Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Charm School

At dinner the other night my husband joked that one of our sons, the one with an entire cookie stuffed in his mouth, his cheeks bulging out and a ring of chocolate around his lips, ought to be enrolled in charm school. "Mmrmph!," objected the child in question, as crumbs spilled onto the table.

It was all in fun, of course. But today the idea of charm school popped back into my head -- charm school not, however, for children, whose parents can serve perfectly well as charm school instructors, even if many parents don't seem to understand that such duties are theirs by virtue of birthing the little critters in the first place.

No, I was thinking about charm school for adults. Here are just a few examples of adults who could use some retraining:

The woman I saw today in the hair salon, who believed it wholly appropriate to allow her four-year-old son to sneeze and cough repeatedly on the stylist cutting his hair, and then to let him grab the push broom, sweep other people's hair into the corner of the room, and turn on the switch to activate the salon's floor vacuum system, which carries a dangerously strong suction. This is the same woman who while her son was "sweeping" and "vacuuming" beamed and exclaimed, "Isn't he cute?" Lady, your kid does not get a cute pass simply because he is a) a kid; and b) your kid. You put the stylist in an uncomfortable position (she tells your son not to play with the vacuum system, and then she loses her tip?) and quite possibly infected her with your child's germs.

Colleagues of mine who awkwardly shift their gaze to the floor (which does not go unnoticed, although they seem to expect that it does) rather than greet people they deem professionally inferior to them. Everyone deserves a "Good morning." Every single person is worthy of basic courtesy.

Television reporters who besiege Oscar attendees with this gem: "Who are you wearing?" First, grammatically bizarre. Second, just, well, gauche. Tacky. Watching the Oscars this year, my husband mused that people never used to ask that question. Can you imagine Katharine Hepburn answering such a thing? Lana Turner? Jimmy Stewart? What is it with our contemporary culture that has us wanting to know every single irrelevant little thing about strangers? None of our business! We could all benefit from holding our tongues more than we do. Think Greta Garbo, not Joan Rivers.

Phew. I feel so much better now. You?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

...I Said, "No, No, No."

February days in my town are cruel and unrelenting. In February I can never remember what day it is. Monday? Tuesday? Does it matter? If you were to draw February, you would need only charcoal: lightest gray, lighter gray, light gray, gray, dark gray, darker gray, darkest gray. Read Kafka's descriptions of the landscape, and you'll nod in discouraged recognition.

February won't even submit to proper spelling.

These are days when my eyes yearn for just one spot of color. The sky and ground do not oblige. The line between them is imperceptible, as resistant to geometry as the muddy, old snow underfoot.

No need to wash the car, because dirt and snow and dirty snow will fleck its exterior within hours.

Who wouldn't be depressed in and by this climate? I'd like to meet that person. I've yet to meet that person.

The children in my classroom are fretful. It's been too cold to have outdoor recess. They argue listlessly with one another. Any gains they've made since September are, for now, reversed. They tip chairs, spill crayons, trip over their own feet.

My cat whines at all the windows. One morning he manages to escape to the garage. In a minute he has skulked back into the house, cowed by the cold. In defeat he falls ungainly onto the floor and whimpers. I know just how he feels. Nothing to do for it but wait until March, I whisper to his slumped form. (I whisper so that no one who might worry has to hear my crazy.)

If only I could discern one day from the next, I'd come so much closer to accepting the terms of February's confinement.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Key Change

Well, then.

I know. It's dark around these parts. Hard to read, huh? It was hard to live, too.

Of course writing it all out like that is cathartic for me. I can't say what it's like for you to read some of my sadder tales. I'd like to believe that those stories are important or useful to people other than my relatives, but even if they're not, I'll keep on telling them, if only because they insist on spilling out and over. I can't seem to deny them.

But look! Here! Pretty pictures of the snow we just had! There are many kinds of snow, as the Eskimos know. The snow that came through last Wednesday left our town a winter wonderland. It was spectacular. Wish you'd been here to see it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The End of the World As We Know It

In 1997, the same year I gave birth to my first child, my mother was diagnosed with sinus cavity cancer. Not for her, special snowflake, the most common smoking-related cancer: lung cancer. No, she contracted the rare one, the one woodworkers and people who cure and shape leather tend to get.

Two years earlier she had first felt a tiny sore on the inside corner of one nostril. It would scab over - act as if it were going to heal - and then grow again, exactly as it had been before. Later she'd confide in me that she had known something was wrong but had been too afraid of the diagnosis to make an appointment with her internist. So she ignored it, save for rubbing antibiotic ointment into it when she felt worried enough to take some small action.

And she told no one.

By the time she was forced to see a doctor - the sore had grown angry and weeping, and it was visible to others - her cancer was classified as Stage II. Which was bad, yes, but not Stage III, nor Stage IV. She was scheduled for surgery, and, more than six months pregnant, I drove into Manhattan to be with her.

The surgeon, Dr. Shah, was the best. My brother had seen to that. But a surgeon is a surgeon, and when Dr. Shah came out of the OR to find my brother and me, he grinned broadly, announced, "I'm confident I got all of it," and turned to go before telling us what had become of our mother's face. "Wait!," we cried, and asked him what to his patient's mind had always been the only question. The doctor beamed. "I was able to spare the top third of her nose," he crowed.

That night I stayed with my mother, still sedated in a double room. The woman in the next bed, closed off from me by a flimsy curtain, was groaning, delirious, past care or comfort. In the middle of the night, there were insistent beeps and a rush of staff in, around, and back out of the room. My mother's roommate had died. Died! And no one with her. I would never share that piece of information with my mother. What would have been the point? I spent the remainder of that interminable night rubbing my swollen belly so obsessively and vigorously that the skin there ended up red and chafed.

The following morning my mother and I were tender with one another. She was an exceptional sick person - in that role, with people waiting on her, she was in her element.

Until she asked for a mirror, and the young nurse, not in the least understanding the essential psychological fragility of the patient to whom she'd been assigned, poor thing, obliged. I had gone out of the room in search of coffee and returned to find my mother staring into a hand-held mirror at her newly foreign face. At her mostly missing nose. There should have been a psychologist - hell, a team of them - with us. There should have been. Instead, the girl nurse patted my mother's shoulder and soothed, "They've come so far with prosthetics."

My mother, furious, jerked her head towards me. I tried to look unfazed, but by God, the woman lacked a nose. I'm not sure what expression I managed to feign. I cannot know what my mother saw or didn't see in my face as it regarded hers. But I can say that she threw the mirror so hard that it bounced off of the bed and clattered onto the linoleum floor. With stunning flatness, she intoned, "My life is over."

Although she lived for twelve more years, and it wasn't her cancer that killed her (but it was), her statement was prophetic. Or perhaps she made it her mission to live according to those four words. Based on all that came after, so much anguish and anger on all sides, it would have been better - certainly for her, maybe for everyone, even her much-anticipated grandson - had she died on that sticky August morning in 1997.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Snow Acrostic

Stealthy, silent, it seeks purchase in winter's hard earth, this
Night a ballerina dressed in pinkish white, blurred, whirling
Over land as flakes spread, casting light and movement
While we sleep on, blind to such proud and lonely encores.

to Room 171's first- and second-grade children, who cannot yet express themselves quite the way they will someday, but who still know enough to appreciate the wonder that is snow

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Words That Broke Our Bones

One of the sunniest, most charming children in my classroom -- let's call her Julia -- is telling her good friend how much she likes string cheese. Another child at the table (we'll call her Becky) pipes up: "I like string cheese, too!" Julia turns towards Becky and says, quite matter-of-factly, "I wasn't talking to you, Becky."  I am stunned.

So I pounce: "Julia, that is neither polite nor kind," I admonish. Julia looks surprised. I ask her to imagine how she would feel if someone said the very same to her. With thought (because she is nothing if not a thoughtful kid), she gets it. Her mouth turns down in shame. I am glad that she understands. I expect that in the future she will be more sensitive to words that exclude others.

But what has shocked me is my realization that Julia had absolutely no idea that she was being cruel until someone pointed it out to her. Kindness must be modeled; kindness must be taught. Yet also: kindness CAN be taught!

The exchange puts an entirely different spin on the bullying I endured for a year and a half of elementary school. I had always believed there to be intentionality behind that teasing. Recast as thoughtlessness never corrected by a grown-up's proper modeling, the meanness suddenly seems a lot less so.

If only I could go back to my fifth-grade year with these grown-up eyes, these grown-up thoughts.


At lunch a boy in my class (call him Duncan) rushes, breathless, towards me, and cries, "Mrs. P., Mac was making fun of your last name!" He looks expectant. This, apparently, is Very Important Information. I also detect a note of outrage in his tone. He is upset on my behalf. I laugh. My reaction is not the reaction Duncan had anticipated, and he seems confused, even disappointed. "Well, Duncan, my last name IS a little silly when you think about it, isn't it?," I ask. Duncan shrugs, and clears his throat nervously. "I guess so," he returns, finally, and because he understands that I have no intention of chastising Mac, he lopes back to his seat.

Watching Duncan's retreat, I ponder the encounter. For the second time in a day, I find myself back in fifth grade. What if at ten years old I had responded to being bullied with a laugh and a wave of my hand? What then?

I'll never know, and in a small way that's a pity. I won't be able to spare my girlhood self the hurt and pain I suffered in 1977 and 1978. But I can perhaps do my bit to keep Julia, Becky, Duncan, and Mac from becoming bullies, victims, or both. The thought of it makes me smile and helps me banish my seventies ghosts -- Sabrina, Beth, and Abby (real names this time, because naming shifts the balance of power away from the named and towards the namer, no?). And maybe my writing this down and sharing it with you will bring you that much closer to exorcising your own childhood demons. I hope so.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Incidents and Accidents

On Monday a friend's husband suffered a stroke.  He is in critical condition, but he is fighting.  On Thursday a colleague's 25-year-old daughter died.  Last month an 8-year-old boy who attended the school at which I work contracted a strep infection that invaded his bloodstream.  Within 24 hours he was dead.  A blogger friend's husband has been diagnosed with cancer.  Another blogger friend's mother has just died.  Two days ago, during the blizzard in New England, a father tucked his son into a running car to keep the child warm while he shoveled.  The vehicle's exhaust pipe was blocked by snow.  The kid died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Such things have always happened.  For me to believe that they are occurring more frequently would be hubris.  It is only that the older I get, the more attuned I am to accident, injury, disease, death.

And aging.  I watch a man on television with whom I happened to grow up, and I wonder, "Do I look as old, or as young, as he does?"  Of course I do -- he is only five months older than I (Arndt, Sarah; Cooper, Anderson, as we were listed then, in elementary school).  But when I look in the mirror, I see my young self, because she is who I saw first and, possibly, who I know best.

At 95 years old my grandmother had a pruny face.  Yet when she gazed at herself through cataract-riddled, watery eyes, I imagine that she saw a flapper with a string of pearls and mischievous cornflower blue eyes.

I am getting used to the fact of aging, to the incidents and accidents, because I must.  If you're around long enough, if you keep your eyes open, you really have no choice, do you?  But at the same time I will never get used to any of it.  So much is luck or its lack, so much is random.

Paradoxically we humans are not programmed to handle randomness.  We see a group of dots; we turn them into a figure of a dog.  The stars become bears or hunters.  We sense the contours of our limbs long after they have been taken from us.  We are made to discover order where there is disorder, structure where there's none.  We are designed to feel: to sympathize, empathize, suffer, ache, grieve.

And sometimes that last seems the cruelest joke of all.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


At forty-five I am tougher than I ever was. On balance, this is no shame. For my survival it was essential that I develop skin, and so I have. Once I was no more than a raw, jangling nerve. If you'd brushed your hand by me, I would have felt for days the heat of contact, the hairs on my arm standing up at attention, bracing against unnamed threat.

As a toddler I punched a housekeeper in the stomach (an ample stomach, to be sure) because she had a habit of pinching my cheek hard and wriggling in one fat fist the skin of mine she'd collected.

If you imagine that for me the daily ritual of elementary school might have been akin to wrapping myself around a cactus, you imagine right.

The boys who pulled on the back of my dress, a blue woolen dress with a white Peter Pan collar and three daisies embroidered on the front, must have been flabbergasted to elicit such guttural howls from me. I never wore the dress again, after that day. I was not a child who made the same mistake twice.

The virtue of my youthful condition was that I was as exquisitely tuned to your pain as to my own. I cared for you when you were hurting, all of you outcasts as damaged as my own small self.

I was the kid who volunteered to sit with the unpopular girl on the ride to the hospital after our classmates, freshly arrived at a farm on a field trip and thinking themselves funny, had pushed her off of the barn's hay loft and broken her leg. Third grade. This choice of mine, to side so obviously with a victim, served only to make me unpopular, at least for a time, but I never did suffer fools lightly.

With no small effort I cultivated my shell, and now I am safe. It is about time, I know. But I sense the loss of some of my outsized empathy, for you, you, and you. Oh, I talk the talk. Yet in order to save myself I had to abandon you, didn't I?

Time stops for no man, I think they say. Over the years I collected the weak and weary, and I faithfully inscribed your particulars in my little book. It occurs to me that I have lost that book, and that somehow I never even took note of its absence.

Is this adulthood, then? I'll take it - I don't have a choice - but not without a passing glance at all the victims, all the snot-nosed children shoved out of the hay loft and landing limp, limbs akimbo -- so many Raggedy Annes and Andys. It may seem so, but I haven't really forgotten you, even if I've misplaced your names and addresses.

What else is it that they say?  This: Takes one to know one.  And so I do, yes I do.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Nursery Rhyme

Ladybird, ladybird,
Fly away home.

I was to meet my brother at a Starbucks before driving out to the hospice on Long Island. I say "a Starbucks," because what defines Starbucks better than its reassuring, relentless sameness, whether one is waiting at O'Hare, Heathrow, La Guardia, or Columbus Avenue and 86th Street? So many places to wait, and so many situations that call for waiting.

(Your mother's dying in hospice is one. As if that were a necessary reminder. Hospice by its definition is a Waiting Place, just as dying is a Waiting Time.)

So I ordered my usual (vanilla nonfat latte, for those who keep track), and found my brother, sitting off in a corner, waiting, of course. And I shoved myself into my seat. "I don't have much time," I warned, breathless with anxiety. I'd meant to leave for Long Island earlier, but instead in my brother's apartment I'd lingered, running a bath and soaking in it before deciding to shave my legs. Such a small decision. Such a large piece of avoidance.

Your house is on fire
And your children all gone.

The nurse had called the night before to tell us that my mother was running a high fever. This often meant that death was a matter of hours, not days. But, she continued, coughing delicately, of course fever is never an absolute indicator.

So kind of that nurse, to give me an out. I had just driven back from Long Island into Manhattan and was loathe to make the trip in reverse. It was dark, after eight pm. I was tired. I wanted to eat dinner and play with my little nephew and... There are always reasons.

All except one
And that's little Ann.

At Starbucks the next morning, my brother shrugged, sighed. "You don't need to rush," he said.

It was such an odd, indirect way for me to learn that my mother had died. I raised my eyebrows and stared at him. He nodded, and I cried. He did not cry, not then.

And she has crept under
The warming pan.

Still I got in my car and went to the hospice. I arrived perhaps an hour after my mother's time of death. She was uncannily pale, a waxy yellow-blue - the color of a bruise - and the veins in her hands were ropy, bulging. She was not, however, cold. Nor was she warm. Her body matched room temperature. I hugged it before burrowing my head into the once-comforting cavity between her breasts.

I hadn't hugged her in so long, and now there was no "her" left to hug. Just a body, its owner gone, flown away home, and I, Ann, who at the critical time had clambered down on hands and knees to creep under the warming pan.