Sunday, November 4, 2012

Putting My Foot Down

It was at our neighborhood block party, a chance for people who share a zip code to come together and be neighborly. I spotted a woman I used to teach with, so I separated from my husband and started to catch up with her. A man I've never seen before came up and began talking to me as if we shared some past. We don't. I was immediately uncomfortable, but because I am pathologically friendly, I kept the conversation going just long enough to not seem rude. I got out as graciously as possible and moved along. Within minutes, he was back. I can't quite put my finger on what was so unsettling about him. He stood a little too near, acted a little too familiar. He was off-the-charts socially awkward, probably mentally challenged, but I wasn't afraid of him.

Again, I brought our conversation to the most polite end I could manage and searched the crowd for a safety net. A minute after I sat by my husband's side, the man appeared. Completely oblivious to my mounting anxiety, my husband excused himself to toss some things in the trash. He seized his opportunity. Sitting so close our hips almost touched, he began talking about my flip flops. Wasn't it great that it was warm enough to wear them? Yes, yes it was. Could he see one? Well, I guess so. Could he see the other? Ummm, okay. I didn't want to be rude. What about my feet? Could he see them?

Not my actual feet. These are much more attractive.

"No, you don't want to see them," I said, my assertiveness growing with my fear. "They're dirty."*

"Are they soft?" he asked. "Two years ago, I used to feel ladies' feet to see if they were soft."

Yes, I'm sure you did, Sparky. Right before they locked you up.

"No," I broke it to him, "You can't feel my feet."

And still, I sat there. Still, I was afraid to hurt his feelings.

As I searched the crowd to see what county that trash can was in, he made his move. It wasn't until I saw his hand slowly inching toward my foot that I finally put my foot down. I bolted, grabbed my kid, and headed straight for the sheriff. After the man was removed from the area, other women came forward to describe similar scenes.

A whole day later, and I'm still confused. How much responsibility do we each have to help others maintain face? Where is the line between kindness and recklessness? Can we be nice without being vulnerable? And harder still: how do we teach our children to be safe without teaching them to be afraid? Don't talk to strangers, we tell them. And then we go out into the world and do just that.

I don't know what's right. But I hope I'll always choose kindness over coldness. I hope I'll always give others the benefit of the doubt. I hope my instincts will always kick in before it's too late. And I hope my son will learn that if someone tries to do something to him that feels wrong, he should get up and unapologetically haul ass.

*Tip: calling one of your body parts dirty is not a deterrent to certain subsets of the population.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Land of Opportunity

My first two nephews were born in another state. I had to travel to be with them. I didn't mind. I liked them. A lot.

Eventually, they moved back to New York and we were able to spend more time together.

They liked me a lot, too.

But then I had to go and meet some sweet talking Southern man. For years, I'd harbored secret dreams of living in the South, where Spanish Moss drapes the trees instead of snow. I wasn't leaving for him so much as seizing my opportunity to get south of winter. Moving was bittersweet, but I knew my new life would be exciting.

Right after that part where it sucked.

My Going Away Party. Doesn't it look fun!?

Love looks like that sometimes.

But sometimes, it looks like this.  

Now it's his turn. My nephew just moved to Arkansas, not to be with me so much as to seize the opportunity to spread his wings and fly. I'm just a nice, soft safety net stretched out beneath him. 

Welcome to Arkansas, Will. I hope your adventure is everything you want it to be, and that the part where it sucks for those you left behind is very, very brief.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


When our little boy was a baby, we used to call him Archie.  It's not that we're big All in the Family fans, but that he had this odd habit of arching in his sleep.  Sometimes, he'd arch until the very crown of his head rested on the pillow.  Like this:

 As you might imagine, we found this slightly disconcerting.

He's eight now, and still hasn't quite outgrown it.

It was his father, who has the infuriating habit of always being right, who diagnosed the problem: adenoids were constricting his breathing; he had to arch his neck to open the airway. We got a second opinion from the pediatrician, and a third from an ear, nose, throat specialist. The adenoids had to go.

At 6:15 yesterday morning, we headed for the Otolaryngology Center. My mind, however, had gotten up early and run to Starbucks for a few double espressos. By the time I caught up with her, she had already cataloged every possible scenario that could end in death, from anesthesia overdose to zebra stampede. She likes to be thorough.

Just as I was giving my mind a stern talking-to for being irrational and melodramatic, the nurse asked my son to step on the scale so they could calculate the anesthesia properly.

"See," I scolded. "They know what they're doing."

But then the nurse carelessly flicked the metal pointer into the wrong slot and announced my son's weight at a full eight pounds off. 

My mind smirked, smugly.  "Uh huh. Told you so."

The nurse handed my son a sticker, to lighten things up a bit.



Grave Digger. My mind nearly peed her pants. I was beginning to wish I left her home to make jello and put sheets on the couch.

When it was time for the surgery to begin, my little boy held the nurse's hand and walked right into the operating room. He got all the courage in this family.

It wasn't until it was all over and I got to hold him again that I could finally breathe easy.

Hopefully, he'll be able to breathe easier now, too.


Monday, April 30, 2012

Love is a Battlefield

I was pretty holed up inside my own head as I cruised along Cantrell to retrieve my son from school. The day had been intense—over two hours in a high-rise conference room coaxing old memories out of their comfortable shadows. I've never been deposed before, never been asked to transform dusty memories into legal testimony in an ugly custody case. If you've never been commanded to do it, count yourself lucky; it's miserable work.

"Do you recall, in 2004, when So-and-so did such-and-such?"

Ma'am, I don't recall what color underwear I put on this morning.

I did my very best to answer the questions, one more intimate than the last, as honestly as possible, the weight of the task bearing down on me relentlessly. I didn't fully appreciate the enormity of it all going in, the pressure of having actual lives depend on my fading memory, but it became painfully clear. Hours later, I still can't shake the throb between my eyes.  Like I need help deepening that groove, thank you very much. It's not fair, really, to put such a burden on a person, to ask someone to shoulder the weight of your mistakes, forcing them to hold the dust pan as shards of your broken past are swept out of the darkest corners.

The lawyers dredged up every lurid detail they could think of—sex, money, the most personal of personal habits. 

"Were you aware that So-and-so did this-and-that?"

A shiver went down my spine as scenes of my own sordid past bubbled up in my memory. What if the spotlight was shining down on it? How would I be reflected in the mistakes of my youth? How would you?

It seemed they wouldn't stop until they asked every question they could think of.

Except one.

"What do you think is best for the children?"

As I allowed my car to roll along on autopilot, I slowly became conscious of a familiar voice on the radio: Pat Benatar, belting out an anthem from my youth. I haven't heard the song in years, but the events of the day gave it new meaning:

You're begging me to go
Then making me stay
Why do you hurt me so bad
It would help me to know
Do I stand in your way
Or am I the best thing you've had

Believe me

Believe me
I can't tell you why
But I'm trapped by your love
And I'm chained to your side

Love is a battlefield

Yes, yes it is.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Love Made Visible

One of my students from last year came by my classroom today, a tiny white box in his tiny brown hand. He smiled, just a little, and offered me the box.

"What's this?" I asked, honestly confused. It isn't any holiday I'm aware of. He's not even in my class anymore.

"It's a present. Open it."

When you're a teacher, you get lots of presents from little kids. I go home with pockets full of dried up dandelions, each given with love. It really is the thought that counts. But when I opened the box, I found an honest-to-God present. It was so nice, I wondered if maybe he slipped it out of his mother's jewelry box when she wasn't looking.

"But . . . what's this for?" I asked.

"Because you were my teacher last year." He was so matter-of-fact about it you'd think teachers get presents from all their old students every day.

As I hugged him, I remembered how challenging he was last year, how many times he blew up with rage and frustration, how many times he ran out of the classroom and had to be dragged back in. I remembered all those times I had to hold him and reassure him that everything was okay. "I love you," I'd whisper. "You're safe here."

He seemed to need more TLC than most children. I was willing to give it.

I didn't even know he noticed.