Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Saddest Superhero

I had to make a report today.

If you work with children you know what that means, and the dread that rises with those words.

A student was sent to me with marks of physical abuse. The child was matter-of-fact. Cheerful, even. The offense, apparently, was lying to the guardian. The consequence was being hit an unknown number of times with a metal-studded belt. The child didn't know how many times because, I was told, it hurt too much to count. This morning the marks were still distinct, like an octopus had wound around the child with cruel suckers. It wasn't some creature from the deep, though. It was a person in a position of trust.

I'm fortunate. We only get a few of these situations each year and some of those are false alarms. Our students are for the most part blessed with healthy, loving, stable homes. I know there are far worse things to witness than the infractions I've seen. Each year every employee in our school district goes through Child Abuse and Neglect training. We dread it. We gripe about how long it takes. We complain about the dull videos and slide presentations. That is true. The deeper truth is we don't want to face the horrors that can be visited on the shining little beings we come to love. 

I spent the morning on the phone with the Department of Health and Human Services. There's a hotline to call, and a form to fill out. I waited on hold for 20 long minutes as other calls were taken before mine. I spent the time wondering just how many reports were being made in one morning. When my call finally was answered I learned that there are eight social workers in the call center, all of whom spend their entire working days listening to stories like mine, or worse. I can't imagine the fortitude of those people. It is, truly, a thankless job.

Making a report is a balancing act. I am by law required to report any suspicion of neglect or abuse or endangerment. It's not always an easy to decide. Having children of my own has made me more far more sympathetic to the difficulties of managing a family. So I wonder: is it really neglectful to leave your ten year old at school long after the bell rings if there are adults around, not actually supervising but still present? If I am completely honest, I must admit to knowing the towering rage that can rise from dealing with an argumentative, self-centered, disrespectful, exhausted, unreasonable child. I have felt the desire to slap my child silly, to yank her after me into a quiet room and force her to do what I want just.this.once without having to reason or cajole or manage. To just make it happen. So far I have swallowed that down and walked away, or found another path. But I understand -- in a horrible visceral way -- why some parents beat their children.

For all its simplicity it's not a light matter, reporting. The lives of parents, as well as children, can be completely disrupted. I've read stories of  adults wrongly accused who spent months fighting to get their children back while their entire social structure dissolved. I would hate to be responsible for that. I worry, too, that I am being culturally insensitive. I've heard people dismiss my discipline style as too touchy-feely granola. Even my own mother has implied that I am not stern enough with my kids. Am I safeguarding the well-being of a child, or imposing my middle-class, small-town, white, bourgeois values on other families?

I fret privately, weighing the distress caused by a call to DHHS against the life-long damage of abuse. I wish Superman or Wonder Woman would swoop in and make everything right. But they don't exist. Today's was an easy decision: there were clear marks and the student repeated the same story to two different adults. So, despite my sorrow, I donned the worn and tattered cape of a very human superhero and made the call.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Bacon and Eggs

Spring is here. The year is winding down. Teachers (and students) are counting how many days we have left before summer break. There's a hopeful listlessness spreading through the school, a strange slow energy of distraction and indifference. Parents feel it, too. Tardiness and absence rates are rising. The sense of purpose that characterized the fall is slipping away as we look forward to next year.

I have felt it this month as well. Instead of getting up to run and make lunches and feed the family I sit on the side of my bed and brush my hair slowly, wilfully ignoring the news broadcast on the radio. The children eat bowls of cereal before I come downstairs and pack vaguely balanced lunches that they don't let me inspect. Our morning routine has evaporated.

All week students have been coming to the office complaining of stomachaches, of being tired, of headaches. An outbreak of strep? Perhaps springtime allergies. I give them water, have them rest for ten minutes, tell them to come back after lunch. They don't. Finally I made the connection and started asking the most important question: did you have breakfast?

No, they said. Didn't have time. I'm learning that lack of time is code for mom's working two jobs or we don't have money for gas or I sleep in the living room and the TV keeps me awake. Spring seems to be a time of transition. Of leaving one crowded home for another. Seeking new. Seeking better. Upsetting the routines and patterns which offered a semblance of stability.

The school offers breakfast free to all students, but when it's a necessity it becomes a point of pride not to go. The hunger doesn't subside, though. So they come to the office. We add ten minutes to the tardy slip and order them to the cafeteria, for which they are secretly grateful. We whisper in the teacher's ear that he didn't have breakfast, and she will slip him a snack mid-morning. In the office we hand out granola bars to tide them over until lunch. We do our best to close the gaps.

I dispense snacks and think about my own lapse. Most every day this year I cooked bacon and scrambled eggs and buttered toast. My family ate together before bustling out to school with no worries other than remembering to bring our lunch boxes. My children and husband are unaware of how blessed we are. As for me, I think I'll get up and prepare breakfast tomorrow. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Climbing Wall

Feeling her fingers slip, Annalee pressed the pads of her left hand deeper into the rock. It did no good. The additional weight scraped off several layers of skin as she fell backwards, toes sliding out of their tiny holds. Her loud “FUCK!” echoed back from the wall and she sat into her sling, webbing creasing her buttocks and groin, rope thrumming in her right ear as it stretched taut.

“Whoa, cowgirl! What’s the rush?” The teasing voice carried up the rope. She looked down at the man belaying her. Shaggy hair was barely contained by a tie-dyed bandanna. His lean face was tanned behind a few days beard. He smiled and she caught a glimpse of white teeth before he reassured her “I gotcha.”

Well duh! she thought. You’re on belay. “Thanks!” she hollered back. Don’t know why I’m climbing with a stranger. Dumb. But he’d done everything right, and the folks at the climbing gym had said they would make good partners. They’d been right so far.
She wiped the blood oozing from her fingers onto her shorts and turned to the face. Securing her toes, she stretched again for a tiny ledge. Her ankles popped as she caught it, easing fingertips over the edge. She could feel every knuckle strain. Finally it felt secure and she lifted her right foot, sliding it up slowly, seeking a hold. There! Turning her toes outward, the soft instep caught as much as possible. Her calf tightened as she slowly shifted weight, tension running up through the knee and into the thigh. She increased the pressure, rising to the right, pulling with fingertips and the ball of her right foot. Her left foot came free and she began, too early, to tap around for a toehold. Suddenly the dust of the ledge above gave way and -- tearing her fingernails to the quick -- she slid down until once again the rope caught her.

“Ah fuck it.” She was quieter this time – disappointed. Leaning backwards she shouted  “I’m not gonna make it.”

“That’s cool. You coming down?”

Duh! “Yeah.” She found her original holds and shouted “Climbing.”

“Climb on.”  The rope immediately slackened, giving her just room to begin moving down. He really was a good belay – just right with the rope, always attentive. Annalee slowly scrambled down. At the bottom she faced him and they exchanged a quick “off belay” “belay off” before she removed her helmet and unclipped her harness. Still looking down she thanked him again. “I’m really glad you do that.”

“What? Catch you?” his tease was gentle. She looked up into a smile and returned it.

“Well, that too. But I mean saying ‘belay off’ and ‘off belay’ when it’s totally obvious.”

He shrugged. “It’s the right thing to do.”

They busied themselves for a few moments rearranging gear and coiling ropes. When everything was just right she yawned and asked, “You ready?”

“I’d like to, if you can stay awake.”

“Might need an anchor, but yeah, I can hold you. Remember, it was your idea to meet at dawn.” She allowed herself to be a little sassy. He could handle it. He started laughing as they worked together to fasten an anchor rope around a nearby rock outcrop. When it was secured Annalee unscrewed the lid of her bottle and gulped down some water before taking a couple bites of gorp.

“Need a break?” he asked as he returned his own bottle to the gearbag.

“Nah, just a little thirsty. We’re good.” She smiled again at him, admiring. He was built for climbing, long and slim with deceptively lean muscles. He pulled off the wrap that held shaggy locks out of his eyes and buckled on a helmet.

“On belay.” He stared directly at her as he spoke. The words were suddenly seductive, challenging.

“Belay on,” she responded in kind, then blinked several times as he turned quickly away from her to the rock face behind him.


“Climb on.” He reached, pulled, and suddenly she was watching a vertical dance as he wove his way steadily up the face. Annalee was astonished at how quickly she had to slide the rope through the brake, feeling him move through the quivering live rope. He climbed with such grace she almost became mesmerized and only a sense of responsibility kept her from gawking. All too soon he was at the top.

“Wow!” she shouted up. He turned and grinned down, pleased at having impressed her.

“Think you can bring me back?”

“Of course!”

He planted his feet and leaned back, away from the wall. “Ready to lower!”

“Lowering!” Annalee did a couple of stuttersteps forward as she took his full weight, but the anchor held fast, and he easily walked backward down the wall as she fed rope through the descender. Soon he was next to her. He walked close, facing her, and quietly said “off belay.”

She found herself leaning in as she replied “belay off.” Her heart pounded. It was a wrench when he turned away to unhook and remove his helmet.

After a quick consult they decided it would still be cool enough for one more ascent after breakfast. They coiled the ropes and gave the gear a quick once over before settling down to eat. They’d brought pretty much the same things: yogurt and apples, peanut butter and bananas. She shared a Danish carefully wrapped in foil as a special treat. Afterward they both smelled of cinnamon and vanilla icing, and she imagined how his lips would taste. They chatted, comparing notes on climbs they’d done before and mutual acquaintances at the climbing gym.

“What do you think about that line?” he pointed to a route thirty feet to the right of where they’d ascended – at least, where he’d ascended – an hour before.
“I dunno.” She was embarrassed to admit that she might not be up to it. Of course, she’d had breakfast and the rock no longer sheltered slippery pockets of dew. But the new climb was definitely harder, maybe a 5.15. It was at the very outer edge of her abilities.

“Come on. You can do it. I’ll go first so you can see the holds.”

Annalee laughed. “Yeah, like my little t-rex arms could reach your holds!”

He made a face, then pushed again. They debated for a while, Annalee feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

“Look,” he said, exasperated, “they put us together because you said you wanted to get better. This will help you get better. And it will be a nice change of pace for me.”
Annalee was stung by the condescension that slipped into his voice. “Okay. Okay! I’ll give it a try. But you saw how I did over here. And I’m gonna be slow.” The explanations bubbled up defensively. She really didn’t want to do this. “How about I belay you, and I’ll try another time?”

“C’mon.” He locked eyes again and she flushed. “You did great the first try. You were probably just hungry. Like you said – it was my idea to come out before dawn.”

She found herself wanting to impress him. “Yeah. You’re right. I’m just. Well. It’s a tough route. I’m not sure I can make it.”

“You can.” He leaned forward, touching his forehead to hers. “Annalee, you can do this.”

“Okay. If you say so. But I probably won’t make. And if by noon I'm blubbering like a baby, I'll be screaming your name and begging you to save me.”

“You promise?” he teased, then relented. “Nothing to worry about, cowgirl. I gotcha.” He smiled radiantly and suddenly grasped her hand. Turning it over, he looked at her raw fingers and scraped knuckles. “You’re a good sport, you know that?” Then he kissed the back of her hand, tickling it with his beard. Her breath hitched. He sprang up and began setting up.

“Okay, okay. Left hand up and a little to the right.” His voice held her up as she reached for the next hold. She gripped and tried to relax. She’d been on the rock for almost two hours, slipping and trying again, slipping and trying again, prodded back each time by the desire to please him. “Right hand straight up about a foot.” Reach, pull, step, lift, stretch. She no longer wanted to get to the anchor.


“What’s wrong, cowgirl?”

“I’m tired. I’m not gonna make it. I need to come down. Take!”

“You can do it. Just try.”

“I AM trying!” Tears of frustration leaked into her voice. “TAKE!” She held her breath, waiting for him to tighten the slack. To take her weight.

“No. I’m not going to help you give up.”


“No. I’m really disappointed in you, Annalee.”

She held fast with her right hand and pulled the left off the rock to stretch out a cramp. Her center shifted and both legs started shuddering. Typewriters. That’s what her mother had called it when that happened. She leaned in again, resting her knees against the rock and slowly stretching out one leg at a time.

“I’m really sorry. But I’m getting cramps and my legs won’t hold me much longer.” Annalee wiped the sweat from where it was collecting in her eyebrows, leaving a bloody chalk line across her forehead. “Please? Take?”

The rope, instead of drawing upward, slipped down past her shoulder.


Annalee tried to turn, but she was stretched too far, spread-eagled against a granite cliff forty-five feet above the forest.

“Adam?” The weight of the rope was pulling it down faster and faster until it sang in her ear.

“I’ll try, Adam. Please! Take? Please? I’ll do my best!”

The fused plastic end of the rope whipped against her cheek, leaving a stinging welt. She automatically slapped her hand to the injury with a gasp, then clutched at the rock when the mass of the rope tugged at her middle, drawing her backwards. Drawing her down.

“Help me! Please Adam, help me!”

The blood on her fingers made them slippery. Annalee gingerly wiped them on her shirt, working her way through a rotation of stretching, fighting the exhaustion and trembling. She reached for handholds, waved her toe against the wall seeking toe holds, imagined climbing blindly down. She was lost. She waited, but knew. She was lost.

Scenes from a Funeral

chapel ceiling
The chapel is familiar. I sit alone in a too-small pew and try to remember who we buried last. There have been so many.

Behind me someone gossips about the sale price of a neighbor's house, setting off excited chatter about the real estate market. Elsewhere a cluster of strangers commiserate about how the weather has thrown off their landscaping schedule. 

This death is once removed: the father of a friend. My relief is distasteful to me. Still I clutch a tissue, prepared for the echoes of past grief--or premonitions of future sorrow--to rise up and claim me. 

The injustice of time gnaws at me. They say it marches on. The vocabulary is wrong. There must be a word that combines colossal and indifferent and relentless instead. When engulfed in sorrow I long for a button with which to pause everything so I can, for just one moment, bypass the mundane and instead contemplate the profound. Washing laundry, mowing the lawn, taking a shit all seem obscene in the face of loss. The inescapable obligation of little tasks unfairly diminishes personal grief. There should be an isolation chamber into which the bereaved can retreat and ponder mortality and love and friendship and the meaning of life and death without penalty. Instead we are forced to carry on.

The rabbi stands and gently begins the ceremony. The gardeners and homeowners behind me shuffle to sit with their partners. Speeches are made. Songs rise gloriously to the rafters. My tears ebb and flow in tides of sympathy. I time my nose-blowing for the in-between moments, preferring to break the peace rather than interrupt the farewells. I inadvertantly make a sound like a trumpet and bring a moment of levity. The laughter forgives me any embarrassment.

The final prayer is spoken. The sound of voices intoning the kaddish in unison resonates through my center. There is no comfort for me in the words; they are in Hebrew. I am both together with and apart from my fellow mourners. 

The widow is conscripted into the task of hostess: greeting each well-wisher, thanking the rabbi, figuring out what to do with the flowers. I make a note to arrange my funeral now to spare my loved ones. Then I change my mind. Perhaps busyness interrupts the grief, making it more bearable. The practicalities seen brutal, though. Walk-throughs, selecting music, paying for services are salt in the wound. She tells me tearfully "I didn't want to do this" and I understand she is referring to saying goodbye, but I wonder if she also means the administrivia of funeral arrangements. I shake her hand helpessly and step away.

I find my friend and we hug and wipe our tears and comment on the weather. Words are froth, conveying nothing. I stand close, knowing presence counts, wondering if I am being presumptuous. I have stood in the void into which she has been thrust. I can do nothing but be present. Time will march on, indifferent and colossal and relentless. This scene will play out again. We will become practiced in supportive hugs and small words. Laundry will be washed and lawns mowed. I can do nothing. I can be present. Time will march on.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Things You Miss

All I wanted was a spoonful of peanut butter. 

I wasn't the only one desperate for a taste of home. There were twelve of us living in Hungary that semester and each had something, one thing, that we missed more than anything. I remember one fellow waxing poetic about Cool Ranch Doritos. For me it was creamy peanut butter.

It's subtle, how certain foods, certain flavors, characterize a culture. Never before -- or since -- my time in Eastern Europe have I eaten such a variety of pickled vegetables. Between bouts of gastric distress we joked that there was only one thing a Hungarian would not pickle: bacon. And that was eaten raw. My memories of suppers that year are visions of braised meat in a savory sauce, balanced by pickled carrots or beets or cucumbers or cabbage and with a side of raw onion. Breakfast was crusty buttered rolls with cold cuts and a fruit tea I've been unable to find since. Sometimes we had a hard boiled egg. For dessert my host mother made a slightly dry, mildy sweet poppyseed cake dotted with cherries which she served us almost weekly. I never decided if I liked it. Lunch was more of the same, unless we went to a restaurant. There we delighted in thin, slightly rubbery pancakes that could have easily been confused with crepes. The Hungarians insisted they weren't French at all but a traditional Hungarian dish called palacsinta. Regardless, the restaurant had more than 40 options for filling, including an amazing savory spinach and mushroom concoction.

Saturdays the girls would meet at the baths and soak and get a massage for just $1, then relocate to a pastry shop to chat. We made up for our missing salads by eating pastries and desserts. Linzer tortes and flaky croissants, cakes with a thousand delicate layers. I have never felt so luxuriously indolent. But still we missed the tastes of home.

One of our students -- a New Yorker, naturally -- found the only bagel shop in Hungary. He was alternately overjoyed by and disappointed in the bagels. As a westerner not schooled in proper New York cuisine, I couldn't taste why. And the Hungarians? They were (again) baffled. "It's just boiled, baked dough" they would say. I think perhaps we were drawn as much to the rattle of English words and American slang as we were the food.

We tried, my roommate and I. We visited almost every grocery in the city, some twice. I've forgotten most of my Hungarian, but I will always remember approaching store clerks and inquiring after amerikai földimogyorókrém -- American underearth nut cream. They were universally baffled. Their solution was, not surprisingly, to point us to the Nutella. And while that chocolate hazelnut spread is delicious and amazing, it is almost exactly nothing like peanut butter.

It became a mission. The two of us lived with a host family in Buda just below the Fishermen's Bastion. It was a beautiful location. Sundays I would walk up the hill and get a couple of pastries for us to share for breakfast. We would savor them on the patio as the bells of the entire city rang in unison. Afterward we would go shopping, and wherever we went we inquired with no success.

I had to go to Denmark finally to find a jar of peanut butter. 

For Spring Break I took the train to Copenhagen where my boyfriend was studying business. He, too, had felt the isolation of being an American abroad. Scandanavia, though, was somehow more familiar than Eastern Europe. Perhaps it was the cars. The streets of Budapest were hazardous with Ladas and Skodas. In Copenhagen Saabs and Volvos were common sights.

My love's parents were immigrants to the US, Italian to the core. We had teased his mother about her first experience with American lingo -- she was apalled at the idea of eating canine when offered a hot dog -- but the edges of derision were worn away by our common experience of being foreign. In the shared kitchen of his dorm we made basic  spaghetti with his grandmother's pasta sauce and garlic bread, and I was comforted. 

One morning he took me to have danishes in Denmark. I laughed. They were little different than those from shops at home. Later he escorted me around a grocery store, pointing out dozens of preparations of fish, all strangely flavored. I squealed, I think, when I found the peanut butter, shocking both the Danes and my sweetheart. In the distraction of companionship and travel I'd forgotten my quest. I bought two jars and within minutes of purchase I had opened one and scooped a lump out with my finger. It wasn't Jif, but still salved my homesickness in a way that even his arms had not. I saved the second jar to share with my roommate back in Hungary.

I returned, sharing adventure stories with my compatriot students. One fellow brought back stacks of devalued currency with the dream of papering his walls back in the States. It was a pleasant reunion, and we remarked to each other how nice it was to come home. Our centers had silently shifted from Washington to Budapest. We had become ffriendly  with our adopted city, confident in our ability to stutter through the language, easy with the underground and nightclubs.

We travelled to Moscow and faced an entirely new level of foreigness. Our hosts -- a sister school -- treated us as honored guests but the country was desperately poor and we could feel it. Everything was shabby and the people were gaunt. We donned the mantle of tourist, exploring the city from dawn 'til dusk, but soon the poverty wore at us as well. For breakfast we were given the best they had: a small glass of Tang-like drink, two undercooked eggs, a piece of toast with jam, and a cup of black tea. Every day we walked through lunch hour returning late in the evening to a small portion of meat and a small bowl of borscht. Everyone lost weight, becoming painfully familiar with constant gnawing hunger. One of my classmates was a football player. We took turns sharing our food with him as his clothes became looser. Upon our return we learned he'd lost nearly 30 pounds in two weeks.

At our professor's instruction we had brought as host gifts long batons of Pick salami and other food stuffs from Hungary. We eyed the treats with desperation, imagining the fat melting savory on our tongues. Our courtesy was saved only by the knowledge of our pending escape. Someone acquired a loaf of bread and another found a jar of jam. I had brought the peanut butter. Each morning before breakfast we would huddle in a dormitory room secretly sharing out morsels of Americana before putting on our brave traveler faces and going out for the day.

We returned to Hungary, relieved. There was the museum we knew. This was the classroom in which we spent so much time. Jokes about our adopted home resurfaced, binding us with laughter. We gorged on palacsinta, savored the gulyas, scarfed down our cold cut breakfasts like natives. Then the semester ended, and we flew like dandelion seeds hither and thither. I travelled to Spain, met my beloved in France and journeyed with him to relations in northern Italy. With each country we visited the food became less exotic, less of an adventure. I returned one last time to Hungary and caught a plane home to the United States.

In my mother's kitchen I unpacked a parting gift from my host mother. It was an aluminum pan, much like a frying pan, but with large holes through the bottom and hooks on the rounded edge. As I recounted my adventures for my mother I prepared the cirke and set it to braise. While it cooked I mixed a loose egg batter and pushed it through the holes into boiling water. The nokedli sank and rose, and when they were done I served everything all together. We sat and ate the national dish of Hungary -- chicken paprikash with dumplings -- and I was home.