Sunday, October 27, 2013

One Lesson

She wouldn’t eat a banana in the teachers’ lounge.

The blue mat underneath me was dusty. I slid my white socks back and forth along the gold wrestling ring and they picked up the tan residue. She talked about sexism, harassment. In PE class, at fifteen years old, I hadn't met enough of the world yet to know what those two things were, really; but a boy had just told me in the lunchroom that if I kept scratching my mosquito bite tits, maybe they’d get bigger. I knew what it meant for somebody to make you feel bad about yourself. About being female.

Even when you’re a strong woman, you have to be careful, she said. I felt embarrassed when she talked about herself in that way, but also curious to hear an adult speak so candidly. She was teaching us about self defense. I couldn't imagine how a woman that seemed that strong--someone who coached and who commanded the attention of the entire school--ever felt vulnerable.

She wouldn’t eat a banana in the teachers’ lounge. Even a woman like her who didn't take shit from anyone. It was enough of a boys' club that she changed her own behavior because it was easier than dealing with harassment.

She died this week. A retired teacher from my high school who was in her sixties. My PE teacher and our former Activities Director. When I started this essay it was going to be about how unfair it is that strong people can get shitty diseases like early onset Alzheimer's.

It is, but this isn't about that anymore.

This week I ate lunch with my fellow teachers at the same school--the one where she had been made uncomfortable almost twenty years ago, the one where I now teach--and a friend asked me, "Did you hear how she got her dementia?"

Got her dementia. That's not a thing you hear people say. Several people in my life either have dementia or early onset Alzheimer's, but it's generally not a thing we talk about someone getting.

Over the last few weeks when my grandma went rapidly into dementia symptoms, my family spent a lot of time agonizing over how suddenly and inexplicably her brain seemed to cloud. The doctors were stumped. She had a broken tailbone, but she was incoherent. It took tests upon tests upon tests until they finally found pneumonia, and started to treat her with antibiotics. My dad explained over the phone that often it's an infection that can cause that speedy confusion older people. He calmly told me how we hoped she could return to her pre-illness mental state once the antibiotics took effect. "But we don't always know," he said. "The brain is a tricky thing." Grandma's dementia came from pneumonia. Apparently a bladder infection could do the same thing. To your brain.

Sometimes I think about how fragile we all are and I'm amazed we can even walk around.

"Did you hear how she got her dementia?" my friend said, at lunch. "She got knocked out by a student when she was breaking up a fight."

I sat there with my mouth open. I'm not sure how I thought I would feel, or that if thinking she died of early onset Alzheimer's of an undetermined cause was somehow better. And even now, I don't know which version is true. It doesn't matter. Her death is a sad loss. She was gone to those who loved her before she died, and she died young. As my friend talked about the brain trauma that might have caused her dementia, all the teachers in the room got quiet. And we stayed quiet. Because her death--either way--is a confirmation of our worst fears. Either we are vulnerable because we are, or we are vulnerable because of the work we do. Which was hard to accept, given the fact that we had to get up five minutes later and walk into our classrooms.

When the Newtown school shooting happened last December, I struggled a lot with my feelings of vulnerability in the classroom. I asked myself a lot of questions in the days that followed: Would I stand in harm's way to protect my students? Yes. It's what I would hope someone would do for my own children. Would I be able to stop a person who came into my classroom and wanted to do harm to me or anyone else? If I'm being honest, probably not. Would I die trying? If it came to that. I can tell you those are not decisions I thought I'd be making when I got my teaching credential at twenty two years old: Would I die for this job? Would I die for someone else's child?

This seemed different. In that moment I think I was asking myself if I could die just for being there. There are a lot of safety measures in place to keep people out, but when you're dealing with humans--including students--it's complicated. They, especially, are complicated. I think we're afraid to talk about when the risk comes from inside the classroom.

This week two teachers died at schools. I don't know the details because I'm too mired in writing my thesis to watch the news. I think this is probably a good thing, based on my history of anxiety.

There's something to the fact that all our biggest uncertainties and self-esteem issues are concentrated into our teenage years. Into high school. Sometimes I feel like even the physical space boxes kids in. Our most painful, awkward, hyper-aware years are confined to that place. This makes high school show up again and again in fiction, TV, movies. People are always trying to work out their issues. Each time I hear another news story about a high school shooting I think about the kids I know that are completely unable to process pain without lashing out. And always--always--when these things happen, I internalize it, wonder if that could be my school. Me.

The brain is a tricky thing.

I didn't know this teacher who died very well. She was a presence on campus, for sure. She was a role model to me. She was an amazing teacher. But I didn't know her personally on any level. I realize now that I watched her just like my students watch me. Exactly the same way that makes me crazy sometimes. That's the one thing about my job that I think might finally drive me out someday--the feeling like I'm constantly being scrutinized, discussed, analyzed by people whose brains haven't yet had the benefit of engaging with a full world. It's the nature of the job; it's what we want them to do all the time--turn forward, look at me--and it means a kind of hyper-scrutiny that can become difficult to live up to.

But I watched her. I watched her from my roll call spot on the wrestling mat while she walked up and down the aisles, checking off who was dressed for PE and who was not. And I watched her while she sat on her knees and talked to us about why she wouldn't eat a banana. I wish I had a more significant specific memory of her than that, but she taught me twice about how we are vulnerable.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Yoo Nork

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E and I are back (as of yesterday) from New York. Brooklyn, specifically, as I chaperoned another Mock Trial team from my high school at the Empire Mock Trial Invitational, and this time E decided to tag along. This was his first trip to New York--in fact, his first trip on the east coast at all.

It was a busy trip--and a marathon of one. We were gone five nights and only had hotel rooms for three of those nights. The other two were travel and/or stay-up-waiting-to-travel nights, so I'm pretty worn down. But once again I got to spend time with some amazing teenagers doing good things, and I got to see even more of New York. Our team didn't end up placing in the top ten because we lost our last round, but two of our kids won top witness awards. One of our students was the highest scoring witness in the competition. As usual, they all represented our school well. I was pretty proud.

(And who doesn't like traveling with polite, smart, well-behaved kids?)

E and I were able to also have a night off (thanks to the other chaperone) to have dinner with our friend James and his wife, Bonnie at a place in the East Village called the Brindle Room. (James and Bonnie got married at the most beautiful wedding in Carmel this year, remember?) After dinner I dragged E all around the city until my feet had blisters and he had his fill of humanity. I was on a mission to see Grand Central this trip, though, and I figured E should see the spectacle of Times Square at midnight. Done and done.

E spent the next day at the Natural History museum and Central Park while I was with the kids. That morning I also had brunch with one of my professors, the lovely Elizabeth Crane. Not only did Betsy deliver on someplace "cute and Brooklyny," as I requested, she herself was just the encouragement I needed to come back home and get to work on the last few weeks of my thesis. I am incredibly lucky to have met so many wonderful people in this MFA program, and it does not escape my notice that I am fortunate enough to have a Betsy in my life. (Or, as my children call her, a "Mrs. Betsy.")

The team wrapped up the competition Sunday, followed by the awards ceremony and the Mock Trial dance (woot woot--I stayed away; I knew I could not control my groove thang and did not want to scare the children). Monday we spent all day being super touristy. Like, double-decker bus touristy. I loved it. I saw more of the city than I've ever seen before.

Did you know the building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was is still there? Until Monday, I did not. Saw it. And the U.N. And the Flatiron Building. And Parson's. And, you know, everything. I SAW ALL THE THINGS.

Monday's sights: lots of Brooklyn via bus, downtown Manhattan via bus, Rockefeller Plaza and Times Square (again), more bus, 9/11 Memorial, took the subway back to Times Square to drop off the kids at a show, some shopping for our kids, then back to the hotel.

After about midnight, Tuesday, things started to get a little hairy. I'm not so good when I don't sleep in a bed or eat on a regular schedule, neither of which was happening that night. I'd say the low point for me was when we checked in at LaGuardia at 3:30 AM and then TSA wouldn't open security for another hour, so we had to sit in the food court with the sleeping homeless people and listen to the escalator screech every 70.2 seconds. (Here's a pic of me, that night.) But, you know. Bygones.

We made it home. Our kids were so happy to see us. We had a wonderful trip. If you need me, I'll be sleeping in my amazing bed for about a week.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Yeesh, life.

So my thesis draft got turned in on time. I don't think anyone suspected it wouldn't, me being me, but I feel like I have to mention it because it's been the biggest thing around here for a month or so.

So, yeah. 185 pages.

I just positively don't care, today, if that's possible. I mean, I'm glad it's done as much as it can be done--for now--and I didn't sit on my rump and drink Icees (like I wanted to do) and watch a shit ton of old (young) Paul Newman movies instead of writing. I did the right thing and I worked like a dog. And hunkering down like that came at a cost.

1. I am taking more than I am giving. Way.

I am annoying right now. To everyone in my life. I can feel it and there's not much I can do. I am not holding up my end of the bargain or making anyone's life easier right now, and I know it. And in some ways it's easy to go Yeah, no. Because, THESIS. But then things start to get bigger than who is cooking and who is or is not driving Addie to swimming every night. I know that I have to tell people no right now in order to survive, but I can't turn off the part of my head that makes that feel wrong.

2. I am a tired, tired teacher.

There's not much to be said about that except: lots of mornings, 4:45 AM, me, words. The result is that my patience for any kind of extra demand on my time is not thin, it is broken. Over. Kaput. Pfft. Unfortunately my entire profession seems to be about patience. And about doing things that are "extra" or "just because" or you know, "out of the goodness of my heart."

Heaven help me. So many things to do. There just isn't enough espresso.

3. So many nitrates being served at home.

I normally pride myself on our post-Michael Pollan era of food allergy acceptance and whole food cooking chez nous. Not so much right now. Bye bye, meals cooked from things that grow on plants. Hello, nights when I open the freezer and then we eat salty, salty blobs that go onto a pan in the oven. It's not long-term. Nobody is going to get ill from this. I just know exactly how bad this is (read: know exactly how much higher our sodium and assorted chemical content has risen) and I hate it.

My kids think they're on food vacation. We've never had so many things out of a box. And individual packets. Like Pop Tarts. Their first Pop Tarts. (You can imagine they're not complaining.) When Henry writes his memoir, this is going to be the fun chapter about all the sodium and corn syrup. The one where Mommy gets kind of weird and drinks a lot of milkshakes, too.

4. When I am not busy, I am hiding.

Rick Steves and Kevin Spacey are my new friends. That's healthy, right? I am not doing well around people. Even online, which is my go-to, what with the writing rather than the actual talking. I am avoiding. Eating my lunch in my classroom. Spending most of last weekend alone inside. Cave time.

...

But anyway (yes I buried this pretty low in the post... it took me a while to write my way in...) there's just too much real life happening that I don't really care about the thesis stuff today. My grandma has been unwell after a fall. In the time I went into my cocoon to work on my thesis she went from injured but seemingly okay to worse to really, really bad. When I finally emerged this week and could go to visit her, she's in the hospital, incoherent, and doesn't recognize family members.

What I told myself was the necessary selfishness of seclusion--of not being as present in the family just so I could get through writing my thesis on time--may have cost me some important moments with Grandma. It may not have; she may be fine but we don't know, but either way I have guilt about my choices and about trying to control things like timing. I'm worried for her, and for my dad and his brother and sisters. And I know I was already not dealing with things well before this week. Stupid things like groceries. You can imagine how I'm not dealing well with things that matter.

I can't stand selfishness, and even the thought that I was selfish so I could finish school is tearing me up.

Also: this past Saturday, E's grandpa died. We knew it was coming, but E is struggling. He's sad. I'm sad. And I'm so sad for him. E and his grandpa were very close. It's been hard. Right now I want to be there for E and I know that I'm not as sensitive to what he needs as I could be.

I was worried that I wasn't strong enough to write this book. Now I'm more worried that I was strong enough to write it and stay in my bubble for so long.

This is the messiest post ever. I just felt like I needed to get all this out. I'm not trying to have a pity party. Just sad that I know I'm not being everything I need to the people I love right now.

There's no wrapping this up neatly, is there? If you're a praying person, or a good thoughts-holding person, we could use them this week. Grandma EV. My extended family. Eric. His mom's family. Our kids. Me.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Where I've Mostly Been

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We're going to call the above "my office" for the purposes of discussion. This is the solution when you're into single digits before a big due date and your husband is out of town so it's you and the kids and you don't have an office and you lock yourself in the bedroom and you're like no, I mean it--don't come in unless one of you is bleeding; I'll be out at 11:30 to make lunch.

This is helpful, yes? #notevenmycat

Or, I've been here, sometimes. With other people's cats that stand on my books. It's way easier to get writing done when I'm out of my own house. Cats notwithstanding.

It's all thesis writing, all the time. I'm pretty sure my brain is broken. And not just from the book finishing. That's actually not as bad as I thought it would be. The whole "being PDawg" thing is really paying off in terms of accomplishing work. It's just the rest of life that is so demanding.

And complicated.

But anyway. I interrupt this long period of blog silence because I've had a string of unbelievable good things happening in terms of book reviewing. Last fall at my professor's suggestion, I started to think about the idea of doing some review work professionally. At the time it didn't seem like something that I could really do, but the encouragement was wonderful and I was excited about even the possibility. This spring I worked hard to learn everything I could about critical work, and I found that the more criticism I read (and wrote), the more I loved it. This summer, I tried really hard to stay on top of the opportunities that made themselves available to me in June at residency. I've been reading and writing like crazy for the last few months.

And in the last few weeks, I have had three reviews published. I'm ecstatic. Two on The Rumpus, and one on Bookslut. (Click the pictures to read the reviews.)





I have a few more coming up, too. To say I am thrilled is the understatement of the year. I have found my niche, what I love. Book reviewing makes my nerd heart sing.

So yeah. That doesn't suck. I feel so happy to be working for wonderful editors and happy to have my words out in the world.

Here's some of the wonderful life stuff that's been happening while I haven't been writing about it here.

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My good friend K was the Grand Marshal of our Homecoming Parade, I spent a lovely day visiting the Ferry Building in San Francisco, my awesome kids won some awards and have been reading like crazy (Henry at his sister's swim practice--hence the feet on the grey fleece). The monkeys finally discovered Harry Potter for real and it's been a real Nerd Fest over here. Ooh, and speaking of swimming, Addie is practically starting to grow fins... I see a lot of swim meets in our future. I think Hurley Dog can sense that something's up with me... he's been following me around with even more care and concern than normal. He will NOT leave my side lately.

How's that for a recap?

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I have a lot of nervous energy right now. Like, a lot. The kind of that if left unchecked, leads to too many hours online and too much WebMDing yourself or repetitively looking at nothing while you wait for the internet to come up with something new. I'm putting that angst into stitches. I finished one afghan last week and started this one (above) this week. Yarn over, pull up a loop. Might as well make something while I wring my hands.

The bags under my eyes have bags under them.

Mostly I've been spending a lot of time looking like a hot mess. And being exhausted, which is (I think) not fun to read about. I feel out of my mind in a way that I haven't felt since after my babies were born. That's the only thing I can liken it to--I knew then that I was not quite right in my head, but I also knew I couldn't fix it and I just had to get through each day and wait it out. That's the strategy right now. Just take care of each thing as it comes. Make lists. Cross things off. Use the calendar rather than my brain to remember.

For about six months I've been sad as all get out about graduating, not wanting to leave my friends and the safe harbor of grad school where I could go and play and learn and grow. All of the sudden I feel so emphatically like I want this phase to be over. So I don't want to leave anyone, and I know I'm going to be sad, but this quarter, working on my thesis while I try to teach and mother and clean the litter box and cook dinner and be the one who goes to Costco and remembers things is the hardest thing I've ever done. Never have I also felt so much the weight of my regular job keeping me in place. Felt so many aspects of it (the bureaucratic ones, not the ones having to do with kids) being so asinine. Even though I changed a lot of things about my work responsibilities this year, my job just is as it is and I don't think that even altering my course load really changed the nature of the work. It's just damn hard. Trying to do this right now while I teach--write a book--has really made me think a lot about how possible that is if I keep teaching high school. Of course, that comes with (as my friend Maggie would say) ALL THE FEELINGS.

My brain is broken, though. That's never a good time to sort anything out. I'm getting things done. I'm making it through. And I'm so exceedingly proud to see my name in a byline on multiple book reviews for wonderful sites. My family is rad and they are putting up with me right now. So that's all wonderful. And in two months I'll have an MFA.