Sisyphus Freed

The last day of February was one of those rare early spring days when the warm air swirls in, refreshing the previously frozen classrooms. It was Monday morning and walking down the hallway, Joe Henderson realized he had been here since 1985. Thirty years of freshman compositions, Fahrenheit 451, and faculty meetings: those god-awful faculty meetings. Ups and downs of decades of pop culture and community gossip don’t stop at the school doors; they enter, magnified and dramatized for all to partake: the jello salad everyone wants to avoid but ends up taking a spoonful of anyway. His classroom was at the end of the hallway; where, despite building expansion and improvement, it had always been – next to the emergency exit.

Three steps away from the classroom, something snapped. He kept walking.

The door swung open and the dropped photocopies spun a whirlwind around him; the alarm began wailing.

Mr. H was done.

 

man sunset

 

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Can We Talk?

Have you ever felt disconnected?  People will argue that there is really no excuse to not have some connections today. Connections to the past: hello, high school person whom I didn’t like then and doubt I will now. Connections to the present: tweets rolling in about things I have never heard of and probably didn’t need to. Connections to the future: possible dates matched and delivered, replete with highly questionable photos.

social mediaAfter living around the U.S. and abroad, I am connected to friends and acquaintances via social media and email. But, it is not on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram that I have found my most interesting connections to people – it is in talking to people that I have discovered weird and unexpected connections that seem to mean a little more and last a little longer than just scrolling through the algorithm’s “people you might know.”   I mean if we really talk – you know, open up and share things that bounce around in our gut, ricocheting off our heart and liver, it is in such conversations, we will discover that it is really a small world, and we are totally and utterly not alone. Let me prove it.

  1. Weird Coincidence Friendship: Exhibit A: Some years back (when I was on match.com) a Russian man from upstate New York messaged me, asking why I spoke Russian. We struck up an online friendship that led to two real-time meetings when middle son visited colleges. There was no “match” except for the fact that I had gone to school about two blocks away from his school in Moscow; and, we had lived in Chicago at the same time; and, we both had three children; and, we both are twice divorced in the same years. Sure, we started out online, but real conversation solidified a friendship that at the moment is centered around the on-going political fiasco in our country.
  2. What Are the Odds Connection: Exhibit B: Last weekend youngest son and I met with a former student/current friend coffee cupswho is a linguistics professor. In the course of our catching up, I told her about eldest son’s adventure in Peru and my motherly trepidations about his sudden travel. Turns out, she does research on disappearing languges in Peru, has in-the-field colleagues there, and she has been there several times and vouched for the relative safety of the country.
  3. Collegial Connections: Exhibit C: In working with a wide variety of teachers, I often discover some level of connection to other educators. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was working with a teacher who had been at a school where I had taught years prior to her tenure. Nevertheless, we discovered that we not only have shared acquaintance with some of the teachers who worked there over the years, but also that she taught the daughter of one of my dear friends.
  4. Really, Truly Unbelievable: Exhibit D: When middle son was in middle school, he was at a birthday party. As I waited for the party to finish, a fellow parent I were chatting. It came to light that he had lived in West Des Moines (where I went to high school), and as it turned out, I am a classmate of one of his daughters, and I knew his other two children. He had since divorced and remarried, and the daughter at the party in question was a great friend of my middle son. Oh, this all took place in Augusta, Georgia.

Would I have ever known about these connections or had these conversations if I had spent most of my time online? Maybe. But, having these conversations filled with mutual discovery, shared backgrounds and interests, and multiple exclamations of “What a small world!” created a connections that are more than a birthday reminder or notices about what events everyone is “interested in.” Don’t get me wrong: I use social media as much as the next guy. (Obviously!) But, maybe we ought to continue to age-old tradition of real conversation – who knows, we might find that we like it.

Join me.

 

It’s A Start

Every day thousands of bad ideas are pitched. These bad ideas start everywhere: they bounce off board room walls and hobble around in classrooms.

But the truly bad ideas pop up on text messages late at night, usually fairly well marinated.

“I’m just using you.”

“K.”

Does that bother you?”

“No.”

“Then come over.”

“K.”

 

cellphone

 

In a Fetal Position

So, did you know that you can actually sleep comfortably in a tightly curled fetal position? I did not. I have always spread out to sleep. Sprawl is the word that leaps to mind.

fetalBut, needing to sleep tightly curled up: this was news to me. This is the only way I can sleep now. Because, let’s be honest with: one son who announces he is moving to Peru; two graduate classes that I resent having to take; three new work assignments; four upcoming writers’ events; and at least five friends/family who I really want to spend time with – it’s all a bit much.

I have never really had insomnia. I’m a good sleeper. I like sleep. Not this week. I woke up almost every hour – wondering, pondering, thinking, crying. It’s been rough.

You have probably been there. Someone died. Or broke your heart. Or moved away. Or, maybe, just maybe, some shit went down that you didn’t even really engage with but it had an effect on you. That happens. Shit happens. You will survive. I will survive.

That’s the message: with or without sleep, you will carry on. You may have to find a way to sleeping that is new and awful: crunched fetal position qualifies. You may have to find new friends. A new job. A bizarre new way of being to carry you through.

You can do it. We all can.

Hang in there. Hang on to your friends. Curl up. Eat chocolate. Drink water. Drink wine. But, remember, this will pass. You can and will survive.

Onward. Together.

Join me.

On Being The Tree

Runaway Bunny

 

There was never any plan – not a scripted one – not the way some parents claim, “Oh, I always knew he would grow up to be a ___.” Fill in that blank with whatever college mascot or professional endeavor one’s social circle deems the best.

No, I had no visions of who or what my children would be; I still don’t. I really do want all three of them to pursue endeavors that will lead them to be able to create the kind of life they want to live. When youngest son says that he wants to be a drag queen, and then, “when my looks start to go, I’ll teach middle school,” I smile and think, “That’s not a bad plan.” In fact, I privately think of this as the mullet plan: business in the front, party in the back.

But last Tuesday I got a series of text messages from eldest son announcing that he is moving to Peru. Today. This day. February 16, 2016. He plans to hike and survive in Peru and perhaps beyond for as long as he wants to – on his own. Alone.

My imagination is one quarter made-for-TV movie, one quarter horrific documentary, and two quarters overthinking. I suppose all parents believe that they support what their children want to do; the thing about that is: sometimes our children want to do stuff we never thought of and we wish they hadn’t. So, I’m worried and scared and a little sad.

The last time he traveled internationally he was three and slept with his brother in the bulkhead of an SAS jet, cuddling a new teddy bear from Copenhagen. Hiking and camping in South America will be different than that. Of course, he has email; he says he’ll be in semi-regular touch.

There are all kinds of quotes that extol the importance and requirement of letting children go, allowing them seek their own paths, not trying to control, and allowing for followed passions. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I believe all of that shit, but when it means your son is moving far away to be in semi-regular contact – well, that’s the test, isn’t it? One thing to say you believe something, and it’s quite another to be forced to live that out.

Perhaps you are better at this than I am. You have always said what you believed, believed what you said, and lived it out. If so,  I have certainly tried to follow your example, but this one’s a little harder for me. Still, I have to believe he can do this and love it and learn from it. Right? It’s not about me; it’s about his finding his way to that life that he wants. Right? If we don’t have faith in our kids, then something’s gone wrong. Right?

So, join me.

No, seriously – join me. Come over, bring some wine and kleenex, and hold my hand. This one might take me a minute.

 

 

 

Wings

You could tell by the way she stepped out of the car that she’d just cheated on her husband of twenty years. There was a certain confidence to her gait. She saw herself with new, powerful eyes. A woman who will cheat on a perfectly unflawed marriage is a woman who has a kind of lethal potential that cannot be ignored. No, not potential exactly – a certain malevolence.

Her clothes were the same – her life unchanged – her earrings were the same pearls that she always wore. But around her – some might call it an aura – there was the whiff of sulfuric acid.

She felt the same as she had the day before. Her medical office managing style would stay the same. She drove the same 2012 BMW convertible, and she still had to be home by 6:30 to meet the furnace man for the pre-winter check that happened every October 12.

There is something real about unconscious effects of every action.

The butterfly effect: one betrayed union in Milledgeville can cause an avalanche in Tibet.

butterfly landing on flower

 

VD: Time for a Little Self-Love

MCA little Valentine’s Day quiz. I am: (a) cuddled in bed with a lover  (b) looking forward to a romantic dinner with a partner (c) wistfully wishing for a lover and thinking about re-installing Tinder (d) none of the above.*

In the year 2016 in America, we have a holiday wherein we celebrate love – emphasizing romantic love. However, a cursory perusal of history sites and Wikipedia tells me that this holiday that carries the name of three martyred saints who became quite popular in England and France. Our holiday also aligns with a pagan festival  that involved animal sacrifices and slapping women with the bloody animal hide. Our celebration then, is of death and blood? Or love? It can feel like both, regardless of your relationship status.

Still, greeting card factories and florists need to make a living too, and so we forge on. I had a friend in college who spent every Valentine’s Day in bed. No amount of cajoling, sympathy, or even alcohol could get her up and out. I have a couple of current friends who bemoan this “holiday.” The women wail because they have no love to buy them flowers and treat them; the men gnash teeth because of societally generated expectations. (If that’s you guys – don’t forget about the holiday on March 14.)

I say dispense with expectations and teeth-gnashing and focus on the love. The love must always begin at home, with ourselves.

Don’t just SAY “Yeah, yeah, I know, I have to love myself, blah, blah, blah . . . ” but you must actually ACT on that. Maybe you need a day of couch surfing and Netflix binging to recharge; perhaps a long walk and fresh air; a chunk of time spent reading or journaling; maybe go build something, plan something, or putter in the garage? Whatever it is, as middle son says, take time and “treat yoself.” Because once you do that, you’ll be more willing and able to treat others.

Since it looks like we’re stuck with Valentine’s Day for the foreseeable future, we can at least do it right. Make it really about authentic love for our partners, our kids, our pets, our friends, but first of all: love for ourselves. If what we do is genuine, then this mid-winter shower of red and white might be less like a martyrdom or the pagan sacrificing of a a goat and a dog (for fertility and purification, respectively) on the festival of Lupercalia, and more like a moment just to celebrate the people we care about.

Join me.

(*answer: (d) none of the above: I’m having a cappuccino, watching the snow fall, and reading the Sunday NYT.)

 

Game. Set. Match?

December 1

“Let’s put up the twinkly colory lights, Daddy!”

“Okay, pumpkin, just a sec, ok?”

“Um, Dale, I put out the red and white lights for the deck.”

“Well, Maddie wants the colored lights, Kels.”

white and red lights“Right. Well, I put some of those upstairs on the bannister and in her room. I have white on the tree and the front should be red and white – you know so that it looks like a candy cane.”

“C’mon, Daddy!”

“Just another sec, pumpkin. So, can we just do the colored lights, I mean, Jesus, Kelsey she’s only gonna be three once. If she wants colored lights – who gives a flying fuck?”

“Language! Honey, go play upstairs until Mommy and Daddy get the lights ready – then you can help Daddy, ok, sweetie?”

“Ok, Mommy.”

“Now, look Dale. It’ll look really great with the red and white in the front with all white on the tree. The whole theme is red and white downstairs and outside. I put the colored lights upstairs to make her happy, but she does not get to run the whole house. The whole holiday. It’s for me, too. And, I want the lights to – you know – coordinate. Is that too much to ask? I mean, we don’t want Maddie to turn into a bossy bitch, do we?”

“Right, Jesus, Kels, this just seems . . . Ok. Whatever. Fuck it.”

 

February 8

“Hi! Anyone home?”

“You’re late. Dale: the lights.”

“Dadddydaddydaddydaddydaddy! Our lights match the Valentime streamers at preschool! They are so valentimey!”

“Dale. They are Christmas lights for God’s sake. They need to come down.”

“You heard her, Kels. They are valentimey, right, pumpkin?”

“They need to come down today, Dale. The neighbors are judging us. Christ, they are candy cane colors not Valentine’s Day colors.”

“They are valentimes, Mommy, really they are. We have white and red and pink all over our room!”

“Kelsey, I don’t care what the goddam neighbors think. I put those lights up against my will, and now they will stay up through valentinesValentine’s Day – hell, through the end of the month – maybe till fucking St. Patrick’s Day.  This holiday is not just about you – it’s about Maddie, too. Anyway, Christ almighty, t’s not even seventeen fucking degrees out there, and I am not getting on a ladder in the snow. Valentimes lights, right Maddie?”

“Yay! Daddy! Valentimes lights”

“Right, Jesus, Dale, this just seems . . . Ok. Whatever. Fuck it.”

Are You Kidding Me?

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My birthday was earlier this week, and like a responsible adult I went to work. I attended my meetings and did the job. Before I left for home, I texted youngest son asking if he wanted to eat out with me and listen to our friend play some live music a little local wine bistro. To be honest, despite our talented friend, the restaurant wasn’t my first choice, but it was a Thursday night, and it made sense.

As we pulled up, son exclaimed, “There’s an asston of people here.” I glanced around – really? On a Thursday night at 7:00? Most Cedar Rapidians are happily ensconced in their dwellings in front of their TVs by that time on a weeknight. Indeed, it was wall-to-wall people. I was happy my friend had drawn such a crowd, but my pleasure was quickly supplanted by annoyance. Indeed, if they were there to hear music, you did not know it.

It was an ADULT COLORING CLUB. I did not know this was a thing. Of course, adult coloring books are the craze at the moment. I have one, as well as nice set of colored pencils. In fact, a friend gave me a really cool one with inspirational quotes and coloring designs for aforementioned birthday. However, when I color, I am at home. Usually at the coffee table or breakfast bar – kind of like when I was, oh, six and colored at home. These people had come out in public – to a wine bar no less – to color in groups, ignore music, and talk at each other. Are you kidding me?

My idea was to sit in a quiet place, enjoy a light meal and some music. What I got was an adult-preschool where the manners of preschool were forgotten. They didn’t share the colors; they talked too loudly about their picture pages, and failed to applaud the musician who played non-stop for at least the 90 minutes we were there. I sympathized with the waiter who encountered whining complaints when he told a group of rugrats that they didn’t offer french fries, and suggested a fruit or cottage cheese cup instead. The servers bustled about, but by-and-large the colorers took a seat and kept it to color. It reminded me of the times in college when we would get one order of fries and water then keep the booth as long as whatever unfortunate establishment we had descended upon would let us. From the looks of things last night, tables did not turn much.

IMG_3656After about an hour, I looked at my watch and asked son if it wasn’t time for the coloring toddlers to go to bed. Nope, they kept at it. At first, it was hard for me to put my finger on the cause of my outrage. Then, I figured it out: this activity did not belong in an adult setting. I had counted on a quiet evening of drink and music; I got a kindergarten after-school care room.

Now, mind you: if you like coloring or the wine and painting evenings that happen, that’s fabulous. Everyone gets to have their own hobbies, and as I said, I color occasionally. But, I think this should be happening at the library or in a classroom or a studio of some kind. Perhaps the establishment should have reserved their rooms for only colorers because the six or seven of us that were not kept looking at each other in bewilderment.

I guess I just don’t get it: why are these people coloring in groups in an adult venue? I chatted briefly with the woman who organized the coloring club; she said, “Isn’t this great? Help yourself to a page and some crayons.” No, no thanks. I’ll take my wine in the bar, and I’ll do my art in the studio.

Join me – please?

 

 

Miles to Go

“Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”

Empathy. Our culture doesn’t encourage it. Our political landscape disparages it to the point of excluding all civil discourse. Our reward is criticism if we display empathy. But it really is this all-important choice that allows for deep, honest human interaction. We just don’t take time to think about it. Lack of empathy destroys dialogue and demolishes friendships. Absence of empathy creates chasms between people who might actually have something in common. I know, it’s a tough sell in a market where the tough sell is imperative if one wants to get one’s way. But, maybe we don’t all need our own way. Maybe if we add differences and empathy, we can create a world that we all want to live in. Let’s have a look.

Situation: youngest son is hollered at by neighbors who threaten to take his dog away. My first thought: son probably did something not great; neighbors are probably assholes having a bad day.

Empathy says I need to remember that youngest son had a dog at his dad’s house; his dad abused the dog and did not care for it properly. Indeed, his dad did much the same thing to youngest son. Of course, I can say, “Who cares? They’re asshole neighbors.” It’s harder for son because his experiences are different from mine.

mile markerEveryone has their own experiences – we teachers call it “background knowledge.” Whatever lives we have lived color the way we see life now. The thing is, it is often easy to forget that not everyone lived/lives as we do. And, even our own children see a shared experience different than we do. It’s really interesting when my sister and I talk about “how Mom was” when we were little or “what Dad did” when we were growing up. My sister and I are six years apart, and you’d think we grew up on different continents. In short, we don’t know everyone’s stories; leave a little room for them.

Situation: a friend believes that a certain political candidate should be elected to the Oval Office. I disagree in a strong way. Do I need to try to strongarm this friend to believe in my candidate? Should I belittle their candidate of choice?

Empathy encourages dialogue.  The whys and wherefores of our beliefs can be civilly and intelligently discussed; ultimately, we can agree to disagree. The same is true on almost all social issues. There are many sides. I lived in Soviet Russia where, even at the end of the regime, you just didn’t say certain things. We can say almost all things here; empathy suggests we do so meaningfully – preferably, without sound bites and with real conversation.

The thing that inhibits empathy here is that often social issues have an incredibly personal charge to them. Issues often reach to the Listencore of how we define ourselves and how we want our world to be. From religion to justice to dietary choices, beliefs are central to how we live. Being able to listen to a point of view and engage with that person without trying to convert them to a different way of thinking is the mark of an evolved human. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t stand up for our beliefs – no, we totally should do that. We can to it decently – with empathy and understanding. My sister used to say that just because you listen to someone doesn’t mean you have to accept everything he says as your own truth.

Situation: eldest son prefers limited contact with family right now. He is living his own life on his own terms. I miss him terribly. Should I try to manipulate him into “returning to the fold?”

Empathy instructs me to take a step back. This son lived at home for 19 years. From third grade to high school graduation, I worked at his school. When he was in high school, I was his Russian teacher, junior English teacher, and in his senior year, I was his college counselor. All the while being his mom. Might this young man need some space? Empathy says: take a deep breath and be supportive from a distance that he defines. It’ll be okay.

This is the hardest situation for me, but perhaps one of the most important ones. Aside from potentially threatening or extreme situations, we have to let people live as they see fit. Surely, we can offer advice, but we are not called to make everyone else like us. I am not perfect. You? Didn’t think so. I can love a family member or friend who chooses something that I might not have chosen. It’s called grace – it’s being empathetic enough to know that everyone has his own path.

You see, life is a journey. We all have miles to go to develop empathy, but if we can at least try to understand where someone else is coming from – why they believe what they do without trying to change them, we might have more peace, and we might just learn something, too. It’s not easy. There are jackasses in the world – but, I don’t have to be one of them.

Join me.

 

forest path