Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kodak Moments

Irene stood at the window, gazing westward and drinking watery oatmeal from a mug. Her eyes focused far beyond the green undulations of treetops, as if she could actually see the funeral taking place a thousand miles away. It wasn't that she wanted to be there. Rather, she was tugged by the gravity of obligation, as if her attendance was somehow required despite the distance that had separated her from her father for years.

Behind her a commotion arose, a tussle over which station to watch. She turned and observed the careless argument between dorm-mates until they finally settled on a soap opera that interested no one, but was better than anything else. Irene walked to a chair and sat, pretending to be absorbed. Instead she slipped into a flicker of memories of her father.

Her first bicycle was pink and the fanciest thing she'd ever owned. A peace offering, contingent on a night's stay with his former family. He had assembled it with strong competent hands, putting her in charge of bolts and tools and saying please and thank you when he asked for parts. They presented it to her mother and he gave Irene all the credit for putting it together. She bashfully accepted the lie, carrying it in her heart like a prize. He promised to teach her to ride without training wheels; shortly afterward he tried drunkenly to crawl into bed with her mother and was ordered in harsh whispers to leave in the middle of the night. Irene hadn't understood his crime – she often climbed into bed with her mother – but her confusion was overshadowed by disappointment.

Years later cold wind slid up her skirt as she stumbled over frozen tire tracks in a Sunday-morning-empty parking lot. The crossing felt like a prisoner exchange, despite the effort she had made to look nice. Her father lingered in the warm Saab until she was nearly there, but made up for it by stepping quickly around the front and opening her door. As they drove away she glimpsed her mother, still anxiously standing by the open door of the rusty old sedan.

By Irene's final, and longest, visit, she was rarely invited to his house. He'd gotten dogs, a promotion, married, and no longer had time for her. The sudden invitation must have come from the new wife. Still Irene combed through her closet to create the most impressive outfits possible. The first night she and the wife baked an apple pie for his birthday. He was effusive in his praise, but his grandiose and supposedly charming monologues were peppered with statements attributing Irene's brains and looks solely to his parentage. By the second day Irene decided she liked his wife more than him. By day three Irene's love for her mother, diluted by teenage angst, was so rekindled by his comments that her mother was baffled – gratefully – by the warmth of Irene's greeting at the end of the long weekend.

“Change the channel!”

Irene jumped at the sudden shout. She glared, still seeing the pie alight with candles and and her father's cheery face, and tried to reorient herself. She stared up at the television and caught a glimpse of a sappy advertisement featuring a loving father and devoted daughter before the channel changed.

“You know how much I hate these stupid commercials! They remind me of my family.” Mike finished with a grin. Everyone laughed. No one noticed when Irene's tears began to fall.

Note: I submitted this for NPR's Three Minute Fiction contest. Someday I'll try again (with a different piece)

Friday, September 28, 2012


Have you ever met the person
you woulda

Just a little bit more interesting
for having followed your dreams.
Just a little bit
more fun.
The one who can do
those things
that you never quite picked up.
Who finishes projects
You once started
but left by the wayside
with a touch of regret.
The one who looks
a little like you
only better, somehow.

Have you ever met
your doppelganger?

Did you shake hands,
hiding your longing?
Were you
a little too close
-- too similar --
for vengeance dreams?

Have you ever met
the person
you were meant to be?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Attend Me . . .

Note: I work in a public elementary school. One of my primary tasks is attendance; I review which students are at school, or not, I hand out tardy slips to those who come in late, and I try to track down those who don't come in at all.

Attend. We generally use it to mean "show up", but there's a deeper meaning: to be present, to care for, to take charge. Every day part of my job is to review the attendance at our elementary school. Over time I see patterns emerge -- illnesses that sweep through the school classroom by classroom, religious holidays that collect disparate children into faithful solidarity, weather affecting only those who don't have a car. On occasion I see evidence of truancy and must call in a social worker to address the issue. Attendance is a small task, but there are larger ramifications for both safety and education.

In our school some children hardly miss a day, and are never late. I barely recognize them. Others I know by first and last name because every morning they come to the office five, ten, fifteen minutes late. As a parent and volunteer in the classroom, I can attest to a parallel trend: the same children who are late every day often are the ones who don't turn in their homework. They struggle to read and keep up with their peers. They don't have a support network that values their education.

These patterns I see, these falling lines of disappointment and failure, are not tied to race or class. Some poor families fight nearly impossible odds to get their children to school on time. Networks of cousins and aunts and friends and neighbors fill in gaps and make sure that the students are there on time and ready to learn. At home they have space to read and someone to review their work. No matter how late, or how tired, someone is there to help. Every resource available through school or grants or third-party programs are employed to make sure their children will make it. And they do.

At the same time some wealthy families whose children dress impeccably and have all the right props are allowed to stay up late watching movies and lollygag their way to school. They sleep through class. Homework is seen as an unnecessary nuisance. Their extracurricular activities are given much attention; school gets short shrift. The families have no expectations of them; they have none for themselves. Their actions have no consequence, and they have no shame in seeing me first thing, day after day, if they come in at all.

A story: last week a parent called, an hour after school started, to let us know that her (eleven or twelve year old) child would be riding a bike to school, probably leaving home soon (mom wasn't there) and would take about 45 minutes. She asked that we make sure the child called upon arrival.

An hour and a half later, the child still hadn't shown up. The school's main secretary returned from a meeting, heard the situation, and informed me that up after the 45 minutes passed I should have considered it a case of a missing child. She immediately called the district's office of Safety and Security, asking them to send an officer to the student's house. I got on the phone and started calling people on the student's contact list. Mom didn't answer, so I left a message. On the third call I reached a grandparent who told me that the student had decided not to go to school and was at home with an older sibling. We eventually spoke with the actual student to confirm the story. Mom never did call us back.

So. I totally dropped the ball. I am extremely grateful that the child wasn't kidnapped or injured. But I question why in the world this is the school's responsibility? Sure, I can understand if a child was dropped off at school and we couldn't find him. But we had no control over when the student set out from home (or didn't in this case), nor could we know the route used to get to school. Heck, mom apparently anticipated that -- she allotted 45 minutes for a ride of less than a mile. In addition, if the parent was expecting a phone call, why wasn't SHE the one to raise the alarm after her deadline had passed? Finally, if she knew her child wasn't going to school after all, shouldn't she have let us know?

There is an entire industry of blame in our country predicated on holding teachers, administrators, and schools responsible for poorly educated students. As an eyewitness to the education process I have to ask, why are parents (and students) not also held accountable?

Traditionally, schools act in loco parentis -- in place of parents. Through the years the scope of those responsibilities have grown. Even before the bell rings staff provide food, shelter, discipline, and medical care to our students. I agree with most of those additions. However, as a parent I still consider my children to be in my custody until they get to the schoolhouse door, and I believe my responsibility for them and their actions never ceases, regardless of their location or company. I require my children to not just be present in school, but to attend. Their education is not just a right, but their personal responsibility. It seems to me that some parents are forgetting that.  Ultimately the school gets blamed for their poor performance, but really it's the parents who are failing their children.

Friday, September 14, 2012


My husband takes great pride in his family tradition of thriftiness. I have to admit, that can wonderful. We have genuine antique glass door knobs throughout the house, salvaged from alleys throughout the city. I can always find a twist tie or small piece of string when I need them. Our bank account is healthy.

But sometimes frugal crosses the line into stingy.

When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband remodeled our kitchen. It was tiny before, and not much bigger afterward – maybe 125 square feet – but when he was finished I had drawers to store things, shelves to store more things, and he had somehow made room for a dishwasher. It wasn't quite top-of-the-line, but a generous gift from my Aunt P made it possible for us to buy a really nice machine. It had a disposer in the bottom so stray food particles would be ground up and washed away. The top rack was adjustable. The flatware basket was in the door and could be removed for easy emptying. Boy did I love it! Bottles, high chair parts, daily dishes – my miracle machine could handle anything. So when we moved to our next house five years later, there was no question: we brought the dishwasher with us.

Two years ago I started noticing a little grime on my dishes. I took the dishwasher apart (thank goodness for internet DIY instructions) and found a couple pieces of broken glass and some bone bits in the bottom. I emptied a clogged filter then put everything back together. Sure, the (now eight year old) dishwasher was a little noisier than when we first got it, but considering how often we ran the thing, it was doing pretty well. Except, it wasn't. Gunk started building up. I was having to rinse glasses before I put them away. I took it apart again but found nothing.

We spent $100 to have an appliance repairman take a look. He found nothing.

My mom learned that dishwashing soaps had been reformulated to remove phosphates. I switched brands, then I switched again. Noisier, dirtier. Over time the top rack broke, and we jerry-rigged a repair. Some of the rubber coating on the racks peeled off. We tried a second appliance repair place. Another $100, glasses still grimy, plates not quite clean.

I started making noises about replacing the dishwasher. I began reading reviews, assessing features. DH finally heard and in May I came home from work to find a gaping hole where the dishwasher had been.

There were three salvaged machines on the back porch.

He installed the first one in June. It didn't work. After three days of tinkering it was returned to the back porch. The second didn't work, either. The third turned on and filled, but wouldn't drain.

The kids learned how to manually wash up. I did a lot of grilling to minimize dishes.

Mid-July I brought in Ken. Our favorite repair guy, he'd fixed our fridge when a stray magnet caused the motor to burn out. Ken came out, tinkered and futzed with number three. He left and came back to replace the mother board. He checked the plumbing. He visited three times (for only $175 total), but never could get it to work. In the end it was exiled to the back porch with the other two.

Two months had passed. DH was out of used dishwashers. He offered our original troublemaker to Ken in trade. Ken agreed. He came back one more time, with a low-end machine of his own. He installed it, plumbed it, ran it. No matter that there was no sanitize cycle. Who cared about a pre-rinse stage. We had a dishwasher!

The kids and I had gotten into a routine. We continued to wash the dishes by hand, afraid to jinx ourselves. Finally, realizing that school was about to start, I decided to switch back to mechanized cleanliness. DH was not happy. Before I could wash the first load, he asked when Ken was going to have the original dishwasher repaired and installed.

I gaped. Why, I asked, if we were just having the original repaired, would we have gone through all that nonsense with the other four? I was fine with the bare-bones box under the counter. It washed, it drained, it was installed. DH would have none of it. He thought I wanted our first dishwasher. By mid August Old Faithful was back in place. Ken had taken it apart as best he could, cleaned out the filters and washed the hoses. I sadly gave Ken a final check for $75 and fearfully loaded it up. My fears were justified.

So now, for the low, low price of $450 in repairs I have my ten-year-old dishwasher back under the counter. Sure, it's a little ghetto with the zipties holding the top rack together, and the rust streaks where the protective rubber is gone. And yeah, we have to rinse the dishes both before and after we run the machine. But we're a thrifty family, and I'm not putting any more money into this. Although I might spend $25 on a good counter-top dish rack. Doing the dishes by hand builds character. Right kids?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

That Day

A customer told me. We were on the phone; I was trying to fix some inconsequential computer problem for him, and he told me the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. I'm a long way from New York and the Twin Towers had never really been on my radar, so it took me a little while to understand. Soon we had a TV set up in a conference room and between calls we clustered around it, watching as the first impact was played and replayed, then the second. I remember being awed by the way in which the towers collapsed, floor dropping straight onto floor within spiky aluminum ribs, stacking in a strangely deliberate fashion, as if the whole thing was orchestrated by a demolitions expert. In a disaster movie the building would have swayed and splattered across the city, crushing everything around. This was graceful, even beautiful.

The announcers told us 50,000 people worked in each tower. I nearly vomited.

Within an hour we had been evacuated from our building, the tallest in Denver, and left to our own devices. I called my husband who reacted by focusing even more intently on his work. I got in my car and headed to the nearest blood bank. The only thing I could think to offer to the lost souls so far away was a part of my physical self, as if a pint of my blood could heal the savage wounds they had just suffered.

The drive down was quiet. I listened to NPR, hearing the same few words over and over and over. The roads were practically silent, drivers solicitous in our common shock. Everyone moved slowly, cautiously, feeling fragile. At the blood bank hundreds of us sat in clusters, united yet solitary as we waited for a cot. I buried myself in my book. I was exhausted by the repeating footage on the television, impatient for facts. I finished 500 pages while I waited. I have no idea what I read.

The technician wouldn't listen, insisted on my right arm. She poked and poked and poked me, unable to find a vein, distracted by her own shock. I said nothing, as if her shaking hands were my penance for the good fortune of living so far away. Finally, after the fourth or fifth try, she switched arms and the blood flowed like relief. Afterward I went home and puttered as the radio continued to spew nothingness, telling me again that 50,000 people worked in each of those buildings. 

There were no patients needing my donation. I've always wondered if it was even used.

I don't remember that evening, or the next few days. I worked. When I left the company years later I found a bad poem I had written the next day trying to make sense of the fact that I was there, working, making phone calls, fixing computer issues, while ash still fell and walls were increasingly obscured by grief on paper. My helplessness expanded to fill the hours in those weeks.

Sometime later we started hearing real numbers. 50,000 dropped to 20,000, then 15,000. My cousins were okay. 7,000 dead. Old friends found ways of saying they were safe. 5,000. I rejoiced in stories of reunion. Finally they decided that fewer than 3,000 died in the attacks.

That day was awful beyond compare. The weeks following were apocalyptic. I still duck when planes fly low over head. But gradually I have been saddled with a guilty sense of relief. It could have been so much worse.

Friday, September 7, 2012

My Rights

So there's the hostage situation just blocks from my kids' school and they're on lockdown. I'm glad they have such procedures in place, but really, what the FUCK is wrong with people? And don't you dare tell me that guns aren't the issue. I live in Colorado. I know what guns are for. I grew up in a rural part of the state. I've gratefully eaten venison shot by neighbors. I also know that good hunters don't take down a deer with a handgun.

Fuck the gun rights lobby.

My kids' safety is at stake at school, at the movies, on the street. We don't need more handguns. We need safe, sane, regulations that keep 19 year old punks from trying to rob a store and then totally fucking up and killing people with their guns. Or buying absurd numbers of weapons and incalculable amounts of ammunition and playing comic villain in a movie theater. Or getting all xenophobic and blowing away people at their place of worship because they look different. Or getting fed up and murdering American citizens at a political rally. There's no good reason for high-capacity clips or semi-automatic weaponry outside a war zone.

I am going now to get my kids and pretend that everything is okay, that it was just a precaution, but in my heart I'm just a little more afraid to go anywhere with my babies. Because I can't jump fast enough to get in front of a bullet, and losing them would rip my soul out.

Fuck "gun rights". What about MY rights to be safe and free of fear? That's in the Constitution, too, you know.