Friday, June 29, 2012


Like most modern American cities, Denver has beggars. They've been driven away from downtown and aren't hugely visible elsewhere, but there are a couple of corners we regularly pass where people ask for a handout. We never give to them. However, the kids are fascinated, and we've had quite a few conversations about these "knights of the open road".

I have had numerous encounters with homeless people, first in DC, later in Boston and Denver. In DC in particular, people are afraid of the homeless. They dodge and duck to avoid being confronted. The beggars there are scary. Loud, dirty, aggressive, they can be militant in their demand (not request) for change. I remember one person who had almost cleared a sidewalk with his shouting and insults to those who walked past, eyes diligently averted. I had no choice but to pass. Instead of ignoring him, however, when he asked for change I said "None today, I'm sorry" as I usually do, smiling and nodding. His demeanor immediately changed. He gave me a brilliant smile, a "God bless you, sister!" and then returned to haranguing passersby.

I carry that memory with me, because it supports my belief that every person has some good in them. I also believe that acknowledgement is vital for human dignity, and everyone -- no matter the circumstances -- deserves at least that much. Imagine my dismay, then, when we drove past a panhandler yesterday and Sam piped up "That guy is an idiot."

I couldn't speak at first. I know ten year old kids don't understand the complexities of adult life, and Sam has less grasp of grey areas than most, but I've tried to explain the myriad reasons behind homelessness and begging. Finally, instead of lecturing, I managed to ask him for an explanation.

As with many topics in our house, Sam is trying to reconcile two radically different perspectives -- one from each parent. I am liberal, Will is conservative. I grew up with modest means, Will less so. I believe people are inherently good, Will doesn't. Apparently Will has been more vocal about his opinions of street people, dismissing them as lazy at best and drug-addled cancers on society at worst. Sam has heard my arguments that people aren't always in control of their situation -- many are mentally or physically ill, and often drugs play a part but addiction is not a choice -- but I am less vehement. Thus his first reaction is to think of the person on the corner as an idiot. When pressed he says that if they are sick or addicted they might have some excuse, but he doesn't understand why they don't just get a job and work their way out of the situation.

Don't we all wish it was that easy?

We continued driving and I did my best to share, again, my beliefs with Sam. It's never easy to tell what he's heard and what he's internalized. I would like him to share my compassion, my hope, my faith in humanity. The best I can do is reinforce my teachings, and hope that our son finds a middle road, rather than feeling he is stuck in the middle.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Glass Half Full

My husband is a pessimist, or, as he likes to call it, a realist. I don't understand him. He has everything a body needs or could want -- a job he enjoys, great kids, an incredible wife, beautiful home, good health, adoring dog, money in the bank -- and yet every day he acts as if the world is going to end that afternoon. Every setback, every minor incident, is perceived as a deliberate persecution of him by the world at large.

I, on the other hand, am a full on, sunny-side-of-the-street, glass-half-full, world-is-my-oyster optimist. At some point every day I look around at all I have and heave a great big sigh of thanks, grateful for all my blessings. I, too, have setbacks and bad days, but do my best to see them as minor incidents in the grand scheme of things. I am imbued with a sense that things will be all right in the end.

We both are annoyed by the other's perspective. Will thinks my optimism is a sign that I am immature and unrealistic. He wishes I would take things more seriously, and stop making excuses for other people. I find his negativity relentless, exhausting, and self-centered, and wish he would see how minor most of his upsets really are.

I just don't understand WHY someone would choose pessimism. Less chance to be disappointed? I suppose I could be a pessimist. I could re-frame my life: grew up without a lot of money, had to work young, lost my dad early, failed out of college, crappy career, stuck as a housewife. But in my reality, I had a good childhood and learned the value of work, I had a great support network even without a father, had fun and learned lots in college, enjoyed my various jobs, and am really privileged to have the time and space to spend at home with my kids right now.

I think optimists make their own luck. For instance: I could be all sorts of grumpy right now that the dogs woke me at 5 a.m., but instead I am sitting on my deck listening to birdsong, cool enough to need a bathrobe, and drinking a cup of hot tea. I can't imagine a better way to start my day. Plus I have an excuse to take a nap. What more could a girl want?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Early Morning Carnival

Yesterday I wrote of finding beauty in running. I may have been using a little creative license. You know how zombies shamble and lurch as if pulled incompetently by invisible strings? My strings are fluorescent green, and my puppeteers are the dogs.

Every morning starts with great intentions. I corral each dog and buckle on the harness, heavy webbing and brass tackle for such a light endeavor. Then I attach the leash -- essentially a bright green bungee cord with extra handles. I need those handles. The dogs immediately attack each other in their eagerness to get out the door, and we have to spend a few minutes untangling. Finally, we are off. 

I read the health articles, I know about a "gentle warm up". Unfortunately, canines can't read. We're off to the races immediately, crashing down the front steps and going in two different directions, and then two other different directions, until they finally hear my epithets and start in my direction. Half a block of stumbling and I start to get my feet under me, and that's when the first dog has to pee. In medieval times they used horses to pull people asunder. I use dogs.

Off again, but we're at a curb, and for their safety the are trained to sit and wait for a command before crossing. This is an opportunity to compete for who can sniff the most items before I start ordering them to sit. Of course, it's more amusing if one sits, the other stands, and they alternate. By this time I am breaking my first sweat, but not from exercise.

Finally they relent, and this time we're moving, I have a pace, they are looking ahead, we're ON! But really they are scanning for birds and squirrels and imaginary squirds which have the magical properties of both. One sighting and its lunge, flit, lunge and I must shift suddenly into a backwards lean made possible only by the stretchy properties of the bungee leash. And then we're off again, to the next curb.

A few blocks in they finally start getting into the groove, but Stanley is guided by the same unpredictable curiosity as a human three year old. Slow, fast, left, right. We stop and untangle, I shorten the leash to keep him behind me, we start. Fifteen feet, thirty. My heart is starting to beat faster, I'm breathing deep! Then, for the first time that morning, both dogs are in harmony -- stopping abruptly at an invisible marker. I do a remarkably unballetic left turn, right leg and arm thrown out and up, pivoting on left toes, upright only because of my tethers.

Again the air rings with "come on you little shits" and other exhortations to please move together in a forward direction. Speaking of shit, somewhen along the way the dogs do their business, and I am left with a pendulous plastic fistful of poo. I have experimented with holding it as far away as possible, but then it swings ominously and I begin to wonder about the tensile strength of newspaper bags. So I reluctantly cinch it up, dreading a fall because I know I don't have the mental wherewithal to drop the thing before a catastrophic landing. It's like a personal bomb. I have, in fact, imagined using it as a defense should I be accosted on the streets (I'm sure the dogs would be busier looking for squirds than protecting me). "Get back! I've got 8 ounces of this shit, and I'm not afraid to use it!" 

So together we lurch and stumble on our little route, a mobile three ring circus. Other runners, and their dogs, have learned to cross the street or wait a block away as we meander across the sidewalk at barely more than a stroll. I exhort them to move faster, we have deadlines! But the only word they recognize is "treat" which is also the only time they obey without hesitation, and a sudden stop/sit would prove disastrous. So I "encourage" them, safe in the knowledge that a high pitched voice disguises the name calling. Many good names start with N: ninny, nincompoop, nimrod, numskull, nitwit, knucklehead. I use them all.

At last we are within blocks of home. I am sweaty and sore from being hauled in different directions. We speed up, eager for water, and then I hear it -- the low growl of a dog behind a fence. Teddy is slower than me, and Stanley is distracted, so I have time (for once) before they charge. I can't tell if they love or hate the unknown one, but both go mad scrambling and barking. Now, however, it's MY turn. I've gotten hold of the extra handles, I've braced myself, and this time they are the ones who go flying, swinging around in their harnesses, feet sliding across the concrete, ears flapping. I feel the sick joy of operating a state-fair carnival ride. When they stop they are miraculously facing the right direction, sheepish with clumsiness, and we finish our "walk" without further incident.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I Am Become

I ran cross country in high school. I learned the deceptive translation of miles to kilometers, what to eat, how to train. Ours was a winning team -- the boys took state that year -- even though I wasn't any good. I did finish the season, almost to spite my coach, but I hated it. I got through each race only by telling myself that my deceased grandmother was watching over me and she would be proud.

The only other time I can remember running was a dry hot afternoon after a terrible day at work. I don't know why; all I wanted to do was run. I put on my sneakers and just took off, running until I could barely move, then turning around and trudging home. It seemed like forever, but I'm sure it was only a couple of miles. Since then the fastest I have moved was crossing the street against oncoming traffic.

And yet . . .

I have been running lately. I use the dogs as an excuse, and my health as a reason, but there's something more happening. I am finding a certain satisfaction in a good run. I am experimenting with stride length and have taught myself not to heel strike. I am learning a new language, one of the body rather than the mind. I am taking pride in my strength, and pushing for more. It's a foreign country for me, one I enjoy visiting.

I am become
more beautiful
with each stride
As my legs bend and spring
I rise into
the next breath
stretching forward
calculating each step
and I finally know beauty
that comes not from
the shapeliness of my calves
or the brute strength of my thighs
or the sweat of my brow
but the exultation of my soul
as I fly along the concrete

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Echoes of a Yawp, Returned

I am not a religious person, although at times I've yearned for the sense of community and security I see in people of strong faith. I have, in fact, investigated faiths from Judaism to Buddhism and been a participant in a variety of Christian rituals. None of them make sense to me. Instead I have cobbled together a very personal spirituality based in my Judeo-Christian roots and shaped by my travels and experiences.

That said, there are times when I "sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world" seeking answers to inchoate questions. I often find an echo returns to me in the form of heretofore unfamiliar music. At that precise moment, that exact piece of music provides me the guidance, or solace, or joy, I need just when I am most truly lost.

Being pregnant with my son was a whirlwind of emotions. The country was staggering under the memory of the 9/11 attacks. I was overjoyed and terrified by the prospect of raising a child, especially in a world in which random violence was so prevalent. In the midst of this, my husband was stereotypically distant. He told me repeatedly that he didn't understand my fretting, and that women had been having babies for millions of years, so why was I worried? I became frantic, unable to sleep, panicking that I had made a mistake. And then a song started running through my mind. The lyrics told me "it just takes some time/Little girl you're in the middle of the ride/Everything, everything will be just fine/Everything, everything will be alright, alright". It took me weeks to find the song. I don't know when or how I first heard it, but whenever I became upset it would pass through my mind, and I knew that we'd be okay.

Many years later I found myself in an untenable position at work, and after much soul searching I decided to quit. I wrote my letter of resignation and sobbed in the car on my way in to the office, until a song came on the radio, whose lyrics were "You know some people/They just won't understand/They just won't understand these things". It felt like absolution.

It's funny how these things work. I have a new song I've been listening to for a week, and it makes me smile every time. And once again, I think the universe is speaking to me. I am grateful for the message.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

One Shot

Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?-- Eminem, "Lose Yourself"

Seventeen years ago I dropped the ball, big time. My "final" semester of college I had a 3.68 GPA, was on the dean's list for the fourth time, and was looking forward to graduation. And then I imploded. There are any number of excuses -- the end of a three-year relationship I had thought would lead to marriage and a white picket fence; starting a full-time job for the university president that felt like a conflict of interest; an arrogant professor with whom I couldn't work; a calamitous new roommate situation. It doesn't matter. I self destructed and a year later was given an "administrative withdrawal" with a final GPA of 1.85, two Fs on record, and no degree. I was 3 credits short.

This week I decided that, as a 40th birthday present to myself, I'm going to start the process of getting my degree. It's the first step towards my next goal: a teaching license.

I am terrified.

I have a habit of starting projects I don't complete. My university career was perhaps the biggest, but certainly not the last. I have abandoned friendships, ruined at least one relationship, and walked away from a career. I have tucked away five or six half-finished sewing projects, crocheted three or four partial baby blankets, written just the opening of too many stories and essays to count. Each of those is part of my personal litany of failures, the cumulative effect of which is a crushing sense of self-doubt and imminent failure. I can't even host a dinner party without a moment of panic that no one will show or I'll inadvertently poison everyone who does make it.

Now I am faced with the prospect of two or three years of classes -- assuming they'll accept me as a transfer student with that final GPA – just to get my bachelor's degree, and unknown more to get a teaching certificate. Looking at my track record, the doubts are coming hard and fast.

There is one saving grace. I believe teaching is my calling. More than twenty years ago a fellow student in my algebra class leaned over and asked "are you going to be a teacher?" I've been asked that same question, or a variant on it, hundreds of times since then. And the truth is, I love teaching; it comes naturally to me. So, if I have to get my degree to do it, I have a reason to finish.

This time, maybe I'll make it. I'm older, wiser, and have fewer distractions than I did 17 years ago. Plus, the stakes are higher: this is my one shot.

Wish me luck.

Monday, June 4, 2012

10 Years Ago . . .

Ten years ago, our nation was still trying to make sense of the terrorist attacks which had devastated us the year before. We were battling in Afghanistan, and were debating a second war in Iraq. The first tremors were hitting our economy with names like Enron and WorldCom. In the midst of all that, on June 4th, after an anxious but relatively easy labor, I met my son for the first time.

I held him, tiny enough to fit from hand to elbow in one arm, and felt a giant sense of relief. Past the point of no return, I could no longer fret over the decision to bring a child into this terrifying world. I fizzed with excitement.

Some children are old souls. You can see the wisdom in their newborn eyes, and know that they'll make it through. Sam was different. He shone with newness and was truly an innocent. When he slept he alternately frowned and chuckled as if angels were talking to him, as if they hadn't quite let him go yet. Everything was a wonder. I was awestruck with the incredible responsibility of protecting him, and teaching him.

In ten years, Sam has been as much my teacher as I have been his. He expanded my emotional capacity like a balloon inflating. Thanks to him I have know greater joy, stronger anger, unbridled frustration, and breathtaking fear. Above all, unquenchable love.
In our house today, wars involve Nerf guns and our battles are over homework. Sam's life has -- of course -- been shaped by the aftermath of the year in which he was born, but he has a brilliant innocence and quirkiness that eclipses current events. His gift to me is a constant undercurrent of hope. I am blessed to have him in my life. He has made me a better person, and I look forward to knowing him for many, many more adventures. Happy birthday, beloved son.