Getting Off the Couch

The beginning of July marked three years since the end of my second marriage, and lately one thought keeps occurring to me: it’s time to get back out there and start dating again.

I don’t really want to — I’ll be taking my wares to the open market as a 52-year-old with a beer belly and a lazy eye this time around, and the very idea of it gives me a knot in my stomach. Plus, I don’t love the process I’ll need to go through to find someone, and I have a thousand concerns about what might happen if I actually begin to date again.

Why would I do this to myself?

For one thing, I know I’m not a loner by nature. I have had lots of great times in my previous relationships even though they’ve all come to an end. Spending three years on my own has truly been good for me, but I miss being partnered. It hits me at odd times: when I come home from a weekend away and there’s no one waiting for me at the airport; when I’ve had a great or horrible day and there’s no one to share it with over dinner; when I’d like to go out to brunch or away for a weekend and I don’t have a partner to go with.

Pillow talk just hasn’t been the same with a metal chicken

This is not to minimize how important my friendships have always been to me, and it’s not as if I don’t have anyone great to hang out with. I do, and I’m very thankful for that. It just feels like an element of my life is missing.

It has been easier to be single and more in charge of my environment and my emotions these last few years. Keeping my house ridiculously neat and my dating life dormant has given me a sense (falsely or not) of control that I sorely needed. After getting married and separated in less than two years, and then having full custody of my teenage son, I have longed for calm, but things are different now. I’ve now had enough time to myself, and my son is successfully living on his own in an apartment nearby, going to school and working. There’s no excuse to avoid dating anymore.

I also know that the longer I wait to get back in the game, the harder it will be. I already feel I’ve gotten more rigid about doing things my own way, and I worry this will make it difficult to partner again.

A friend from work recently mentioned that she and her husband were celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary.

“Wow,” I asked, Phil Donahue style, “what’s your secret?”

“Flexibility,” she said, and added a bunch of other things, but I didn’t really hear her after that. I was lost in my own thoughts.

“Flexibility??” I mused. “Welp, I’m out!”

It would be lovely if my next soulmate were air-dropped into my living room, preferably during a commercial break on one of my many TV shows, but the likelihood of that is slim.

Even before the pandemic, lesbians tended to nest in clusters and at home rather than in bars, especially after their 20s and 30s, so it looks like I’m going to need to venture out on a platform I have always dreaded — online dating. 

Some previous ventures into this world have colored my view. I went on Match.com seven years ago with mixed results, spending countless evenings scrolling through pages of profiles, feeling uneasy about the raw vulnerability on display. Eventually I went on a date with a very attractive and fun woman. At the end of the evening, when I asked if she’d like to go out again, her response was “Weeellllllll …” I said I totally understood (though I didn’t) and suggested maybe we could be friends. Her response? “Weeeelllll …” 

Here’s a sound I don’t want to hear again

I did end up dating a very nice woman for about a year, until it became obvious to me that we were not a match.

Regardless of the outcome this time around, I expect I’ll have a different experience. In previous years, I have been a mess with women, perseverating about small things and generally being surprised any time anyone showed interest in me. My “type” became, in part, “You like me? Then I like you!”  

Latching on to someone because they like you and because you don’t want to be alone, rather than spending at least a little time making sure you are well suited for each other doesn’t always lead to the most compatible pairings. On several occasions, once the surprise wore off, I realized I had little in common with the woman I was dating and then abruptly brought things to a close.

After one of my breakups a number of years ago, a good friend made an observation about my pattern of jumping into relationships too quickly and then being overly critical at the end. 

“I actually feel bad for you. You’re like, ‘Ugh! I was really into her, but then she ate her French fries wrong!’”

Another friend of ours shared a funny poem from a book called Gay Haiku that hit home a little.

You were perfection

Then you misspelled embarrassed

Don’t call me again

If I’m Sigmund Freuding this, my concern about spelling or French fries had little to do with other peoples’ shortcomings. If I had been more accepting of my own flaws, I probably would have been more accepting of others. Some time and space has allowed me to see this crooked pattern and hopefully I will avoid it in this next round.

As I’ve gotten closer to moving ahead with online dating, I have found myself worrying about possible pitfalls.

I don’t look forward to feeling like this again

Will a new person think I’m high maintenance because I sleep with three pillows these days? Will she be cool with the fact that I more than just occasionally wander the house at 3 a.m. when I wake up and can’t fall back asleep? What if I meet someone who is allergic to cats? And so forth and so on. 

I also anticipate feeling like a 13-year-old in braces and a training bra if and when I do go out on a date, and I’m not looking forward to that. Perhaps I should take a cue from the Aidy Bizzo character on Saturday Night Live.

Aidy Bizzo, Role Model

I understand that putting up a profile on a dating app is no guarantee of finding love. I’m not sure what any of this will bring, but it’s almost not about the outcome at this point — it’s about having the courage to start over. I am hesitating to connect again for fear of another breakup, and I’m scared of losing the sense of order and calm I’ve developed over the last few years.

But I try to live without regrets, and sitting home alone watching TV in order to avoid the possibility of rejection is something to regret.

So wish me luck as I muster the confidence to put together a profile to market myself (yuck). I’ll hope for the best, knowing I’ve already won a little by venturing off the couch.

True (Part-Time) Companion

If you’ve ever sat through an online meeting and learned after the fact that your microphone was on, you know that feeling of horror. It’s especially terrible when your boss is speaking to you and more than 60 of your coworkers and you learn that you have just interrupted the discussion by yelling, “Hey! Hey! Keep it moving!” 

This was what happened to me a few weeks ago during a virtual faculty meeting. My cat walked across my keyboard and turned on my microphone. I’m still not sure which key he stepped on, but it isn’t the first time he’s discovered things about my laptop that I was unaware of.  (Who knew it had airplane mode?)

To let the cat know that this was wrong behavior, I shouted and quickly scooted him off the keyboard before adding (loudly), “Not on my computer!”

It didn’t take long for my work friends to start blowing up my phone. The first message I received is below. Mercifully, the assistant principal (a cat owner herself, as it turns out) immediately muted me, so the only comments that went public were brief. I’m told there was an awkward silence after my outburst and then my principal continued on with his remarks.

The next day I was in school laughing about the event with a coworker before things got awkward again.

“Your cat is so funny!” she told me.

“Yeah, and the thing is, he’s not really even my cat!” I answered.

She looked confused. “Huh?” 

It was then that I explained the unconventional cat-sharing arrangement I am part of these days. Last fall, my friend Kelly was debating getting a cat but had concerns about her busy (pre- and post-Covid) travel schedule. I offered to be the permanent, free pet sitter any time she went out of town, and voilà — a plan was born. Kelly asked her niece, who fosters abandoned cats in New Jersey, to procure us our new best friend — something very young and very cute. The one condition of his adoption: Kelly was asked to keep the name given to him by the pet adoption group.

A couple of months later, a kitten named Stuey arrived. He had been found in an apartment complex just across the river from Philadelphia. Apparently, he was one of the most sought-after kittens in the litter because he didn’t run away from people like some of his siblings.

The origins of his name are unclear, but I personally hope he’s named after Stuart Little, the charismatic little rodent from the book and the movie, and not Stewie Griffin, the smug baby who speaks in a British accent on the TV show Family Guy. But who knows. He could be named after somebody’s grandpa.

Either way, for reasons even I don’t understand, I find myself calling him Bubbe (pronounced Bubbie), which is the Yiddish word for grandma. Hopefully this does not offend any Jewish grandmothers.

Should I not be climbing inside a lamp?

Though Kelly has not traveled much because of the pandemic, we have gotten into a routine where Stuey spends a week or two with me each month. Our running joke is that Stuey has two moms and that Kelly and I are like exes sharing custody. But unlike the moms in the classic 1980s book Heather Has Two Mommies, Kelly is not interested in women; I am the only one of Stuey’s moms who dates ladies. 

Regardless of the fact that this was never a coupling, it is remarkably close to joint parenting. We incessantly discuss every aspect of Stuey’s behavior — his sleeping habits, favorite foods, etc., etc.  In fact, we talk about him so often that friends and family who are much less intrigued by the cat’s every move are politely begging us to take it down a notch. Stuey himself seems well adjusted to having two homes. He may be the only cat I know who willingly walks into his pet carrier when it’s time for him to travel to his “other house.”

What? Too loud?

I love cats and always thought that I would get a kitten of my own as soon as I was able, but as it turns out, I’m perfectly happy with this rather bohemian arrangement. My son is allergic to pet dander, so it didn’t make sense to get a cat while he was living with me. However, he moved into his own apartment in December, so that’s not an issue anymore.  

I am finding myself surprisingly comfortable with an empty house and a quiet period, especially after a year and a half of full-time single parenting and a tumultuous few years before that when I was preoccupied with the beginning and shortly thereafter the ending of a marriage. As self-absorbed as it may sound, the idea of not committing full-time to anything right now as I decompress feels like exactly the right move. 

The time I do spend with Stuey is everything I had hoped for. He makes me laugh. I never quite know where he is going to pop up around the house. He loves to sit on my lap purring while I watch TV.  He splits his time evenly — 50% snuggling, 50% biting, scratching, and running around the house like a maniac. I’m hoping the percentages will shift a little as he gets older.

Helping with my morning class
After being dismissed from my afternoon class
What’s for breakfast?
Is this the elevator that goes to the basement?

Biting and scratching aside, Stuey has helped me understand why so many people have pets. The statistics vary depending on who you ask, but most groups agree that more than half of American households include a pet, and it’s not hard to see why.

There’s something primal at work with pets. Having somebody or something to take care of gives us a sense of purpose and makes us feel needed. Doctors say humans are mentally and physically healthiest when they have secure attachments to others. Pets can provide the love and companionship a person needs, especially people who find human company taxing. 

My occasional Friday night boyfriend

Even those of us who don’t like animals more than humans understand the appeal. Relationships with pets are simple. They’re happy to see you every day. Most enthusiastically greet their owners each time they arrive home. They’re happy with simple pleasures like spending time together without conversation. And odds are better than half that you’ll win any argument that arises.

They’re also great for kids in terms of building empathy and teaching responsibility. They become important members of the family. I grew up with a cat named Boo and a three-legged dog named Inky, and I loved both of them with all my heart. 

I have to admit that I began to sour on dogs about a decade ago, but that was mostly out of jealousy. When I switched teams I had no idea that the lesbian community held dogs in such high regard – so much so that several of my girlfriends seemed to prefer the company of their dogs over my company. In retrospect, I probably would have done better if I had acted less like a Grand Poobah and been willing the share the road a little more with my canine competition. 

As my skin grows thicker, I’m slowly pulling out of my unjustified bitterness towards dogs. I don’t feel I have the time or energy to manage a dog on my own right now, but I am considering getting one dog or maybe even two once I retire. If I do, I plan to name them Charlie and Kathy, regardless of gender, in honor of my siblings. You’re welcome, Chibs and KTG.

And at some point, I hope to have another human companion. In the meantime, I’m good with my part-time commitment to a little furry guy from South Jersey. 

Hello, Old Friend: Anxiety Returns

I was halfway over the bridge when I realized my stomach was in a knot. I was gripping the steering wheel so hard that my hands hurt. My palms were sweating. My jaw was clenched. I was in the right lane but found myself leaning left onto the door and driving on the center white line to feel as far away from the edge as possible.  

After what felt like an eternity, I made it to the other side.  

My first thought: PHEW!

My second thought: I have to get home on Sunday. I’m going to have to do this all over again.

I was crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland on my way to spend the weekend with some friends in Delaware, my first foray out for a non-family get-away in more than a year, and my sudden burst of fear caught me off guard.  

Apparently, I’m not the only person who has this response to the Bay Bridge; it is high, long, and narrow, with ridiculously low guardrails. It has earned votes as the “scariest bridge in America,” causing so many to panic that there’s actually a company that drives people over the bridge in their own cars (one way) for the low, low price of $25.

Irrational fear on display at age 6

Still, I was surprised and annoyed at my reaction. Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, from day-to-day excessive worrying and catastrophizing to phobic feelings about bridges, tunnels, heights, and doctors. But for the last three years, I have experienced much less anxiety, thanks primarily to meditation.

I actually owe some of the shift to Ellen Degeneres. I happened to be watching her show the day her guest was Bob Roth, a Transcendental Meditation expert who taught Ellen and her wife how to do TM. She said it made a huge difference in lowering her stress level.   

Though I thought the name made the practice sound weird (I somehow associated “transcending” with levitating), I knew that science had long supported the positive impact of meditation. I was struggling in my marriage at the time and was desperate to find a way to quiet my mind and make sense of what was going on. I decided to do the TM training and began meditating each morning before starting my day.

Soon after I felt a noticeable drop in my anxiety level. There was nothing magical about it; I just felt I was able to slow my thoughts and function with a greater sense of calm. I eventually found that I was doing things like crossing bridges without really thinking about it. And generally speaking, since I started TM, I have felt less angst when dealing with stressful situations. This is why I was taken aback by my experience last weekend.

I was having a great time with friends — chatting, laughing, drinking beer — but was surprised at how many times my mind kept coming back to the return trip across the Bay Bridge. I knew I was overreacting and unnecessarily expending a ton of mental energy on something that was going to last about five minutes. I just could not shake my sense of dread. It was like having a great time at a party but noticing a man in a trench coat in the back of the room with a grim, knowing stare waiting for you.  

I seriously debated dodging the event altogether and taking a longer route home to avoid the bridge. Ultimately, though, I knew I would create a bigger problem for myself if I avoided it and decided against the alternate route.  

Gulp

It was not an easy trip home. Every time I saw a sign for the bridge my stomach sank, and for a good half hour as I approached, I felt the same tightness in my body I had experienced two days earlier. But I jackassed my way over the bridge by talking to myself loudly and making note of my progress. (“I can see the other side now!”) I can only hope that nearby drivers thought I was either singing along with a great song or enthusiastically talking with a friend on speakerphone. It was an ugly win, but a victory nonetheless. I felt a tremendous sense of relief once I made it across, something that almost approached euphoria.  

And away we go — driving onto the bridge on the way home

Part of me is embarrassed to write about this. There is such a gap between what I understand intellectually (I’m going to be fine) and what I feel (my last memory will be of this bridge) in certain situations. I know I have an irrational sense of danger about a number of things. I have been driving for 36 years and I’m quite good at driving in a straight line, for example, so I should not feel a sense of terror while on the road. But knowing you’re being irrational and stopping the thought are two different things. I have felt the sting of a dismissive eye roll many times over the years when I have expressed fear, and that doesn’t make anything go away, it just drives it underground. 

A lot of this doesn’t make sense to me, including why fear would crop up again so fiercely after a period of marked improvement. Or why people are afraid of some things but not others. Doctors drive me to distraction, but spiders don’t bother me in the slightest (if I come across one in my house, I get it to crawl on a piece of paper and bring it outside). Don’t bring me to the top of a skyscraper to sightsee, but I love going to parties and don’t even mind going by myself. It seems that one person’s nightmare can be another person’s oxygen. 

I do know that I am hardwired for anxiety, and I can either continue to work to manage it or become increasingly debilitated by it. Last weekend I was reminded that it is not possible to declare a final victory over something just because there has been improvement. Daily meditation has been tremendously helpful but is clearly not the only step I need to take to deal with this issue, especially since it is not limited to one situation but fans out into many aspects of my life.  

Anxiety has made my world smaller over the years. I hope I can reverse this and live more fully by simplifying my goal — to something like “better, not fixed.”

It’s actually pretty when you are not trying to cross it

My First Turkey

Most years, I am a carefree attendee of a large family gathering on Thanksgiving, yucking it up with other guests, occasionally offering to pass an appetizer, get someone a drink (while I am getting one for myself), or bring an extra chair to the table. Not this year.

After weighing the potential risks of spending the holiday with my parents, I decided it was important to see them and made plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving at their home in New York. My son and I got COVID tests, packed a bunch of masks, and drove up from Virginia on Thanksgiving morning.

My sister had lined up an entire cooked meal for my parents, my son, and me and brought it over in the early afternoon. After a brief outdoor visit, she and her family returned to their pod across the county. 

I’ve been known to be unhelpful at all of my previous Thanksgivings. My brother once accused me of getting bedsores on my rear end while others scurried around getting the meal together. This year, I felt it was time to reverse the trend.  

Since I’m 52, some might find it a little surprising that I’ve never prepared a Thanksgiving meal. A few years ago I made three side dishes to bring up to my parents’ house (the standard-issue ones from the 70s that all require Cream of Mushroom soup), but the turkey and several other aspects of the meal were taken care of by others, so I can’t take credit.

This time I insisted that I would handle everything. My dad offered to help, but because I wanted to be the hero, I told him to just relax, eat the appetizers (that my sister had brought), and watch football. Plus, how hard could this be?

Here’s what was on the docket of — and this is key — already-prepared foods:

  • Turkey
  • Stuffing
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Gravy
  • Sweet potatoes
  • String beans
  • Turnips
  • Brussels sprouts

The first order of business was figuring out how to reheat all these dishes. The food was hot when my sister dropped it off at 1 p.m., and my parents wanted to wait until 5 p.m. to eat, so refrigeration and reheating were the challenges before me. I successfully use 350° to cook all of my batches of Duncan Hines brownies and concluded that what worked for boxed brownies should also work well for reheating an oven full of vegetables, starches, and meat.

The 10-pound turkey was whole and would need to be carved. I resisted the urge to ask my dad for help, even though he has successfully carved turkeys for 50+ years. I figured my good friends at YouTube would provide adequate instructions for my maiden turkey-carving voyage.

After scrolling through videos with titles like “Your First Turkey!” I landed on a Buzzfeed video called “How to Carve a Turkey.” I liked that it would only cost me 2 minutes and 53 seconds because I was already feeling behind schedule.

I started to become alarmed at their “you will need” list:

  • Two cutting boards (why two?)
  • A very sharp knife (shudder)
  • Tongs or a meat fork (I think there’s one of those around here somewhere)
  • Kitchen towels (to mop up the blood?)
  • Turkey platter (buried deep in a cabinet, I think)

The video helpfully breaks the carving process into steps. Here’s how they went.

I started the whole operation at 4:40 p.m. after promising the meal would be ready by 5 p.m., so there was no time to “rest.”

Use a kitchen towel to prevent wobbling? Wobbling was the least of my worries. 

This is where I completely lost confidence. Surgically extracting the wishbone seemed VERY COMPLICATED. And gross. 

Seriously?

Also, turkeys have wishbones? I thought that was just chickens.

(Side note: the wishbone had already been professionally removed. I just didn’t realize that, so in hindsight, I could have waited until Step 4 to lose confidence.)

Forcefully? That sounded aggressive. 

If there was any forceful sawing, it involved trying to get this plastic contraption off the two legs. The turkey was already dead, so I wondered why there was a need to work so hard to prevent it from running away.

More advice involving joints and cutting with a very sharp knife. Have I mentioned my disgust for anything medical?

More importantly, this seemed like a tremendous amount of work just to get one drumstick. 

I can’t be sure, but I believe this is where I abandoned ship and decided to just go it on my own. I have manhandled many a rotisserie chicken, and the turkey just seemed like a bigger version.

And thus I began the real work, starting with an effort to get the giant drumsticks off the turkey. Turns out Buzzfeed was right – this did involve quite a bit of force and hacking on both sides. I deposited the newly-separated drumsticks in the tinfoil tray and then set out to get the breast meat.

Using the sharp knife, I was able to get breast off on the right side but not cleanly. I made one cut on the left side and concluded that it would just be easier to yank the rest off than to continue using the knife.

Around this time, my son paid me a visit. He surveyed the situation and looked troubled.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I had one hand clamped on the bird and the other hand wrenching the meat off.

“Carving the turkey!”

It felt a little like a Julia Child moment, if Julia Child were wearing a hoodie and speaking in a much lower octave.

I plopped the breast on the cutting board and started to cut. The meat shredded into small pieces.

I remembered what Mr. Mayer had taught me in 7th grade woodshop: always cut along the grain. I kept turning the meat in hopes of finding a smooth grain, but never found one. That’s when I decided to just pull the meat off in big chunks and put it in its receptacle.

Speaking of receptacles, somewhere along the line in this sweaty 30 minutes in the kitchen I realized I needed a container for all of the turkey meat. I went to the cabinet and spotted the platter that has been used for the turkey at all family holiday gatherings since the beginning of time. However, I had already had an unpleasant experience looking for a bowl for an appetizer and decided the turkey platter was under too many other heavy bowls and dishes. I chose one of the ones on the top, which was essentially a small salad bowl.

As I turned my attention away from the turkey, I discovered that things were not going that well with the other dishes. They were cooking in a stubbornly uneven way; some were lukewarm and others were less lukewarm. 

It was now 5:30 p.m. and I felt that it was time to just get this show on the road. I realized that in true 2020 fashion, this year’s meal was not going to be perfect. Attractively sliced slabs of turkey? Not this year! Multiple dishes all piping hot at the same time? Not quite.

I called everyone into the kitchen and informed them that they *might* want to heat their plates in the microwave. I realize microwaving meat is sacrilege to some people, but it was the best and only option as far as I was concerned.

In the end, here’s how the meal looked.

Tongs usually used for hotdogs can also be handy with turkey

Everyone was polite about the quality of the heating job and the less-than-glamorous presentation of the food, and overall it was a very enjoyable event.

The moral of the tale?

I gained a new appreciation for everyone who has ever served me a Thanksgiving meal. I struggled mightily to put out multiple dishes at once, and all I had to do was reheat them.

So to my mom, my sister, my Aunt Adriana, and my former in-laws, I want to say thank you. I’m amazed at how effortless you made a very complicated meal look year after year.

Consider me impressed.

Tiny Bubbles

The day my brother graduated from college, my sister and I got into a car accident. 

We were driving through Connecticut on Route 84 when a tractor trailer traveling in the same direction struck our car twice – once on the front end when the driver accidentally veered into our lane and again after our car spun out in front of his truck. My sister managed to hang on as we spiraled across the road and eventually pulled our car over into the left breakdown lane. We sat there screaming for a few moments after the car had stopped, then realized we were both ok and got out.

We had been driving home from the graduation in tandem with my parents, who were in front of us when the tractor trailer hit us; my mother watched the accident in her rearview mirror. She told us later that she just saw blue smoke moving across the road and kept saying “The girls! The girls!”  

Right after my sister and I got out of the car, two couples traveling together in a car behind us pulled off, got out of their car, and came running over to us, shouting “Praise Jesus! You’re alive!” 

We told them our parents were in a car in front of us and had probably pulled off to call for help. One of the men immediately got back in their car to go tell my parents we were ok. He found them calling the police from a payphone off the exit and reassured them that we were not injured.   

While we waited for our parents and the police, we learned that the couples were from West Virginia and that one of the men was a minister. They told us that when they saw our car spinning, they were all praying “Lord, please save those people!” 

We were raised Catholic, and although we attended mass every Sunday, Catholic services tend to be much less effusive than services in other denominations of Christianity, with very little quoting from the Bible or emoting about Jesus. In our experience, church involved stoically standing up, sitting down, and kneeling, followed by a polite handshake with the priest on the way out and then a dog-eat-dog competition to get out of the parking lot. (Anyone who attended Transfiguration in the 70s and 80s will remember how many of the charitable thoughts from the service evaporated during the race to get up the exit ramp.)

The version of Christianity that these two couples practiced was clearly different and frankly, somewhat uncomfortable to us at the time. And yet, the truck driver who had knocked us across three lanes of a highway never stopped, but these strangers had prayed for us, then pulled over to see how they could help, offering comfort to my sister and me and as well as our parents. Regardless of the differences in how we expressed our religious beliefs, these people could not have been kinder or more helpful at a moment when we were all terrified, and my family has obviously never forgotten them. My mother exchanged Christmas cards with them for years after the accident.

It was a perfect example of the basic good in people. When there is a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or an accident, people tend to turn towards each other, both on the giving and receiving end.

I know that when I am scared, I look to connect with others. It’s why I am very chatty whenever I have a medical appointment. I have a terrible and irrational fear of most things medical, and I’m always hoping a connection with a nurse or doctor will calm me down. It’s also why, when I was awake with insomnia last week and learned at 2 a.m. that the president and his wife had tested positive for COVID, my first instinct was to reach out and talk to people to make sense of this jarring news. 

The world feels scary to me right now, and not just because of the pandemic. There is a lot of talk of the potential for violence with the upcoming election. The toxic racial divide continues. Hate groups are blossoming. 

There is also a level of vitriol on TV and social media that I find disturbing. There seems to be little thoughtful discussion and mostly people separated into clearly defined groups who rage at each other. 

Though I shy away from discussing politics on social media – I don’t see that it changes opinions, and I don’t care for the spewing of bile that often comes with these conversations – I’m also not sitting silently on the sidelines. I tend to stay in a closed feedback loop, watching one cable news channel and bashing politicians in conversations with like minded friends and family.

But between the state of affairs with politics and the pandemic, it’s getting to be too much. It’s been one tumultuous event after the other for a long time now. As a group, it seems increasingly obvious that we all have a need to return to some semblance of balance, calm, and community.

This is probably why a conversation between Trevor Noah and Alexandra Pelosi on The Daily Social Distancing Show resonated with me the other day.

Pelosi has just released a documentary called American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself, which deals in part with how Americans view each other. “The conversation has gone to such low points,” she says. “And everybody’s gone so tribal and into their own bubbles. There’s all this hate speech.”

(In fact, it’s gone so tribal that I wondered if the fact that the speaker was Nancy Pelosi’s daughter would cause some people to roll their eyes and discount what she was saying because her mother is a political lightning rod.)

Trevor Noah asked Alexandra Pelosi if she had been able to create her own filter and lens on how she saw the world, in spite of her mother’s position.

“I’ve gone out of my way in the last 30 years as a journalist and filmmaker to go into what they call ‘real America.’ And it was really important for me because I grew up in San Francisco, in sort of the liberal bubble,” she told him.

“The only way I can stay sane is by talking to people who aren’t like me, that don’t believe anything that I believe in, and just trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think there are more purple people out there than we’re led to believe by cable news because cable news is in the business of just making us hate each other. Social media is in the business of making us hate each other. So it’s good to go out there and meet people and try to understand where they’re coming from.”

The idea of leaving my bubble – and I own that I exist in one – and trying to understand where people are coming from makes sense to me.

I don’t know exactly how we got to this place in our country where we have split into sides who scream at each other, and there certainly isn’t a simple answer as to how and when things are going to improve. Whatever led us here, it seems to me that talking with people who hold different views from our own and trying to figure where the common ground is instead of avoiding hard conversations altogether is a start. Assuming the other side is the only one who has to examine their views is like agreeing to go to marriage counseling as long as the other person is the one who has to do all the changing. 

There seems to be a need for healing right now. Many people are worn out by the turmoil. I know that when I have been in scary situations, turning to other people, especially people who are not anything like me, has reminded me of the kindness people are capable of and helped me through moments that would otherwise have been so much harder. 

At the risk of sounding trite, lecture-y, or like I have it all figured out, I am thinking that if we could all leave our bubbles, even just a little bit, things might get a tiny bit better. It feels like we need to start somewhere if we are ever going to return to a place where there is less animosity and more connection.

The September Slide

Every September, darkness descends on me. I’m generally not a person who suffers from depression (anxiety tends to be my mental health issue of choice), but for as long as I can remember, I notice the world looks a lot more somber when fall begins. This September has been no different. Limited social contact for the past six months, navigating full-day virtual teaching, and the fact that the world is literally and figuratively burning down around us have been weighing heavily on me. Actually, I’ve been feeling much of this every calendar month — especially the issues connected to the pandemic — and I’d be surprised to find many adults who have not found themselves overwhelmed at some point.

But September is special, and I find myself swimming in a daily dysphoria that I seem to save only for this month. It feels wholly biological, starting with a sense of dread before my feet hit the floor in the a.m. Even the recognition that many of the issues I struggle with are first-world problems doesn’t seem to lessen a physical sensation that things are not good. It is well documented that the diminishing light in the fall affects some people more than others, and I count myself among those who really feel the impact of the increasingly shorter, darker days. 

To offset all of this, I’ve been following a self-care routine that any mental health professional would likely encourage. I meditate. I write. I exercise outside. I eat lots of vegetables and fruits. I maintain contact with friends and family. I play my musical instruments. 

What’s left, you ask? Well, this fall, I’ve turned to a tactic that lacks any professional endorsements but is nonetheless wildly popular: old school binge eating.  

I’ve become a frequent visitor to a pizza shop in a section of Arlington just a stone’s throw from the parking garage where Deep Throat revealed the secrets that brought down a president. It’s called Wiseguy Pizza, and it’s the closest thing I’ve found to New York pizza in the D.C. area. In my opinion, the mark of a legit pizza joint is whether it sells pizza by the slice. It’s a bonus if you can find customers inside employing “the fold,” the proper, one-handed way to eat pizza – the antithesis of using a knife and fork. Wiseguy passes both tests.

Wendy’s has offered me quite a bit of solace this month as well. I had always planned to detour off my new vegan diet on occasion, but I’ve surprised myself at how often I’ve turned to a Dave’s Single with Cheese and a Frosty to pull me up out of the dungeon lately.

And let’s just say the cashiers at The Sev (aka 7-Eleven) and my local Sunoco are familiar with my fondness for double Snickers bars. Where were double Snickers when I had a faster metabolism? Who cares? They’re here now!

Some level of shame is obviously involved with this gluttony because I tend to do most of my binge eating in my car, by myself. Am I embarrassed to eat a couple of candy bars in front of my 18-year-old son, who can literally eat two or three meals in one sitting? Hard to say.

I’m often speeding down the road at 70 mph on one of my gtf out of the house drives with one hand clenching a fast food product, so keep your distance if you see me on Route 267 headed west. When I want to be more dedicated to my meal, I park somewhere. I still walk near Iwo Jima from time to time but have also discovered that it serves as an excellent place to discretely consume high-calorie fare. The trees provide privacy. I worry that I am probably on a U.S. Park Police watch list because of my frequent comings and goings there. I do throw my trash away neatly in the garbage bins, so they really should delete my license plate number from their database.

Iwo Jima parking lot, where I make sure to drink only the teeniest, tiniest Diet Coke so I can preserve my girlish figure
Pizza Toast Tartare

I eat some homemade creations on my own property as well. A new item on the fall menu (for one) at my house is something I have dubbed “Pizza Toast Tartare.” No, you won’t find expensive undercooked meat on this pizza. It’s simply Trader Joe’s Rustico bread, a dash of Prego, and shredded mozzarella that I am sometimes too lazy to put in the toaster oven, so I eat it uncooked. Delicious!

(This is not to be confused with another delicacy I used to make regularly when I was in my twenties, Frankfurter on a Bed of Shredded Mozzarella. That’s mozzarella melted into a hot dog bun and topped with a Ball Park frank. Again, delightful!)  

The good news is that all this disordered eating is not an unknowing reaction to sunken moods; it’s a conscious choice. There is ample research showing the connection between sugar, salt, fat, and feelings of happiness. My field study work can confirm that connection. A friend suggested recently that my two years of meditating have helped me to “witness” my moods these days instead of blindly reacting to them. As such, I’ve “witnessed” myself feeling a whole lot better immediately following a trip to Wendy’s. 

Happiness is their recipe

Sometimes I worry about how much weight I will gain during this September Slide. This worry is usually followed by the delusion that my exercise regimen is counteracting my binge eating. Then the My Fitness Pal app sets me straight, classifying my trips to Gravelly Point as “Walking, 3.0 mph, mod. pace, walking dog.” I don’t own a dog, but if I did I imagine it would register as middle-aged on My Fitness Pal. And a 34-minute walk at 3.0 miles per hour isn’t going to offset much.

Last week I started mowing my own lawn again after a four-year hiatus (long story) and figured that this chore would at least be decent exercise. Then I got behind my self-propelled lawnmower and realized I was really just supervising the machine instead of burning a ton of calories pushing heavy equipment around. However, by some miracle, my weight gain has been pretty mild.

Mercifully, in previous years, at least, my body seems to adjust to the waning light and to accept the fact that winter is coming sometime around November. I have never loved winter, but I at least feel back to myself by Thanksgiving or sooner. In the meantime, I thank the man upstairs for Wiseguys.

Summer 2020: Crab Apple Pie, Eufy, and Frank Sinatra

Today is the unofficial end of summer, and I couldn’t resist the chance to do to myself what I have asked my students to do each fall when they return to my high school English classroom – write about their summer vacation. Here are a few highlights from my COVID-tinged time off …


Crab Apple Pie

When my local pool announced they would not be opening this summer, thereby squashing my annual summertime lap swimming routine, I felt panicked about not having any outside time for several months. I did a lot of walking this spring, but exercising outside of a pool in Virginia in the summer is out of the question for ladies like me who can’t stand feeling overheated. I realized I needed to find a reason to be outdoors, albeit in short spurts. 

A friend told me that for a small fee, a local garden center would send a landscape designer to my house to advise me on what kind of garden I might be able to plant. What a great idea! As a new vegan, I could grow a vegetable garden and supply one of my main sources of food simply by turning 1/8 of my suburban back yard into farmland! Now I would know where some of my food was sourced, and I could continue my march towards being off the grid. Or something like that.

A few weeks later, I set up the appointment and a landscape designer came to show me how and where to plant some tomatoes and cucumbers, or so I thought. As it turned out, she had something more elaborate in mind, dropping words like “espalier” and “small boulders” as she conveyed her vision. I realized this was going to be more involved than I had originally planned.

I told her what my budget was, exaggerating by double in hopes of impressing her because I thought she was attractive. She proposed that what I really wanted would cost double that figure (if you’re doing the math, you realize we’ve now quadrupled my actual budget). She did say I could cut out any of the plantings she was going to include in her quote if I didn’t want to spend that much. 

The proposal she emailed a few days later confirmed that she wasn’t kidding – her plan was going to cost one-third of my paycheck for the summer school class I was teaching. Well, I told myself, I didn’t expect to be hired to teach the summer school class, so this garden could be a bonus expenditure for the summer. In a moment of whimsy, I opted to go ahead with the whole plan. Or, as Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote would say (the character poised to order every item on a French restaurant menu), “I’ll have the lot.” 

A bunch of men came over a few weeks later and spent the better part of a day digging stuff up and hauling things around. The cute landscape designer had moved out of town just before the garden installation and never came back. So much for impressing the lady.

Here’s the backyard makeover.


Slide the screen to see the before and after

Jack and the Beanstalk action going on as of today (two months after the install):

When I told a friend who is an avid and talented gardener how much I had spent and on what, she could barely contain herself. One of the things she yelled was, “An apple espalier??? The only thing that’s going to grow is crab apples!” 

I said, “Well, then I’ll be happy to have you over for crab apple pie. A la mode.”

I did end up growing one edible tomato, a boatload of rosemary, and enough basil to supply all of the Olive Gardens in Northern Virginia for at least a week. 

I also got my very important outdoor time. I would say I spent an extra 48 minutes outside (total) this summer, mostly turning the sprinkler on and off. No, I didn’t bother to water the garden by hand with the new hose I purchased, or lovingly putz around pulling weeds and fluffing things up. Instead, I mostly dragged that sprinkler around and then came inside feeling annoyed that my flip flops were wet and grassy.

Definitely a win.

The Incredible Edible Tomato
Can you pronounce espalier?
Neither can I
Tower of basil
Now … if only I liked rosemary or used it in my cooking
Dwarf blueberry bush. Only missing one thing: blueberries
A lonely cucumber in the corner on a makeshift brace. I’m rooting for this underdog

Eufy

Summer highlight #2: getting a robot vacuum.

I began coveting robot vacuums a few months ago after seeing an ad for one. I love a neat home, but I hate to vacuum. A robot vacuum seemed like a perfect solution – a machine makes the room tidy while I watch Hulu.

I only hesitated to buy one because they aren’t cheap. However, after filling out a health assessment survey for Kaiser Permanente for the sole purpose of earning a $100 Visa reward card, I felt justified in buying a Eufy. 

“It’s practically free!” I told myself.

A friend who has owned both of the leading brands (iRobot and Eufy) told me Eufy was the better choice. I followed her advice and ordered one, and in early July, the nice people at Amazon delivered the new addition to my family. It was love at first sight.

All I have to do is move any cords or small objects off the floor and turn the Eufy on. It does the rest, efficiently working the room to restore order.

Cue the Jaws music

I love this photo of the vacuum in action found on the Eufy website, www.eufylife.com. (It’s not just a vacuum! It’s a lifestyle!) Presumably, the point is to reassure you that Eufy won’t inhale your ukulele-playing three-year-old as it quietly cleans your rug. Having watched this thing operate, though, I promise you that it will wake her up. Maybe she shouldn’t nap in the middle of the living room floor?

But I digress.

I started noticing recently that I feel something oddly akin to parental pride when Eufy successfully cleans up some crumbs or cleverly turns away from the edge of the stairs. 

I was disappointed the other day when Eufy tried for the millionth time to climb over the wooden border around the fireplace. I wondered why there wasn’t an algorithm or something that helps the vacuum remember it’s been down this road before and it doesn’t end well.  

Remember? You’re going to get marooned again!

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

I walked over to the fireplace and said out loud, “You know better than that, Eufy!” before gently helping it off the ledge and back onto solid ground.

If you are wondering why I’ve grown so attached to a small appliance and/or why I view buying a vacuum as a highlight of the summer, you have company. I think I need a pet. Stat.

Frank Sinatra

A highlight of the summer that was more meaningful than apples or vacuums was taking a creative nonfiction writing class. Pre-pandemic, I would have searched for an in-person class somewhere in the D.C. area; however, because that wasn’t an option, I took an online course with Gotham Writers Workshop, a group located in New York City.  

It was a six-week course that offered an overview of various types of nonfiction writing: personal essays, memoir, travel writing, profiles, feature articles, and reviews. The class met on Zoom every Wednesday night for three hours, and while most of my 11 classmates were in the New York City area, there were people taking the course from all over the country.

Unlike in college, where I Cliff-Noted my way past many of the traditional readings that did not hold my attention, I found the reading assignments for this course extremely interesting. My two favorites were On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a memoir by Ocean Vuong, and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a profile article by Gay Talese about Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Fly me to the moon

The readings were compelling and the discussions thought-provoking; I also felt I learned a lot about writing. The 500-word limit on each assignment challenged me to hone the skill of packing more description into fewer words. Turns out the “less is more” philosophy I employ in other areas of my life (home decorating, for example) is necessary in my writing as well.

But I think the bigger takeaway in this experience came in the reminder that for me, in order to “live” and not just “endure” life as a middle-aged single mom sharing space with an often-times irritable teen, I need to continue to learn and grow. 

So there it is – my summer vacation. No swirling romances, no European sojourns. Just me, my tomato, my over-achieving vacuum, and a newly found creative itch that I’m scratching. More to come…

So long, summer

A Steady Hand on the Wheel

A portrait of the young man
My mom and dad on their honeymoon
Ten years later, with three kids in questionable bathing suits

To get a sense of who my dad is, take a look at the pictures of him with his grandkids over the years.  They tell the story.  Here he is playing a game of Horsie, here he is teaching kids how to fish, here he is in the ocean, playing a game, reading a book, tying a tie.

Though there are many fewer pictures of my dad interacting with my brother and sister and me when we were children, the story was the same. (The only group photo I have is above – perhaps a function of being part of a generation that was much less documented than the current one.)   

He came to our games, our Back to School Nights, our recitals, our concerts.  He wanted to hear from each of us about how the day went every night at dinner.  He had catches with us in the backyard.  He went in the ocean with us in New Jersey every summer and taught us how to play Chicken, where you have to float with your feet facing the oncoming waves. 

I will admit to wishing he were less involved on the days when I got in trouble at school.  My parents were a one-two punch.  My mom would lecture me in the afternoon, and then my dad would come home in the evening and take the Lord’s name in vain when he heard what I had done.  He had a habit of roughly smoothing out the strands of hair on the top of his head during those conversations, which I fear contributed to his early hair loss. 

In retrospect, he was strict, but not unnecessarily so.  I shudder to think how much brattier I would have been if I had not feared the words “wait til your father gets home!”

As I transitioned from my teen years into adulthood, and especially into my 30s and 40s when I was grappling with issues around coming out, my relationship with my dad transitioned also.  He was less of an authority figure and more of a confidante.  You might not expect a middle-aged lesbian to be turning to a former investment banker in his 80s for emotional advice, but that is just what has happened.  He really listens — with  a calm, clear-eyed way of sizing things up that has helped me find my center time and time again.

The other day I came across a card he sent a number of years ago when I was working through a tough situation.  Age provides some perspective, he wrote, and though he did not want to sound at all Pollyanna, he said he knew that I would have better days.

The man is not just a supportive father.  He’s actually great company.

He loves to talk about politics, sports, business, and many other topics.  He’s an avid reader and is knowledgeable and current on a wide variety of subjects.  And he is genuinely interested in other people, striking up conversations not to make small talk, but because he enjoys learning about the  experiences of others. 

He’s also very funny.  His demeanor is reserved, but when you listen to what he is saying, you realize he makes lots of quick-witted observations and remarks.  He’s a great storyteller and has taken a number of writing classes in retirement.  My favorite story was one he wrote about having to learn how to type at age 60 when everyone got their own desktop computers at work.  He took an online keyboarding class developed for children called “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!”  His account of doing poorly on the words-per-minute tests, which included alligators chomping at letters as you typed, was hilarious.

All of this is not to say that everything was perfect or that there was never an angry word or an unpleasant day.  But my dad showed up.  There was never a time when I worried that he would not be there or questioned whether or not he loved us.   The pictures remind me that he has been a constant support for my mom and for each new member of his family as they have arrived. I know his steady presence has been especially important for my son through two divorces and a lot of upheaval.

My dad was talking recently about his own father, who passed away before my siblings and I were born, and said he was a special guy.  That’s how I feel about my dad.  He’s special.  I didn’t appreciate him when I was young — I just took it all for granted.  I don’t now.  I just hope this smart, funny, loyal guy who has quietly done so many good things for other people understands how adored and admired he is.

Obliging one of my son’s many requests to play Horsie
Pitching to a young recruit
Teaching my nephews Jack and Will how to fish
Serving as holder of Jack’s first fish
Pretending to be surprised by my niece Jessica
Getting ready to jump some waves
Practicing reading with Kaley
Meeting Maggie, the youngest grandchild
Having a snowball fight
Helping with homework
Raking in the dough with Rachel
Giving some assistance with a tie
Being a good sport about wearing a birthday hat at his 85th birthday party
With my mom at their 50th wedding anniversary party
Yucking it up with kids and their spouses
With all the grown up grandkids

Ode to My Hometown

The village now known as Sleepy Hollow, New York, is an interesting place.  It was settled in the 1600s, but it was Washington Irving who put it on the map in 1820 when he made it the setting for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” his tale of a pumpkin-throwing headless horseman and a skittish schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane. 

Metal sculpture of the headless horseman and Ichabod C.

When I grew up there, it was called North Tarrytown.  In 1996, residents voted to change its name to Sleepy Hollow in an effort to drum up tourism and offset the loss of tax revenue brought on by the closure of the General Motors plant in town.

The rebranding effort seems to have worked – it has become a popular day trip destination for New Yorkers, with an estimated 100,000 visitors between September and November each year.  When you Google “Sleepy Hollow,” there are a number of websites and YouTube videos assuring you that the town is an actual place and encouraging you to visit. 

For $24.99, you can take a two-hour walking tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on a Friday night and hear about the famous people buried there, including Washington Irving (of course), two of Alexander Hamilton’s kids (interesting!), Andrew Carnegie, and in the funnest of the fun facts, IMO, hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, one of Time magazine’s Top 10 Tax Dodgers, who fittingly used some of the little people’s money to erect a mausoleum complete with Roman columns and stained glass windows.  Talk about a home in the country.

Who knew this place could become a tourist trap?

When I hear the cemetery is now a tourist attraction, it makes me feel nostalgic.  “Aww!  That’s where I smoked cigarettes for the first time!”

All this newfound tourism does not exactly jibe with my memories of the place I still consider home, even though I haven’t lived there in more than 30 years.

There have been times when I’ve told people I’m from New York and they have assumed I’m talking about New York City, with its mass of people, noise, and excitement. The truth is that I’m from a small town measuring only five square miles. The tight-knit community that I was a part of when I was young was anything but bustling and impersonal; it was a place where I felt safe, included, and cared for, and it provided a foundation that has stayed with me all these years.

As a kid in the 1970s, I felt free to explore my neighborhood and have adventures without adult supervision.  One of my earliest memories is being allowed to walk more than a half mile with the “big kids” to the penny candy store just off of Route 9, a very busy road. 

Shirts were optional

We rode bikes all over our neighborhood and played down by the train tracks.  We would put coins on the tracks and let trains run over them, keeping the flattened versions as treasures after the trains had passed by.  Mercifully, no one I was with ever got stuck on the tracks or stepped on the wrong rail. 

There were endless games of kickball, stickball, and tackle and touch football.  We played Ding Dong Ditch (ring the doorbell and run like hell) and Hide and Seek, where people could be tucked into spots anywhere along the street.

Much of this unsupervised time with peers was not unique to a particular town.  It was part of the era to let kids out in the morning on summer and weekend days and call them back in only for lunch and dinner.  Still, there was something magical about spending so much unstructured play time outside with friends.  It is part of what I remember most fondly about my childhood.

Living in a small town also meant being able to participate in a variety of activities.  Before high school, there were town sports leagues like the North Tarrytown Girls Softball League (Honeybees rule!), and during high school, the sports teams and clubs were open to everyone for the most part. We were encouraged to try activities we thought we might like. I started playing field hockey in the fall.  In the spring, I played softball for two seasons, then switched to soccer as a junior.  I ran winter track during senior year.

The idea of picking up a sport in high school or changing sports during junior year would be very unusual now, especially at one of the bigger schools.  We didn’t have to choose one sport when we were 10 or 11 and excel at it in order to participate through the end of high school, and we didn’t have to play that one sport year round.      

Being able to try different activities was important for me. I discovered some interests that I wouldn’t have known about and learned that taking chances sometimes had a big payoff.

Perhaps the most important part about growing up in Sleepy Hollow was the sense of continuity and connection. When I look at my kindergarten picture, I realize that I ended up graduating from high school with the majority of those kids.  Many of the teachers stayed in the district for years as well.

This sign was a generous gift from the Class o’ 1986

The schools were small even though North Tarrytown (aka Sleepy Hollow) and Tarrytown were a combined school district, and many students from Pocantico and local parochial schools also came to the high school. Enrollment at Sleepy Hollow High School was somewhere around 800 students when I was there, and my class had about 160 students.

There has been a great deal of research about the academic and social benefits of small schools, and much of it has concluded that kids feel safer and happier when they feel seen and known, both by their peers and by the faculty. I know this was true for me.

Even though the schools and the town are small, the population is very diverse. The town website refers to the “vibrant mix of cultures that characterize Sleepy Hollow,” and this was one of the best things about growing up in this community.

There are also many shared memories with people when you go through school K-12 together. There were seasonal rituals in town, like skating at the Tarrytown Lakes when it was cold enough to freeze over, trips to Ice Cream Villa after sports games, Memorial Day parades through the center of town, and Saturday afternoon football games at the high school.

There were many local businesses that were around for years whose proprietors were well-known and well-liked throughout the community, like Fleetwood Pizza, Shanghai Inn, Mory’s Army & Navy store (where I got some of my first lesbian outfits without realizing it), and Uncle Jerry’s Deli.

One other aspect of Sleepy Hollow that I have always loved is the location on the Hudson River. I find myself drawn to water. Even now, when I go home to visit, I am struck by the beauty of the views and the sunsets.

There is a saying attributed to everyone from Jonas Salk to an anonymous “wise woman” about how the best things parents can provide are “roots and wings.”  My mom and dad certainly did; my hometown did too, and this is part of why I have such a deep appreciation and affection for the little village where I grew up. 

A very old church with an updated message
Drive by shot of Fleetwood on one of my trips home years ago
Pat! (Now closed, this picture was posted on Yelp by the most recent owner)
A look down Beekman Avenue — the main drag in town that leads to the river
This eagle was originally in Grand Central Station and moved north in 1910
Great place to catch a ride to NYC and also to flatten pennies
My old man and my young man talking things over in 2012
Unfiltered shot of the Hudson River
Leaving town on the new Cuomo bridge
A closing shot of the Tappan Zee Bridge back in the day

A Wider Perspective

I found myself uncertain when I was deciding what to write about this week.  My plan for the next few blog posts was to follow up last week’s entry by talking about things in my life that I was grateful for.  This week was going to be about my career as a high school English teacher.

There are a thousand things I could say about teaching, but I decided to focus only on one aspect of why I’m glad that I’m a teacher.

I am grateful for the perspective and empathy that I have gained from working with students from a wide variety of backgrounds over the past 26 years.

For the last 11 years, I have been a teacher at small alternative high school.  Our student body is heterogeneous; students come from all over the world and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.  Some students have chosen to attend our school because of our smaller student body, and some have been sent to us for disciplinary reasons. 

Being a teacher has allowed me to meet and develop empathy for others whose experiences I will never share.  I was raised in a town that is multicultural and diverse in a number of ways. As I began my career, I didn’t think I had everything figured out, but I did assume I was relatively accepting of all people. However, my work as a teacher has taught me that my perspective was not nearly as broad as I thought it was. 

During my first year of teaching, a ninth grade student brought her sonogram in to show the class.  I watched her struggle with her pregnancy for the remainder of the school year.  Another of my students showed up for school after being badly beaten by her boyfriend.  My stomach turned when I went to talk with her in the nurse’s office and saw the bruises on her face. 

In more recent years, I had to hold back tears as I listened to the personal narrative of one of my students from Central America.  She described one day in her childhood where she sensed something was wrong with her mother and made the heartbreaking discovery later that day that she and her sibling were being left with a relative they didn’t know very well while their mother made the journey to the United States so she could find work and support the family financially. 

A number of students have shared their dangerous and painful experiences of making the journey from their countries to this country on foot.

Another student’s personal narrative detailed how she was sent to work as a child and was not able to fully access education.  After coming to this country, she worked for several years before she was able to enroll in school.  She talked about how she has not taken any of her education for granted.

While I was never personally faced with teen pregnancy, dating violence, racial prejudice, family separation, immigrating to another country, or having to fight to get an education, learning about those experiences from students I have come to know and care about has certainly given me a much broader frame of reference.

I’m also grateful that being a teacher allows me the daily opportunity to do meaningful work that is relevant to what is going on in the world.

This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about a unit I did with a couple of my classes four years ago.  With the help of our school librarian, we looked at well-known incidents of bigotry from the last hundred years or so that were connected to religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.  Some of the topics we covered included the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the Nanking Massacre, the Women’s Rights Movement, Matthew Shepard, and Temple Grandin.  We were looking for the root of the bigotry in each historical example.  “Why is there bigotry?” was our essential question.

There is obviously not one correct or simple answer to this complex question, but a common thread that my students recognized was relatively straightforward: people tend to be uncomfortable with others who are different from them.  Often this discomfort leads to disliking those who look, think, worship, etc. differently, and sometimes it leads people to the point of violence against those they view as “other.”

Jean Kilbourne articulates this point well in her film Killing Us Softly.  “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person.  We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism.  It’s almost always the same process.  The person is dehumanized and violence then becomes inevitable.”

I would never claim to know what the solution is for eliminating prejudice, but my experiences as a teacher have led me to believe that exposure helps to counter the urge to see someone as other and set down the road to dehumanize.

Final discussion for the bigotry unit

The culminating conversation I had with students at the end of our bigotry unit was extremely interesting, especially in one class, where students came from several other continents.  One student said his big takeaway was that “the uneducated are easy to control.”  Another student, who is from a war-torn region of the world, said of atrocities connected to bigotry, “It keeps happening.  It’s like a routine.”  A third student had very thoughtful questions about why bystanders do nothing to intervene.  Based on their comments in this discussion and a number of others throughout the unit, I felt my students had also made progress towards being understanding and able to examine their own biases.  This was gratifying to see.

The events of the past few weeks have opened my eyes to things I thought I was already aware of. I have certainly learned a lot from my students, but I know I still have more to learn.

It’s worth saying that my profession has cultivated in me a greater sense of humility and gratitude over the years.  I recall a student from 15 years ago.  In spite of significant physical disabilities that brought her daily challenges, she was upbeat and positive, participated in class, and was eager to learn.  She was transferred out of the class because of a schedule change sometime around Valentine’s Day.  Before she left, she gave me this mug filled with candy and a card thanking me for being her teacher.  I still have the mug.  Every time I look at it, I am reminded of all I have to be thankful for and all that I have gained as a teacher.