As I’ve mentioned before, being a mom to this particular son* is a gas—and always educational. This morning I decided to visit him in his room before he fully woke up and remembered his mother irritates him to no end. He rewarded me by reading aloud, in Latin and then English, selections from “Which Way to the Vomitorium?” My personal favorites came from the “Girl Talk” chapter, which offered handy phrases for any modern woman:
“I need 8 slaves to carry my litter.”
“Can you pass me the rat head mixture? mM hair is getting a bit thin.”
“Please don’t read any of your poetry out loud again at dinner; we’ll lose all our friends.”
With holiday season upon us (I know this because of the piped-in carols I heard at my grocery store last night 3 weeks before Thanksgiving), you’ll want to add this book to your gift list for your favorite Latin teacher or smarty pants polyglot friends and family. Merry Holidays!
*He prefaced his recitation by explaining to his Latin-ignorant mother that “vomitorium” means “theatre exit,” “from ‘uomere,’ meaning to spew forth.”
The second sweetest thing about cardiac recovery is the extravagance of time you find to loll on the screened porch playing the synopsis game with your 18 year-old son, who hasn’t yet read the books you’ve loved in college and half a lifetime, but who has read the books you loved and hated in high school but can’t recall.
The sweetest thing about cardiac recovery is winning at the synopsis game against your über literary little boy-man, with the clue, “a child tries to prove his independence by leaving in many ways, never escaping the persistence of his mother’s love,” and the prize: digging out, dusting off, and reading aloud to this man the book he doesn’t remember finding in his first Easter basket, a book you read and re-read to him before naps, after naps, at bedtime, and so many times in between until the pages were bent and sticky and smudged with too swift a season.
I was working on a meditative essay to post on this here writey blog, but the following Facebook status update by my dear son, pictured below (in what I think should be his online dating profile picture, should he ever online-date in his twenties), derailed me. You’ll understand why.
Oh, and as any good anglophile, he punctuates the UK way. Also, why do I even try to write? OY, this kid:
For those of you reading Independent People, the protagonist’s name, Bjartur, is Icelandic. That means it’s not pronounced like American English. It’s not pronounced “buh-JAR-der” or “buh-jar-TUR” but “bee-ART-oor”. The letter j in most European languages besides French and English is just a consonant version of the letter i. That means it makes the same sound as i does (ee), but is not stressed as a vowel. It’s kinda like the consonant y in modern English.
Also, the word “bjartur” comes from Old Norse (bjartr) and is cognate with Old English “beorht”, whence comes “bryht” and thereby “bright”. “Beorht” in Old English was later shortened to “Bert” and was often used as a suffix in names like Albert, Athelbert, Egbert, et cetera, so to avoid all this pronunciation confusion, one could simply refer to Bjartur by his English cognate name: Bert.
Disclaimer: I take no credit for the kid’s head. He had it when he emerged from the womb. Credit goes to his Designer and to Jack, for all the study and research that led to his acquisition of linguistic knowledge. It’s a beautiful mind, in spite of his mortal mother. It’s just Jack.
I started writing these thoughts as an entry for a Thanksgiving season “giving back” essay contest my MFA program was hosting, but when I missed the deadline (over dread of rejection) I decided to make it mine.
Last month my girlfriend Brooke passed a few nights holed up in a Katmandu apartment, praying and fist pumping against injustice, ticking down the niggling hours her husband spent in Nepal brothels with prostitutes the age of my 9th grade daughter. He and two men from an organization called Tiny Hands* were there to gather evidence via interviews—and used condoms, when they could got their hands on them, yes-you-read-that-right—for local authorities to use in the prosecution of sex trafficking perpetrators. Brooke and Jeff are taking a year away from their real jobs as social worker and physical therapist to travel the world writing and photographing for a social justice travel magazine—first to Rwanda, then Cambodia, Nepal, Vegas and Cuba.
Kind of kicks the shit out of the cans of creamed corn and kidney beans I plunked into a grocery bag and placed on my front porch for a local church to pick up for their food drive a few Sundays ago.
And then some little girl featured on Christian radio, Gracie, just five years old, knocks me down. She got it in her mind after watching Cinderella or some such shoe-related fairytale that she wanted to collect 67 pairs of shoes for children whose parents can’t afford them. She handily exceeded her goal to the tune of 80 pairs to donate to this organizationthat exists to shod “orphan souls” around the world.
Kind of makes my one shoebox a year stuffed with underwear and crayons for Samaritans Purse to send as Christmas gifts to kids across the ocean look anemic, flaccid, half-hearted.
The same week I heard the shoe story on the radio, I stopped by Menards for supplies for a thesis-avoiding DIY project restoring a couple dated bookshelves, one for my son’s extensive book-and-stuff collection and one for my office. On my way out carrying a bag stuffed with multiple, unnecessary cans of paint and primers in various colors, I passed a cashier dragging a Volkswagen-sized box labeled “Wrapped New Toys.” Customers invited to donate new toys to kids in need took me back ten years: When my kids were little, the week before Christmas I’d have scan the toy room for toys they no longer played with, intending to teach them the value of sharing (and, conveniently, to make room in the clutter for their new booty due the 25th). We’d wipe down discarded cars, Barbies, dinosaurs, books and building blocks, wrap them in festive paper and bows, and haul them down Christmas Eve night and leave them outside the front door of the Hispanic church. That was fun. It now strikes me as presumptuous, and maybe even a little condescending. Our hearts were in the right place, but I’m sure it was more fun for us to play Santa than for the church secretary to be burdened with schlepping the heavy box inside (or to the dumpster, because how on earth would the gifts be disbursed or trusted to be safe?).
In an interview I read a few years back, Tom Hanks (or, I don’t know, maybe it was Billy Crystal) said the key to a strong marriage is to out-give each other, to out-generous your spouse. If every person in town would apply this principle to his or her sphere of influence—the gas station attendant beleaguered by lottery customers, the downsized mid-level management guy slinging fries since the banks ruined the economy, or even the neighbor across the street who never wants to wave back at you—what kind of sweetness would it lend to our lives? What kind of heaven on earth would we create if we out-gave the people who get under our skin and those we love, or those we love who get under our skin?
Which makes me think about the idea of applying the Out-Give-Your-Spouse thing to the greater world, but in reverse. As in, not giving back the garbage dumped into the laps of our experience. A Twitter acquaintance recently posted, “I wonder if Saab comes in a doesn’t-tailgate-me model,” to which I replied, “BMWs too.” What is it with import drivers, like the BMW that always seems to tailgate me down my own street on its way to its more affluent cul de sac?? I suppose they feel they’re entitled because, well, they have created a world in which they are. They’ve worked for it. It chaps my hide, hard, to be tailgated in my Toyota minivan by a shiny, spendy import (Mercedes drivers seem to show more consideration, however), but then I find myself doing the same thing to the timid Ford Focus driver creeping through the roundabouts that clog my city’s avenues. I growl from behind the tan vinyl wheel of my middle class vehicle, and snark, “C’mooon, man, drive!” I try not to cuss. I don’t even notice that I’m trailing closely, and for me it has nothing to do with entitlement but everything to do with impatience and bad manners. My own. And then I notice the silver headed driver and feel guilt pelt my stomach. And I think, B, how bout not giving back once in awhile?
So this week, three weeks from Thanksgiving, my Nepal sex traffic fighting friend and her husband are headed to Vegas for their next mission: helping and reporting on Cupcake Girls, an organization that shows God’s love by offering cupcakes (and other services, including medical, financial, dental assistance) to women who work in strip clubs and leaving tracts and judgment for other so-called Christians. Her blog post about the Cupcake Girls pricks me with a question: What will I be doing to show God’s love during the three weeks they’re in and out of seedy joints? In between dipping in and out of O’Malias for dinner stuffs, buying presents, painting furniture, obsessing over dust and décor in my home, and baking pumpkin pies, maybe I can look for small ways to give back and NOT to give back.
I’m just not in a position in the current stage of my life to afford, in time or money, the grand gestures. But that doesn’t take me off the hook to invoke a little heaven on earth, to give back blessings—of friendship, kindness, hospitality, generosity—with which my family and I have been embarrassingly showered. Even without the freedom to donate weeks and months of time or loads of money, it is possible to open my eyes to ways in which I can out-give my family and people in my community. Brainstorm:
GIVING BACK IDEAS
Bake a loaf of spice bread and walk over to the widow across the street.
Make a little extra soup and take it to the nutty neighbors in ill health, the ones with the frequent visits from cop cars and fire trucks.
Place a smile in my voice with an incompetent customer service person on the other end of my phone call.
Offer a kind word to a bag boy.
And how easy is it to throw into the shopping cart cans of veggies or bags of beans when you see “10 for $10” and drop it all off at a food bank or the Methodist church on the corner? (All Methodist churches have food banks, don’t you know.)
NOT GIVING BACK IDEAS
Choose to rag a little less on my kids for their messy bathroom and comment a little more often on all they do to make me proud, appreciating a little more the ways in which they lighten our home with youthful abandon.
Instead of, “Your room is out of control,” say to my creative daughter, “The fact that you’ve spent so many hours practicing guitar really shows in the quality of your playing, Grace. You sound amazing.”
Or instead of saying to Mr. Bates, “Would you please squeeze out the wet sponge instead of leaving it in the bottom of the sink to rot?” try, “Honey, I feel really grateful to have a partner who is so helpful in the kitchen. I’m aware not many husbands pick up a dish sponge let alone use one on dirty pans.”
Pray for the guy in the BMW riding my back bumper.
You know. That sort of thing.
All in all, a long, meandering way of saying: Give back good stuff to the extras and main characters in your life story; harness and trash the bad stuff and negativity doled out or spoken into your life, which you might be leaching out without realizing it.
“Like they don’t hear it at school,” you say. “Or say it themselves.”
Yeah, I realize teenagers are fluent in profanity—I was in junior high and high school once. But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook from preserving for my daughter, 13, and son, 16, one pocket in their lives where an elevated level of gentility and decorum are modeled. Not that I’m genteel. But relatively speaking, I’m Emily Post.
In the car on the way home from school the boy will occasionally drop the f-bomb or other four letter words, and I can tell you his sister is genuinely offended. You see, the men in her life, well, for the most part, reserve their use of profanity for extreme situations, like severed limbs or totaled cars. Near tears she says, “Jack, why do you have to say that?” I call him out, remind him, “Gentlemen don’t speak that way,” and he says, “Mom, it’s just language.” And if this is as rebellious as it gets, I’m fine, but it’s just language?
I was raised to feel that cussing is the communication equivalent of open-mawed mastication, talking with your mouth full (AGGG!) or elbows on the table during a meal. In my home growing up, the following words were banned:
shut (with “up”)
It was natural to hear our mother respond from the kitchen to a smashed or sliced finger, in an amplified voice: “ESSS! AAAICH!” You knew it must really hurt if she got to “EEYYYE!” Never once heard her spell out the entire word, or say it. And my mother was, and is, no Stepford wife. She’s zany, well read, and filterless in her comments and opinions, but consistent in her relentless avoidance of profanity. (Though since Dad’s death she tends to overuse the “pissed.” I think it’s her way of coping. Widows gone wild.)
My dad, an articulate gentleman marketing exec who also happened to have served in the Navy during the Korean war, wasn’t quite as controlled in his profanity management. In fact, till we could read we thought our mother’s name was “GoddammitRuthann.” But he never tossed around the more vulgar sh^t or f*#k. He was no milquetoast, though. He was Don Draper, not Ward Cleaver. [<<<YOU HAVE TO CLICK ON THAT ONE. You’re welcome. End of aside.] I’m betting the farm he let the saltiest words fly on the golf course or with his fishing buddies on the St. John’s River, contexts that strike me as completely appropriate for unrestrained language.
Another appropriate—prescribed, even—occasion for well-chosen profanity, IMHO, is written dialogue. If a character in a work of fiction (or non fiction for that matter), swears like a sailor, and art reflects life, that character must not be muzzled. To pretend that people don’t really speak that way is ridiculous (CBA, I’m mean you). I’m not talking gratuitous swearing, but it is far more believable to read unsupervised teens expressing horror or surprise with “Oh my God!” than “Oh my Gosh!”; or disgust with a villain with, “She’s a total bitch!” vs. “She’s a real meanie.” Even if it’s not my own personal standard for my own children—that’s how certain normal people are going to talk in certain situations. I mean, hell, it’s realistic.
If a character in my novel witnesses a family member being maimed or killed, or she’s attacked by a bully, she might say something stronger than, “Gee whiz! That’s really bad!” In fact, Allison Lynn, my MFA Long Form Workshop professor, recently called me out for putting unrealistically soft language in my young teen girl characters’ mouths. Her assertion was that they didn’t sound real, not true to life, that in the absence of adult supervision they’d be experimenting with the vernacular. Because that’s what kids really do. (Dammit.)
And so do many adults, writers in particular. And that’s fine; I don’t judge them. It sounds just right when they say it, and they’re usually strategic. I take no offense—except that they’re far more successful than I am, and I worry that my reluctance to cuss handicaps me, branding me irrelevant.
It’s not my responsibility to groom or correct anyone who didn’t emerge from my womb. It just doesn’t feel right for me. And, I think the trendy swear words sound stupid coming out of my mouth. Like miniskirts: they just don’t look good on me. But Alicia Silverstone sure could rock hers. And how gorgeous are Scarlett Johansson’s lips in crimson? I look like a clown in red lipstick.
And there’s this: when I swear my spirit zings a little, no doubt because of the Bible verse installed in my memory as a child that reverberates anytime profanity slips from my mouth or fingers. This one: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV); and, from another version, “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.” Each word a gift. I like that. Another translation says it thusly:
“When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.”*
[Ask my husband: I am proficient in uttering “harmful things” with nary an f- or s- or b- or c-word in sight. But I’m working on it, constantly, and I strive to write in such a way that the words I choose will do some good. But that’s another matter. End of aside.]
I’m sure we’ve all heard, primarily from grandparents, librarians, and middle school English teachers, that “cussing shows a lack of intelligence” or is a sign of “verbal laziness.” There may be traces of truth in those statements, but I do believe there is power and exhilaration in the well placed f-bomb. Like, and we count on The Rumpus for such exhortations, on the mugs that sold out at the AWP conference in Boston quoting (the not at all lacking-in-intelligence or lazy) Cheryl “Dear Sugar” Strayed, seated next to Augusten Burroughs, concluded her presentation on the final night, with the charge to us eager writers to go forth and “write like a motherfucker.” Just freaking write was the point she was making, and her use of the electric MF word placed that advice in bold, punctuating it with a big loud exclamation point.
*Thanks, Cheryl Strayed, for the writerly kick in the bu#%. It was just the word I needed.
In the handbook of the school system attended by my children and funded by my household, under the section about bullying (defined as overt, repeated acts or gestures, including verbal … communication … by a student with the intent to harass, ridicule, humiliate or harm the other student) there is a point that states: Parents should feel free to report suspected acts of bullying to an appropriate school official.
We should feel free, shouldn’t we, to stand up for our children in any way we can, no matter how ineffectual in its discipline is a school system that retains coaches after they allowed sexual assault to occur on a team bus with no immediate consequence to their inaction?
We should feel free to advocate for our son who has endured ridicule for three years to the point where he, stretched beyond his attempts to remain tough and tolerant, finally breaks down in the kitchen after school and confides in his mother how a boy in gym class yelled at him, this smart, tender, artistic guy with a medical diagnosis that makes his long, spidery legs, clumsy and akimbo, run in an awkward, uneven stride, “Hey, Jack. RUN! Don’t SKIP!”
The mom should feel free to report how the boy, an athlete who is inexplicably “popular” (in spite of obnoxious interpersonal habits) punctuated this ridicule with, “FAGGOT!”
Why don’t I feel free?
Caveat: 25% of the school officials contacted in this matter have been compassionate and responsive. This school system has offered mostly premium educational opportunities and exceptional creative outlets for our children’s edification and enrichment.
After a gloomy weekend of rainy weather, it’s Monday, the kids have a Flex Day, and the sun is shining. The sun is shining bright like a blue sky day on the beach, it’s 75 degrees, and I’m in the Carmel Ice Skadium writing a Bosma internal newsletter on my laptop while my daughter skates stumbly laps for two-and-a-half hours with four other 11-ish buddies. It’s her birthday, and spending three hours in a cooler was her choice.
And since Grace really is the best girl who was ever born, truly, I didn’t hesitate to oblige her. But between you and me, I appreciate this opportunity to complain. Not that I didn’t spend hours in this very place after school and on weekends when I was her age, learning spins, jumps and spirals. Like with so many other haunts in this town I left in ’83 never to return, I’ve had enough of this particular locale. I never needed to see it again. Or smell it. It still smells like feet, sweat and dirty frost. The steel rafters, wooden stands carved with marks from a million blades, and cinderblock bathroom walls painted yellow remain as they appear in my memory.
A change in ownership a few years back, though, and an accompanying infusion of capital have resulted in some significant improvements. Topping the list is a new manager—a friendly, helpful guy they hired away from a rink near Seattle. (The old guy was aloof, loud, and rude. And I’m not saying the year, exactly, but it was earlier than 1980.) Mr. New Manager says they brought him on to “fix” the Carmel Ice Skadium, specifically the facility and programming. (“We sell ice. Ice and fun.”) When I asked him to pinpoint the most critical fix, he said, “Customer service.”
Friendly, helpful help goes a long way, sure, but so does a new and improved snack bar that sells hot Starbucks beverages, Tazo teas, bagels, breakfast sandwiches, pizza, and…BEER! (Mommy needs a beer, but nothing makes a responsible adult wait to drink at home more effectively than four little girls who depend on said Mommy to provide safe return to their mommies and daddies.)
One girl left because she was bored (a wrist injury prevented her from skating-???); another sulked by my side, slurping her blue slushie in my ear for fifteen minutes trying to annoy me into giving her money for a snack (I resisted), but the other three party girls skated and fell and skated some more until it was cake and present time. After the girls slimed a tabletop with their blue and red slushie juices, I offered to wipe it down. The new manager smiled and said, “We’ll take care of that. You just relax. Is it going okay?”
Grace is having a blast, it seems. And it’s not too bad for me, really. The prices are reasonable – $5 for kids, $3 for rental. I’m picking up someone’s internet signal. And the new manager, with his efforts at creating a tidier facility and a better experience for kids and parents, has made this afternoon’s warm weather deprivation a little less hellish.
There is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.
My last post about poor Jack sending a distress signal from camp found a twist this evening when I discovered that the camp was negligent in dispensing his medication. It turns out they gave him half a dose of his meds, which led to intense and sudden drug withdrawal, leading to very real physical, mental and emotional pain and suffering. I’m infuriated at this moment and am eager to talk with the camp director about this horrific mistake. When we arrived to pick him up on Thursday, he was in tears. He took all the blame on himself for his miserable week at camp. He was calling himself a “wuss” for “chickening out” on the zipline — an activity and accompanying anxiety he conquered at a retreat last fall. He saw his miserable week at camp as his failure. My child was suffering due to the incompetence of camp staff or some terrible miscommunication that warranted a call to his mother to clarify, for his sake. But they never called.
Symptoms of withdrawal in the medicine he takes can occur as soon as eight hours from the missed dose, which would have put it right about the middle of his first night there. The next day is when he wrote and mailed that letter I wrote about and laughed off. My baby was in pain. And I didn’t realize it until tonight when I found the bottle that I had supplied with the exact number of pills he would need, a bottle that should have been empty. The bottle contains four halves of his pills. I can’t stand it. I’m so upset and angry. When we greeted him, he said with a great deal of urgency, “Get me out of here. I don’t ever want to come back.” A careless error in judgment led to the end of my little boy’s innocence.
I’m happy to report he’s home and feeling better, more like himself now. But he’ll never trust camp again, and that’s just tragic. And it’s going to take time to convince him that his lousy week wasn’t his fault.
Is a picture really worth a thousand words? Are the words true? Can I trust the words? Whose words are they? And is no news good news?
Today, on my son’s fourth day of camp, my husband brought the mail in and announced, “Mail call! A letter from camp!” Last year my son went to camp but did not write to me. Holding the envelope addressed with familiar printing in my hand, I felt a mixture of pride, anticipation and sentimentality. “Oh, my little boy is growing up. I’m going to put this milestone letter in a scrapbook to bring out when he and his wife and children visit me someday.” These thoughts and others predicting the content of the letter flooded my mind in the fifteen seconds it took me to carefully open the envelope. I did not expect to read the following words.
I called the camp and waited two agonizing hours for the camp people to locate my son and find out if he was okay. I bathed, got dressed and prepared to drive the two hours to pick him up.
Finally, the camp director called to relieve my fears. Turns out he had transmitted his distress signal on the second day of camp, after his first night of a cold, cold (60 degree) night. (I was excited for him to have “real camp weather,” a relief from the sweltering, sticky 90 degree nights he endured last summer.) “He thought you either didn’t get the letter or figured he was kidding…and was glad you didn’t come pick him up.” WHEW!
So I’ll still put the letter in a scrapbook and hope that next year he writes a more newsy letter.
Or no letter at all. That’d be fine.
(Fun on the Blob – A thousand words of evidence off the SpringHill website proving that the crisis has passed.)