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My dog and I wore matching down vests. His was a miniature version, a clone in putty brown. While passing a couple on the trail down to the river, they commented how cute we looked. I thanked them and instantly realized how much of a dog person I have become. How I used to make fun of these people (now my people). Now I make pupsickles in the freezer - both chicken and beef. They are refreshing on hot summer days. While my dog chirps on his hind legs, I ask in a high-pitched screechy voice "Who wants a pupsickle!"
It's nice to reach the point where I just don't really get mad about things anymore. I'm not sure if I've trained myself to do this, or if this is just what happens when you get older. Maybe physiologically my brain and body have changed. I used to wake up in the night - a nightmare about the world ending, giant balls of fire and the constant sound of metal scraping on metal. What was I so afraid of then? Why this preoccupation with the impending doom of the planet. Maybe I've just given in to the way things will unfold.
A student falls back in her chair and totally bites in. Her body collapses into itself and she is down on the ground. She is yelling "I'm okay! I'm okay!" As if I don't hear her, I ask "Are you okay? Are you okay?" She can't totally be okay. Her body has banged itself against the floor and the wall behind her. The class is stunned. No one is really laughing like I'd expect. They are more confused by the bang, most stunned by the folded up body on underneath the desk. We see feet pointing up in the air.
Musically I'd like to be proficient. But it always seems to make sense in my brain, just not always in the execution on paper. Or in recorded format. I start songs but don't finish them. My friends can't understand why I don't finish the songs, why I'm satisfied with bits and pieces. But I think they're almost like little poems, serving a purpose for me in the moment. And some of them will serve a purpose to others, if I take the time to consider the poems as writing for an audience. I don't always do this though. I should.
I have a scenario in my mind that goes like this: I am biking downtown when a car almost hits me. It sort of taps me and the driver gets pissed and lays on the horn. In slow motion, I turn around, raise my arm up in the air and begin to lower my balled fist. I let out some kind of grumbling yell and pound my fist into the hood of the car. Instantaneously, I am like The Incredibly Hulk and I make an enormous dent in their car. There is a newly formed crater in their Honda Civic.
My students are quite good at using cell phones. I with I could offer a class in cell phone usage, just so they could gain the self confidence of acing class. We'd start with the basics of answering a phone call, move on to the complexities of texting, and eventually conquer using the internet on a device. They, of course, would already know how to do these things. They would all pass the final. And I'd be stuck, looking out into the crowd of blank faces, their eyes red from staring into screens, and they'd tell me they are bored.
I was hoping to hold off on using the heater. It feels like it's too early. I actually wrapped a blanket around myself and turned the fan off. But when I came home, my housemate had turned the heat on. Things changed when I bought a home - I became more aware of where my money went, how little money I actually have, and how much heat can cost. I find myself touching the windows, knowing that precious heat is escaping; that until I have earn more, it will keep leaving through the poor insulation. Someday my bill will come down.
There are tiny wins. Like the fact that I got three students to come and work after school. Students who had previously refused to do the assignments. It's hard though, when students don't always get the message that school is for them - that school is a place to help them grow and become critically thinking humans. Sometimes the messages we send are that tests are more important, that everything boils down to a performance. There is little room for fucking up and trying again. Too many students are cautious, afraid to take risks, and painfully afraid of ever failing anything.
This morning while driving to work, I saw a perfect reflection of the tree on the corner of Packard and East Stadium. While at a stoplight, listening to Fiona Apple's "Valentine" the reflection was perfectly steady. I watched it, waiting for it to ripple, hoping to catch a glimpse of the difference between the real tree and reflection. But it was so beautifully placid. And then I thought about the song, not written for me or about me. Written by an artist, recorded in a room, and uploaded to the internet. I download the copy and listen to its reflection.
I've learned that sometimes it's better to shut the fuck up. This has proven to be a worthwhile skill and one that makes sense for me. I like to say that it's really just listening skills, but I think it's more than that. It's really about letting the big talkers talk themselves to the point of sleepiness. They trail off after a while, draping their coats over their legs and curling up into compact spheres. They mutter a few final words and slip off into dreams where they continue to talk. Then the listeners can finally start the real work.
The goal this year is to be nice. I'm leaning restraint. I'm leaning that I don't need to always say what's in my mind. I'm leaning that when people say "Tell me what you really think" that some people don't actually mean it. You watch as their face turns from an open concern to a horrified mess of ripples. They weren't quite ready for that. It's about navigating the space, leaning to deal and learning to work with people. This seems to be complicated, and I'm feeling like there has to be something better. Maybe it's just being nice, always.
In one of my irrational fear scenarios, the projector screen on the front whiteboard will not stay down. I keep yanking on the cord. One hard pull later, it comes unhinged and falls on my head. I go unconscious on the floor and my students are stunned. From here there are two possible options. In one, the students are panicked and a soon-to-be student leader shakily picks up the phone and calls the main office. In the other scenario the students clap, cheer, and high five. They then dance Lord of the Flies style around my unconscious self.
Sometimes to make reading student papers more fun, I read them to myself in a stereotypical teenager voice. There are different voices: there is the valley girl who loves Taylor Swift, the dopey pothead whose bangs drape over his face, the student with braces (or invisalign) that impedes speech. For a while it makes reading difficult papers bearable. I find myself not sure how to help certain students, who in 10th grade can barely write sentences. I am not sure how to best help them at this point. And I'm supposed to be a teacher who knows what he's doing.
Sometimes faking that you know how to do something actually works. I become an actor, and it's this type of acting that I can pull off. Keep a stoic face. Look them directly in the eyes. Keep shoulders up. Do not slouch or blink too many times. When they pause and their brains are analyzing, just stay very still. Like prey. Let them smell the air. Let them follow the train of thought that you've laid out for them. And when they look back up at you, convinced that you're the real deal, you can let up just a little.
I have lived on food stamps, although I knew it was temporary. I've never felt actual hunger or poverty. I grew up in a house with all of the necessities and more. I have the education to get me by. I will probably never go hungry. I've been privileged in many ways. I am lucky. I also know that others have not had many of the advantages that I've had, and I believe in the necessity of helping those around me. I don't consider myself a Christian, but I believe in its principles. Sometimes it seems like a nice religion.
Lately I've been having more of those moments where you see someone you know from your past, and you're not really great friends with them, but you go to say hello and perhaps mean to have a quick "How's it going" conversation, but the person says hello and quickly looks away, and you actually pause, your body actually pauses, then restarts and you feel like you are glitching, that this person doesn't really want to talk with you, but you misunderstood and thought for a minute that there might be more to this relationship than just a cordial, familial nod.
A couple in their 70s pick at matching chocolate cupcakes. She talks while he listens (or doesn't listen). She pulls out a giant, colorful folder with shiny pictures. Florida, she says. They can rent a place down there. He cuts his cupcake in half and stuffs it in his mouth. He doesn't look his wife in the eye. The whole family can go, she says. It's next to the ocean, she chirps. His hand quietly shakes while he takes the second half of the cupcake and stuffed it in his mouth. So, she says. She pauses. What do you think?
For a year I had everyone call me by a different first name. I didn't take anything too far off. I chose the second half of Christopher - Topher. I became this new name to new friends and co-workers, although a few old friends adopted the switch. At first it took some getting used to. I had to train myself to react to the new name. But there was something comforting about moving to a new city, starting with a new name, and building a new persona. When the year was up, I went back to my first version self.
As I get older, I start to become a cartoon version of who I used to be. I stumble. My moves are elongated, exaggerated. I make jokes that people think are corny. I don't know pop culture. I prefer to go to sleep at 9:30 instead of going out for a drink. I wear shirts to try and cover up the pouch of fat that has collected around my belly button. Sometimes it's like looking at a version of myself in a mirror warped by rain. I'm in there, I just have to catch me at the right angle.
My dog likes to roll in feces. Raccoon feces, bird feces, possum feces, his own feces. He doesn't care. He just wants it on him, smeared into his fur. If he could, he would smell like this all of this time. I watch his little body from afar and I yell. His beady little eyes whip around, and he ignores my pleas. His front legs bend back down and he rubs his pom-pom face into the ground. Seconds later he runs back, his picture-worthy smile beaming back at me. All is well, his face says. All is well.
After 8 years, I'm not sure I'd recommend teaching to anyone who's thinking about it. Not that it's not a fun, noble, and challenging profession, but rather that you will not be able to survive. Unless, that is, you marry someone with lots of money. Education is not a priority in this country, and it won't be for a long time. We will need a big economic depression in order for people to believe that education is important. To those thinking of going into teaching: Unless you are independently wealthy or have a rich spouse, turn back while you can.
On East Torch Lake Drive, we sped along at 55 miles per hour. It was one of those moments. Trapped in a car with friends, speeding through autumn leaves and colors, illuminated by my headlights. Mumford and Sons blared through the speakers and we belted out the lyrics to "I Will Wait". Like in slow motion, time momentarily stops, or more like it slows down. Or maybe we just perceive it in a heightened state; my mind wants me to remember the moment. It wants me to pay attention and take note. I File it away for a further date.
The internet provides a database that is sometimes useful. This is how I learned that your brother is a killer. The letter came to our house from the correctional prison. I simply Googled your brother's name and up popped the electronic trail left behind in his wake. Online: A report issued to be on the lookout for a 21 year old man - the prime suspect in the murder of his girlfriend. Online: An article about the arraignment in the small Michigan town. Online: A picture of the girlfriend with her 3 year old. We probably will never talk about this.
I am learning the benefits of patience, of making myself go into a zen-like state, of conscious meditation, of actually listening to someone talk about their problems instead of trailing off into my evening's to-do list, of taking the time to listen to teen drama and give good advice, of listening to the frustrated parent who is not quite sure what to do next with their child, to the teacher who is completely stressed out, to listening to my neighbor talk about his garden, to listening to the cues from my dog who has learned patience long ago.
The sound of his father, looped, puts him to sleep each night. It's a recording he made of his father when he was twelve. In it, he interviews his father. You can hear his father's soft chuckle. You can hear him ruffle his son's hair. He tells his son that he loves him. And so now, each night, he makes his father put him to sleep. In fact, he can't fall asleep without his father's voice. He started this when his father died when he was still in high school. He was 15 at the time. Now he is 28.
I've learned to be nice because that is how you get people on your side, and that is how you get people to do things. Sometimes it sounds manipulative. People want to feel genuinely valued. It's a fine balance, between being genuine and seeming fake. It's a line that I think I walk well, although I have to keep myself in check. Did I overdo it with the handwritten note? Do they believe that my smile wasn't genuine? I've done this for enough years that it has actually become who I am. And that, it seems, is a good thing.
It happens the same way every time. I am at our old cottage; everything looks the same. I am enjoying the cabin, the front yard, the lake. I am there, but I know that we don't own it anymore. I somehow have the old key and enter/exit when I want. I'm always aware that the new owners could come back at any time. And then they do. I try to hide/escape/be still. The dream ends there. My sister says she has the same reoccurring dream. Ten years ago, out our parents sold the place without telling us.
Sometimes we need to go backwards before we can go anywhere. We pull out the old photo books and investigate the past. We become detectives, searching for the things that made us who we are today. We want to find answers to the problems that have been nagging us. And sometimes we find that the problems have been with us for a very, very long time. Backwards lets us retrace and rewind like a video tape. We listen to the screech of the tape and the click of the machine. And when we can finally pause, we've solved something small.
I once kept an online diary for 7 years in hopes that you would stumble upon it. Every time I wrote in it, I imagined you reading it. It was always written with you as the audience, but with a specific version of you - the version of you that I liked. It wasn't a real version of you, and I wasn't presenting a real version of myself. It became more of a movie that I created in my mind - a movie where I established the plotline and waited for the conflict to come to be fully confronted. It never was.
I am living from one break to the next. Not that things are horrible, they're just frustrating and difficult. Five days on, two days off. I've fallen back into the pattern of surviving on weekends. Weekends refuel me, and I begin the process of breathing - in and out. The weeks deflate me, the weekends inflate. I find my new job challenging in a good way that makes me want to do better. I hope that at the end of the year I'll feel that the challenge helped me grow. Like after a marathon: my legs are sore, but I'm happy.
In a scene from a movie (or from life) there is a pan outward and the crowd realizes the insignificance of the moment. They realize that the small moments are not that important. They then watch the effects of not having those small moments and realize that the opposite is true. Then, in a series of short scenes, the audience watches: a man petting his dog in a repetitive motion from head to tail a teen girl and boy sitting on a dock, their feet in the water. a space station slowly moving through space a bird laying an egg
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