Monday, January 23, 2012

another excerpt for a new book: Teachers

Teachers I Have Known

As a kindergartner, I was invisible – or so it seemed to my five year old mind. That was fine with me; I was a free agent in the classroom, and if I hid on the stage, behind the curtains of our auditorium/kindergarten, I did not have to march; I had seen the Rose Parade, a real parade, and was embarrassed by our display.
Miss Kissman was my first grade teacher. I loved her; she taught us to read. Letter names, letter sounds, Dick and Jane. Miss Kissman had a huge book, a poster book that we learned to read as a chorus. I will never forget the day our teacher presented each of us with a book-size replica of the big book. I could read!
In my second and third grade classes of 40 students, I was invisible again and so I played hooky regularly. How did I manage to get away with watching football practice at Pasadena City College on a regular basis? Why did no one ask a second grade girl why she was playing in the hedge at the edge of the football field? Neither do I have any memory of being questioned about my phantom sore throats which I claimed were bad enough to keep me home.
In fourth grade I had a teacher who was also acting principal. I understood that that was why she was in and out of the classroom every day, and why I had to help in the office. My real teacher was Violet, the school secretary for whom I worked. I became an expert on the ditto machine, became adept at alphabetizing and filing, could find wayward kids who were wandering about campus, kept track of balls and jump ropes, collated and stapled. I loved my teacher, Violet, and accepted her sweaty complexion, smeared lipstick, and panic attacks. On my birthday, she gave me a fragranced card, and a tiny, ornamented flask of violet perfume. I kept the flask “forever.”
In contrast to my fourth grade teacher, my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Palmer, never missed a day of school. Our class evolved from anarchy to order and discipline – which we did not appreciate at first, but she smiled a lot and laughed out loud. We sang in her class, played recorders, did experiments, learned to draw. We had discussions! Fifth grade was real school. I told Violet that I did not want to miss class, and Violet agreed with a tight smile.
A sharp contrast to Mrs. Palmer, was my sixth grade teacher who never had any fun, and who habitually called us “kindergarten babies.” I did, however, learn my geography. For that, I am grateful.
Mr. Henry, my seventh grade teacher, did have fun, but I remember being restless and pining for the out-of-doors. I did a lot of Mr. Henry's board writing and a lot of clock-watching. However, I was redeemed when I was allowed to work in the cafeteria. For this, I was excused from class, and allowed to work alongside a team of hard working women of substance (in my opinion) who made mouth-watering lunches, and who were full of hoots, howls, and hugs. I earned my lunch and something to do that was great fun. To that Violet said, “Well, good for you.” That tight smile.
I did not think that Mr. Caruso, my eighth grade teacher, liked me, even though my father insisted that he did. He was grumpy - in my adolescent opinion, but he had great ideas for projects. I remember doing an illustrated U.S. Constitution, a cartoon illustration! But for the most part, I was once again invisible – along with my best friend, my bosom buddy, who also liked to read – and to draw floor plans. We decided to have a secret crush on the same boy.
Eighth grade also brought me face to face with bullying and mob rule; it was up close and personal – and formative: I decided to be friendly to an outcast girl; that's the way it began. (In my late teens, I became privy to her sad story and the reason that her peers instinctively shunned her. Terrible story – which I will not tell.) I was aware that people needed to be included in any group they chose or were forced to join. I tried to include Anne and received threatening notes from other girls. After several weeks of these disturbing notes, I was accosted by a gang of girls on the way home from school. They threatened to beat me up if I continued to “talk to that girl.” I was scared, then, mad, “madder and madder,” crazily mad, so mad that I scared them - and me. I raised my fists and yelled, calling them names that I didn't know I knew. They melted away and never threatened me again. As a matter of fact, they ignored me. More welcomed invisibility. But there is a punch line: I never told anyone, except maybe my sister. Now why was that? Why did I keep such a thing a secret? Why do kids do this? I wish I could remember.
I spent my high school years at Holy Names High School in Oakland. I remember telling my mother during the first week of school that all the girls were “so nice,” meaning that they were kind – which was in sharp contrast to what I experienced in eighth grade. The mark of my high school experience was inclusion, and that, I believe in retrospect, was what the nuns made happen. They were our “mothers” at this all girls school, and we were their “girls.” They were gentle, funny, enthusiastic teachers. I admired them, and (wonder of wonders) they admired me. They admired all of us. Sister Gerarda Marie taught me to love history. Mrs. Wright taught me to love math by insisting that it was just another way to think, “to use my good mind.” Sister Bernard Mary sold me on writing, re-writing and editing and proofreading. She sent me to a speech contest – which I won. Sister Herbert was an adult friend. (I had not had one since Violet.) Her girls adored her and emulated her: she was funny and forthright. All of our teachers persuaded us to a sense of mission, a sense that we had something to contribute, that each of us had a way to love that was uniquely our own.
College was quite helter-skelter experience where I was alone, but I preferred it that way. Inclusion was a thing of the past. I moved from school to school, class to class, grateful for invisibility since I could think better when I was alone. I was excited about learning – on my own with the security of structure and the competence of the teachers. George Cuomo, Mark Ratner, and Joe Medeiros are standouts. What made them so was their respect for students and their enthusiasm for their discipline. They were always stunningly prepared.
But the teachers that I admire most are the teachers with whom I have worked. Teachers are the hardest workers I know – maybe because there is no escaping the reality of hungry minds and restless hearts. They aspire every teaching day, even though they “get no satisfaction,” as the song says – or rarely so. Hats off to my friends and colleagues who have included me in their humor as a way to accept the realities of such an ambiguous profession with love.

Monday, January 9, 2012

book excerpt: Cold Feet

Cold Feet In Mendo

Stu and I, we went to Mendocino once a year. I also went there for an annual basketball tournament for many years. Strangely, when I returned there, it never seemed as if I had been gone that long.
While there, I always visited certain places in the seaside town and walked on the headlands. The signature bookstore has only gotten better over the years, and although many businesses have changed hands, they are still in harmony with the town or are “variations on a theme,” a theme of Victorian, pride of ownership, survival of an old fishing town on a windswept headland.
' True, tourism is alive in Mendocino – which was not true when Stu and I first went there – then, it was a community struggling and eventually striving. The battered, driftwood appearance of the cliff town was not illusory back then, and such was its authenticity that it attracted refugees from the 60's and 70's who were seeking a simpler life, and who believed that beauty and meagre existence might help them to achieve that.
Fog, wind, rain or blazing sun, I have always walked on the headlands – to the edges of the cliffs, to the verge of the Pacific Ocean, to the wild of the surf pounding the rocks; to the sodden trails, wiggling through tall grass, vines, and lilies.
In the spring of 2011, I went back there with my daughter where she had business, thinking that I might renew my acquaintance with the place and the memories. Together, we enjoyed garden flowers and pathways and boardwalks between buildings, access that could have been (and once was) designated for utility and trash. We visited the bookstore, the coffee shop, the bakery, the bright gift shops, and the galleries: places to lose oneself in the dreams of artists and artisans.
When my daughter left to do what she came to do, I walked out on the headlands, despite the drizzle - which seemed poetically fitting for awhile since I missed Stu, and the memories of us in Mendo were so poignant that it seemed (yet again) that his absence was impossible. Impossible!
I walked for hours in drizzle, in squalls. There were periods of sleet, and winks of the sun in sterling patches of blue. I walked until I was at peace - and cold to the bone.
My so-called waterproof shoes eventually failed me. I went to the store, scored plastic bags and bought a new pair of wool socks. I sat on a bench, put on my new warm socks, plastic bags, and then went to the bookstore and out to lunch. Hot soup, hot coffee, and a new book to read. Wow! This was life. A perfect arrangement – for awhile – until the cold came back to my feet, achy cold, unusual cold.
I, on my achy feet, returned to the car, but since I did not have the car keys, there was no heat to be had. I heaped my bag on my feet and read my book until the pain in my feet was a distraction, and then I did the unthinkable, I called my daughter, disturbing her in her work. She brought me the car keys, and then hurried away, saying, “Mom,” in a drawn out sing-song.
Usually, I do not like motels, but the thought of getting dry and warm and wearing deliciously dry clothes was a winner. The hot shower warmed me to the bones, feet and all, and I felt lucky as I wrapped my feet in my down sleeping bag, wiggling my warming toes. I read my book and became absorbed in another life but not so much that I was not conscious of the pleasure of my warming feet.
I have dealt with extreme conditions before and (obviously) have had cold feet, but I have never experienced warming feet, feet in the process of warming. The usual is: numb feet, painfully cold feet, not so cold feet, no longer cold feet. This occasion was different; I was aware of a steadily heightened relief, and it was beautiful! Notable. Memorable. Simple pleasure!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

excerpt for a New Book, Dog-slogging

Dog Slogging

I did a lot of dog slogging in the winter of 2011; there was a lot of snow in my usual walking places. It was deep enough to prevent a walk on one occasion; up to my knee. I feared that I might step into some hidden trap of a fallen tree or vines, twist and ankle or knee, or just get stuck – yet it was beautiful, and I could have appreciated it much more had I not been worried about hazards.
Snow shoes with gaiters helped, unless I ventured into deep powder where I sank and had a hard time extricating my foot and several pounds of snow. I still had a problem with hidden branches.
Ski tracks were not easier, especially after a hard freeze; they made it very difficult to set the snow shoe on the level; tough on the ankles; good practice for the sense of balance.
We had several snow storms. After each, the snow would partially melt and then freeze, soon after to be heaped with more snow or, in come cases, rain – which would freeze - the ice would be hidden and treacherous. Sometimes, especially in the middle of the day, I negotiated slush and puddles, some of them hidden beneath a cap of snow. I persisted.
It takes a lot of energy to walk in snow, a lot of concentration, a lot of determination. In the winter of 2011, I had to dog-slog if I wanted to walk. I spent a lot of time looking out for my next footstep, missing my woods, my views, and an ever-changing sky. I imagined how it would be to dog-slog miles and miles. Exhausting. Frustrating. Although I have done it.
I took a 20 mile backcountry ski trip with my friend, Joe, and his friend, Randy. I carried a twenty pound pack and had to cope with old “rotten snow.” We skied over Tioga Pass to Tuolomne Meadows and then back. It was tough.
On the first day, we skied about seven miles and then stopped to snow camp. By late afternoon, the temperature was in the teens. Joe made a great fire so that we would not have to go to bed early, and we huddled around that to make dinner and to wait for night.
We spent the second night in the hut in Tuolomne Meadows. It has a woodstove with wood to burn, bunks, a sturdy table and benches. We were so grateful for the chance to be warm and relaxed.
In the early evening after a rest, we skied out onto the meadows. I will never forget the experience of the stillness, the penetrating cold, and a blazing sunset on the domes at the western end of the meadows. I felt amazing.
The following day, we skied ten miles out of the meadows and over the pass. It took all the energy I had to give; it was really too much for me, although Joe and Randy fared well. However, I did not, and do not regret the experience:
there is something pure about cold;
something inspiring about the surprise of sunset;
something humbling about deep fatigue;
something inebriating about sliding on snow;
something honest about dog-slogging.