Sunday, November 17, 2019

In with the old! In with the new!

Dear Lori,

Two years ago tonight I sat in my mother's house and wrote this blog post explaining to the world that you left it.  I was too numb to cry anymore, having howled like a beast into the arms of my head of upper school who came to be with me while I waited for the M.E.s to take you away.   Two years later, I write from the dining room in my new house, that  the boys* and I share with a new woman, and her four year old son.  It's hard doing the work of building a new family.  It's hard work for everyone.  And I know that there are some folks who look askance at how quickly this new situation developed.  And I know, if you were here, what choice words you would have for those folks.  Yes it's been fast.  But J makes me feel more like me again, instead of someone who looks like me but isn't.  She's been supportive and loving and I think it's been far harder for her to adjust to us than it's been for us to adjust to her.  That said, she delights in Becker and Weber and fiercely advocated for Lenny through her recent concussion.  She has created space and time for me to care for your mom who has been hospitalized since early September.  She loves fiercely, and deeply, and well.

Not long ago, I learned that having big ear lobes, like I do, is considered a sign of good luck in China. And I have had incredible good fortune.   I am deeply fortunate that J came back into my life at just the right time.  The person who is happiest about all this might be "Grandma" Irene.  I moved in with her daughter, "our sister"Antoinette just after you stopped living with her.  I stayed at their house on the rez, before you.  When we met Antoinette and Irene for lunch at the flea market in Gallup this summer, they were so truly happy for us (as was "brother" Nathaneal).  These are, I think, the only folks who really knew us both separately, before we were together.  Their happiness for us, helped convinced me of the rightness of us as a couple.

And so, Lori, I'm in the midst of a new adventure.  It's not one I planned on having so soon, but here it is and I am as fully committed to it as I am to you.  Notice that use of present tense there.  Loving J. and H. doesn't mean I don't miss you still or love you less.  I'm as in love with you as I ever was.  But I'm also in love with J.  It can be a little confusing at times but I think it's essential.  Because as long as I'm love with you, you're still a real person with flaws and mistakes not some idealized ghost hovering over this new thing like some vengeful Chinese ancestor spirit ready to derail my life by being the perfect wife that J. could never be.   She is her own person with her own flaws and imperfections, just as I have mine.  It's what makes us human and what makes the act of loving someone both terrifying and necessary.

The new house is a Victorian but we are decorating it with a postmodern eye, mixing and matching time periods from my grandmothers reproduction federal dining room set to J's Swedish modern kitchen table and everything in between.  It's a nice metaphor for our relationship.  We both came into it with our unique histories, and we are trying to blend them to create something new.  In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi, Brown and Izenour asserted that "We look backward at history and tradition to go forward... And withholding judgement may be used as a tool to make later judgement more sensitive. This is a way of learning from everything."  And so we look backward.  And we look forward.  And we learn anew how to make more love in the world. **

In with the old!  In with the new!


*Lenny will share it too when she returns from her semester school in Colorado.
** I correctly predicted here that my education would make my mourning easier.  I had no idea just how broadly I would draw on it over these last two years.  But this is perhaps another post. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Today was not a Good Day

On the whole, things are going pretty well over here at the Panopticon.  It turns out that while I'm great at writing about grief, I'm not so great about writing about normal stuff.  I started a new relationship in the spring.  I had a busy summer.  I was off the grid in New Mexico for a month.  Lenny headed off to semester school in Colorado.  The boys and I started school.  My mother-in-law fell and broke her arm, got a pacemaker, got surgery to repair her arm and is in rehab with some cognitive impairment.  I bought a house and got engaged on the same day.  I moved, or at least I moved enough stuff for me and the boys to live in the new house with the intended and the step-son to be.  The new house is around the corner from the old house so a lot of stuff is going to move a few boxes at a time.  So, in general, life is good.  But....

Today was not a good day.

Today I came to school expecting to teach nineteen children in my US History class, only to find out that there would only be eighteen today, eighteen tomorrow, eighteen for the rest of the year.

Today I came to school expecting the hardest thing I would have to do was co-proctor a big study hall as a sub and instead I had to explain the unexplainable.

Today I came to school expecting to teach first period, not go to a class meeting where I had to face  a room full of kids who had come to school because it was Wednesday and expecting this Wednesday to not be particularly different from any other Wednesday.  And today I had to watch while the school psychologist told them that their classmate wouldn't be coming to school anymore, and we didn't know why, or what happened, but the adults would be here to help and there were extra counselors on hand, and that we loved them and cared about them.

Today I came to school and the above happened and I had to pretend that minutes earlier I hadn't been sayin "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck" when I found out.  I had to be strong and brave even though I was mess.

Today I came to school not expecting that my own loss and grief for my Lori would emerge in such a raw way.

Today I came to school and I erased my white board and I wrote in all caps, "Hug your loved ones.  Mend your fences.  Do some good.  This life is too short."  Today I thought about how long I'll leave it up there.

Today I came to school and I spent most of the day thinking about how long I should wait before I rearrange the chairs in the room so that the missing child in the empty chair won't be a distraction to me, and make me think of the void that still aches.  And I thought about the kids who would that memory of her there.  I decided we would make the decision as a class.

Today, that class went out to the middle school playground and played on the swings and the climbers and sat and talked because who the hell could work when you find out that somebody in 11th grade just didn't wake up this morning.    Today I was reminded of the healing power of sunshine.

Today I went to school and I was reminded that "This sucks" is one of the most powerful phrases in the vocabulary of grief.

Tomorrow I'll go to school and try to get back on track.  And I'll be damned sure to get my students on track.  We can honor our grief, but we cannot wallow in it.  In the coming days, there will be a funeral and there will be a meal train, and there will be a whole lot of other stuff I'm way too familiar with.

But today, today I kept the tears away.  I kept them away for my students, and for my own children.  But tonight my tears are flowing freely.  I'm crying for my student and the future she'll never have.  I'm crying for her family and the hole that will never be filled.  I'm crying for me and my own loss and pain.  And I'm also crying because I'm so grateful for my new life.

Hug your loved ones.  Mend your fences.  Do some good.  This life is too short.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Address to Seniors and Their Families: Truths My Teachers Told Me

Text of the Senior dinner speech I delivered tonight:

Back in 1995, before any of you that we are celebrating today were born, a Sociologist name James Loewen wrote a book called “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” If you have heard of it, it’s probably because a new edition came out in 2018. Now one of the great blessings of being a student here, is that you probably never  heard of most of the lies that Loewen debunks. But, this being Sunday, I’m going to use Loewen’s text to preach my sermon on, but instead of lies, I’m going to focus on truths my teachers told me. Buckle up folks, we’re in for a bumpy ride. Like all good teaching, I hope this talk challenges you with some structured struggle, makes you somewhat uncomfortable as it challenges what you think you know, and leaves you wanting more. So let’s begin.

 The first important truth is: You must constantly challenge your preconceptions. Although Loewen’s monograph focussed on textbooks, there was a strong undercurrent in the book against history teachers as well, and especially coaches who taught history. Back when I was a college professor, about twenty years ago, I would often encounter students who had no idea what history was beyond names and dates and they were often astounded to realize how little rote memorization was involved in doing actual history. Invariably, I would ask, “what did your history teacher coach?” And they would tell me, and then they would pause and ask “Wait, how did you know he was a coach?” Needless to say I had strong feelings about coaches who taught history.” Fast forward to the present. My colleagues in the history department include football coach Rick Knox, cross country coaches Kevin Harris and Siobhan O’Connor, and uber coach Paul Hines. Now if this were twenty years ago me, I’d be kind of horrified to be a department with so many coaches. But instead, I’m proud. Rick Knox is an Ivy League educated one man master class in how to reach each and every student in a classroom, no matter their ability. Mr. Harris and Ms. O’Connor bring interdisciplinary approaches into their classrooms that I can only envy, and Paul Hines, in addition to being a world class track coach, a caring and compassionate teacher and advisor, and the most awesome colleague a guy could ask for, Paul Hines orders… and reads… each year’s Bancroft Prize winning history books. Which means in the last five years alone he’s read 9 books, four of them by historians who work in the History of the American West and or Native American studies, the fields I trained in, two of whom I’ve shared meals with on various occasions and yet, I haven’t read their books! Furthermore, each of these colleagues isn’t just a scholar - coach. Each of them excels at both of their jobs. And from each of them I’ve learned how to make my own teaching better. Now, my own to be clear, my own academic snobbishness prevented me from seeing these folks as whole people. My preconceptions about what it meant to be an academic historian prevented me from knowing about and learning from my colleagues. And I was poorer for it. So remember, no matter how much you think you’re an expert on a subject, pay attention to those around you to see what you can learn from them.

The second truth is as much for the parents in the audience as it is for the seniors and it’s this: major in whatever the hell you want to in college. We don’t know a lot about post-college employment stats by major but we do know some. Contrary to popular media representations, there are far more unemployed recent grads with business degrees than there are unemployed recent grads with history degrees. Further, it’s almost impossible to know what will constitute “useful” knowledge in five years. My mother graduated with an English degree from Goucher College in the early fifties. She promptly went to work my dad’s family business of unpainted furniture, together they started a company that attempted to use computers to match buyers and sellers in the manner of, except with punch cards and mainframes, and much more expensive computer time, and when that didn’t work out, she got a masters in English, a certificate in fundraising which she used to work for two non-profits as a grant writer, before going to law school (graduating the week before I graduated college) and becoming a full time housing advocate who negotiated important land deals with the Pentagon during the base decommissioning era. My own academic work as the world’s greatest expert on the history of uranium mining in New Mexico seemed pretty useless, even to me, that is until several years after I completed it when an important court case between the New Mexico tribes and a uranium company used my dissertation with eventually the Supreme Court deciding that a uranium mine could not be reopened on Mt. Taylor due to it’s important position in Native American sacred landscapes. Now, I had no idea when I started the project that it would be used that way, heck even after I finished it I didn’t know. Sometimes we learn things and their utility doesn’t begin evident until years later. We just have to trust that our interest in the subject itself is meaningful and that eventually, we will find the utility in our studies. So after that, if you still feel like it’s too risky to not major in a business field (and not all business fields are created equal) than at least double major in something just for the hell of it.

Relatedly, perhaps the dirtiest little secret is you don’t need to love your job. Indeed, as much as we talk about finding passions, we are very careful around here not to confuse passion with career. Your going to hear a lot that when you have a job that you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. This is nonsense. Every job involves scut work. Every job involves something that people don’t like. For an athlete it might be dealing with media, or having to keep to a strict diet. For actors, it’s the audition process which can be arbitrary and cruel. For teachers, well nobody who is good at teaching enjoys giving bad grades. Furthermore, the idea that you should love your work so much that you’d do it for free is merely a trick designed to get you to accept less so that somebody else, usually your boss, can get more. It’s no accident that employers who complain the most about millenials having no loyalty to them, generally have the worst benefit packages, nonexistent training programs, and provide little, if any, paths towards improving compensation. Why should you love your job when it doesn’t love you back? Which is not to say that you should hate your job. But it is perfectly acceptable to work at a job that you find tolerable and that compensates you well enough to do other things that you really want to do. The number of people who quit their jobs, move to the beach, get a new job, only to discover that what they loved about that beach was that it was the place where they didn’t have to do work, well there’s a lot of them. Again, in my own case, I like teaching, although it was not my first choice career. But if teaching didn’t come with things that are important to me: awesome colleagues and students, health insurance, tuition waivers for my kids, a caring community that has supported me through tough times, I would find something else to do. Indeed, it’s not so much teaching as teaching at SCH with all of you, together, that helps get me out of bed in the morning.

So if we don’t have to love our jobs, what do we have to love? Well, the answer is pretty simple. People. Our families, those we’re born to and those we chose. And that’s hard work. Chances are, if you’re a kid here tonight, someone loved you enough to give up something they wanted to help pay the bills to put you through SCH. Maybe the worked a job they liked but didn’t love because it paid enough that you could choose to go here. Maybe they took an extra job because, even though you got a scholarship, you still have to eat and have a place to live and a way to get to and from school safely. People rarely say I love you in that specific language. But they say it all the time through their actions. Look out for who is saying “I love you” to you and say “I love you back.” My first girlfriend gave me a set of relationship rules when we started dating and the most important one was “one surprise gift a month.” Now, to be clear, this wasn’t because she wanted stuff, it was because a surprise gift of a wildflower found by the side of the road, or a note hidden in a textbook, or a saved piece of a candy bar, let her know that I was thinking of her. When people say, it’s the thought that counts, that’s what they mean. Think of your loved ones intentionally and actively and let them know through your words and deeds that you love them. And finally, only recently I have come to understand that love is not a zero-sum game. Our capacity for love is our greatest gift and the act of truly loving people is our most radical politics. We can, in theory, love infinitely. Parents, someday soon, and maybe it’s already happened, your child is going to come home with somebody and announce that they have found their one true love. And you are going to look at this person and say to yourself, “I raised my child to be a good, honest, hard working person, to have excellent judgment, to make great choices, and the whole sum of that work is… this, really, I mean really? With the nose ring, not the cute stud one, the one that looks like it goes on a pig that you just want to reach out and pull with your finger? Really?” Stop it. You were once somebody’s really. (Maybe you still are.) I was my father in laws “really” for about 8 years until he finally came around and understood me. That’s not the point. The point is, most of the time, when we say “really?” what we mean is, “I love you more than that person ever could and in loving them some you’re loving me less.” And that is fundamentally untrue. Let me say that again. That is fundamentally untrue. All middle children tell themselves that the birth of the next sibling meant they got less love. And as a youngest child, let me tell you,,, you’re right! You’re the exception that proves the rule!

 No, of course not. Of course not. As parents we don’t love all our children the same, we love them each differently and uniquely. When Marx wrote, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” he was so close to being right, but what that idea pertains to is not money but love. And the great thing about love is the only thing limiting your ability to produce more of it is your choice. Love isn’t like money. There isn’t love inflation that makes each individual piece of love worth less. So when you have that “really, them?” moment, remember whether it’s someone entering your life as an in-law, or a step-relative, or in some other capacity, remember to say I love you. Maybe you don’t say it with words. Maybe you say it with an act of kindness, by accommodating one of their family traditions into yours. Maybe you say it with the words “welcome to our home.” But say it. And don’t just say it to the “really them?” people either. And as always, my final words of advice. Hug your loved ones, mend your fences, do some good. This life is too short. I love you all, Thank you.

It went over pretty well:

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Social Media Weirdness

May 1st was the the birthday of my friend and former colleague, Allisa Krantz.  As is my custom, I wrote on her Facebook wall.  I generally rotate through a number of birthday greetings.  For folks I went to high school with, it's: "Many Happy Somethings!" (the first letters of which form the initials of our high school, I wonder if anyone notices).  For folks I know from school, it's "Have a SCHwell birthday!"  For folks I know from my years of camp, it's "Round the Mess Hall You Must Go!"  Almost everybody else gets a "Much wine, little whining!"  although I don't use that for the people I know who don't drink for what ever reason.

But Alissa didn't get any of those.  She got, "Your Memory is a Blessing."  Alissa died last year, in March, and I was saw caught up in my own grief and weirdness (my Mother-in-Law having had a major health crisis), that I didn't attend her funeral, didn't write a memorial post, didn't cry for her, or remember her or mourn her.

So this year, I wrote on her wall and remembered her.  I made a point of thinking about my favorite Alissa stories.  She had the foul mouth of a  rebel raised in New York City in the 60s.  In the faculty room she cursed a blue streak, but once she crossed the threshold out into the wider school she never said an unkind word, much less a curse word.  She loved life and regaled us all with her many adventures, her weekends in New York where she took language classes in Chinese and Spanish, the restaurants she ate at the night before whose meals she could describe in such exquisite detail that you almost felt like you ate them yourself.  I still treasure the time she complimented my quarterly written evaluation of a student.  I loved her deep embrace of teaching, of being a life long learner, of her family life as a wife, mother, and breadwinner, of life's simple sensory pleasures:  good food, good movies, and good books.  She was so full of life that her long sickness and death were so heartbreaking.

So I guess you could say, as I wrote on her wall, that I had all the feels.

I wrote my message and I scrolled down to look at other messages of love and loss left by present and former colleagues and not a few old students when I hit one message that jarred me.  "Happy Birthday Alissa, I hope you're well."

My immediate reaction was rage.  I wrote a comment back angrily.  "She's not well, she's dead."  Erased it.  Typed it and erased it again.  I was so angry my hands shook.  I checked back on her wall over the course of the day, and each time felt the rage anew as I saw more similar messages.  "How could they not know?  How could they not feel her absence? Didn't the feel that void in the universe?" 

Of course, I wasn't really raging about Alissa.  I was raging about my own fears of losing touch with Lori.  When I meet new people, I feel compelled to them whether appropriate or not, that I'm a widower.  I find ways to work it in to the conversation.   It's a short hand for "there was this person, and I loved her, and now she's gone, and I am pissed as hell about."  I wear my tragedy like armor and a weapon.  "You can't hurt me" or "feel my pain and wrath."  Woe to the telemarketer who calls asking for her.

Still, this anger caught me off guard.  I don't understand why this upset me so in this moment, in this way..  But sometimes we don't have to understand our emotions; sometimes it's enough to simply feel them and move on.  Perhaps this is one of those times.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Lots going on

Sorry I haven't written in a while.  There's a lot going on.  I took 19 Middle Schoolers to New Mexico on a Spring Break trip.  It was great, but exhausting.  I'm working on a conference paper for June.  There's annoying health problems with just about everyone, nothing serious but it is time consuming.  I'm feeling the squeeze of being the sandwich generation.  There are troubles and highlights I can't really blog about (even I have limits it turns out). 

So instead, here is a picture of me pontificating. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

So this happened today, much to my surprise

Today, during the annual Cum Laude society assembly, when our best students are inducted into the school's honor society, a new tradtion began.  Senior members of the society chose a faculty person to be inducted.  I have won a few awards in my time, and been introduced a few times more.  Never have I been introduced so well, or had an award mean so much.  The student who inducted me made the following remarks:  
During my first class with the inductee, I walked in expecting a routine review of our summer assignment, but I instead found a lively discussion about the connection between our work and current events in a way that invited every student. I was struck by the passion that he holds for his subject and the practice of academic inquiry; and as his student, I witnessed firsthand the way he modeled the type of intellectual curiosity that teachers strive for us to have. This inductee answers every question with genuine interest, and he will grapple with a concept in his classroom until all of his students embrace it with the same passion and satisfaction he has. He always gives honest feedback and will share his own experiences from both inside and outside of the classroom in relation to helping students understand difficult truths. He values justice in the highest regard by expecting the best from each student in the classroom. He has an innate talent for weaving important life lessons throughout the teaching of his discipline and, through this, he shows a deep care for his students, and he strives for them to be honorable people in addition to excellent and just thinkers. SCH is a special place where faculty not only teach us to strive for honor, excellence, and justice, but it is a place where the faculty themselves model these qualities. Today, on behalf of the senior members of Cum Laude I am honored to recognize one of these faculty members. Doc Sal please come forward to join the SCH Chapter of the Cum Laude Society as an Honorary member.

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Night Before Ice Cream for Breakfast Day Redux

It's the night before ice cream for breakfast day.  A year ago I was not doing well.  A year later, more or less, I'm in a better place.  Still, after the party, I have a shrink appointment where I think I'm going to ask to be put on anti-depressants.  The pain is less stabby now, but it doesn't go away and it interferes with my ability to do my job and parent my children to the best of my abilities.  There's too many nights I don't want to go upstairs to an empty bed and so I stay up too late.  And any day I don't have to be at school is a day where I often don't get out of bed until far too late in the day.  Even the smallest tasks can sometimes seem totally onerous.  Doing the dishes, bill-paying, making appointments for the kids can sometimes seem like impossible tasks.  I know what this beast is; I want to tame it so badly.  I want to be a competent human being again.  I don't want to stop being sad.  I just want the sadness to not get in the way of everything else. 

Plus, nobody wants to date a guy whose major activities are Candy Crush and napping. 

Not that I know that.  I haven't actually started that process yet.  It's sort of terrifying.  My current task is to try find time to spend with adults in a non-work environment at least once every two weeks.   I haven't exactly pulled that off yet.  But it's a goal.  I'm trying. 

Eat ice cream for breakfast tomorrow, friends.   Lori would want you to.