Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lost and Found

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My six-year-old has developed a real affection for cooking.



He's become a pro at flipping pancakes and an expert at cracking eggs. More or less. So when I sat down to think up presents he might like this year, cooking gear was top of the list. As it turned out, that was a bit more challenging than expected. Plenty of stores offered tiny, babyish pots, pans and tools, but nobody seemed to have exactly what I was looking for, namely, tiny oven mitts. This may be because most people have the sense not to let a six-year-old stick his hands in a hot oven.

Yesterday was the day I set aside to finish up my shopping. Since I had a long and varied list, I started at K-Mart. If your goal is to squash the last drop of Christmas spirit right out of your soul, this is your place. I left with nothing more than a vague sense of anxiety and frustration. From there I headed to T. J. Maxx. My Christmas spirit was already limping and bruised. Two hours of aimless wandering later and it was on life support. By now it was pushing suppertime and I hadn't eaten since breakfast, so the plan was one more stop and call it a day. Heights Toy Center is only blocks from home, so that would be the final destination.

While they didn't have what I was looking for either, they were chock-full of what I had lost. Before I knew it, I was happily walking next door to Wordsworth, and across the street to The Toggery. And then around the corner to The Freckled Frog and on up Kavanaugh to Eggshells. As I walked, the cool air churned with a perfect sequence of delicious smells—Browning's Mexican Restaurant topped off with Starbucks. With each step, my spirits inched upward. As I shopped, the store owners and clerks took genuine interest in my search. If they didn't have what I wanted, they instantly suggested a neighbor store who might, like Kris Kringle kindly sending me to Macy's. If they did have something my budding chef might like, they patiently took me by the hand and showed me. Then they served me coffee and white chocolate macadamia cookies (dinner!). In each and every shop, there were more people behind the counter than in front of it. And all with smiles on their faces! I had stepped into a parallel universe.

When I returned to my car in the Heights Toy Center parking lot, I had a bag full of really cool child-friendly tools and a sweet "professional chef" apron, which I dropped off inside to have embroidered with his name. By the time I made it home, I still didn't have oven mitts, but what I had was much more valuable—a renewed sense of the season. Okay, I wasn't exactly thinking of baby Jesus in the manger. But I was thinking about the importance of simple human interaction, kindness, and peace. And I bet if Jesus had Christmas shopping to do, this is how he'd want to do it.



Merry Christmas! And if you find a pair of tiny oven mitts, give me a call.
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Monday, December 21, 2009

Southern Fried Sledding

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Kids who come up in the harsh conditions of the north tend to become hearty and rugged adults. Miserable and suicidal, but hearty and rugged. Kids who enjoy the milder clime of the south, on the other hand, tend to get creative.

Exhibit A:







Now why don't y'all come on in for a nice sweet tea?
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tradition

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Since moving to Arkansas seventeen years ago, I still feel a little uprooted around the holidays. You'd think seventeen years would be plenty long enough to establish new traditions of my own, but turns out, it's not. The only reliable patterns that surface year after year are the inevitable knock-down-drag-out with my printer while making the annual calendars and my inability to book a flight to New York until ticket prices soar higher than Santa's sleigh.

A part of me still pines for the days when my big brother would come bounding into the bedroom I shared with my sister, loudly announcing the long awaited date, "It's Christmas! It's Christmas!" The day would then follow a predictable itinerary, which over time wore grooves in my long term memory. These days, rather than traveling comfortably in the groove, each year presents another opportunity to carve a new one. And this year, I think we're on the right path.




Motley's Tree Farm is the south's answer to a perfect Norman Rockwell family Christmas experience. It has all the things that say Christmas to me, just with a thick southern drawl. Before I sipped my first cup of complimentary cocoa, I knew it would be our new family tradition.


A One Tractor Open Hayride



Do You Smell What I Smell?



Here We Come A-Pig-Racing





When we finally headed for home, the tree that rode along with us was a living Leyland Cypress. When the season's over, we'll find a home for it in our yard. Maybe we can take root together.
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Friday, December 4, 2009

Family

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A couple of years ago I was in New York for Christmas, visiting with my fifteen-year-old nephew. I was admiring how he had transformed his bedroom, a room that twenty years before had been mine. The scene couldn't have been more comfortable and relaxed if Enya had been there, gently humming and rubbing my shoulders. For me, that is. What I didn't know was that he was inching his way out onto the skinny end of a limb. He was about to jump, crossing his fingers that I'd be there to catch him.

"Aunt Sue? Um. Did you ever, er, think I was . . . gay?"

"Honey," I said with gentle wisdom, "I've known you were gay since you were four."



You'd think having known he was gay since he was four I actually would have had time to prepare such warm and accepting words. But instead I think the brilliant response I dredged up was, "Uh, yeah." Even though I didn't have the right words on the tip of my tongue, they were always in my heart. Words like, you are perfect and I wouldn't change a thing about you. Well, maybe one thing. I've always secretly wished he was my son instead of my nephew.

The big news he was sharing wasn't really news at all. But what did surprise me was his courage. He was only fifteen when he came out. Fifteen! And his father—the strong, silent, scary type—couldn't have been an easy audience. I was as proud of him that day as I am disappointed by the New York State senate today. Their decision to reject the gay marriage bill makes me embarrassed to call myself a New Yorker. I guess Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor was right when he said, "You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate."

But just when a person could get good and discouraged, there's Laurie Berkner to give us hope. Smack in the middle of her Family video, she casually welcomes a gay couple. Just like it's normal.



Now if we could just get senators to watch Noggin.
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Sunday, November 1, 2009

I was made for loving you, baby

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Somewhere back in my innocent impressionable years, a babysitter with particularly poor judgment allowed me to watch a scary movie. Its title is long forgotten, but the fear of dolls it instilled is alive and well. I haven't been much for scary stuff ever since. My son, however, can't get enough. I won't even tell you how old he was the first time we introduced him to Michael Jackson's Thriller. My punishment for questionable parenting is the million times he's made me watch it since. When our YouTube screen isn't featuring MJ as a zombie, it's blasting something by his favorite band—KISS. Seriously, The Wiggles just can't hold a candle to Gene Simmons' blood-drenched tongue. Scooby Doo, Monster House, even roller coasters are some of his other favorite places to turn for a good thrill. Some parents discourage or even forbid this trip to the dark side. Not me. Because the scarier it is, the more often he's going to say, "HOLD MY HAND!" And I'll take all of that I can get.

I wasn't surprised when I asked him what he wanted to be for Halloween and he decisively announced: A mummy. Okay, I thought, how hard could that be? In a word—hard. In three words—really fucking hard. As with most projects, it started off fun—my six-year-old and his Dad working together ripping a sheet into shreds. Destruction's easy.



And at first, the construction was, too. I enjoyed the feeling that I was using my own hands to create something that would give my child happiness. I sat a little straighter knowing his costume wasn't coming out of a plastic Wal-Mart bag and instead would be dripping with his mommy's love and creativity.


Me, hour one

But about 20 hours and 178 needle pricks later, it was most assuredly not fun. And what it was dripping with was his mommy's blood and almost palpable bad mojo from a steady stream of seriously R-rated vocabulary.



Me, hour 25

Day One of the project kept me up until after midnight and only got me halfway there—just the pants. I started in on the top at 10:00 Halloween morning. We were set to head out Trick or Treating at 6:00. When my husband nonchalantly announced that it was 5:00, I wasn't even close. I began sewing like Lindsay Wagner on meth with Tourette's. My husband poured me a tumbler of wine and started on hair and makeup while I banged out a steady beat—stitch, cuss; stitch, cuss; stitch, cuss, cuss. At 5:55, he was pulling on the pants while I was knocking out my final frantic stitches.

At 6:01, he was here:



And just in case that adorably satisfied little smile wasn't enough to make all my effort totally worth it . . .


A few hours later, he was here:



Check, please.
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Monday, October 26, 2009

As long as I'm living my baby you'll be

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School, if done right, is equal measures education and inspiration. Case in point, one of the courses I'm taking right now called Reading and Writing about Nature and the Environment. We're reading Thoreau and Emerson, Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard—some of the very best writing ever done on the subject. As I read, I can actually feel the authors tugging at my shirttail, pulling me outside. Even in class, I find myself drawn to the seat nearest the window. It seems almost cruel to be stuck indoors talking about the ocean and woods and sky while thick slabs of glass and concrete (and Louisiana) obstruct our access to it.

This weekend, the shackles were dropped. We crammed the back of the station wagon with all the essentials—tent and lantern, logs and blankets, marshmallows and wine—and didn't stop driving till we hit a mountaintop. Curiously, we also brought along a bag containing enough size 5 boys clothes to wardrobe an entire Cub Scout troop. This proved a bit gratuitous, as my six-year-old returned home on Sunday night still wearing the same outfit he put on Friday morning. I think. It was hard to tell under the thick layer of mountain he smuggled out on his body. Hygiene goes the way of vanity in the woods. It's natural, after all, to drop the pretense of polite society when far removed from it. Which, when you're six, is about as good as it gets.

My child has splashed in the waves of the Atlantic and the Pacific, ridden horses at a ranch and roller coasters at Disneyland, fished in a New York lake and returned six months later to build a snowman in the same spot. His happiness is not in short supply. But I don't think anything will ever top camping.










In the woods, he is utterly happy. Complete. Aside from fire, sticks, and marshmallows, he doesn't need one thing.

Not even . . . me.

When you're camping, you can count on raccoons, maybe even a bear, but I never expected to be ambushed by independence. Right before my eyes, my little boy grew up. Hours stretched to days and he didn't need me once. He was inches away, yet I found myself missing him. Or maybe just missing being needed by him.

The temperature dropped below 40º at night. You might think sleeping in a tent in conditions like that would be unpleasant. But bedtime was my favorite part—snuggling close under the blankets for body heat. For a few hours, my little boy needed me. Even if he didn't know it.



Anybody buys him a sleeping bag for Christmas is dead meat.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Time to Love and a Time to Hate

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And so it begins—indoor recess season. Help me Baby Jesus.

In Pre-K, the children must have two thirty minute gross motor periods a day. They need it. And really, don't we all? If I ran the world, every single person would get outdoor recess every day, rain or shine. CEOs and CPAs would hang the closed sign on their office door, skip outside and climb on a jungle gym for twenty minutes. Then they'd have some animal crackers and a tiny carton of milk, topped off by a bedtime story and a nice little nap. Now wouldn't that be lovely? I speak from experience when I tell you—yes, it is lovely indeed. In fact, next to 2:35, recess is my favorite part of the day—having actual conversations with other teachers on the playground, breathing in some fresh air, getting a dose of Vitamin D, saying hey to Mother Nature.


Two teachers at my school at the start of recess.


The same two teachers, thirty minutes later.

And I'm dead serious when I say I think they need it every single day. I'd take them out to dance in the rain if I didn't think I'd lose my license. Come on, kids, grab yer galoshes; we're gonna make mud pies! That, would be awesome. But of course, that's crazy talk. Last year I got stopped mere inches from the door, by the school nurse of all people. Behind me stood an excited queue of kids, bundled up to experience the first snowfall of the season. But this is Arkansas, and there are laws in place down here protecting children from the menace of Nature. Southern children, as well documented by science, cannot endure temperatures below forty degrees and will die sudden and painful deaths upon impact with precipitation. So we were sent back to our room, me properly chastised and them thoroughly crushed. What was I thinking, taking kids out to play in the snow?! What kind of reckless monster am I? So indoor recess it is, if it rains, snows or is deemed too cold to go out—too cold being a ridiculously subjective term which I shall not discuss further for fear of angering the school district gods. While I thoroughly enjoy being outdoors, I'd rather not end up living there.

I'm sure there are a thousand perfectly peachy ways to handle indoor recess, but for the life of me, I can't seem to find a one. How does one manage allowing twenty four-year-olds to be physically active for thirty minutes in a confined area while still maintaining even the illusion of control? Yes, I admit it, I am a card carrying Control Freak and I cannot allow my classroom to turn into a mosh pit. Not unless they're willing to lighten up a bit on their Victorian attitudes about alcohol on school grounds. Seriously, just a little nip would smooth a lot of rough edges on a rainy Friday.

It's tempting just to let them watch a little TV—educational TV, of course. They'd be happy, and more importantly, they'd be still. But again, that pesky drive to remain employed clears its throat and shakes its self-righteous little head at me. Bitch. Okay, okay . . . gross motor it is—active, yet controlled. Go when I say go; stop when I say stop. I've got it! Musical chairs! Perfect.

Or not. I don't know what sadist invented this horrible little game, but I'm guessing it was Darwin. As it turns out, the whole object is to make every child in the room lose, one by miserable one, until they are all dejected and crying. In order to accomplish this goal, players must aggressively muscle their way into whatever chair they can wrench away from their weaker, slower and more polite friends. The eventual winner holds no special talent or athletic ability, aside from being the meanest badass kid in the room. Yay for you! You're gonna make us so proud in juvie! Or Washington.

Damn it's gonna be a long winter.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Café au Lait

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Well let me just be the first to commend New Orleans Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell. Bravo, sir! In this day and age of outsourcing, shoddy workmanship, and work ethics about as strong as a wet sheet of Charmin it is heartening indeed to finally find a man with the courage of his convictions! I praise you Justice Bardwell, and thank you for standing bravely on the lonely island of reason. Or . . . sitting.



In case you missed the story, thanks to Justice Bardwell's finely honed IQ, which is reportedly well into the single digits, another batch of "mixed race" children has been spared the difficulties of living. Whew! According to Bardwell, "There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage. I think those children suffer and I won't help put them through it." But instead of thanking him for his laser-like foresight, some reckless interracial couple is actually selfish enough to be upset that he refused to marry them. Of course this thoughtless couple should not be allowed to marry and produce offspring! Any reasonable person knows how insanely risky that would be. I mean, really, they barely stand a 50/50 chance of staying together! Who would take those odds?

I'm sure Justice Bardwell has researched this topic extensively, deriving empirical data from his "piles and piles of black friends." Did you know he even lets them use his bathroom! Just like they were regular people! Gosh, if only more people were so evolved. Imagine the world we could live in! One where the children of interracial couples actually might be accepted.



sigh
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"If you read someone else's diary, you get what you deserve." David Sedaris




Once upon a time, a grown man pulled on "green velvet knickers, a yellow turtleneck, a forest-green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles" and began the process of transforming himself into Crumpet the Elf. What he couldn't have known at the time was that he was also beginning the process of transforming himself from talented unknown to literary superstar. Day after humiliating day, David Sedaris endured the indignities of working as an elf at Macy's, suffering miserable children and even worse adults. He let the experiences percolate in the twisted coils of his mind, then pressed them through his exquisitely sardonic filter. What poured out was an extraordinarily entertaining diary. One night, in a Chicago club, he read it to an appreciative audience, including, serendipitously, radio host Ira Glass. Glass mined the gold, showcasing Sedaris on his local show The Wild Room. And what happened next was NPR's Christmas gift to the world—in December 1992, Sedaris read his SantaLand Diaries on NPR's Morning Edition. It was love at first listen; he was an instant celebrity, earning a two-book deal and regular appearances in Esquire and The New Yorker. To this day, when he's not busy writing or reading from one of his many best-sellers, he can be heard on Ira Glass's nationally broadcast This American Life.

My husband gave me tickets to Sedaris's recent reading as a gift, and to be honest, I was skeptical. A hundred bucks to listen to someone read a book? The frugal part of my brain was giving the gracious part some serious lip. But as you probably guessed already, he was right. As always. Sedaris may be the most brilliantly funny writer alive, and he's an even better reader. To understand how much better his stories are read in his own voice, ask your partner to rub your back. Then pay the sixty bucks and let an actual massage therapist have at it for an hour. Yeah, that.

I won't sully his words by trying to retell one of his stories, especially not the one about the strawberries and the case of condoms. Instead, I'll just encourage you to treat yourself to an amazing evening if you ever get the chance. In the meantime, a bedtime story for you. Enjoy.
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Monday, October 5, 2009

Getting a Woody

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Last week my husband sent me a link to his University classified ads. Usually, these links take me where I want to go—nice places like community garage sales or cheap iPods. My man knows the way to my heart. But not this time. This time, just a few seconds before clicking send, he apparently took up crack smoking. What other explanation can there be for the link he sent? A link that, inexplicably, took me to some nice lady who found some nice doggie who needs a nice home. I'm sorry; have we met? Because if we had, you might remember that I'm really not so much an animal lover. Remember, I'm the one who wouldn't even clean the fish bowl until it turned to paella. A dog? Really, honey? Really?

But then, ruthless manipulator that he is, he pulled out those three little words he knew I couldn't refute: Isn't he cute?



Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I guess he was sort of cute. But not near as cute as my couch, and its eight hundred dollars worth of fancy Cynthia East upholstery. So the topic was dropped, my husband entered rehab, and the doggie was forgotten. For about five minutes. And then he was ours.

My husband is right an impossibly, infuriatingly large percentage of the time. It may well be his worst flaw. This time was no different. Woody is a perfect fit for our family. I'm not even sure why, but I loved him instantly. And every day, I love him a little more. Weird, right?

Thank you, honey, for ignoring me and doing what you knew was right. Sometimes you know what I need before I do. I love you for it, almost as much as I love Woody.


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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Say Ack!


On a good day, my morning drive is timed perfectly to coincide with Dr. T. Glenn Pait's Here's To Your Health radio spot. His smooth velvet voice and genial authority are soothing as I hurtle my tiny car through the crush of SUVs zooming along Cantrell Road. There's just something reassuring about having a kindly old doc along when a fiery crash is imminent.

Except for today. Today, Dr. Pait, I'm afraid I had to pull over, grab you by the stethoscope and show you to the curb. Come on, Dr. Pait, seriously; what were you thinking? Have you run out of body parts to dispense advice about? Isn't Swine Flu sexy enough for you? Has it really come to this:



Black Hairy Tongue

Oh how I wish Ashton Kutcher were behind this nightmare. But it's for real. Black. Hairy. Tongue.

According to Dr. Pait, Black Hairy Tongue is a temporary, harmless condition resulting from an accumulation of debris, bacteria or other organisms on the tongue. Would vomit count as debris, Dr. Pait, because I just threw up a little. But I should be okay, because the second I got to work, I French kissed a bottle of Purell for twenty minutes and then gargled with boiling bleach.

This, Dr. Pait, is how people end up listening to Rush Limbaugh. At least they're prepared to end up wanting to puke.
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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Kindergarten: The Sequel

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Leo couldn't do anything right. He couldn't read. He couldn't write. He couldn't draw. He was a sloppy eater. And, he never said a word.


Leo is a late bloomer. As luck would have it, he's also fictional. He lives in the pages of Robert Kraus's classic children's book. But we live his story for real at our house. Our six-year-old is a late bloomer, too. He crawled late; he walked late; now he'll be going to first grade late. So I take offense at the New York Times' description of Leo as "underachieving." According to Merriam Webster, underachieving means that one fails to attain a predicted level of achievement or does not do as well as expected. Late blooming, on the other hand, is all a matter of timing—they get to the party with bells on; they're just fashionably late.

This is also why I took such offense at the interrogation I suffered at the hands of miniature Barbara Walters on the playground yesterday. Oh, she had all the hard-hitting questions: Why is he in kindergarten again? Well if he's six, shouldn't he be in first grade? I'm six and I'm in first grade. Will he EVER be in first grade?

I had a few questions of my own: Is your mother deaf? Does she not realize this may well be hurting my child's feelings? Are you always such a precocious little piss ant?

The instinct to swaddle my child in bubble wrap is unrealistic, maybe even unhealthy. But it's there nonetheless. It's filed right next to the instinct to inflict minor yet memorable pain on any child thoughtless or cruel enough to hurt him. Nothing serious, nothing that would leave a mark. (Especially on anyone under the age of eight. I'm going for vengeance, not a felony.) We're expected to shield our children from adult language; isn't it just as valid to shield them from the hurtful words of kids? This, after all, was the very kid I'd been worrying about all summer. Except I imagined her ugly, and a boy.

I admit it, my brain had some work to do when his teacher first brought up the subject. A parent doesn't just say, "Oh, awesome! My kid is failing kindergarten! Vo-Tech, here we come!" For starters, I had to politely ask the word fail to leave the room. Who needs the word fail any way? Then I packed embarrassment's bags and showed him the door, too. There's no room here for your kind, mister. Suddenly, things were getting roomy. There was space for words like opportunity and maturity.

Which brings us back to timing. Our son's birthday is August 13th, so he turned five about twenty minutes before kindergarten started. Other kids in his class turned five in, say, February, giving them eons of extra time to develop and mature. And everybody knows six months equals about ten years in little kid time. Malcolm Gladwell knows it. In Outliers, he says, "Most parents, one suspects, think that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. . . . It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years." If a kindergartner is struggling to keep up with classmates who had the developmental windfall of earlier birthdays, it can be a big mistake to assume he'll naturally catch up later. The struggle can cost the child his education, his self-esteem, even his life. Gladwell suggests that suicide is sometimes the ultimate price of this mistake. After reading that, I could clearly see another year of kindergarten for what it is—an opportunity, not a failure. And I thank both his kindergarten teachers for giving it to him.

About five minutes before our impromptu playground interview, our son's new teacher pulled me aside to tell me that everybody's noticing how much better he's doing this go 'round—his reading, his writing, his drawing. We see it, too. He's blooming.
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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Recoil

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Growing up, a major theme in our household was, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." My mother was all about tone. And the only tone she really wanted to hear from her children was a pleasant one. Sarcasm, whining, bitchiness and sass were all best muttered into a pillow in the privacy of our bedrooms. Even then, the woman could hear an eyeball roll and smack it back into place without leaving her seat.

All these memories flooded back to me in room 404 of Stabler Hall the other night as my professor discussed the importance of delivery in effective rhetoric. Rather than lecture, he let the music do the talking. We each got a copy of a mysterious song's lyrics and were instructed to guess the style of delivery. Was it man or woman? Fast tempo or slow? Country, rap, rock? Absent the artist's delivery, it was all up to our imaginations.

What would you have guessed:

I want to know how it'll end
I want to be sure of what it'll cost
I want to strangle the stars for all they promised me
I want you to call me on your drug phone
I want to keep you alive so there is always the possibility of murder later
I want to be there when you learn the cost of desire
I want you to understand that my malevolence is just a way to win
I want the name of the ruiner
I want matches in case I have to suddenly burn
I want you to know that being kind is overrated
I want to write my secret across your sky
I want to watch you lose control
I want to watch you lose
I want to know exactly what it's going to take
I want to see you insert yourself into glory
I want your touches to scar me so I'll know where you've been
I want you to watch when I go down in flames
I want a list of atrocities done in your name
I want to reach my hand into the dark and feel what reaches back
I want to remember when my nightmares were clearer
I want to be there when your hot black rage rips wide open
I want to taste my own kind
I want to be wrapped in cold wet sheets to see if it's different on this side
I want you to come on strong
I want to leave you out in the cold
I want the exact same thing... but different
I want some soft drugs.. some soft, soft drugs
I want to throw you
I want you to know I know
I want to know if you read me
I want to swing with my eyes shut and see what I hit
I want to know just how much you hate me so I can predict what you'll do
I want you to know the wounds are self-inflicted
I want a controlling interest
I want to be somewhere beautiful when I die
I want to be your secret hater
I want to stop destroying you but I can't
And I want and I want and I want
And I will always be hungry
And I want and I want and I want...




So, what did you hear? Who did you see?

For me, it was her:





But I was wrong. Give a listen and see how close your perception was to reality.





Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Deep End


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I love my job. I love my students. I love my hours. And I could pin June, July and August down and kiss them full on the lips. But as a teacher in the great state of Arkansas, my salary leaves a bit to be desired. With each passing year of service, the dollar signs inch ever so gradually away from the poverty line. But without my master's, by the time I retire my salary will still be in the same tax bracket as your average paperboy. Of course, we won't have newspapers anymore by then, so a teacher's salary may be in a class by itself.

Surprisingly, we're doing fine. Our ends are always neatly dovetailed. Jesus thought he was all that with his loaves and fishes trick? He should see what I can do with a bag of pasta and a can of beans. We don't need more money. Still, I've decided to go back and get my master's. Honestly, it probably has more to do with my ego than my wallet. It rubs me wrong that other people in my building are making more money than I am for doing the same job.

And so, last week, school began—both the one where I am the teacher and the one where I am the student. Immediately, a strange inverse relationship became evident between my confidence levels in each role. As a teacher, I'm kicking ass. Already, I have my new group well in hand and foresee a very smooth year. As a student, however, the tables are most assuredly turned. Other than mandatory "professional development" sessions, I haven't been on the receiving end of a lesson plan in a solid decade. It's daunting. I feel like I've just jumped into the deep end of the pool without my floaties. Meanwhile, all around me, everyone is kicked back on a chaise, slathered in Hawaiian Tropic, margarita in hand. In each class, I sit smack dab in the front row, biting my fingernails and trying to remember to breathe, while my classmates all look more like customers in the waiting room at Jiffy Lube than grad students. Maybe I'm mistaking apathy for confidence, but I really wish just one of them would do me a favor and quit acting so damn comfortable.

Here's a tidy example of the disparity between me and the rest of my classmates. Just last night, one of our professors expressed her concern that she had packed our syllabus a bit too full. A concern, I am not ashamed to admit, that I shared. So she offered to lighten the load by dividing the reading list among us. One group would read this stack and the rest of us would read that one. Before I could even get the sigh of relief out of my mouth, a twenty-two-year old named Jennifer chirped, "But I think we'd get a richer experience if we all read ALL the books, don't you?" Thanks for your input, Jennifer!

So I'll keep treading water, keeping my head above the surface until the doggy paddle comes back to me. I may never become Michael Phelps, or Jennifer, but I'm not going under either. Wish me luck.
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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Golden

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Before an actor takes the stage, well wishers tell him to break a leg. In my father's case, it was his good fortune to break an arm. After he did, his best friend, Art Connery, came by the hospital to visit. Art's girlfriend, Judy, tagged along.

Today, Judy and Ed celebrate their Golden Anniversary. And we celebrate them.



video



Thank you, Mom and Dad, for showing us what true love looks like.


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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Did you see God?

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I had spent the day at Six Flags and still hadn't quite gotten over it. My body held up remarkably well. At 44, I had my doubts. Three minutes on a playground swing and I'm left retching and wrecked. Other moms arrive and find me there, pale and quietly heaving. They cast a scornful eye at me, scan the ground for telltale empties, then usher their kids to the far end of the park. Even the rhythmic sloshing of the spin cycle is enough to set my belly on edge. Which is why I have no choice but to leave laundry duty to my husband.

But at Six Flags, my stomach was on its best behavior. We had an unwritten pact that I'd continue to fill it regularly if it promised not to surrender its contents in public. Or maybe it just understood that I was shelling out forty bucks for admission so it better not give me any shit. I know where it lives.

Instead, it was my psyche who decided to get uppity. I forgot to consult her going in, but she was determined to get the last word. It wasn't my fault, really. The trip to Six Flags was so spontaneous I didn't have time for a debriefing. Of course, in retrospect, I can see where she's coming from.

One minute, we were here:






A phone call later, we were here:



You can see why she may have been upset.

Sasquatch.

Sasquatch looms in the distance as you make your way north into Lake George. You see it there, a comfortable mile or two away, and think: Oil rig? Cell phone tower? Electric Substation? What you do not think is: Golly, in a minute or two my ass is going to be strapped to that motherfucker! You park the car, still a good mile from the actual park even on a slow day, and Sasquatch continues to rise in the horizon. It demands your attention, but in a completely nonthreatening way, like a Republican candidate on a presidential ballot. Oh, I see you there, but ain't no chance in hell I'm getting anywhere near you.



So imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting on Sasquatch's lap. I'm still not sure how it happened, but my money's on Rohypnol. The first thing I remember is an apathetic seventeen-year-old named Baku. He set aside his BlackBerry just long enough to give a perfunctory tug on the scrap of fabric securing the skinny metal bars assigned the responsiblity of stopping my body from becoming a projectile. I wouldn't say Baku was bad at his job, it's just that I give more focused attention to my popcorn in the movies. What with him keeping me on this side of the morgue and all, I hoped for that extra touch. Maybe just ramp up the enthusiasm to, I don't know, awake.

As soon as Baku had jiggled the fabric between all his prisoners' passengers' legs and returned to his Shakira video, we were ready. Three seconds later, we were teetering two hundred feet above Baku, my sister, my son, and what remained of my sanity. And there we sat, precariously perched on the ledge of a twenty story building.


(Me, seated third from right.)

We were held hostage, dangling in the clouds, for somewhere between ten seconds and eternity. If I were a bigger pray-er, that would have been the time for it, what with us being walking distance to God's house and all. But instead, I limited my activity to more pressing bodily matters, like coercing an eye open and a bladder shut. Not that peeing on the strap before Baku had to touch it again would have been the worst idea of the day.

Tom Petty knew what he was talking about. The waiting is the hardest part. Except for the dropping. After the torture of being held captive in another latitude, Baku has a sudden change of heart and releases you, allowing you to free fall back down to earth. Your body knows what's coming and does its best to escape, rocketing itself upward until it strains the metal bars thrown loosely over your shoulders. Miraculously, the bars hold. Your body isn't hurled into space as you are sure it will be, but a tiny splinter of your sanity is thrown clear.

That night, I curled up in bed with my five-year-old and told him all about being up there in the sky. Fresh waves of terror churned the pit of my stomach with each detail. All he wanted to know is, "Did you see God?"

Yeah, honey. I think I did.
. .


Friday, July 17, 2009

The Capacity of Hope

. .
I just went to the funeral of a five-month-old boy, the baby brother of one of my favorite students. I don't know the parents well, but the part of my brain where that fact is stored wasn't consulted when dread arrived on the scene. Between the day I first heard the news and the moment I arrived at the funeral home, dread had settled in, unpacked its bags and made itself good and comfortable. I've never exactly looked forward to a funeral, but there's a special brand of apprehension when it's the funeral of a child, a funeral no one should have to attend.

I set my brain on Hi and I waited, and hoped. I hoped that if I thought long and hard enough I might find words that would offer solace, but those words haven't been invented yet. I hoped that if I really tried to imagine their pain, I might come up with a gesture that could ease it for a moment, but again the bar was too high. So I headed to the visitation with a goal I thought I could actually pull off: Just be there so Ahkeem knows I love him. That, I could manage.

My brain had done its homework and ushered me into the funeral home well-prepared. The air was heavy with sadness, tears, impotent words of condolence and offers of help that would never be fulfilled. All the things I had been braced for. The open casket threw me a curve ball, but I cried only the appropriate amount and managed to get out without saying anything regrettable.

My brain, however, was unarmed for the task of prepping me for the funeral. It could find sadness and loss in its files, but what was coming at the church was not a part of the database. The funeral was held at a black Southern Baptist church. I am currently submitting applications to become Southern Baptist, and black. It, was amazing.

My only clue of what was to come was the line in the obituary where the family requested that guests wear bright colors, not all black. Now, it makes perfect sense: this was not an occasion for mourning, it was a celebration of life. The music, the words, the atmosphere were all laced with jubilation. There was sadness, sure, but the degree to which it was offset by joy was totally unexpected. How could there be anything in this room but grief and misery? I pre-set my dial to Grief and Misery mode. But this, I didn't even have a setting for.

So I sat back and watched, a marshmallow bobbing feebly in a pot of boiling hot cocoa. I watched the family, so numerous they filled the entire center section of the church. When the preacher said they shouldn't question God, their agreement was unanimous. When he said God had a plan, their acknowledgment was loud and clear. When he said they'd see their baby again in heaven, they shouted their belief so wholeheartedly they left no room for doubt. And that's when I understood.

I went just hoping to give Ahkeem a hug.



I left with a completely different hope: I don't believe in heaven today, but I hope by the time I need to, I will.
. .

Monday, July 13, 2009

A few things I learned coming up in The Depression

. .
A friend of mine has decided to start pinching her pennies. Something about the economy . . . blah blah blah. My ears glazed over at that point. All that economy stuff. Bor-ring. Anyhoo, she asked for some tips to help her save money. Why she's asking me I don't know. I'm not an especially frugal person. It just happens that some of my character traits end up inadvertently saving money, so I guess people confuse that with frugality. Perfectly normal things, like:

1. Patience: Most people just can't keep it in their pants. (I'm talking about their wallets, Mom. You have such a dirty mind.) They have to have the latest greatest thing yesterday. I'm good with tomorrow. Or some time after Thanksgiving. Where's the fire, people? If you can just hold tight for a few months, the movie's exactly the same at the fifty cent matinee as it was in the fancy schmancy first-run theater for $8.50. They don't change the ending or cut out the dirty parts or anything. All they cut out is $8.00. And the cleaning staff.



You can also take advantage of off season or off hour bargains. Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, for example, offers a P.M. Swim at about half the rate of going during the day. So there's a little more pee in the pool. There are also fewer UV rays in the air. A little pee in your mouth is a small price to pay to avoid skin cancer.

2. Humility: I had a really sweet car for a few years there and you know what, it only raised my insurance, not my self-esteem. If you get off on driving a status symbol, bully for you. We all have to do what makes us happy. But at our house, we park our hubris at the door and drive away in these:



Combined they cost under $9,000, cash. That's a lot of leftover latte money. If I bought lattes.

3. Pragmatism: This is my husband's cell phone:



He lovingly calls it his Phonosaurus Rex. I think his mom got it for him in case he ran out of gas driving to the prom. She's good like that.

This is my cell phone:




Because whatever you have to say to me, it can wait till I get home. (See item #1 above.)

4. Stamina: Malls are for pussies. Everything you need, reliably and attractively arranged in one place for your shopping convenience? Hell, where's the challenge in that? I don't mean to brag, but it takes an intrepid shopper to completely outfit a family, equip a house, and satisfy every gift-giving obligation from Christmas to Mother's Day out of the discarded crap strangers toss on their lawns every Saturday morning.



That, my friend, is dedication.

5. Courage: Before I added a hyphen to my last name and a dependent to my W-2, I was a free spirit in more ways than one. There were years when I traveled back and forth across the continent without benefit of airfare. Sadly, the days of creative travel are probably gone forever, at least for me. Instead of trying to stowaway on a plane or in a stranger's car, you might settle for stowing cocktails into places that would prefer to sell them to you for roughly the price of airfare. Might I suggest . . .

For the lady:




Or the popular unisex Beer Belly:





If neither of these solutions appeals to you, I can also recommend simply removing the vacuum pouch of your favorite wine from its box and slipping it into an emptied sixteen ounce Cheetos bag. Shhh . . . it's our little secret.

6. Adventurousness: I don't even want to know what you people are forking over for your fancy pool memberships. I personally can't imagine a bigger waste of money when there's a perfectly refreshing creek just right down yonder. And as long as we're out of there before sundown, we hardly ever see any Cottonmouths.





7. Tolerance: People have gotten too soft. Everybody's all comfort this and pleasure that. It would do us all good to toughen up a bit. I say, if it's 95° outside, 90° should feel pretty good by contrast. So there's just no reason to set the thermostat any cooler than that. You know those drastic temperature swings are nothing but bad for you, right? And in winter, there's no law that says you can't wear your coat and hat inside. Set that thing at 50 and find somebody to snuggle. Al Gore thanks you.

8. Traditionalism: I like electricity. I'm a big fan of sliced bread. And I'd totally like to shake the hand of whoever invented indoor plumbing, figuratively of course. But there's one convenience modern Americans can't seem to live without that I just can't wrap my head around:



$8.18? For water? Not a month's worth of showers and clean clothes and tended lawns, but three bottles. Of water. If I'm paying $8.18 for three bottles of something, then I better be drunk by the time I finish them. Otherwise, I must have been drunk when I bought them.

9. I'm sorry. I really intended to come up with a nice round ten for you, but I just have to stop now. Like most people these days, we generate our own electricity by peddling an exercise bike and my thighs are killing me here. Why don't you guys take over and do the next two. I could actually use a few tips to start saving money. It's not really something I've ever thought about.



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