Sunday, August 21, 2016

If You Love a Teacher...

If you love a teacher, this post is for you. Not because it makes you special, but because it makes you a target. This post is not a celebration. No, my friends, this is a survival guide.

Tomorrow is a big day. It's big because it's the first day, and first days are frantic and messy and long. No matter how many first days your teacher has had, it never seems to get easier. We just become better at faking it.

And, dear Baby Jesus, if your teacher-love is having their very first of the first days, you are probably already in the thick of it. There's not much you can do at this moment except hold on.

Before we delve into tomorrow, though, let's get a few things straight so that your innocent "jokes" don't become long nights on the couch or a butter knife in the back of your hand.

1. They have not been "on vacation" all summer. Most have done training and conferences and summer school. Or they have families, dear God. And even if they have been on the most magical vacation of all time, shut the hell up. They've earned it. Take me with you next time.

2. They have been back "at work" for a week or two now, but being at work with adults is a great deal easier than being back at work with 900 children. Even the worst, most annoying adults can be moved away from; children never stop following you. Shut up.


3. Stop looking at the receipts. Just stop. Setting up a classroom is like buying a new home every year. It's not just bulletin border and smelly markers they're buying. An easel pad of poster paper (50 sheets) costs $27.95. That's 10% of our yearly tax deduction we get to claim, and it's paper. Yes, it's paper that will showcase the steps to finding the area of a triangle or how to punctuate a complex sentence, but let's be real -- it's PAPER. And if you're buying the easel pad with the sticky side? Your spouse must be rich. Adopt me. I need giant sticky notes.

And if your teacher love wants to drop $11 on a pack of felt tip pens? You don't say a word.

Some girls want a bouquet of flowers. I, myself, prefer a bouquet of new felt-tipped pens.
I'm serious. This is the teacher equivalent of buying a ridiculously expensive bottle of whiskey. Yes, they could just use other pens. But you could also just knock back a crisp, refreshing Purell on the rocks. Shut up.


4. They will come home with no voice. A non-teacher friend once came to my school to speak to classes all day. All she did was talk. She went home and laid a frozen washcloth on her face and refused to look at her husband.

Your teacher-love's face will ache from smiling. The first day, we are a crowd of deranged Miss America contestants.

You smile to welcome students. You smile to alleviate parental panic. You smile to defuse parental discontent. You smile because, inevitably, shit will fall apart. Crying child, lunch schedule mix-ups, parents who don't understand the pick-up line, or technology that worked fine today will have reverted back to 1952 tomorrow.

Tomorrow night, do not expect them to whisper sweet nothings to you. Do not expect them to ask about your day. Do not try to Face Time them. You will not want to see their face on the other end. Tomorrow is not the day to get your feelings hurt because they "seem distant". Tomorrow is a day to shut up. Maybe they'll talk again on Tuesday.

5. Don't expect them to keep up with their responsibilities at home to the usual standard. If you came to my house right now, I'd only let you in if you brought laundry detergent and a casserole. Even then, I might eye you warily through the peephole and text you instructions to leave it on the porch and walk away. They've gone from picking up after a few people (or for only themselves) to herding a school full of Pig Pens who leave a trail of pencil shavings and Axe body spray wherever they go. Think about how rage-y you get when the people in your house can't remember where dirty socks go. Now multiply that feeling times 125.

6. If your teacher-love is not in your home, consider yourself lucky. We are not a pleasant people. For the first 2 weeks, we are like zombies who have somehow retained the ability to drive. But not like the fast World War Z zombies. This is more us:

So do yourself a favor tomorrow. Give your teacher a big hug before they leave. Give them a little space when they get home. And just wait it out for a couple of days. They'll be human again someday soon. And if not... at least you have a leg up on them.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Panic of Perfection

As the first day of school draws near, I am sensing a definite theme with my teacher friends as I scroll through social media: Panic.

Not about curriculum. Not about students. Not about school policies. Full-blown Panic about the state of not-nearly-readiness of our classrooms. I sense their panic because I know this Panic. We are, in fact, old, old friends, he and I. Today was our 17th anniversary.

Hello, lover.

At my school, almost everyone is in a new place, and all week, I've seen people walking in and out of each others' rooms, calculating time lost in meetings, eyeing decor, silently taking measurements, calling dibs on unwanted furniture. Today was NJH Craigslist day: if you want something post about it or if you're looking, post about it. Teachers cruise hallways like seasoned garage-salers. Word about hard-to-find objects like bookshelves or free Expo markers spreads like we're Bodie and the Corner Boys.

Teacher 1: "Yo. You didn't hear this from me, but I saw a sweet, sweet rolling chair just sittin' outside room 208. You want me to go pick it up for you?"

Teacher 2: (twitches and whispers) "I don't know, man. Doesn't that belong to Drury? Why's he puttin' it out there like that? You sure it's safe? I don't want any trouble."

Teacher 1: "Don't worry about Drury. If it's in the hallway, it's fair game. Thems the rules, you know? All I need is a 24 count box of mechanical pencils, and we're square."

And that's just the physical layout of the room. We haven't even started out-Pinteresting each other yet. Elementary school teachers start planning their class themes for the upcoming school year even before the previous year is done. I'm convinced they go on retreats to the desert, do a bunch of peyote, and then their spirit animal drops their bulletin board plan into the sand. It is absolutely the only explanation.

Junior high teachers don't usually dig quite as deep, but don't be fooled. We care. We worry about having the coolest decorations and the hottest memes to use as our classroom procedures. We're all about the best lighting and the comfiest chairs. We want to be seen but we don't want to seem too eager about it because we just want you to like us.

As I've said many times before: it takes junior high to teach junior high.

I've been especially stressed this year because in the grand game of musical classrooms, I've been lucky the past 3 years and avoided a move. But this year, I've taken the sidewalk less-traveled and moved to the portable buildings outside. And not just those outside but across the street. On the football field.

These buildings appeared through some form of wizardry one day last year, only two years after they were ordered. They sat empty until June when my PLC and I began shoving our hastily packed boxes into them.

"BLANK CANVASES!" the optimists shouted.

"NO HALLWAY DRAMA!" the hermits cheered.

"YOUR OWN THERMOSTAT!" everyone exclaimed.

"ONLY 527 STEPS TO THE RESTROOM!" I cried.

Me, today, after 3 Diet Cokes and forgetting my key card into the building.

It has not been a pretty move. Not only did my lovely students schlep all of my 17 years worth of teaching materials, boxes of mementos, and 743 novels, but they did so in the rain. For the cost of Chik Fil-A. And it all sat, unopened and unthought of until last Friday when I could no longer ignore my ever-growing anxiety. That's when I walked into my BLANK CANVAS that was AWAY FROM HALLWAY DRAMA with my very OWN (unreliable) THERMOSTAT. And I saw that absolutely nothing had changed in two months. My own ragged boxes still there, taunting me but there was nothing else. No teacher desk, no furniture, no technology, no internet -- in any of my PLC's rooms. And all my worst trust issues burst out of me in such a way that I may never make it into Heaven.

I will admit it. S**t got real, and it got real fast. I fumed. I cried. I cussed. I guilted. I played every last card I knew how to play. I had gotten my feelings hurt, and then I got mad. I ranted and raved and reminded until, little by little, things began to appear. I was actually kind of proud of myself for fighting the fight and fighting it so well.



Then last night, at our Preseason Picnic, 40 students and their parents and siblings walked those 527 steps to my unkempt, uncovered, shameful door. Not a single one asked why my bulletin boards were unfinished. Not a single one noticed I had no computer on my desk. Not a single one cast the side eye at my tables covered by piles of construction paper and Jenga towers of novels. Or the missing ceiling tile that I predict will be the gateway to a raccoon home invasion someday soon.

For teachers, their classroom is a second home. We spend 50+ hours per week there. We sometimes eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner there. I had a friend once who took longer to pick out her office chair than I took to pick out my last mattress. It is the place we learn and cry and celebrate and, sometimes, nap. So when we open them up to others -- especially to those first time guests -- we want them to be clean and comfortable and inviting.

So how did no one mention what they saw? Did they politely ignore? Did they silently judge and then talk about me on some "disappointing classrooms of 2016" message board? Or did it really not matter? These are the questions I thought about and woke myself up with at 4:00 AM when I finally realized something and made some peace within my mind. Peace that I knew in my heart but I could not quite hammer into my head.

1. There are entire school buildings in my district that remain in process of construction/renovation. Those teachers have not even been allowed in their own homes yet.

2. There are entire communities underwater in my neighboring state where children dream about going back to school as they sleep curled up on the roofs of their actual, submerged homes.

3. There are teachers in my district (but finally, FINALLY not in my school) who do not have their own rooms, and they must depend on the kindness and care of fellow teachers to let them in.

4. When I started at my school 17 years ago, we didn't have our own computers or telephones or wifi signals. We calculated grades on calculators and hand-wrote our grade sheets on triplicate forms and actually walked to someone else's classroom to ask a question. And I survived! And I was loved! And my children learned!

5. There are still schools in our very own God-Bless-the-USA nation that cannot afford copy paper of textbooks or faculty pay checks. Schools with mold and broken windows and fear, and yet children learn.

6. And that there are people in this world willing to sit under a bridge, in the dirt, to learn from a man with only a battered chalkboard and the desire to teach.

7. That never -- not once -- have I ever been denied what I need at my school. Things have arrived late. They may have arrived inconveniently. But they arrived, and I am blessed by their arrival. Even the NJH Craigslist furniture ads typically get fulfilled within 24 hours by someone.

So, I know I'm preaching what I must practice myself these next 3 days, but this is what finally gave me peace this morning, and in moments of panic, I want you to say it with me:

It doesn't matter.

It will all be okay.

My home doesn't have to be Pinterest perfect to be clean, welcoming, and inviting. It just needs me.

I am enough.

My students don't need things; they need me.

All a classroom needs is students, chairs, and someone who cares.


And to be honest, when necessary, even the chairs are negotiable.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tuesdays

The first time my father lost his mind, it was a Tuesday.

I stood in line at the concession stand of a junior high football game, staring blankly at the smiling booster club moms and dads, while on the phone, my own father spit curses and lies about my mother and, later, about me.

The first time I did not recognize my father's voice, it was a Tuesday. 

The first time I ever had a panic attack, it was a Tuesday.

The first time I ever considered my own death, it was a Tuesday.

The first time I ever prayed for my own father's death, it was a Tuesday.

I have a real and palpable anger about Tuesdays.

***

Looking back, almost a decade later, I know now that wasn't really my father on the phone. It was a plague of chronic disease, financial despair, and unregulated medication.

It was a man whose brain was betraying him, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy; a wrecking ball of delusions and conspiracy and rage.

It was a mind, once full of joy and song lyrics and the names of every person he ever met, now tormented by even the simplest of tasks.

It was a distortion; a funhouse mirror reflection of the man I had cherished my entire life.

It was a jailer of logic and a thief of memories.

It was a havoc I would not wish on my own worst enemy.

***

There were many other horrors that would happen in the years between that phone call and my father's death. Some happened on Tuesdays, I'm sure, but when there are so many sadnesses and fears, the calendar fills up quickly, and other days have to suffice. 

But when my father died, he died on a Tuesday, just as I had prayed those hundreds of Tuesdays before.

I think about that prayer often. I've spent a great deal of time and money, on therapists and vacations and cheap bottles of wine, trying to come to grips with that prayer. How a daughter can pray such a thing for her hero. How I could pray for an end to the madness however God might see fit. Maybe He would take him to spare all of us; maybe He would take me, at least, to spare me. Either way, I prayed.

My guilt is that I prayed that prayer out of anger and selfishness. My shame is that it wasn't the only time I prayed it. I war with that shame often still.

Over time, my anger and frustration transferred from my dad to his disease, Parkinson's and its terrible little sidekick, Dementia. And although I eventually forgave my father the grievances he had caused, I still found myself praying often for the end. An end to this cruelty. An end to the indignities he endured. An end to his confusion and tears and pain. 

So, in the exquisite and beautiful circles of life, his life ended on a Tuesday, but my pain did not.

I have a real distrust of Tuesdays.

***
There have been several deaths this half year that have affected me more than I expected. Perhaps it's just the feeling of loss in general. Perhaps it's the ways they are connected back to my father -- the music he loved, or the storytelling he so encouraged, or the afflictions that tormented both him and my family. I was told that I would often see my father's death in the deaths of others, especially in those whose endings feel so familiar.

Last night, I read that Pat Summitt, one of my idols in education and sports and being a badass woman, was dying. This news hit me profoundly, and I found myself praying, yet again, for a quick end. 

There is something to be said for all of our old stories about knights and warriors and the dignity of a clean death. That's something especially foreign to those suffering from dementia -- a clean, quick death. It's a nice idea -- romantic, even -- but death, no matter how swift, is never clean, and I felt all of my old guilt rising again as I prayed. 

I thought of her and my father, two people who never met but still shared a space in my life. Two people who share the bad luck of a bad disease. Two people known for kindness and teasing and hard work and their bright blue eyes. Farm kids who came from nothing. One grew into a legend, having everything and more; one was everything and more -- a legend --  to me.

***

What I pray for, I've come to learn, is not just a prayer for him but a prayer for me. An end to my own confusion and tears and pain. I think it must be what so many people experience when they watch a loved one slip away, heartbreakingly slowly, over time.

It's hard to reconcile the selfless act of letting go with the selfish want of being free, and pain is a parasite feasting off such conflict.

A few weeks ago, I read a passage from a book, A Monster Calls, a children's book that (like so many books for children) is really meant to teach us all. It stuck with me and comforted me, and I've gone back to its earmarked page many times. So in addition to my prayer, I read it over and over, first in a whisper, feeling silly and useless, alone in my bed; then out loud and steady in hopes that somehow God would bring it to others.



The article had said that her family had stopped accepting visitors and that she might only have days left to live. But I knew, without question, what day my heartache loves best. 

So it was that I woke up this morning, a Tuesday, to say goodbye yet again.

I have a real loneliness and an ache for healing on Tuesdays.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The In-Betweens

There are moments when I think my students are too old for their age -- that they know too much about drugs and sex and the hatred of this world. Those are the moments I feel hopeless and empty. The moments when I wonder where I misplaced my idealism.

And then, I put on a Disney movie after an ass-whip day of standardized testing. And my most challenging students pull their desks close and stare wide-eyed at the screen, mesmerized by the colors and music and story. They boo the villains and take up for the victims. They talk to no one but themselves about what they'd do if they were that character. Sometimes they cry or get very quiet during the sad parts. Sometimes they sing and dance through the happy moments. And a few have even shadow-boxed the fight scenes right alongside the hero.

But my favorite moments of all time are when they smile at all the parts meant for kids but laugh at all of the jokes meant for grown-ups. That's when I remember that I am blessed with these babies at The In-Betweens. We exist at the intersection of Being a Kid and Growing Up, where some days you just want to be big and tall while on others you still want to curl up and be small. Where innocence isn't entirely eclipsed by cynicism.

And where sometimes you still get a movie and orange slices at the end of a long day of work.

Monday, May 2, 2016

I Am a Teacher

Every year about this time, my students create an "I Am" poem. It's a skeleton poem with a defined structure, so everyone's looks basically the same in the beginning. In the end, however, each student typically finds a way to take control of something that seems so basic, and they make it sing only their song somehow. I keep several each year to remember special kids, unique voices, and efforts I did not expect. It's one of my favorite activities.

Also, it keeps them from asking me one million questions and whining about no end-of-year parties for at least 25 or 30 minutes. I'm not saying this is the main reason I do it, but it sure doesn't hurt.

Today happens to mark the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week. Therefore, I have chosen to create a bookend "I Am" poem to celebrate. If you know a teacher somewhere, give them a hug this week. They probably need it.

Or buy them a drink at Happy Hour. They probably need that even more.

August

I am a teacher who'll never stop trying.
I wonder what the day shall bring.
I hear the wheels beginning to turn.
I see wonder in their eyes.
I want them all to know their true worth. 
I am a teacher who'll never stop trying. 

I pretend that nothing will go wrong.
I feel their energy streaming down the hall.
I touch their imaginations, their hearts, their spirits. 
I worry I'm just not enough.
I cry when I cannot help them.
I am a teacher who'll never stop trying. 

I understand that they'll soon be gone. 
I say I will always remember, and 
I dream that I actually will.
I try to be enough for everyone.
I hope they know that I care.
I am a teacher who'll never stop trying.


May

I am a teacher, and it's finally May.
I wonder if my deodorant is working,
I hear their chaos and flash.
I see stacks of ungraded papers.
I want to throw them all in the trash.
I am a teacher, and it's finally May.

I pretend to listen to announcements, but
I feel it's a waste of my time.
I touch my last nerve for its toughness, and 
I worry it's the end of the line.
I cried when the copy machine jammed, for 
I haven't got much of a plan.
I am a teacher, and it's finally May.

I understand that they all will be gone soon.
I say I won't miss them a bit.
I dream of bashing alarm clocks, 
Smashing them all straight to shit.
I try to remember all of the good things 
That each student has brought my way.
I hope they know that I really do love them, but
I am a teacher, and it's finally May.


For all my teacher friends, if I had any money whatsoever, the first round would totally be on me.
Thanks for running this race with me.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Middle-Aged Monday

Last week, someone alerted me that the documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, would be on VH1 Classic. As it was beginning at 9:30 PM, on a Wednesday night, I thought that I'd be better off recording it and watching it later.

Just barely a week past my 40th birthday, and already I couldn't think of anything that could make me feel older than taping a documentary about my favorite rock band because it was airing before the nightly news. Off of VH-frigging-1 CLASSIC

But I did it. And then I promptly forgot about it. Because that's what old folks do.

Maybe I didn't really forget though. Maybe my brain was just saving it up for a moment that I really needed it. For a moment where I needed to forget that I was 40 and this was Monday and that my knees are achy and that work totally sucked.

Maybe I needed to stand on my couch and jump up and down and sing at the top of my lungs to all the songs that spoke to me when I was young and anxious and too afraid of the world to be properly mad at it.

So I did. 

Not bad for a middle-aged Monday, I guess.

"Corduroy"

"Porch"

Some people remember "Black" as the best ballad on their debut. But I always loved this one. It cuts open my heart and stitches it back together every time.

One of my favorite PJ songs (and a shout-out to documentary maker and creator of Citizen Dick, Cameron Crowe)


You were always the radio song I turned up...

And the trailer for Pearl Jam Twenty. It's beautiful.


Monday, March 28, 2016

Puzzle Pieces

I have a young man in my class this year who might just be the hardest-working man in the 7th grade. He is, for lack of better words, just an incredible kid. He pays attention in class, behaves at all times, and respects his classmates. He is generous to a fault, helpful, and kind. He is not especially popular amongst other kids, but rarely do I see any of them turn him away. He knows and addresses each teacher -- whether you have him or not -- by name. He is the purest of spirits and the biggest of hearts.

And I'm worried.

See, this kid struggles academically. He works hard to focus in class, and he constantly worries about his grades. When he gets a poor grade, he immediately comes to tutoring to fix it. He will sit and work for hours at a time. He reviews his notes. He studies my anchor charts. He can spit out words like "appositive phrase" and "subordinating conjunction" and "dependent clause" with the best of them. He can define them. Mostly, he can recognize them. And he can sometimes create with them, but only in isolation.

See, this kid's brain doesn't work like others. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. He has the pieces. He knows what to do with them. He's constantly checking the picture on the box. But as he works, it's like someone dumped all the pieces from the other puzzles on the shelf into his box. And his brain isn't built to sort all of those pieces. It just isn't. So instead, he picks up a piece, he looks at it, and he knows two things:

A) It's a puzzle piece.

and

2) It's in the same box as the others.

Therefore, it must fit. So he looks at all of the holes in the puzzle, and he attempts to place it in there. Then, realizing that this piece fits none of the spaces, he finds another piece. Maybe a bright orange piece, but the puzzle is clearly an evening sky. And he picks them up, piece after piece, trying them even when it is not logical.

But it is logical to him because they're in the same box. And if they're in the same box, they must go together.

Tomorrow, he has to solve a hell of a puzzle. He's tried 3 times before, but it's as if each time he attempts a solution, it gets worse. Every morning, he greets me. Then he begins the worrying, the fixating, the doubting. See, the worst part is that he knows he can't solve it. And he knows what it means to fail in the attempt. His fear of failure is paralyzing and frantic all at once. He knows that before he even takes the lid off the box, he'll find pieces that don't make sense. Except that they're all in the same box, and if they're in the same box, they SHOULD fit.

For the last two weeks, I have sat with him in tutorials as he prepares for tomorrow. He reads and then looks at the answer choices. We talk through possibilities, but we keep finding odd pieces that have no home. He struggles for the pieces, nervous and searching my face for clues that he might be right. I struggle to hold back my tears, heartbroken and searching for the way to make things alright.

To make the impossible feel possible.

To find the boiling sun in a midnight sky.




Monday, March 21, 2016

The Weight

There is a 20 pound cat on my chest.

I lay on the couch, and this is where she curls up. On my chest.

It is nonsensical. She is a cat. I am a human. I should force her to go elsewhere. This is what it is to be in charge, to be the master. But if you've ever owned a cat, you must realize that you are never the master.

It's hard to breathe. Every movement, every breath, feels heavier and heavier. But there is a comfort to the weight. I have grown accustomed that as soon as I am still, she will find me.

It's a fine line between being trapped and being grounded. But her presence is more the latter than the former, like putting a big rock on the end of your kite string to keep it from floating away into the unknown.

It is hot and uncomfortable. I shift and squirm to try to find some relief without being the asshole that throws this lovable fat cat across the room. The tv show has ended, but I cannot reach the remote. So I lay in silence, listening to her rumbling purr, deep and endless, thinking all the thoughts I won't give time or energy to all day.



And just as I'm about to give up, to cast her aside, to push her away -- she turns her sweet face to mine, stops her purr, and sighs the deepest, most human, sigh she can. And I bury my face in her fur and sob. I cry hard for a few moments, sniveling and ugly. I let go of all the things -- all the hateful, jealous, frightful things I've locked up, deep inside me.

She doesn't meow or whine or run away. She just lets me sob, soaking her fur with my fury and fear, until it is exhausted. Then, she clambers down into the floor, taking all of her weight and my own, leaving me lighter.

And I can breathe once more.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Eye on the Ball

If there were one defining phrase to describe my mother, it would be "eye on the ball".  I've watched her hit screaming liners and home runs. I've seen her hit drives so pure and sweet they could sweeten all the iced tea of the South. She played basketball during the 6-on-6 days, playing only defense for entire games, always with one eye on the basketball and one on her man. She preached to me, all my life, the dangers of losing sight of either.

Keep the game in front of you. Keep your eye on the ball. These were not just lessons for sport. For my mom, they were rules to life. My mom is a survivalist. Survivors do not look back at the bear chasing them down; they put as much distance as possible between it and them.

Forever, I thought my mom hoarded secrets like my dad hoarded tools or knick-knacks. She never spoke about her childhood or family or life before all of us. Even as we grew, she never seemed wistful or sentimental. Never looking at old photo albums or reliving moments when we were small. Those qualities were purely Dean. Instead, Wanda was looking forward, waiting for the next turn, the next game, the next crisis. She was the mover, I thought, while my dad was the shaker. 

As a child, I was eternally frustrated and confused by this particular quality of my mom. I was left constantly wondering and guessing about what she did not say and did not share. I felt I was always running behind, and my mother has never been one to look back. Privacy seemed to be her greatest weapon. She did not offer; I did not intrude. And this was our dance of life. 

Even as my dad got sick, she kept their problems at bay as long as she could. As he worsened, even in the final months, she tried to stay focused and look ahead. I think that only as she saw the future dwindling, she began to look back. Since Christmas, my mother has changed. She talks more: about politics and world events, about fear, about her past. Each visit, I learn new things. Some she gives freely. Others require questions. But there are no more secrets. 

Tonight, as we cooked dinner, she talked about her life before Dad. Before all of us. It was deep and wide, swimming with nostalgia and regret. I leaned on the kitchen sink, watching her as she stirred and spoke and then looking out the window when it felt too much. It was a beautiful and intimate reflection, and I suddenly was aware that it was less conversation and more confession. My mother doesn't have a storage shed full of knick-knacks and tools to give me. Instead she has left me this: herself. 

And I began to wonder if I had been locked out all those years or just too afraid to turn the doorknob? 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Mondays

My 7th period class came in today, and they were so unbelievably, alarmingly quiet. Sober, subdued, and silent. Although there are only 11 of them, they can turn my classroom upside down and inside-out just as fast as my largest class. But not today.

When I asked them if everything was okay, they just stared back at me -- their eyes glazed and defeated. Like zombies who had even lost interest in brains.

Finally, one of my boys said, "It's just so... so... Monday."

I couldn't help but smile. He was right. Even outside, the weather seemed to feel it too. Dark. Ominous. It looked like rain all day, but it couldn't quite gather the energy.

I was all up in my Monday-feels today, too, although it wasn't quite as bad as 7th period, I think. Mondays are for waking up late, forgetting to put on deodorant, wearing the wrong shoes, and hitting every red light.

If both copy machines at work are going to break down, it will surely happen on a Monday. If your bag of garbage is going to split and pour out onto the sidewalk, it will happen on a Monday as it did today. It's science. Or voodoo. Or both.

Mondays look like traffic jams and smell like burnt popcorn.


Mondays. Damn you. Mondays.


Monday, February 22, 2016

The Dodge

When I was 16, my mom bought me my first car. It was not the "big red bow across a shiny new BMW" moment that you see on commercials. Far from it. In fact, when I look back on it, that thing was barely a car. It was more like a tank.

My first car was a 1972 Dodge Coronet. It was 1992. I'll let you do the math.

My mom bought it from a family friend, Margaret Pettit, whose granddaughter, Larinda had driven it through high school. My mom paid $150 for the car, and she paid it out in hairdos. At $15 a pop for a shampoo and set, my dear mom paid off my Sweet Sixteen gift in just 10 weeks.

The Dodge was hunter green, in most places at least, and it was as big and solid as a rhinoceros. It had no grill, a back door that would not open, and quilts stapled to the front seat instead of upholstery. It was perpetually summer in that car as the heater was always on. In fact, the controls had somehow melted so that even if you wanted to turn the heat off (in warm weather) or up high (in the winter), you couldn't. Crank windows served as the only temperature control available.

It was scratched and dinged and rusted in spots. On the passenger side, the floorboard was so thin that it showed road as you drove along. Or it might allow in a little lake water if one were to accidentally drive it in partway off of the beach. Not that I'd know anything about that.

That car had lived, and it had the scars to prove it.

When my mom and dad gave me The Dodge, I tried to be happy. It should've been freedom from the school bus and less dependence on my parents. But all I saw were those scars. I drove it some, back and forth to school mainly, but I did not hide my embarrassment and disappointment well. Feeling guilty, there were more mornings than not, where my mom would drive the Dodge to work while I drove  her car to school. Looking back, it was probably the most snot-nosed, spoiled brat move I ever made. Yet what good is being sixteen if you can't be a brat about it?

It wasn't until a couple of the boys at school drove it and realized how fast it would go and how unbreakable it felt that I began to see past its shell. That I could appreciate it as more than a car but as a legacy. I drove it for another year or so -- until I got a different Dodge at 17 -- through fields, down country dirt roads, and, perhaps, into a lake for just a few moments. There was nothing you could do to that car that it could not take.

I don't truly know what number owner I was for the Dodge. I knew that Larinda had driven the Hell out of it, but I can't be sure of the owner(s) in the 7 or 8 years  between us. I can remember her cruising past us at the City Pool or making the drag. The engine was loud and the radio louder. But always, loudest of all, was  Larinda. She had a laugh as big as Texas and a hug so tight that it would make your eyes pop out. She was strong and powerful with a spirit that could bring a storm as quickly as it brought sunshine.

Last week, I heard the news that Larinda had passed away. Not even 50 years old. Although I had not seen her in almost 20 years, there was a moment I could still hear her laugh. I thought instantly of that old Dodge, by far our biggest connection. And I smiled as I remembered it.

My dad kept that big ol' Dodge for several years after I went off to college. I was on my 3rd or even 4th car by the time he sold it to someone else. But he confessed that there were often times when his truck or my mom's car would not start, and one of them would go grab the keys to Mean Green and give it a roll. He said it was the only car we'd owned that never once failed him.

I hadn't appreciated that car for what it was worth. I did not, or could not, see its value to my life. I knew not of its history, or its troubles. I saw only its scratches, its  scars, its dings. I never stopped to marvel at all it had endured to survive. I worried more about the outside than I cared for what was inside -- that which was steady, strong, and unfailing. I could not like it until others gave me permission -- encouragement, even -- to love it.

And I have wondered often in the past few days how like that car is to me. Or to Larinda. Or to all of the other people moving in and out of our lives. How do we view our own scratches and dings -- with shame or with pride at our survival? Do we give up when the upholstery rips and tears, or do we find a way to mend?  Are we built for the showroom or the open road?

Wherever you are, Larinda, I hope you're singing along with those windows down. Thanks for the ride.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Sea Glass

I was 35 years old the first time I laid eyes upon the ocean.

I understood, in theory, what I was looking at, I suppose. I mean, I've studied the oceans in geography class, done reports on sea life in elementary school, learned about tides and lunar pull and shipwrecks. Upon seeing it, however, I could not grasp its enormity. Even just standing on the edge of that gulf, looking to the horizon, knowing full well the distance to another shore, I could not imagine such a vastness. I felt small and lonesome and shaken.

Lying on the beach was a small piece of glass. I picked it up as I looked for a shell, a rock, a memory. It was plain and brown, probably just a piece of a broken beer bottle. Nothing special. A remnant from another person's history. Time and tides had dulled its edges some, but it sliced my thumb as I wiped away the sand. Not dulled enough to be safe to handle, I dropped it, and stuck my hand to my mouth on instinct. I left that beach with the taste of pain, coppery and salty, on my tongue. 

I love the water. I always have. To swim, to splash, to float. My mother has always been terrified of it; always forcing me into life jackets, looking away as I plunged in. It was one of the few things I was unafraid of. I felt confident and weightless in the water. I could tread longer than anyone else in my swim class. I floated instantly, releasing all my worry into the sky and sun above me. But I had grown up on lakes and pools and creeks. Always, I could see the edge. Always, I knew there was an end. It was only as I stood in the waves, holding the tiny hand of a child, staring out into the ocean, did I first feel the unease. The sense of danger from a riptide and the unknown. It felt too big, too much, too powerful. I calmed myself by digging my toes into the sand underneath. Relief comes from connection, from standing on solid ground.

But there is a certain irresistible beauty in panic, and I waded deeper still. 

For the past decade, there have been what I call the "small deaths" -- the "first times". When he stumbled. When he stopped driving. When he moved to a wheelchair. When he could no longer talk on the phone. The delusions. The hallucinations. The anger. When he could not brush his own teeth or shuffle cards or finish a game of dominos. When he could not recognize me. When I could not recognize him. Each moment a wave. Some were ripples, barely noticeable. Others, a tsunami. With each, I panicked more. With each, I kept wading deeper, marking each buoy as I passed, knowing, logically, there was an end I could not see just over the horizon. 

I fooled myself into thinking that my father's death would bring me back to dry land. It has not. My grief feels like the ocean, big and powerful and unfathomable. I cannot see the shore although, logically, I know it is there, somewhere. I am adrift right now, alternating between treading and floating, between surviving and living. I am aware of what I can do and what I cannot. I watch the sky for search planes each day. I look for lighthouses. I am afraid of crashing upon the rocks, of hitting an iceberg, of wrecking my ship. I find myself without a compass, using the stars on clear nights to guide me.

I think often of my mother and her fear. How she lingered on the shore or in the safety of the boat. How I might be struggling against the tides now but how I've never been afraid to plunge in and feel the saltwater upon my face.

It is a gift to feel. 

The shoreline is faint and hard to see. But I know it is there. No ocean goes on forever. Their waves meet and mingle, trading pieces of debris -- love notes from a distant land, pieces of a broken dish from a sunken ship, or even just a plain brown beer bottle. I have not forgotten the feel of the sand between my toes. I will recognize the solid ground of the ocean's floor one day, and I will dig in and hold on and haul myself back up on the beach. I will comb its edges for seashells and rocks, digging out memories, and smile. 

And perhaps I'll find a piece of sea glass, once broken and plain, now beautiful and weathered, its jagged, sharp edges smoothed fine by the pounding waves. 


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Just a Damn Cat

I woke up at 7:05 this morning. I had no alarm, but I knew that I wouldn't oversleep. I watched the clock on my phone tick, minute by minute, until 7:22. That would make it one year. One year since I said my final goodbye to my Ransom cat.

I spent the next few minutes looking at pictures on my phone. Things like Facebook and Timehop are wonderful for good memories but extra-painful for others. Having said goodbye to my dad only 48 hours earlier, it felt stupid to cry about a cat. I scrunched up my face and reminded myself of the suffering happening all around me: wives losing husbands, children losing fathers, financial disaster. 

I have a bad habit of comparative grieving. Looking at the grief of others and trying to minimize my own in comparison. "I had my dad for 39 years," I'll think. "We knew it was coming," I'll remind myself. And then I put my own sadness on some sliding scale of grief where my own feels like it should be less than others. And then I feel guilty when I can't make it stay there. 

So this is how I started my morning -- the last morning with my mom -- by sobbing quietly into my pillow and telling myself, "It's just a damn cat."



Maybe they were the tears I'd been holding back for my dad, coming out sideways. Maybe they were tears for so many friends I cannot help right now. Maybe they were about missing dinner with my little buddy, Elliott, turning 7 today. Maybe they were just the by-product of exhaustion and too much quiet. 

Or maybe they were tears over a goddamned cat. The orneriest, most badass kitty cat I've ever known. No water glass was ever safe from her. No alarm clock ever more reliable. No animal ever to be tolerated. No flip flop ever unchewed. She was grumpy and beautiful and quirky and destructive, but she was mine. 

There's something to be said for the first animal you ever own on your own. Or if it's a cat, the first cat to ever own you. She was with me for 15 years. I've never known a home here in Fort Worth without her. I had never started a school year without her waking me up, knocking things off the nightstand or chewing on my ponytail. And I haven't gone a day this whole year without looking for her when I walk in the door. 

It's easy to say she was just a damn cat, but in truth, she was so much more. She was my damn cat. 

Or, rather, I was her damn person. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Like a Freight Train

Dean Nazworth was one-of-a-kind. I know people say that about others all the time as a way of trying to provide a blanket statement of their specialness. I've always believed this about him, but only as I grew up and meet so many people of this world have I come to understand how true a statement it really is about him.

Born dirt poor and living, literally, on dirt floors at times, the childhood of my father remains largely unknown to me. It was a time he just didn't talk much about. When he did, the themes of his youngest years were work, catching fish, and more work -- themes that would last a lifetime really.

Our grandfather often would tell me a story about my dad as a child, however, that revealed so much of the man I know now. Each afternoon, Dean would walk home, carrying his books and lunch pail. As he walked, his dad would watch him stop every so often, reach into the pail, and pull out a piece of sandwich or bread and feed it to one of the dogs or stray animals he'd encounter along the way. Soon, animals along his path began to know the time Dean would wander home and make themselves available to walk behind and pick up his scraps. Anyone who has ever sat down to a meal with my dad understands what a sacrifice sharing those meals had to be.

When he met my mother, she was a waitress in a small truck stop diner in Hereford, Texas. He'd come in each day, buy a $0.25 cup of coffee, and leave her a $5.00 tip. I don't know that he ever really spoke to her much at first, but one night in a club, he told one of his friends, "I'm going to marry her. I like the way she shoots pool." And much like everything else he would take on in life, he figured out a way. My mother says that she married my dad because he was fun, and I don't doubt that for a second. Wherever Dean Nazworth has ever gone, he had a Hell of a good time.

Each of them had been married before and brought a son to their new marriage. Later, they would add me to the mix. My mom always said they had a "yours, mine, and ours" situation although I always tease it was more like "Good try. Good try. Nailed it." We moved from Hereford to Pampa where Dean and Wanda managed a private country-western nightclub and bar for a few years. Their time there provided them with good friends, good stories, and a dance floor all to themselves each afternoon. If there was a defining image of my childhood, it would be of me roller-skating around that floor as my parents danced.

In 1982, Dean and Wanda moved here, to Howardwick, where he remained for the next 30 years -- seemingly unfathomable for a man who was always on the move. Yet his children had a school that loved and supported them, and in my mind, that was the reason he put down roots. That and a home within 5 minutes of a lake full of all the catfish and crappie one could ever catch. We spent what seems to be most of my formative life on a boat, poles in the water, waiting for a bite. My mom and dad also eventually found their community at the Clarendon Country Club, taking up golf and finding others whose two biggest goals were to compete and have fun. As we thought about where exactly we should celebrate the life of my dad, it only seemed natural to gather there, at the club, overlooking both the lake and golf course he so loved.

My father was a natural charmer, always making friends wherever he went: restaurants, ball games, grocery stores, it didn't matter. He always greeted you with a "Hey, buddy!" and a big grin. He had a handshake that could crush walnuts, but those same hands could tame a wild cat or softly brush away a tear. He loved pearl snap shirts and baseball caps, Little Debbie snack cakes, fried fish, and a challenge. He shot dice, drove fast, and loved deeply. He smelled like Old Spice, Lava soap, and freshly cut grass. There wasn't anything he couldn't seem to fix, somehow, or a game he couldn't beat you at. He'd spot you 100 points at dominoes and still beat you by 20. He could shoot pool with either hand and once outshot his own son and grandson with the end of a broomstick instead of a pool cue.

Dean shared his life with his wife and best friend of 43 years. She was his Freight Train. He said that whenever she rounded the bases on the softball field or broke up a fight at the bar or even just got mad at him, that's how she came at you. And the name stuck. I prefer to think that it was born the moment he first saw her because that's how his love for her hit him -- like a freight train.

Dean loved his kids. He taught us to work hard, complain little, and never be on time. He was blessed first by his son, James Dean (or JD). In him, I see my dad's kind heart, his love for animals, and his ability and drive to fix things. He has my father's hands: strong but gentle. In his son, Jimmy Ray, I find his determination and stubbornness and love for going fast. My dad loved watching his son study a problem first, watching his mind work through all the solutions before solving it whereas my dad could only plow in headfirst and try a hundred different things first. With me, he found his storyteller and the audience who couldn't help but laugh at all of his jokes. I have his eyes and his love of sports and competition, and his sensitive nature. Each of the boys inherited my dad's good sense to find a strong woman and marry her. Their marriages of 28 years and 19 years are proof of that. The boys brought two beautiful daughters-in-law, Tammy and Becky, and three incredibly cute grandsons, Hunter, Isaiah, and Jaxson, into his life.

Today is not a day for goodbyes; my dad was notoriously terrible at those. Today should be a day for good friends, good fun, and good stories. That's what he would've wanted. We'd love for you to leave here and do something Dean would love: tell a joke to a stranger, play a round of golf, shoot a little pool, or leave your waitress an extra big tip on a cup of coffee. And tell those that you love just how much you love them. Tell them loudly and tell them often. Let their love for you hit you like a freight train.