict is in its midst and well beyond my grasp; I'm not sure if I should save it or let it perish in the fast current into some unknown depth of black pitch. I reach for its small green limbs, but my hand aimlessly flutters. Helpless. Nothing. Nothing will come of this attempt. And the conflict becomes smaller and smaller, turning and twisting before someone grabs the sides of the vortex. He sharply pulls it from my bent chest, which heaves in pain, pain from loss. He confidently twists the top, seals it with a white twist-tie. It is now today's trash. Baggage. He slowly drops it in the bin for dramatic effect; the lid loudly slams. I turn in silence, walk away.

Dreams. How can I turn away? The unresolved conflicts from other days, those which bear some regrets, which have shaped me as person, a mother, a friend, a basket case. I dream so much without the 4:15 alarm. They haunt me with a vengeance. Still, the holidays are a welcome respite from the day-in day-out routine of literature with a side of attitude at 8:30, lunch at 10 a.m., writing with a dose of accomplishment from 11:30 to 2:30. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This is the cycle of life. Unfortunately, for the most part.

When can we throw all of this routine away and live like we should? Creatures meant to share in the beauty of nature, the beauty of each other. The holidays have become too far materialistic and alien to me. The stress and pressure of wanting to please everyone else at the risk of sacrificing your own principles ... I dunno. But with two little squirrels, I am stuck in this pattern. And I don't know how to get out of it. I can't, I guess. Christmas morning brought slammed doors, thrown gifts, looks of disappointment. Am I allowing them to buy into this external pressure of keeping up with everyone else? Meanwhile, I wear my suede Keds, Mary Jane style, circa 1994, and a pair of old Levis that give me a truck-butt. Is this a sign that I've given up? That I will soon not care about my aging spirit?

My girls awake, determined to play this Nintendo DS. Why did I do it? Buy into this mass marketing crap? Good reasons: sharpen fine motor skills and critical thinking elements for a squirrel tagged "learning disabled." Fine. But now, it's her crack. Conversations, I fear, will disappear. So, to balance it all out, we put on Puccini. It was "too loud." It made it difficult to hear the talking animals on the pink box of wonder. So right now, it's a no-electronics moment. It's craft time, with a little bit of arguing thrown in for good measure. They push each other a bit. They throw aside each other's beads. They say "yours is ugly" and "no, yours is ugly." And they wipe their noses on their sleeves and steal the purple ones from each other. And that's fine. At least they're talking. And this will serve as more of a memory than an average day at school, even if it feels like a spinning vortex at the moment.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Today I received an email from a former student for whom I wrote a rather glowing college recommendation. He was not an exceptionally stellar student. However, he was a solid student. But it was his humble persona that clearly stood out to me, his choices to be open and affable to all of his peers, to his teachers, to the principal, to the superintendent. All of this and a member of the football team.

Well, in his email, he wrote: "So how are things at Emmaus? They better be treating you well! Do you miss us?"

What's not to miss? Large class sizes? Gang presence? Questionable job security?

This weekend proved to me that I left behind some of the most wonderful people, talented educators who dealt with issues that are often unfathomable to people in suburban districts. They don't see the diverse problems that an urban district brings, the far reachings of poverty, language barriers, hurdles created by an economically challenged tax base. But in the face of these barriers, my former colleagues and I always laughed (and sometimes cried) at what we witnessed.

So a few days ago, seeing them and hearing the new stories made me long for days gone by. I haven't yet found a family, and I felt almost like an outsider when I saw them. A few of them treated me that way--but just a few. The rest were just as loving, just as welcoming. I talked to an administrator today about how lucky I feel that I started my teaching career at Freedom. I had incredible mentors and leaders--people who stressed rigor, who wanted students to gain skills rather than memorize curriculum. Without them, I would not be who I am today.

And as for my squirrels, wow. I only wish that I could see all of them, to know that they are on the right path to success beyond the four walls of Freedom. How can I do that? I don't know. Maybe I can't. I can only wish that they accept new challenges, no matter how difficult they can be, no matter how other people may judge their decisions.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Official Start.

It snowed last night, a lot more than most people in public education would want for a Saturday night. The result: a snowed-in Sunday.

Typically, I might not mind it, but we're on a mission today: to climb the steep incline of the foothills of the Poconos in a futile attempt to find the perfect 9-foot Fraser fir, which we will then kill with the sharp edge of an axe and decorate in triumph with lights. Richard The Cat will proclaim it his monthlong home, while Eddie The Yorkie will attempt to lift his six-ounce leg upon its lower branches.

Fine. Fun.

But the hurdle remains: the snow. Somehow I fear that getting the two elves up the mountain will bring upon me some tremendous anxiety. Let's guess which will be the most popular whine:

A. My feet are wet/cold.
B. My hands are wet/cold.
C. I'm tired. Pick me up.
D. All of the above.

So right now, now that I've downed three cups of coffee to calm my jitters, I'm organizing all rubber-based clothing with the hope that I don't end the day with three cups of wine.

Otherwise, it will be long day for Santa's little helpers, let alone Mrs. Claus.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December blues.

The day before Thanksgiving, someone called me into an office and delivered news that probably should not have shocked me. But it did. Apparently some people don't like me. They want to see me screw up. And I need to watch my back. Why? For something that happened 20 years ago when they were different people, when I was different people. And in the end, it's all very petty in the scope of life.

Being the big person that I am, I smiled through the delivery, assured the person that I was fine with hearing it, agreed that I would watch for daggers.

But as I silently returned to my desk, I felt as though a mule back-kicked me in the jaw. My teeth hung from the sides of my mouth, a few got lodged in my throat. It wasn't pretty. I sat in silence for about 20 minutes, drove home, collapsed in bed, and wept.

Still, as the hours passed, I got pats on the back from other people who repeated that politics are ugly, that players are ugly, that people who take time from their own lives to hurt you are ugly.

Seems to me there are a lot of ugly people out there.

Unfortunately, I wear a bold magnet across my forehead--trimmed with hot-pink neon, I'm sure--that screams: "Ugly people welcome!"

Within a month, I've encountered three situations in which I've discovered that people take time from their own lives to attempt to create unhappiness for others, namely me. Why is this so? I can't really tell. I actually prefer to live a rather simple life. I dislike drama. In fact, I have often lamented that one of the worst things about being a woman is that you have a lot of female friends. And that potentially spells high drama. Still, I'm continually trying to be the Christopher Robin, the one who seeks balance in all relationships. But somehow I suffer for this quest of egalitarianism. People who were confidantes want to see you hurt. People who are family want your marriage to fail. People who share children attempt to sabotage the other parent.

I've warned Mark that I may some day just clear out all of the savings and head west. I'll leave everything and everyone behind and end up in New Mexico, living in a small trailer on a dry patch of land trimmed with a dead cactus and bony tumbleweed. I'll work second-shift in a 1950s diner, slinging luke-warm coffee and runny eggs to people in dirty denim who think Oral B is a moniker for a prostitute with an attitude. I'll read trashy novels and write trashy screenplays. I'll watch my skin sag and no longer care. I'll wear deodorant only if I feel like it. This way, separate from everyone, I won't have to think about who wants to see me fail, who wants to see me hurt, who wants to break apart my family.

I think about this almost daily. But then, thanks to the invention of a reality check, I reflect on my girls. And I wonder what they would think of my priorities. And how my inability to handle conflict well would eclipse my ability to be a good role model for them.

Little do they know that their lives are part of what keep me grounded. For example: Kendall and shoes.

Kendall continuously makes a fashion statement out of wearing only one shoe. This is not a new concept for her. As a babe, she would always pull off one sock and just crawl around, one socked foot, one bare foot. As a toddler, she always ditched one shoe. And now, it's just who she is. She comes home, and somehow she's down to one shoe, hobbling around as if she needs a cane. But she won't take off the remaining shoe.

So what would happen if I ended up like Flo in some crumb-infested tin diner while my kid stayed here in Bear Swamp without me and without one shoe? I would never know when the day arrives, and she says: "Crap, this one-shoe gig makes me lean too far to the right. I gotta stop wearing just one flip flop/Mary Jane/sneaker/boot."

I would miss it. And I don't want to. I wish I could say: "Well, I'm just going to shed my thin skin," and I'd let all of this spiteful stuff go. But I can't. It's part of my identity. Just like some people live to be vindictive and petty, I know that I live to be diplomatic and rational--and that means not just for me, but for my girls.

Someone else is going to have to rent the trailer. I'll stay here and pick up the shoes.