Marbles

I don’t mean to alarm you, Dear Reader, but I think I am losing my shit.

I’ve written before about depression, and loneliness and Otherdom, but I’m not sure that I’ve been fully forthcoming about the amount of BATSHIT CRAZY that I have locked away in my little closet of horrors.  For sure, you’ve had your suspicions (don’t lie, it’s written all over your face, not to mention in your body language as you sit there, nodding your head vigorously in my general direction) but trust me when I tell you, any small moments of pause you’ve had in your interactions with me are but tips of the iceberg.

I am, what I like to call, a functional lunatic.  It’s like being a functional alcoholic, but instead of vodka stashed in my desk drawer, I have Anxiety, Mania and Fury.  They loaf around all day playing games of Rock, Paper, Scissors to see which one gets to manifest at any given moment.  And yeah, none of them like to take their meds, so it’s kind of like a circus geek show in there: a bloody, horrifying mess.  Years of practice have enabled me to divert outsiders’ attention elsewhere and away from the center ring when the carnage is in full swing, but there are periodic spans of time when my sleight of hand just isn’t good enough and can’t quite drown out the screams of agony behind the curtain.

I’m coming up on one of those times.

It could be the insomnia (you try startling awake in terror 8 or 9 times a night and let me know how sane the next day’s mindset it), or the nightmares (yes, when I AM actually sleeping, it’s only to be attacked by snakes or strangled by shadowy assailants), but either way, my grasp on patience is slipping and what little social aplomb I had walked out the door about a week ago.

You may be inclined to feeling sorry for me at this point, but I assure you that I’ve been dealing with this for so long, that I know what’s coming.  It’s the people that I love that suffer the most.  Right around now, my friends stop getting phone calls and messages will go unanswered for weeks.  I will reach out one day, only to pull back completely the next, worried to open the floodgates on the chaos in my head.  Instead, I opt for isolation and cold indifference.  It becomes impossible for me to show affection or kindness or anything other than total irritation.  Everything grates; like sandpaper on a sunburn.

As these episodes wear on, my façade crumbles a little bit more and I’m less able to pinpoint what brought them on.  There used to be triggers, definite beginnings and ends, but now, lately, there are only sleepless nights punctuated by occasional decent days.  It’s not my job this time, or someone else’s actions, it’s not the weather or a deadline.  I have nothing to worry over or be anxious for…it’s just the slow leak, the quiet sssssssssssss of my mind as it goes missing.

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Lunch! (R11 #18)

I tried writing a poem to answer this question, but the words flowing from my fingers were absolute shite, drivel, excrement.  And so now, I kick it into desperation mode, and try to get SOMETHING, ANYTHING on the page to share with you, Dear Reader, so that you won’t leave me for somebody else, a more adept writer/humorist/truth-teller….someone who better suits your needs and without all the baggage besides.

Of course, I made a list, Tim Gunn, Desmond Tutu, Ron Paul, Tony Bennett, but WTF would we talk about?  It would be one-sided; an embarrassing 15 minutes of a gushing, babbling me and then nothing…awkward silence as we both realized that they have no reason to be having lunch with ME.  So I scrapped that idea too and moved back to the one that I’d had at the very beginning.  Because the best ideas are the ones that sit, waiting patiently at the back of your head while you whore around with the other, less suitable, less true ideas.

I would, of course, choose YOU.  You right there, sitting at your computer, staring at my words and silently judging them.  I’d choose you in your pajama pants, your t-shirt, your underwear, with your beautiful eyes ticking left to right over my thoughts.  I’d choose you because you’re real and true and genuine, and no publicist has gotten her hands on you.

I can’t think of anyone I’d rather share a beer and some onion rings with, talking over martinis or straight shots of whiskey and tapas.  It’s your truth and your humanity that recommends you so highly, your own brand of humor and wit.  Your fast and slow smiles and spectrum of laughter and that story about that thing you did that one day when you thought no one was looking.

There’s no itinerary for our chat, no bulleted list of topics to cover.  We’re people and we offer these things up to nature.  I’ll walk in that door, blown in by the wind and spy you there in the corner.  Two beers please! Tout d’suite! And a hug and a glint and like that, we’re off to the races.

Loathing (R11 #17)

Loathing:  Who or what do you loathe and how have you expressed that in 2011? 

 

The minute I first laid eyes on him, I knew it was going to be an uphill battle.  His scraggly hair was pulled into a greasy ponytail and a patchy goatee screamed TRAILERPARK! before he’d yet had the chance to mumble on and on about his big plans for the rusted out TransAm in the driveway.  I could smell the stale beer on his breath from four feet away, and as I gave him that first cursory once-over, I couldn’t believe that my best friend had allowed his penis anywhere near her vagina without a condom, let alone long enough for his vile seed to knock her up. 

 

When it comes to bad decisions about boys, my best friend J has the market cornered.  Over the course of our 13-year friendship, I’ve watched her repeatedly slash and burn the good ones, only to take up minutes later with the closest dumpster-fire of a human being.  She’s got an innate and masochistic need for emotional torture, and there’s nothing that anyone can do to convince her that she’s worthy of more than the string of self-centered, emotionally abusive and financially draining male succubi she so readily beds. 

It’s no different with B, her most recent paramour and the sperm-donor for the now one-year old BAM. 

She called me on my birthday almost two years ago to wish me well and break the news.  We’d hit a rough spot in our friendship, allowing hearsay to get between our historically truthful relationship, and it had been a while since we’d talked.  I’d known she was pregnant for a couple weeks prior, and had resolved to be supportive, so I was ready with surprise and excitement when she made the announcement.  I’d never met the father-to-be, so it was with the enthusiasm and wishful thinking that I extended my hand to him for the first time that summer, determined to not make myself an enemy to him as I had with so many of her previous boyfriends. 

He seemed harmless enough at first, and that should have been my first clue.  His meek voice had trouble holding its own over our boisterous laughter, and there was nothing discernibly special about him.  For the first 15 minutes of our meeting, I thought I might have been late to a modified game of Edward Forty Hands because of the way he never let go of his tallboy cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.  “I prefer Coors Light,” says he, “but they’re so expensive!”  I quietly began to hope she was playing a trick on me. 

It was a short visit, and by the end, he’d been nothing but cloyingly solicitous of all of us.  He had no opinions of his own, and frequently faded into the background, speaking only when spoken to and offering nothing of himself to the conversation.  On the ride home, our friend T summed it up better than I could have myself:  “He’s like a golden retriever puppy….totally harmless and dumber than a bag of hammers.”  I think perhaps that was too generous. 

Over the next year, my opinion didn’t improve.  In a masterful stroke of stupidity, the plonker fell victim to a Craigslist scam, sending a massive amount of CASH to a PO BOX for a car HE’D NEVER SEEN.  His list of jobs began to read like a blogroll as he left each new position for some imagined slight or injury.  I could hear the exhaustion in my girlfriend’s voice as she drove to pick up her son at the end of one of her marathon days and tried to nonchalantly tell me about how he’d begun to pressure her to buy him a new car. 

When I visited in October, it was curtains for him in my eyes.  Fact after fact played out in front me and I couldn’t believe my eyes.  A mountain of beer cans teetering in the kitchen.  The way he ignored her and his son on his return home until after he’d opened and guzzled his first 20oz of PBR.  The revelation that J cannot leave their son alone with him for fear he gets distracted and forgets to care for the child—that she can’t even leave long enough to shower because “B doesn’t like to hear him crying.”  I was aghast.  But nothing could prepare me for the performance at BAM’s first birthday. 

I could recount the evening in gory detail and tell you that it was like pulling teeth to get him to watch his son so that my girlfriend could shower before the guests arrived.  I could detail my amazement at the fact that the refrigerator door never fully closed before he was opening his next beer.  You might be aghast to learn that he wouldn’t take pictures of his son opening his presents because he couldn’t hold the camera and his Coors Light (the good stuff!) at the same time, or begin to disbelieve my story at the point when he left in the middle of presents because he’d run out of beers. 

But none of that explains the moment when my loathing took full effect; the second when, but for legality, my hands would have made it around his neck and squeezed the last noxious breath from his lungs:

The cake made it’s way out to the table, with me behind it, laden with million separate candles of different letters, together meant to spell out Happy Birthday B_______.  I looked around the crowd of family and friends, and found B, sitting on the floor, lovingly caressing a brown glass bottle.  The interaction went something like this:

 

ME:  B, it’s time for cake, why don’t you come and put the candles on?

DRUNKY MCWONDERDAD:  Um, no, I’m good right here.  You do it. 

ME:  Are you sure?  It’s your son’s first birthday…don’t you want to light the candles?

DMWD:  No, that’s all right.  I’ve got my beer.  You go ahead.

ME:  questioning look  Ummmm, okay? 

(I start to place the candles)

DMWD:  HEY!  Jen!  Wait! 

ME:  thinking maybe he’s come to his senses What’s up?

DMWD:  Um, you know how to do that, right?  I mean, how to put the candles on?  You’re not going to screw it up, right?

ME:  pausing to see if I’ve really heard what I just heard No, I think I’ve got it.  But if there’s a specific way you want it done, why don’t you come and do it?

DMWD:  No, you do it.  I just, well, you’re not going to mess it up, right?  You think you can figure it out?  Just don’t mess it all up. 

(Right here, a hush fell over the room.  There were about 30 people there, and all of them have known me for as long as I’ve known J.  I’ve always been an outspoken opponent of her past boyfriends’ various flaws, and quite a few of them have borne witness as I’ve voiced my distaste.  There was a collective intake of breath as everyone waited for me to LOSE MY SHIT.  Instead, I opted for a dramatic pause and a look with the force of 10,000 daggers.)

ME:  slowly turning my head back to the cake and barely containing my disbelief that this drunken, chromosome-lacking knuckle-dragger is speaking to me as if I were as dumb as he   B, I’ve got to be honest, I’m not too sure.  I mean, I graduated from college ten years ago, and never, until today, have I ever lamented NOT getting that degree in rocket science.

DMWD:  blank stare

ROOM FULL OF FAMILY:  snickering, snorting, almost silent laughter

(I finished placing the candles, but B obviously hadn’t finished with me.  As I called to J that they were ready for lighting, he stumbled to his feet and looked over my shoulder.)

DMWD:  exasperated and annoyed  Awwwwwww, YOU FUCKED IT UP!!!!!

I looked at him agog as he tried to explain to me that no one could read it the way I’d placed the candles.  (for clarity’s sake, picture a rectangular sheet cake with individual candles placed on the two sides and the bottom:  H-A-P-P-Y going up to down on the left, B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y going up to down on the right and B___________ going left to right along the bottom). 

DMWD:  spitting mad and talking to me as if I were 4 years old  People read from left to right, JEN.  How are they supposed to read this?  Happy B________ Birthday?  Really?  PFT.  Doesn’t make any sense. 

Here, I’m sorry to say, I lost my temper, and before I walked away, left him with a parting shot. 

ME:  in a deadly quiet voice impossible to hear except for those standing closest  B, I am willing to bet my entire life-savings that I have a better understanding of reading and HOW PEOPLE DO IT than you do.  In fact, I’m not entirely certain that you’d know I’d done it this way if your child didn’t bear YOUR name.  So, once again, why don’t you put down your beer, and place your child’s first birthday candles on the cake any way you want them AS YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE IN THE FIRST PLACE???

And then I walked away. 

Dear Reader, I’ve been hopping mad in my day.  I’ve resorted to physical violence.  I’ve let fly scathing harangue, but never in my life have I decided that the world would be a better place if someone were to suffer an unfortunate and deadly industrial accident.  With every fiber of my being, I’m disgusted by this man-child.  His ineptitude as a father, his alcoholism, his lofty pipedreams that hang on the financial support of my girlfriend…everything about him makes my skin crawl.  I am convinced that if I’d canceled my return ticket and merely overstayed my welcome in the dank basement apartment that she struggles to pay for on her own, I could have driven him out.  I look back on it and kick myself for not doing so.  I curse the universal forces that brought him into our lives.  I even sit back and wish for the glory days of the old boyfriend…at least he had a brain and an opinion and knew how to fight back.  With B, it’s like winning a footrace at the Special Olympics. 

Perseverence (WeVerb #16)

Persevere:  Describe something that disappointed you in 2011 and how you persevered.

 

 

I am constantly amazed by people who can’t cook; those guys and gals that stock their pantries with ramen noodles and Diet Coke and are on a first name basis with the Domino’s delivery guy.  It was one thing in college, when we were all pinching pennies for pitchers, but at this point, it just puzzles me.

I grew up in an Italian-Polish family.  Holidays meant food, and lots of it.  Aproned ladies bustled from fridge to oven to table to oven circulating a never-ending parade of dishes.  We’d walk into my grandmother’s doorway after our 2.5 hour drive into Connecticut from our house in upstate NY and she’d ask if we were hungry.  It was usually about 10:30 in the morning, and the answer never mattered, because within five minutes you were sitting at the kitchen table with a fresh sandwich full of Dietz and Watson cold cuts and a paper Dixie cup of orange juice to wash it down.  “I’ve got stuff for sandwiches!” she’d whisper in your ear, “And all sorts of juices, orange and tomato (I know you don’t drink that) and grape and OH! there’s pop too….you want some pop?  And you know, if you look up there, on the top of the fridge, you’ll see that I made Chex Mix….”  And there, up on top of the fridge, underneath two gift boxes full of Italian almond cookies, next to a white paper pastry box full of angel’s wings (“Those are for dessert!  Don’t touch them!  Well, one, I guess you can have one…”) was the largest Tupperware barrel ever made, full of Chex Mix.

As you sat eating your sandwich, preparations continued.  A constant flow of traffic buzzed up into the kitchen from the finished basement downstairs.  Both ovens were humming and little kids used as gophers; “The marinated vegetables!  Nicholas!  Run downstairs and get Grandma the vegetables out of the extra refrigerator.  Jennifer, go ask your father and grandfather if they’re hungry.  Ern!  I need the electric knife!!!!”  Pots bubbled under watchful conversations, and a steady string of dishes popped into and out of the sinks for reuse on the next.  In between bites of food and supply runs to the basement, you told your story:  “How is school?  What about a special friend?  Do you have a special friend?  What is that in your hair?  Blonde streaks?  It’s all right darlin’, you should have SEEN some of the ridiculous things your mother did to hers, don’t listen to her, it will grow out and you’re beautiful no matter what. OH!  Go look on the bottom shelf by the ironing board….I got pizelles!!!!”

Somewhere over those years, I became less a gopher and more a trusted purveyor of feminine duty.  I’d spend less and less time sitting with my Dad and grandfather in the den and more and more time performing tasks necessary to the perfect execution of the culminating meal.  “Check that roast, Jennifer, is it time?  You’re frying the pierogies tonight, right?  Here’s the onion.  I’ve got to finish the ham glaze, can you do the potatoes? “  In an imperceptible change, I’d become a woman in my family, taking my place in the cycle of things.  Unspoken and off-the-record, I was learning how to run a kitchen.

My mother carried on these lessons with me at home.  Thanksgiving was traditionally spent at our house in NY with my Dad’s mom.  Grandma Lou would bus in from Buffalo and there’d be the odd assortment of “stray cats”, people we knew who, for some reason or another, couldn’t be with their own families on the holiday.  Some were friends from college who lived too far away from home, others recently divorced or stuck in town on business.  We created our own extended family for this, the family favorite of holidays.  For all those years, I played second chair violin to my mother’s first, given only the most cursory of responsibilities.  I was her sous chef, chopping squash and celery for sides and stuffing, filling pots with water and once again running to the basement for odds and ends off the pantry shelf.  It was smaller, and more intimate, but there was never a question of who was in charge or deserving of full credit for the whole meal.

It wasn’t until the Old Man and I moved to the west coast that I’d be able to try my hand at a holiday meal all my own.  I began hosting Thanksgiving myself, in our tiny apartment.  I did everything as I’d been taught.  A 23-pound turkey, prep work done the night before, linens laid out and standing at the ready….  I was born and molded for it, and as all the dishes hit the table, and everyone picked up their plates to heap them high with food, I stood back and watched, quietly wishing that my mother and grandmother could see what I’d done.  This, this first, was a meal.  A real meal.  No college hodge-podge or novice’s approximation.  It was a holiday feast, and Martha Stewart herself could eat crow if she was able to say otherwise.

There have been about five Thanksgivings since that first and only one without a house full of people.  Each year, I picked something to improve on and make my own.  Homemade cranberry sauce one year, a different kind of sweet potatoes another.  It’s grown into a point of pride with me, and something that I look forward to….maybe a little maniacally.

Last year, our first in eastern Washington, there was no one to share the holiday with.  The Old Man’s family was off doing other things and there were no friends to speak of, so I couldn’t justify the veritable fortune I spent every year on food for just the two of us.  As we sat across the table from each other at Famous Dave’s Barbeque (the only place in town serving a traditional Thanksgiving meal), I cried a little, only just realizing how much I’d come to look forward to the holiday and the opportunity to cook for family and friends.

I called my parents the next day, and asked them to start saving money.  I told them that it would mean the world to me, if, the next year, they were able to make it out to spend the holiday with us.  They, of course, immediately agreed.  Over the next year, we talked about it a number of times.  I would mention their visit and they would make the necessary overtones that they had indeed been saving money, and would, for certain be here to share this year’s Thanksgiving meal.  While home in October, the answers were still the same, and my excitement grew.  The Old Man and I finally had a nice apartment to share with a furnished extra bedroom.  I had bookshelves I’d made and a dresser I’d finished on my own that I wanted to show my Dad.  But most of all, on the top of the list, I had MY OWN kitchen that I was in charge of.  I would be cooking, and not just a meal, but a HOLIDAY meal…showing off for my mother.  Letting her see that I am capable and adept; a little gopher-girl no longer.

October ended and November began, and about a week in, the daily phone calls from my parents stopped.  My messages to them went unanswered.  On the days that someone picked up, stories were told and reasons given for having to hang up “But I’ll give you a call tomorrow, definitely!”  Come tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and nothing.  Six days before Thanksgiving, I texted my brother asking if any of them were coming.  I got the answer I expected:  “I don’t think so, no.”  A day later, my father called, strain in his voice, telling me that they wouldn’t be making it.  A dear family friend was sick, and they couldn’t possibly think of leaving town at that point.

My heart fell.  Of course, the reasoning was excellent.  Understandable.  Forgivable.  But I know, in my heart of hearts, that they wouldn’t have come anyway.  My parents being who they are, and old habits dying hard, I knew from time I asked a year prior, that there was really no hoping that they’d get their shit together long enough to come and see me on such an important day.  (This surely sounds coarse, but trust me when I tell you, Dear Reader, that’s it’s most certainly the truth).

All of that was forgivable to me.  I understood.  And even further, expected it to happen; so when my mother called me the day before Thanksgiving, I was in a quiet and rational place when I told her that I understood, but that I was disappointed.  That I was hurt that they’d waited until a week before Thanksgiving to tell me they weren’t coming.  Hurt that they’d avoided me for nearly a month.  That I wouldn’t get to have my family represented yet again at a Thanksgiving meal.  Wounded that I hadn’t meant enough to them to warrant the truth.

What followed, after I poured my heart out to my mother, was a verbal harangue that hit me like her old backhand.  My mother, instead of apologizing, called me selfish and ungrateful, and said that she was shocked that I couldn’t for a moment think of anyone else but myself.

I, of course, as daughters are wont to do, resorted to my preteen self and began screaming unattractively into the phone.  I dredged up old hurts and piled them on in a bawling mess of snot and “I can’t fucking believe you!”s.  I shocked her into silence and then hung up, my hands shaking in anger and hurt and embarrassment.  Then came the guilt.  The guilt for letting it get to me, letting HER get to me.  I knew this would happen….KNEW that they wouldn’t come, KNEW that somehow she’d find a way to make it my fault and I’d lost control; allowed the rush of disappointment to take over.  I was crushed.  Broken.  Again.

No one called me on Thanksgiving, and I made no calls myself.  My phone sat, conspicuously silent as I served dinner to the Old Man’s family.  It wasn’t until Sunday that my mother called again, the tone in her voice the one you reserve for a petulant child: “I know you’re upset, but really, this isn’t my fault…”  At 7:30 in the morning, I had no qualms about hanging up on her again.  When the phone rang a second time, it was my father, also talking down to me, until he heard the things she’d said.  I cried silently as he apologized for her as he’d done time and again for the entirety of my life.  She never got back on the phone, and I hung up with a hollow feeling in my heart.

There have been many disappointments over the years, lots of them grievous, but this last broke something in me.  Made me sad and inconsequential.  I learned that while at 32 I still strive to impress my mother, my feelings to her are merely an annoyance.

I still haven’t spoken to her, although it’s high time I did.  The truth is that I’m waiting for her to call, to make the first move.  I know that over time, I will put this in a little compartment on a shelf in the back—the one labeled Bad Things—and I will move on, and we will act as if nothing of the sort ever happened.  But now, right now, the hurt is too raw to box up, and so, instead, I’m writing to you….

Teaching Moment (R11 #15)

Teaching Moment:  Sometimes we find teachers in the most unexpected places.  Who surprised you as a teacher this year and what did you learn?

 

I find it more than the slightest bit trite to respond to this question in the following way, but, if it were to come down to truth or censorship kids, you know what I choose, so, at the risk of sounding loathsome, the answer is:  ME.  Against type, against nature, against all previously held ideas, it was ME.

 

I grew up under the watchful, and more than slightly militant eye of a high school English teacher.  Tiny in stature but large in opinion, voice and grammatical awareness, my mother towered over me, demanding perfection in every word, spoken and written.  At home, to her family, her craft was (and is) sacrosanct; she approached her responsibility with gravity and staid resolution.  Her students were her clay and she meticulous in their molding….forceful….precise….and ruled by impossible standards.

In her classroom, however, at the chalkboard, her iron fist relaxed into a soothing open palm, and I was always amazed to see her make jokes with the kids sitting rapt before her.  She worked for some years in a Catholic high school, and I’d be forced to go, to sit quietly, looking up to the Oh-So-Sophisticated 10th graders when my public school schedule showed a laxity unknown at St. John the Evangelist.  There was a tender side of her, a chummy side, even solicitous, when she spoke TO them.  It was the same when she spoke OF them at home…specific kids who’d earned a soft spot in her heart or spoken words of praise for their attempts and accomplishments.

From a young age, I had a hard time reconciling the stern woman who so rarely broke out in a smile over any of my actions and the woman who would beam with pride when speaking of strangers.  And so, when it came time for me to apply to colleges and enroll in a program, I was neither surprised at her constant prodding that I become a teacher myself, nor quiet in my resolve to do no such thing.  I rejected openly her insistence, and turned up my nose when she suggested that I might be good at nurturing growth myself.  I couldn’t do it.  Wouldn’t.  In my eyes, she was acting out of a selfish need to control, that somehow, my becoming a teacher was linked directly to her self-worth.

And so, I became a business major, only indulging my own passion for the written word by declaring an English Literature B of S as an afterthought, with no intention of ever doing anything with it.

My life followed as lives do, with graduation and the accumulation of jobs with ever-increasing responsibility.  I learned how to write a budget and forecast revenues, became adept at cost controls and pricing strategies, networked at business luncheons and became a member of any number of organizations for Ladies Who Do Work, Son.  My responsibilities grew and so did my resume and paycheck, and I was, by all accounts, successful.  Words like Client and Contract and Human Capital were part of my everyday vernacular, and I found myself saying: “Yes” to more interview questions regarding experience than “No”.

But powerful descriptors and mid-to-high five figures do not a happy girl make, and soon after watching the tears fall down the cheeks of a grown man who I’d fired the day previous for a mistake over $2, I realized that a change was needed.  The money, the resume bullet point was not worth this type of decision.  So when the Old Man moved us to Middleofnowhere, WA to pursue a career opportunity for himself, we agreed that I would take time to see what else was out there.

It turns out, there was very little.

After months of searching, and out of a desperate desire for human interaction, I took a job as a part time tutor for an after school program contracted by the state to help the local schools meet the No Child Left Behind Standards.

I was terrified.  Everyone knows that children are predators.  They can smell fear and spot an imposter from a mile off and the night before my first day, I had nightmares of elfin faces sneering in glee over my murdered body.  I’d never been a teacher, had no idea where to start.  How do you TALK to kids?  What do you say?  What if they don’t listen?  Can you hit them?  How was I going to NOT swear?  What if they needed to learn how to divide fractions?  Or worse….make electron dot diagrams????  I almost called in sick.  I was going to be The Worst Tutor Ever.

But I showed up, and something amazing happened.  That day, I worked on subjects and predicates with a small girl who walked in at the beginning of the hour not knowing the difference between a noun and a verb.  Somewhere around the 30 minute mark, after three or so different attempts at explaining, the light went on behind her eyes, and at 45 minutes, she was circling subjects and underlining the shit out of some predicates all by herself.  She came back to me the next day, a Language Arts test in hand:  95%.  I’d given her something she hadn’t had before we’d met.  At the end of a twelve-week session, she tested 35 percentile points higher in reading than she had when we’d started.  She was placed back in a regular level class.

And I got to see this change EVERY DAY.

In the springtime, I became a substitute para-educator…a teacher’s aide (because to substitute teach in WA state, you need to be certified or actively pursuing certification in order to be a teacher….degrees in applicable fields do not count) and I spent the remaining school year at a long-term assignment in an 8th grade special ed class.  With the hard cases.  The kids who don’t want to learn.  Or can’t.  Or have had the will medicated out of them.

Out of nowhere, I found a talent I didn’t know I’d had.  A talent my mother had pointed out, but that I’d refused to acknowledge in my own teenaged drive to rebel.  I found that by being myself, my own, No Bullshit, Don’t Feed Me That Line Self, that I could get through.  And I DID get through.  As long as I spoke to them as if they were adults, I could demand their effort, and they would give it.

Every day now, I get to see those lights go on.  Some days, they’re on dimmer switches, but lights they are and worth every measly cent of the $10/hr I command for my services.

In the end, I found a teacher in the most unlikely of places; in myself.  Maybe it will go somewhere, maybe it won’t.  My mother has already set the “Why Don’t You Get Your Masters In Teaching” pressure cooker to stun, but I don’t know if I’m ready to pop that cork just yet.  Right now, I’m happy to watch my little lights twinkle, each a reminder to do good work, and never stop growing myself.

Travel (WeVerb11 #7)

Where Did You Travel This Year?  What was your favorite part?

 

The gym that I attend is brand-spanking new and all their equipment the latest in trend and technology.  Generally, I don’t go in for gimmicks and ploys, but one day, as I stepped on to my favorite treadmill (shut up, you know you have one too; it’s probably right under a fan and next to a pole so that you have a space to yourself, at least on one side….), I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to check out its features.  These new treadmills have TV screens mounted on them, and while I don’t watch TV while running (favoring instead the pounding beats of electronica in my earbuds), I’d seen someone else watching something that looked like a trail speeding by as if a camera was mounted to a runner’s head.  As I scrolled through the menus I saw, sure enough, a list of virtual trails.  It turned out that I could run the streets of Chicago, The Badlands, or any other of a number of trails, the incline of the treadmill set to match the terrain of the video.

Intrigued, and by the sample video, I chose Zion National Park in St. George, Utah as my run of the day.  For 50 minutes, I watched landscape after beautiful vista flash past on the screen, almost oblivious to the music blaring in my ears.  Every view was awesome…and I mean that in the Oxford English Dictionary way, NOT in the style of a 16-year-old cheerleader named Britney.  As my run came to a close, I made a mental note that someday, I’d have to get to Zion to see it for myself.  I’d never really understood the phrase, but judging just on the video track, I thought that if God could have a country, that would be it.

As my birthday approached, and I found myself in the middle of yet another funk, the Old Man asked me what I wanted to do for the occasion.  My answer was simple.  I wanted to GET. THE FUCK. OUT OF DODGE.  It’s no secret that I hate this place, and travel anywhere tops my list of things to do, so faced with the prospect of new jewelry or an adventure, I’ll choose the adventure every time.  We waffled around a few different ideas, Coeur D’Alene, Napa, the Oregon Coast, but I soon remembered Zion.  The idea that I’d get to fly somewhere, and, on top of that, spend a weekend outdoors, without a TV, hiking and sightseeing soon overpowered the other options.  Using Expedia vouchers and money I’d set aside, we booked a pretty sweet package for Memorial Day weekend….weeks after my birthday, sure, but worth the wait in every possible way.

We got in to our hotel (a private casita in a very posh, gated community) quite late, and, after admiring our luck of the travel package draw when it came to rooming, we conked out, excited for the next day.  As the sun came up and I flicked the switch that opened the blinds (There was a switch for EVERYTHING!), I looked out onto our patio to this view:

 

Not too shabby, huh?  From that moment forward, everything got better.  A quick Starbucks breakfast on the fly saw us to the highway and we headed into Zion, each turn setting the canyons into a different postcard backdrop.  We arrived in about an hour after driving through a teensy town that looked exactly like you’d picture it with B&Bs abounding and kitschy souvenir shops hawking rocks and Indian artifacts and handmade silver jewelry.  We parked the car and hit the trails.

 

Over the course of the long weekend, we hiked Angel’s Landing (one of the hardest trails in the park) The Emerald Pools (Upper, Middle and Lower), The Grotto, Weeping Rock, The Kayenta Trail and countless other little paths in and through the park.  I was in my own little piece of heaven.  The landscape was more amazing in person than any photograph I’d seen, and the photographs were what sold me in the first place.  As the sun arc’d through the sky, the colors on the rocks changed, and at sunset, it was as if everything was on fire with light; a spectrum of reds and yellows and dusty browns to put Crayola to shame.  With every new view, I reasserted, “We HAVE to come back here.  Three days is NOT enough.”  And it wasn’t.  Each hour brought something new to our attention.  The possibility of camping to get an earlier start, to do harder hikes, to get further into the canyon, to spend a day traveling to Bryce Canyon to see Thor’s Hammer…..  I couldn’t get enough, which astounded me, considering how far away from a beach I was.  Even the Old Man, a couch-potato and disdainful of any type of physical exertion not involving a ball stopped me to voice his own gladness that THIS was what I’d chosen.

I am a traveler at heart and wanderlust burns white-hot in my heart.  I’ll choose any foray, anytime, anywhere just for the experience, but I was unprepared for the SOUL of this trip.  I wasn’t ready for the beauty or the magnitude or the simple quiet peace of it.  It took me by surprise and stole my breath.

Not bad for an idea that came off the back of a treadmill, eh?

Addition Through Subtraction (R11 #4)

Shenendehowa Central School in Clifton Park, NY had two junior high schools when I was growing up.  7th graders funneled in each year from 6 or 8 different elementary schools, and then, eventually, into one high school which housed a little under two thousand kids.  This arrangement has since changed and another high school added, but, for the purposes of my conversation, we’re talking about what it looked like in 1993.  The two junior high schools sat about one quarter mile apart**, and while self-sufficient with individual staffs, it wasn’t entirely uncommon for students to need to pass to one or the other for a specific class.  One such was a typing class taught by the high school musical advisor.  Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’d walk the path to her classroom with my girlfriend S and we’d “ASDF JKLsemi!” until our hands cramped.****

To get there, we’d walk down a paved asphalt path, direct from the back door of one school to the front door of the other.  There was a mostly clear view in between, except for a stand of trees in between which allowed for a minimal amount of cover for the performance of any number of illicit activities.  On a cold, early winter day, not far into the cover of these firs, S and I spied, on the ground, a rather flattened half-packet of Marlboro Reds.  Cowboy Killers.  We were thirteen years old.  We were unaccompanied, and, out of our circle of slumber party sisters, we tended to be the most out-spoken and anti-authoritarian.  We, of course, picked them up. 

The cardboard was damp, and condensation clustered in beads on the inside of the cellophane that protected the bottom.  Marlboro was running its “miles” program then, and this box was worth 5, said the UPC strip on the side.  We flipped the top and discovered nine or ten misshapen and sorry looking cigarettes.  Mangled, but dry and still very much smokeable. 

I remember little of the ensuing conversation.  Was there a decision-making process?  Any peer pressure?  Or were we automatic?  Did we simply light one with S’s lighter (for incense!) and begin….  What I do remember is the reflexive contraction of my lungs around the smoke from my first tiny puff and the instant high and subsequent growl of my stomach.  The head rush hit me and I liked it.  Emboldened, I took a drag.  Well, no, not a drag, but

A DRAG.  A sexy, take-the-smoke-into-your-mouth-and-then-deep-deep-deep-into-your-lungs DRAG. 

I thought I was going to die.  I was greensick for the entirety of my class and straight through to the dinner hour.  The coughing fit alone had me burping smoke for the next hour.  You’d think I’d’ve learned my lesson. 

That was my First Cigarette Ever.

Soon after that, smoking became a thing I did.  I bought in.  It was cool.  Badass.  I liked the feel of a ciggy between the fingers, the look of it, the style.  I liked what it did to my voice, and how it helped me to meet people, to talk to that cute boy I liked; how it set me apart from the smart kids that knew me and turned me into a puzzle, into that NerdGirl Who Might Be Okay To Invite Anyway Because She Smokes?

Smoking gave me courage and moxie, and helped me to pretend into the Devil May Care chick that many people will describe me as.  It was my cover, my costume.  With a cigarette, I was incognito.  Untouchable.  Adult.  I smoked my way through high school and college.  Lit one off another at raves and kept one burning in the ashtray behind the bar I tended.  Trips were measured in the number of cancer sticks it took to get there and page after page of English paper typed over steaming Earl Grey and a box of Parliaments. 

I was well and truly addicted until the day I decided to stop. 

My Last Cigarette Ever?  Smoked in the wee hours of January 1, 2011. 

Aided by a hangover and a promise to my diabetic Dad (who traded my lungs for his health) I let go of cigarettes.  Oddly, it wasn’t the trial that it always had been before, the uphill battle to fight nature and social unease.  The cigarettes just kind of went softly into that good night.  Maybe it was time, or a change in something in me.  Perhaps it’s because my iPhone gives me something to do with my hands in awkward social situations, I’m not too intent on finding out.  The fact is, I said I was going to, and I did, and out the door stepped a habit 18 years in the making. 

 

 

**The Reader should note that distances are based on my current memory and can’t be counted on as exact.  I haven’t been back to the campus in  a certain number of years, so we’re looking at these things through a teenager (and barely).  Objects In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

****It also MAY have been an English class…after a certain number of years, the photo begins to turn to sepia around the edges….

And So On….(R11 #3)

A Moment In Time:  Tell us about one moment that you lived in 2011 that you will never forget

 

It involved this little guy:

 

His name is BAM and I am his Tante Jen.  See that little bow tie he has for a mouth? It was photocopied off of his mother who has been my best friend since the day we shared bong rips over bowls of Velveeta on a cold winter day in Plattsburgh, NY a little over 13 years ago.  He looks just like her and is as picky an eater;  I laugh in glee as a toddler version of her nose crinkles and pokes itself in the air when offered scrambled eggs or smidges of chicken cutlet.

We set out intrepidly, that day, he and I, on his first trip to the beach.  In the back of my head I prayed little prayers that we’d be okay by ourselves.  Unsupervised.  De-safety-netted.  He’s a fussy kid, moody like his mom, and up until that day, I hadn’t ever spent time alone with–let alone In Charge Of–any kid under 4.  I talked to him like a crazy person, my voice pitched about an octave above it’s usual register, rattling on about nothing in particular.  As I carried his stroller down the stairs to beachfront, telling him about the time his mother peed her pants on a beach in Montauk because we were laughing so hard, a gentleman of an advanced and indeterminate number of years commented:  “One day, he’ll be carrying YOU down those stairs!”  The implication was that I was Mother, and I wondered if this guy was looking at the same babe I was carrying in my arms.  (Seriously kids, look at the picture, he’s like, Hitler Youth, and I’m all, well, Hitler.)

I set the stroller down not far from the promenade steps (the “perfect” spot is MUCH easier to find when you’re faced with the necessity of carrying a stroller with you) and unbuckled Little Mister and took off his teensy socks.

For 45 minutes, I forgot my unease.

We sat in the sunshine and I introduced him to the feel of the sand and the joy of the tide as it washes smooth footprints, only to run back to its home in an endless game of tag with your toes.    His eyes lit up with laughter at the flight of tiny crabs from his touch and I saw what it looks like when a person, a littletinyperson, is amazed by the ocean for the very first time.  Not a tear was shed as I told him my stories, and hand in hand we picked up beach flotsam, shells and smooth rocks that we lost somewhere on the walk home.

That 45 minutes felt important and large and part of a whole.  My best friend had a baby, and as he grows older and we grow old, he’ll hear all my stories again and know them by heart and this was the day that the playback started.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ssssssss

Uphill, Both Ways (R11 #2)

Oh Issues!  Oh Guilt!  Where to start?!  What to reveal?  There is a part of me that feels that to write honestly on this prompt is a sort of betrayal; treachery to my family and the unspoken rule regarding Our Business.  My parents are not bad people.  An odd couple, for sure, and co-dependent in equal measure, each doing his/her part to allow the other indulgence in his/her respective vices, but not bad…certainly not vindictive or morally corrupt.  They’re just flawed human beings and as such, I have no shortage of things that I would approach differently.

You should know, Dear Reader (and many of you already do) that I am no fan of loin fruit.  My distaste gently mellows with age, and I’m certainly not as opposed to shooting a warm bag of Jell-O out of my vagina as I once was, but there’s a certain amount of commitment involved in child-rearing that I’m loathe to take on, especially considering the No Returns policy and the teenage years.  I used to like to say that kids annoyed me and that they were all snotty, bacteria-breeding parasites.  It was kind of my thing.  But as years wear on and I find myself smack in the middle of a demographic defined by Baby Fervor, I realize that I’m not so much a critic of the babes themselves as I am of BAD PARENTS.   I tell you that not to judge PARENTS (which I do freely and without apology, by the way) but to tell you THIS:

I’m scared that I would be a Bad Parent: That I don’t have what it takes to change in myself the one and most important thing I would have my Hypothetical Children (a boy and a girl, close in age, perhaps twins) experience differently than me.

That they get to BE children.  That I, their mother, am certainly, and firmly, able and equipped to do the job, and that nothing (NOTHING) has anything close to that capacity to stand in the way.  That my loves, my distractions, my jobs, my ISSUES are all a distant second to doing everything necessary to assure them to THEIR MARROW that they are CARED for.

I always had what I needed as a kid.  I wasn’t neglected or starved, but I did grow up identifying and knowingly compensating for each of my parents’ emotional inabilities.  My father, a kind, patient and supremely masochistic man met and fell in love with my beautiful, whip-smart and scathingly scarred mother almost 40 years ago.  His driving need to be loved and not abandoned gelled well with her need to feel superior and they forged a marriage on an unspoken agreement that he would love her and hold her above all else as long as she would never leave, and she would never leave as long as he was willing to remain suppliant to her every harangue.

I was raised, you see, feeling bad for the way my mother treated my father, and so, grinning and bearing her treatment of me and excusing his refusal to disallow her abuse.  From a very young age, my father was not my father, you see, but a peer, a partner in misery.  We worked together to maintain the delicate balance of my mother’s mercurial moods, and for him, I forgave her sins, knowingly only that some days, he had it worse.

Those relationships evolved as such things are wont to, and I became more and more a caretaker, praying for soft seas and only silently steaming against a woman who couldn’t seem to keep her hands off a vodka bottle or little pink pills or me.  For years, it was he and I against her, and only recently have I realized that it was never really my side he was on, but hers.  That each time he apologized for her or made an excuse or asked me to tough it out, he left a scar the same size of the ones she left with her words or metal spoons.

Their feelings and hurts and relationship were always more important than my emotional, and oftentimes physical, well-being.

And so my railing against screaming babies and outspoken toddlers has much less to do with annoyance.  That’s just the blanket I cover everything in.  Underneath it, I turn on my flashlight, and survey the scars dealt me by each parent. I’m painfully doubtful of my own abilities to overcome them, that my children, those dark-eyed twins, never have to run barefoot over them on tip-toe, careful of an unseen and treacherous balance.

Out! Out! Damned Spot!! (R11#1)

One Word:  Encapsulate the year 2011 in one word.  Explain why you’re choosing that word.  Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2012 for you?

 

 

I came very close to blowing off this post.  Skipping it.  Or at least putting it off until tomorrow…without genuine intention to pick it up again.  There was a list, a bunch of “WHYs” and, at the top, the reality of my recent state of mind.  The spinning, whirling mess and the endless drop to the bottom.    I remembered last year’s journey and how my mostly one-sided musings circled the same two or three topics…30 days of endless loop, staring at each thing from all angles and shining the light of 360 degree surveillance on them in hopes of coming to some manner of clarity.  Some days I was rueful, others sardonic, but mostly I was optimistic: hopeful for brighter days ahead and certain that I’d taken something from those experiences to guide me forward.  It turns out those December days were postcards from the edge.

Looking down at the things circling the bowl labeled 2011, I wondered seriously if they were the types of things I should be sharing out loud.  I imagined the pity party and the well-intentioned “We’re All In This Togethers”.  Imagined post after post of maudlin mental vomit and then the subsequent nose-dive of friends and followers; people fleeing the scene of the crash to keep out from under the swirling black cloud that’s been plaguing me.

But the stark reality hit not long into The Making-Of-Excuses and I jolted to and began typing:  My bread is buttered one way only, and that is with a blunt knife.  My niche, you see, is the truth.  The Self Truth. The uncensored description of the crazy that I keep in my closet.    Why on earth would I start keeping secrets now?   I’m not published, or accomplished or professional.  I don’t have a book, or an idea for a book or a million followers.  What I do have, what I’m not lacking, is my truth and the lantern I shine on it, and I fancy that’s what keeps the few readers coming back. In the end, I may not know what’s going to come out of my mouth next, but I do know that it’s going to be as close as I can get it to The Big T.

So FUCK IT!, I say.  Fuck it, and let’s see what comes out in the wash.  In for the penny, in for the pound, and kids, Mama’s got some shit to get off her chest.

So with that, you should know that my word for 2011 is MELANCHOLY.  I had some amazing experiences and saw some extraordinary things.  I laughed out loud and fought even louder.  I took leaps and made efforts and conquered smoking (Adieu, Parliament Lights!)  But over it all, clouding the lens, peeing in my cereal, was my old friend Depression.  She’s camped out even now in the deep recesses: over a table and under a bare fluorescent bulb, wearing green fatigues and smoking those Parliaments…planning her next guerrilla attack.  Over the next 30 days, if last year is any indication, I’m going to be introducing her to you, so here’s your fair warning.  She walks around with a half-empty bottle of vodka and no makeup, and most of the time she forgets to shower.

Last year, I wanted Renaissance, but got instead, rain my parade.  I’ll be damned if I let that bitch squat where she is for another 365.  This year?  2012?  Light.  Let there be light.

Please.