Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Slowest Mile

I looked out the window at 1:00, and the sun was out. I peeked at the thermometer. It was over 20 degrees outside. OK, no excuses, I had to run. I figured that the sidewalks would be icy, but maybe the park board had cleared the lake trails, and so I drove myself to Nokomis, where I began my run on the north side of the lake. North side, as in sunless side. The trails were coated with ice. I barely moved my feet as I "ran", struggling to making my upper body look like that of a runner, while my feet moved barely faster than a walker's.

Whenever I found a patch of dry pavement, I flew because I was finally able to let go of a little bit of my steam. Then the dry part would end, and I would throttle back so that I wouldn't find myself sprawling on the ground.

To avert the almost certain disaster of a spill, I almost turned around, but there was another runner up ahead. If he could do it, so could I. We met up at the stoplight. "At least we're still standing," he said. "Well, it's the slowest run of my life," said I (exaggerating, since surely the slowest run of my life was the Mother's Day run I lost to my mother).

His daughter goes to Carleton, and so we ran together around the slightly less icy south side of the lake, chatting about education and money and Jonathan Kozol, and allowing each other to use the dry patches on the sidewalk for traction.

And then, Christmas miracle, neither of us wiped out. We finished our runs and we didn't add to our injuries, and now I get to have that clear-headed just-exercised feeling for the rest of the day. I'm going to use it to buy some paint for the basement floor.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Saturdays are my day to volunteer at the library. I get myself downtown to the big public library. Usually I plan to take the bus, but I wind up being late and driving and having to pay to park. Today, I drove and found a spot that was far from the library but free on Saturday. Today was a good day.

I settle myself down at the table on the fourth floor, get out my computer, or whatever papers I have to grade, and then I wait until the students come. I have some regulars.

"Betty" is an elderly black lady who is teaching herself algebra. She travels from library to library in search of math help. I've seen her at least once a month for over a year at two different libraries. We've sat down together for hours at a time, and I've walked her through problem after problem. After a year, her math skills are about where they were when I first met her. I think she has a little memory loss to overcome while she learns. Betty always has her "homework" and she comes prepared with questions. Secretly, though I think that Betty is using algebra as a prop to get tutors to sit down with her for an hour, interrupting her math problems with tidbits about our real lives. "What kind of math do you have today, Betty?" doesn't take long to detour to "How was your Christmas, Betty?".

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure Betty loves doing the math. I'm sure she gets off on it, in a truly nerdy way, and perhaps if she had been born in a different generation or if she had been born white or male, she might have found her way to a continued study of mathematics. She says that she wakes up in the morning sometimes, having dreamed about math, and then she has to get up to finish a problem before she even gets dressed. She once said to me that a system of equations reminded her of a marriage, and that solving for x and then using it to solve for y was like peeling away the layers of your relationship to discover who you each are as individuals. Only true math nerds can make relationship analogies to algebra.

"Leroy" is a middle-aged black man who fears math but knows that he needs to go back to school in order to work his way out of a dead-end job. The first time I met Leroy, he brought a blond husky-voiced woman with him. She also had math homework, but she refused to ask any questions, and I soon realized that she was the crutch he needed to get through the door to ask for help. Once he found out how the whole tutoring thing worked, she never returned, but the amazing thing is that Leroy does return, again and again, even though after an hour or two of math, he looks like someone who needs a cigarette - at which point he excuses himself for a smoke break.

Leroy has been coming to the library on and off for at least nine months. He even took the test he needed to get into school, failed it, and battled his way back to the library to get over that defeat. He says he has a calendar at home to keep track of the days I work at the library. Now that I'm only at the library every other week, it stresses me out on days like today, when Leroy doesn't make it. He might not learn enough math before his next test if he only works on it once a month. I'm a little worried that he only has one more test in him, and if he doesn't pass the next time, he won't be back. Unlike Betty, Leroy has improved a lot on his math. Mostly, he has gotten over the deer-in-the-headlights fear he feels when he first looks at a problem, which allows him to relax enough to remember what we've done for the past nine months.

And then today there was a dirty white guy at our table, and I had a bad feeling. I have never had a bad feeling at tutoring before. I didn't want to tutor him, because I felt leered at when he looked at me. I also felt like a dick for not wanting to be friendly. So, when he asked me when I'm available for tutoring, I told him my actual real hours, because I didn't want to be a dick. When he said he'd come in two weeks and bring some calculus homework, I said OK, but, I said it unenthusiastically, because I had a Bad Feeling, and I was pretty sure the calculus was a ruse to get me to talk to him. Then I started to wonder whether I was having a real honest-to-goodness Bad Feeling or whether I had some sort of homelessness prejudice that was keeping me from being helpful. The good news is that all of my homelessness stereotypes indicate that he will not be able to keep the appointment and I will probably never see him again, so I might not have to play the game of pretending to tutor him in math, when all he really wants is to sit next to a friendly woman for an hour.

Besides, isn't that all Betty wants, too?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Baby Whispers

One of the things I believe is that as long as parents are not harming their children, then the way that they choose to raise them is the way it should be done. I don't offer advice or criticism, mostly because what the hell do I know? But also because the world already gives new parents more advice than they need.

"Oh," says the world, "your baby doesn't sleep? Have you tried letting her cry herself to sleep?"
"Have you tried the family bed?"
"Maybe it's something you're eating."
"He needs to be kept on a strict schedule."
"She needs more stimulation. Take her outside."

These things might all be good advice, but when you're sleep deprived, and your own individual baby, the one you know best in the world isn't sleeping, what business is it of the world to intrude with its sage advice? No. I figure I am a better friend by believing with all of my heart that the parents know best.

And, so, when I worked as a nanny/research assistant in Portland, OR, for a woman who followed a book called "The Baby Whisperer" to the letter, I did as she instructed. I didn't rock her son to sleep, and allow his drowsy baby head to droop against my shoulder. I didn't hold his sleeping body against mine and smell his head while he dreamed. No, I followed her routine. He woke up. He had some food (breast milk with her), he got a clean diaper, he played on his stomach as long as he was happy, and then he played alone on his back. When he got tired of alone time, I picked him up and talked to him and sang with him. And, then, as soon as he started to rub his eyes or droop, we played three songs on the stereo while I danced with him in my arms. When he zoned out and his eyes glazed over, I carried him to his crib, and placed him gently on his back. He was still awake, but he was as limp as an overdone noodle. Before long, he fell asleep on his own. I walked away, and helped Liz with her research until he woke up again, at which point we would start the routine from the beginning.

She was strict about following the routine (which she never called a schedule, because it was shaped by the baby and never by the time on the clock). Once she returned from vacation, nearly in tears. Her son wasn't sleeping well. Her husband had walked him to sleep the whole time they were on vacation. He had ruined her carefully constructed patterns. How was the boy ever going to learn the rhythm again?

Sometimes, I thought maybe she should lighten up. I was pretty sure she was missing the greatest joy of feeling her small baby sleep against her chest. It definitely seemed like bad policy to over-monitor how her husband parented. However, I have to admit that the job was one of the easiest I ever had. Her son took to the routine. He ate well and played happily alone and then he enjoyed singing and talking until it was time to dance and to sleep. It was her kid, and she seemed to know how to parent him. I did as I was told.

I didn't realize that the Baby Whisperer's patterns had become so ingrained in me, until last week when I babysat for an infant about the same age as that boy had been when we met. I thought they were just Liz's thing that I did because she told me to. But then there I was with a small infant, and I had forgotten how boring they are. For a while, alone with this blob of an (albeit very cute and cuddly) baby, I felt at a loss for what to do. I was in someone else's house, holding someone else's baby, and there was nothing to do.

And so I fell back on the routine. I put the baby down, arranged some toys to be swatted by her undirected hand flailing, so she could learn some cause and effect. When she got bored I picked her up and sang with her and talked to her. When she started to yawn and looked glazed over, I set her down, and watched her fall asleep. She woke up. I gave her the bottle. We changed diapers. She played a little more Cause-and-Effect. I sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and asked her how big the baby was. She stared the yawning again, and I put her down, and just as I was getting bored again, she fell asleep. And, so I knitted, baby-whispering complete for the afternoon. She slept straight through until her mom arrived.

It's a pretty good trick, actually, especially for that little monkey-baby stage. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't work on my own kid, though. I'd be too busy smelling hair, and trying to get some cuddles in.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Well, You Missed It

I saw a great show yesterday afternoon, called "Fool For Love", by Sam Shepard. The story is grim (and dumb when you think about it), but the performances by four actors were all outstanding. One guy played an awkward moment without speaking so well that it made me squirm. The leads were both coiled like springs for the entire show. There were times during the show when I couldn't take my eyes off of each of the four of them, not even to see what the other three were doing.

I hate to tell you how engrossing the play was, since yesterday's show was the last performance, but I will tell you that after this I'd see anything at the Gremlin Theater. It's small and intimate like the Penumbra, too, which makes you feel like you're right there in the room with the actors (who came out to the lobby in street clothes after the show and chatted with the audience). So, I'm sorry you missed this one, but check out their next show if you get the chance. OK, carry on.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


So, I was thinking about my blind date today, and I was thinking that I didn't have high hopes for it. He seems introverted and numerically inclined, which is fine, but I'm starting to think that two such people in a relationship is one too many. Still, he contacted me, and I didn't say no, because I'm trying to be open and yes-y.

And then I was thinking about all of these people who keep telling me that I shouldn't try so hard, that I will meet my someone when I least expect it. And for a brief moment I thought maybe this was when I would least expect it, which, of course, ruined the moment, and brought me back to where I started.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Three Little Words

You can describe the state of my apartment at the moment in just three words. Sarah did so just this evening. She walked in the door, wrinkled her nose, and said, "What's that smell?" Yep, it's time to clean. For once, the rankness of the air was not caused by Buddy's intestinal problems. It's just the stale smell of girl and not-too-clean dog living together in squalor.

I'm counting the minutes until break, and then I'm cleaning it from top to bottom. It's going to be squeak by Sunday. The smell of this place by Sunday will be the smell of clean.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Over It

Jimmy invited me to dinner. This is the perfect response to the kind of mood I was in when I wrote yesterday's post. I was probably hungry and tired. Hungry and tired equals vague existential weariness for me, and I can never seem to remember at the time that the reason I find myself questioning the meaning of life and my place in it, is mostly because I'm hungry.

I mean, sure, sometimes I feel like the Loneliest Girl in the World who has to eat dinner alone in restaurants, but it could be a lot worse. I could be too poor to afford dinner. I could actually, for real, not have friends, and I could actually be lonely, not just temporarily without company. I could have no family to pick me up when I stagger, no Jimmy to offer to cook me dinner. I could have no Buddy to curl up beside me when I crawl into bed. I could have no sister-in-law who saves me crossword puzzles when I visit. I could have no book club friends to meet me for bad movies downtown.

I could have no courage to date and no confidence that the Right One is out there for me. I could be married to the Wrong One or trying to figure out custody of my children. I could be mourning the loss of the Right One, or forcing myself into a closet so that I'd guarantee myself years of dating Wrong Ones.

None of these things is true. I'm just single. I'm just hungry after long days of work, and I have to figure out how to feed myself after working a full day. I'm just working too hard because I'm a new teacher and I'm learning as I go. I'm just a procrastinator who would be happier if she did her damn work instead of playing computer games and wishing she didn't have to do all of that work. I'm just light-sensitive and I work without windows, so I need to get light some other way. I'm just ready for winter break, and I just have four more days to go until I'm free.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


We've reached December, everyone, which for those of us who are seasonal, is never a particularly good thing. This year, the effect of lack of daylight on me seems to be an increase in fear. Don't worry. I'm not panicky. I'm just angsty. Lovely.

I'm afraid I'll spend the day playing Eight Letters in Search of a Word, and I won't get my work done, and I'll have to go to school with ungraded tests no plan. I'm afraid my dog is mad at me for not wanting to walk him these days. I'm afraid I'll never run again. I'm afraid I'm out of food. I'm afraid that my heart is frozen. I'm afraid my mom will read this, convince herself that I'm depressed and worry about me. I'm afraid I can't make new friends. I'm afraid I'll have to look for a new job this summer. I'm afraid that Facebook is stealing all of my personal information in order to target ads at me and it still shows me diet ads. I'm afraid that I'll never get my master's degree. I'm afraid that my married friends will outgrow me. I'm afraid that I missed the deadline to invest in my 403(b). I'm afraid that my students are cheating. I'm afraid that I'm too easy a grader. I'm afraid that the rain will freeze to my car and I'll have to spend the morning hacking it out of the ice. I'm afraid that once I get my car out of the ice, the roads will be so slippery I'll go in the ditch. I'm afraid of the economy and the war and the crazy white supremicists who want to kill the president.

See? You don't want to be in this head. I'm telling you. It's loud in here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Fifth Hour

"I have a question, but it's not math related."

Uh oh.

"Have you seen that guy from the hockey game lately?"

"Was that your mom who just knocked on the door?"

"Well, will you bring your mom to school one day so we can meet her?"

"Can she bring your dog?"

"What kind of dog do you have?"

"What's his name?"

"What does your mom do?"

"What does perinatalogy mean?"

"Does she deliver twins? I'm a twin. Did she deliver me? What's her name?"

"Like the Science Guy?"

"Mrs. B says you and her go way back? Are you friends with Mrs. B?"

"You were in AmeriCorps? What's AmeriCorps?"

"Um, can I ask you a math question?"


Monday, December 01, 2008

Day of Rest

The best thing about the half-marathon training program that I'm running, even though I'm not running in a half-marathon? The off-days.

Don't get me wrong. I always go a lot of days without running. In fact, I've been down to running once a week recently, but my days off from running have never been off-days. They have always been days when I didn't get to it. They were days when I couldn't make myself get up before school or saddle up after school for a run. On those days, I still thought about running, thought that I should run, thought that maybe, even though I didn't get to it before school, I still might run after school.

There seems to be a secret to life in there somewhere. I take days off from grading homework, for example, but I never take days off from homework. It's always there, hanging over my head, making me feel guilty. Maybe I should do a six mile run of homework tonight, be done with it, and then allow myself a day off to heal and rest for the next burst of homework energy another day.