Clubbing: Reader Style

It was our first meeting and we stared at each other anxiously.  We all loved the book, but who would start and what would we say?  Even though we all knew each other and were comfortable together, the discussion lurched in fits and starts as everyone cautiously shared their thoughts on the book.  Out of the five of us, I was the book club veteran, having been in different clubs in the past and am currently in four others (a logistical feat), and our unease confounded me.  At all of my other book clubs we just started talking about the book; it was an organic process, a grown-up Socratic Seminar where we built upon each other’s ideas.  There really weren’t any “rules”, I thought.  However, once you call something a “Club”, even if it’s just in name only, “rules” are implied, like “no boys allowed!”.  Our meeting lacked liveliness because I assumed we’d just start talking; the other members weren’t certain what to do.

Book clubs should be organic– they are a wonderful venue for discussing ideas, learning from others, and building bonds.  They are also like Christmas: each book a surprise that leads to new interests and perspectives (although some books are the equivalent of receiving scratchy underwear from your grandma).  But they are also made up of people– as varied as the books that are read– and for this reason, there are some “rules” to having a successful book club.

Logistics:  

1. Getting Started: It’s easy!  Invite a group of friends, select a book, set a date, determine a location, bring some food, and voilà!  You have a book club.  No applications, W-2s, or blood tests necessary.

2. How Many?: Anywhere between 5-7 members is good.  This way if a couple cannot show up, there are still enough members to have a discussion; if all show up, everyone will still have enough time to share. (Although, the summer the last Harry Potter novel was released, my friend Jessica and I had a book club of two as we reread all of the series and crying when it was all over.)

3. How Often?  Most meet once a month, but one of mine meets about every six weeks or so.  Make sure there’s ample time to get and read the book.

4. Setting A Date: There a couple of ways to do this. My art book club meets the first Thursday of each month and whoever can make it shows up.  Selecting a specific day each month may work for your group.  My other groups decide at the end of each meeting, so we can check our calendars.  One word of wisdom: once you set a date, keep it.  If someone can’t make it, they can’t make it.  If everybody can’t make it, then reschedule.

5. Where?: Anywhere!  Open up your home.  Meet at a coffee shop.  Have a picnic in the park.

6. Communication: Select someone to be the coordinator.  The coordinator is the one who sends out the email reminders to the rest of the group.  If you are not the coordinator, please respond to the coordinator’s emails or texts.  A terrific website for book clubs is Bookmovement.  It is a website that shows what other book clubs are reading, provides ideas and an “e-vite” reminder for all of your members.

7. To Theme or Not To Theme?: Some book clubs are based on themes or genres. I belong to an art book club and read all kinds genres about art.  One of my friends belongs to a club that only reads memoirs; another to one about politics and current events.  The benefit of a theme group is that it caters to a specific interest of which each member is knowledgable.  Together they increase their knowledge and can compare one author’s ideas to another’s.  My other clubs read anything and everything.  This is a lot of fun, because we don’t know what the next book will be. Our interests are so disparate, but we are connected through our love of reading and learning.

Discussions: 

1. Read the book (it helps!):  Remember this is a BOOK Club, not a Wine and Cheese Club (although wine and cheese are lovely accouterments).  Sometimes life gets in the way, and finishing the book is just an impossibility. It happens.  When this happens, still attend the meeting (because the other members still want to enjoy the pleasure of your company),but have something to say or ask.  Sometimes the book is a dud or something you want to use for target practice.  Read it anyway.  The cloying and saccharine Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the dense and convoluted Tiepolo Pink, and the second-person present-tense Wolf Hall were all struggles to read, but having finished them gave me much more to say.

2.  Determine how your discussions will be run:  Will the person who suggested the book be in charge of leading the discussion or will it be a free-for-all?  Out of the two, I favor the free-for-all.  Many of the members like to “nerd out” and research different topics about the book, and in the free-for-all format, everyone has an opportunity to share without it infringing on the “discussion leader’s” time or plans.  For the free-for-all, each member selects quotes, information, or fun facts that they want to discuss.

3. Be considerate and determine what you, yourself, want to say: This is a subjective “rule” based on a pet peeve of mine: those who hog the discussion. There is really nothing more annoying than taking the time to read a book, jotting down discussion notes, selecting an item to bring as a snack, and traveling to a meeting only to have someone blurt out every idea he/she had about the book, some being the ones you and others wanted to bring up.  You end up being like the kid in class with your hand raised only to have the teacher call on the “know-it-all” who has to share everything he/she knows, and when you’re finally called on, all you can say is, “He/she said what I was going to say.”  To avoid having a monopoly on ideas, choose a couple that you really want to discuss and allow others to share their own.  Most likely, they will bring up the other ideas you had and you’ll still be able to discuss them.

3.  Selecting your first book:  It is really important that the first book chosen is something that would appeal to a wide range of interests and have something juicy enough to talk about.  Some first books that I can remember are Chris Bohjalian’s Midwives, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, and Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends.

4. Selecting the next book: Bring a title that you would like everyone to read for the following meeting and share why it’s interesting to you. Sometimes selecting a new book is easy, everyone gravitates to a certain book. (If this book is something that you don’t want to read, suck it up, and read it anyway.  It may be your next favorite.)  Sometimes it’s hard; when it’s hard, write all the suggested titles on scraps of paper and draw one from a hat.  One time we had six books suggested, so we numbered them one through six, rolled a dice, and whichever number came up, that’s the book we read.

Reading alone is one of life’s great joys; sharing and learning from others is another joy.  Book clubs open up worlds and perspectives and provide connections and friendships.  If you’re not part of one, I encourage you start one.

Readers: Do you belong to a book club?  What advice do you have?  What are some of your favorite club memories?  What books elicited the most lively discussion?

The One

One of the issues I’ve had this year is that I haven’t really connected to my seniors.  In general, I really like them all (well, most of them), but compared to last year’s graduating class that had so many students that I had spent so much time with and watch grow up, this year’s class just doesn’t inspire that “tug” in me.  So much so that I have been considering not going to this year’s graduation in May.  Graduation ends late in the evening, I live an hour away, and last year was so emotional that sitting it out is very appealing.  Maybe a couple of kids will be disappointed.  The prospect of not listening to “Pomp and Circumstance” again sat well with me.

But as always, there’s the “one”.

I met Xi by chance last year during sophomore state testing when students who were not being tested were sent to my room for study hall.  I did not know most of the students, but they made themselves at home and quietly studied.  Not Xi.  She came up to my cupboard and my desk to look at all of my pictures and ask me about all of them: Who was this girl in the prom dress?   Was she a good student?  How about that boy?  Is that a picture of you?  Is that your husband?  And on and on.  For two days we chatted, and afterwards I would say “hi” to her when I saw her on campus.

This year she’s my student in my English 12 class.  “I asked for you,” she informed me during the first week of school.  She has been a diligent student and continues to ask me all kinds of questions.  More than any other student, she has been in my class after school asking for help and feedback.  She read ahead during Pride and Prejudice and borrowed my new graphic novel version.  It is now well-worn.  Through the term she has shared her life with me– growing up as an immigrant, teaching herself at school since her parents don’t know English, and facts about her ever-shifting home life.  She stared at me horrified when I suggested that we beat the snot out of the printer when it wasn’t working, “Oh no, Ms. L, we can’t do that!”, and was visibly relieved when it finally produced her essay.  The printer would live to see another toner cartridge.  She has signed up to be my TA next term, and she has joined my book club and cried over the atrocities in Night.

She has personal tears to shed as her mother is currently in the last stages of cancer, and I’m not sure how much longer she will be around.  Xi has been very courageous and determined during this time by maintaining her school work and completing a demanding research project.  Her goal has been to make her family and her mother proud.

Today she let me know that she would be missing the rest of the week so she can spend time with her mom.  Redness tinged her eyes as she said, “My mom doesn’t look like my mother anymore.”  She got out her phone and showed me pictures of her and her mother in the hospital.  She held herself together until she had a realization.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, she whispered, “My mom won’t see me graduate.”

If ever I needed a reason to hear “Pomp and Circumstance” again, it is for Xi.

“And I Teach, Too.”

Monday morning I scanned my email’s inbox– still no word from the local librarian about the books-in-a-box sets I requested. Damn.  My school book club was going on two weeks with NO BOOK.  For my avid readers, this was like purgatory.  I glanced at the clock and figured I had ten minutes to run down to our school library and mine the back room for a selection.  They wanted a book that also had a movie adaptation.  The shelves proved lucrative: The Importance of Being EarnestA Raisin in the SunOctober Sky, The Diary of Anne Frank.  There were also several copies of Night, so I grabbed one of those, too.  There are plenty of holocaust films to pair with it.  I ran back to class just as the bell rang… just in time to teach.

******

“Ugh.  I hate that book,” said Oz as I pitched A Raisin in the Sun.  I plastered a smile on my face as I tried to make sympathetic noises.  Oz is my most negative book club member and seems to take delight in pointing out the worst in everything, even if it doesn’t exist.  Last year she informed us that she didn’t like any of us “not to be rude.” I calmed my nerves with happy thoughts of her impending graduation this year.

Sweet, mild-mannered Kate spoke up, “Um, Ms. L, I don’t like raisins.”  Sigh.

“This isn’t about raisins.  The title’s from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” in which he questions what happens to dreams when they are constantly deferred– put aside.  The line from the poem is ‘or do they (dreams) shrivel like raisins in the sun’?  There are no raisins.”

Kate seemed almost interested in the book, but stopped again, “Ms. L, you won’t put raisins in any cookies will you?”  I assured her that, no, I will not put any raisins in any cookies, cookies, cupcakes, or bread that I might bring for discussion.

Secretly I hoped they would choose The Importance of Being Earnest, a nice pleasant, funny read.  They voted for Night.

*******

I checked my mail-box for the red Netflix envelope.  I sent the past movie back last week, and should have received the new one by Saturday.  Book Club and Adventure Club needed The Ring for our Tuesday Movie Night fundraiser.  Obviously, the mailman would have put it in my box today.  Shifting through the political fliers, ads, and bills, I found nothing.

I got back in my car and drove to Best Buy.

******

Tuesday. “Don’t you get discouraged?” Liz asked.  It was after our Academic Decathlon meeting, and Liz, the president of the club, was underwhelmed by our team.  Last year’s team was predominately made up of the class of 2012– a group of motivated, driven, extremely intelligent superstars who went on their way to Stanford, Berkeley, UC Davis, UOP, UCLA, and other UCs and state colleges.  The class of 2013 is, well, playing Jan to last year’s Marcia.  Liz wanted to know if teaching such students (she missed being in the class of 2012 by being born a few days late) made me frustrated.

“Yes and no.  It’s frustrating because I can’t teach at the level I want to teach, nor can I teach one of the books I want to teach.  However, I’ve been teaching the class of 2013 for a long time now– I had them as sophomores.  I had them as juniors.  I knew what was coming.  They’re like a storm, and I’m waiting it out.”

She sighed, “I want the club to do well, but I don’t think I can change them.”

“You can’t change them,” I replied.  Liz, a perfectionist, holds the same high standards that she has for herself for everyone else.  Compared to her, everyone including our best and brightest, come up short.  As the leader, she found the other members not excelling at the pace she expected.  As the advisor, I see students who come in and spend two hours every week practicing math or economics and practicing their speeches; I was impressed.  “You can only get to know them and find their strengths.  Work with what they have.  Don’t give up on the team.”

******

An hour and a half later as I attempted to get some grading done, Hal and Puty came in early to help me set up for movie night.  They shot the breeze by discussing their love of Pride and Prejudice, and Puty complained about not being in my class, for she loves Mr. Darcy, too.  Their conversation turned to Shakespeare as Hal reminisced about reading Othello.  Puty lamented at having to read Hamlet.

Hal glared at me, “Ms. L, why didn’t we read Hamlet?  It looks so interesting.  I wanted to read Hamlet!”

“I hate Hamlet,” I replied, pursing my lips.  Hal let out a shocked gasp and demanded to know why.

“Because he can’t make up his mind.  The ghost of his dead father tells him twice to kill his uncle, the man who murdered him, and Hamlet can’t decide if he should do it.  Geez, he can’t even decided if he wants to kill himself, ‘To be or not to be?!'”.  I followed this up with a five minute rendition of all the rotten things in Denmark, and ended it with, “And what happens at the end?!”  Both of them looked at me, “Everyone dies?”

“Yes!” I exclaim, “Everyone dies!  Because he can’t make up his mind!”

I looked over at Puty to get her approval, “Did I get it right?”

She shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know. We’re starting it in a couple of weeks.”

Sigh.

“But what about the witches?  What part has the witches?,” Hal questioned.

“Witches?  Are you talking about Macbeth?”

“Oh!  It’s Macbeth!  That’s what I want to read!  Why didn’t we read that, Ms. L?”

******

An hour later, Tiny, the president of book club, watched the students lining up outside the theatre for what was to be the book and adventure clubs first really successful fundraiser.  The members had sold many pre-sale tickets, and now there were more lining up to watch The Ring.  She gasped, “Look at all of this!  We did it! We made it happen!  I’m so proud!”

She had a lot to be proud of.  The book club members are all quiet and shy wall-flowers.  Everything that they have done has been on a small scale.  This– using the school’s theatre, selling concessions, showing a horror flick– was all very big.  For them, it was momentous.

******

Nguyen, one of my two Adventure Club members, informed me that they probably wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to go on the trip to Ireland, Scotland, and England next year.  They wouldn’t be able to go.

“Well, that doesn’t mean that we still can’t have an adventure.  We’ve raised money.  We’ll raise more.  We’ll have a local adventure.  How about that?” I offered.

His face brightened, “I’ve never been to Washington, D.C.!”

“D.C. is fun, but I meant local, like in the state.” I refrained from saying “on this side of the Sierras.”

I could see his brain working for closer destinations.

“Nguyen, there is one stipulation.  No tourist traps.  This is an adventure.”

******

The new teacher towered over me.  Nguyen had recruited him to chaperone movie night, and it was my first time meeting him.

He looked around the crowded theater, “This is really great!  So how are you connected to the clubs?  What do you do?”

“I’m the book club and Adventure club advisor.  And I coach Academic Decathlon.  I’m also an advisor for HOSA.”

He stared at me, flabbergasted, “That’s like, what, four clubs?”

I nodded, “And I teach, too.”

******

Wednesday.  I opened the mailbox.  There it was: the red Netflix envelope.  The Ring.

Nine Years And Counting

I met Steve in August of 1996 when I was 19 years old.  We both attended Humboldt State and majored in History.  We sat in the front row during our Early Modern European History class with Professor Sundstrom, and we both wore Converse. He furiously took notes as I struggled to stay awake during the mid-afternoon class with the windows that let the warm sun shine on my sleepy form. I wish I could say our Converse lead to conversing, and have the rest be history, but it was a year and a half before we started going out. During that time I had other lessons to learn besides Robespierre’s influence and how the printing press changed the world, but Steve would see me around town and offer me a lift or ask me out.  My response was always a chipper “No, thank you!”.

Despite my rejections, he still bought me drinks at Toby and Jack’s — even after the night when he gave me his number as did somebody else.  All our bar meetings allowed me to see him interact with his friends, and there was one thing I noticed: they were always laughing.  There was mutual respect and camaraderie among them; all of them were having a good time.  About a month or two later, it finally occurred to me to call him.  I left a message.  He called back and we talked for an hour and decided to do the Nineties pseudo-date of going for coffee.  When I met him at the coffee shop, I still saw him as “friend” material.  He was, honestly, not my type, but then again, my “type” wasn’t quite working out for me.  That night Steve humored me and let me read him his tarot, as I dutifully referring to my How To Read Tarot book.  The last card I flipped, the one one that reflects the passage of your life, was a two of cups.  I read from my book and it said something on the lines of “someone is interested in you for reasons that aren’t clear to you.”  Immediately, my face grew hot as I realized that that someone was me.  This threw me into a state of panic.  Could he see it was me?  Was it written on my face?  What should I do with this newfound knowledge?  Should I swing open my arms and yell, “Surprise!”?  I sat on it instead.  Two more weeks passed.

You would think that by what happened next that that would have gotten the ball rolling.  It was finals week, and my first opportunity to go get really drunk afterwards (the first and last time I participated in this lively tradition).  I even told my landlady.  She didn’t quite know how to respond when I told her, “By the way, I’m going to get really drunk tonight.”  My mantra on the way to the bar was, “Don’t make a fool of yourself and hit on Steve.  Don’t make a fool of yourself and hit on Steve.”  I was a good little drunk that night.  I stayed on my barstool and everything.  And I didn’t hit on Steve.  I just rubbed his arm every time he walked by me or stood next to me or asked me a question or turned to talk to someone else.  Taking this as a sign of encouragement, he walked me home.  Now, now, now, don’t get any ideas.  There were too many eyes and ears out for me to cause any shenanigans.  Before leaving the bar, Steve was grilled by two sets of friends about his intentions.  When we got to my house, my landlady had stayed up to make sure I got home.  She said she heard a male voice with me, and slyly followed us down the hall (it was a 7 bedroom Victorian mansion that allowed for stealth) to find out if he was “friend or foe.”  Then there was my housemate Katie, who also was on patrol.

Steve, however, was a gentleman and helped me with my “routine”: twenty minutes of flossing, brushing my teeth, washing my face, and taking out my contacts.  He was a bit amazed that someone so inebriated would still do her nightly routine.  Then he made me drink a lot of water, listened to me tell long teary stories about my grandpa, tucked me in, and left.  I woke the next morning to find a note with two ibuprofen.  What I didn’t tell you about this evening was what happened in front of Everett’s bar.  That’s for me to know.

Winter break passed.  The spring semester started.  We went on our first official date to Mazzotti’s in Eureka.  He dropped me off, patted my knee, and said, “Thanks for coming out with me.”  I was confused. I had a vague recollection of him kissing me in front of Everett’s.  That did happened, didn’t it?

A week passed, and finally it was all too much.  We were back at Toby and Jack’s sitting near the darts.  I asked him, “Did you kiss me?”  He finished taking a swig of his Rolling Rock, placed the bottle on the table, folded his hands, and said, “Yes, and when I’m done with my beer, we’ll talk about it.” After a few minutes we left the bar and talked about everything.  He was concerned about starting a relationship because he was graduating in May and moving in August, and I was graduating in December.  He was also working on his senior thesis, and that would take up a lot of time.  Was it really viable to start a relationship now?  I thought so.  I hit on a scheme that really made a lot of sense to me: let’s casually date and then break up in August. How perfect was that?  He agreed.

The trouble with that plan was that we didn’t specify which August.  August 1998 found us in a long distance relationship.  August 1999 found us in our first year of living together.  August 2001 found us living our last month of pre-9/11 life– an event that prompted Steve to propose in October.  August 2003 found us in the midst of last minute wedding plans.  Steve even flew my best friend and maid of honor in from Texas, so she could attend my bridal shower.  On September 13, 2003 we got married.  Now it’s September 2012.  It’s been nine years.

A photo from year six in the foothill wineries.

I’m still with the man who still takes care of me and supports me and makes me laugh.  Here’s to the next nine years.

Fighting The (Good?) Fight

My blood is still boiling.  My breath seethes. I may look like I am smiling, but really my teeth are on edge. For over a week, the conversation– that began innocently enough– has run an endless loop in my brain.  With each new loop comes a swift kick to my butt.  I had had a rebuttal, but I didn’t give it.  Now it jabs, bobs, and weaves in my mind, waiting to be let loose on my opponent.  It screams for justice, for victory, for the declaration of “I AM RIGHT!”.

What was this conversation that got my panties in a bunch?  That has had me on edge all week?  Alright, I’ll tell you.  It will be a relief to declare my evidence– so unwillfully withheld and stewing in my cranium: “Of course Charles Dickens had class consciousness!  His dad was sent to a debtor’s prison, and he was pulled out of school to work in a factory to pay off his dad’s debt!  Dickens would have to be a complete knucklehead to NOT have class consciousness!  AND it was this experience that drove him to be rich and successful!  Jane Austen lived a life of relative comfort and wanted for nothing!  It’s not like there was an Occupy Steventon or Occupy Bath when she was growing up!”

Whew!  That was like cutting open an infected wound and letting all of the puss slide out.  Oh, the relief!  And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is what my friends and I argue about.

Why didn’t I give my rebuttal when I had the chance?  A variety of factors: I haven’t thought of Dicken’s childhood in a very long time and didn’t have that information right at the tip of my tongue; I was exhausted and recovering from a headache; the conversation moved quickly; I think associatively, and my rebuttal at the time was, “Comparing Austen to Dickens is like comparing Dickinson to Whitman: both lived during the Civil War, but one wrote about it and the other didn’t.  Should we fault Dickinson for not writing about soldiers and battles?  She wrote about private stuff and her home life, as did Austen.”  I think, also, I felt a bit personally on the defensive.  In defending Austen for not being class-conscious, I was defending myself for liking her novels and gleefully watching Downton Abbey.  So the class structure was awful in England.  People were butlers and second lady’s maids.  There were rich people and middling rich people.  It’s how it was. Should I not watch Gone With The Wind because it has slaves?  Should I not watch Dead Poets’ Society because the prep school didn’t admit girls?

How did Dickens get in the mix?  I was agreeing to the fact that Austen is not very class-conscious in regards to the lower class, but was for people who were just below her station, at her station, or above her station.  However, her way of life didn’t really call on her to be aware of those far beneath her.  My friend retorted, “Dickens did, and he lived at that same time.  This is just as bad as saying the Founding Fathers didn’t know that slavery was bad.  They knew.”  You can imagine how that got steam coming out of my ears.  This is why I wish I had said what I wanted to about Dickens.  It would have nipped that line  of thought in the bud.

But I am serious when I say that I’ve been stewing over this for a week.  It has become my internal soundtrack.  All it does is make me mad.  And frustrated. Why is it so important that I get the last word on this one? Why have I been unable to let it go? Why do I have to rehash all of this all of the time?  I have tried to end the discussion in my head, letting myself know that I can take quiet joy in the fact that I am right and that she doesn’t know that much about Dickens’s life if she’s going to make that hasty comparison.  I have killed many negative conversations in my head before, because, really, there’s nothing that can be done about them.  The conversation is done and over with.  To go back and say, “Um, Dickens grew up in poverty…” makes me petty, holding onto something that has fallen off everyone else’s radar.  This conversation, however, will not die.

Part of the reason I think it remains on life-support is that my friend is very intelligent and confident.  I constantly feel like I need to prove myself. She is also very quick with a retort, while I need time to process my information, to weigh the validity and veracity of my response. She has passed start and collected her $200 a few times while I’m still on St. James Place.  I kind of feel like a dunce.  The thing is, I don’t think she realizes she does this.  I also think that she probably doesn’t see me as a dunce, but it’s how I feel.  My little nugget about Dickens is my redemption, my “Get-Out-Of-Jail Free” card, but unlike that card, Dickens’s childhood will not get played.

Rick: The Relationship-Saving Cat

One night Steve came home from being out with the guys and invited our neighborhood stray to spend the night.  I looked at our guest, a randy orange tabby, and replied, “The cat does not want to spend the night.”  Steve, who had been enthralled with the couch-surfing cat in our building, disagreed, “Of course, he does!  See– he followed me in!”  The cat looked at me expectantly.  I capitulated.

That night the cat, knowing I was the one he had to win over, climbed on my pillow, curled his body around my head, and purred into my ears all night.  It seemed he liked our place the best since he became a regular, and Steve and I decided to name him Rick.  The name captured his man-about-town nature.  Rick got free room and board and quickly learned that he could come and go through our back window.  It went on this way for three weeks, but we hadn’t officially called him ours.  There was the tacit understanding that he was a stray and could leave us at any time.

Rick on my pillow.

On Rick’s three week anniversary, Steve and I left town to visit my parents.  We kept Rick, by nature an outdoor cat, outside and had our neighbor Wendy watch out for him.  The second day of our trip, Wendy called us.  Rick had been hit by a car and crawled into the basement of the home behind us to die.  The owners found him and recognized him as the cat they often saw in our back window.  They came over to tell us about Rick, but finding us gone, left a note.  Wendy found the note and contacted them.  Rick was still alive, in severe pain, and they took him to a vet.  Because he didn’t have tags, the vet wouldn’t take him.  They called around until they found a woman who ran a cat-rescue who vouched for our cat in order for the vet to see him.  At the time of this phone call, Rick received care from the doctor.

Steve and I rushed to the vet once we rolled back into town.  The prognosis was not good.  Rick had not used his hind legs or walked at all and could possibly be crippled.  He was also unresponsive to people. The vet tech said, “He’s going to need help with everything, including going to the bathroom.  Are you up for taking care of him?”  We nodded our heads– we would do anything for Rick.  She took us back to his “hospital room” to see him.  He was a pitiful sight with dried blood on his face, bandaged legs and lying in the back of his cage.  When he saw us, he began to shift around and pulled himself up onto his hind legs to walk over to us.  The vet tech burst into tears.  I comforted her while Steve comforted Rick.  And so began our journey as Rick’s humans.

Family portrait.

As humans, Steve and I had our own issues.  We had just moved into together a few months before.  I was new to the area, having left college life full of friends, activities, and comfortable surroundings.  I had had three roommates and there was always something going on.  Now I was in an unfamiliar place, living in a tiny apartment with my boyfriend who had been living here for six months and had established friends and routines.  I had no job, no routines, and no friends.  Lonely and frustrated doesn’t begin to cover it.  By the time Rick showed up, I had a job and Steve’s friends were my friends, but he and I still struggled with what it meant to be together.  We are both independent people determined to have our own lives, yet be a couple.  We argued a lot, and there were times I wondered how long we would last.

The cat’s in the bag!

Rick, an easy-going cat, wasn’t receptive to our arguing.  He realized that he could make a bigger stink than either of us, and used it to his advantage.  Shortly after bringing him home from the vet, we had a fight.  As our words escalated, Rick hopped into his shallow litter box by the kitchen, impersonated Niagara Falls, and kicked urine-soaked litter all over the walls, cupboards, and floor.  Suffice to say, we stopped arguing.  Enemies seconds before, we were now comrades-in-arms cleaning up the mess, laughing at the disgusting mess and at Rick, who looked rather pleased with himself.  And so it went.  We’d argue; he’d make a toxic dump.

He was very good at holding the towels in place.
Sleeping in his favorite spot.

Rick also loved to get into trouble by climbing up on stuff and hiding wherever he could hide.  He loved to sleep in Steve’s underwear drawer.  One day I came home and couldn’t find him.  I looked and looked, growing concerned until I saw the underwear drawer closed.  I opened it, and there he was curled up asleep oblivious to the fact that he had been locked in a drawer all day. Rick also enjoyed riding in cars.  I had a little Toyota pickup with a bench seat, and I’d take him for rides.  He enjoyed putting his paws on the passenger window and looking at the other cars passing by us.  When he got bored with that, he ‘d climb up onto the back of the seat, curl up, and look out the back window.  Rick eased my loneliness and gave Steve and I something to work together on: taking care of him.  He made us laugh with his antics.  Especially the day when he caught a bird and strutted proudly indoors with it, still alive, in his mouth.  At my shriek, he dropped the bird which pummeled itself into the sliding glass doors and pooped all over the blinds.  I tossed Rick into the bedroom, and eased the bird to freedom.  Later as I cleaned up the mess, Rick swatted my hands and me, angry and disappointed that I didn’t fully appreciate his efforts.  His anger didn’t prevent him from participating in our bedtime routine.  He’d sit on the chest of drawers waiting for me to go to bed; once I did, he’d hop onto the drums to the bed, crawl onto my stomach and bite the bow at the neck of my pajamas.  Every single night he did this.

Perfect.

We had Rick for three years until another car took away his ninth life.  That was an awful night and the first time I saw Steve cry.  It didn’t hit me until I went to bed.  There was no good-night routine, and Rick’s absence permeated the room.  Steve and I realized that even though he was gone, we still had each other.  Rick had taken us through some of our most difficult moments and kept us laughing (and cleaning).  As it is with all pets, I have to ask, who rescued who?  In this case, Rick rescued us.

(I apologize about the quality of pictures.  We don’t have a scanner, so I had to do this old school.)

Across The Blogiverse

When I started this blog back in March, I really had no idea what to expect.  I imagined that it would involve me writing my thoughts, hitting “publish”, and catapulting them into the ether where they would float around whatever the internet is.  Are my thoughts tightly crammed in fiber-optic cables trying to not bump into someone else’s thoughts like they’re on a New York subway?  Or is there a grand universe for our thoughts or are they “flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup?”  Wherever they are, they found readers.

It’s the readers that I didn’t really contemplate as I began my blogging journey, mostly becuase I wasn’t sure if I’d have any.  I wrote for “a” reader, meaning that I wanted everything I wrote to have a point; it couldn’t be “just because”.  Each post had (as still  has) to be a unit with a beginning, middle, and end, so whoever reads it would get a complete story or at least a reflection.  This was my M.O. for a while until something odd happened: people started to follow me and I had regular readers.  My random unspecified reader turned into an audience– an audience that I could get to know. I read their blogs, hit their follow buttons, and commented on their posts.  Before I knew it, I was transported into different worlds: India, Pakistan, Ireland, Spain, England, Australia, Canada, Arizona, and even to different parts of my neck of the woods.  I learned about different life experiences and ways of thinking, and found a whole troupe of funny, talented, intelligent writers. Everyone has a story to tell.

Two things happened that I didn’t expect from my readers.  One is the amount of my non-blogging friends who follow me.  Many read my posts through Facebook, and others opted to follow me and have my posts sent to their email.  I know that we are all busy and lead hectic lives, and the fact that they make time to read what I write is humbling.  My audience is not made up of anonymous faces, but of people who I admire and people who have their own amazing stories to tell. The second thing I didn’t expect was how many of my  blogging audience I consider as friends.  Even though I’ve never met any of you, I feel that I know you– well at least the “you” you present on your blog.  I look out for your posts, eager to hear about what’s going on in your life or what new idea you’re going to discuss. Reading your work is part of my day.  I didn’t expect the openness of the blog community, but I am glad I found you.  Thank you.

Readers:  What aspect of blogging surprised you?  How is blogging different from how you thought it would be?

Enough?

The mail surprised me a few a days ago. Not because we still have mail service, but because I received a copy of Vanity Fair.  I could have sworn my subscription ran out a few months ago, but there it was, the style issue.  The last couple of days I’ve been trying to remember if I had resubscribed, but no memory came to the surface.  Going through a pile on the kitchen table unlocked some clues: besides unopened credit card offers, there were two unread Atlantic Monthlys and two Vanity Fairs still in their plastic covers.  I glanced wondering back at the pile– could I possibly find me in there, too?

Waves of frustration and fatigue washed over me.  I wanted to cry.  The forgotten and unopened magazines are symptomatic of how I’ve been feeling lately.  It’s the lack of focus and concentration to any one thing.  It’s the feeling of there not being enough hours in one day.  The sense of not establishing priorities.  It’s the fact that I don’t have any goals that I’m working toward.  The center has fallen out of me and this is compounded by the internal instability I’ve felt since summer.  I sit still, but feel as if I’m on a subway.  It’s all just one mad scramble and I wish I could sleep a deep winter sleep for a long, long time.

There’s the feeling of inadequacy– I really should be doing more.  More reading, more writing, more lesson planning, more grading, more cleaning.  Plus, I should be doing something more with my life.  Should I write a book?  Strive for that novel?  Take up a new hobby?  Read my months old magazines? Should I expand my role in the teaching profession?  Or am I content with what I have now?  If I say I’m content, does that mean I’m lazy?  Does it fly in the face of my childhood dreams to be something great?  Does it mean I’m settling?

Then I wonder if I’m good enough.  Am I a good enough friend?  Am I there for them when they need me?  Am I a good enough teacher?  Are my students learning what they’re supposed to?  Am I a good enough wife?  My husband is currently facing one of his greatest challenges as the situation with his mom’s health and care brings a new crisis everyday.  I listen and commiserate, but is it enough?  Am I too wrapped up in my own little world or this how everyone is and worlds just brush past each other?   I wonder often if what I am or what I do is ever enough.

The White Girl

“Hey, Ms. L!  Did you hear what he called me?  He called  me the n-word!” said one of my African-American boys about another African-American boy (who also happens to be his best friend).  I stared at him.  This was another game of lets make the white girl squeamish about race.  “Oh,” I replied, not taking the bait, “he called you nice?  No wonder you’re shocked.”  It was his turn to stare.  He tried to engage me again in the “n-word”, but after my “Really?!” look, he quieted down.

There’s a lot of discussion about creating “teachable” moments about race in the classroom, but in my classroom, it’s mostly joking about one’s own race.  My students are very diverse and probably know more about other’s races than the average kid.  It’s quite often that I’m the only white person in the room.  It often seems to me that all my kids need is acknowledgement from me that I’m white.  Once a student noticed my blue rose tattoo and immediately asked if I was a Crip to which I responded with a curtsey, “I’m just a little white girl from the suburbs.”    Evidently, though, it’s not always clear.  One student  once pointed out how there were no white people in class, and some others pointed at me.  What followed was a heated debate about what color I was, because according to some, I was not “white”.   Years later, I’m still not sure how that discussion came about or why it was debated.

When I worked on my credential, one the classes I most anticipated was the one on the mullti-cultural classroom.  This was information I needed!  Unfortunately it was the worst class I ever had.  The professor had our first meeting be a three hour discussion of multi-cultural awareness: do we do it or do we live it?  I still don’t know what it means, and the question was so poorly worded with abysmal grammar, that I will never know.  He asked me, “Who is the minority in your classroom?”  He didn’t believe me when I said, “I am.”  How could I be the minority?  I’m white.  He also didn’t believe my peer– a Japanese-American teaching at an affluent school with a predominantly white population.  She was the minority in her classroom.  All we learned in that class was how not to teach.

To make up for my noodle-salad up bringing, I went to the source. My first year was spent pumping my kids for information.  We did projects about heritage and family. They brought in their traditional foods.   One girl taught me island dances. They explained what quincineras and debuts are. We looked on the map to see where they were from.  I shared my stories about growing up white (they’re amazed that I am only child and have only five cousins who do not even live in my state).  They tell  me about Fiji, Pakistan, India, Samoa, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  I tell them about far off places like Michigan.

Learning how to deal with race had it’s tough moments. One class of freshmen went through a phase of saying that everything was “racist”.  I was racist for asking them to open their books, turn in their homework, or answer a question.  I really wanted to tell them that they were really racist: they didn’t do their homework because I was white.   I didn’t say that, but it would have been nice for the shoe to be on the other foot, so they could see that racism wasn’t just something only white people do.  Instead I tried to tell them that calling a non-racist person racist degraded any valid claims they had to real racism.  It also didn’t honor the work of those who had worked tirelessly for equality, sometimes giving up their lives.  Those crusaders didn’t make the strides they did so some kids could call the wind racist for blowing.

The real lesson about race is to not hide from it.  I used to be afraid to acknowledge my students’ race– I felt like I might “out” someone.  I was also afraid to share my stories, that I would have nothing to offer them, that my past was not relevant.  However, To hide the fact or not acknowledge the fact that a student is black, Cambodian, Hmong, Russian, or whoever they are, is to deny them that part of their identity.  Being open and honest about their experiences is one way that we find our similarities.  I also have to be upfront about who I am, where I come from, and the experiences that  shaped me into this little white girl at the front of the class.

Speechless

There are two things going on at my house at the moment.  One, it’s my husband’s birthday, and two, it’s the third straight day of my cold that has me laid up at home and without a voice.   It really should be him lounging around the house today (minus the sneezing, the snot, and the coughing), and before he left for work this morning, he made sure I had everything I needed.  Yesterday he worked a half day so he could spend the afternoon on the phone (six hours) with family in Palm Springs to put out fires for his ailing mom.  He took a break to run to the store and get soup, crackers, and ice cream for me.  He mentally kicked himself for forgetting the 7-Up.   This just highlights who he is.

Steve and I have been together for fourteen years.   Yet, I am always struck by his generosity of spirit and his ability to make me laugh.  He is the first guy that I was able to be truly silly with, and he is the first to “get” what bothers me and haunts me.  When someone hurts my feelings or makes me mad, he gets angry so I don’t have to.  He always knows what I like– whether it’s books, videos, or meals at a restaurant.  He also knows that I do not want to eat off the yellow plate.  He supports me in every endeavor– even if it means that I’m going to some far off locale without him. During the summer, when he’d rather watch the morning news, he uncomplainingly reads the paper as I workout to one of my videos.  He makes sure my iPhone is up to date,  and always tells me of the teaching apps he finds that would make my life easier.  He saves articles about Downton Abbey for me.  He has strong political convictions and wants to see fairness, equality, and a better life for everyone.  He is a hard worker and always has been.  He always does the right thing, and is thoughtful and considerate to everyone.

On a typical day he hears more about how he should wipe down the counters better or clean up the coffee spills or tackle any other little annoyance.   Sometimes I sigh and roll my eyes when he shows me a new feature on the computer.  Sometimes I make fun of the drumming videos he watches (okay, all of the time!).   Sometimes I glaze over when he goes on a political tangent. However, the love, strength, and integrity of the man I married always leaves me a bit… speechless.