Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sometimes your characters need to run out of toilet paper.

I write characters who wear shoes that don't fit. They tug at crumpled hemlines and try to suck in their bellies so they don't look quite so funny in their pieced-together outfits. My characters have tangled hair. Broken glasses. They eat Doritos or cheese toast or fried eggs for dinner. They fight with their sisters over the last of the toilet paper.

My partner and I had an argument tonight. Not over anything. That's the trouble with being broke. More...It doesn't take two seconds for an okay evening to disintegrate into a bout of venting and taking stress out on each other. When you've just dusted a silverfish off your only "clean" plate so you could share the last piece of toaster strudel for dinner after a long day of -- him, job hunting in an impossible economy, and, me, teaching and an hour-long commute in bad traffic, well -- you just don't have the patience left for somebody to say to you, "Honey, did you remember to pick up the toilet paper?"

If I had, it would have been with our final dollar. I've been hanging onto the thing all week for exactly this moment. The number of non-toilet-paper items I've used as toilet paper this month is astounding even to me. Paper towels, of course -- that's a given. But we're never actually in possession of those. Coffee filters, but you have to crinkle them a while first so they're worn and not so crisp. Paper shopping bags. The empty toilet paper roll. Eventually it gets to the point where you just have to jump straight from the toilet to the shower. This is the reality of being flat broke and I've moved past being ashamed of it -- after all, I work hard for what living I make. I get up at 4:15 to hop on the computer and write until 6:00, when I embark on the hour drive to the high school. Once there, I spend eight and a half to nine hours straight with the kids, with no planning time or lunch and only the briefest of bathroom breaks (although there is usually toilet paper there).

Then I rush home to relax with my partner. Sometimes this means watching ghost-hunting shows and spooking ourselves silly. Or we get down on the floor and wrestle with the dogs. A lot of times, we relieve our stress by giggling uncontrollably while stretching our dollar at the grocery store. We've gotten really good at budgeting. We've also gotten quite good at alienating other shoppers, who happen to be passing by when we, for example, scoop up entire fistsful of the sample butterscotch chips lying out in the baking aisle. Or make the fish in the seafood section talk to each other. Or name the veal. Or wonder aloud what it might taste like to fry Jello.

Only when we get really down low -- when there's no food and no money and the landlords are mad because of the ink stain on the carpet and our basement apartment is filling up with ugly basement-type bugs -- When we get really low, there is less relaxing than there is verbal sparring. Not that we're not in love, because we are. Quite deeply. But we're in our fifth year of hollering such sentences to each other as, "Babe, will you bring me the coffee filters?" and frankly, it's easy to get cranky.

I know there is true poverty in this world, and I know that it's not us. After all, in this very post, I've mentioned having a television, a car, and a computer, all luxuries I relish after years of dreaming of them. I understand that what we are is just good ol' fashioned broke, and we are certainly not alone. I also realize that being broke has made us good at things like finding our way out of jams and making dollars stretch for miles. And I have a hunch -- a very strong one -- that I get my characters from being broke, and I wouldn't trade my characters even for a lifetime supply of Charmin. So, usually, I try not to wallow or to dwell on what we don't have.

But an Angel Soft commercial just played and I sort of feel like my hair is on fire.

Well, my partner just interrupted me to give me a kiss on the cheek and a bite of his sugar-free, fat-free pudding (45 cents at Go Grocery). Now he's trying to close the computer with his foot. So I guess we're making up. Which is the good thing about being broke. He and I have been through so much together, we can't bear to stay mad long.

Anyway, this was all by way of saying:

When you're writing -- or when you're out in the world, dealing with people -- just try to remember that some people are a little chafed from using coffee filters in ways God never intended, and they didn't plan on wearing plum PJ pants with a green sweatshirt to the grocery store -- that's just sort of how it happens. I hate to read over and over about characters who are always rested and clean, with dinner foods at dinner time and a magical supply of endless toilet paper. Sometimes characters just need to be crabby and messy and frustrated and griping at each other for the heck of it. That's life. And it's usually a good read, too.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Places I Have Lived

In almost all of the stories I've written, the protaganist is either moving to a new home or attempting to find a new home to move to. I guess that's because I've lived in 42 different places in my life, and each one is a story.

I think they're in order, but I can't promise.

1. The Uncle Lewis Place in Mt. Nebo, WV. I don't know why it was called that or if there was really an Uncle Lewis. It was an old, white, haunted house where we lived till I turned one. When I say it was haunted, I mean both that it was listed in a book of haunted houses and that when you used a camera in that house, sometimes there were snakes in the photos that weren't there in real life.

2. Bent Tree Farm, somewhere, I'm not sure where, in West Virginia. We raised goats and chickens and a cow or two. When I say "we," I mean Mom, who also took care of us three girls. Dad, too, of course, but I think he also worked in the mines at this time. I'm not sure; it's a little fuzzy. I know the chimney burned once. I know there was a swimming hole. We left when I was three because somebody vandalized the place so bad we couldn't live there anymore, and a neighbor's dog killed the goats. Years later, the whole house burned. I think it was actually burned on purpose as a practice exercise for the fire department. There was a neighbor called Jug who sat on his front porch with a jug. Years later my sister drove me back to find the place, and there Jug still sat, like not a day had gone by. Waved just like he knew us.

3. The brick house in Cottle, WV. This was a little brick house and I remember that the neighbors had a cook-out and I lost my jelly shoes. We left when I was ... still 3? Four, maybe? This house also burned later.

4. Williams Road, Craigsville (I think), WV -- a green house where we took care of a stray dog for a while. I had nightmares a lot. We had a yardsale. It was the first place I noticed that mist made me nostalgic. My sister accidentally cut herself on a neighbor's knife. We made up imaginary friends named Dusty, Waggy, and Marbly. I was four. I carried a lunch box and desperately wanted to go to school.

5. Coke Road, Craigsville, WV. This was actually called Bottle Plant Road, but we called it Coke Road. I had my first best friend, named Amber, but I didn't really like her. Her grandmother made good chocolate chip cookies. We made cornhusk dolls. I think I was still four. This one also burned later.

6. Pine Trailer Park, Summersville, WV. There was red carpet. I started Kindergarten at the Christian Academy. My mother worked there and after my half-day classes, I bounced around the halls on a bouncy horse. My horse-loving root, I guess. I wet my pants a lot. I wanted Snuggle Bear from the dryer sheet commercials as a pet.

Edited to Add: 7. Lee Street. White house with black shutters. We had a puppy named Sunday, but we only got to keep him from one Sunday till the next before we had to give him back. We walked out at dusk to get ice creams from the U-Save gas station. We had a cat named August who got hit by a car right in front of us and killed. This house always seemed creepy to me, though not for any real reason.

8. The Carpenter House in Mt. Nebo, thus named because we rented it from people named the Carpenters, but I also thought it was because the house was wooden. We three girls shared a room at the top of the stairs, and I liked to stand on the top step and watch storms. My favorite song was "Wake Up, Little Susie." My sisters and I played Civil War and Wild Horses and Gold Rush. I stepped on a hamster in the sandbox and it crunched. We liked MacGyver. I rode an imaginary horse everywhere I went. We had a brown Chevy Suburban named Teddy Bear. I was six.

9. Uncle Emmett's place in Mt. Nebo, WV. I don't remember an actual Uncle Emmett, though. My sister grew crystals for a science project. My other sister won a red ribbon in a social studies fair. There were two dogs, not ours, but they loved us enough to chase the schoolbus We walked down to the gospel sing to use the payphone. There were bunkbeds. I was seven. I started the first of three elementary schools I would attend in my second-grade year.

E.T.A. -- 10. Summersville Place, a retirement home, with my grandmother. We weren't allowed, but we did anyway. I remember watching Westerns and eating strawberry candy. There was a lady upstairs we thought was a witch. I don't actually remember sleeping there, but Mom says we stayed in Grandma's bed and she took the couch.

11. At a Christian bookstore in Muddletly, WV, for forty days and forty nights. The owners let us use their back room and I think my mom helped in the store. We weren't allowed to read. There were prayer meetings and the lady we lived with kept a bowl of glass-like green candy, which I loved. There were bees in boxes, and a stream out back. I remember we had a snow day once. I wanted a horse. We got a little gray car that my parents told me dropped from Heaven, and I never did know where it came from. I switched to the second of three elementary schools in second grade. My second-grade class shared a room with the third-grade class and it was too cold to use the playground, the whole time I lived there. We decorated shoeboxes for Valentine's Day.

12. With Yvonne in Canvas, WV. There were plastic runners on the carpets, and one whole white room of furniture that nobody, including Yvonne, was allowed to use. A mirror jumped off the wall during a prayer meeting and shattered on the living room floor. Yvonne had shoulder pads and liked Cool Whip on peanut butter sandwiches. Maybe this was where we weren't allowed to read. Or maybe it was both. There was a room in the back she didn't use, and that was our hideaway for Mom to read to us. Or maybe that was at the bookstore, too. Yvonne finally sat our stuff out on the sidewalk. Luckily, my parents had gone out and found us a place that very day. I'm not sure what we did about school, but I never did go to one in Canvas.

13. Maria Estates, in Glade Creek, WV, for two delicious years, my eighth through my tenth. We stopped going to church. We were off school during Indian Summer because of the teacher strike of 1990. We had a cat named Panther J. Andrew Cade who could knock on the door. My mom read us everything. The neighbor had a horse, but she didn't like us at first. Then she taught me to ride in the back meadow, and I don't remember being scared. We were convinced the meadow was haunted. She was my first real best friend. I liked listening to "Back in the High Life" by Steve Winwood and "Dirty Laundry" by Don Henley.

14. In the car, moving to and from Illinois. I don't remember much, only that there was a rest area with phones that you could pick up and they would automatically tell you the weather. I thought it was magic.

15. Camp. This is to say, my grandmother's camp in Mt. Nebo, WV. I started fifth grade at the same school I'd attended for a couple of months in second grade. I made a friend who liked horses, and she broke her arm on the playground. My grandmother didn't have indoor plumbing and we washed in basins outside with water from the well. I ate peanut butter toast in the dark before school.

16. Dotson Trailer Park, Glade Creek, WV. There was a horse named Diamond who lived down the road. He was my best friend. I was eleven. There was a blizzard that winter and we made roads in the snow. There was an orange cat named Misfit. The neighbor boys and I built a fort down in the valley. I remember spending a lot of time walking in circles and brooding. My bedroom was in a corner of the living room.

17. E.T.A. -- Camp again, apparently.

18. Battle Run Campground in Mt. Nebo, WV. We couldn't afford rent, so we moved into the campground. We had to switch campsites every two weeks, as per their rules, so actually there were lots of little moves in between. We had a brown Nissan truck, and sometimes we rode in the back and held our tents, still pitched, against the wind while Dad drove us to a new campsite. It was easier than taking them apart and putting them back together. We hid out in the shower houses during the biggest storms. Of all the summers to live on Summersville Lake, we picked a drought year, the year they drained the lake early. There was a lot of mud and dry, cracked earth where there ought to have been water. I started seventh grade from the campground and yelled at the campers next door, who played a song about a muddy river over and over until one in the morning on a school night. I had a different best friend every week because the old ones would stop camping and go home. I did my homework in the laundry room. My roller skates went through the side of my tent. I had a boyfriend who was gay, like me. He took me to horse shows. I was twelve.

19. An old post office, Canvas, WV. My sister and I had a mail slot between our rooms. The walls didn't quite reach the ceilings. There was a horse a mile away named Star. Just past her lived my best friend, Kari. There was a swing in the back yard. I danced by the creek to classical music. I kept a journal of my daily activities with my imaginary horse. I wrote my first novel, about a magical land of horses called Aquilla. I was twelve.

20. A red cargo van, first moving to, and then back from, Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It just didn't feel right once we got there.

21. Harold Court, Summersville, WV. Hidden Springs Farm was a mile away and I got a job there cleaning stalls in exchange for riding lessons. Kari rode there, too. I met my best friend Stacie. My sister moved away and came back several months later with a baby. It was sweltering hot and it was my other sister's turn to live in the living room. I had a cat named Mikey who stole tomatoes off the counter. We lived there for three years and I started high school.

22. A haunted green house in Enon, WV. My father and my uncle built me a barn and I brought my first horse home from Hidden Springs Farm. Stuff and I rode for hours up and down country roads. He was scared of calves. Best friend was still Stacie and she learned to drive and visited a lot. I lived in the attic. Something knocked on the walls from the other side. My sister and I watched the X-Files religiously and I learned to bake cakes with green X's made of sprinkles to celebrate the release of the X-Files movie. My other sister visited on weekends with the baby. Kari and our other horsey friends visited and we bet dirty socks and broken hair bows on the Kentucky Derby every year. I lay on Stuff's back for hours and hours, reading horse books. We had a cat named Carter who slept on Stuff's back. He was killed by a car when he was one. We got a cat named Milagro next. I did my homework on the barn roof. I was seventeen.

23. Kintacoy. This was a half-finished apartment in a barn in the wilds of Mt. Nebo, WV. I lived upstairs. My parents lived downstairs in the kitchen, and Stuff lived up the hill in a rough, half-finished little shed. My parents spent a lot of time at the neighbor's haunted house. I was too scared, so I stayed alone at Kintacoy. We had our first computer with Internet and I built a website about my horse. I read a lot of X-Files fanfiction and watched Sports Night religiously by holding onto the TV antenna to get reception. There was no indoor plumbing. Or outdoor plumbing, either, once the porta-john got repossessed. I remember freezing my private parts peeing on the ground in January. It was one of the coldest winters I remember and I was very, very moody. I was still seventeen.

24. Hester Hall, Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky. I spent one semester majoring in journalism. I had a best friend named Annie. I minored in equine science and came home after one semester to be with my own horse. Found out western Kentucky was too flat for this mountain girl.

23, revisited. Kintacoy again. Still moody. Stayed part time with my sister in her apartment in town. She drove me to Glenville College's Nicholas County campus, back when there was one. We fought tooth and nail to keep Sports Night on the air, of course a losing battle. We drank Dr. Pepper and I attended her entire distance learning lab with her without an instructor ever knowing. We ate lemon poppyseed muffins and argued politics for fun.

25. Buskirk Hall, Marshall University, Huntington, WV. My sister and I lived and breathed Election 2000. After a sleepless night watching the returns, which proved to be mostly pointless, I crossed campus to Jenkins and changed my major to education. We drove back and forth across West Virginia nearly every weekend.

26. First Avenue, Huntington, WV, with my sister and Stacie. I came out as a lesbian. I rode the bus out to Barboursville to work with an autistic teen and to ride my horse.

27. Fourth Avenue, a little efficiency apartment, my first solo place, Huntington, WV. I had a balcony three stories above the street. I lived above the deli and the Chinese restaurant, and just across the street from the bus station. I started dating. Eventually I started dating a woman named Tracy, who later came out as a transgendered man named Jake. I got a cat named Sage, and then found a cat named Henry (see cat-hat in userpic) in Wal-Mart.

28. Tenth Avenue, a haunted, scary house, with the campus gay and lesbian group. We rented the downstairs and our friends rented the upstairs. Something kept locking and unlocking doors and scratching mirrors. The gas got cut off and I learned to take cold showers. We got our first truck, an '88 Ford Ranger.

29. A trailer with no plumbing. Huntington, WV. The wheel fell off the truck and we started walking the mile and a half to catch the bus. I was supposed to start student teaching, but the wiring failed and we had to move into ...

30. Jake's sister's dorm room for three consecutive days at a time, the maximum allowed. Then my friend Steve's apartment for a night. Then back to Jake's sister's room. All the while student teaching.

31. Linden Circle. Huntington, WV. A pretty apartment, but with scary neighbors and a scary neighborhood. Jake and I broke up. He moved out. I graduated college and bought a gold Chevy.

32. With an opera singer, Brevard, NC. First by myself. Then Jake moved to NC to be with me and we got back together. My first year of teaching special education. Stuff, my beloved first horse of nine years, got sick suddenly, and I drove all night to be at his side when he passed away. My cat Sage disappeared, but came back three weeks later. We were asked to leave.

33. At the boarding house, Brevard, NC. It was gorgeous. It was perfect. We lived there till school was out, then left for Virginia, where I'd accepted a job. I was given a sick horse who turned out not to be too sick. That was Magnum. We rode in a show in the rain and got a blue ribbon.

34. With my sister in Charlottesville, VA, for a few days, on the floor of the office.

35. A sublet in a scary neighborhood in Charlottesville, VA. I started teaching at a private school. We had a dog named Hunter who hated apartments.

36. A farmhouse you got to by driving through cow fields in Afton, VA. We brought Magnum home and got him a pet goat, a Nigerian Dwarf. Learned that goat fencing must be water tight. We drove our car without insurance. My sister moved away to Philly and it was just me and Jake with the animals. Something knocked on the door in the middle of the night, most nights, although we were the only house for miles. We got evicted with five days to find a new place, and we had to part with Pete the goat.

37. A horrible hodgepodge week where we lived in our car, drove back and forth from my parents' apartment in West Virginia, and stayed in cheap motel rooms. Our car broke down and was towed away and that left us stranded in a cheap motel with a hole in the wall. I pulled Henry-cat out of the wall by his tail. He was traumatized. We maybe all were.

38. My parents helped get us into a cottage on a horse farm in Staunton, VA. We kept Magnum there and worked in the stable while I also commuted 45 minutes to the private school. The horse farm owner possessed a strong personality and the farm was never peaceful. We got rid of Hunter because she was sick and we couldn't afford her care. We knew we were about to be homeless. My Henry-cat couldn't take the stress and ran away in January. I found him dead on the road in March. He was four. We were finally asked to leave. We left the dead Chevy sitting there next to Henry's grave.

39. With a friend named Julie, for about a week. She was awesome. So was her dog. Sage was lonely. So was Jake. So was I. We didn't talk much. We drove a tan minivan with 300,000 miles on it.

40. Back to the boarding house in Brevard, NC. I count it separately because it was so different this time. The cast of characters had changed. I taught preschool, then started my third year of teaching. I got my dog, Lola. Jake got his puppy, Buddy. Lights flickered willy-nilly and there were disembodied footsteps that walked through the house. I wrote LIVVIE OWEN LIVED HERE. We were asked to leave. Jake came out as trans and changed his name. We ditched the van and bought a Bonneville from my coworker. Still haven't finished paying.

41. A rental in Asheville, NC, with a friend named Erika. Obama was inaugerated. Erika moved back to Florida. She was the perfect roommate and I miss her like crazy. This was the first rental in a long time that I don't regret.

And, finally,

42. A basement apartment that is half apartment, half dank, creepy, unfinished basement. No kitchen cabinets. A jazz band practices down here once a week. Occasionally, somebody taps you on the shoulder, even if you are alone in a room. This is where I live. I'm twenty-eight.

In just a few weeks, Jake and I are moving back to West Virginia. We're not sure where to, exactly, so we might be doing the campground thing again. I kind of hope so. Of all the places I just listed, it was one of the most fun.

So now you know why I write what I write. I just listed 42 novel ideas, minimum.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

One of those days.

The first student to arrive was cussing when she entered. Students two and three argued heatedly all morning, while students four, five, and six fought over breakfast, even though it was plentiful and all the same. Student seven came in crying, and student eight (who came in wearing fuzzy zebra slippers) sat down just off the school bus and refused to enter the building.

So of course, it was IEP day -- a major meeting, mid-morning. Promising a reluctant student she could paint with me when the 11: 15 bell rang, I ran to the office for my meeting. Upon returning -- at 11:17 -- she was waiting and grabbed me as I came through the door. We started painting together, but that was when another student started crying and cussing on the other side of the room.

Of course by this time, one of my two classroom assistants had left for a doctor's appointment, and they had been unable to find a sub. There was no one to leave for supervision, so I leveled a gaze at my little painter and said, "Paint goes on paper. Not on you. Promise?"
She nodded and gave me a big thumbs-up and a winning smile, so I crossed the room to help a student deal with a tragic loss at UNO which, apparently, was grounds for heartbreak. Ten minutes later, the UNO loser was still in tears and pounding the table, refusing to wash his hands or to budge from the table for lunch. Meanwhile, my artist was purple to the elbow and grinning guiltily. I confiscated paints, dunked her hands in the sink, and scrubbed her, while calling over my shoulder to my remaining assistant that if she would stay with the UNO-er, I would take the others to lunch and send back-up.

Balancing three styrofoam trays at a time, I managed to get most of the kids settled, and, as promised, I sent a member of the administration as back-up to help with UNO-kid, one of my few kids verbal and aware enough to benefit from administration back-up. Soon after, my assistant and my heartbroken student arrived. I had to beg the child to get a lunch, since he insisted food would give him a headache and that food was stupid and probably responsible for his loss at UNO. Eventually, he picked up some pizza, took a bite, and immediately became all smiles. Low blood sugar, perhaps?

Meanwhile, another student, finished with his lunch, began to run around the table, snatching bits off of other students' trays. And my little artist, still vaguely purple, thought it would be funny to snatch napkins from the assistant principal rather than getting some from the napkin holder.

Back in the classroom, I settled four kids in the kitchen doing laundry, and four others in front of the TV to work on sign language vocabulary. One child, quite mysteriously, grabbed her backpack and ran for the restroom. When she returned, she was clad in pink fuzzy pajamas to match her slippers. This was one of those moments where I wished I could subscribe to the "can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy; unfortunately, I don't keep a set of PJs at school.

After the sign video, I popped in a reward movie one child had brought with her from home. It turned out to be the magic of WEE SING IN SILLYVILLE, a video with which I am intimately familiar, thanks to a college buddy of mine who also happened to be a ten-year-old Wee Sing fanatic. My student signed, "Green frog," and seemed immensely shocked when I understood that she meant "Frugy Frogs." So then she added, "Red baby," and I asked, "Baby Bitty Bootie?" She was thrilled. I was horrified that I still remembered these details after three years.

By the time I sent the kids home, I had myself convinced that it must be Friday by now. Unfortunately, convincing me and convincing the calendar are two separate things.

Friday, May 15, 2009

What's your writing root?

Have you ever seen the movie But I'm a Cheerleader, where a girl gets sent away to a "straight camp" when her parents suspect she's gay? Remember the scenes where all the gay (and presumed-gay) kids are trying to figure out their "root," the one childhood memory that was responsible for their homosexuality?

Perhaps this is an odd leap, but Sruble just posted a set of questions for novelists that got me thinking about my "root" as a writer. In my response to her questions, I described my own writing "root," which occurred when I was six:
When I was six, my mother read us The Outsiders (not a typical book for a six-year-old, but I had older sisters and Mom read to us all together). When she revealed that the author was only 16, I decided at that precise moment to become a novelist. I knew grown-ups wrote books, but no one had ever told me kids could write! I started "noveling" that very day, in a green notebook I found in my mom's purse. My handwriting was big and clumsy and I could only fit ten or so words on a page, but for several days after, I happily chronicled the misadventures of "Tina Telanium, horse rider." All I remember is that she wore elbow and knee pads to ride her horse, and that she at some point battled a panther (probably because my big sister had recently read me Danger on Panther Peak.)

So writing a novel as a grown-up made sense; ever since I picked up that green notebook, I've been trying.

I'm curious. Do you have a "root," a moment in your life when you decided you would be a writer? Did you know you would write what you do, or did you just know you had something to say, even though you hadn't figured out yet how to say it? Were you taken seriously when you announced your intentions? Did you take yourself seriously, or did you just have this nagging feeling that you might be a writer, like it or not? Whatever your writing root, I would love to hear more about it!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I sound like a kazoo.

I sound like a kazoo.

But we'll get to that in a minute. First of all, it's important to know that everyone is all right. My father had a heart attack Sunday -- or, rather, my father realized he had a heart attack Sunday. He actually had the attack last Thursday, in the middle of a county land auction.

Apparently, it went something like this:

Auctioneer: "Do I hear 350?"

Dad: (wordlessly raises number, while noticing crushing pain in chest and arm)

Auctioneer: "I've got 350. Do I hear 375? 375?"

Dad: (disoriented, wordlessly raises number again)

Auctioneer: "Uh, Mark ... You've already got it for 350, but I can go higher if you'd like."
And then Dad stayed to bid on two more parcels, after which he headed home over the mountains to look after his granddaughter for a few days. Then drove her back across the state to her own home. Then back across the state to his own home. My parents live in a small town -- population 1,477 -- in West Virginia, and my mother doesn't drive. By the time Dad decided to drive himself the hour to the hospital, three days after the attack, the heart damage was so bad that they immediately rushed him to Roanoke. Which, of course, left my mother stranded and sleeping in a car in West Virginia.

I didn't know any of this when I got up for work Monday morning. I only knew that my mother had left a brief message for my sister saying she and my father were heading for the hospital "as a precaution." I also knew I had the beginnings of a head cold and that if I did, my kids probably did, as well. By ten, I'd had one kid puking and one seizing. By twelve-thirty, I'd sent both home. Meanwhile, a third was running a mild fever and my mother still wasn't answering her cell phone. Plus my cold medicine was making me dizzy and I was feeling a little out of sorts.

Ten till one, my mother answered, with the news that my father was in a Roanoke hospital and mom was still stranded in West Virginia, waiting for a ride. Turning down my immediate offer to head in that direction, Mom swore she had a ride on the way.

I was running a fever when I left school that afternoon, and had the beginnings of a migraine. I went to sleep early and woke the next morning to toss the dogs into the fenced yard, grab a couple of changes of clothes, and head for the mountains to see my father.

My mother didn't want me to make the trip, but I didn't tell her. She found out anyway by calling the school and discovering her daughter playing hooky. I was halfway there by then and came on, even though the Google Map's promise of 4 hours turned out to be wrong by two. My partner was experiencing a severe sort of anxiety about driving on the Interestate, and every time we went up a mountain, my sinus pressure increased till I started seeing spots. So, we weren't exactly the safest of drivers.

We made it as evening came on, and surprised my dad -- in retrospect, probably not something you want to do to a heart attack patient. But he seemed thrilled to see us. My mother had also made it to the hospital, driven there by her sister. Apparently, in addition to turning down my offer of a ride, she'd also turned down an offer from my 13-year-old autistic niece to "come pick her up if she needed a ride." I'm not sure whether my niece was planning to come on her scooter or her bicycle, but it couldn't have been good, either way. At any rate, we all sat around for a while, listening to my dad crack jokes about his heart monitor. He was surprisingly jovial for someone who had just walked around for four days after a heart attack. When we headed for the motel that night, everyone felt a lot better, now that we were together.

The next morning, I woke with a fever, and so much congestion that I couldn't talk. If I did manage to force my voice past the blockage in my throat, it came out sounding like a kazoo. I daffy-ducked my way through the morning before heading home. By this point, I was completely unable to drive, a fact which caused my partner's anxiety to raise markedly. I called the school and let them know I would not be back this week. We took it slow and grabbed a $30 motel room halfway home.

Fortunately, our pepto-bismol-colored motel room happened to be directly across from a haunted seafood restaurant, so the evening was not a total loss.

That brings us to this morning -- I still sound like a kazoo, and I'm about to embark on the rest of my road trip -- but Dad made it home from the hospital safe and my partner is feeling a lot better about driving this morning, so I guess we're doing all right. Plus, who would have thought a 30-dollar, pepto-bismol-colored room would have free wireless?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Funny Thing About Leaving

One of my students is on a joke-telling kick, except he hasn't quite gotten the hang of it yet.

"Why did the cow cross the road?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"To eat the grass."

In fact, several of my students are interested in the joke-telling process, but few have mastered the art. They're sitting around this morning, listening to the rain and kicking joke attempts back and forth.


"Knock, knock!"

"Who's there?"

"My grandma!"

"My grandma who?"

"Just my grandma! She visits every Sunday!"

The funny part is, they all dissolve into laughter at the end of every joke, whether or not it made any sense at all. To my kids, it's enough that an effort has been made. This is another reason why I love them.

Speaking, by the way, of the rain, it has been coming down in buckets all morning. A toad-strangler, my best-elementary-school-friend's father used to call it. A gauly-washer. Except it was pronounced "golley-warsher." I share this term with the kids and they shriek with delight, then return to their jokes.

"Why did Ms. Dooley run down the hall?"


"'Cause she was late for a meeting!"

How well they know me. He's right, too; I am late for a meeting. I scoop up an armload of IEP paperwork and run for the front office.

The conference room is dark because of the rain, and everyone is a little bit sluggish. We all laugh lazily and talk softly, until the self-care portion of the meeting rears its ugly head and I'm forced to utter the phrase "complete the feminine hygiene repertoire independently" in front of my middle-aged, male school-to-work coordinator. He blushes to where he used to keep his roots and I rush to get back on safe ground, which, in this case, is cooking skills.

By the time the meeting is over, the lights have dimmed twice and thunder literally rattles the windows. I hear in passing that the auditorium has flooded, and think of those little theater students -- clothes dampened, spirits not -- huddled in the hallways, telling more traditional, and somewhat raunchier, jokes than my kids have thought up.

Back in class, I hear,

"Why did Ms. Dooley buy an umbrella?"


"Because it's raining!"


"Why did the fire truck go to the house?"


"To put out the fire!"


"Why did the lady go to the doctor?"


"Because she was sick!"

and more torrents of laughter and rain, and I think, no matter what choices I've made about leaving public school teaching, that there is nowhere I would rather be at this particular moment than here.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Careless Driving

It's Derby Day. I love Derby Day. When I was 17, I skipped the prom because I wanted to stay home and watch Derby coverage. My friends and I used to bet dirty socks on the race when we were in junior high. When I was eight, I had a pink stick-horse named Unbridled. I have always loved Derby Day.

As part of the Derby Day festivities, I was going to go see my horse, Marvin, but it's pouring rain and he lives in a mud pit, so I decided to wait till tomorrow. Instead, I went to see a horse show at the ag center.

When I arrived, the English classes had just ended (darn!) and the arena was full of ten-to-twelve-year-olds warming up for Youth Western Pleasure. They wore sparkling vests that matched their hair bows, and their saddle cloths, and their ... cell phones?

Sure enough. A twelve-year-old girl was cantering her Appaloosa gelding along the railing at a fast clip, completing loops and figures of eight, all the while talking on a cell phone she held to her ear. Twice, I watched her almost run into other horses. Twice, the other riders high-tailed it out of the way with their mounts. She chattered happily through her entire warm-up pattern and rode out of the arena, still gabbing.

I want to comment on this occurrence, but I'm just not sure what to say.