Sunday, November 27, 2016

Tiny chairs

Why were we nervous? It's not as if this had come out of the blue. We'd had the appointment for months. A calendar date circled in red with a regimented time we'd have to keep to the second if we wanted to be considered good at our jobs. 

"PTC ...7:20 to 7:40."

Parent/Teacher Conference. A perfunctory thing every zoo-keeping adult looks forward to the way they anticipate creating wills ... or marital therapy ... only this task you can't exactly put off.

I checked the clock. 5:04. We had plenty of time. The kids had already eaten and done their homework. They were now fully immersed in their electronic surroundings. 

We would stop for dinner first. Have drinks.

I was dressed casually, yet I had been careful to choose shoes that clicked when I walked. Which, at this particular moment, as I waited for my husband to get showered and changed, sounded like I was pacing with exclamation points.

What would they say? 

I'd seen his grades already. I knew he was perfectly average, though his handwriting suggests he'd make an excellent doctor. 

It's what we don't know that worries us.

Does he make good use of time?

Is he kind? Polite?

Are people kind to him?

What will they say that could burst this bubble around us?

You can't stop yourself from wondering.

Our boy isn't exactly like all the others. Not that I would complain.

He still wears pajama-like pants and enormous shoes. His odd sense of humor and dry wit stand out. He can talk to strangers. And does. All the time.

"Do you know that Google was named after a googillion? Larger than a googol,  which is 10 with a hundred zeros, a Googillion is the largest unknown  number in the universe."

Of course, I didn't believe him.

Numbers are finite. How could one be "The Largest?"

And of course, a fact check via Google search usually deems his non-sequiturs 'Mostly True.'

His teachers will find this out about him, too. His knowledge potential is vast but often arbitrarily applied.

Most of them have told me it's refreshing to have a child who is willing to be wrong, even if he does sound convincing enough to sway the rest of the class.

They also don't always see what we see. A boy who can be emotional in the moment but resilient in the aftermath. A kid who does life his own way, on his own terms, smiling as much as he can.

Then again, his parents aren't like most parents; I said to myself as I perched atop a tiny (but tall) chair at the end of the bar.

I had ordered the spaetzle and a local pilsner. My husband had ordered a bratwurst and cider.

When the waitress asked what's the occasion, we shrugged our shoulders and admitted we had time to kill before a meeting with teachers.

She wished she'd thought of that when her kids were coming up.

“That would have made me more relaxed,” she said with a grin.

If you have to sit in a tiny chair, you might as well get comfortable first.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Keeping your wits about you

“Wrong answer!”

“Wrong answer?”

“Wrong. Answer.”

My blood began to boil.

Until that moment, I hadn't realized I was being grilled. Until THAT moment I thought I was merely stating my thoughts on an admittedly controversial topic and using facts widely accessible in the tranquility of my own home, using my own computer, through the magic of the World Wide Web. Mind you, some of the facts I had hand selected, unlike my adversary's, did not entirely support my claim. I didn't care … surely my argumentative friend would see the larger picture.

Nope. “You've been schooled!”

I could almost hear the whistle that leads to the silence that leads to the explosion.

“And you just proved my point … Lol Lol LOL LOL LOL!”

The Facebook fry-o-later has a tendency to do this to a person.

We toast our ideas, lightly on one side at first, and then walk away from the stove.

When we return, the whole kitchen is on fire.

It's not easy in this day and age to pick our battles.

As I took a deep breath and tried to gather my wits, I couldn't help but think about what really mattered.

It certainly wasn't this argument. Our lives as we know them don't hinge on whether you win a cyber spat with me. It may not even matter if we win and lose graciously, though this higher point is something we should all probably strive to achieve whenever we can.

But on what do our lives hinge?

I had nothing.

Ok … well, not nothing: We all count our chickens and eggs and relative humor on a regular basis in the grand scheme of things, don't we? This week we'll even count the roasted turkeys and slices of nut-meat pies as we hold hands for a blessing around our over-stuffed tables.

We will feel warmth for all who are with us, and nostalgia those who are not.

We will try to hold onto this feeling, and wish it could linger past the moment the last plate is washed and put away. But we will feel the tug of disappointment and know this feeling is just a random visitor.

Like a warm memory.

And that's when she came to me.

A beloved teacher … A slender-framed woman with cottony hair and prim woolen suits. Her name was Mrs. Burgess, an art teacher who taught more than contour and perspective. She was MY art teacher, for those who loved her took possession of her.

And sadly … we also mocked her. Twisting her name to resemble the white pasty substances we'd some day have to wash off our cars. These taunts would grow louder each time she ignored another tasteless jibe.

Kids branded her a doddery old woman.

Honestly … I didn't know what to make of her when I was 15.

How could she let it go? Did she not hear the mean words? The stupid chant? Did she not care that she was being ridiculed?

By the time I was 18 and graduation, I realized that she didn't care about that. Not one bit.

I had been sitting in her class, and one of my friends called me a name. In jest, for sure, but still unpleasant.

She rebuked the girl and told her she wouldn't tolerate that treatment of her students. Even if they were friends.

And then I realized her brilliance in defending me and my ignorance in not defending her. That was the day I learned that there never just One Thing. There is always Everything.

And we must pick our battles wisely.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Pass the cookies, skip the Kool-Aid

A sheen of perspiration gathered at the backs of my knees. My forehead was clammy. I had changed clothes three times that morning. First, I extracted my mother's favorite circa 1965 purple cashmere sweater from a drawer and separated it from its protective tissue-paper shell.

I wanted to wear something of hers to the polls but didn't want to damage the sweater with my nerves and their tendency to make a mess of things. 

Next, I tried on a white summer tunic and twill pants, a nod to Susan B. Anthony. 

Too obvious. And the sleeves cut into me uncomfortably when I layered on a trench coat. I had spent long enough feeling uncomfortable.

Instead, I settled on a pair of bright red slacks and a dark gray sweatshirt in which I usually sleep.  I draped two child-made necklaces around my neckline and pulled on a pair of boots. Fashionable ones that don't hurt when I walk in them.

It was a beautiful day. We'd take full advantage of it and walk, as a family, the half-mile to our polling place. 

We had it all mapped out. It never occurred to me we'd get lost.

It started to fall apart before we even got out of the front door.

I could tell my oldest was sullen. She wore a frown that has become increasingly familiar. It is not entirely concealed by a curtain of hair and the edge of shirt collar, which she had pinched between her thumb and forefinger, and which she now holds in front of her chin where a scarf might be. 

The girl, who is one month shy of officially residing in Teenager-land, was already gaining distance as she took off walking. Still, she told me exactly what she thought of the outing.

I was not only an embarrassment with my date-night clothes and chirpy demeanor as I announced history in the making. I was out of touch with the youth of today. And worse. I was a hypocrite. 

"You think you know everything, but you don't. You're voting for Her just because she's a woman not because she's the best choice. You are the one who is sexist."

It wasn't true. I wasn't a lesser of two evils voter. But I didn't want to argue that point in the street. I wanted to pretend my daughter understood and shared my brand of feminism. But she didn't. 

I caught up with her and told her to go home. 

I wasn't mad. How could I be mad? I know she has no idea what it's like to be dealt five cards in a game of seven card stud. But I didn't want her hovering over me in this moment with her dark cloud either.

It was as if she could vote. She didn't need to be there, watching her parents fill in circles on a sheet of paper and feed it to a machine.

 "If you are going to be angry at me, do it on your own. This election is important to us. If you don't approve, you are free to go."

But she didn't leave. 

She stood silently next to her father. Looking no more or less grim than any other face in the room.

It was unsettling. 

She apologized when we returned home. As did I. We didn't belabor the points, just moved on with the bullet points of the rest of our day.


But in the morning, she couldn't quite believe the news I had stayed up all night practicing to explain:

"We are disappointed. But it will okay. ...
We just need to breathe. Inhale kindness, exhale service."

She didn't need me to say that, of course. It is already her mantra. 

"I'm not worried," she told me when she came home from school.  "Even in my school, Clinton won the popular vote. The one Trump supporter in my class celebrated by making seven dozen cookies to hand out to everyone. We'll be OK. "

It's a start.

"I might have eaten the cookie, mom, but I won't drink the Kool-Aid."

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Say Anything

Say anything.

I dare you. Talk about politics. Science. Economics. Interpersonal relationships. Education. Taxes. Feminism. Racism. Ageism.


Don't forget the small stuff: the icebreakers and one-off conversations.

Mention the level of rainfall or the size of the apple crop. Say you think the weather is lovely this time of year or that the fall colors have been majestic, and watch as my 12-year-old wizens her face and disagrees.

Any little thing you say aloud will elicit its equal and opposite reaction at an even higher decibel level.

It's practically her job.

Oh, and by the way, that's not blue I'm wearing. It's more of a green-hued gray to be precise.

But I'm not bitter.

I realize that she is waking up; stretching her legs; and finding that cold, hard floor under her feet smarts a little when she presses the whole of her weight against it first thing in the morning.

It's not easy growing up.

And it can feel like the world is against you.

Everyone makes mistakes. Not enough folks apologize.

Which is why at dinner we are now treated to long recitations of misgivings and micro-aggressions that are weighing on the psyches of middle schoolers everywhere.

Especially hers.

Teachers are the worst. They just assume things and move on. Mocking as they go. It's so unfair.

Even when they are wrong, they don't apologize. It's dispiriting.

Of course, she doesn't want me to agree. Or disagree. Or say anything.

I can't possibly understand …

And she already knows what I'm going to say.

“Life isn't always fair.”

Adults don't know everything. They make mistakes. They don't always own up. And, sadly, you don't always win the argument because you happen to be correct.

“You never take my side.”

“I am always on your side, but being on your side doesn't mean it's always going to be comfortable. Like right now, you are like a thousand degrees of fire-spitting rage standing next to me, an arguably dried up old straw of human. My job is to hose you down, so you don't light me and everything around us on fire.”

Not a comfortable position, I might add.

She, understandably, stomps up to her room, where she slams the door and turns up the volume of her electronic thing-ama-whats.

Her father wonders where she gets it from, giving me side eye and half-laughing about our own arguments over which of my word choices – “Watch out” or “Look out” -- would imply operator blame since it was so clearly the pedestrian's fault for lurking in a blind spot.

"Just let her cool off," I tell him telepathically. "Don't go upstairs."

He goes up to talk to her.

More raised voices. More slammed doors.

Each of them blaming the other: "You don't understand!"

"No, YOU don't understand. I'm just trying to help! "

I realize she comes by this naturally. It's part of her genetic code.

All the huffing and puffing and stomping around isn't something she invented. Somebody else wrote that play she's just the most recent performer in our house to be cast in the title role.

“Do you understand?” he asks me upon his return from the circle of hell that is an unhappy middle schooler's bedroom.

Of course, I understand.

I just can't say anything that will change it.