Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day Musings: Many Hands

Dear Lori,

Mother's Day is almost over.   It was not as horrible as I thought it would be.  Alas, there were no peel and eat shrimp (your favorite Mother's Day treat).  I picked up your mom from the physical rehab wing, took her and the kids up to my mom's and we all had lunch in the big house.  It was your mom's first outing since her fall and she was very excited to be out and about.  She's walking well and her memory and mental skills are coming back stronger every day.  She's doing well enough that I've cut down visiting from every other day to twice a week. 

We went food shopping, cleaned the house and made dinner.  After dinner, many folks arrived and met us in the backyard:  my brother and his family;  Bill and Maria and Allison from around the corner, Lenny's friends from school, a former student and her mom; the Castellanos clan.  We played games.  We sang songs, badly.  We ate s'mores,  with peanut butter cups.  They were delicious.

We thought of you, of course.  At odd moments.  The song Brandy came on the radio.  It was one of your favorites.  But the funny thing is, I dreaded this day for weeks.  And when it came, it was ok.  The village rallied, the kids were perfect.  We're strong Lori, stronger than I thought.  But we are strong because those around us are holding us up.  Many hands make light work.  And every time I think I'm not going to make it, more hands show up.  We are a blessed family, Lori.  Thank you for making us so.  To be clear, not for dying.  I'll never forgive you for that.  But for living so well when you were hear.  Thank you. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cultural Capital

Over the last few weeks, I've been increasingly thinking about why the term cultural capital has dropped out of academic adjacent discourse largely replaced by the term privilege.  Now privilege is a useful concept, but it's also a limited concept.  It's great for explaining who gets followed in a store; but it's lousy at explaining say, differential health outcomes.   

Over the last month, my mother-in-law has been in and out of the ER and hospital for reasons that have been pretty mystifying.  There was a stomach ailment, a fall, some things that looked like stroke symptoms.  The care she was getting was generally good, but I could tell that the underlying problem wasn't being addressed.  No matter how hard I tried to explain this to various people, I was getting nowhere.  There were helpful nurses along the way who would give me good questions to ask, but I wouldn't remember them, or I would be placated by doctors who told me they had answers.   In general, the care my mother-in-law received was good, but highly structured by the laws, regulations, and the common practices of doctors.  E.P. Thompson once described class as a machine in motion, and the medical establishment is a lot like that.  The machine moves to produce particular outcomes:  admitting or discharging from the ER; discharging from hospital to rehab, from rehab to assisted living, etc. etc. 

But the machine was not working for my mother-in-law.  As she was rushed to the ER yet again, I moved beyond the obvious privilege I posess (white skin, no obvious accent, developed but non-medical vocabulary) and started using my social capital.  The ER doctor this time was sympathetic and more holistically oriented; she was clearly troubled by the fact that my mother-in-law as back after being so recently released less than 48 hours before.  I recognized her last name, and yes she was connected to the school where I teach.  Now as I mentioned, earlier, I already felt like this doctor was doing better by my mother-in-law and the ER was really slow, so she did a deeper dive into the chart.  I left feeling more confident and attended to feeding my kids and doing some things so that we would be ready for school tomorrow.

And I expended more social capital.  I called my cousin who is an infectious disease specialist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP).  She drove over to Chestnut Hill and we went to the ER together.  Nicky had been admitted but I introduced my cousin to the ER doc and they talked doctor to doctor.  My cousin, her name is Emily, knew all the right questions to ask.  We got our parking tokens and were escorted to my mother-in-law's room by security, even as announcements were being made that visiting hours were over and visitors should leave.  It was then that I noticed Emily was wearing her HUP fleece, she was expending some cultural capital of her own.  She visited with my mother-in-law for a while, asked questions, and even looked at her bruises from her fall.  My cell phone rang, it was the doctor on-call with some questions for me about my mother-in-law's care.  When she realized I was in the hospital, she walked in.  More doctor talk.  Emily knew the right words and phrases to make things happen.  More advanced tests were ordered.  The medical machine moved ever so slightly in our direction.  

And the thing about social capital as a concept, as opposed to privilege, is that social capital is something you accumulate, invest in, grow, and spend. Some of us inherit social capital, like the fact that my cousin is an amazing doctor who can navigate this tricky social situation.  Some of it is capital that I've accumulated on my own, like recognizing the ER doctor's connection to my school.   While privilege lends itself to binary thinking, it's either something you have or don't have,* social capital lends itself, like other forms of capital, to being talked about in gradations.   Both concepts are useful but we need to have more conversations about social capital and it needs to enter every day vocabulary the way "privilege" has. 

*NB:  Many people believe that Peggy Mackintosh coined the term white privilege in her essay on the "Invisible Backpack."  The essay, which is quite fine for thinking about how to teach the various students in front of you, does not engage in such binary thinking but subsequently people have tended to use her concept that way. 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Getting Personal

A long time ago, when I had a prolonged stretch of singleness while living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I did what one did in those days when one didn't want to be single anymore, and I took out a personal ad.  If you are under 40 and have no idea what I'm talking about,  a personal ad was a brief bit of text one took out in a newspaper (often an alternative weekly) and if someone like your ad, they called and left a message in a voice mailbox with their phone number and if you liked their message you called them.

The first time I took out a personal ad it read: 

Feeling like Joel; looking for my Maggie.  If you think green chile bagels are an abomination against God and man, call me. 

The ad played on the TV show Northern Exposure, which featured a Jewish doctor who moves to small town Alaska where he has many adventures with the locals, including the extremely attractive bush pilot, Maggie.  This ad was mildly successful and I met several nice people.   However, several months later, I took out another ad:

Tortured intellectual seeks similar.  If you're happy and you know it don't bother.  
That ad was much less successful; I can't imagine why.  

Now that I am newly single, I'm pleased to launch the search for the Emergency Replacement Wife(tm) Although I have been out of the game for a few decades, I am sure the following personal ads I will be taking out in local newsweeklies will be highly successful:

Slightly used 50-year old with three kids seeks emergency replacement wife(tm) due to recent family tragedy.  Co-parenting and snuggles required*  
*Can be heteroflexible in exchange for you doing dishes and/or folding laundry
**Willing to go full drag queen in exchange for all above plus bathroom cleaning.  

OK, so that may not sound entirely appealing.  That's okay.  I've got a back up plan!

Single ladies in your forties!  Did you put your career first for years and years?  Are you now regretting your life choices?  Have no fear Instafamily(tm) is here!  What you get when you marry into Instafamily(tm): 
One husband with his own moderate-income career, reasonably proficient at most chores.                         
Three children (only two of whom are teenagers!)
Two cats!
One minivan (NEW!!!!!!)
No warranty expressed or implied.  Some scarring of individuals may be evident. 
With personal ads, like these I'm sure I'll be remarried in no time.  I hear some of this has dating stuff has been changed since the rise of the internet, but I'm confident that this will work even in the current dating world!  

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

My Former Students Write Things...

.. like this senior speech, delivered to the whole Upper School.  Shared with permission.

The first time my dad got laid off, I was seven, and I didn’t know what it meant. It didn’t feel like a bad thing, not really. All I knew was that my dad was home all summer, which felt more like a vacation than anything, and then he was still home in the fall, and into the winter, too, until he returned to work in the spring and everything fell back into place, without seven-year-old me ever realizing there was a problem.
    The second time he got laid off, I had just turned seventeen, and I knew better.
    Two daughters away at college, and one more at home in a private high school. A big stack of bills on the dining room table and only one paycheck coming in. And there was my dad, sitting at the head of the table with a calculator in his hand and his glasses sliding down his nose, crunching numbers late into the night, trying to make them tell him something good for once.  
    So when I’m asked what my parents do for a living, I usually talk about my mom.  
    When I tell people that my mom is a flight attendant, they think it’s cool. They hear “flight” and think vacation, as if she’s getting paid to constantly head overseas and lie on a beach in Majorca and call it work. And I smile and nod, and say, “Yeah, it is pretty cool,” and try to make it sound like I believe it.
The one good thing about my mom being a flight attendant is that my family flies for free. Granted, we fly standby, which usually means spending hours in the airport watching our names on a tiny screen get knocked off the flight list until finally getting put into a bunch of middle seats scattered around coach, but a free flight is a free flight. That’s the one good thing.
    Everything else about it, though, is just like having a job in the service industry, except you’re thirty-thousand feet in the air, which only means that the rude people get ruder and the loud people get louder, and there’s always that one guy who seems to think he’s the only person on the plane who doesn’t like flying, so he gets a pass to be a jerk to the flight attendants, and isn’t it their job to make sure he has a nice flight? And he knows he can only have one carry-on, but can’t they make an exception for him, since he has an early meeting tomorrow with a very important investor? But of course, a flight attendant wouldn’t understand anything about business. And what do they mean, he can’t smoke on the plane? What’s the point of paying to fly first class if he can’t smoke while he does it? Because you know, back in his day, they let you do this stupid thing, and that stupid thing, et cetera, et cetera.
    And my mom has to smile and ask him very nicely to put his cigarettes away, even though he’s getting in her face and cursing and saying stupid, hateful things to her in front of the whole plane, because if she yells at him, it’s a lawsuit and a headline and a request for her resignation, but when he yells at her, it’s a normal Tuesday. So she asks him nicely to calm down, to take a seat, and can she offer him something to drink? A snack? How about a movie?
    And when the flight lands, she gets on another plane, and she does it again. And again. And again.
    That’s her life, most of the week. I can tell you a thousand horrible stories of a thousand horrible people she’s met on planes, because that’s what she does for my family, what she’s been doing for my family for twenty-eight years. Then when my dad got laid off, she started doing it even more, working longer flights with longer hours. And when it started getting harder to make ends meet, she decided to pick up another job for some extra money. And then, when a few more months had passed and my dad still wasn’t back at work, a third job on top of that.
    For a long time, it was pretty bad. My mom was gone most days and nights, but when she was home, she was sleeping, or running errands, or fighting with my dad. She was tired of working all the time, tired of worrying about money, tired of being tired, and my dad felt guilty and responsible but he couldn’t say it, didn’t know how to say it, so he wouldn’t, and instead he just yelled back, and my parents would scream themselves hoarse.
    And I’d retreat to my bedroom, freshly painted yellow because HGTV told me a yellow room promotes happiness and productivity. I wouldn’t call my sisters because they’d worry and I didn’t want that, and I wouldn’t call my friends because they’d feel sorry for me and I really didn’t want that, so I’d block the space under the door with a blanket to stifle the noise and I’d read a book, or put on an episode of something stupid and mindless, and turn the volume all the way up. And if that didn’t work, I’d leave the house, and just walk around my neighborhood for hours, until I was sure the fighting was done.
    One night, during a particularly bad fight, I remember kicking a stone along the sidewalk and thinking, very childishly, that if we only won the lottery, my parents would have nothing to fight about. Not the big lottery, because no one needs four-hundred-million dollars, but maybe just a few million so my family wouldn’t fall any further into crippling debt. And then maybe a few more for when my sisters and I are old and wrinkly and social security has completely fallen apart.
    It was a pretty hard year, and for a while I was sure it would end in a divorce, but it didn’t. My dad got called back to work this past January, my mom only has to work two jobs now instead of three, and we’re okay. We’re still not great, not really. Not yet. But we’re getting there.
    I didn’t come here and tell you this to make you feel sorry for me, or because I enjoy telling stories about my family’s problems. I’m here because when people look at me, they see a good student, or a softball player, or that girl who for some inexplicable reason actually reads books for fun. They don’t see the kid who walks two miles to school most days because her family can’t afford to add another name to the car insurance policy, or the one who always has the best excuses lined up to explain why she can’t make it to that movie this weekend when really she just doesn’t have the money, or the girl who knows just how far twenty dollars will get you at the grocery store.
There’s a lot of shame attached to a family that’s failing financially, even if you’re just a kid along for the ride. So I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make: I’m not ashamed that neither of my parents were able to go to college. I’m not ashamed that they don’t have the most glamorous jobs. And I’m not ashamed of what we went through, what we’re still going through. I’m proud of my parents. I’m grateful for them. And more than anything, I love them.
Thank you.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

It's Probably Time

"It feels like weakness, but it's a sign of strength." I said these words to a young man last week at school.  I was specifically talking about asking for help in times of trouble.  And when I walked out of that meeting, after counseling this kid who made a bad decision when he was having a rough time, I had to look in the metaphorical mirror and realized that I needed to take my own advice. 

Over the last month, instead of feeling better, I've been feeling worse.  I've been more on edge, less able to control my emotions or my mouth, and my sleep hasn't improved.  I feel like I'm about to burst into tears pretty much all the time now.  Worst of all, my teaching is totally in the tank.*   So it's time to get some help.

So over spring break, I'll be seeing somebody to get some meds.  And I'll be looking for a therapist and finding the time to schedule meetings with them.  Because asking for help, it feels like weakness but it's a sign of strength.

Feel free to share your favorite meds or Philly area therapists in the comments. 

*In the tank by my standards.  But every time I see somebody give a demo lesson, read a twitter edchat, etc. etc. I realize even mediocre me is still a pretty good teacher.  But the point is, I feel like I'm doing a terrible job and there are things I'm dropping the ball on. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

As Long as We are Talking About the Children

People keep asking how the kids are doing.  The eldest is going to the Geek Dance.  Her project took a first at the science fair so she's on to the next round at Penn State.  There's a dance.  So that's how we refer to the state science fair around these parts, the Geek Dance.  Her project was on preventing wild fires in the American West.  I didn't help her with it at all.  Really.

The youngest boy seems to be doing well.  He recently appeared as a dancer in a local opera and rehearsals start soon for his ballet concert at the end of the year.

And the middle boy, the one who was supposed to start therapy back in September but couldn't go because Lori broke her ankle.  He's having his best school experience in a long time.  And he's discovered a passion for writing.  He recently attended a poetry writing workshop.  He would not show his stuff from the workshop but he did show me this poem he wrote for class:

The Dream We Share

There’s a dream that we all share.
A hope for a better planet.

The dream of a clean earth
The sky blue, the ocean too
The land green, it’s all clean
The clouds white, not grey with smoke
The streets fine, no litter to cloak

A dream of equality
A house of diversity
A planet of harmony
A land of the free
A place for you and me

Here is a dream that we all share
No time to relax, no time to spare

We save it today, not tomorrow
To spare ourselves from so much sorrow

* * 
Pretty good, huh? I think the kids are alright.