Sunday, May 10, 2015

Some thoughts on Mother's Day 2015

For the uninitiated: Mother's Day can never be the same again once you lose your mom.

For a multitude of reasons, mostly because we were hard-wired differently as individuals, my mother and I never had a close relationship. We just couldn't. But in her later years, we learned to be friends. I called her often just to tell her little things—stories about my cat or the wildlife outside or comments on my blog or what my kids were up to. While she was alive, our Mother's Day celebrations always centered around her. After she passed away, my children's focus became me, which is something I'm never comfortable with. I just don't think I did a good enough job to warrant all the praise and attention.

Still... I know I did do a couple of things right. My son was fifteen when he told me he was gay. He knew he could and that this would not be an issue for me because I never hesitated to let my kids know I have gay friends, and we talked openly about all things, including both gender and sexual orientation. We are also an integrated family, with several races combined, so that my kids grew up seeing people as people instead of people as colors. I have watched my adult kids now pass on this openness and tolerance to their own children, and it has made my heart nearly burst at times to see how comfortable my grandchildren are with people in all their shades and nuances. My oldest grandson will be twenty-one in October. (Yes, young Ben, whom I have blogged about in the past, is now a college student.) I swear this boy loves everyone in the world, regardless of shape, size, color, orientation or capacity to love back.

To celebrate Mother's Day, my son bought tickets to the Drag Queen World Series yesterday, hosted by Life Group LA, a charity which works hard to promote HIV/AIDS awareness, education, acceptance and support "for those infected and affected by HIV." The event itself was hilariously entertaining—drag queens playing softball with a tennis ball but taking the game very, very seriously (and no, no one was in heels; that's how serious this was), two drag queen announcers who composed a lovely combination of sweet but naughty impromptu commentary. (Admittedly, there was a lot of material here—gay guys, bats, balls, swinging, getting on base, etc., etc., etc.) The best part for me was just being there with my son, my daughter, her husband and the two teen granddaughters, laughing with them, realizing how much the world has changed in my lifetime... though apparently not enough. We saw one of my son's friends there. We'll call him Jason. Although drag isn't really his thing, as he explained, he had come because he believed in the work the group was doing, and he wanted to support that. He told us that last year he had worked the event as a volunteer, but this year he just wanted to watch so he could enjoy the fun. Later my son called to say that Jason had left a long post on Facebook about the event, mentioning that he had invited his mother... but his mom wouldn't come. It wasn't "her thing." "But I'm her son, and shouldn't I be her thing?" he went on to say. Yes, sweetheart, yes, you should be your mom's everything.

I made innumerable mistakes in raising my kids. But I tried to put them first in every decision I made about our future because I wanted them to have the chance to have something more than I had when I was a kid. And I wanted them to always feel loved, no matter what. Mamas, we can't give them everything. But one thing we can do is make damn sure they know we love them, just as they are. For all the "Jasons" out there whose mamas aren't equipped to offer you the love, support and acceptance you need, I wish I could just scoop you up and hug you. Be patient with your mom. She's trying to do her best with the resources she has. This is what I had to learn about my own mom. This is how we found our common ground in the last years of her life. I'm so glad we did. I'm really just so glad we did.



Thursday, May 7, 2015

What it's like to teach high school, Part 2


After a long, arduous day of working-while-sick, after scolding my Honors kids for not studying the handout I'd given them yesterday, after experiencing complete exasperation with a student I've had for TWO YEARS who simply won't learn to put the comma INSIDE the quotation mark, after that one beauty-queen freshman girl who has been told a thousand times "NO DRINKS IN HERE!" spilled some nasty sticky Starbucks liquid sugar on the carpet of my classroom, after all that, at the end of the day, when I was counting the minutes until the final bell, just trying to hold on by my fingernails, I checked my email. In my inbox was a note with the subject line: Teacher Appreciation Day. It was from one of my freshman Honors students, and it began, "I know this is a day late, but oh well"—classic attitude for this kid. But he went on to say:

On the first day of school when I walked into your classroom, I was a bit petrified, but at the same time I was looking forward to it. I had good English teachers prior to you, and I was hoping that streak wouldn't end any time soon. I was right, and I'm very happy that I was. I'm glad I had the opportunity to get a teacher who's doing her job, and ensures that her students have fun in the process of doing so. Also, I'm glad I had a teacher who isn't afraid to cuss. That's pretty bada--, you know what I mean. Unfortunately, I won't have you as a teacher again. That sucks, but I definitely won't forget you anytime soon. I appreciate everything you've taught me this year, and it's an added bonus that you rarely give out homework. So thanks for being an amazing teacher, and I hope you have a great day. 

Here's the thing: This boy has never given me any indication—not once all year—that he enjoyed my class. In fact, the opposite was true; given his saucy attitude in the few exchanges we had over the months, I was convinced he disliked me, my class and everything associated with it. That is, I was convinced until about a month ago. In a conversation with another student in which I was explaining to him how people who are hoping to fly under the radar, to go unnoticed because they are introverts or unhappy or afraid of having a secret about themselves found out, often lash out when approached. "It's a defense mechanism for self-preservation," I explained. And as soon as I said it, it brought to mind this student, this boy who had snarked back even in asking to use the restroom, and I definitely had a light bulb moment. I decided then and there to show him extra kindness but never to call on him in class again unless he volunteered. I can't emphasize this enough: We never know what people are going through. As Atticus told Scout, we need to climb inside the other guy's skin and walk around in it, something I've preached to my freshmen for a quarter of a century.

To say this note brought me to tears and turned my day around is an understatement. I've already printed out the email. It will go in my very special folder of very special student notes and cards. On those days in retirement when I question whether or not I really made a difference, I will pull it out and read it again.

One final note: I disavow any use of profane language in my classroom during the course of teaching a lesson. Ok, I might have said "badass" once or twice. That's not cussing, is it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Jenner

Diane Sawyer's interview with Bruce Jenner on April 24th left me with much to think about and  a lot of residual emotions, the greatest of which was anger.

It has not been that long ago that we ridiculed and tried to humiliate gay men in our society, leering oafs affecting a lisp and limping their wrists to imitate "queers," and all of this done publicly without shame. In 1990, when I first began teaching high school, teen boys regularly used the term "faggot" to jokingly refer to their friends—or anyone they wanted to bully.

In recent times, watching how the tabloids and late night comedians have treated Jenner, as if he is some kind of freak of nature, has reminded me of those benighted times when it was ok to be anti-gay. Part of me knows that, with time, we will get to a place where those who are transgender are welcomed and supported, as gay men and women are now. But we're not there yet, and as we slowly inch toward progress, I'm wondering how we can educate non-transgender members of the community to be sensitive in their speech. (If only I had a dollar for every time I said, "Actually, gay people prefer to be called 'gay'" in the '90s.) It's ok to be confused about gender identification, but let's try not to be cruel as we become educated about it.  Here, let me see if I can help with that a bit.

1. As Bruce Jenner said, being transgender is not a mental illness, and it certainly isn't a choice someone decides to make.

2. Yes, transgender people are born that way; from a very early age, they identify with the gender that is the opposite of their genetic determination, often thinking of themselves in the pronoun (he/she) that fits their identity, rather than the one that fits their DNA.

3.  Being transgender has to do with who you are, not who you want to sleep with. [Please, grammarians, cut me some slack or give me poetic license there; I'm trying to be consistent.] If it makes it easier, "Gender is not about genitals" has become somewhat of a rallying cry lately (although I have yet to see it on a sign). Thus, Bruce Jenner could say, "I am not a homosexual man. I'm a heterosexual man." How can this be, you ask, if his "soul" is that of a "woman," as he claimed in the interview? Because the same DNA that created his hangy down part and all those beautiful, rippling muscles we couldn't stop staring at in the glory days of the 1976 Olympics also determines which hormones compel him to act on instinctive urges, and for now, his testosterone tells him to bed with women.

Aren't we just "fearfully and wonderfully made," as Dr. Paul Brand says in his book by the same title?

I know that some of my evangelical Christian friends may be doing that "We love everyone, but..." stutter step they did when the ten percent of our population that is gay began to emerge from closets all around the country a while back. I expect to hear decrees against the so-called "sin" of body mutilation (if, in fact, a transgender person decides to do reassignment surgery). Christians will say, "You are in the body God gave you." I wouldn't disagree. But I would gently suggest that this is true of a baby born with a cleft palate or a heart defect. He, too, is in 'the body God gave him,' but we're not going to use that as a rationale to leave him that way, are we? No. Doctors will surgically construct a palate or replace a malfunctioning heart valve, and the infant will grow up to be a "normal," healthy individual. And for a transgender individual? Same. The earlier we allow transgender kids to follow the gender they feel instead of the gender we see, the healthier they are in terms of social adjustment.

Why is that last critically important? Because the suicide rate for our transgender folks is twenty-five times that of the general population.

Which is why Bruce Jenner said, "We're going to change the world." Absolutely. By going public—by opening his door and ushering everyone into his life to watch him transition, as he will be doing over the coming months, he is making a courageous statement. He is standing tall in the face of ignorance and criticism to say, as did (purportedly) Joseph Merrick, "I am not an animal." Jenner is willing to allow the most private aspects of his life to become public so that others will see he is not someone to be feared, but another soul to be embraced. 
This is what the Dalai Lama tweeted today:

"Deep down we must have a real affection for each other, a clear recognition of our shared status as human beings." Indeed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Happy Earth Day! Got ice?



So there I was in the grocery store check-out line this morning, gathering up my two reusable bags (which I had, on my way in, forgotten, as I often do, and returned to the truck for, because that's just extra steps on my journey to be fitter and healthier, right?), and as I stepped away I heard the checker's helper ask the lady behind me, "Plastic ok?" Her response: "Can I have extra plastic bags, please? Like, a lot? We're running low on plastic bags at home."

Seriously?!? On Earth Day?!?

ARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

Sigh.

Which reminded me that I just wanted to mention a couple of things today:

1.  Here in Southern California, where water is scarce, the spring weather has been quite lovely (and mostly without precipitation). Folks can be seen everywhere carrying iced drinks—tea, soda, fancy coffee, fancy water. But ask yourself: Where do all those ice cubes go? I mean, if you think of ice as the water it is, and you imagine how many times a day someone throws a take-out cup in the trash with ice in it, that's a significant amount of water.

I keep an old pitcher out on the back patio that I use to water the potted plants. Now every morning when I give Sgt. Thomas Tibbs fresh water, I dump his day-old water into the pitcher. If I make iced tea (or happen to pick up a lovely tall unsweetened black tea from that one popular place because yet another student has given me yet another gift card), I dump the ice in there as well. And if it is a take-out cup, I rinse out the paper cup and the plastic lid (plastic straw still attached) and toss them in the recycle bin. Yes, I love Mother Earth that much.

2.  For those of you who love public radio as much as I do, you still have time to plant a tree today (because you're a good person and you love Mother Earth, too, and you really wanted to do something for Earth Day but you had to go to work) by donating to KPCC in Southern California. Click here, follow the clicky buttons, and when you donate—whatever you can afford—a tree will be planted. (Well, I mean, probably not at the precise moment you enter your card info. I mean, it's not instantaneous—but wouldn't that be cool?!?)


3.  Come on. Don't be like Extra-Plastic-Bags-Please lady. Break down and buy yourself a couple of reusable bags. Put them in the trunk of your car. Yes, you will forget them every single time for the first—How many repetitions does it take to "make something a habit"?—30 times or so. Make yourself walk back and get them, and you'll not only start to remember, you'll be able to shave a minute off your boring treadmill time. Over the course of a year, you'll keep hundreds of plastic bags from going into a landfill where they don't break down, they just float around. And if you guilt one other guy into doing the same, and he guilts one other guy, and so on, we could actually begin a true revolution. You know, like we used to talk about back in 1969 when the idea for Earth Day got started.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Cautiously yet deliberately defending adverbs

This photo has nothing to do with today's post, I've just never been able to use it here before, so I thought I'd share. Yes, I took it. That's Boo Boo, finishing off my lunch (after the cat and I made a hasty retreat into the cabin when we saw him coming).

Sometime back a small online literary journal rejected a piece I'd written about rattlesnakes, or at least, my reflections following three all-too-close encounters with the deadly reptiles. The editors, who pride themselves on being "kind," sent the manuscript back to me "with notes," which amounted to three sentences. The first sentence questioned the veracity of the "memoir" piece. (I can actually understand this, given how much prevaricating has been going on in the interest of producing lively "true" stories. But my stubborn integrity won't allow me to embellish, so I guess I'm never going to get that big book deal about my risqué prison experiences.) The second sentence stated that the editor also passed on the story "due to the use of adverbs." The third sentence was an invitation to verify, revise and submit again.

Let's go back to that second sentence. Um... what?

So I guess this has been a thing for a while, but since I spend more time reading novels than I do perusing online sites that teach how to write them, I hadn't picked up on the current fad faux pas. Vilifying adverbs has now replaced Never use the passive voice which replaced Show, don't tell. I don't know what the fad was before Show, don't tell because I wasn't born yet. I mean, that fad predates my birth.

My friend and soon-to-be bestselling author, Michael Welker, is half my age and has his finger on the pulse of all that is current in today's publishing world, at least the independent, online aspect of it. Last year I did a quick proofread of the book he's working on, and we talked afterward about his generation's willingness to discard the awkward "his or her" pronouns and simply use "their" even when the antecedent is singular. "From what I read online, I think it's pretty much accepted practice now," he said. Like a knife in my heart....

So when this rejection came, I emailed him, and we began a conversation about those nasty adverbs, how they try to creep in [appear surreptitiously] and ruin everything in an otherwise great piece of writing. Bastards. Michael (because he considers thoughtfully—wait—delete "thoughtfully"—what I say, then goes looking for best practices) sent me an email a few days ago with a link to some chick's blog in which she completely and thoroughly nixes the use of adverbs. (See what I did there... defiantly?)

Sigh.

Yes, I get that a "good writer" (and just what the hell is that? Faulkner? Doctorow? Stephen King? Nicholas Sparks?) will be better served by choosing a strong verb over a "weak" one + adverb:

Kay typed forcefully as she vented.
Kay pounded the keyboard as she vented.

And I also get that dialogue will often sound tighter, more powerful, if the writer does not rely on adverbs to make her point:

"Please stop speaking in absolutes," Kay said wearily.
"Please stop speaking in absolutes," Kay sighed.

But in our quest to delete all adverbs, we can end up sounding amateurish. The English language only contains a finite number of verbs, and sometimes it's impossible to find one that offers a viable substitute:

"Take off your clothes, gorgeous," Jennifer whispered seductively.
"Take off your clothes, gorgeous," Jennifer... What? "Cooed"? What goes there? Extremists will tell me to simply delete "seductively" and go with "whispered," insisting that the verb is enough to carry her intention. Is it? What if Jennifer is a heroin addict itching for her next fix and she is reciting the litany that has earned her quick money so many times in the past? What if she's the reincarnation of Nurse Ratched and she's being ironic as she preps another inmate for a strip search?

My point is this: As William Zinsser said, "Write tight." (And if you haven't yet read OnWriting Well, you haven't done a thorough study of your craft, in my humble opinion.) I mean, you can use the "Find" option in MSWord (type the letters "ly" in the Find box when prompted) to hunt down and kill every adverb in your manuscript (well, at least those ending in "ly"), but is doing so going to make your writing stronger? While it is important to understand why adverbs should, like salt, be used sparingly (oh snap! I did it again!), it is equally important to work toward a clear, concise flow.

If you're a staunch anti-adverbist and would like to challenge me, feel free to revise any of my sentences here in the comments below. (Be kind, please, or I'll delete you.)

If you're wondering whether I did "verify and revise"—well, of course I did. I rewrote the entire piece sans adverbs and resubmitted with an assurance that everything I said was absolutely (ok, no, I didn't really use "absolutely" in my cover email) true. Within days I received another rejection. But it was kind

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What Lies Beneath or Why We Should Encourage Girls To Be Whatever They Want To Be



I always think of yard work and gardening as meditative activities, so I rarely grumble when it's time to clear the flowerbeds of weeds. Armed with my shovel, I move forward happily in anticipation of the time it will afford me to work through plot lines for the book I'm writing, or (more treacherous terrain) try to figure out why I haven't been writing lately, or to contemplate my place in the world. It's monotonous work, weeding. But it's good, physical work, and each time I push the spade into the earth, taking care to avoid tree roots and water lines, I am grateful that at sixty I can still do this.

A few days ago, just as I'd begun to tackle a patch of soil near my agapanthus that had become overgrown with stray grass tendrils, I felt the shovel hit something hard. I moved back a bit, then gently pushed the shovel down deep and under, hoping to scoop up what I assumed would be a large rock. What emerged was softball sized. But it certainly wasn't a rock. I had unearthed the shell of a small tortoise.

I'm not squeamish (trust me; I've held freshly delivered human placentas in my bare hands and examined them to make sure everything came out all right), and I love all things reptilian (possibly with the exception of Diamond Back rattlesnakes, which I believe are the spawn of Satan), but I have to confess my stomach did a bit of a turn when I realized what I'd unearthed. After all, it was the body of an animal that had died. So I took a moment to have a quiet meditation over the remains before I began to examine them.

What I discovered was that the body of the tortoise had lain interred long enough to be reduced to a skeleton. As I slowly turned it over, the bottom shell fell away and all the bones sifted down through the dirt into the hollow of the shell. Slowly, carefully, I brushed and sifted away the soil. There was his skull—missing the lower mandible, which I found a few moments later. I recognized the pelvis next, as it was the largest bone. The tiny vertebrae that had once held the tortoise's spinal column in place were a marvel to consider as they rested in my palm.

In those moments of close examination, I was grateful to my college biology teacher who insisted we learn the name of every single bone in the human body. As a young person, I found the exercise tedious. Now I appreciate how well the knowledge has served me over the years. I thought of Annie Dillard and her amazing prose about the biology in her own backyard. And I recalled my first exposure to the writings of anthropologist Ashley Montagu. I was still in junior high (though already a confirmed writer), and I thought how wonderful it would be to spend a lifetime studying the unique zoology of humans and then writing about new discoveries and conclusions that could be drawn from them. Years later, a friend would introduce me to the brilliant illuminations of Loren Eiseley, but by then I'd launched into my college coursework as an English major, and there was no turning back. Still...

If I'd been given direction as a child, if I had not been told repeatedly, "Girls don't... " whenever I leaned toward the boy side, I would not have followed the discipline which seemed practical but has turned out to be a bit static and stuffy, and would instead have followed what always seemed to me to be so dynamic and exciting that it was, perhaps, just beyond the reach of an average tomboy being raised by a single, working class mom.

I have saved my treasure of turtle bones in a large metal tin. Perhaps before I retire I'll come across a student eager to find an engaging science project who will be happy to do the painstaking work of organizing, mounting and identifying this jumble of leftover parts. If I find her, she may have these bones with my blessing.


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.