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tying shoesLook at this. My second post within a month. I’d say, I’m dusting off this blog. I’m also dusting off my running shoes. It’s been too long, and I’ve gained too much weight.

I was talking to my brother, Paul, and sister-in-law, Kelly, about a month ago, lamenting over my weight. It’s been creeping up, which is no big surprise if you read my last post which notes how much I’ve been sitting around. But my weight has been creeping up for other reasons and those other reasons hit me about a month ago. For the last two and a half years, I have been living in Wisconsin during the school year while Joe has been living in Connecticut. I didn’t realize how difficult this was for me—living in Kenosha without Joe—until he moved here in December (yah!). Since he’s been here, the nervous/anxious/bored energy banging around in my stomach is gone. Although I no longer feel compelled to quell that swirl of emotion with food, I do feel compelled to shrink the big belly that’s been left behind.

As I grumbled to Paul and Kelly, I was resolute about running. I told them I was tired of my belling getting in the way when I bent over to tie my shoes, when I rolled over in bed, when I buttoned my pants—when I did almost everything. I told them the piece of pizza I was eating was going to be my last carb for a while. And it was. For 3 weeks, but then the appraisal of the house Joe and I were trying to build came in woefully lower than the building cost, and then we decided to buy a house, and then summer school started, and then we bought a house, and then the appraisal of that house came in woefully lower than the agreed upon buying price, and then we worked through those negotiations, and then Joe went out of town for a few days, and then . . . . See where I’m going with this? Exactly.

So, after all those stress storms that contained 100 % chance of overeating and wielding excuses cleared, I’m once again bending over my big belly to lace up my running shoes. Wish me luck.

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clean-meA lot of dust has settled on this old blog, and it comes as a direct result of the dust that has settled in my life. But mostly in my brain. It’s no big surprise, then, that these two things happened simultaneously because I rarely do anything new. My days seem to be on autopilot, operating something like this: I wake up, drink coffee, feel guilty I haven’t walked the dog, take a shower, go to work, come home, sit on the couch, pet the dog I’ve neglected all day, and then watch TV for 1-2 hours before I go to bed. I know. Pathetic, right? And in many ways it is. But it’s all true. I’ve found a comfortable couch to sit on, and the dust has settled around me.

The good news about this comfortable couch and dust settling phenomenon is that it’s happening the year I’m turning 50, an age that is often associated with slowing down and aging, like dust. I get that. But I’m also realizing that this slowing down and aging thing has its benefits, and in many ways I’m really grateful to be turning 50. I really am. First, and foremost, I’m still alive. That may sound trite, if not ridiculous, but it’s true. I am very grateful I’m still alive. Several of my high school friends didn’t make it to their twenties, others didn’t make it to their thirties, and since we’ve turned forty, we’ve lost a few more. The majority of my high school friends who have died have died as a result of a fast and footloose lifestyle. They partied hard and died early. More recently, however, a few have died from health-related diseases. So, I’m feeling lucky that I’m still alive because there have been many nights that I have been out with my friends, in the same condition as they, only I woke up in the morning and they didn’t. The same is true for my health. I survived a semi-serious health-related issue. Some of my friends didn’t survive theirs.

The second reason I’m grateful to be turning 50 is that I seem to be gaining a new sense of confidence, not in an arrogant kind of way. Rather, I understand life, love, relationships, people, and politics differently, which allows me to live differently. I find myself having more patience and compassion for people, which I’m sure my students appreciate even if this new-found compassion confounds me. I’m not sure why, but I seem to be nicer to people, less harsh, less judgmental. And the best part of this new-found attitude is that I find the stress of my life washing away. I recently read a quote by Joan Lunden that struck a chord with me: “Holding on to resentment, anger, and hurt only gives you tense muscles, a headache, and a sore jaw from clenching your teeth. Forgiveness gives you back the laughter and the lightness in your life.” I’m not sure what I was resenting or if I’ve subconsciously forgiven something or someone in order to capture the sense of peace I now have. I only know that the anger, anxiety, and frustration that once roiled in my belly has been replaced with more laughter and love.

So, as I continue to turn 50 (won’t be there until August), I am going to continue to be thankful for the calm confidence that’s prompting me to not only get up off the couch and brush away the layers of dust that have settled on my blog, on my brain, and in my life, but also to start moving again, to start thinking and writing about what I’ve learned during the first 50 years in order to enjoy and fulfill the next 50.

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black bear I woke with a start around 4:30 AM when I heard Quincy growling at the back door. It wasn’t a loud growl; it was a low grumble, the kind she uses to signal her presence when she sees a strange, slow moving object, such as a cat or raccoon. I didn’t spring out of bed, but I did listen with my eyes closed to make sure she didn’t need anything else. A few seconds later, she scratched the sliding glass door. That’s when I sprang to action.

Quincy scratches the sliding door when she wants to go outside, for whatever reason: to do her business, to chase squirrels, to lounge in the summer sun. Since the sun wasn’t up and the squirrels were sleeping, I assumed she wanted to chase whatever was in the backyard. Often when I hear this growl at this time of the morning followed by a scratch at the door, I roll over, knowing she can run after the birds or cats when I wake up. But since we’ve been working on the house, I’ve become hypersensitive to every scratch and paw print she leaves around the place. So, I jumped out of bed, not to let her out but rather to scold her and shoo her away from the sliding doors.

Yet, when I found her in the kitchen, she was standing at the door with laser-like focus, as if she were a special ops dog that was trained to hunt down a particular species and now she has one in her sight. I tried to break her concentration, but she wouldn’t look at me or respond to my commands. She kept her stance at the door: at attention, focused, and growling. I looked out over the backyard, but I didn’t see anything. It was dark, with only a hint of light in the sky.

“It’s okay, girl,” I comforted. “Let’s go back to bed.”

She stood firm, her tail curled and pointed. She scratched the door again.

There was something out there she needed to hunt, and it was apparent she’d be this insistent until she tracked it down. A flash of the wild animals we have in our neck of the woods flashed before my eyes: coyotes, deer, black bear, hawks, possums, foxes. I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer she’d be okay, and opened the door.

She flew off the deck, not in her normal fashion—as if she’s been sprung from the joint, racing, barking, darting across the backyard in no particular direction. Rather, she moved in a calculated way along a very precise route under the deck to the side of the house. She was silent, stealth-like in her motion. She was hunting in a way I’ve never seen her hunt. I waited a few minutes, but she didn’t come back. I stepped out on the deck and saw her methodically tracking a scent. I stood and watched, hearing the birds chirp, announcing the dawn of a new day.

I waited a few more minutes, called to her a few more times, but nothing was pulling her off the scent. I thought it must’ve been a new one, something she wasn’t used to because she was moving with a surgeon’s precision through the lawn, absorbing every scent off each blade of grass. I was getting chilled standing there, waiting for her, so I walked out in the yard and dragged her in. When I got back in bed, I told Joe what happened. He mumbled, “It might’ve been a deer. But probably a bear.”

When I actually got out of bed on my own accord, I stood out on our deck, thinking about Quincy’s strange behavior and wondering what she saw and smelled. I looked down and saw tufts of black hair, and became very excited. “Oh. My. God. That was a bear!” I ran off the deck, anticipating the course feel, the pungent, earthy smell of it. I scooped it up, excited for the proper ending to this story, thinking about the way I could hyperbolize the danger Quincy was in, how she protected us from the grizzly nature of our back yard. As I rubbed the fine, thin, limp fur and put it to my nose I realized it was Joe’s, and these were the clippings from a haircut he had given himself.

I don’t have a proper ending to this story, other than to say there was something walking through our backyard last that had Quincy on the prowl and me in a state of wonder.

Sunrise

Joe and I have been working feverishly on the house, making it ready to sell. Yesterday, was the first day it was officially on the market. Yesterday, was the first day we didn’t have anything to do when we woke, so we went for a brisk walk. By the time we hit the road, the sun was already warming the cool, crisp morning air and brightening the cloudless blue sky. It’s the kind of morning I dream about in the middle of the sheet metal gray winter days. It’s the kind of morning that makes me pause and take notice of my surroundings. It’s also the kind of morning that makes me thankful for nothing in particular and everything in general. So, in the middle of my stride, I paused. Took notice. And sent out a prayer of thanksgiving. By the time we finished our walk, I felt relaxed and peaceful.

The afternoon rolled around, and the sun was still shining and the sky was still a cloudless, vibrant blue. Joe and I hopped on our motorcycles and went for a ride through the twisting, turning New England countryside. We rode past farms with red barns, past white houses with black shutters, past lush green golf courses, past churches with crosses in the steeples. We pulled off the road and looked to the top of a ridge, where a white lookout tower with a red roof and a Bavarian/Lederhosen decorative swath was perched. I was reluctant to get back on my bike because that would mean the day was ending. I stared at the tower and at Joe and at the setting sun and thought of something Maya Angelou, who died this past week, said: “No sun outlasts its sunset but will rise again and bring the dawn.”

As our house sits with its For Sale sign in the front yard and as the sun from our days in Connecticut sets, I am thankful and hopeful, on the dawn of our new days, to simply say, “Good Morning.”

sunflowerThe semester ended, thankfully. I’ve never said that before, especially since I’ve started teaching. I usually have a little pang of sadness when a semester ends because I know I will miss some element of each of the classes I teach. This semester, however, couldn’t come soon enough. It was a rough semester, and I think it had something to do with the Polar Vortex. The frigid weather made life and work challenging, but I’m not going to lament on the bitter cold and the cancelled classes and the havoc wreaked on people’s health. Rather, I am going to be thankful it is over and spring is starting to bloom. Buds are on the trees and lawns are greening. So, I’m happy.

I’m also happy because I had an epiphany about one of my dad’s little quirks the other day. Since I’ve been thinking and writing about my dad lately, I’ve been thinking about some of his idiosyncrasies: talking to himself, sticking toothpicks in his hair, golfing left handed as a right-handed individual, wearing polyester like nobody’s business. All elements central to his personality. When I was younger, I thought some, if not all, of these behaviors were strange only because I didn’t see my friends’ dads or uncles behaving the same way. Just my dad. As an adult, I now consider his behavior “unique,” if not downright brilliant, trendsetting—especially, the toothpicks in his hair bit.

Joe and I went out to dinner last week, and I ate a chicken, Italian sausage pasta dish that was delicious. I practically licked the plate clean I couldn’t get enough of the flavor. After we left the restaurant, I began rooting around Joe’s car looking for something to dislodge the food stuck between my teeth. That’s when the image of my dad rooting around in his hair, retrieving the toothpick he had previous tossed in there hit me. “Brilliant,” I said outloud. “The man was brilliant.”

On his way out of the house in the morning, after his cups of coffee, my dad would toss a few toothpicks in his hair and walk out the door. I never knew why he did this. Nor did I ever ask. I just assumed it was one of his quirks. I now see the simple practicality of it: He never knew when he would need one. I don’t think I could ever put toothpicks in my hair, not because I think it’s unsanitary, rather because my hair, unlike my dad’s, is fine, thin, and limp. His was thick, wavy, and voluminous.

Here’s a picture of his lush hair. Could you see how he could carry around a whole box of toothpicks in there? (I’m not sure who he’s holding. Mom, any ideas?)

Dad's hair

Vietnam WarTim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam short story, “The Things They Carried,” introduces readers to the soldiers of the Alpha Company and the things they carry on their mission to bomb the elaborate tunnel complexes near the village of Than Khe. These things the soldiers carry—both physical (i.e. provisions, weapons, ammunition, ponchos, socks, personal items) and emotional (i.e. fear, grief, loneliness, love, depression, stress)—are inextricably linked, strapping the burden of war on the soldier’s backs.

Throughout the mission, the weight of these things become physically crushing and emotionally unbearable. The main character, for instance, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, carries letters from Martha, a young woman he is in love with. These letters mean the world to Jimmy, and the way he cares for them illustrates this point: He keeps them wrapped in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack, buried underneath 90 pounds of necessities. At the end of each day’s march, he digs his trench, unpacks his bag, washes his hand with the precious, life-sustaining water from his canteen, removes the letters, holds them with the tips of his fingers, and reads—pretending and imagining a life with her.

There is much to say about these letters and Cross’s unreciprocated, flight of fancy love for Martha. In many ways, they represent his naiveté, innocence, and immaturity. Cross is a sophomore in college when he signs up for the Reserve Officers Training course because it is worth a few credits. Only, he doesn’t care about the war and has no desire to be a team leader. Nor does he understand the immense responsibility of being in charge.

Cross’s immaturity and ignorance are annihilated when Ted Lavender, a soldier in his platoon, is killed. Moments before Lavender dies, Cross is thinking about Martha, fantasizing about being with her on the Jersey shore. After Lavender dies, Cross “felt shame” and “hated himself” because his love for Martha and all that his love represented—living in another world, freedom to write poetry and be uninvolved—was the thing that killed Lavender.

He quickly burns her letters and pictures and does an about face on his responsibilities. He decides it is not a burden to take charge and perform the duties as a Lieutenant. What the readers now see in this new, mature, dependable, sensible Cross is that “his obligation is not to be loved but to lead.” Cross, to be sure, is a changed man. No longer a romantic dreamer fantasizing about Martha and pretending she loves him as much as he loves her, he is now a disciplined Lieutenant concerned with the life and safety of the soldiers in his platoon.

War, I guess, can do this to people: change them. I guess any life-altering event or experience can happen at any time, but the stories I hear about wars, about the effects of war on individuals, are something different than the stories I hear about people who put down their donuts after they step on the scale because they don’t like the number they see. The effects of war are felt on individuals, families, friends, communities, nations. They permeate. The effects of donut eating are felt mostly by the individuals who eat too many of them and maybe on a few family members and close friends who try to help the donut eaters put down the donuts. There isn’t a collective donut eating conscious like there is with war. Moreover, the effects of weight loss are usually euphoric, something to celebrate. The effects of war are usually overwhelming, often devastating.

The Vietnam War changed my dad in profound ways. Or, at least that’s what I’ve been told. He, like many Vietnam Vets, never talked about the war. I heard him mention Vietnam only twice, but by the time I realized he was talking about the war, I was too shocked and too frightened to ask questions. I now wish I had. My dad died in 1988, 21 years after he came home from his tour. I was less than one when he left and two when he returned. From that point on, I knew him only as dad, not the pre- and post-Vietnam Jack other family members knew.

From the stories these family members have shared with me, pre-Vietnam Jack was gregarious, affable, wicked smart, and kind. Post-Vietnam Jack was reserved, unsocial, wicked smart, and kind only to a select few. He lost his gregariousness and affability over there and became more selective of those whom he chose to be kind to—most often his immediate family (wife and kids), a favorite aunt, sister, cousin, and handful of in-laws. He could be pleasant, but he didn’t go out of his way for people.

Even though I only ever knew the post-Vietnam Jack, I could see the effects this war had on him and in him, strapped to his heart, where he carried his grief, anger, pain, and sadness. I sometimes wonder what he would’ve been like had he not gone to war. Would he have remained gregarious and affable? Would he have stayed the course and become a family doctor, one that was concerned with his patients’ lives and well-being? Would we have moved to Kenosha? Would my parents have had more kids? Would they have bought a different house, one that didn’t have a den where he could hide away from the rest of the world?

I don’t know. I only know that my Dad’s Vietnam War experiences had a profound effect on him, changing who he was and shaping who my family and I are today.

Another First

Collaborative writingAs I mentioned in my previous post, last week I did something for the first time: I called a stranger an A-hole. This week I’m keeping up with that tradition, but this time I’m doing something a little more civil: I’m writing and researching with my students for the first time.

My writing teacher friends tell me they’ve done it. Research suggests that all teachers should do it. I’ve always thought about doing it, but today I’m actually doing it.

As usual, I have ulterior motives. When I was home for spring break, I had a little case of bronchitis. To keep from moving and breathing heavily, which would launch me into coughing spasms, I plopped myself on the couch and watched a lot of TV. I watched the news and saw story after story about Russia occupying Crimea. I heard of deployment efforts of our armed forces to places near Korea. I heard of the on-going debate about whether the U.S. should pull American troops out of Afghanistan. I watched war documentaries on Netflix, thinking I have never given a lot of serious thought to war other than as events in history. Then, I serendipitously watched the movie Full Metal Jacket and thought about my dad, who served in Vietnam, and wondered if he suffered any of the dehumanizing effects this movie depicts.

I also thought about my dad while watching this movie because my brother Steven and I were watching it the night my mom called to tell us our dad had died. Watching this movie again over spring break, I began to think seriously about the effects of the Vietnam War on my dad and other veterans, the effects of World War II on Joe’s dad (his dad stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-day). Mostly, though, I began to think seriously of my ignorance of my dad’s life vis-à-vis his war experiences. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully know what he went through while he was there. He, like other Vets from that war, never talked about it. But I can do my due diligence to understand how for a moment in our nation’s history he worked in service for our country to maintain its democratic ideals.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m reading and writing with my students about the Vietnam War. We’re going to begin by reading the short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien and then using it as a springboard into any element of the Vietnam War and/or the Vietnam War era in America we want to learn something more about. I’m not sure what element of the war I want to explore, nor am I sure what to expect with this project, but that, for me, is the heart of teaching: learning something new.

Teach-New-Concepts