“So come the storms of winter,
And then the birds in spring again.
I do not fear the time…”
— Sandy Denny
I turned 45 today. There’s nothing especially magical about that, but it’s a comfortable age. Five years into it, I’m still thoroughly enjoying my 40s, despite my elders’ assurances that I wouldn’t when I was a kid.
I have everything I need and most of what I want. Thanks to the surgery I had last summer, my most obnoxious and persistent health problem is gone. I have a rewarding career; supportive family and friends; a house full of pets and plants and mid-century furniture; a schedule that leaves time for creative pursuits; and a view of Tucumcari Mountain out my front window. I feel productive and appreciated — a feeling that was only reinforced this evening when three of my students were out for a walk around town and just randomly showed up in my front yard to say hello. (I don’t think they knew it was my birthday, but after all this social distancing, their unexpected visit was definitely a gift.)
I spent this morning celebrating the decade in which I was born by listening to the ’70s channel on Sirius while repotting some new houseplants and moving some old ones outdoors to give them better growing conditions.
So I gave my creative-writing final this week. That class has only three students, so instead of giving a conventional final, I walked in yesterday, handed each kid a Barbie doll, and gave them their choice of three writing prompts involving a sentient Barbie.
Prompt 1: Barbie lives in a Dream House owned by a 9-year-old girl with affluent parents and a bad habit of losing small objects. Barbie has several housemates who may or may not be sentient. She has a crush on one, and another is incredibly annoying. She has access to a Corvette, Jeep, and RV. Despite her luxurious surroundings, Barbie is dissatisfied with her life and has resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms. She views the 9-year-old as a destructive monster, benevolent deity, or obnoxious landlady (your choice).
Prompt 2: Barbie lives in a crude dollhouse lovingly constructed from a cardboard box by her owner, a precocious 9-year-old girl from a working-class family. Barbie is the girl’s only store-bought toy; everything else is a hand-me-down, yard-sale find, or something homemade. Despite her meager surroundings, Barbie is satisfied with her life. She and the child are each other’s only friend. Barbie wants to help the child, who is being mistreated, but is hampered by the limitations of being a plastic doll.
Prompt 3: Barbie is living rough in a city alley after falling out of a dumpster that was being emptied into a garbage truck. Once a 4-year-old girl’s favorite toy, she was separated from her owner through some tragedy and is now fending for herself. She either desperately misses the child or is grateful to be rid of her. She is in mortal danger from some threat. She has no survival skills and is learning on the fly, acquiring or creating her own shelter and other necessities in whatever way you deem appropriate for a small plastic doll.
I’m not sure this prompt would have worked with another group, but these girls are clever, caustic, and fully capable of turning Barbie’s perfect pink fantasy world into a biting commentary on modern capitalism, a dystopian hellscape, or an existential nightmare.
They’re supposed to be turning in their final drafts tomorrow. I cannot WAIT to read them. I’ve promised the girls that anybody who makes an A on the final gets to keep her Barbie, so they are MOTIVATED.
I met Darian several years ago, when he was a round-faced sophomore serving as a quiet beacon of sanity in a class full of outrageous cutups. He was a sweet kid, unfailingly polite, and so quiet and unassuming that when I went through my archive of classroom photos in search of a photo of him doing something ridiculous to post on Facebook, I came up empty, because Darian wasn’t the kind of kid who craved attention. The only photos I have of him show a young man with a sort of bemused smile on his face, enjoying the antics of some of his more gonzo classmates during a group project at the conclusion of a unit on Hamlet.
Somehow those images, shot by one of his fourth-hour classmates, capture the essence of Darian as I knew him better than anything I could write about him. He was one of those kids every teacher looks forward to working with because he was so good-natured and reliable.
Sometime during Darian’s junior or senior year, he was diagnosed with cancer. He battled it — seemingly successfully for a while — graduated in spite of the distractions it dealt him, and last year, married another of my former students, a funny, confident young woman every bit as sweet and bright as he was. They seemed a perfect match, and smiling at their wedding pictures on Facebook, I fervently hoped they’d get their happily ever after.
Cancer doesn’t care what anybody hopes, and this week, it assigned Chelsey a title nobody her age should have to carry: widow.
The word sounds wrong when I think of her laughing in my classroom or beaming, radiant and beautiful, in her wedding pictures. It feels wrong. It weighs too much. It tastes strange in my mouth when I try to say it, remembering Darian grinning at whatever outrageous thing the class cutups were pulling this time.
Chelsey is a strong, compassionate woman. She’ll need that strength, and I pray that compassion will be returned to her — amplified exponentially — in the coming weeks and months and years. I suspect it will. I know Webster, and I know southwest Tulsa, and if there’s one thing kids who grew up together on the west side of the Arkansas River know how to do, it’s love and support each other through rough times. They’ve had to do it before — far too often — and I wish with all my heart I could stand between them and the world and absorb the blows so they’d never have to do it again.
If you can spare a prayer, a thought, or a good vibe for my kids — and especially Chelsey — I’d appreciate it.
My nephews came to visit us today. We took them to the Show-Me Center for Jurassic Quest, a traveling exhibit that includes life-sized, animatronic dinosaurs, including a few kids can ride for pictures, and all manner of other dinosaur-themed activities. Here are a few photos of their adventures:
After the dinosaur show, my brother-in-law took us all out to lunch at Beef O’Brady’s, a sort of Applebee’s-type place in Jackson, where I let Ollie decide what I should eat for lunch. He picked out a big appetizer plate with chicken strips and onion rings and quesadillas and mozzarella planks and four kinds of dipping sauce. He pointed to the picture on the menu and explained that we were going to split this meal: He would eat “this part” (gesturing to the row of actual food), and I could eat “all this” (gesturing to the little cups of sauce). Pretty slick, that one. He also saw Jamie playing the piano in my dining room and suggested they go sit in the ball chair, which is pretty much their favorite piece of furniture ever. They dashed into the living room, and half a minute later — with his brother suitably distracted — Ollie returned to the piano alone.
They also had fun finding the Doctor Who-themed geocache in my front yard, inspecting the quail and the frozen pond in the back, peering into the worm bin in the basement, befriending the dogs, trying unsuccessfully to coax the cat out from under the bed, and munching on cookies and ice-cream bars.
Jamie, who has been doing a lot of cooking lately, got to take home a dozen quail eggs to experiment with. Can’t wait to see what kind of tiny egg dishes he’ll come up with.
Oh, and lest you think we neglected Hazel: She was attending a birthday party today and missed the dinosaur show, so the boys took a dinosaur souvenir home for her. Next time she sees them, she’ll have her very own velociraptor to assemble and three fossils to dig out of a brick of plaster, including a Mosasaur tooth and some fossilized dinosaur poop.
Hope you had a dinosaurs-and-ice-cream-bars sort of weekend, wherever you are.
I spent this afternoon with my goddaughter and her sister, who got to redeem some of their coupons from last Christmas. We blew up a bar of Ivory soap in the microwave, made a batch of slime, tie-dyed T-shirts in the basement, had a fondue party for lunch (bravo for Velveeta, taco seasoning and that electric fondue pot our old boss gave Ron and me for our wedding 15 years ago), made light-up Daleks out of styrofoam cups and Lite-Brite pegs with LED tealights under them, dipped marshmallows in chocolate and sprinkles, made puzzles and wrote with invisible ink.
If you ever need to entertain children, here is an excellent recipe that will do the job:
1 1/2 c. water, divided
1 tsp. borax
1/2 c. Elmer’s glue
Dissolve the borax in a cup of water. In a separate bowl, stir the glue and food coloring into the remaining half-cup of water. Mix the two solutions together. The glue will turn into a sort of gelatinous slime. Scoop the slime out of the bowl and discard the excess water. The slime will seem a little runny at first, but as you handle it, the texture will improve.
When I made slime with my niece and nephews a few months ago, my mom figured out that if you place a blob of your slime in an empty pill bottle, 35mm film canister or similar container and jab your finger into the middle, the air trapped between the slime and the container will mimic the sound of flatulence, thereby cementing your status as the coolest grownup in your young friends’ social circles. (In case you are wondering, this is high comedy to an 8-year-old.)
Your slime will keep indefinitely if you store it in a sealed ziplock bag in the fridge.
I am sorry to report I don’t have any pictures of our adventures today, as I was too busy cleaning up one project and setting up the next to stop and take photos. The girls’ mom, however, spent a lot of time documenting our adventures for posterity, so I’m sure I’ll be seeing some of those images in the not-too-distant future.
For Devin, Joey and Tevin. Good luck in St. Louis this weekend, guys. I love you, and I am ridiculously proud of you for taking a stand. The root of the problems you’re trying to solve predates all of us, but I’ve known since the minute I set foot in Room 204 that if anybody can get this world moving in the right direction, my kids can.
Go save the world. ❤
(And the rest of you: Say a prayer, light a candle, or just hold a good thought for my kids this weekend. They're planning to travel 400 miles to participate in a very large protest on a very controversial issue, and things could get … tense.)
P.S.: I realize Tupac isn't folk, but his lyrics are at least as powerful as anything Bob Dylan or Joan Baez ever had to say. I'm just sorry they're still relevant. I'd hoped they'd be obsolete by this point, but we still have a long way to go.
Ron hadn’t driven my new car yet, and I hadn’t had a chance to see what kind of mpgs I could coax out of it on two-lane highways, so we took it to Mom and Dad’s today and spent the afternoon hanging out with the kids. Here are a few photos:
For the record, the mileage meter was showing about 18 mpg when we left town. I’d driven about 20 miles on that tank — all of it in town, which is full of hills and stoplights. It’s about 60 miles to Mom and Dad’s house, and it was showing 28.4 mpg when we got home, so I’m guessing on a long road trip, we could get at least 30 mpg if we did a little hypermiling. I’ll probably drive the Dreamcar in town when the roads are clear and reserve the Subaru for weekend lumberyard runs and days when there’s ice in the weather forecast. I really enjoy driving a station wagon, so it will be a nice treat to offset the general crappiness of having to get out of bed on winter mornings.
I have an extremely self-deprecating sense of humor. It comes in handy sometimes. It’s disarming. It can soothe fear, soften a blow, defuse anger, or help me relate to people when they need reassurance. But it can also be a liability, especially when I’m dealing with people who do not know me well and misinterpret my humor as flippancy — or worse, self-loathing.
In Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a man makes fun of the title character’s nose. Cyrano deflates his detractor by enumerating all the colorful insults the man could have dished out if he’d been smarter or more creative.
As a kid, I quickly figured out that if I pulled a Cyrano on a would-be bully, I could control the severity of the blow while taking the fun out of the game. If I beat a bully to the punch and said something funnier (and meaner) than whatever she was planning to say …
I was too small and weak to discourage bullies with my fists. But a battle of wits? Oh, bitch. You tried it.
I’m glad I found a means of protecting myself. And I’m glad I can laugh at myself, because frankly, I’ve done a lot of dumb crap over the years and probably would have gone off the deep end a long time ago if I couldn’t laugh it off. But looking back, it makes me sad to think about how I developed that ability.
It makes me sad to realize I have this sense of humor because a little girl spent most of her childhood inspecting herself for flaws and thinking up terrible things to say about them just so somebody else wouldn’t.
When you think about it, that’s a really effed-up thing for a little kid to have to do. And maybe it was OK for me, but it’s not OK for my niece, my nephews, my goddaughter, or anybody else. Children deserve better than that — and as adults, we’ve got to figure out how to make sure they have better.
While I was sorting my hard drive a while back, I ran across a pair of images of my younger siblings that Mom had asked me to Photoshop together for her several years ago, as Oliver had his back to the camera in one picture, and Grace was rolling her eyes back in her head in the other. Thanks to the busy background (wallpaper, stepstool, mini-vac, etc.) and the ever-so-subtle difference in angles and depths of field between the two images, I decided that was another task for another time, saved the images into whatever folder was handy, and promptly forgot about them.
I had some time on my hands this evening, so I spent an hour ‘Shopping:
Don’t look too closely. The background didn’t quiet down any, and the angles and depths of field didn’t get any closer to aligning while I was ignoring them, but at least nobody is making a weird face or turning around backwards.
And yes, Mom, I saved a high-res version. I’m still tinkering with it, but I’ll send it to you after I make a few more minor adjustments.