21 February 2018

The Test

Price kept one test from the stack passed to him and sent the rest on to the students to his right in the auditorium.  His stomach turned a bit sour as he read the first question on the midterm test on the US Civil War.  How could he keep all those battles straight, how many were killed and how many wounded.  He flipped through the pages – Oh Jesus, a map. 

Price exhaled an audible groan.  Students glanced his way and then returned to their tests.  Price looked at the instructor and the graduate assistants, all of whom were glaring at him, including one walking up the aisle closest to his seat.  Quickly he looked again at the test, his eyes searching for words with meaning.

This was a survey class, American History, 100-level.  It was supposed to be easy, and yet, his stomach churned with sour bile, sweat beaded just about everywhere, his mouth was dry, his hands had gone clammy.  The syllabus stated this test was 30% of the course grade. 

These professors!  Always nitpicking the smallest details!  The war was the North against the South. It was simple!  Price understood the importance of learning the names of the major battles, the generals, even.  But why so many details?  Why the exact locations of each battlefield? 

He set his pencil down on the tiny, hinged piece of Formica that served as a desk, and wiped his hands on his jeans.
“Focus!” he whispered.

“Sshhh!” hissed the response of the graduate student monitoring the end of his row.

Price rolled his eyes and reached for his pencil, which careened off the Formica and onto the slightly sloped floor of the auditorium.  It rolled toward the stage.
Price stood, and the graduate student glared.  “Sit!” he hissed, a bubble of spittle flying.

“I need my pencil,” Price stood.  From all around came more “sssshhh” requests.  Despite them, Price clambered over knees extending into the narrow row.  He needed that pencil.          The graduate student handed him one, which he might have appreciated if it had an eraser and fewer teeth marks.  Regardless, the clock was ticking, and Price had not marked a single response.  He sat, his thoughts swirling like the bile in his stomach.  Most of them had nothing to do with American history.  He tried to focus, closing his eyes.  He tapped the pencil against his temple, tap… tap… tap…. Slowly, his mind began to quiet itself.  He became conscious of a steady scratching noise, at regular intervals, from his left. 

He opened his eyes and looked for the sound’s source:  the steady scratching of a #2 pencil.  The student to his left was prepared.  She was blonde and chubby, in a way that he liked because it meant a larger cup size of bra.  She was fairly attractive and answered question after question, barely hesitating.  Although he couldn’t see her face, she seemed familiar.  What he could see, though, was her scantron.  She was a lefty and didn’t block his view of her answers.
Squinting a bit, he tried to see them.  It wasn’t cheating exactly, not like some of his frat brothers did – crib sheets or memorizing tests from the boxes in the attic.  It was a glance, an opportunity – like when girls bent forward and you could see their glorious cleavage.  Yes, he decided.  It wasn’t cheating exactly.  He was simply taking advantage of an opportunity. 

The pesky graduate student who had given him the pencil was focused on students elsewhere.  It was now or never.  Price noted the first five answers with light ticks on his scantron.  He could go back later and bubble them in, but he needed to get all the responses he could before this blonde finished. 

He squinted again at her test.  Would it kill her to move her arm a bit?  Ah, a few more answers.  Swiftly he marked those and looked up for more.  The blonde flipped through the pages of the test booklet, then finding the front page, placed it on top of the scantron.

“No!” Price was positive he hadn’t said it aloud, but the proctor had heard it.

“Sssshhh!” he spat.

The blonde raised her hand, then stood, handing the test to the proctor.  Price felt himself deflating as student after student followed her lead.

“Five minutes!”  the proctor announced. 

Price bubbled in the answers he’d ticked, making them dark and complete.  He had 43 more to go.  Without referencing the test booklet, he began bubbling a random pattern.  He wiped his sweaty hand on his jeans, then continued bubbling.  It had to work, right?  Some of the answers were bound to be correct. 

A student jostled him, trying to get by.  It disturbed his train of thought.  He lifted his elbow to mop his brow and became conscious of a strong odor from his armpit.  He’d shower as soon as he got home, but hadn’t he put on deodorant that morning?

“One minute!”  the proctor announced, staring at Price. 

There were only two other students in the auditorium, and one was standing up now.  Price frantically marked answers, each a little more malformed that the previous.

“Hand it over.”  This was a different graduate student. 

“But I’m not done.”  Price continued bubbling.

“Time’s up.”

“Let me fin----“

But the graduate student had hold of the scantron.  Price’s pencil made a line down the length of it as his struggle to keep control of the paper was lost.

“But----“ Price called out as the proctor walked away with the unfinished scantron.  His hand clenched the chewed pencil, and then before he realized what he was doing, the pencil was flung, clocking the graduate student right where a small bald spot was forming on the top of his head.  Without waiting for the reaction, Price vaulted over row after row of seating, until he reached the aisle and could run.  Winded, he made it to the door, his breath coming in short rasps.  It was over.

24 January 2018

Creve Coeur

The bridge was the link that led to the rest of the world, the wide world beyond Creve Coeur.  It was a tall bridge, and the towers to which the cables were strung were visible from miles away, creating the impression that Creve Coeur was more of a landmark than it was.  Louisa could feel her heart quickening as the motorhome approached the bridge.  She’d rarely left Creve Coeur in the past forty years, and now, as the driver, her son, glanced at her, the same grin lighting up his face as when he was a boy, she exhaled.  An adventure was what he’d promised.  An adventure to see the Grand Canyon.  She hadn’t been as far as Chicago since 1972.
            “Here we go, Ma!” James hunched over the big steering wheel, effortlessly guiding the RV onto the bridge.  The river below flowed smoothly, small eddies turning back on themselves before unraveling and flowing forward.

The last time she’d left Creve Coeur and crossed this bridge, her husband Vincent had been the driver.  It had been the weekend of their thirteenth wedding anniversary.  They’d dropped off James at her sister’s for the weekend while she and Vincent went to Chicago.  Her mind drifted back.  The hotel had been nothing fancy.  She recalled stepping out of the bathroom, that Saturday afternoon, wearing a negligee she’d scrimped to buy.  Vincent had stood, wrapping his arms around her.  She missed his warmth, his strength, still.
            “You look good,” he’d whispered, his chin smooth against her ear.  He led her around the room, dancing to a tune he hummed, and then he’d laid her down on the bed, the late afternoon sunlight painting a thin line across the room as it reached through the barely-opened drapes.  Later, they’d ordered room service.  She remembered devouring a big steak and Vincent teasing her about her appetite before they’d gone to see Cabaret. 
Louisa shivered as her thoughts turned toward the Wednesday after their return, when Vincent’s car had been T-boned by a drunk driver after work.  There had been an abrupt quality to the phone’s ring that evening, as if the phone itself knew.  Louisa had hesitated, her hand hovering near the receiver.  She’d answered, despite her misgivings, despite the pot roast in the oven, despite everything that she could sense building behind the urgency of the phone’s ring-ring. 
There’s been an accident... very serious… county hospital… hurry…
Later, she’d regretted bringing James, wishing she’d thought to drop him off at her sister’s, but everything was moving so quickly, too quickly.  She hadn’t had time to think, to process.  He was so little, only four years old, not old enough for what awaited them.
Of the drive to the hospital, she’d later recall nothing, except for the moment when she found herself driving through an intersection, cars honking angrily.  She surmised she’d run through a stop sign, that she hadn’t even seen it.  She’d glanced up at the review to spy James in the backseat, oblivious to her error.  Carelessness was the cause of many accidents – she could not afford to be careless.  She could not afford to take risks.  This, already, she knew.
At the hospital, she and James were told to wait, first in the emergency room lobby, then in a small stuffy room.  They’d been told to hurry, and yet, after twenty-five minutes, here they still were, she pacing and peering out of the small safety glass window in the door, and James playing quietly with his cars.
Eventually, a tired-eyed doctor in a white lab coat, a police officer, and a chaplain arrived.  It seemed like the set-up of a joke Vincent might tell, but as soon as they entered, Louisa knew. Louisa could recall a sensation of being outside of herself, hearing only certain words, terrible, terrible words.  And then the doctor excused himself, the officer explaining he would be driving her home, the chaplain offering to sit with her.  Somehow she got the chaplain out of the room, wanting the reality of their presence gone, as if somehow, their absence would set her world right.  On the floor behind her, James continued playing, but now he crashed the cars into one another, repeating the words he’d heard moments prior.
“Accident.  Accident.  Sorry.  Sorry.”

The next twenty-five years had crept by, a monotony of routine she’d established to protect herself and James.  Deviation from the routine was unthinkable.  She needed the buffer to protect her tiny family from the unpredictable world.  Even after James left her to attend college, and then to wander the world, she maintained as best she could, rejecting James’ invitations to see Paris, Instanbul, Tokyo.
            But now, he’d returned.  He’d rented this motorhome with the pretense of giving her an adventure before the cancer in her left breast spread further.  She hadn’t even told her neighbors yet, about the cancer or their plan.  They’d given her space after dropping off casseroles, aware she’d nursed her sister to her death three months prior.  That’s when James had come, and to her surprise, stayed.  Already he’d gently upended her routines by fixing hot breakfasts, ensuring they took daily walks.  She missed her sister dearly, but found reasons every day to accept James’s indulgences:  whipped cream and fresh fruit on waffles; the way he held her arm as they walked slowly around the block.  She was seeing things she hadn’t noticed in years:  the lilac ready to burst into bloom, the lengthening of the days.
            It was one week ago that the motorhome had shown up without warning and he’d announced the trip.  Two weeks prior he’d driven her to the doctor who had told them of her cancer:  the same one that had killed her sister.  Somehow, Louisa felt, it had metastasized from her sister’s body to her own.
            A few days later, when he’d first suggested the trip, she’d said no.  When he pushed, insistent, she’d gotten angry, raising her voice for the first time in years.  She’d retreated to her bedroom.  All through the night she’d tossed and turned, her mind alternately fixating on her sister’s agonizingly slow death and Vincent’s abrupt end.  By morning she was exhausted and weary.  Her routines could no longer protect her.  When she’d entered the kitchen, James was there, making French toast, the coffee already brewed, colorful berries on the table. 
            As she sat down, she resolved to break from the familiar, despite the panic in her mind.  “Yes.”  It was almost a whisper, but James had heard.
            He’d sat down and clasped her hands, his eyes wet. 
And so here they were, now, crossing the bridge, the sun rising behind them as they drove west, onto the prairie, and toward the mountains beyond.  Louisa felt like a pioneer girl, leaning forward to peer into the distance.  As the motorhome crept toward the end of the bridge, she turned to James.  Now it was her face that was lit, both by the sun and the fire kindled within.  The cornfields, freshly tilled but not yet planted, rolled out before them, the road empty, their pace unhurried.  She placed her crooked hand on James’ knee, and patting it gently, again, said, “Yes.”

13 August 2017

Radical Self-Care

For a few weeks now, I’ve been intending to write, wanting to share my reflections on our recent trip to Iceland.  With school starting and other pressing issues, though, it hasn’t happened.  But now the disturbing events in Charlottesville are forcing me to use my voice.  As one of my personal heroes, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, put it, "We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."  

It’s hard to accept that hatred and fear of others resides here at home.  We’ve been conditioned to believe that terrorism is bred only across the sea, that it’s not to be found in the heartland, and certainly not in Thomas Jefferson’s legacy to us, at the University of Virginia.  Hatred and bigotry do exist there, just as they exist in our neighborhoods and yes, in our own hearts.  This is difficult to stomach.  It’s a challenge to accept this reflection of ourselves, to realize that there are still those among us who continue to view the world with a skewed and sick perspective.  It breaks my heart.  It makes me fearful for those I love who are very much an integral part of MLK’s vision of equality. 

And so, while my heart was heavy when I awoke this morning, I urged myself to follow Anne Lamott’s steps for facing the horrors of this world, the first of which is radical self-care.  Upon waking, I hugged my husband.  I sipped the coffee he made for me slowly, savoring its gifts.  I strapped on my hiking boots and ventured into the forest.  It was a bit muddy from last night’s rain, but the flowers were open and buzzing with pollinators.  The grasses were the shades of green they are only during our brief monsoon season.  The little horned toad that scurried across the trail blended almost completely with the pink decomposed granite.  And the cliff rose perfumed the air as if it had nothing but that to do all day.  And as I walked, I felt myself filling with the light that comes from breathing deeply of clean, bright air.  As Lamott says, there’s a reason why you are to put on your own oxygen mask first in case of emergency.

The second step of her radical self-care is to help the helpless.  I was grateful today was Sunday and that my daughter and I had our weekly slot to volunteer at the Humane Society.  We’ve been socializing cats there since January, which essentially means that we pet them, we hold them, and we play with them.  It was a full house today.  A tiny kitten shook with fear in my palm as I cradled it, whispering and stroking her.  A chubby fifteen-year-old calico purred on my lap, rolling over to show me her ample belly.  An energetic, lithe kitty pawed at us every time we passed by, in spite of the time that my daughter spent with him in the playroom.  Before we started volunteering there, I worried that it would be depressing.  What I’ve learned though, is that it is very centering to be there.  All I have to do is comfort this one creature for the moment I am there.  Everything else slips away – no future, no past – just me and this kitty in this moment now.  And even the ones who are too depressed or anxious to show that they appreciate the attention still need it.  These creatures are at the mercy of us humans and it is humbling to be responsible for that mercy.

After taking care of myself and helping some helpless creatures, I feel ready to raise my voice.  I am tired, just like you are tired.  I’m trying to raise a couple of daughters, to teach more than 150 kiddos, to make healthy choices, and to recycle, and even to save the bees.  I get it.  We have a lot on our plates.  You don’t honestly believe that Rosa Parks had it any easier than you, do you?  That she wasn’t exhausted by a million other things?  And yet, she stood up.  She resisted.

But this is not the time to be quiet.  This is not the time to let someone else fight the fight.  Many people have been fighting for a long, long time to be granted rights that automatically have been granted to me.  I am an educated, financially secure white woman.  I lead a comfortable life, but I cannot pretend that these privileges grant me silence. I would not expect a student in my hallway at school to stand up to a bully if I also witnessed an incident.  I can stand up too.  My privilege makes it easier, in fact, for me to stand up. 

The Confederacy lost.  The Nazis were defeated.  And there have been countless other battles, large and small, in the interim since those victories in which love and light have continued to beat hate and bigotry.  But this fight for equality, for freedom, for righting the wrongs is not yet over.  As Maya Angelou wisely noted, “Hate has caused a lot of problems in this world but it has not solved one yet.”  We will still continue to pledge, as we do in the classroom every morning, until “liberty and justice for all” is no longer a vision, but a reality.  Take some steps for radical self-care.  Help someone.  And then stand up.

29 April 2017

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, an homage to AKR on her birthday

Back in 2011, after reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, I was astounded by the similarities in how my mind and AKR's mind worked.  It was eerie and life-affirming and hilarious and it inspired me to keep a journal of similar entries about my own life.  If you've read my previous blog, then you know that AKR meant a great deal to me and that she died earlier this year.  Today is her birthday and I thought I'd share a few of my own Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life entries.  And so here they are, alphabetized and curated à la AKR:

Changing the sheets on my daughters’ bunkbeds always leaves me feeling like an aging pro wrestler.  Too old for those strength-required moves, wrestling and grappling with my mattress-opponent, and then withdrawing from the cage-enclosed stage exhausted, sweaty, and with a new crick in my neck.

When you see your hair stylist out in public and she compliments you on your hair, is she complimenting you or herself?

Exhaustion, Complete
The most exhausting day in my profession is the second day of school.  All the nervous energy that propels me through Day One is completely spent by Day Two.

Game, License Plate
It always takes me several days after returning home from a trip to stop scanning license plates for the ones we haven’t yet seen.

I have a small, gold, plastic Buddha on my desk.  Arden keeps referring to it as my ‘gouda.’  I really don’t want to correct her.

Horn, Saddle
Arden believes the horn on a western-style horse saddle can be used to honk.

It is a great idea to invite someone to come to your house mid-day Saturday to force you to do a ‘good enough’ quick housecleaning.

Language, Foreign

In Montréal, Madeleine remarks that she is amazed to hear young kids speaking foreign languages, especially French.  She wonders:  How can a kid younger than me know something I don’t?

04 March 2017

Nothing > Love

This morning I learned that one of my favorite writers, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is dying – before long – of ovarian cancer.  I had known that she was sick for about the past month, but I didn’t realize that her situation was so grim.  Gratefully, in this day and age, a cancer diagnosis isn’t a certain death, but unfortunately there are still many types of cancer that are not as treatable as others.  By now, you've probably heard about her from the article in the New York Times, where she essentially writes a dating ad for her soon-to-be-widowed husband.  It is one of the loveliest love letters I've ever read.

AKR, as I think of this writer, has written both children’s books and several memoirs and books for adults.  Her children’s books are sweet, often with a theme of inclusion or permission to be your true self.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her memoirs.  The first one I came across was An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  In this book, she chronicles her life, encyclopedia-style.  AKR is a few years younger than me, so she grew up in the age of encyclopedias.  This book contains short smatterings of her thoughts on various topics, alphabetized and cross-referenced.  There was a set of Collier’s Encyclopedias in my house that my parents probably spent far too much on and which I loved.  They contained the entirety of the known universe.  Anything I wanted to know more about lurked within those heavy tomes.  I can still recall the weight of the volume on my cross-legged lap, the cracking sound of the spines as they were opened, revealing glossy pages and sometimes mystifying black and white photos.  AKR’s uncanny ability to connect interesting commonalities of words or ideas is equal parts amusing, poignant, and oh, so true.  I identified with her ideas and experiences on such a deep level that I often found myself nodding my head in agreement, wondering how she knew me so well.

Through her works, I connected to a couple of friends.  One of those was a college friend, Tara, who was lucky enough to host AKR at her school in Thailand where she was working as a librarian a few years ago.  We both loved AKR’s writing and Tara was sweet enough to send me temporary tattoos from the swag AKR brought to her school.  Given AKR’s latest article, the message is especially pointed.

This fall, I read her latest memoir, Textbook Amy KR.  It’s an easy read with lots of negative space.  For example, here's a page  that struck such a chord I took a photo of it and posted it on my Instagram:

The book also provides many opportunities for readers to interact with one another and AKR.  Readers could share images of rainbows, or enter a contest for AKR to send one lucky participant a pecan pie. 

AKR sees the world through a charmed lens, and it is heartbreaking to me to learn that her diagnosis is so grim.  Her symbol is a yellow umbrella – something bright and sunny on a grey day.  I’ll sport one of her temporary tattoos this weekend to remind me to rise above that which is petty and draining, and to hug and smile and live a little more deliberately.  And to remember always one of her best observations:  Nothing > Love.