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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Jandy Nelson's "I'll Give You The Sun" is magically realistic

Jandy Nelson's second young adult novel is a marvel, and I recommend reading it. 

"I'll Give You The Sun" has all of my favorite elements: twists, twins, ghosts, and other magical realism. After I finished reading it, the characters resonated with me for hours afterwards, chanting their lines and glinting in the Northern California sun where this story is set.

I mean, it's no Thirteenth Tale (the ideal combination of the elements listed above). But it's moving and compelling, and I couldn't wait to find out what HAPPENED as I sped toward the ending.

The story revolves around a set of artistic teenage boy/girl twins who are, for psychically connected siblings, awful communicators. They vacillate between love and hatred in the blink of an eye. But even their more ridiculous moments ring true for me. I must admit that between the ages of 14 and 24, swings of BLACK and WHITE emotion were just part of my everyday existence. And Jandy Nelson has captured that very well. 

I also feel it's time for young adult authors to come out of the closet and admit that they are all just the TEENSIEST bit influenced by the "Twilight" series. Really, folks. Every time I read a YA book recently, I find a few Twilight-y bits. 

When the fast-driving male love interest in this book talked about how he was enchanted by the smell of this clumsy 16-year-old tomboy, and how he couldn't stay away from her because they were prophesied to be together, I just said, "Come ON." Can we at least give Stephenie Meyer a little shout-out for starting this whole supernatural love extravaganza? 


Well, anyway, it's a terrific book.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

That one kid

Almost every class has that one kid.

Yesterday, it was the sixth grade child who was drawing a comic strip while I was teaching.

I walked up to her, and I could see her body shrink with dread.

"Do you draw all the time when you're in class?" I asked her.

"Yes, usually," she said in a small voice.

"Then KEEP GOING," I said urgently, "No matter what anyone tells you. Keep drawing. Don't do the assignment. Every time I walk past this desk I want to see you drawing, got it?"

"Wow," she said quietly, and put her head back down in her work.

At the end of the day, she showed me her comic. It was from the perspective of a sentient wolf who has deliberately chosen to injure a lost girl. She wanted me to see the wound on the girl and really understand what happened in the story. I praised it madly.

Of course it's easy for me to be the "hero" in these situations. I'm the substitute. I won't get in trouble at the end of the year if this girl hasn't learned anything about Roman history. I can't imagine how difficult a time I would have actually getting her to do the assignments.

Also, when I taught art last week, I had a second grade boy who truly couldn't finish drawing one lily pad (while his classmates churned out dozens).

After a half-hour of him "working" unsuccessfully on the lily pad, I discovered that if I sang while he drew, he would focus. So I "treated" the whole class to the Bavarian folksong "Heut kommt der Hans" which did the trick.*

It's just not reasonable to expect teachers to cater to that one kid. Instead, I feel compelled to create a different place for these kids to learn, where they can churn out wolf comics and listen to music while they draw.
Thanks, Pippi!

I keep encountering kids like these:

  • The child who never spoke in class but could hold forth for hours on the topic of Pippi Longstocking with me at recess.
  • The first grader who couldn't control his body but could spell "rhinoceros" like a savant.
  • The tiny girl who shrank behind her desk throughout the lesson but was instantly obsessed with the notion of Indo-European roots.

I can connect with these kids because in many ways, I was that kid. And I have that kid: the quirky one who just can't manage the social aspects of school, which come so naturally to others; and that child who can't pay attention to anything but their own imaginations much of the time.

How do I save them all? I'm feeling a little starfish-y about it (You know, the little story that ends "It matters to that one").

I bet this is how full-time teachers feel all of the time. What can you do with that little character in your class who learns in a different way? Right now I just feel a big swell of compassion, and I let them know I think they're pretty cool just the way they are.

And in my imagination, I put all of those misfits in the same classroom. I am their teacher, and we're all howling, and drawing, like wolves.

*This is the song that got the second grader's lily pad finished:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Coming soon to a classroom near you...

 I am astounded by how much I love being a substitute teacher.

This is a job for which I am paid so little, where I work at crumbling facilities, and I come home hoarse from yelling every day, but it never stops being awesome.

In order to substitute teach for a California public school, I had to apply for a 30-Day Substitute Teaching Permit. That process took me several long months in which I had to do these things:
One of the "love notes" I find in my purse after subbing

  • Relearn algebra so I could pass the CBEST basic skills test (Thanks, Dad!)
  • Pay twice to have my fingerprints analyzed by the Department of Justice AND the FBI separately (No, they can't share...)
  • Track down college transcripts. (This involved the humiliating realization that my BA is so old that it's not available electronically.)
  • Bother a half-dozen people to act as references regarding my "teaching" skills even though I've only ever had one student.
For those who are interested in leaping over these hurdles in order to be paid less than $15/hour, just like me, this leaflet is very helpful.

It took several months for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to digest all of the above information and give me the thumbs-up. After a few more administrative steps with our local school district, it was TIME TO TEACH.

I still had never taught in a public school classroom, so when they called me for my first sub job, I just dressed fancy like my old fourth grade teacher, swore quietly to myself, and opened the classroom door.


First we went through all of the prescribed lesson plans. Then I pulled down the never-used dictionary from their teacher's shelf and we all started laughing and looking up words. When it was time to do laps, I just did the laps with them too. I ran an impromptu spelling bee (I won) and read my childhood favorite books to them that my own kids don't want to hear anymore. 

The experience was part improv exercise, part power trip, part letting the kids use whatever words and markers and resource materials they wanted to, because it was interesting for all of us. I basically fell in love with 18 children simultaneously, particularly the troublemakers. 

And it's been the same with most every class I've encountered.

There was no glass of wine large enough after
 the bathroom-related student love attack.
A few examples of my substitute teaching ridiculousness:
  • I explain the details of Anne Boleyn's beheading to a group of transfixed third graders, up to and including the French executioner wearing his bedroom slippers so he could sneak up on her. Thanks Hilary Mantel! Hope it's true!)
  • I am simultaneously loved and attacked by a disabled child who has to go to the bathroom.
  • I advise a group of fifth graders how to develop videogames. They had been under the mistaken impression that they could "get rich" by playing games.
  • I am told by a school secretary that subs don't get hot lunch. "Hot lunch is only for the permanent staff." ("Can't I just eat the hot lunch you made for the teacher who is mountain biking right now?")
  • I infiltrate the teachers' lounge and soak in enough "Glee"-like gossip to last me for years (my lips are sealed).
  • I surprise my own children by suddenly being their art teacher. (And explaining to everyone how Van Gogh's paint made him go crazy.)
  • The kids who I am warned about end up being helpful and good with me. I think they realize I am a weaker species.
On the whole, IT IS SO MUCH FUN. It pays very little, but the hours are flexible and they happen when my daughters are in school, plus I want to earn my teaching credential and this experience is exactly what I need.

And now I am starting to crave the high of teaching bunches of kids. 

Chebbles long ago tired of me as a teacher, but to these classes I'm a brand-new experience, and they keep handing me love notes as they depart the classroom.

(One girl went so far as to hope her usual teacher had a long-lasting illness, which I advised was bad karma and not really fair -- although I secretly lapped it up.)

So please, come join me in magical sub-land! Until the memo gets around that I explained to the Greek girl that Greece has more dangerous mosquitoes and I told the German boy that he and I were technically barbarians, I'll be dorking around classrooms all over the Bay Area, writing my name on the board and craving the REAL teachers' hot lunches and credentials.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Lena Dunham's book is a surprising delight

I resisted reading Lena Dunham's book as long as I could. 

I was afraid there would be too much chatting about vaginas in "Not That Kind of Girl." Plus, I've never watched an episode of "Girls," the show for which she is so famous. But finally, talking to myself loudly in the library (as usual) I said, "FINE!" and I yanked it off the shelf.

Dunham's book surprised me, not only because I originally had low expectations (what would 27-year-old have to say that's interesting?).  I was inspired by her no-holds-barred way of expressing herself. While this memoir doesn't contain the concentrated wisdom and history lesson of, say, Katherine Graham's spectacular memoir, Dunham is such a good writer, and a likeable, relatable narrator in an open way that reminded me of David Sedaris, particularly when she describes her obsessions regarding disease. 

I felt very caught up in her stories.
Want to know how unsexy it is to have sex on TV?
Lena Dunham tells all...

For example, Lena Dunham has the same PET NEGLECT dream I do. Have you had this dream? Both my sister and I have this nightmare at least once a month, and Lena Dunham described it perfectly: discovering of a hidden room with animals who are miraculously alive despite their neglected state. (Dunham's are lizards. Mine are usually hamsters or aquarium fish.)

There were so many other parts of her book which I agreed with. She discusses how much better intimacy is within a committed relationship as well as the compulsion to create that seizes her and won't let her go. She never comes off as entitled or whiny (or a child molester, not by a long shot), she is simply honest and so fun to listen to, I hope she keeps chronicling her experiences.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The journey from fostering to forever homes...

Once upon a time, a young cat found herself abandoned at the Antioch shelter with her four newborn kittens.

ARF, a local animal rescue organization, learned about her plight and found a foster home where this cat could raise her kittens, accompanied by a flock of eager children (not to mention harp music).

ARF named her "Marmalade" and her kittens' ARF names were Grape Jelly, Nutella, Peanut Butter and Marmite.

A sneezy homecoming

By the time they arrived in their foster home, all five cats were sick with upper respiratory infections. They had to contend with twice-daily antibiotic administrations, more trips to the vet and generally feeling very crummy. The kittens shook with chills and their mama did their best to feed them and keep them warm while she herself was wracked with sneezes.

Rehnquist's ARF profile. He was called "Grape."
(The cats' foster family had once been the recipient of an ARF-fostered kitten themselves. Rehnquist, their massive black cat, had the great advantage of growing up in an ARF foster home with kids, dogs and a turtle. His loving, accepting demeanor is a direct result of that experience. 

Rehnquist's arrival in their family had been beautifully timed four years ago.)

From the beginning, Marmalade allowed the family to handle her mewling kittens, and yearned to be cared for herself. She was given lots of petting, and mighty bowls of food to fill in her bones and provide rich milk for her sick kittens.

The house became a kitten hot spot. Many wonderful friends came by to hold the kittens and get to know them, despite the fact that the cats' 9-year-old hostess wasn't the best at keeping their room smelling nice.

Once they were settled in, the kittens' eyes opened, and their legs gained strength. Their personalities emerged, all of them variations of their sweet mama. And they grew. AND GREW.

Marmalade's miracle

After seven weeks being fostered, Marmalade started to go into heat. She began rubbing herself against every leg and carpet in the house, and sneaking out of the doors at the slightest provocation. It became a real possibility that she would return to ARF pregnant. After it was determined that the kittens were finished nursing, she was hustled off to be spayed. Then the first miracle happened: she was picked up by two little girls, and a very loving mother and father -- dear friends of the foster family. 

So Marmalade awoke from her surgery to find the little girls waiting for her. They brought her home and snuggled her down for luxurious naps on fluffy blankets. Now that she is spayed, Marmalade is allowed to go outside sometimes, to enjoy the great smells and exciting wildlife in the backyard of her new home. And, when given a choice, she prefers to sleep on the top bunk.

Renegade kittens

The kittens regrouped without their mother, and always slept in a little formation. Were they trying to spell out words with their little bodies? 

They all needed a few more weeks to gain weight and get ready for their own spay and neuter operations.

Although they all enjoyed playing with each other, the girls tended to party together. And the boys preferred to make their own mischief.

And much mischief was achieved now that their loving Mama wasn't keeping them in line anymore... 
The girls party together

A happy ending for the girls

A friend came over to the kittens' foster home with her two little boys, and they fell in love with the two girl kittens. It was hard for them to wait the several weeks for them to grow and be ready to move to their "Forever Home" but they did their best, stocking up on cat toys, food, litter and all of the supplies that go along with caring for the beauties who were headed their way.

The boys "help" unload the dishwasher

Something magic happens at the vet

In the vet's waiting room, where the kittens had gone for a checkup, two little boys came in with their mother to pick up their young dog, who had just been spayed. This mother had told her sons that once the dog was spayed that they would begin looking for a cat.

The boy kittens popped their pink noses out of the carrier and the boys wondered: could this be IT? The boy kittens and boy humans quickly hustled into an empty exam room and got to know each other. They watched each other and played with each other, and all four of them decided together: yup, these brothers are for US.

So the kittens waited in their foster home, and the four boys waited to each get their kittens.

One of the many kitten-laden bed formations 

The boys growing larger and more beautiful

Finally, it was time for them to make the great leap from their Foster Home to their Forever Homes, and to jump into the arms of the boys who could hardly wait to have them move in. So they received a small speech (warning: it's told in a relating-to-kittens voice).

And they all went through their operations, and headed straight home with their new boys. And started to grow into the big, beautiful cats they will eventually be.

Fostering is a beautiful thing.

The girls snuggle behind a warm knee at their forever home.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Opa versus my clothing: the showdown of 1989

Let's be clear: I loved my Opa.

As a serious soil scientist (his agronomy textbook, illustrated by Oma, is still in print), and having been born in 1901 to a strict family of Prussian descent, he was hard to get to know.

Opa and his siblings were somewhat uptight, the best example being his sister's disgust at an Isadora Duncan ballet, lamenting that it was simply "too naked" for her taste.

His slide shows bored me so much I would weep when I was a child. These "shows" consisted of dozens upon dozens of slides of people we didn't know awkwardly posing next to fields.

But I loved my Opa, mostly because he obviously loved me. He would visit and drive me around, careening around our suburban streets in his Chevrolet Impala, doing his best to take care of me on my terms. He would try to talk to me about lofty topics that were lost on me. And when my sister lost my wallet at the Lafayette, Indiana arcade, Opa replaced the $32 that had been inside.
This is not one of Opa's slides, but it proves all you have
to do is Google "Agronomy" and you get a small sample of
the images that tortured me as a child: People milling in fields.

Opa would watch my sister and me play with gentle "eyes of love," as we caught fireflies on his lawn, and he took photos of us, together with our cousins, with his Kodak Disc Camera. He awkwardly hugged us whenever we would get close enough to this enigmatic elder of ours.
"Oh Opa!"

If Opa lived longer we could have discussed our mutual love of travel, of Germany in particular, of finding order within chaos. As it was, however, we were generationally CHALLENGED.

He was seized with an unfortunate desire to correct me.

Initially, I was delighted to find some long-lost letters of Opa's when I went through my old files last week. I started to read them with anticipation of seeing his love seep out after the decades since his passing.

I got some of that, but I also got a heaping helping of "KonMari"-style decluttering admonition.

The first example is from 1989, after he and Oma had cared for us while our father was away. (The first paragraph is pure Opa love, then the KonMari action begins in the second paragraph):

The relevant text: "I must confess I was disappointed by the way you keep your rooms... You have altogether too many clothes. And you keep buying more... There are many people that don't have enough, who would enjoy to get your cast-offs. In that way you will have sufficient space to store your clothes in an orderly fashion."

Well at least he used the word "fashion."

There was nothing more about this topic for more than a year. Then he came to visit me at my housing co-op at University of Michigan (Henderson House). I had apparently told him a story about how my double room became a single room, just for me, because of my crappy view.

Opa then fired off this letter: (KonMari philosophies crop up again in the second paragraph.)

The relevant text from this letter: "You said over the phone that one of the girls did not like the view from your window. I wonder: did she mean the nice trees outside or was it something in the room that disturbed her?... Maybe you still have too many clothes? I love you and I worry about a possible handicap that you could avoid." 
He was obsessed with my clothing collection.
To be clear: Michigan is a very cold place, so Opa was most likely seeing a half-dozen wool sweaters and several jackets. Otherwise, I remember having about two pairs of PJ's, five pairs of jeans, and about 10 turtlenecks, plus a regrettable corduroy skirt and three or four dresses for sorority parties. I distinctly remember borrowing most of the clothes I wore from my friends who were better stocked. From the photographic evidence, I rarely wore my own clothing. 
I will admit that my college closet did not look as Japanese as it looks now, but I think it was somewhat wasteful for Opa to spend his time and energy getting himself worked up about my clothes. He happened to pass away a few months later, and among my regrets are that it took me 24 more years before I finally followed his advice, and that we didn't spend our times -- both in person and epistolary -- together in easier conversation. 

PS: I don't want to necessarily "win" this battle with Opa, but he kept a LOT of slides in his closets. Going through these slides now is almost as torturous as it was when I was a kid. KonMari would certainly upbraid him for this collection.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Seven Things I Learned about Secondary Infertility plus a Tattoo Proposal

Yoo-hoo! Come back! 
1. Secondary infertility is a thing.
It seemed to me that once a body conceived and gave birth, that body would just go on conceiving and giving birth as often as it pleased. This is not so. Particularly because many of us got around to childbearing "later" in the game, sometimes our body only had one good egg left. Or maybe we married someone who, despite his many terrific qualities, brings a mutated MTHFR gene to the equation, so only a few of your babies survive gestation. The bottom line: you can have one kid, no problem, then have a crappy time trying to have any more. And it happens to a lot of people.

2. Don't go around saying how "jealous" you are of your friends with one child.
Some people are legitimately "one and done," but many times, once I've barely scratched the emotional surface of people who say they are "one and done" (I start by telling them what I usually write about), there is a trail of IVF''s, D&C's and tragedy written in their hearts, and sometimes that sad tale is ongoing for them. So if you meet a family with one kid, just enjoy that family and don't draw numerical comparisons that would unwittingly piss them off.

3. What blows is that you're already a parent. Your life has been transformed from that of a normal adult to one of a worn-out parent. You already have to get a babysitter if you want to go out on the town, and your birthday is now an irrelevant holiday compared to that of your child. So you're already in the mode. And you cannot avoid running into pregnant mothers all of the time. (Why do they all go to the park when I go there?) And, in addition to being a mean twist of fate, secondary infertility is remakarbly inefficient. ("Do I keep these baby clothes? If I ever conceive a healthy child again, will they even be in fashion?")

4. There are more things that can be done nowadays. 
I chatted with my favorite reproductive endocrinologist recently, and I left her office with a handful of juicy brochures that may some secondary infertiles (who have cash on hand). Check it out: now, when they do IVF, they are much better at performing preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). They have figured out a method that ensures the survival of far more embryos through the PGD process (much more than when I was in the midst of my own crappy reproductive days). Now they can be so sure of the health of the embyros that pass their test that they now implant just one. They are that confident, those saucy reproductive endocrinologists.

5. Secondary infertility describes everyone who wants another child and can't have one.
"But this is why I want to have more!"
It's not called second child infertility (although I had that too). It doesn't matter how many kids you already have. If you are trying to conceive a baby and nothing is working, or everything is spluttering out, then you can feel properly victimized by secondary infertility. And if another person points to all your living children who are spilling liquids on your laptop and requiring meetings with the principal, and says, "But you should just be grateful," they can kiss my grits. It's those children who make you want to have more just like them before the final sunset of your reproductive years. And besides, no one who has experienced secondary infertility herself says that.

6. There doesn't seem to be a time limit on being mad about secondary infertility.
I have met older women who I would have assumed would be over being mad about not having more children. I thought that these older ladies would be so busy writing their tell-all memoirs and taking their cruises that the drama of their uteruses was a distant memory. Nope. Many of them still wonder about that last kid they never got around to having, not to mention the stillbirths and miscarriages.

7. We should be talking about it a lot more.
If we don't find a forum to get this out of our systems, we may turn into old ladies (on our cruises with our tell-all memoirs) who still have this story is stuck in our craw. While I think we can feel free to be at least a little angry about this the rest of our lives, we might find a little more balance right now if we don't keep it a secret.

My fantasy is that we have a bumper sticker that announces the sisterhood of infertility -- primary, secondary, or tertiary for goodness' sake, and of miscarriage and stillbirth, and of all crappy things that happened when we were finally ready to form a family. It could be a stylized womb with a question mark inside of it... (I'll leave it to my infertile sisters who possess graphic skills to dream up this badass logo.)

Once we have such a logo, we can all get drunk (because goodness knows we're not pregnant) and get it tattooed on our butts. So when we're old, on those cruises, and tanning on the Lido Deck, we'll see a bedecked rear end and know that we may not have had all the children we wanted, but dammit, we're not alone.