Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What it's like teaching high school Part I

This will be—What do they call them?—an "occasional series" recording some of the not-so-mundane aspects of my day job. When I established the blog, I did not do so with any intention of ever talking shop, but I realize now that with just a year and ten weeks (but who's counting?) left in my teaching career, I should document some of the good stuff.

The other day at lunch I was chatting with a couple of my seniors about the issues they need to address in order to change the world as soon as they've earned their college degrees. We do this often. Ricky, a young man of strong faith who has a very acute sense of morality, was explaining his idea for an internet search engine that would distinguish between moral and immoral search results. Our conversation was interrupted when Mirella, one of my freshmen, brought me a doughnut. This was a unique and happy occasion. I don't think Mirella has ever ventured into my classroom during lunch before, and I rarely eat doughnuts.

"I brought this for you," she said, "because you didn't get one of Myles' cupcakes. Remember?" Wow. How did she remember? The incident with Myles had occurred way back in early October, just a few weeks into the new school year. In class one day, Myles had mentioned something about being disappointed in not getting cupcakes for his birthday. (High school is quite a transition from elementary school and junior high. My freshmen are always devastated when they find out we take final exams on the last day of school—no party.) Myles sits in the front. At that time, Mirella occupied the last seat in his row. Hearing the note of sadness in his voice, she leaned way out in her seat and called up to the front, "I'll bring you cupcakes tomorrow, bro." She didn't know his name. They'd never had a conversation. She simply offered. He smiled, said "OK!" but none of us were really expecting her to bring cupcakes.

The next morning before school, my door opened and Mirella walked in holding a package of four gorgeous cupcakes.

"These are for—what's his name? Myles? I won't be at school today." Dang, right? A young woman of her word with a great follow-through ethic. I couldn't wait for 5th period.

When Myles came in I showed him the cupcakes—all four just for him—and his face lit up. Of course, I had to tease him and say I might swipe one.

"Oh, go ahead, Ms. Murphy," he said with sincere grace. "I'm sure I'm not going to eat all four of them!"

I thanked him profusely but declined, explaining that the cupcakes no doubt contained ingredients that a sixty-year-old woman with high cholesterol should not be ingesting.  "For example," I said, "these probably have... " and I held the package aloft carefully so I could read the ingredients listed on the bottom.

That's when I saw the warning label: "This product manufactured on equipment that processes products containing peanuts." My heart sank. Just that day I'd received a medical alert about Myles from the office. He has a peanut allergy. The cupcakes would not be safe for him.

"Myles," I said slowly, "I'm going to save your life here. You can't have these cupcakes." I explained why, but he wasn't upset (though a little disappointed; they did look tantalizing). "That's OK," he said, "it's the thought that counts. It just makes me happy that Mirella did such a nice thing." He handed the cupcakes off to some friends who eagerly offered to eat them for him.

Mirella heard about it the next day when she returned to school. And here she was, six months later, bakery bag in hand. "You didn't get a cupcake," she said, "so I brought you a doughnut." I opened the bag, extracted a beautifully crafted chocolate doughnut with sprinkles, turned a deaf ear to the screaming sirens of the diet police in my head, and took a bite. It was heaven. Mirella waved a hand over her shoulder as she went out the door.

I continued my conversation with the seniors, chewing slowly, savoring every bite (and silently recalculating what I would eat for dinner). The bell rang, the kids picked up their mess, and as she was about to leave, Katelynn pulled a cookie from her lunch bag and plunked it down in front of me.

"Peanut butter," she said, "with Nutella in the center. I made them last night. See ya later, Murphy."

If you think for one minute I saved that homemade peanut butter cookie with—bonus points!!!—Nutella inside for later, you don't know me well enough to know my weakness for cookies.

And if you think that all the teenagers of this generation are self-absorbed, amoral zombies who are devoid of human emotion, you should come on down at lunchtime and meet my kid crew. They're pretty special.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The rest of my crew

The cats have been demanding equal time on the blog. That's how cats are, I suppose. A dog will ask nicely, hat in hand (so to speak), eyes averted. A cat will make a demand and stare, exasperated, as you apologize for not being able to fulfill her whim more quickly. At least, that's how it is around here.

Eight years ago I brought home a stunted black female cat who'd had her tail chopped off by someone or something evil. For the first year, she'd let me stroke her head and shoulders, but I couldn't reach my hand near her tail or she would (gently) bite me. The rescue had named her "Sugar Plum"—stupidest name ever for a cat, I said. And then I never changed it. She slept curled by my feet but otherwise remained somewhat aloof, which was fine.

We moved to Mt. Baldy with Boo Radley, my black panther of a male cat, but two years later Boo died after a lengthy illness. Sugie and I, bereft, were left to bond with each other through snowy winters and warm summers as we watched bears, bobcats and raccoons scramble onto our deck. I couldn't have a dog up on the mountain, so Sug was my only companion for five years. By the end of that journey, she had learned to crawl under the covers when it was cold, burrowing in against my side like a kitten. This remains her habit now, even when it's warm at night in the summer, and she usually stays long enough to purr me to sleep. One night, after I'd been gone for a week to Missouri and she'd had a housesitter feeding and caring for her, she crawled in beside me, then reached up and licked my face. This has become her habit as well, licking my hands when I come home from work or my face when she purrs me to sleep at night.

Now I can pet her anywhere on her body, stroke the brush all the way down her back and up her stub of a tail, pick her up if I need to and she is never, ever aloof. When I read in the morning, she jumps into my lap, purring loudly and kissing my hands over and over. She is one of the most loving cats I've ever had. And yes, for those of you who are familiar with her story as it appeared in Chicken Soup forthe Soul: I Can't Believe My Cat Did That, she still rolls over happily when I sing "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" by the inimitable Four Tops to her.

A year and a half ago, a friend posted a photo on Facebook of a tiny gray kitten her sister had found abandoned in a Target parking lot. I had been looking for a black kitten as a companion for Sug, but this gray kitten with her adorable face and urgent plight (in a household where the patriarch was demanding there be "no more cats") kept calling to me. I had named her Purrl before I'd even met her. I brought her home, screaming and crying in the cat carrier, and my life and Sug's have never been the same since. For the first five months, she was quite an impressive eating and pooping machine. I had her claws trimmed when she was spayed, but they grew back with a vengeance, and she has managed to pretty much destroy two very lovely loveseats.

But Sug and I adore her. Purrl (aka Purrlie Girl, Purrl Jam, Jameez, Jamerz and PURRL-STOP-IT) is a bit... quirky. Sug still tries to offer her nose touches and head kisses, but Purrl invariably jumps away, her eyes growing round and stupefied, as if she can't imagine why another cat would ever approach her in such a way—despite the fact that she allows me to regularly pick her up, hug her, kiss her head and otherwise lavish her with affection. She is a bit of a lunatic, and when she's really happy, she celebrates by simply galloping through the house at top speed, her tail crooked and her ears flattened like a kitten.

So when she stopped eating on Valentine's Day, I was more than a bit concerned. I'd been out of town overnight, and when I returned, I noticed she hadn't eaten much. I watched her closely that Sunday and saw that she wasn't very interested in her food. By Monday she was lethargic. As the week progressed, she slowly stopped eating altogether and wanted only to curl in a ball and sleep. I took her to see my vet on Friday and held her while he shaved her neck, drew blood and gave her an IV to hydrate her. When the blood work came back the next day, there was nothing definitive, no infection, no common cat disease. (She is vaccinated against everything). I spent that weekend sitting close to her, stroking her head, asking the Universe to heal her and telling her every hour or so that she had to try to get better because Sug and I couldn't possibly continue our journey without her. For the most part, she remained curled in a ball, getting up to vomit once every four or five hours.

On Sunday, just after I'd been on the phone with the vet discussing methods of hydrating her, she got up, ambled slowly to the water bowl, and drank a few sips. Forty-eight hours passed with no change, but Tuesday when I came home for lunch to check on her, she seemed ever-so-slightly better, just enough to weakly trudge to the backyard and lay in the sun for the time it took me to wolf down a sandwich. I picked her up gently to carry her back in to the couch, and she purred. That night, she ate one single tiny kitty treat, the first sustenance she'd had in nearly a week. She slept beside me all night without getting up to throw up, and the next morning she ate two tiny bites of food. I cried.

We are two weeks past her illness now, and she is back to tearing up the furniture, running around the house for the sheer joy of it and chasing kitty treats across the hardwood floors. I have no idea what made her sick, but I am thrilled that she is still with us. Before Purrlie, Sug and I had become like two old dowagers, set in our ways and clinging to our daily routine. Purrl shook up our lives, made us play with toys and laugh out loud again. And in her fearlessness, she showed Sug how a cat can actually be friends with a dog because when Sgt. Thomas Tibbs came along, Purrl thought he was just one more slightly large plush toy to rub up against and play with. Even Thomas, I think, is glad that Purrlie Girl has survived.

As I have said before, at the close of every day, I spend the last moments before climbing into bed on the floor with Thomas, petting his head and telling him what a great dog he is, and now Purrl joins us, lying quietly beside me, purring and smiling at her big red friend. I feel blessed every day that each of these slightly flawed, slightly quirky characters has come into my life.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sgt. Thomas Tibbs: One Year Later

Returning to me after chasing down a treat.

It's hard to believe an entire year has elapsed since my boy Thom came home to live with me and the girls. It's even harder to believe that the happy, prancing, dancing pup who races around the back yard in ecstatic figure eights when I come home from work is the same pathetic waif who could only be dragged out of his safe spot in the corner of the side yard on a leash and wouldn't even make eye contact with me for the first two weeks. Since I haven't posted an update on him since his first bath last July, I thought it might be high time to let his fans know that yes, the dog who was once afraid of his shadow is now starting to realize that this life—his wonderful, cushy dog's life—has quite a bit to offer.

Here are two points for illustration:
For an entire year, every time I have gone out to the back yard to work in the garden or pull weeds, I have invited Thomas to come with me (or more precisely, with "us," as Purrl is usually wherever I am, and Sugie will stroll out if it's mid-morning and quiet in the yard and nice weather and if it suits her highness's fancy). And for that entire year, Thomas has been content to remain curled in his corner in the side yard, out of sight but certainly not out of hearing as I usually sing loudly while I'm working in the back yard. But Sunday, miracle of miracles, as I crawled on my hands and knees between the rose bushes, pulling the tiny new shoots of plantain and Canada thistle up by the roots, I heard the now familiar and beloved sound of Thom flapping his ears. (He does this so often I had the vet check him. It's not a medical issue, just a habit.) I looked up to see him sitting, tall and content, in a sun spot a few feet away. "Tommy boy, good job! Hang out with us! We're weeding!" I said to him for at least the fiftieth time. This time, he did, nosing around until he found a sun spot in the dirt about six feet from where I was working. He stayed there for nearly an hour, listening to me sing snatches of song in between saying nice things about him.

Later that same evening, my son arrived, bringing dinner for us and a movie. Thomas had just finished his own dinner and was getting ready to trot inside the open back sliding door when he noticed the tall dark handsome man standing in the kitchen.
            "Woof," he said. (Thomas, not my son.)
            "Hey, Thomas. Woof!" said my son.
            "Wait—what?" I said, walking into the kitchen. "Did he just bark at you?"
Up until that moment, the only time I've ever heard Thomas bark is when he's sleeping.
            "Woof. Woof," Thom said again. This was not an anxious or aggressive bark, and it wasn't loud at all, just his way of saying, 'Hey, who's that in my house with my mom? Do you belong here?' I brought him in, Ezra gave him a treat, and he slept peacefully (no nightmares) on his bed for the duration of my son's visit.

And about those nightmares: He rarely has them now. Whew. Many times in the past year I have been awakened by his anxious pacing and whining after he's had a bad dream. In those times, I have calmed him by talking to him, then made myself comfortable on the couch until he can sleep again. When he wakes now, he is exuberantly happy. Morning is still absolutely his favorite time of day. Before he goes out, he flattens himself on the family room floor so I can spend a few minutes petting him and scratching behind his ears. Recently he discovered that sweet spot, just above his tail, and his eyes close in bliss when I scratch him there.

Over the past year, my mantra to Thom whenever he has withdrawn or recoiled from my touch has been this: "Don't worry, Thom. Someday you'll be a real dog. You just have to be loved enough." This is, of course, an homage to The Velveteen Rabbit. I think he's just about there. He still doesn't come up to me when I call him, but he does trot happily out of the side yard when I get home from work and call him. He now looks forward to his daily walks (instead of resisting them), and he loves riding in the back seat of the truck with the window down. Every night, I look forward to bedtime. The kitties get treats and then Thomas gets a treat... and a chew bone... and Bunny Tibbs...  and a back rub.

I am daily grateful to the volunteers at Upland Animal Shelter who never stopped believing in Thom's capacity to recover. They took a feral dog and worked with him for months until he was adoptable, and in doing so they not only gave him a chance at a great life, they also gave me a boon companion who makes me laugh and warms my heart every single day.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Sarah Koenig is helping me stay fit just by telling stories

As some of my readers already know, I seized upon the idea of becoming a writer based on an experience I had when I was given the assignment to write a short story. Upon its completion, that story was read aloud to an audience, and when that audience responded with unsolicited positive feedback ("I liked your story!"), I determined I would spend my life writing stories. My decision was helped along, I will confess, by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walton, who had given the writing assignment and who had read my story to my classmates. Still, the experience was profound and life changing. I mean, here I am, fifty years later, still writing and publishing stories of one sort or another.

What I gained from that event was the experience of having an audience become so wrapped up in a story (in this case, a story about a boy who builds a robot) that they are utterly swept away by it. Ok, it may be a stretch to characterize a passel of nine-year-olds as being "swept away" by anything other than a cupcake party or the last day of school, but they truly were attentive. They laughed in all the right places and were surprised by the plot twists. Mind you, I was nine. The adulation afterward at recess ("Your story was good!") went straight to my head.

Because of that event (and because I am an avid reader of fiction... and a lit major), I have known all my life that a story well told can be powerful indeed. And it is this very power that has been unleashed with the production of "Serial," a new podcast produced by radio station WBEZ in Chicago (which also produces This American Life, a popular weekly radio show on NPR). This is how the podcast is described on its website, www.serialpodcast.org:

Serial is a podcast from the creators of This American Life, and is hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial tells one story—a true story—over the course of an entire season. Each season, we'll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. And we won't know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we bring you the next chapter in the story....

The first season of Serial (which I had greatly anticipated, having been a fan of This American Life for many years) involves a murder that was committed fifteen years ago; a teenage girl was allegedly killed by her former boyfriend. He is now serving time in prison for that crime. But aspects of the prosecution's assertions do not ring true to Koenig as she embarks upon her own exhaustive discovery of the facts surrounding the case, and so with each episode of Season One, we are made privy to the investigation step by step. Knowing that this is not fiction, that a young man's fate hangs in the balance as Koenig attempts to determine if he has been unjustly accused makes this story all the more compelling.

I've been listening to each episode on my iPod as I ride my bike to work. I heard the first episode Monday and honestly, I don't even remember the ride in, I was so riveted by the story. It's only a couple of miles from my house to the campus where I teach, but it's uphill every bit of the way. Having "Serial" to keep my mind off pushing those pedals has been a godsend.

As a reader, I'm a big fan of radio stories, as they challenge us to construct images from words and also to learn to listen attentively. Koenig's friendly, down-to-earth narration coupled with her pointed but never demanding interview skills contribute greatly to the success of this podcast as a whole. I hope it continues with a strong Season Two. I haven't even finished Season One yet, but I'm already looking forward to the next story.

If you're interested in listening to the podcast, you can download it for free from iTunes, or simply go to the website, www.serialpodcast.org (or click on my link) and listen on your computer.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

If only tears were words

Ever since I was a child and understood the nature of war and conflict, it has been appalling to me that humans would kill each other over ideas. The fact that a man would do violence to another man not to defend himself or others against harm, but because of a thought (God is green/the earth is square/whatever) that the other man might hold in his head just seems incredibly senseless and barbaric.

As a teacher of Journalism, I participate in conversations every day regarding what we should or should not include in our newspaper. [I want my young students to weigh the impact of every story, every idea, every sentence and yes, every word or image we present and that they realize their own responsibility in that impact. But never, ever in any of our conversations have we ever had to consider that we were in danger of being gunned down because of what we might choose to print.

It is my fervent hope that every journalist around the globe tonight will write something--anything--in response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Consider our words a universal embrace of those who were closest to this tragedy... and a raised fist to those who perpetrated the pointless attack. The pen is mightier than any weapon. Let the resounding thrum of fingers battering keyboards by the thousands be heard in heaven tonight.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Mark Strand

Pulitzer Prize winning poet laureate Mark Strand died yesterday.

When I was a deeply depressed graduate student, I composed a pastiche of Strand's poem, "Courtship." I did not do so because I was a fan of Strand's esoteric work. I dashed it off while meeting with some fellow students. We were supposed to assemble a presentation of "a Twentieth Century poet." In the midst of a bitter, anyone-can-write-like-this-guy moment, I switched the point of view in the poem from male to female and celebrated both the difference and the opposition. A year or so after graduation, I was going through my poems one day and found it. On a whim, I tracked down where Strand was teaching (Utah, of all places) and sent him a copy.

Some weeks later, I received a handwritten reply which begins "Dear S. Kay Murphy! You have written an absolutely stunning pastiche." I was at once delighted and humbled. His letter went on to ask about my plans for the future and whether I would eventually pursue poetry writing or teaching. Classy. With all his accolades, he took the time to respond to a quirky stranger.

And he did so again when I wrote to him a second time, asking permission to pursue publication of the pastiche along with his original (since he seemed to enjoy mine so much). His reply, again handwritten, began "Thanks for writing back. Of course you have my permission...." What a sweetheart.

I had addressed him in the letters as "Dr. Strand," assuming that he'd earned (or been given) the PhD long ago. At the end of his second letter, he closed with this: "Dept. of Clarification: I'm not a doctor. No PhD. Wouldn't think of having one." Somehow, it made me like him all the more.

Strand lived to be 80. He was named the United States poet laureate in 1990, and in 1999 he won the Pulitzer for his poetry collection, Blizzard of One.  Our hope, as writers, is that our work will continue to live on after us, offering us a type of immortality. I have no doubt that Strand's work will continue to be included in anthologies for years to come. Somewhere out there is a young grad student in a 20th C poetry class struggling to make sense of the moderns, the confessionals, et al. May she land upon a poem of Strand's that hits her right between the intellectual eyes.

Note: "Courtship," by Mark Strand, can be found easily with an internet search.  "Courtship: A Pastiche," by S. Kay Murphy, cannot, as mine (thankfully) never made it into print.

My sincerest condolences to Strand's son and daughter, Thomas and Jessica. Your dad was a pretty cool guy.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

About my failure to be gracious at the post office

One of my ex-husbands—the sweet, forgiving one—used to tell people (in my defense, mind you) that I had been "raised by wolves." He offered this as an explanation whenever I committed a social faux pas of some kind. He understood that I never intended to be rude, but there were certain lessons in grace and good manners I hadn't learned as a child or young adult, partly because I had to raise myself and partly due to my introversion. Social interaction has always made me feel uncomfortable and inadequate, and these feelings are reinforced every time I fail at responding correctly in social situations.

Friday at the post office was a great example.  After work, I rushed home to pick up my granddaughter's birthday present which needed to be shipped that day in order to get to her before her birthday. That same day, I had received an email from a school in Missouri ordering twenty copies of Tainted Legacy. Since I had to get to the post office anyway, I decided to ship the books as well.

Which is why I ended up staggering into the post office carrying one package containing twenty paperback books and another on top of it containing a Hello Kitty backpack ("Hello Kitty sleeping bag inside!!"). My biceps were fatigued by the time I had negotiated the parking lot and two doors to get to the line, and as I stepped up to what I thought was the end, a petite older woman looked at me and said, "Español?" I didn't hear her the first time, so I leaned closer, said, "Pardon?" and she repeated her question: "Español?" Finally I understood.

"No, I'm sorry," I said, stepping around her and into a line of six people. The sixth person in line was an older man wearing wool slacks and a sweater—on a ninety degree day. He had watched our exchange, and he stepped slightly to the side and faced the others in line.

"Does anyone here speak Spanish?" he asked the group. A voluptuous woman in a tight-fitting dress and sexy shoes stepped out of line.

"I do!" she proclaimed, and the man motioned her over to the woman who needed help. The two women chatted away in Spanish, the older woman asking frequent questions while the sexy woman answered quickly and, seemingly, authoritatively.

The gentleman had saved the day by simply speaking up for the woman who didn't speak English. Why didn't I do that? Why did it not even occur to me?
            And as Sir Galahad was stepping back into his place in line, holding a single envelope in his hand, he noticed my burden of boxes. He stepped to the side again and made a sweeping gesture with the envelope hand.

"You can go ahead of me," he said.

But I declined. "That's okay," I told him, "they aren't that heavy." The truth is, they were heavy, and my arms were already aching, and I still had five people ahead of me. So why couldn't I just graciously accept his offer and allow myself to be the other damsel who gets rescued? I don't know. I just don't know. Part of it is believing on some level that I don't deserve such kind treatment from strangers. Part of it is that accepting help of that nature undermines my badass tomboy persona.

The bottom line, though, is that these were missed opportunities. I could have been the one to find help for the non-English speaker, and I could have accepted the man's kind offer to cut ahead of him in line. In either case, I would have had to be a bit more mindful of the others around me instead of being, as usual, completely absorbed in what I was doing.

This is, I think, the key to being gracious. It's about being mindful always of the others around you, whether they are known to you or whether they are strangers. It's about seeing them and what they need, which requires focusing outward instead of inward. Be patient with me; I'm still learning.