Teachers and Undertakers

I was not invited to the economic meltdown.  I went to work in a field with little prospect for financial advancement and infinite job security.  (Teachers and undertakers remained solvent during the Great Depression.  I’m the former.) 

Even worse: I didn’t invest.  My only retirement savings has been through the state pension fund.  I own my car, and I rent my apartment. 

I’m not throwing this out to brag.  It’s just strange that in the eyes of the world, I’ve gone from silly to sagely stable in the last year.

The other strange thing about this economic crisis is that suddenly being poor seems worthy of compassion.  I’ve been working with poor people for about eight years.  During that time, Oprah has gone from interviewing families who make $100 grand a year and still bury themselves in credit card debt to spotlighting tent cities.

Not so very long ago, the only relief I found from a relentless march of sloppy consumerism was a “Roseanne” rerun, where a character would sometimes dare to say, “We can’t afford it.” 

Since Americans believe so passionately in individual opportunity, they can easily fall into an old-fashioned idea of poverty.  Before modern times, most people believed the poor were lazy or stupid or immoral.  They deserved to be more physically uncomfortable and emotionally drained than the rest of us.

But when jobs fall away and credit dries up, we have to admit that this cannot be the case.  Suddenly everyone is too close to poverty to associate it with laziness, stupidity, or immorality.  And if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we are one serious illness away from bankruptcy, health insurance or no.

Back to Oprah’s homelessness show: what shocked me most about the feature was that many people living in the tent city said they had family they could be living with, but they were too ashamed to ask for help.  I have a huge family.  I imagine that I am at least 30 couches and basements away from being homeless.  I hope I wouldn’t be so wedded to my individualism and pride that I wouldn’t sleep on a perfectly good couch.  But I don’t know.

One of my friends recently insisted that we had to change our safety net.  This every-man-for-himself thing, she said, has to stop.  We have to become more like the Europeans.  Individual fates are too fragile, and families are too fractured, to make our society stable. 

She insisted we need the government to step in more often, and more reliably.  This is not about emotional concern for the poor.  It’s about building stable social structures, which benefits the rich as much as the poor.

Although I’m firmly on the left, I still find these idea a little strange.  What would that be like?  What would it be like to know that your access to health care was not dependent on your job or (bizzare as it is) your health?  What would it be like to know that your retirement was not dependent on the stock market? 

What if the government prevented loans from being given to people who clearly can’t afford to pay them back?  What if the government stopped big corporations from becoming so powerful we had to “save” them to save ourselves?  Could we make that happen?  I guess we’re about to find out.

Winter’s Last Grab

Theoretically, the arrival of spring is inevitable.  It doesn’t feel inevitable in April.  We get handed a day of sun and short sleeves, the forsythia squint out, and then winter yanks us back.  Today is forty degrees, overcast as a trenchcoat, and the wind slaps everyone in the face.  Grow up!  It’s not spring yet!

Last Friday evening, I wore a summer dress under a cardigan and a winter coat.  My boyfriend and I made rounds of art galleries.  He walked up to me holding a cup of beer, and I could smell the alcohol underlying the grainy bouquet. 

It’s still winter, and it’s still Lent.  I miss drinking.  The poisonous streak of alcohol, then the flavor in my mouth, down my throat.  Then it turns my blood from calm magenta to fluorescent and squealing.  I can live without it, just as I can live in long underwear and wool hat and long boots.  But the abstemious life is isolated and itchy.

During Palm Sunday church, we read the whole Passion story, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t hit the extra Holy Week services.  Some people would miss Jesus’ death all together, and be completely confused by his surprise appearance at Easter next week.

I like how Peter freaks out.  Every time you trust something to save you, it ends up getting crucified.  Every time you are inspired, you are shocked by the death of inspiration.  It just happens that way. 

I think the Passion story is about how people survive disillusionment.  People somehow move toward new beliefs and new opportunities.  Regardless of whether some Jesus person in any way came back to life, I believe that resurrection is real. 

Eventually, spring will win.  Although this Sunday I held my paper next to my wool coat and shivered, some Sunday soon I will stand at that same intersection, with my arm bare, glowing in the sun.  From shivering, we will glow, and then sweat, and then go back around again. 

Where most religions emphasized the circular sense of the year, and of life, Christianity has a streak of linear energy, messiah-seeking, a future orientation.  Christianity relishes spring.  Worships spring.  Fetishizes spring.

The winter is still in front of us.  We’ll kneel and mourn and listen to the gory details of Holy Week’s winter, only because we hope spring is inevitable.

Scenes from the Chemistry Lab

D and I often experiment in the chemistry lab together.  I have a student teacher right now, so I have the luxury of pulling out my most egregious troublemakers (like D) to give them my full attention.  The chemistry lab is usually unoccupied, and right across the hall from my classroom, so that’s where exiles retreat to.

Our school was built almost 70 years ago.  The cabinets in the science rooms are formerly gorgeous, glass and blonde wood built-ins.  Quite a few of the floor tiles are missing.  It smells mysterious and dangerous.  The windows are huge: maybe eight feet tall.  They present a panoramic view of fast food places, shops, and trees.  None of the windows have screens.  One of the windows has a neatly lettered sign that says, “Do not open this window.”  I think that’s because it would fall out three stories and break.  Half of the stool seats are chewed up, so the wood snags your clothes. 

In spite of all that, I find the lab generally pleasant.  There is one comfy orphaned office chair.  I sit in that, in front of the wrong side of a desk that has a splintered seat attached.  It’s a great place to look at the sky.  The lab is where the chemistry teacher maintains our the third-floor coffeemaker.  My coworkers drift in and out, and we joke and gossip about the kids and sometimes I pantomime wringing their necks. 

When the class is reading “The Crucible” and D gets kicked out, we sit on stools next to each other.  I read half the parts, and he reads the other half.  I hope that he will read John Proctor’s part, although I would prefer to.  I add some explanatory asides.  D tells me he doesn’t know anything about the play, but then I ask him questions and he generally answers them correctly.

For a while, D worked at the Jiffy Lube around the corner from my house.  I saw him one Sunday afternoon, holding up a sign advertising $19.99 oil changes.  He looked sheepish when I stopped to say hello.  Apparently he works at least two jobs.

D has drifted between homes.  We always have some kids like that, who are not always sure where they are going to sleep that night.  Whose parents and grandparents get frustrated and kick them out of the house.  I understand why you would want to kick D out of the house, though.  He’s smart, snarky, and stubborn.  He can really drive you nuts. 

The reason he’s still in school and not expelled is that in between driving you nuts, he is smart and good-natured.  He still has baby fat in his face.  When the teachers complain about him, they do it with an affectionate hint in their voices. 

Today D got yanked from class for yelling across the room while he was supposed to be listening to the instructions about outlining.  When I went over to give him a warning, he waved his hand around theatrically to show everyone how bad my breath was. 

Although he walked across the hall with all deliberate slowness, once he was actually installed in the chemistry lab, he asked some good questions and started his outline.  He will again say, “I don’t know anything about this,” and then I have to cajole him into admitting what he does know.  That’s what we do in the chemistry lab.  Put things together carefully, so they don’t explode.

Visit of the Muppet Monks

Last Sunday evening, instead of walking in to the dark, silent sanctuary of my church, I pulled open the door and saw seven guys dressed like Big Bird, moaning. 

Oh: we were hosting some Buddhist monks.  I tiptoed to my favorite pew, next to the St. John window, and sat down.  I guess they reminded me of Big Bird because when I was little I had a winter hat with Big Bird’s head sticking out of the top.  It added six inches to my height, just as the orange and yellow fringed headdresses of the monks made them more imposing. 

They also wore the orange and red robes, and were doing something with their hands I couldn’t figure out.  Maybe they were keeping count of how far along they were in the chant.  No, that guy was just coughing.  Were they saying something in Sanskrit, or just making noise? 

Our priests and cantor sat up in the front, like usual, and the sanctuary was packed.  The monks went on and on.  I guessed everyone was wondering how long they would go on, and how they knew when to stop.  I sat on my hands and listened and spaced out and listened again.

Every once in a while, a guy in the middle would hold up his hand to his mouth, and then he would sing unnaturally low, way lower than a double bass, and holding the notes with an alien sort of wavering.  I didn’t know what the hell was going on. 

Being clueless about the monks reminded me of being in Paris.  My knowledge of French is about equal to my knowledge of Buddhism.  I had an idea of what people said and wrote in French, but I was always left with a certain degree of ambiguity.  At the Pompidou Center, I kept translating painting captions as “dead nature,” which confused my English-only friends.  When I got home, I suddenly remembered: “la nature morte” means “still life.” 

When I was in high school, I dated a Jewish boy, and visited their temple.  The boy’s father, whom I absolutely loved, reminded me of Moses and Tevye and King David all wrapped together.  He was bold, cheerful, and solid.  I sat in his living room one afternoon, and he asked me why I wanted to go to Rosh Hashanah.  Why was I interested in Judaism? 

After a lifetime of the puppydog evangelism in Christianity, I loved how my Jewish friends didn’t try to sell their religion– in fact, they viewed my interest with skepticism.

“It’s so mysterious,” I said.  “There’s so much you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to know it.  There’s so much mystery.”

“Huh,” he said.   There I was lost in ambiguity again.  But I went to temple and ate dinner with them, and it all seemed fine.

Abruptly, the visiting monks stopped.  They took off their giant hats.  They bowed to the congregation.  None of the Episcopalians knew what to do.  (We bow to the altar, but not each other.)  As the Buddhists walked down the side aisle, the dean said, “Let’s express our appreciation to our guests,” which prompted us to stand up and clap. 

It seemed weird to be clapping for that, but what else were we going to do?  I was relieved to be reminded that I don’t know everything.  I was grateful that they had shown up to make me pay attention and accept what I didn’t understand.

Ghosts

Because I recently watched the terrible film “Sylvia,” I took more notice of the death of Plath’s son.  I have maintained a dismissive distaste for Plath since college.  A privileged, connected, lovely, talented poet, who had a dizzying romance with another successful poet and two sweet children.  How sad for her.  I did sit through the movie, since I love artist biopics, but I still roll my eyes at the sappy swooning over Plath.  It’s endurance that inspires me, not drama.

My grandmother died completely alone.  So alone that when the authorities called to notify our family, no one knew who they were talking about.  She had been married, yet again, and had taken another last name.  The only reason they called us was that she had an old business card among her things. 

I don’t remember meeting her, although I did, just a few times.  While I spent every holiday with gaggles of cousins, my parents finally decided that this grandmother was too sick to know.  I think the spin on the word “sick” might vary.  She drank, took pills.  She valued cigarettes  and sleep more than the safety of her children.  She disappeared unexpectedly, and then reappeared crying for help: money, a place to stay, attention.  I can say she was “sick” and mean “mentally ill” because I am not directly scarred by her.

While we were driving across Kentucky in the rain last week, my brother asked me if I believe in ghosts.  I formed my answer carefully.  Something like: I believe that people, ideas, and things linger.  They don’t disappear cleanly. 

I haven’t seen other people’s ghosts, but I do see myself. 

Under the giant marquee of the club where I went dancing when I was twenty-two.   I can see myself sitting, sweaty, chatting with an acquaintance, wondering if the guy I have a crush on is going to appear, listening to the segues in the music to decide when to rejoin the party.  I am doing just what I should be doing, but it’s never quite exciting or safe or significant enough. 

I can see myself in the window of a pizza place, on a date, trying so hard to be lovely and engaging and emotionally firm.  I can’t admit that my life and growth is so far out of my control.  That at twenty-five I am not grown up, not at all.

And my grandmother is a ghost, who appears in conversation as a worst case scenario, or a misplaced stab of mistrust or fear in her children, now grandparents themselves.  Sometimes they say to their children, “We’re watching you carefully,” because they know what Nicolas Hughes knew about ghosts.

Addendum:  The day after I wrote this, I found the following article about depression and its effect on the brain.  The most intriguing part for me is the idea that both genes and environmental effects of living with an afflicted parent may cause depression (and/or anxiety disorders) to run in families.  I hadn’t thought about that.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/25/health/25brain.html?_r=1&em

Vacation in 10 Sentences.

1. Stared across Missouri and radiated disbelief.

2. I hand my brother a book, and he reads the whole thing in two hours straight.

3. I chatter pathetically as I approach the scary roller coaster, and later attempt to photograph some ducks who had been making love in the bushes.

4. With both of us wearing plastic ponchos, I look at my sister as the young European man unbuckles his seatbelt gleefully, and think, not only does he want to get wet, he wants to die on the Popeye ride.

5. Eating another veggie-ful veggie burger, I silently concur with my middle school French teacher: corn is animal feed, not people feed.

6. I wait for my latte to cool, sitting on a fake New York City stoop, my thighs twitch from pushing my stepmom’s wheelchair uphill, and I know that my dad is enjoying the hell out of those fake Blues Brothers.

7. To satisfy my desire for a Mickey bar, three siblings ask six EPCOT employees, walk across six countries twice, causing me to bend double, reach out my arms, and cry, “GO ON WITHOUT ME!”  (Note: Freddie the American funnel cake man owes us a funnel cake… bastard.)

8.  Yes (gulp) I lost a Space Mountain Fast Pass.

9. As the delirious family begins to question the wisdom of dining at the Kentucky catfish restaurant, I insist, “We should just eat here!  We’re all starving!” ; consequently, I enjoy those hushpuppies tremendously.

10. After apologies for the obligatory family dispute, I eat Taco Bell’s edible rice and styrofoam tortilla chips, and gush at the unexpected forsythia and tulips in Kansas City.

More Tales of Intoxication and Sobriety

Several years ago, I wrote letters and schemed to get my boss fired.  It was a Friday afternoon when I got the news that he had been canned.  (Please don’t waste any time here worrying about whether he deserved it– everyone was grateful to see him go.)  A coworker appeared in my door and delivered the news.  I said, “I really want to kiss you right now, but I won’t.”  A sixty-year-old gay man, he got a Kermit the Frog look on his face and backed out of the room, chuckling. 

That year, I broke Lent to have a drink with my elated colleagues.  Over pitchers and pitchers of beer, we raved about our happy plans for turning things around, now that the dark clouds had lifted.  I thought, It’s wrong not to celebrate something that will only happen once, just because it happens during Lent.

During another Lent, there was a death.  The violent death of a kid I knew.  After the shock and well into the outrage, there was another barroom support group.  That time I didn\’t break Lent.  Not because of any great willpower.  One of my Catholic friends sweetly said, This doesn’t count.  You can have a drink.  I just didn’t want to.  I ate a grilled cheese and fries.  It was so greasy it made me sicker than if I’d had three drinks.

I always notice how hard it is to judge the effects of alcohol when I stop drinking.  I drove home that grilled cheese night and felt woozy, spacey.  I couldn’t blame my haze on alcohol.

And I couldn’t blame my hysterics on alcohol, either.  My face hurt from smiling and my stomach hurt from laughing.  There’s no funnier group than a group that just came from a funeral.  I don’t think I laughed any less or was any less engaging with friends because I was sober. 

But the weird thing about using drugs is that you really don’t know.  They impair your ability to evaluate yourself, and the ability to evaluate yourself is shaky in humans anyway. 

When I had a tooth pulled, I got narcotics.  I took them for one day.  By the end of that day, I had become obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet.  I sat on the couch with my boyfriend, and he said, “You’re fine.  You CAN feel them.  Feel that?”  And he smacked the top of my foot.  In a kindly way.  I could feel my feet, sort of, but they were as blurry as an Impressionist painting.  I kept seeing myself tumbling down the stairs and snapping both ankles, then shrugging.  Oh, well.  Guess I broke my ankles.  I went back to the Advil the next day.

I don’t know how these artists who drank so heavily and used so many drugs could still feel.  It seems like being able to feel, and experience your life deeply, is a prerequisite for creation.  Maybe they were so sensitive to begin with that they had to numb out a lot just to catch up with the rest of us.

When the kid was killed, I could have had enough to drink to loosen me up, or enough that my mind was blown.   I was feeling so blank to begin with, maybe I couldn\’t even imagine altering my emotional state.  Or maybe taking any step to soothe my grief would only have emphasized that nothing could help.