Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I've got madd skills, yo

"Yo, Miss," my Brooklyn students often said to me, "I've got madd skills." They always said this when they'd finally figured out something difficult, like subject/verb agreement or the art of using an apostrophe.

Yes, I'd say. You do.

I'm a city girl. I don't belong anywhere else. I've learned this about myself over the years, especially those years I spent in any place with a population under a million. When you grow up outside Chicago and cut your adult teeth in New York City, you stop being afraid of things. Bad things happen. You deal.

I wasn't always this way. As a young girl I had great fear. Common cruelty from other children was something I couldn't brush off. 

I remember one day -- it was the first day of school -- another girl came up to me and said she liked my shoes. I went to Catholic school and because we wore uniforms, the only real differentiator between us girls was our shoes. (And in the winter, our legwarmers.) I hadn't liked these shoes, but picked them because they were the only option available to me. That's why I was so surprised when Lorena said she liked them. Really? I asked her. "Yes," she said. "I used to have shoes exactly like that. But then my dad got a job."

Yeah. More than twenty years later, and I remember that like it was yesterday.  Hey, don't judge.  I told you I internalize things.

I don't remember what I did after that. I probably did what I always do in a situation where someone hurts me: I pretended that it didn't. But when I lay in bed that night, I thought of all kinds of alternate responses like, "Your dad has a job? I couldn't tell."  Or, "Even with a job, your dad couldn't have afforded these shoes."  Or, "Who paid for your haircut?  Your dad?  You should get his money back."  None of these came to me in the moment, of course.

I tell that story to my students all the time and they all want to know if I kicked her ass. Of course I didn't. I spent my entire childhood looking for approval from my peers, and when I didn't have it, I would work and work to convince whoever didn't like me to change their mind. And I'd win, because really, I was a winning kind of kid. Lorena and I eventually became friends. I'd go over to her house, she'd show me her Menudo magazines, and we'd sigh over them together.

Yeah.  I don't know what we were thinking.

It's still incredibly easy to hurt my feelings; I've just gotten much better at hiding it.   You have to have this ability as a teacher because kids will say the meanest stuff to you all. the. time. If you can't look them straight in the eye after they tell you that your platform shoes make you look like the sixth Spice Girl, the one named Teacher Spice, you won't survive more than two weeks in front of a classroom.  (Even I had to admit that one was funny.  But yeesh.  They were new shoes.  And platforms were very in at the time.  I swear.)

Okay, fine.  Yes.  Platforms are only a good idea if you're a Spice Girl.  Shut up.  

So I lived in Brooklyn for a bunch of years and cut my classroom teeth on Brooklyn teenagers and spent my nights out in Manhattan nightclubs and now I'm not afraid to talk to anybody.  

One of my great frustrations since moving back to Chicago is that most of my family and friends still live in the suburbs. It makes sense, I suppose, since that's where I grew up, but it makes me a little crazy how often I have to get in my car if I ever want to see anybody I love. A friend of mine refuses to come to my house at all because she's afraid she'll get jumped.  I want to tell her she's crazy, that the worst things that ever happened to me happened in the suburbs.

The reason I bring all of this up is because every so often, I convince a friend to make the trek into the city with me. Enter Laurie, who is recently divorced and every other weekend has some time on her hands. She wants to go out, she tells me. Good, I say. I'm all about going out.

So I take her to a bar on the north side, a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood joint in Wrigleyville (go Cubs!) called Trader Todd's where they sing bad karaoke every night of the week and it isn't long before she tells me she doesn't like it.  And it's not just because she's a White Sox fan.  I'm a little surprised because I'm feeling rather comfortable at this bar, but she says no.  None of these people are talking to us.

And I get it.  Remember, I really am the sensitive one.  This talking to strangers thing is hard. You have to be prepared for cruelty.  Because really, in a bar, guys can be jerks.  They're looking for someone who's not-you and it's tough not to internalize that rejection.  But here's the thing: we do it, too.  It's the game.  It's all a game, and you have to pretend it doesn't matter when you hear a guy complain to his friend about never getting to talk to the hot one.   On her first night out, neither of us wanted to run into the assholes, so I stop and think and put into words all that I know about the bar scene.  And let me tell you: I've got madd skills, yo.

Of course we'd been sitting at our table having a cozy chat.  So I tell her it's very simple: we simply have to act like we want to be spoken to.  We're not looking friendly.

She's been married for most of her adult life so navigating the bar scene is something new to her.  I take a look around the bar.  There are men here to meet people, I tell her, and there are men here to hang out with friends and/or girlfriends.  You have to be able to tell the difference so you don't even try to approach someone who's not interested.

I look around the bar and see a couple of likely fellows.  Two guys near the bar, both looking around.  There, I tell her.  They want to meet someone.  And indeed some girl walked up to the bar and they pounced immediately.  She shot them down.  I grinned.  

"Jesus," said Laurie.  "She weighs about fifty pounds.  Most of the women in here weigh nothing.  Don't they have regular-sized women on the North Side?"

I told her it didn't matter.  Men like all types, and the type they like the most is the type that smiles and acts interested in what they have to say.   They also especially like the type that will go home with them the same night, but I didn't say that.

The pair we had our eyes on tried the next girl who walked up.  She stopped for a second to chat.  We could try them, I suggested.  "No," Laurie said.  "They look like they're about twelve.  I prefer grown men."  She looked around.  "Like the bald guy over there."  The bald guy was clearly taken, though.  He was hanging on every word that the girl he was with said to him.

"They're just not friendly on the North Side," she insisted, but I wasn't going to accept that.  They're friendly everywhere.  They're men. 

So I told her we could leave and go somewhere else.  This wasn't really a pickup place.  It was a hang-with-your-friends place.  We stopped and talked to the bouncer on the way out, but she was right: he wasn't friendly.  But bald guy was outside smoking with his girl and so I walked up to them and told them my friend thought northsiders weren't friendly.  He proceeded to do his best to prove her wrong.  He and his friend invited us back inside, but we said no, we were going somewhere else.

If there's one thing I know, it's that if you want friendly, you go to a reggae club.  So we go to Wild Hare, the biggest reggae bar I've ever been to.  They've got live music most nights, too.  This night was no exception.  So we get inside, head back to the dance floor and within minutes this guy is trying to dance with me.  He's got a Spike Lee look going, but no: he's not cute.  And anyway, I wasn't out to meet men that night.  I just wanted to dance and have a good time.

Laurie goes to get another drink and when she comes back, she suggests going upstairs.  So we do, and while we're sitting and chatting, this man walks up to me.  I'm half a second from freezing him out when Laurie asks him, "Why are you talking to her and not to me?"

He looks surprised.  "Because you look married," he said.  She didn't look open to the approach, which was exactly what I'd been telling her.  Eye contact, smile, look away.  If they're interested, they'll come.  No need to get out of your seat.  He tries to get me to dance, but I send him away.

"So I have to smile?" she asks.  Yes, I tell her, and you have to do it near the guy you want to talk to.  Or, ask him a question and then walk away.  Men love to help.  If he's interested, he'll find you later.

She looked around.  "I like the bouncer," she said.  I told her to go and ask where the bathroom was.  Fifteen minutes go by before she returns.  She's grinning.  "He was really nice," she said.  And indeed, for the rest of the evening, said bouncer kept coming to check on her.  But the ice had been broken, and several men thought she was approachable.

I was so proud.  I felt like the nightclub pickup guru.  Buddha on the reggaetop.

But then at some point it was crunch time and everybody and their brother was looking for someone to take home and I had to turn into Xena Warrior Princess and send them on their way.  Baby steps.  I wasn't going to let her go to anybody else's home but hers.

We were walking back to my car and a man was standing in the doorway of a bar.  "You're hot," said Laurie (she was more than a little drunk at this point).

"Yeah?"  he said.  "I'd like to ..."

If you know what's good for you, I interrupted, you won't finish that sentence.  I used my teacher voice on him.  He looked me in the eye, saw that I meant it, and backed off. (My teacher stare is even more frightening than my teacher voice.)  I felt like I should be doing kung fu or something.  The streets of Wrigleyville when the bars are about to get out are no place for a drunk girl.  Thank god one of us was sober, because they were coming out of the woodwork and pouncing.  I don't know what they were thinking -- are they really able to just accost a girl on the street and get her to go home with them?  Not on my planet.

I got her to the car and got her home.  Skills, I thought.  Getting everybody home safely takes skills.

A few days later, I was proudly telling my trainer about this part of the night.  "You know what we call girls like you?" he said.  "Cockblockers."

Shut up, I said.  She wasn't going to go home with any of them anyway.

He laughed.  "And anyway, correct me if I'm wrong, but you were working with a beginner.  That doesn't make you an expert.  An expert can go to a bar without a cent in her pocket and walk out fifty dollars richer."

How does she do that?

"She walks up to a guy, smiles at him and talks to him for a while, and when she's got him hooked, offers to get a drink.  Then when he hands her the money, she brings back the drinks but not the change.  A few minutes later, she dumps him and moves on to the next guy.  That's an expert."

Yeah, I said.  Expert whore, maybe.  

"And what were you wearing that made all the guys come up to you?"

I didn't like his tone.  A shirt.  Jeans.  A jacket.  

"Uh-huh.  And how low-cut was that shirt?  Because let me tell you, guys like breasts."

Ha ha, I said.  I know.  I've got them.  But here's the thing: I kept my jacket on and zipped up all night.  They were approaching me because of my beautiful eyes.  

He snorted.

Which, if you think about it, makes me even more expert, because I wasn't dressed like a hoochie mama.

He looked doubtful.  He likes to do this with me, find the holes in my arguments and shoot them down.  I, on the other hand, refuse to lose, especially to him.

He shook his head.  "Nope," he said.  "Unless you walked out richer than you went in, you're no expert.  Better than average, maybe, but not an expert."

Right, I said.  Those are skills I don't need.  For now, I'm like Snapple: happy with #3.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Tiny Miracles

Sometimes I feel like I'm a brain expert after all the learning we've done since my nephew was first conceived. Anyway, when Drew was only a few weeks in the womb, they did an ultrasound and found an anomaly in his brain. Soon after, they sent my sister in for an MRI and took pretty detailed pictures of his entire brain. After that, he was diagnosed with Dandy Walker syndrome, which basically means that he was missing certain parts of his brain (the vermis, which connect one hemisphere to the other) and others were VERY underdeveloped (the cerebellum, which basically controls motor function). Those things would be problems his whole life, they said. She would just have to find a way to work around them, and no one had any idea what this would mean.

At the time, my sister's only reaction was this: whatever it is, I don't care as long as the baby lives. She could deal with anything except losing him.

When he was born, they performed another MRI to the same basic results. The only difference was that they saw the vermis did exist; they were just few and underdeveloped. The neurologist said that from this point forward, we would just have to play a waiting game. We went in for checkups. He was poked and prodded, and made to sit up just to see which way he'd fall and if he'd try to correct himself. The doctor gave us recommendations: we could work with him this way and that to see if we could make him burn the necessary neuropathways that would help him function somewhat normally.

How to describe my sister during all this? A mama bear. She worked his limbs, over and over. She was told he wouldn't understand music, but she played it for him constantly in the hopes that another part of his brain would learn to love it. She made him stand; she made him sit; she made him do things that other "normal" babies weren't doing at that developmental point. She was going to do every thing she could to make sure that her baby, no matter what his problems, would develop as close to normally as possible.

Now, I have other nieces and nephews. They all started walking at different times, but with Drew, they warned us that it might be a good long time before he started walking. However, about a month before his first birthday, my sister and I were playing with him, sitting a few feet apart from each other and helping him practice his balance. "Let go," she told me. "Watch." And then, he stood, all by himself. Mary smiled and said, "Come to Mama." And do you know that little boy walked? Eleven months old, missing a major part of his brain, and walking.

Since then, he's been something of a holy terror, running around the house like Godzilla. They weren't quite prepared for how quickly he was going to be moving, in fact.

Enter my brother-in-law. He's a good guy, and tries to do his part to share in the childcare. My sister went to volunteer in her daughter's classroom one day, and Tom was left alone with the baby. He put Drew in one of those walkers, and Drew was running happily all over the floor. That baby was fast. So fast, in fact, that when Tom ran downstairs to get something and didn't close the door all the way, Drew grabbed the handle, pulled it open and went tumbling down the stairs. (Men.)

Now, you'd think a spill down the stairs wouldn't be a happy ending to a story, but when they rushed him to the hospital, they decided to do another MRI to check for a concussion. They got the results back: no concussion, and no stitches needed. He was relatively unscathed, considering the tumble he'd taken. Oh. He sported a nice black eye for about a week.

But here's the kicker: Mary looked at the MRI results and saw a difference. Things that weren't there when he was born were there. They told her this was impossible, but she showed the films to me and I, too, saw the difference. Even to my untrained eye, it looked significant. They'd told us it was impossible, but it really looked different to us. I was almost afraid to hope.

She called the neurologist and made an appointment. When she told him what she thought, he looked at her with pity, because of course, he thought it was impossible that there would be a change. But there was. The vermis, which at first had seemed nonexistent and then underdeveloped were now normal size. And the cerebellum, which had been totally underdeveloped, had grown to almost normal size on one side. The other side is still underdeveloped, but the doctor said that likely his brain would figure out a way to compensate.

It seems his brain already has compensated, because when he's unhappy, the only thing that will make him happy is music, the very thing they said he wouldn't appreciate. He's got great taste, too. His favorite videos are the Muppets. For Christmas, I found a Kermit doll on ebay. Now that he's walking, he carries it around with him.

In short, our beautiful baby boy has a much brighter future than we'd originally thought. He might never play baseball, but hey. Maybe he might. Miracles do happen. He is, I think, proof of that.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Most serious readers I know can think back to their childhood and pick out that one book that made them into a reader. For me, that book was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. If you haven’t read the book, and chances are that if you’re male, you haven’t, it’s the autobiography of a young girl, Laura Ingalls, and her family’s travels in a covered wagon to different parts of the midwest. In fact, it’s a series of books, beginning from when Laura was very young and lasting into her first few years of marriage.

To say that I loved these books doesn’t quite do the feeling I had for them justice. I would read these books over and over again. When my parents would yell at me that it was time to turn out the light and go to bed, I’d huddle under the covers with a flashlight and read, again, about nasty Nellie Olsen or Lazy, Lousy Liza Jane. And because they were so important to me, I was obsessed with what they must have looked like. I’d study the front of the books and Garth Williams’s illustrations inside.

Yes, there were Laura and Mary, gazing out the back of the covered wagon. Laura was jealous of Mary's blonde hair and blue eyes -- she always got to wear the blue ribbons. Me? I hated Mary's blonde hair, too, because it was just like mine, and I wanted to be like Laura. I wanted to know everything about Laura, in fact. I studied her pictures. They were the only books I owned where I actually knew the name of the illustrator, I’d studied them so often. And then, the television series came out.

Melissa Gilbert was the perfect Laura, and Michael Landon made a mighty pretty Pa, but no: this tv family never matched the Ingalls family of my imagination. That didn’t mean that I’d miss a single episode, however.  Every week, somebody would yell, "ALHOP is on!" (we were too lazy to say the whole title), and the whole family would come running for the living room.

It was my Laura Ingalls fix, and I watched every minute even though I knew that half the stuff they showed on television never happened in real life. They never had an adopted brother named Albert, for instance. However, as time wore on and the girls grew older, that’s where the books stopped and the tv series continued. I couldn’t separate fact from fiction any longer. Did Mary really marry another blind man and found a new school for the blind? I didn’t know. I hoped so, because I really wanted Mary to end up happy.  And I wondered. Everything there was to know about this family I wanted to know.

Now, this was in the days before the internet and you couldn’t just find these things out. You had to go to the library and actually do some research. And lo, though I was a somewhat lazy kid, I did find a few things. The trouble was, the Hazel Crest Public Library wasn’t exactly teeming with information on the Ingalls family.
But I grew up, as people do, and my obsession for Laura went the way that children’s obsessions often go. That is, until Dawn and I took a trip to the Ozarks last week and saw along the way a tiny sign off US 60. That sign said "Wilder Family Home."

I knew immediately what it was. I turned to Dawn. I couldn’t help myself. Oh my god, I said. It’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home.

And really, if I’d thought about it before we took the trip, I would have known that it was there, because I read the book where Laura and Almonzo take their wagon and drive from Desmet, South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri to start an apple farm. I did know that. I did. But I was surprised by the reality of it nonetheless.

And the reason that Dawn is my best friend is that she immediately responded, "Well, we have to go."
And we really did. Have to go, that is. Dawn understood this by taking just one look at me. You see, this was my somewhat-forgotten childhood dream.

The old homestead is a tiny white house on the top of the hill. When you climb the hill, you enter through a small museum. And the first thing you encounter, the thing that I needed to see more than anything, were the pictures.

Standing in the back row are Carrie, Laura, and baby Grace. Seated are Ma, Pa, and Mary, Laura’s blind sister. I stood in front of the photograph and studied it a good long while. Christina, my niece, stepped up beside me. I pointed to each picture and explained who they were. I’m sure she didn’t understand why I knew so much or even why I thought they were so important, but she listened patiently. "Look at Mary," I said. "She how she’s not looking at the camera? That’s because she’s blind."

And I couldn’t believe that I was actually looking at Mary. And Laura. And all the rest of them. I mean, check out Pa’s crazy beard. He looked nothing, I mean nothing, like Michael Landon.
But then, I saw something even better: Pa’s fiddle.

Honest to god, they had the real thing sitting right there. And only a geek like me would be excited about seeing it. The children were interested in the different parts of the fiddle and how they worked, but me? I was interested in the fact that it was Pa’s damn fiddle. For real.

I walked around it about ten times. I’d never studied a Picasso the way I studied this fiddle.

There were several pictures of Laura, also. I looked at this one and remembered the book where she’d tried to be different and fashionable and cut bangs into her hair, and there she was, with bangs. Everywhere I looked, I saw proof that even the smallest details were true.

She didn’t look like Melissa Gilbert, either, but oh, was she Laura. See that determined look in her eye? That girl could kick some major ass if she wanted to.

Now, besides Laura, I had a pretty major crush on Almonzo. I’m sure it started with the actor that they got to play him on the television series:

Isn’t he pretty? They always had him lifting things. Even when I was a child, I knew that I liked to watch a man lift something heavy.

But the photo archives had the photo I’d been longing to see: the real Almonzo. And girls, he’s just as pretty in real life:

Look at those eyes. Hubba hubba.

The rest of the museum had artifacts, like the jewel box Laura was given that one Christmas in Walnut Grove (I remembered that) or the writing desk where they found the hundred dollar bill that they thought they’d lost (I remembered that like I’d read it yesterday), or the clock that Almonzo (sigh) gave Laura on their second anniversary.

I remembered it. I remembered every word. I could hardly contain my memories.

We took a tour of their little house. Almonzo had built the entire thing for Laura, starting with one room and adding each additional room as they could afford it. The floors were covered with linoleum. I couldn’t get over that. They’d lived in that house until the early 1950s, you know.

We got to the end of the tour and the rest of the people filed out. I stopped to speak with my guide. She was of an age where she’d have known Laura, but just barely. She’d been a very young woman when Laura died at the age of ninety. I asked her about this Lane fellow. Whatever happened to him?

Lane, for those of you who aren’t insane like me, is the man that Laura’s daughter Rose married.
She leaned in. "Well," she said. "He was in real estate. Rose met him in San Francisco. They were married for nine years and," she paused dramatically, dropping her voice to almost a whisper, "then they divorced."
I gasped. She seemed to expect it. Rose never had any children, she said, so Charles Ingalls’s direct line died out completely. Of the girls, only Carrie ever married, to a man who had two stepchildren. That meant that Mary’s husband on the show was entirely fictional.

I was sad for Mary, and surprised at Carrie. She seemed like such a sour woman in that photograph.
And so there I was, finally separating fact from fiction, and wishing a little that the fiction had been the truth. I didn’t want to think of Pa’s girls as anything less than happy.

Then I stepped out on the porch with the kids and Dawn took our picture.

It was a dream come true. Accidentally, that is.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Hot For Teacher

Last week, I was at a party, drinking wine, flirting with strangers, and generally having a good time. However, it always happens sooner or later. Someone will ask the dreaded question:
"So. What do you do for a living?"
It's gotten so I consider lying, just so I don't have to deal with what will inevitably follow.
You see, I'm a teacher.
I mean, I guess I understand. We were the instruments of your adolescent torture. We made you sit in your desks when you wanted to stand and told you to keep your mouth shut when you wanted to talk. You all dealt with it in different ways. Some of you wrote nasty things on your desk about us. Some of you muttered angry things behind our backs. And some of you? Some of you just sat back and imagined us naked.
There's a huge subculture of this teacher fetishization. I get it. The only trouble is, it turns you into slavering idiots the minute you find out what I do.

Response 1: The repressed masochist. You immediately shiver and say, "Ooh, teacher! Will you punish me?"
Gee, I've never heard that one before. But yes, come here so I can punish you just for being stupid. I'll even wear my porn star outfit while I do it.
Response 2: The idealist. You look at me and see an angel, a sweet thing who has given up her life to minister to the nation's misguided youth. You ask me questions like, "It just seems so difficult. Do you think you actually reach them? Does your work va-li-date you?
No. I spend day after day in my classroom looking at the same kids every day and I never teach them anything. They're lucky if I teach them how to read.
Of course I think I reach them, otherwise I couldn't stand the job for more than a week. They wouldn't let me.
Response 3: The cynic. You look at me and smile a very nasty smile. You think I'm in this job because I'm not smart enough or too lazy to do anything else, and you think I don't work hard enough. "So you took this job because of summers off, huh?"
Yes, that's precisely why I took this job. Because it's so easy. No, really. You should see me in my classroom. I just sit down and chat with the kids and it's all so lovely and soon it's June and I'm in my bathing suit down on the beach. I know you're still slaving away in your office in your wool suit and I laugh at you, sucker.
The thing that kills me is that 95% of the men who take that tone with me would get ripped to shreds by my kids. I don't teach in one of those fancy, clean private schools. I'm in the inner city, and my kids are dealing with the stuff you see in the movies every day. The only trouble is, it isn't the movies. It's life. And when they die, they really die. So shut up, asshole. The minute you can tell me that one of your coworkers got knifed in an alley or his head blown off by a ten-year-old, then maybe you can talk to me about summers off.
Response 4: The guy who actually knows teachers. "Tough job. You like it? You going to stick with it?"
Yes, probably.
But this guy at this particular party? He was an amalgamation of 1, 2, and 3. I answered his questions politely and then escaped to another room. Because I never say these things out loud. Only in my head.


If you really want to know the truth, I blame Van Halen.