My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
My own candle burns at one end, and slowly. Still, I love ”First Fig” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It does, however, make me suspect that my love of life gets in the way of really living.
On the face of it, an all-school read (one book, read by students and teachers alike, often over a summer, which serves as springboard for thoughtful discussion) is a great idea. The caveat: choose your book carefully.
I taught at a school that implemented an all-school read. In fact, I served on the selection committee which came up with the book: Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. The book got us talking about respect for other cultures, heroic altruism, and tenacity. We brought in a speaker who had taught in a school in rural Pakistan. Shortly thereafter came the revelation that Mortenson fabricated large chunks of the story and woefully mismanaged the funds that were supposed to go toward building schools for girls.
The students learned a different, more cynical lesson than we’d intended: Sometimes, people make shit up. Hopefully this deceit serves some higher purpose, but still, it feels like you’ve been taken when the means justifying the end turn out to be egotistical fabrication.
We then selected Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. Again, the all-school dialogue was about cultural respect, heroic altruism, and tenacity, and again, was followed by disturbing allegations: following the book’s release, Zeitoun, portrayed by Eggers as a beleaguered hero of Hurricane Katrina, had been arrested for hitting his wife with a tire iron and had allegedly tried to plot her assassination from behind bars. Again, we found ourselves working damage control, reviewing the painfully disillusioning lesson on human nature Mr. Mortensen had previously inspired.
Since I’m no longer teaching, I no longer serve on the all-school read committee. Too bad, because this year, I have the perfect suggestion: fiction.
One thing about city life is how close the houses are to each other. Specifically, how close our kitchen window is to the dining room window of the house next door. (I’m guessing twelve feet). More specifically, how close our kitchen sink (over which I am wont to shamelessly bury my head in my tilted cereal bowl, the better to direct its milky dregs into my mouth) happens to be to our elderly academician neighbor’s dining room table (piled high with books and newspapers and, entering from the right, his pale, unsteady hand, with which he attempts, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to open the newspaper).
Even more specifically, how close our eyeballs are, as they lock after these aforementioned forays into what we thought was private behavior; me, a small dribble of almond milk running down my chin, and he trying, with a trembling forefinger, to adjust the reading glasses which have slipped halfway down his nose.
When we see each other on the street, we greet each other as if none of this never happened. This is what is known as the protocol of proximity. It is also the day I finally make it over to Target to buy curtains.
When vetting a boyfriend in high school, priorities are superficial. Nice eyes, nice smile, nice butt. Intelligence, humor, hand/eye coordination are pluses, but incidental. Would he make a good father? Such speculation would be an insane jumping of the gun; when you’re sixteen, gun-jumping is hoping he’ll ask you to prom. The future extends as far as next Saturday night, not the next generation.
Sam was my high school boyfriend. He had the eyes, the smile, the butt, and as it turned out, even the smarts and humor and solid tennis skills. All of these, however, pale in comparison to his parenting ability. He’s no self-promoter, but our six kids know that if at one a.m., they need a safe ride home or a chocolate milkshake, Sam will get out of bed, grumbling slightly for dramatic effect, and provide it.
When I got pregnant with Micah, which was not part of our family planning playbook, even my sweet mother was horrified. Her reaction was “oh, no, Lolly, not again.” Sam’s first response to the First Response strip’s faint positive was joy.
Sam’s approach to parenting is active and practical. It’s the picnic table he built, the rent checks he quietly covers, the toothbrushes and earplugs he’s constantly reminding the kids to bring with them.
Many have questioned whether the universe is inherently good and benevolent. Our kids aren’t among them. From the moment they came into being, they’ve had daily proof it is, and best of all, they get to call him Dad.
Walking around my neighborhood, I keep seeing this car. It’s an older beige Camry or Corolla, utterly nondescript except for the bumper sticker on its left rear bumper that reads:
Try Optimism! It Just Feels Better!
I’m thinking it can’t be a good thing that whenever I see this, I find myself wishing it was night, and I was holding a baseball bat.
Two weeks ago, our friends lost their daughter. It was sudden and unexpected. She was only 21.
I have spent the past two weeks deliberately writing about not this.
It’s unsettling, being a horrified bystander to parental grief; I am heartbroken by extension, paralyzed by a sense of futility. I find myself mourning both the girl I remember and the woman I will never meet. There’s a complexity to sorrow delineated on one side by the arguably calculable loss of what was, and on the other, open to the unbounded loss of what might have been.
We express our helplessness in casseroles and sympathy cards. Even the most loving support seems inadequate, a flimsy scaffolding, yet all of us, friends, neighbors, family, are encouraging. Take our hands. Climb up. We hope it holds. Love is the best we can do.
We can imagine their pain. It is what keeps us up at night, even when the car is safely in the driveway. It lurks in the fear that builds from the first moment we hold our children in our arms, which is the same moment every prayer we’ve ever prayed or can imagine praying coalesces into one: outlive me.
The happiest moment in a woman’s life
Is when she hears the turn of her lover’s key
In the lock, and pretends to be asleep
When he enters the room, trying to be
Quiet but clumsy, bumping into things,
And she can smell the liquor on his breath
But forgives him because she has him back
And doesn’t have to sleep alone.
The happiest moment in a man’s life
Is when he climbs out of bed
With a woman, after an hour’s sleep,
After making love, and pulls on
His trousers, and walks outside,
And pees in the bushes, and sees
The high August sky full of stars
And gets in his car and drives home.
As much as I resent/object to the poem “Sexism” by David Lehman, it’s funny, and, I suspect, true.
I am going to be the first to admit I am not completely clear about what Edward Snowden, former CIA employee and current CIA whistle-blower, uncovered. I don’t know the scope of the government’s intrusion into our personal lives, or its significance to the majority of law-abiding citizens. But I do know this: my hat is off to whistle-blowers, including Snowden.
Whoever leaked those horrible torture photos of Abu Ghraib; Daniel Ellsberg going public with the Pentagon Papers; Crystal Lee Sutton, textile worker and inspiration behind the movie Norma Rae, who literally stood up to management on a cafeteria table, holding her hand-made “Union” sign… It takes guts to rock the boat. In fact, you’ve got to be willing to not merely be knocked overboard, but afterwards, get eaten by sharks.
I have been in situations where I knew the right thing to do was blow the whistle. Instead, I either walked away and said nothing, fancying myself on moral high ground because I refused to play along, or (and this hurts to admit) I played along.
I was no Edward Snowden, informing my fellow Americans that the Emperor has no clothes and all of our phone records.
Regardless of how this plays out, I admire Snowden’s invitation to personal ruin, and his heed to his conscience, which it appears has informed him that the good life is trumped by the life of the greater good.
When my daughter Eliza was younger, she was a competitive gymnast. Her best and favorite event was the balance beam. In fact, and I don’t mean to brag here, at one time she was ranked third in the state. Okay, so maybe I do mean to brag, but just a little.
Watching your daughter compete in gymnastics is nerve-racking. Not only can she embarrass herself (and by extension, you) she can get seriously hurt. At one meet, Liza injured her neck on the uneven bars, and at another, severely sprained her ankle during a tumbling pass. Despite injuries, though, she persisted. She loved being good at this terrifying and difficult sport. Her idol and the author of her favorite gymnastics book, Landing On My Feet, was Olympian Kerri Strug, who landed her gold-medal winning vault on only one foot after breaking an ankle. Eliza, speechless with admiration, met Kerri, and her signed copy of the book was Eliza’s most prized possession.
After her junior year of high school, Eliza left gymnastics. There were other things she wanted to try and gymnastics was too consuming. She adored Saturday Night Live, and along with her best friend/fellow former gymnast Jill, she would write and perform sketches and parodies.
She can still rock a leotard, but Liza has grown up to be comedy writer and performer. This past Saturday night, watching her do stand-up, I got the same butterflies I used to get watching her on the beam. Both require skill, courage and impeccable timing. You can get hurt out there, and badly. But once a dare-devil, always a dare-devil.
There are a couple of differences: she probably won’t fall off the stage, and while her beam routine hinged on perfection, her stand-up routine hinges imperfection and self-deprecation. But gymnastics taught her to throw herself without worrying about the landing. On Saturday, we got to see Eliza stick it.