10 November 2008

Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father

Dear friends: you should probably go see this movie. Chicago, it's now playing at the Gene Siskel Film center downtown, scheduled for this week only. Courtney, Sara, Megan, and everyone in Portland, it's at the Hollywood Theatre next week. Albuquerque folks, it's playing in Santa Fe on the 28th. Everyone else, you're on your own. But really, if you have the chance, see this film. It's good, and so, so sad.

06 November 2008

Dogs, 2; Chickens, 1. Oh, and Gays? ZERO

So, Tuesday was amazing. Being in Chicago was absolutely incredible. It was like everyone was having their birthday on the same day. But not just any birthday: the BEST birthday. That one birthday you looked forward to your whole LIFE, the one where you finally got a PONY.

Happy Birthday, America!

And not only was Obama totally eloquent and poetic as always, but then he went and promised his daughters a PUPPY? In his acceptance speech?!? Best president ever! The only thing better would be if he promised EVERYONE a puppy! Hey Obama, we ALL worked hard to get you elected! We stood in lines for hours! We TOTALLY deserve a puppy!! That would be great, too, because then we wouldn't have to move. We'd be like, Sorry Landlady! I know our lease says No Dogs, but this is from the PRESIDENT. President Obama! It's our fundamental right to have a puppy!

Ahhh.... a girl can dream, right?

Speaking of fundamental rights, though, I have to say that the happiness of the election has been tempered by the total shittiness of Prop 8. The title of this blog is Bittersweet, but it's rarely so apropos. For the last two days, I've have this tight feeling in my throat like in middle school when your friends all suddenly decided they didn't like you anymore and wouldn't let you sit with them, but wouldn't tell you why. Years ago, when I used to teach "bully proofing" in middle and high schools, my students nearly always agreed that the kind of psychological exclusion bullying was the worst by far. Today I'm reminded of it, and though I'm so, so pleased by the presidential election, and so happy about President Obama, my happiness is being choked out by this feeling of sitting by myself at lunch, wondering what I did wrong.

It's hard to join the overwhelming national celebration of falling racial barriers when, at the very same time, laws are being passed to discriminate against a large group of Americans. I mean, how could the people of California seriously stand in the voting booth and think, "I am totally voting for Barack Obama! It's about time we had a minority in the White House! Hell yes! This generation is so much more enlightened and tolerant and awesome than any other generation in American history! Oh, and while I'm here... I think 18,000 marriages between loving, consenting adults should totally be annulled! What, they want equal rights? Who do they think they are? This is America!"


Meanwhile, those very same voters overwhelmingly passed Prop 2, granting rights to chickens to stand up and stretch their wings while waiting to be fricasseed.

And then, in a kick-me type comedy of bad timing, the Chicago suburb Oak Park is hosting a Mass Wedding Ceremony this weekend, just to rub it in. Great, Oak Park, thanks for reminding thousands of Chicagoans that they can no longer head out to sunny CA to get married.

Oh, and did I mention that this Mass Wedding is for DOGS?

It's a Mass Dog Wedding. Because they can get married. Just not gay people.

So here's the thing. Personally, I have no problem with the event -- it's a fundraiser for a local shelter, and you know, whatever it takes to raise money for pooches. But. I'm thinking that the Mass Dog Wedding in Oak Park will certainly be mobbed by protesters, right? Because the reason states keep passing straight marriage only laws is to "protect the sanctity of marriage." Because the sanctity of Brit's various marriages, and Madonna's inevitable third marriage, and the sacred unions of the hundreds of people who get married at Graceland Wedding Chapel each year is so sanct that it needs constant protection from evil gays who also want to have three different hubands and get married by Elvis!

But seriously, California and everyone who voted for Prop 8: surely, the mass dog wedding makes FAR more of a mockery of your sacred institution than the weddings of committed, consensual, adult human beings who actually love each other?? Right? I mean, you have to protect marriage from all threats, not just the threat of a wedding with two brides and no grooms. So get your asses out here and protest this shit, because otherwise I'm going to start suspecting that you don't care that much about marriage after all, and you ACTUALLY JUST HATE GAY PEOPLE.

Boo to California, Florida, and Arizona for ruining what should have been an amazing, perfect week for me. And props to the Obamas for thinking about getting your puppy from a rescue organization instead of a breeder or puppy mill. I'll take a rescued puppy too, please. If you're in town, we could even get them dog-married.

04 November 2008

November 4, 2008

We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come.

We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.

Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.

And so, tomorrow, as we take the campaign south and west, as we learn that the struggles of the textile workers in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas, that the hopes of the little girl who goes to the crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of L.A., we will remember that there is something happening in America, that we are not as divided as our politics suggest, that we are one people, we are one nation.

And, together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story, with three words that will ring from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea:

Yes we can.

03 November 2008

02 November 2008


...and it only took me two and a half hours!

The Line to Vote at Welles Park

I went over to Welles Park on Thursday, knowing I'd have to wait in line for a while -- I figured a half hour, maybe an hour. When I got in line, a man said it was about two hours from the tree. The tree? I wasn't even AT the tree yet! I thought about cashing it in then and waiting until Tuesday, but it was such a beautiful day, and I didn't actually have anything better to do, so I decided to stay and wait. And wait. And wait.

Two Hours From the Tree

It could have been fun, if the people around me had been fun. I tried to make friends, thinking about how fun it would be to say we'd become friends waiting in line to vote in the 2008 election. But the woman behind me did NOT want to be friends with me. We stood next to each other for two hours and fifteen minutes, without break -- one hundred and thirty five minutes, each one slower than the one before -- and she REFUSED to befriend me. The man behind her seemed like he would have been friends, but by the time I was desperate enough with boredom to try to befriend him, he'd been beaten into submission by Silent Lady's aggressive silence.

Inside, the Line Snaked Up and Down the Hallway

I wrote in my journal for over an hour, standing awkwardly, cradling it against my left arm, but after ten or so pages I was sick of myself. No wonder Silent Lady didn't want to befriend me. I was BORING. Eventually, I decided to bag writing, and started texting my friends for moral support. I'M WAITING TO VOTE. IT'S HOT AND SMELLY IN HERE. I'VE BEEN HERE OVER AN HOUR ALREADY AND I'M HUNGRY AND TIRED. They wrote back, "IS IT SMELLY BECAUSE YOU'RE THERE?" and "SUCKS TO BE YOU!!" My sister wrote, "IN OREGON WE GET TO MAIL OUR BALLOTS. HA." Not exactly the kind of moral support I was looking for, a-holes. But thanks.

When I finally got to the part where I got to hand my voter information to a sleepy volunteer, I was very nervous that they'd make some sort of fuss about it, but it all went through just fine. Not so for the woman in front of me (not Silent Lady - this woman was more like Justifiably Angry Lady). The poll worker who took Justifiably Angry Lady's info said that according to the system, she'd already voted "like NINE times!" JAL said, "I haven't voted yet, but I've been waiting in line for over two hours, and I would really like to vote now." The volunteer called the head of the polling place over, and she fired off a bunch of questions at JAL: "Did you apply for an absentee ballot? No? Well, you must have been living abroad in the last few years. Did you move recently? Well, you must have applied for an absentee ballot. That's the only explanation. Or you were living in another country." JAL planted her fists against her hips. "I haven't lived in another country, ever, I've been living in the same place for five years, and I did NOT apply for an absentee ballot. AND I've been waiting in line to vote for the last two hours!"

By the time I left, after doggedly working my way through the 15 page ballot, and double checking my answers like it was a school test, and printing out a paper trail of evidence that I voted, and getting my receipt of voting to put in my scrapbook, JAL was still standing there, waiting to vote. Yikes.

These are strange, hopeful times. If you haven't voted yet... have fun standing in line on Tuesday! Bring a book, catch up on old Newsweeks you've been meaning to get through. Hand out snacks to your fellow voters. Make friends with the people around you (unless they're Aggressively Silent).

Vote. Vote. Vote.

22 October 2008

An Evening with Jonathan Kozol

That's right, JONATHAN KOZOL!! I MET him!

Here's how you know whether or not you're an education nerd:
If you're currently squealing with excitement and jealousy, you ARE.
If you're scratching your head and going, Jonathan Who? then you are NOT an education nerd, not even if you're an educator yourself. In fact, if you're an educator or an educational administrator, and you haven't heard of Kozol, then you have some major catching up to do. Also, for the record, if you're an administrator and you've never heard of Kozol, then you must stop rolling your eyes at how lame and uneducated your staff is, because please. You need to read Kozol. And then stop being such an asshole.

Anyway... KOZOL!!

Jonathan Kozol

Several weeks ago, I told my awesome (and certified Major Education Nerd) friend Evone that Kozol was coming to Chicago. Her immediate response was to start looking for plane tickets. Then she turned to her school and talked them into letting her take professional development days to fly to Chicago and see Kozol speak. That's right, Evone is such an education nerd that she flew all the way from New Mexico just to listen to little 72-year-old Jonathan Kozol wave his arms and talk about poor kids for an hour and a half. And it was WORTH IT.

He had to roll up his sleeves and show us his little old man arms

For forty years, Jonathan Kozol has been the voice for poor children in this country. He has taken an unrelenting look at the economic disparities built into the public education system, and with books like Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation, he's exposed the underlying racism and classism in our schools. In fact, Kozol argues that our schools today are more racially segregated than they've been in any year since 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Truly, it is shameful.

As teachers who have worked with children in rural poverty, particularly in this climate of ruthless and constant high-stakes testing, Evone and I were both thrilled to hear Kozol discuss the ways in which NCLB and high-stakes testing hurt children of poverty. I mean, it's awful, and it's absolutely heartbreaking, but at the same time there's always something so thrilling about hearing someone else put words to your experiences, reassuring you that you're not alone. The woman next to us was literally responding to him as if he was a preacher in the House of Education. "Yes sir," she kept saying. "Amen. Uh-huh! Uh-huh! Amen!"

A part of me wanted to Amen and Uh-huh right along with her, but I was too busy nodding and taking notes.

Mostly, Kozol talked about his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, in which he exchanges letters with an optimistic young teacher in an inner-city Boston school. The teacher, Francesca, is an example of what a difference a wonderful teacher can make in the life of a child. Unfortunately, as Evone and I both know firsthand, many such teachers across the country are being hamstrung by administrations and legislation pushing for less love and more "rigor" in the classroom. Many wealthy suburban schools can afford to ignore the mandates of NCLB, because they can afford to lose federal funding. Poor urban (and rural!) schools, on the other hand, absolutely cannot. Therefore, says Kozol, teachers in wealthy, suburban schools can afford the time to allow students to ask the big questions, to jump on teachable moments, to diverge from the lesson plan and wonder and wander and discover and explore. Teachers in poor schools, however, can't afford to do anything but drill, drill, drill. Not when a drop in test scores means the loss of your job. Not when people from the district office and the state department are sitting in the back of your classroom, giving you the evil eye if you deign to allow one off-topic question.

It's hard.

Anyway, Kozol was just lovely. He was incandescent. He was a beautiful spirit, and his was a call to action beyond a mere year in TFA. ("God did not put poor little black and hispanic children on this earth to provide fodder for brief moral interludes in the lives of white college students.") Change in this country must be real and lasting, and it must come from all of us, especially those of us who can speak for the millions of children without voices, who are being trained to fill in bubbles and comply without questions.

Evone asks a question

Afterward, we went down to meet him, to shake his hand and thank him. Organizers of the event stood around him, fussing for him to stop spending so much time with each teacher and student who had a question. They needed to move him into the event next door, they explained, where wealthy stakeholders had paid extra to drink champagne and make liberal small talk with him. The irony of it was rather painful, but Kozol ignored his handlers and happily chatted with us, congratulating the woman in front of us for dropping out of grad school and giving out suggestions of ways to advocate for children.

Finally, they pulled him away and we rode the elevator down to the street and stepped out into the chilly autumn night with his final words ringing in our ears: "Old trees, and the joyfulness of children, will outlive us all."

20 October 2008

Hatred & Racism at a Palin Rally in Johnstown, PA

If you're feeling remotely good about this country and its people today, you might not want to watch this video.

I always thought that "Of the people, by the people, for the people," was an incredibly inspiring, hopeful phrase. It's been my touchstone for understanding this country and its government for years and years. We're not supposed to question our president? Sorry bud, of the people by the people for the people says differently! The little guy can't make a difference? Community organizers are stupid? Not according to a little phrase I like to call Ofthepeoplebythepeopleforthepeople!

This year, it occurred to me -- for the first time -- that maybe "The People" are not MY people, and maybe the gaps between us are more like canyons. If The [racist, hateful, vitriolic] People are going to run this country, then maybe my touchstone phrase no longer works.

Some days it's awfully hard to keep the faith, isn't it? But I return to another touchstone, this one a quotation from Anne Frank:

"In spite of everything [and I do mean everything, you ignorant racist bastards], I still believe that people are really good at heart."

Sigh... let's hope she's right.

16 October 2008

Grammar Therapy

I am such a nerd.

I know this about myself, and I'm totally fine with it. I've made my peace, as Leslie would say. I've made my peace.

One of the many manifestations of my utter nerdiness is my interest in grammar. I wouldn't say I'm a grammar nazi, or even a grammar queen. More like a connoisseur. I'm interested in language, in general, and in finding ever more perfect ways to express myself, in specific. In person -- in speech -- I don't care too much about grammar, because we have so many ways of conveying meaning: through body language, through facial expression, through tone of voice and gesture and pitch. Grammar's job is to help language be as meaningful as possible. In speech, it's not as needed. On paper, it's far more important.

Still, it makes me sad to think about the people in this world who feel crippled by their lack of knowledge and skills when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I've never been in this particular group myself, but I HAVE been a member of the crippled-by-lack-of-knowledge-and-skills-in-MATH group, and I'm sure that they're equally unfun. Somewhere along the line, someone made you feel stupid about your inability to correctly capitalize a letter or factor a polynomial, and there's been a part of you that's just a little broken, ever since. I get that. I know.

So when Jill asked me to teach a grammar class at StoryStudio Chicago, I told her I didn't want to teach anything traditional. I didn't want to add to the grammar stress people are already carrying around in their hearts. Instead, I decided to create a class I'm calling Grammar Therapy. I'm thinking of it as one part grammar and punctuation instruction to three parts giving yourself permission to make mistakes sometimes and regaining the confidence you need to write without worrying as much about grammar and punctuation.

Also, we'll probably make some fun of the French.

Anyway, it's going to be fantastic, and if you or anyone you know needs a brush up on grammar & punctuation or permission to split the occasional infinitive, come on down.

14 October 2008

Busy Like Kim Kelly

Okay, okay. I know you've all been terribly neglected and you don't even know what to do with yourselves. I know you've been obsessively checking this site every day, hoping... wishing... that maybe.... It's not that I've forgotten you, I swear. It's just that I'm so goddamn busy, all the time.

Even now.

Because I don't have time to write some thoughtfully scathing-yet-fond review of some aspect of life in Chicago, or even point out that I realized last night just how well you can see into my apartment from across the street, and started wondering just why it is, exactly, that those homeless guys always sit precisely across from my apartment in lawn chairs... and oh my god how many times have they seen me naked??

What was I saying? Oh right: I actually have to run in a few minutes -- I know, lame -- but in the meantime I'll answer some of your most frequently asked questions:

Q: Are you dead?

A: No.

Q: Are you sure? Because in your case, no news is NOT good news.

A: I swear! I'm just really effing busy these days.

Q: Yeah? So... what's so important that you can't take a few minutes and update your damn blog?

A: Well. First of all, I got a second job, because one job is not nearly hardcore enough for someone as hardcore as I. Also, because I'm poor. So in the last month or so I jumped from working about 25 hours a week to working about 50. Pretty awesome.

Q: Are you writing? Aren't you supposed to be writing? That is why you quit teaching and gave up your job security and health insurance and my ulcer is so much bigger whenever I think about you, isn't it? ISN'T IT? YOU'D BETTER BE WRITING!!

A: I am. I am! I keep learning this pesky little lesson about how much happier I am when I'm writing. It's a pain in the ass lesson to learn, certainly, but it's good to know. I'm currently working on my second novel, which is in the early stages of being a complete and utter mess. But I'd like to think that in the end, it will be kind of neat.

Q: What about the other novel? The one that you're supposed to publish so you can send me to Cabo and get me out of this godforsaken grey winter hell?

A: First of all, it's actually only October. No need to panic just yet, even though yesterday the sky was awfully gray. Incidentally, did you know that they spell "grey" with an E in the Queen's English and an A in American English?

Q: Really? That's pretty interesting.

A: I know. I kind of like the E. It seems softer. Like a bunny.

Q: I love bunnies! Wait... are you avoiding the question?

A: No.

Q: Well? The novel?

A: Right. It's in my agent's hands. She and I had coffee a few weeks ago and it was quite lovely. She is a very charming person. Except when she goes through my manuscript with a red pen.

Q: Uh... isn't that the point?

A: Probably. I'm actually very grateful for all her hard work. Thanks, Becca!

Q: Did they fix your roof yet?

A: We think so. It looks fixed... sort of. At least there's not a hole in the ceiling anymore.

Q: So, are you moving?

A: Hope so. Sometime in the near future?

Q: Are you asking me?

A: No, just expressing uncertainty. Why, do you have an awesome apartment for us?

Q: Sorry.

A: That's cool.

Q: So, if you HAD been blogging in the last few weeks, what would you have written about?

A: Lots of wonderful things. We saw Judy Blume & Lois Lowry & the guys who wrote the book about the gay penguin read at a Banned Books Read Out downtown a few weeks ago, and it was fantastic. I've managed to catch all the debates so far, though I'll have to miss tomorrow's because I have a class. I got an Obama shirt in the mail the other day, but I think I'll have to give it to my dad because it's weirdly giant, and invites many awkward jokes about Obama's face and my boobs.

Q: Creepy.

A: I know.

Q: Anything else?

A: That about sums it up, I think.

Q: Wanna play Wildlife Prairie Park?

A: Shoot, I'd love to, but I have to run. Oh, there is one more thing:

Q: The end?

A: The end. For now.

24 September 2008

No Duping!

This afternoon, I took a stroll around the block while waiting for a conference call that never came. It's a gorgeous, warm September day, not a bit like winter, regardless of what my subconscious thinks. (A few nights ago at Kate's, we were talking about something or other and I said, "Now that it's winter...." and everyone looked at me until Natalie patted my hand nicely. "It's not winter yet, Molly. It's not even fall." Not in my head, though. One cold weekend and it's winter, forever, until next June.)

Anyway, so I came across this sign:

No Duping Allowed!

And I thought, well, that's good. I wouldn't want to be duped right now. I'm glad to know that I'm in a dupe-free zone, though I don't know how wide the no-duping range is. Could I be duped on the next block? Across the street?

After snapping a picture, I turned around to see this sign directly across from me:

Elephants! Performing Elephants!

Oh my gosh! I thought. Could there REALLY be ELEPHANTS in that old warehouse, just a few blocks from my office? Could I go pet them on a bad day, offer peanuts to their little prehensile noses? Could they snuffle my blues away? ELEPHANTS???

And then I realized: I'm standing in a NO DUPING ZONE! It's totally illegal to trick people here! Therefore, there MUST BE ELEPHANTS IN THAT WAREHOUSE!

I am SO going to befriend them. Elephants!

17 September 2008

Two for Wednesday

Two links that made me laugh:

Hamlet as a Facebook Feed, which probably isn't very funny if you're not a Facebook person, but is absolutely hilarious if you are,


Are You an Elitist? 18 Ways to Tell for Sure: "You recognize and appreciate more than 50 percent of the references and enjoy at least a quarter of the featured profiles in the New York Times Arts section. Also, you read the New York Times. Also, you read."

13 September 2008

Bon Anniversaire, Bittersweet!

Or: Still Ranting After All These Years

This week marks the Five Year Anniversary/Blogday of Bittersweet. Happy five years, Bittersweet!

I meant to celebrate on the actual day -- September 8 -- but once again I find myself deeply immersed in rewrites. So it's a very merry belated blogday, this time around.

I'm sure you haven't noticed, but I really like anniversaries, birthdays, turning points, and so forth. I like to stand on top of a hill and look back to where I've been, to chart the road I've already traveled. Five years ago, when I started this blog, I'd just moved from rural Iowa to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which felt extremely cosmopolitan at the time. The mere proximity of such luxuries as a pet store! a movie theater playing more than one film at a time! more than one bookstore! and a mall! All within a ten minute drive! seemed incredible, after five years in Grinnell, where we had to drive 100 miles round trip just to go to a Barnes & Noble. Of course, ABQ didn't feel very cityish for long, particularly after I started working out in the East Mountains & commuted out of what little claim to cityness we had in ABQ, trading the city for the mountains every morning. I never worked in the city, in the four years I lived in and around Albuquerque.

I've been thinking about this distinction lately, city vs. country, thanks to the Republican Convention. Last weekend, we were in Iowa for a wedding (my third Des Moines wedding in four years) and, as always, I felt something in my heart take a deep breath and relax the second we crossed the Mississippi River.

You asked what land I love the best, Iowa, tis Iowa,
The fairest State of all the west, Iowa, O! Iowa,
From yonder Misissippi's stream
To where Missouri's waters gleam
O! fair it is as poet's dream, Iowa, in Iowa.

See yonders fields of tasseled corn, Iowa in Iowa,
Where plenty fills her golden horn, Iowa in Iowa,
See how her wonderous praries shine.
To yonder sunset’s purpling line,
O! happy land, O! land of mine, Iowa, O! Iowa.

When I first moved to Iowa, the state tourism motto was "Iowa: You make me smile," which at first I thought was ridiculous, then sort of hokily charming, then adorable, and finally irrefutably true. Iowa, you do make me smile.

I grew up in a town of about 6,000 people (it's bigger now -- probably close to 8,000) and spent a large part of my childhood running around in cornfields. From there, I moved to a town of 10,000 in the middle of rural Iowa. I have been accused of constructing my identity as it suits me: I can be a country mouse from a small town in Wisconsin, or I can be a liberal hippie kid from just outside Madison, depending on which better serves my argument. I can be a country girl who moved across the country with her dog and whatever fit in the back of her pickup truck, or I can be a boho city dweller who jumped off the obvious career path to live in Chicago & be a writer. In fact, I am all of these at once, and none of them exclusively.

How many of us can fit into one demographic only? Not many, I'd wager. In fact, we all have multiple identities, fluid constructions of self that change from year to year and conversation to conversation. Generally, I'm a country mouse, happiest out of the big city, among the cornfields and wide skies of the rural midwest, but the fact remains that I've also lived in Boston and Chicago and Albuquerque, and though I may have come off as a bit of a hayseed at times, in the end I've done just fine for myself in cities.

So what's up with this utterly false divide between "small town values" and "big city liberals"? Why are the republicans pretending to value people from small towns and trashing people from cities? I may be a city dweller these days, but I don't think that my values have changed a bit over the years. Growing up in a small town meant knowing that anytime you do something wrong, somebody's going to see you and call your mother. It means that your life is witnessed and valued by a community. It means that you're held accountable for your actions and remembered for your successes. It means that you're accepted for who you are -- yes, even the gays, and the jews, and the blacks. It means that you're responsible for the wellbeing of your neighbors, that you look out for each other, that you share the excesses of your garden in good years and show up with hot dishes in times of trouble.

But the thing is, this country is far too big to work in a small-town way. It would be fantastic if we could apply the "small town values" of caring for each other and helping one another out on a larger, nation-wide scale. With 6,000 people, it's not hard to keep track of who needs money for chemotherapy and who could use help shoveling their driveway; with 301,139,947 people, it's nearly impossible. On a nation-wide scale, affordable health care would certainly help. Early childhood education, strong public schools, and a national living wage would help. Doesn't it seem that so many of the programs the democrats are accused of "wastefully spending" government money on are the very ones which stand in for small town values?

I may live in Chicago, but I'm still a small town girl. I'm still a country mouse. I've been a cornshucker and a pickup driver, I like country music & bluegrass, and I fervently fervently believe that the job of a society is to take care of its weakest members, whether that be a small town raising money for a friend's chemotherapy or a national government giving money to workforce training and support programs. My values are small town values, goddammit, and they're ALL ABOUT TAKING CARE OF PEOPLE and not about taking care of corporations. I resent the hell out of anyone who tries to claim my small town values to push an agenda that's uncaring and doesn't offer the same rights to all citizens.

Five years ago, I started this blog as a way to keep in touch with my family and friends after I moved 1,500 miles away from them. Today, I maintain it to stay connected to them and to the many friends I've made along the way. Essentially, it's about communication, about pulling the strings a little tighter, about keeping our community close. We're a wandering society, and these days we're too far apart to meet in the local coffeehouse or church basement to catch up with one another. And yet, we're still looking out for one another, still doing our best to help our neighbors and friends when they need a hand.

Happy five years, everyone. Thanks for reading.

29 August 2008

The Persistence of Hope

It’s awfully easy to be cynical about the American political system. Sometimes it feels like a struggling marriage: objectively, you can still remember what you saw in it, back when you were young and the Bill of Rights was more than a string of broken promises, when you and Congress strolled hand in hand over the moonlit grass on the Washington Mall, when you split a bottle of wine with the Supreme Court and you stayed up until dawn listening to Miles Davis and sharing stories about checks and balances and unbiased interpretations of the law. Now, though, you hardly have time to put your feet up after work before you’re dragged into the same old argument you’ve been having for years now, bringing up old wounds and fighting again about hanging chads and disenfranchised voters and campaign mud-slinging and wasted Congressional potential and stolen electoral votes…. Every now and again, you catch a glimpse of the political system across a room at a party, or you find yourself defending it to a friend, and you get a rush of affection for it after all these years, for what you’ve had together, and for what it could be still….

But with so many disappointments behind you, it’s so hard not to lose faith.

Lately, I’ve found myself with idle thoughts about these potentially historic times, and wondering if I shouldn’t be doing a better job of documenting them for any future children who might need to interview me for their fifth grade family oral history projects. “Grandma, what were you doing in 2008?” they’ll ask, and I’ll search through the cobwebby corners of memory and come up with, “Well, I was… hmm. If I recall correctly, I was… well, I do seem to remember spending a lot of time at Target….” Earlier this summer, I was at the Old Town Art Fair watching Peter Mulvey, and to introduce a song about Dwight Eisenhower, he said, “Back in the old days, we used to have presidents who wrote – and read – books!” The audience laughed, and someone yelled, “We will again soon!” and a couple other voices echoed him, and I thought I should write this down. These are the little moments I’ll want to remember. And then the tiny, cynical voice in my head said, Unless it doesn’t matter. Unless nothing changes.

And this is how we squash hope.

On the night of the 2000 presidential election, I was supposed to be working on a paper for some class, but instead I spent half the night down the hall in a friend’s dorm room, watching the results roll in state by state. Blue… blue…blue…blue… we were pleased, but not particularly surprised… until midnight, when the states all started switching colors, and the country turned red… red… red… red. Reeling, my best friend and I staggered back to my room to mull over this strange shift when we looked out the window and saw flames, hot orange fingers making dancing black shadows against the building next door. For a moment it seemed the world was on fire, and I thought, so this is how it will be from now on. We rushed down to call 911 and help if we could, and found that someone had torched the wooden dumpster behind Quad. The night was full of such violent, ineffective protests: shattered glass and arson and vandalism, all of it hateful. None of it helpful. Still, I can’t think of that night without seeing orange flames, the world ignited.

Hope, squashed.

Sometimes, when I talk politics with my parents, they start to sound hopeful and then back down with, “That is, unless he gets assassinated first.” My god, what a terrible thing to say! And yet, how can you blame them: they lost John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy (and Wellstone, and….). There was the Democratic National Convention of 68, the Chicago Seven, and Kent State, and how could your heart not be a little shattered, after living through all that? Still, is this what the glorious baby boomer generation has learned about hope? Foster it, feed it, hand it over shyly, and then watch it get murdered in front of you?

We are the children of the Vietnam generation, and this, I think, has shaped us more than anything else. We’re not really Gen-Xers and we’re not really Millennials. We are the heirs of the late sixties and early seventies, the children of the flower children, raised by parents who protested the Vietnam war or who enlisted or both, parents who heard the call of their generation and changed their majors to sociology and education, who became social workers and union organizers and teachers to make positive change in the world, to make the world a better place for their children. For us.

As a teenager, I used to wish I had a cause to fight for like my parents had, studied Vietnam in my painfully dull Contemporary American History and yawned my way through videos depicting the events of my parents’ young lives. The events of their youth that informed their politics and shaped their personalities and shook their world were translated into multiple choice tests for my classmates and me, a series of dates and names to memorize the night before the test and forget immediately afterward. And yet, as a sleepy teenager in southern Wisconsin, I was impressed by the video footage of monks setting themselves on fire in protest, of marches and sit-ins and all that conviction. I wrote in my journal then, age sixteen or seventeen, that I wished we had something to protest, like my parents did.

In retrospect, though, I don’t think it was the fight I wanted but rather the conviction, the sense of community and purpose, the honest belief that one person could make a difference in the world. That if you worked together, you could literally change the world.

Of course, we got a taste of that after September 11, when we were all united in grief. But of course, instead of taking that newfound sense of communal understanding and sisterhood and directing it toward making things better, we allowed it to be squandered and we allowed ourselves to be divided. In 2003, we marched to protest the war in Iraq, a war not only unjust and unwarranted, but illegal. “The French political scientist Dominique Reynié has estimated that, between 3 January and 12 April 2003, some 36 million people took part in nearly 3,000 protests around the world against the Iraq war.” We marched – millions of us, across the country and across the world – we marched together, with a sense of shared purpose, with a common goal, working together to make things better, marching together to change the world.

And nothing happened.

Under the government’s thumb, the media gave little coverage to the protests. The Pentagon literally bribed news analysts to speak favorably of the war. Millions of voices, working together, went unheard. And this is how hope is squashed.

How can you not be cynical? How can you not give up? We are a cynical generation, a generation of lethargic hipsters who hold ourselves at an ironic distance from everything. We have to preface everything we say with qualifiers about how we don’t actually care, we don’t actually believe, we won’t actually let ourselves fall headfirst into anything like hope.


Last night I went downstairs to watch Obama’s speech with my neighbors. Five of us sat around watching the speech, occasionally cracking jokes but listening goddammit, sitting together for an hour to see history unfold before us. Making memories to share with our grandchildren. Because we can do this. We can make this happen. We can be the change we wish to see in the world.

Folks, we've been waiting our whole lives for causes as worthy as those our parents had, and now we're in the SAME place our parents were in the late 60s and early 70s. Vietnam, Kent State, changing norms and expectations of gender and relationship roles, barriers in race and class and sex breaking down.... and here we are again, if we embrace it. Our parents' generation talks about how Kennedy got them excited and inspired about politics; maybe Obama will serve a similar function for the facebook generation.

And if Obama’s not enough, and you can't inspire yourself, go talk to the people who came before us, our parents who changed themselves in order to make a change in the world. They worked to make the world a better place for their children -- US -- and their children's children -- and now it's our turn to pick up where they left off.

Keep hoping. Keep working. Keep the faith. We can make the world a better place. We can be the change we wish to see in the world. Yes, we can.

25 August 2008

Ten YEARS, Man!

It was an historical weekend on several fronts. First, Friday the 22nd was the ten year anniversary of meeting my college roommate, partner-in-crime, fellow Cool Math teacher, and all around BFF Alison C. Brown, aka AliBrown, Ali N. Brown, "Sally," Alicakes, and Monsterface.

Freshman Year

The summer before college, everyone I knew regaled me with their stories of crazy roommates. The roommate who didn't talk but compulsively sniffed things, including my friend's clothing and shower poof. The roommate who stole my friend's address book and attempted to steal all his friends. The roommate who -- when my friend woke up with a start in the middle of the night -- just happened to be lying ON TOP OF HIM. Whoops! Needless to say, I was completely terrified of the possibility that my future roommate would be a complete and utter psychopath.

Instead, I got Ali.

Ten Years Later

Though some might argue that Ali is, indeed, a monster (Cam, for one, can't get through a single conversation with me without making fun of Ali, even if she's not there to hear it), she's certainly a loveable one. Ten years ago, there was a moment where we stared at each other in our room in Langan, worried about our mother's descriptions of us (they got along fabulously, and chatted on about their darling daughters in language that made us both sound incredibly uptight and unfun), by the end of that very first day, Ali and I were BFFs for life.

Monster Attack

My roommate is fabulous. Her name is Ali, she’s from NY, and we have so much in common. We listen to the same music, we are both directionally impaired (can’t tell our right from our left), both have friends named Jesse with whom we were in love in [HS] Freshman Bio... we even have the same toothbrush! Last night we were sitting out on Mac Field until 3 am, just talking.... (23 August 1998)

In retrospect, it seems rather amazing that such a strong friendship could be built on such a simple foundation. Same music! Both have to look at our hands to know which way is left! Crushes on boys named Jesse! Same toothbrush!! WE'RE OBVIOUSLY DESTINED TO BE BFFS!!!

Funny that it turned out to be true. It's been ten years and I can wholeheartedly say that I would not be the person I am today without Miss Ali N. Brown, and I love her for it. Happy Ten Year Friendship Anniversary, Ali!

The World According to Ali

Oddly enough, the weekend I celebrated Ten Years of BFFhood with my college roommate was also the weekend of my Ten Year High School Reunion. Particularly observant readers will notice that this was actually my second school reunion of the summer. I started the summer at my five-year-cluster college reunion (technically, six years after graduating) and ended the summer with my high school reunion. It was hard not to compare the two. For most people, the high school reunion is more meaningful, because most people went to college with thousands of other people, and it is their high school class of only a few hundred other people that feels like a family. But I graduated from college with about 300 people, only fifty more than my high school class. AND, unlike my high school class, I lived with my college class in a tiny square of rural Iowa where there was almost nothing to do that didn't involve a bunch of other college kids. We danced and drank and slept and studied and gossiped and grew together in four of the most intense years of my life. In comparison, high school was pretty tame.

On the other hand, I graduated from high school with people I'd known, essentially, since birth. We grew up in the kind of small town that leads you to go to prom with the same kids you sat next to in preschool. At our reunion, we weren't just reminiscing about our four years together and catching up on the six years since; we were telling stories going as far back as preschool, and catching up on a decade apart. It was intense.

Matching Tiger Suits, ca. 1986

I got a ride to the reunion with my other BFF, Cindy Owens, aka CJ, CindyJo, CJFO, and Seege. Cindy and I have been friends since we were four years old, when she and Jenny Buchner gave me the ugly Barbie in a brown dress and piled all their Barbies into a Barbie camper and drove away without my bad Barbie, who hopped after them on her chewed-on plastic feet. "Hey guys... wait for me...." As a little girl, I was known as "Cindy's Shadow." My small family was folded into her large one decades ago, and her son calls my mother his aunt and treats my childhood home as his own (much as his mother did in high school -- I remember being startled sophomore year when Cindy grabbed me in the hallway between classes to let me know she'd gone over to my house at lunch to "borrow" some aluminum foil for a class project).

Ben Franklin Bitches, ca. 1996

But of course I see Cindy all the time. She's one of the few people I've been consistently in touch with since graduation. It's not that I have anything against the people I went to high school with -- if anything, I've been impressed by how interesting and rich and diverse their lives are. In high school, I saw our small town as a cultural sinkhole from which few of us would escape. Now, I admire equally the people who have stayed close to home to share their lives with their extended families and the people who have left the state, the region, and even the country. Everyone has a story to tell.

Some of the people I talked to this weekend surprised me with how kind they've become since high school, or how insightful, or how funny. Natalie made me laugh out loud with her ranting about how few Cheesemakers have actually attacked anyone. Jess wowed me with her deep empathy and insights about life. Joe entertained me with gossip and questions like "Why didn't we call [Geri Sphatt] G-SPOT in high school? Answer me that!!"

Senior Year

Overall, I left feeling fond of my town and proud of my classmates who have grown into such caring, insightful adults. Of course, there were a couple of d-bags there and a few people whose high school personalities have calcified into utter obnoxiousness. [Not you, of course. If you're reading this, you're clearly one of the most enlightened and awesome people from our class.] I realized that in high school, I always gave people the benefit of the doubt, assumed that they'd grow into themselves, get over themselves, grow up. In high school, everyone's personality had a glow of potential to it, not only what they were, but what they could be. Now, most of them -- most of us -- have grown into that potential, have broadened our horizons and let the world expand our understandings of who we are to ourselves and to each other.

I expected it to be more Grosse Point Blank, but instead of getting to kill a ghoul with a pen and rolling him in a school spirit banner, I got to watch a third grade program from twenty years ago with a bunch of laughing grownups who still recognized the third graders inside the adults, and vice versa. I saw third grade Molly standing in a row of little girls, standing on tiptoe to see over the girl in front of her as they all sang "My Favorite Things," and I got to imitate her bobbing head while a table full of old friends laughed and looked for their third grade selves. And I have to say, it was pretty sweet.

13 August 2008


Sometimes I wonder what exactly my life is missing. It's nothing obvious, no clear gaping hole in the center of my life I have to step around during the day and fall into each night, nothing so apparent. Just that, from time to time, I have this ghost of a yearning, the feeling that my life should be slightly more, that I'm not adequately cashing in on all life has to offer.

Today it becomes clear: oh yes. Of course. What I've been missing is BABY MOOSE PLAYING IN MY BACKYARD.

08 August 2008

Walking in Chicago

Ever since I sold my truck in May, I've been walking to and from work nearly every day. I work about three miles from my house, and sometimes I walk the entire way home, though the last mile or so is rather ugly. I prefer to walk through the neighborhoods, off the main streets, but the Chicago River limits the ways to get home.

The Chicago River from Diversey

I can wander through the neighborhoods for a good while, but eventually I have to pick Damen, Diversey, or Western to get me across the river, and they're all ugly. Generally, I prefer to wind my way through the neighborhoods over to Western or Damen and then take the bus home from there. Either way, I've been averaging about three miles a day.

I love it.

I love walking to work in the morning. I like to get off the bus early and walk down Grace, with its big houses and leafy trees. I like the cool, early light and the morning friendliness of the firefighters hanging out at the station. Even if I'm feeling cranky and stiff, a leisurely mile's walk wakes me up as well as coffee, and I find that I arrive at work feeling rather fond of the world, unlike the days I take two buses and arrive glowering.

Tree in Roscoe Village

The walk home is even nicer. I have more time to stop and look closely, to explore new streets and look for secrets. All my life, I've looked for secrets on familiar journeys: the falling down barn on 151 whose slow disintegration marked my years between Grinnell and Madison, the beautiful bridge slowly eaten by creeping vines off of Hwy 6 on the way to Iowa City, the pond outside Oregon where I often see cranes, herons, and swans. This curve of road, along a woods and down into a meadowed plain. That stand of rock which looks different in every light. The moment when the sky opens up, the decent into river valley, the place where we always see hot air balloons. Before, my commuter secrets were wild places, the kind of secrets you can see from the road as you go speeding by.


Now, my secrets are smaller, slower. The house with the pretty shutters. The block where every building's street numbers are fixed in antique stained glass. The window where the cat watches the street below. The gated garden full of wildflowers. The wrought-iron fence covered in grapevines.

Sidewalk Art

One day I meet dogs named Walt and Harper. "After Harper Lee?" I ask, and the man nods unhappily. I don't bother to ask him if the lab is named after Whitman. Another day I find a necklace hanging on a low branch of a tree. There is art on the sidewalks, a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers, a gutted building with a dark brick cave where the stairs should be. A little girl in pigtails intently painting spindles on a porch railing, alongside her father, both cross-legged.


Walking through the neighborhoods makes me love this city. Last weekend, we camped in the woods of Northern Illinois and woke to a morning raucous with birdsong. We wandered through a giant meadow of prairie flowers and examined the blood drops in Queen Anne's Lace, the undersides of milkweed leaves, the textures of different grasses. We held our hands to the horizon to judge the minutes before sundown, watched the stars come out in spots between treetops, built a fire and cooked dinner on sticks and told stories in the flickering shadows of flames. On the trainride back into the city we were quiet, and when we reached the big intersection near our house it was uglier than usual. "Dirty urban wind," we told each other, our shorthand for the way nature eludes you in the city, the way you forget the earth is still under your feet though you have to imagine your way down through layers of brick and concrete to find it. Back from the woods, Chicago was stark and dirty and too bright, too harsh, too loud. In that moment, it was hard not to hate it.


Some people are enlivened by the city. The lights and noise, the culture and food and music and streets and art and people and pigeons and speed and life, some people it feeds. Me, it depletes. I need quiet nights, starry skies, opossums on back porches and flashes of fox in back yards. I am a country mouse at heart. But walking through the neighborhoods and quiet streets helps me to love this city too, and almost - almost - begin to call it home, and mean it.

07 August 2008

Obama's Stand on LGBT Families

While we live in a nation that is enriched by a vast array of diverse traditions, cultures and histories, it is our commonality that most defines us. The desire to build a life with a loved one, to provide for a family and to have children who will grow and thrive — these are desires that all people share, regardless of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

[...]But we also have to do more to support and strengthen LGBT families. Because equality in relationship, family, and adoption rights is not some abstract principle; it’s about whether millions of LGBT Americans can finally live lives marked by dignity and freedom. That’s why we have to repeal laws like the Defense of Marriage Act. That’s why we have to eliminate discrimination against LGBT families. And that’s why we have to extend equal treatment in our family and adoption laws.

I’ll be a president that stands up for American families – all of them.

Barack Obama

Read the whole letter here

21 July 2008

In this area...

But you know, they don't really care if you go a block or two that way.

19 July 2008

Stay in School, or I Will Kick Your Ass

I know that most of the readers of this blog are grownups. Most of you even have college degrees. Good job! Go, you! You deserve a cookie.

If you have already graduated from high school, this blog post is not for you.

If, however, you are one of the approximately 400 students I taught in New Mexico, or you're a kid whose overbearing parent or grandparent or teacher sent this link to you, or you're a high schooler of any kind, or you're seriously considering dropping out of high school for any reason, or -- well, you know what I mean -- this blog post is for you.

This morning I responded to two separate emails from two separate former students asking about whether or not they should stay in school. You GUYS!! You're killing me! Of course you should stay in school! Even Mr. T knows that.

Look, you guys. I know that high school sucks. Of course it does. It sucks for everyone. Anyone who tells you that high school will be the best years of your life is either mis-remembering high school entirely or just completely deranged. High school is NOT the best years of your life, but it IS practice for the best years of your life.

You don't need me to tell you all the statistics about how high school dropouts make so much less money than graduates (and over a lifetime, a MILLION DOLLARS less than the average college graduate) or how high school dropouts make up a disproportionate percentage of America's prison and death row inmates or how high school dropouts are far more likely to apply for public aid and assistance. You can google all those facts yourself, and you probably should. I imagine, though, that the idea of making a million dollars more over the course of your lifetime seems pretty abstract in the face of the concrete suckiness of your day to day high school life. Right?

Here's the thing: high school sucks because you're learning big giant important life lessons, and it's always completely uncomfortable to learn big giant important life lessons. We humans are kind of dumb, and we only learn big giant important life lessons when the universe hits us over the head repeatedly with a giant metaphorical stick. In other words, humans have to SUFFER to learn. That's how we're made. When you were really little, and your mom told you not to put your hand on a hot stove, did you say, "Okay, Mom! Thanks for the heads up! I will take the wisdom you've earned from life and apply it to my own!" or did you go, "Don't what? Hmm, what would happen if I put my hand here? OWWWWW mother of god that hurts oh my lord the agony aaaaahhhhh!!"

Mmm-hmm, and which one made a bigger impression on you?

I hate to say it, you guys, but high school is an awful lot like life. Think of it as the bootcamp of adulthood. It sucks because you're encountering all these crappy aspects of life for the first time, and you're trying to negotiate your way through by trial and error. You're putting your hand on that hot stove every single day, and it freaking hurts. The good news is that all of the lessons you're learning now will help you later in life. I swear.

One of the most important things you'll learn in high school is sheer perseverance. SO much of your future success will depend on your ability to keep showing up, even in the face of major trials and difficulties and bad hair days and stupid people up in your face all the time and headaches and all the other mundane awful things of every day life. High school teaches you to keep on trucking, no matter how bad things get. Woody Allen said "Ninety percent of success is just showing up." Thomas Edison said "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." You see? Good things only come to those who work steadily, every single day, at making their dreams come true. Oddly enough, high school will make you better at this.

Another crucial life lesson you'll learn in high school is how to get along with people you hate. I know you're surrounded by small minded, stupid, annoying, ridiculous people. I know they drive you crazy. Unfortunately, you're going to have to work with them for the rest of your life. I have only worked ONE job in my entire adult life that didn't have at least one completely obnoxious co-worker I had to deal with -- and that's because I was only working with one other person. I hate to tell you, but we live in a group-work society, and high school is your training ground for how to deal with people that make you want to stab your eyes out with a pencil.

Finally, high school will help you to learn how to make the most out of your life. Believe me, the next sixty-odd years will be full of people and situations you don't want to deal with, busy work that makes you crazy, boring tedious repetitive tasks (just ask anyone without a dishwasher), financial and emotional and time constraints, regardless of who or what you are. The good news is that within that framework of all the stuff you have to do and all the limits you have on you, you get to choose what your life will be. I'm serious. Whether you end up working three jobs to support the seventeen children you managed to acquire or living in a mansion with a butler and six ferrets, you will get to choose whether you're happy or sad, whether you're a victim or a hero, whether your life is full of loneliness and tears or love and laughter, YOU GET TO CHOOSE. When I was in high school, my best friend used to remind me (constantly), "You know, Abraham Lincoln said that most folks are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be!" and I would say "Shut the hell up, Matt, I am full of angst and rage and you don't understand my pain!" and then I would punch him in the face. But eventually, and to my chagrin, I learned that he (and Abe Lincoln) was right. You're going to be as happy as you make up your mind to be, whether you're sitting in Algebra or touring the circuit as a professional rodeo clown. Living through high school is excellent practice.

Finally, in response to those of you who have emailed me complaining that your high school is awful and your teachers are morons and the whole experience is just making you DUMBER: look, I sympathize. I had a high school English teacher who didn't know the difference between the words "resume" and "résumé" and it made me want to call the presses and run a major exposé in all the papers about the idiots who were teaching in our schools. And I actually went to a pretty good school. And really, as a teacher, I know for a fact that some of your teachers probably are dumb, because I know that I've had a colleague or two over the years who's shocked me with their ignorance. But I also know that MOST of your teachers are a lot smarter than you think they are, and even dumb people can occasionally teach you something of worth. If you feel like you're not being challenged by the school, then take the reins into your own hands and challenge yourself. Take the hardest classes you can find. Push yourself to get straight As in all of them. Learn a new language. Teach yourself how to draw. Write a book. Read every single one of the 100 Best Novels. Invent something. Take up cross country running, or knitting, or fencing. Learn how to cook and bake and make your own yogurt. Find ways to help out people who are worse off than you. Challenge yourself.

And hang in there.

Ms. Backes

14 July 2008

What I Love, A List*

Walking to work in the morning through the moving shadows and leafy light. An endless supply of lemonade in my refrigerator. A cup of hot tea while the rain splats against the windows outside. Fireworks from a city roof, 360 degrees. Grinnellians. Watching the mice poke their noses through the bars of their cage. An unexpected gift, a necklace hanging from a tree. Postcards. Sitting in a green back yard as the sky turns tangerine and lavender and deep blue and the fireflies bob among the bushes and the flowers. Tiny Italian lights. Floyds. Trusting myself (hard-earned and a long time coming). Reconnecting with people from the distant past. That moment in the morning between sleep and waking, when it seems anything could happen. The Chicago Public Library. Reaching out for a hand to hold and finding that a hundred people have been holding you up all along. Free artwork. Our newly working doorbell, and all the possibilities it offers. Dinner with teachers. Finding new people who feel like old friends. Strolling to the pooch park to pet other people's pooches. Weekends in Wisconsin. Walking all over this city. Secret doorways in vine-covered walls. Ice cream, anytime. A brand new bottle of expensive shampoo. Talking to my neighbors. Discovering wonderful new books, and rediscovering old ones. Freshly clean laundry. Houseplants I dragged all the way from New Mexico. Votes of confidence when you need them the most. Cold junior mints and hot coffee, together. Opening the window and yelling down to the people on the sidewalk below. A quilt from my mother, thirty years old. Lots of things.


10 July 2008

What Writers Can Learn from Wall-E

All about that adorable little robot and what he has to teach storytellers over at Cooler By The Lake.

09 July 2008

The Dreaded Passive Voice, and How A Friendship Was Nearly Destroyed by It

Reader, I'm sorry I've been neglecting you. I'm up to my waist in questions of emotional logic and over-parented characters (don't even ask) and character arcs and plot twists. In other words: BO-ring! Instead of putting you to sleep with descriptions of my incredibly exciting days (I work! Every day! And I write! Every day! Sometimes I drink tea instead of coffee! It's madness!!), I thought I'd repost a story I wrote last spring, which originally appeared on the StoryStudio Chicago blog, Cooler By The Lake.

The Dreaded Passive Voice,
and How A Friendship Was Nearly Destroyed By It

This spring, the Bad Habits met up in Barbados for Sister Nadia’s wedding. The four of us – Sister Alison, Sister Mary, Sister Nadia, and I – lived together our senior year of college, in a house we called “The Funnery Nunnery.”

The Funnery Nunnery

We became known as the Fun Nuns, and then (after we beat everyone in town at darts) the Bad Habits.

Sister Mary Mary, Sister Mary Nadia, and Sister Mary Alison,
with honorary Fun Nun Sister Mary Dan

Sister Nadia is from Barbados, and in college we used to joke about her wedding, complaining about how we’d all be forced to travel to Barbados for it, and what a terrible burden that would be. Little did we imagine that the day would come when the Fun Nuns would indeed reunite on the beach.

Our first night

It was the first time we’d been together in six years. Sister Nadia, now living in Ethiopia, had only been back to the States once since we graduated. Sister Mary, Sister Ali, and I all live in different cities, and don’t usually get to see each other more than once or twice a year. But here we all were, happily ensconced in a Beach House. While Nadia stayed with her parents, Mary, Ali, and I worked in secret to make a scrapbook for her, The Tale of the Fun Nuns, to let Sister Nadia know that though she was leaving the convent, she’d always be our sister. I spent the days before I left gathering pictures, making photocopies, and spending WAY too much money on markers, stickers, and paper. In the Beach House, the girls and I gathered around the kitchen table, mere feet from the ocean, cutting and gluing and decorating and chatting to the soundtrack of Bajan Radio. It was bliss…

The Beach House

…until the very last day, the day we had to write the text for our lovely, hilarious history of the Fun Nuns. We had thirty or so pages of pictures and stickers and glitter with little scrolls on each page for the text to complete the fairy tale motif. We knew roughly what each page would say, but we hadn’t written the exact words yet. When we started writing, to my utter HORROR, Sisters Mary and Ali wanted to write the ENTIRE book in PASSIVE VOICE.

Needless to say, I kind of freaked out.

They read the draft aloud. “Beer was drunk… hygiene was maintained… mountains were climbed… friends were made with critters great and small… thoughts were thunk…”

“Thoughts were THUNK?” I asked. “That’s not even ENGLISH.”

“It’s cute!” they said.

“It’s passive voice! It’s terrible! No no no. Write it in active voice!” (In my defense, I was an English teacher for years, where I picked up a nasty little habit of demanding changes in sloppy writing. I know, I know, it’s obnoxious, but come on! Before they give you a license to teach English, you have to sign an affidavit swearing your loyalty to the active voice.)

“We don’t know how,” they said.

“This is the story of the Fun Nuns,” I said. “So: they drank beer, they brushed their teeth, they climbed mountains, they made friends with critters.”

“That sounds dumb,” the Sisters complained. “We like it our way.”

Beer was drunk

“Girls,” I said, “Nadia’s mother was already making fun of us for being terribly stupid despite our fancy university educations.” (This is true. The problem was that a dressmaker was making the bridesmaids’ dresses before she actually met the bridesmaids, which meant that the girls needed to send their dress measurements months ahead of time. Seeing as how most women of my generation acquire clothing by going to the store and picking out something that’s already made and already fits, the girls had no experience taking their dress measurements. One of them sent a measurement from the nape of her neck to the front of her belly button, with a note that said, “But I can’t imagine what you’d need this number for.” The mothers laughed for DAYS.)

“This is a book that Nadia will show people all over the world. We don’t want them to think that we’re ignorant Americans who don’t know any better than to use the passive voice.”

“You are really blowing this out of proportion,” they said.

Things were getting awfully tense at the Beach House. These were my best girlfriends in the world. I didn’t want to make them mad, but I honestly couldn’t drop it. “Everyone knows that passive voice is a crutch for shady people who don’t want to take ownership of their own actions. That’s not us! I mean, beer was drunk and thoughts were thunk? WE drank that beer, damn it! WE thunk those thoughts. WE incorrectly conjugated those verbs! They were crazy times! We don’t need to be embarrassed about our actions! We don’t need to hide behind the passive voice! If the book is in passive voice, then it’s like the world was happening to the Fun Nuns. But this is our story! We went out into the world! The mountains weren’t just climbed by anyone – WE climbed those mountains! The critters shouldn’t be the subject of this sentence, we should!”

We drank that beer!

I tried to pull our honorary Fun Nun, Brother Carlos, into the argument, but since English was his second or third language, it was a losing proposition. He and I got into a tangled discussion of voice while trying to find a common ground between his good English and my bad Spanish. Pretty soon, I felt everyone in the room glaring at me like I was completely off the hook. Brother Carlos asked nicely, “This is very important to you, yes? But the other way sounds good too.”

Brother Carlos stays out of it

Finally we reached a compromise. Sisters Ali and Mary could have a section of passive voice inside the text, as long as the entire story wasn’t in passive voice. Sister Molly could have her active voice at the beginning and ending of the story, and flip quickly past the passive voice pages. And Brother Carlos could have the left-over glitter dumped all over him (but that’s another story).

Of course the book turned out beautifully, and of course Sister Nadia loved it, and of course we all got a little weepy when we read through it together.

Sister Nadia and The Tale of the Fun Nuns

“Still,” I said that night, “if I ever get married, you girls had better skip the passive voice section.”

“If it will make you happy,” they said, “an active voice book will be made for you by us.”

05 July 2008

Teacher’s Pet

Zeke was a bad dog. The first time I saw him, he was streaking across a campus quad, ears flying in the wind, leash dragging behind him, while his owner followed on a bike, screaming his name. “Zeke! ZEKE! Bad dog!” He lived across the street from me my last year of college, and I watched him, surreptitiously, from my porch. Sometimes I stopped on my way home to pet him. My dog had died the year before and my mom had gotten herself a new dog, but the dog your family gets when you are 21 and in school is not the same as the one they get when you are ten and lonely. I patted Zeke on the head, gingerly, because his dull brown fur was sticky and dusted with dandruff. He had amber eyes and a stump for a tail and an extreme arthritic limp that didn’t prevent him from running away every chance he got. It became routine: Zeke ran away and his owner chased him on his bike, screaming and cursing. “Bad, bad dog!”

Sometimes I saw the man go after Zeke with a stick, yelling and hitting him. Once I tried to talk to him about it, asking if it was really necessary to hit the dog. “Oh yes,” he said. “He is a very bad dog. How else will he learn?” Politeness and fear trapped me in silence, and I shrugged unhappily. “In this country, you treat your dogs better than people,” he said. “In my country, dogs are for working.”

I told myself it was a cultural difference and not my place to interfere. Still, I flinched whenever I saw the man hitting Zeke. Even if he was a bad dog.

Eventually I graduated, moved across town, and began student teaching in a seventh grade classroom. The ten year difference between them and me felt like nothing. Trent Kidder sat in the last row of my last class of the day, and he was a problem from the first. “Oh, Trent Kidder,” the other teachers said knowingly. “He’s a bad kid.”

The other teachers told me that I needed to be harsh with Trent, to show him who was boss. They told me never to smile. They told me to send him to the principal right off the bat, to establish my dominance. I followed their advice, but Trent just got worse and worse. After school every day I went back to campus where I attended methods classes and wrote research papers and thought about how to tone Trent down and spice up my lessons so the rest of my students would care about class.

One Thursday afternoon in early September, the man showed up at my door with Zeke. It was an emergency, he said. He had to go out of town for the weekend and there wasn’t anyone else. Could I please take the dog, just until Sunday night?

“I’m sorry,” I said. I couldn’t do it; my landlord had a very strict policy against dogs.

“Please,” the man said. “You’re the only one.”

I looked down. Zeke was wearing an ill-fitting red harness that cut under his legs and across his neck. He looked uncomfortable. “Oh, all right. Just until Sunday.”

When he was gone, I looked at Zeke. “I guess you’re stuck with me, buddy.” Zeke wagged his stump.

In my family, we’d always left the dog food out all day, and the dogs would eat when they were hungry. I put out a bowl of food for Zeke and he gobbled it as if he didn’t know when he’d see his next meal. Taken aback, I filled his bowl again, and he immediately finished it. “Hey,” I said. “I’ll feed you every day. I promise.” I washed him and brushed him but my family was not impressed. “What a dirty old dog,” they said. “He’s so old! He probably won’t live through the weekend.”

“He’s not dirty,” I said.

On Sunday, I waited for Zeke’s owner. I read a book, and Zeke slept at my feet. The minutes ticked by. I read another book. The man didn’t come. Finally at ten o’clock he called me and said he wasn’t going to make it. He was in Atlanta. “What am I supposed to do?” I demanded. “I can’t keep him!” The man begged me. Just one week. Please. Next Sunday. He promised.

What could I do? I said fine and hung up. Zeke wagged his stump and went back to sleep.

I spent the week sneaking around, trying to keep him hidden. I left him in the basement during the day and took him to campus with me when I could, letting him curl up at my feet in the curriculum library after everyone else had gone home for the night. He panicked when I left, and broke out of every kind of barrier I could make. When I was home, he stayed close to me, winding himself between my legs as I walked through the house and sneaking under the covers at night, like he thought I would leave if he let me out of his sight.

His owner called again Sunday night. From New York this time. No, he couldn’t come get him. Maybe next week.

I took Zeke to the vet and got him glucosamine, and he stopped limping. I brushed him every day and fed him eggs to make his coat soft and shiny brown. I talked to the people who knew his owner, followed a trail through his past to learn as much as I could about him. In the last year, the man had already left Zeke with three other families.

The next week, he didn’t come back, and he didn’t call.

My mother the social worker said Zeke reminded her of the foster children she’d worked with over the years. She put him in her car to take him on a play date and said he looked like a foster kid, resigned to the fact that she would leave him again, that no one wanted to be his forever family.

After six weeks, we got an envelope in the mail with Zeke’s medical records and a note from one of Zeke’s previous foster homes. Congratulations on your new dog! the note said. “I thought you were dog-sitting him,” my mother said.

I looked down at Zeke, who stood leaning against my legs. He wagged his stump at me. “I guess not.”

A few weeks after that, a friend of mine yelled at him as a joke. “Bad dog!” he yelled, and Zeke cowered in fear, whimpering. I nearly kicked my friend out of the house. “Don’t you ever yell at my dog again.” I knelt down with Zeke and wrapped my arms around him, shushing him. “You’re safe,” I told him. “You’ll always be safe with me. I promise you.”

I fed him every day and though he always ate with relish, he lost that haunted look that said he didn’t know when he’d get his next meal. Our family vet helped perfect his glucosamine dosage until his limp disappeared altogether. I walked him every day and let him sleep next to me with his head on the pillow at night. Night after night I watched him fall asleep, marveling that an animal who had been abused and neglected could ever feel safe enough to fall asleep with someone watching.

Zeke became a very good dog.

Little kids could hit him on the head and he’d just stand there, smiling his doggy smile and wagging his stump. I took him to visit my elderly relatives and saw decades drop from their faces as they stroked his soft ears. He was my co-pilot, my hiking buddy, my muse, my partner in crime, my entertainment when I was bored, my relief after a long day at school. My best friend.

Trent, on the other hand, got worse and worse. He interrupted my class at every opportunity, and started to rally the other kids to his cause, until I worried about mutiny. One day I watched him running around the field at lunch, and thought of the first time I saw Zeke, of his unfettered glee as he flew across the quad. The advice of the other teachers suddenly reminded me of what the man had told me about Zeke. “How else will he learn?” I thought about the light that came into Zeke’s eyes, slowly, after months of care and love. Hitting him with a stick made him bad. Treating him with gentle care made him good.

So I forgot the advice of the veteran teachers and followed a hunch instead. Rather than showing Trent who was boss by punishing him, I waited until a day when he was less obnoxious than usual and pounced. “You did such a great job today!” I told him. “You’re a leader in the class, and the other kids look up to you.”

I saw a tiny light appear in Trent’s eyes. “Really?”

“Absolutely,” I said, and smiled at him.

By the end of the semester, Trent was a model student – but only in my class. The other teachers still complained about him and asked me what my secret was. “I just told him he was a good person, and he bloomed.” Maybe that’s all any of us needs, really: someone to pat us on the back and tell us we’re doing a good job.

Nine months after he left, the man reappeared and tried to reclaim Zeke, acting as if that was the plan all along. Though I’m the least confrontational person in the world, I stood my ground, refusing to give the dog back, then threatening to file a restraining order when he didn’t leave me alone. I was only 23, but I was discovering my inner Mama Bear, the part of me that would fight to protect my charges at any cost.

For the next five years, I kept a picture of Zeke on my desk at school to remind me to focus not on punishing the worst in kids, but on bringing out their best. Zeke taught me how to use laughter and kindness to make my classroom a safe place for students, where they could grow into the best versions of themselves. The kids loved to hear stories about him, and instead of giving me the usual mugs and trinkets that teachers get, they gave me tennis balls and bones for Zeke. In class, we diagrammed sentences about him chasing squirrels and eating cheese. They came back from the high school to visit me and asked about him before anything else.

Zeke was a wonderful dog. I promised him I’d take care of him for as long as he lived, and when his time here was up, the vet came to our house and I lay on the floor with my head on the pillow of his dog bed, stroking his soft ears and whispering to him. “You’re a good dog,” I told him. “You’re my best dog.” The whole family gathered around us, crying and petting him, but in the end it was just me and my best dog with our faces together, and I watched him close his eyes for the last time, knowing that he was perfectly safe and perfectly loved.

A few weeks after Zeke died, Trent Kidder graduated from high school. I heard that he grew up to be a serious, studious young man who argued passionately for his beliefs. I thought about him a lot during Zeke’s last days. As a teacher, I often wished I could keep my students safe, as I kept Zeke, for their entire lives. Still, a year is better than nothing, and I’m grateful to the dog who taught me spend what little time I get with students teaching them that they’re good people, they’re safe, and they’re loved.