Oral Hygiene Queen

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Location: Midwest, United States

I floss daily, brush after every meal, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Post-Father's Day

I went onto PostSecret today to read the new secrets and, not surprisingly, they all centered around fathers. Yesterday was Father’s Day. I remember that they did the same thing last month on Mother’s Day. As I read the last secret, I realized that my dad didn’t even cross my mind yesterday. I didn’t see him, of course. I didn’t talk to him, not surprisingly. And I didn’t send him a card. It never occurred to me that I might.

My relationship with my father is broken, probably largely because my father himself is broken. But it took a long time for that bond to finally unravel, and now that it has I feel a great sense of relief, and an enormous sense of confusion and loss.

The loss is self-explanatory. I don’t think anyone can endure the absence of a parent -– whether by death, estrangement, or abandonment – without some sort of deep emotional pain, acknowledged or buried. But for me the confusion arises from the cognitive whiplash of contrast: my extreme closeness to my dad as a child and my profound alienation from him as an adult. It didn’t happen suddenly, and in fact it took my entire adolescence and early adulthood to happen. But the contrast between then and now is still incomprehensible.

Then: I’m eleven years old and my dad is one of my best friends, maybe my very best friend. I walk four blocks home from school to eat lunch at home every day, and every day I call my dad at work to talk to him for a few minutes before I return to school. One day I decide to surprise him by doing something extra nice for him. I write him a hundred little notes and stick them in places I know he’ll eventually find them: his vitamin bottles, his dresser drawers, inside his shoes. They all say something slightly different, but they all send the same message: “I love you, Daddy.” He is still finding them a month later. He will keep a couple of them taped to the mirror of his dresser ‘til long after I’ve graduated from college.

Now: I’m having a baby in September, and my dad doesn’t even know I’m pregnant. In the context of our relationship, it’s not strange that I haven’t told him yet, since we only talk on the phone maybe once a year, maybe twice. But it’s getting late, and soon it will be strange. I dread telling him; for some reason I just don’t want him to know. But I guess I am aware of at least one reason: a new grandchild might represent a motivation for him to want to see me, and I don’t want to see him. He has met O., his first and only grandchild. It was a long time ago and at a funeral, but still: he’s seen my son. With this new baby, I won’t be able to say “Well, he’s seen her.” Unless, of course, I see my dad. Then again, when O. was born, my dad never once expressed an interest in meeting him. And that was a huge relief. And it was hugely wounding, too. And here we go again.

My dad has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you look in the DSM IV, there are nine characteristics of the disorder, and a person needs to have five in order to merit a clinical diagnosis. My dad has at least eight. It’s essentially impossible to have a functional relationship with a narcissist, particularly someone with as advanced and pronounced a version of the disorder as my dad’s. But it’s also pretty easy to have a remote, extremely partial relationship with this particular narcissist, because he doesn’t seem to notice that I never share any news or information about myself with him. I don’t need to, because he’s happy to remain the sole focus of the conversation. And he doesn’t seem to care that I don’t say much at all when we’re on the phone; he’s happy to do all the talking.

But I have some news I need to share between now and late August. And I wonder how I’ll gather the will to do it, afraid as I am that it may disturb he weirdly placid surface of the sad-as-hell but least-distressing-and-painful mode of detached relationship I have established with my dad.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Lucky, Lucky Questions

My last post was written in answer to the first of five questions given to me by Lisa of Lucky, Lucky Star. And here are her remaining four questions, along with my answers…

Will you be finding out the gender of your new baby at the 20 week mark, and if so, will you be sharing that info with us, your adoring fans? (Pretty please!!)

With O, we waited to find out ‘til he was born, and that was really cool. In a way, I would’ve loved to wait and see with this baby, too. But I was just too curious, and my Old Man felt the same way. We are past the twenty-week point right now (I’m due in September), and our ultrasound indicated that we are having a girl.

I sort of debated whether to let that cat out of the bag here on the blogosphere. I have a weird relationship with sharing this news. If anyone asks, I readily tell them, but I don’t announce it. Nor do I talk about the baby in a sexed way with anyone but my closest circle. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe I’m protecting the baby’s privacy in some small manner. Maybe it reflects my slight ambivalence about the decision to find out the sex. There’s a part of me that loves the mystery and the surprise of waiting ‘til the birth. Still, I’m glad we found out, and I’m very excited at the prospect of having a daughter.

If you could choose between the ability to fly and the ability to become invisible whenever you want, which would you choose?

I have actually contemplated this question before, and it was very easy for me to decide: flight. The idea of flying on my own power appeals to me. I’ve often watched birds flitting and gliding through the sky and envied them. The primary form of flight we humans have access to is abstract and heavy, laden with gear, meticulously planned, and dependent on so much technology and life support that it can hardly be considered true flight. (Hang gliding may be an exception. I’ve never done it, but I’d like to.) Really flying, without any facilitating equipment, seems like it would be utterly exhilarating.

Invisibility, on the other hand, doesn’t hold much appeal for me. I can’t think of anything fun I’d do with it, nor even anything useful aside from maybe escaping chance encounters with people I don’t want to talk to. But there’s a lot of invisibility in human life already. Too many people are invisible to one another, and as we age, I think we become invisible to many people.

So, flight is infinitely more interesting to me.

What is your earliest memory?

Lying nestled in a laundry basket full of sheets warm from the dryer while my grandma and twin teenage aunts bustled about, cleaning the house. It was a sunny, late spring day and I felt perfectly content, snuggled in my little nest, peeling and eating pieces of Buddig turkey lunchmeat, a favorite snack of my early childhood (the thought totally grosses me out now, but I loved it then). I must’ve been about three or four.

Name several of your heroes, and why they are.

This was actually a hard one for me. I guess I don’t have heroes per se. There are people I admire greatly, however.

When I read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder a couple years ago, I came to have a great admiration for Dr. Paul Farmer, the man whose story the book tells. He’s a Harvard-trained physician who has made it his life’s work to wipe out tuberculosis in Haiti and around the world. These days, TB is a disease that really only affects poor communities. Well-fed people with access to decent health care tend not to contract the disease, even if they carry the virus that causes it. But in desperately poor places like Haiti, the disease runs rampant, killing many people, despite the fact that it is in most cases quite easily treatable. Dr. Farmer has devoted his entire life – all his time and energy, his massive medical genius, and practically all of his income – to wiping out TB in Haiti, and helping doctors around the world to eradicate it in other regions where it still threatens many lives. Read the book to find out more (it’s a great story, well written and inspiring), but essentially I really admire Farmer partly because he has chosen to devote himself to helping the very poor when he could’ve gotten rich working in some other field of medicine, but more importantly because he has single-handedly changed the world in a significant way. Read the book, truly. My step-dad read it and promptly bought a stack of copies for his friends and family (me included), that’s how affecting it is.

Margaret Sanger is a historical figure I admire a lot, though with some ambivalence. She too really made an impact on the world by working to make birth control available to average women in the US. During the time she was working as a nurse among the slums of New York City, only rich women could get reliable information and contraceptive supplies from doctors. Poor women usually had to rely on folk wisdom and “natural” methods that were completely unreliable. Sanger saw the misery that unfettered fertility had on poor families, and particularly poor women (whose health was often devastated by bearing and caring for large numbers of children), and campaigned tirelessly to bring effective birth control to all women. All this despite the fact that the US government tried repeatedly to shut her down (confiscating her newspaper, The Woman Rebel, under the argument that it was too “obscene” to be carried by the US mails and throwing her in jail for providing contraceptives at her free clinic at a time when birth control was illegal). My ambivalence about Sanger comes from the fact that later in life she became active in the eugenics movement. Her philosophy of eugenics was not race-based, nor did it condone infanticide or forced sterilization, and she publicly excoriated the Nazis. Still, she held the belief that some people are not fit to reproduce, and that those people should voluntarily refrain from having families for the good of humanity. And that adds an ominous element to her earlier campaigns to help the urban poor, which at the time was rooted in a socialist philosophy very different than the eugenicist ideas she would later espouse.

My mom is someone I know personally whom I admire greatly, for many reasons, including the way that she has always invented and reinvented her own life rather than following a set of expectations laid down by someone else. This is something she continues to do, even in her late fifties, an era of life when many people are settled into their habits and assumptions. She deserves a post of her own, if not a series of posts.

(Thanks for the great questions, Lisa!)

Friday, June 01, 2007

Why I Love Teaching

Okay, be careful: I am about to geek out. Lisa of Lucky, Lucky Star has asked me the following questions: What is your favorite part of teaching English? Which particular emphasis is the most fun to teach? If reading a nineteenth-century novel is your idea of hell, or you think poetry is a load of crap, then maybe you’d best skip this post. If not, read on…

I really love my job. I have more than once been talking to someone who is considering going into teaching, and found myself waxing downright rhapsodic about the wonders of teaching and how fulfilling it is. And later I always think, “Wait, but I’m talking about me. Would that person love teaching? Hm…” I don’t know. It’s not for everyone, but I love my job.

I sometimes joke with my students that I became a teacher when someone came up to me and said “Psst! Do you want to get paid to talk?” I do love to talk, and teaching gives me plenty of opportunity to do that, not to mention a captive audience. But I get paid to listen as well, which I also enjoy. I like my students. I like kids in the later stages of high school, when they are developed enough to respond complexly to art, literature, and history, to have sustained original ideas, but young enough to be fairly open to new ideas, to be excited about learning for its own sake, yet still to have that spark that makes them want to keep things fun and funny. My students are, on the whole, genuinely funny – we laugh a lot in class. And I can’t deny that my particular brand of humor (call it oddball, call it puerile) seems to strike a note with this age of kid.

Of course, I don’t just love teaching: I love teaching English. I have speculated that I would make a good math teacher, at least for relatively low level math classes, because math has always been hard for me, so I would presumably be able to help explain it to kids who weren’t getting it (once I actually figured it out myself, that is). But I would be miserable teaching math. I love talking about the literature I most adore and why it’s surprising, poignant, hilarious, complex, confounding, or powerful. I even enjoy talking about literature I don’t like, and why it doesn’t do it for me. I’m fascinated by history, and find great satisfaction in fleshing out how a particular text reflects a historical moment or how its historical context illuminates aspects of the text. I’m not fully versed enough in history to actually teach it, but my fascination with the mucky march of human life and culture through the ages fuels my interest in literature, and it certainly makes me a better English teacher.

I’m lucky to teach at a school where many of my students dig literature a lot and are up for a good discussion of an interesting novel or a compelling poem. But I also teach and have taught plenty of students who aren’t initially that into reading, and when I can spark those students’ interest in any work of literature, that’s even more exciting than exploring the joys of Jane Austen’ Persuasion with a group of students who already love Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes teaching the most difficult works is the most rewarding. Teaching Romeo and Juliet to eighth graders in LA who found Shakespeare’s language to be as confounding as a foreign tongue and begged to be allowed to read an “easier version” of the play, I was gratified beyond words when, by the end of the play, they were all reading scenes aloud not only with understanding but with passion. They got comfortable with the unfamiliar sentences structures and strange idioms, and came to discover a work of exquisite art that took seriously the fervor and heartbreak of young lovers no older than themselves. I had a similar experience a couple of years ago when, on the advice of a bold fellow educator (my dear Old Man), I introduced Paradise Lost to my gifted sophomores. At first they groaned under the weight of Milton’s complex sentences and lofty allusions. But still they got the story, and then they got into the dense power of the poetry, and we had incredible discussions about free will, the allure of the Satanic hero, the complex gender dynamic between Adam and Eve, and the question of whether any of us would really want to live in perfect, placid Eden.

Teaching writing is harder than teaching literature. It’s more product-oriented, less exploratory. And it’s made more difficult by the fact that it’s subjective, shifting, dependent on context. I’ve enjoyed teaching writing more since I began to be honest with my students about these facts. Yes, they are figuring out how to write for a particular audience, and that audience will likely change somewhat (or even a whole lot) in another writing class, and change more when they need to write in a real context, for an actual audience. Sure, I can give them some basic rules about writing. But the first rule about writing, for me, is that a really skilled writer who is in command of her craft can break any writing rule you throw at her and still create an effective and elegant work of communication (in fact probably more effective and elegant than the work of the schleps who are dutifully following the rules and thus churning out the expected rather than the breathtaking).

One of the things I like best about teaching English is how much I learn, all the time. I learn new things when I read a new book (or reread an old book) that I’m preparing to teach and research the period, the biography of the author, or some cultural movement or moment that’s pertinent to the text. But I also learn a lot from my students. I regularly see some new aspect of a novel I’ve read a half a dozen times, thanks to a keen observation made by a student reading it for the first time. I often find my eyes opening to a reading of a poem that I’d never considered, a poem I’ve turned over many times on my own and with students. It’s rare that a student’s novel reading of a familiar poem becomes my primary reading, but it may snuggle in there beside my favored interpretation, lending greater resonance to my other ways of seeing the poem. I often tell my students that, for me, a poem in which I find one simple, straightforward meaning is rarely a poem I want to return to again and again. But those sneaky, slippery, shifting poems I do want to visit and revisit seem to have plenty of room for new and various readings, and I welcome them, when the details of the poem seem to accommodate them.

So, that’s a relatively short answer to the question of what I most enjoy about being an English teacher. On a different day, I’m sure I’d answer it a different way. But I would always say “I love it because…” And I’d always want to note how lucky I feel that there has never been a day in my decade and a half teaching career that I’ve felt time passing at work. The day flies by, every day. And the year flies by. And then it’s summer.

And, hey look! It’s summer. I can’t deny that summers off are another thing I love about teaching. But that’s another post for another day.