Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Lots of Landmines, No Metal Detector:  The First of Several on This Topic"

When a child is born, the parent enters into a decades-long negotiation with the world.  The script for this give-and-take reads:

Parent, puffing out chest:  "Surrounded by a loving village of friends and family, my child will never question that she is loved."

World, yawning:  "Fiddlesticks."

Parent, still confident:  "I will provide steadiness and an open heart and opportunities, and they will help to form my child's character."

World, dashing off a quick text to Mars:  "Hogwash."

Parent, bristling and speaking in clipped syllables:  "I love to ski, read, and walk in the woods.  Therefore, because I will model positive experiences with these things, my child will also love them."

Worldgazing into the mirror and fluffing its bangs:  "Suck it."

Parent, absently running a hand across a well-thumbed copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting:  "If I lay down a good foundation in the home, my child will be prepared to take on all of life's challenges."

World, ordering a Large Pepperoni, Extra Cheese:  "Up in ya."

Hmmm.  Upon review, it would seem World isn't ceding much at all--not even feigning consideration of the parent's agenda.  Rather, World enters the negotiations wearing ear plugs, bound and determined to hum "la-la-la" and do whatever the hell it wants to, even in the face of the very best intentions. 

World can be a serious bitch.

As I've watched and experienced this interplay over the last ten years, since having kids, I've noticed that the room gets particularly tension filled when Parent is to put it?  Crunchy.  Does that work?  Is there a term for modern-day lefty/boho/hippie types (besides "Alicia Silverstone")?

No matter what you call us (er, "them"), there are parents--mostly white, mostly well educated, mostly Dems--who greet much of the world with tolerance and compassion.  We--sorry! "They"--buy fair trade and embrace whole grains and present their friends with donation gifts of "one cow, good for milking, which will transform the lives of a needy family in Ghana."  At their best, we/they live thoughtfully and deliberately and hope to be agents of change.

There are flaws in the profile, though.  For example, while such people buy Christmas ornaments made by "a women's cooperative in Nicaragua," they are less comfortable supporting the cottage industries that transform the lives of their own nation's poor--i.e., rapper 50 Cent's G-Unit clothing line.  Even more, at least in my community, while Loving Whitey Libs are largely anti-consumerist, they're also incredible gear heads; you better believe the bleedingest hearts top their $20,000 Subarus with $700 Thule cargo boxes to help carry their $300 Karhu skis. 

And, okay, sometimes there's a certain moral self-righteousness that crops up in the Crunchies (for more of this, SEE:  The Extreme Right).  Finally, when it comes to Crunchies having a baby--and I tell you this as someone well acquainted with Tree Huggery and all its related lentil eating--there are some pretty uniform values in place.  To delineate just a few:
  • ideally, labor and delivery will occur at home; bonus points for water births
  • there will be a 5-10 page birth plan handed over to those assisting with the delivery; should this plan ultimately end up in the hands of hospital staff, the laboring mother will be privy to laughter echoing down the hall, from the nurses' station, if she is able to hear anything over the sounds of her own animalistic grunting
  • the labor and delivery will be "natural," and any mother-to-be worth her uterus will soldier through without medication
  • the mother will nurse for a minimum of one year, preferably two or three
  • all babyfood will be homemade
  • the baby will benefit from the close contact provided by a sling
  • cloth diapers will be used, lest there be no planet left for him/her to inherit
  • co-sleeping is not only safe and easy, it creates a family bond
  • exposure to technology and screens will be virtually non-existent
  • toys will be wooden, not plastic
 This list could continue ad nauseum, of course.  My personal Mommy-Crunch-O-Meter score on the previous items hovers somewhere around 4, but that's a rough calculation, as I did some things with Kid #1 that I didn't with Kid #2, and Kid #2 was the beneficiary of a few things we hadn't known about with Kid #1.  Let's round my score to a 4.16489.

I nursed both kids as long as it worked; we used cloth diapers with Girl (there was a service in town, so every Monday morning the dirties went away, and a new bag--a plastic one!!!--of cleans dropped with a plop); we used a sling with Paco, which, as I recall, allowed me to wash four dishes one day when he was a month old; we co-slept like crazy, in the hopes of getting even 20 minutes of sleep, but it was hardly an instrument of family bonding, as Groom had to to sleep in a different bed, given the limitations of our full-sized mattress; and, em, I would have loved a water birth, but only if a team of epidural-wielding, Speedo-wearing doctors were in the tub with me.

What I've learned, since achieving that initial 4.16489, is how complicated every values decision becomes as the child's life continues...and how that controlling bitch, World, becomes increasingly adept at interferring.  So long as it was just the three of us, then the four of us, dancing around the living room to Joni Mitchell, we remained on the Path of Liberal Righteousness.

Well, except when Girl was colicky for three months, and the only thing that preserved anyone's sanity was our nightly watching of "Blind Date" with host Roger Lodge, a program whose jejune highjinks I still thank for being the sole bright spot in a very dark time.

But when we weren't watching crap tv on Volume 72, we, assuredly, pureed sweet potatoes and talked birdwatching.

Then the colic receded, the baby grew up, we had another, they found friendships, we enrolled them in activities, they went off to school...and before we knew it,

they were citizens of Writhing, Delightful, Unpredictable, Bitchy World--affected by values we hadn't orchestrated.

More anon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Cookies Turned Out Pretty Well, by the Way"

'Twas holiday time.

There, in a quiet, domestic scene, I baked molasses cookies, and my husband folded sheets of paper into gift boxes that would hold the treats.

The Ipod shuffled, and a new song, low and mellow, poured into the kitchen:  "I search myself and everyone/To see where we went wrong..."

"AHHHH, CRACK-ADDICTED MOTHER OF KEE-RIST," I screeched, tailoring my curse to the season.  "How come I hate Sarah McLachlan so much at this minute?  If I holler the words 'shut up,' do you think she will? And also, as long as I'm at it, I thought I liked Sarah McLachlan.  I mean, who the hell do you think bought this CD originally?  It wasn't Great Aunt Ethel, that's for sure.  I can admit it:  I was possessed of McLachlan Fever in my twenties.  She was breathy; she was earnest.  But right now, I find I am passionately annoyed by her breathy earnestness here in the kitchen.  Would my good friend Debbie Harry from Blondie please shuffle up to Sarah, there inside the Ipod, and bitch slap some sense into her Lilith Fair self?"

In his mild way, Groom chimed in, "This song is a bit like opening a time capsule to the '90s."

Energized from the scorching heat of his condemnation, I blustered, "GAWWD.  Doesn't she lead with her uterus, though?  It's all whine, drop an egg, moan, pat an ovary..."

"Yes," His Groomishness agreed, safely, "her vibe doesn't suit our here and now.  She seems dated."

Dated.  That was right.  To my surprise, Sarah McLachlan's pretty, dulcet 1990's tones seemed like they'd benefit from a tour of duty in Iraq, if they hoped to find a place in the '10s.  Without some broadening, well, her work seems like something whose time has passed.

Interestingly, later that same night, when I was out for a run, I listened to a podcast wherein television critic David Bianculli was interviewed about his new book on The Smothers Brothers, Dangerously Funny.  As he recapped the careers of Tom and Dick Smothers, particularly their too-soon-cancelled program The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Bianculli took me back in time, back through the McLachlan '90s, past the Leona Helmsley '80s, before the Bruce Jenner '70s, to the late 1960's.  Just a niblet back then, I do remember watching The Smothers Brothers.  I liked the banjo.

Bianculli's interview gave me the broader context of this anti-authoritarian, groundbreaking program that sought out fresh talent, fought with the network, confounded censors, and provided a solidly anti-war message.  In an era where sex, drugs, religion, and politics were hugely topical yet still avoided on public broadcasts, Tom and Dick Smothers set their focus firmly upon challenging existing mores. Because of its willingness to be provocative, to be rebellious, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was cancelled in a swirl of controversy.  In many ways, the story of this show is the story of the 1960's.

But for me, listening to the podcast that night, the trajectory of The Smothers Brothers is still relevant.  Unlike that breathy McLachlan in her floaty dresses, Tom and Dick's work continues to hold my interest--as Bianculli notes, they continue to have an impact on “today’s TV troublemakers and iconoclasts.”  Maybe I'm just an individual who is disposed towards appreciating agitators and subversion.  Maybe, though, the principles that guided The Smothers Brothers remain fresh even today, in a time of corruption and destruction.  I'm going to argue they're still relevant because their example was to question, challenge, push for change.

And that never goes out of style.

How about you?  Have you been struck by things that suddenly seem passe or unnecessary...or surprisingly appurtenant to the moment?

Outside of the McLachlan/Smothers experiences, I've also recently realized I'm pretty much over clementines this year, preferring instead good, old-fashioned oranges or--the new kid on my butcher block--Cara Caras.  2010 is SOOOO Cara Cara.

But not Irene Cara.

She's out there, on her own.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"Protests Quashed"

For once and all, I'm surrendering.

I don't hate poetry after all.

The issue in my early years seems to have been the wrong poetry applied to the wrong brain.  Now that I'm flailing through Older Years, I keep bumping into precisely the right stuff.

Finally, I get it.

Poetry says stuff differently enough that we understand it more betterer.

For my particular taste, the poems that work are simple and straightforward--but with a little rub in them.

Poet Louis Jenkins, who has lived in Duluth the last 30-odd years, writes just such lines.  If you have any income to dispose towards a volume of verse, I'd recommend you seek his out. 

He writes "prose poems," paragraphs and anecdotes that are denuded of all the "things that insist that the reader should be having a poetical experience,” as he puts it.  In short, his style releases readers from labor and hands them moments of knowing, of cynicism, of wryness.

I also really like that, noting poetry's inability to earn great income, the 67-year-old, long-married Jenkins says he continues to write and publish for the "fame and glory...and the chicks."

Take a moment to give this guy his due, would you?

"First Snow"

By dusk the snow is already partially melted. There are dark patches where the grass shows through, like islands in the sea seen from an airplane. Which one is home? The one I left as a child? They all seem the same now. What became of my parents? What about all those things I started and never finished? What were they? As we get older we become more alone. The man and his wife share this gift. It is their breakfast: coffee and silence, morning sunlight. They make love or they quarrel. They move through the day, she on the black squares, he on the white. At night they sit by fire, he reading his book, she knitting. The fire is agitated. The wind hoots in the chimney like a child blowing in a bottle, happily.
"A Quiet Place"

I have come to understand my love for you. I came to you like a man, world-weary, looking for a quiet place. The gas station and grocery store, the church, the abandoned school, a few old houses, the river with its cool shady spots . . . . good fishing. How I've longed for a place like this! As soon as I got here I knew I'd found it. Tomorrow the set production and camera crews arrive. We can begin filming on Monday: the story of a man looking for a quiet place.
"Uncle Axel"

In the box of old photos there's one of a young man with a moustache wearing a long coat, circa 1890. The photo is labeled "Uncle Karl" on the back. That would be your mother's granduncle, who came from Sweden, a missionary, and was killed by Indians in North Dakota, your great-granduncle.

The young man in the photo is looking away from the camera, slightly to the left. He has a look of determination, a man of destiny, preparing to bring the faith to the heathen Sioux.

But it isn't Karl. The photo was mislabeled, fifty years ago. It's actually a photo of Uncle Axel, from Norway, your father's uncle, who was a farmer. No one knows that now. No one remembers Axel, or Karl.

If you look closely at the photo it almost appears that the young man is speaking, perhaps muttering "I'm Axel damn it. Quit calling me Karl!"
"Too Much Snow"

Unlike the Eskimos we only have one word for snow but we have a lot of modifiers for that word. There is too much snow, which, unlike rain, does not immediately run off. It falls and stays for months. Someone wished for this snow. Someone got a deal, five cents on the dollar, and spent the entire family fortune. It's the simple solution, it covers everything. We are never satisfied with the arrangement of the snow so we spend hours moving the snow from one place to another. Too much snow. I box it up and send it to family and friends. I send a big box to my cousin in California. I send a small box to my mother. She writes "Don't send so much. I'm all alone now. I'll never be able to use so much." To you I send a single snowflake, beautiful, complex and delicate; different from all the others.
"Appointed Rounds"

At first he refused to deliver junk mail because it was stupid, all those deodorant ads, money-making ideas and contests. Then he began to doubt the importance of the other mail he carried. He began to randomly select first class mail for nondelivery. After he had finished his mail route each day he would return home with his handful of letters and put them in the attic. He didn't open them and never even looked at them again. It was as if he were an agent of Fate, capricious and blind. In the several years before he was caught, friends vanished, marriages failed, business deals fell through. Toward the end he became more and more bold, deleting houses, then whole blocks from his route. He began to feel he'd been born in the wrong era. If only he could have been a Pony Express rider galloping into some prairie town with an empty bag, or the runner from Marathon collapsing in the streets of Athens, gasping, "No news."

I keep my clothes in a suitcase at the foot of my bed.  I haven't been anywhere and have no plans to go anywhere, but these days you never know, and besides it gives me a focus for my anxiety and for my occasional moments of unfounded excitement and anticipation.  Every morning I take out clean socks and underwear, etc. and throw the dirty clothes back in the suitcase.  Once a week or so I take the suitcase down to the washer and dryer in the basement and sit around naked waiting for my clean clothes.  That's about it.  The days pass quickly enough.  Once in awhile I see old friends.  "You look tired," they say or "Why the long face?" I reply, "Well, you know, it's stressful, living out of a suitcase."

There are moments when a person cannot be seen by the human eye.  I'm sure you've noticed this.  You might be walking down the street or sitting in a chair when someone you know very well, your mother or your best friend, walks past without seeing you.  Later they'll say, "Oh, I must have been preoccupied."  Not so.  At times we are caught in a warp of space or time and, for a moment, vanish.  This phenomenon occurs often among children and old people.  No one understands exactly how this happens but some people remain invisible for long periods of time.  Most of these do so by choice.  They have learned to ride the moment, as a surfer rides the long curl of a wave.  How exhilarating it is to ride like that, a feeling of triumph to move from room to room unseen, only the slightest breeze in your passing.

Some children did handsprings or cartwheels.  Those of us who were less athletically gifted did what we called somersaults, really a kind of forward roll.  Head down in the summer grass, a push with the feet, then the world flipped upside-down and around.  Your feet, which had been behind you, now stretched out in front.  It was fun and we did it, laughing, again and again.  Yet, as fun as it was, most of us, at some point, quit doing somersaults.  But only recently, someone at Evening Rest (Managed Care for Seniors) discovered the potential value of somersaults as physical and emotional therapy for the aged, a recapturing of youth, perhaps.  Every afternoon, weather permitting, the old people, despite their feeble protests, are led or wheeled onto the lawn, where each is personally and individually aided in the heels-over-head tumble into darkness.  When the wind is right you can hear, even at this distance, the crying of those who have fallen and are unable to rise.
Jocelyn's prose poem, a shout out to Jenkins:

"We Cannot Consider Your Offer at This Time"

I spent two hours today uploading photos.  We're hoping to go live somewhere else for a spell, so we've signed up with some home exchange agencies.  Selling our lives to others requires photos and many fawning adjectives, packaging the quality of our refrigerator so that Australians or Germans want to come use it.  As I clicked the upload button repeatedly, having each attempt fail, a drumming began in my head, one that pounded, "You are very busy thinking about next year when, right now, there is work to do here, now."  In response, a different drum beat a tattoo of, "Yes, but when I think of the possibilities of next year, the here and now seem prettier." Then I clicked the button again. I went to yoga and squatted out the tension.  Later, after I sent out 45 letters of inquiry, the responses began to trickle in:  "I'm sorry...," "...already committed...," " of luck..."  Reading these over, I went back to doing the work of here, now.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Wherein This Becomes the Easiest Place for Me To Show Pictures To Family and Friends; For All Other Readers:  I Appreciate Your Forebearance"

What with turning seven and all, Paco had a party the other day.

Paco and Groom made the invitation. The rock monster on the highest ledge represents Paco.  He yells, "It me birthday!"

The festivities began with some pinata whacking, which resulted in a tumble of fruit snacks, candy, and Scavenger Hunt clues.

When I saw this photo taken by my husband, I had to holler, "Did you climb up the side of the swingset to snap this? What a vertiginous view!"

Then he informed me that he'd simply stood next to the circle of scrambling kids and shot the photo, and I had to yell some more: "You are a freakish giant, Mr. Lincoln, even without your stovepipe hat. No wonder children fall into a protective heap when they see you coming!"

Once they recovered from the presence of a gargantuan in their midst, and with their first clues in hand, Team Neighborhood Rockstars and Team Birthday Boy set off to peer in the compost heap, the tailpipe of the mini-van, the costume bin, and the washing machine. Ultimately, they discovered stashes of Lego sets.

You see, when considering his party options some weeks before, Paco had quickly realized, "I just want to have friends come over and build with Legos."

Important historical footnote: the last time we hel Paco's party at our house was when he turned three, and we had an open house with about 40 people, mostly stunned mid-winter parents staring blankly at their off-the-walls jumping, cabin-fevered children. For two weeks after the party, we despaired of ever righting the house. Thus, from then on, we've taken the lad's party off-site.

Four years is apparently requisite healing time, though, as Paco's desire to sit and build struck us as tolerable. We estimated what a "venue" party would have cost and decided to put an equal amount towards getting each party attendee this year a Lego set.

As we planned the party further, brainstorms of all sorts of add-on Lego-themed activities swirled, such as playing Drop the Lego in the Jar or Pin the Mini-Figure on the Castle, but Paco was having none of it. He just wanted friends and Legos and building.

We did manage to sneak this cake in on him, though.

Incidentally, although Groom is prodigiously gifted in the kitchen, and he does most things well, he is the first to admit he can't frost a cake. This fact, along with his complete inability to move to music, keep him tolerable.

Oh, and there was one more thing, in addition to building with friends, that the Birthday Bubs wanted.  Paco also wanted a tunnel through which food could be served, so that each kid could stand in front of it, watch a bit of abra-cadabra-ing, and then...with a lift of the curtain...

Voila!  Mac 'n cheese!

And in one memorably traumatic course, Severed Head!

They built.  They ate.  They got serious giggles.

Once the all the submarines and wreck raiders had been snapped together, the big Lego brick of a cake came out...

the seven-year-old filled his lungs, fluffed his hair...

...put his lips together and blew.

And then--oddly--an Abe Lincolnish giant came out and did some magic as he cut the cake, serving each blue piece through a tunnel.

One of the kids wasn't aware he was supposed to eat the cake; by mistake, he ate Mr. Lincoln's hand instead.

Considering the assembled crew, however, we felt lucky to have gotten by with only one severed head and one cannibalized hand.

Last time we had Paco's party at the house, an entire grandma went missing.

At the end of Paco's Lego Birthday, therefore, we were able to whistle the best possible wrap-up to any kids' party:


Friday, January 15, 2010

"A Little Song, a Little Dance, a Little Seltzer in Your Pants"

At 7:47 a.m., there is the skitter of an elf hurtling toward the bed.

"I'm coming to give you your cuddles, Mama!"

Usually, Paco's Hug My Mama time lasts for about ten minutes, until I rouse him towards the bathroom to get ready for school--and by "rouse him," I mean zzzzzzzllllllbbbrrrrrr his tummy, talk to him about ninja strategies, contemplate what Fire Type Pokemon he might be, and then pretend to be a locomotive called The Baby Express. Once he's ready to board The Baby Express, I am required to chug to the bathroom, Paco clinging to my torso, as I chant, "Honk honk, choo choo, the Baby Express is comin' throooooouuuuuuuughhh." Moments later, he sits on the toilet while I "do his hair."

The other morning marked a departure from that ritual. Certainly, there was the skitter. But when his soft warmness hit the bed, Paco announced, "I woke up early today, so I read in bed. Boy, did I read some good stuff. I brought one to read to you. It's called Monster Money."

In the ensuing three minutes, I was not only assured that monsters are "even funnier than aliens," but I also learned the various ways that I, were I a monster, could come up with a dime so that I'd have enough money to buy a pet from a store that--Praise the Sleestack--only charges ten cents per animal. Turns out, I might just have a dime. But I also could put together two nickels. Potentially--and get this: I could also add together a nickel and five pennies. Alternately, if I'd really scraped under the couch cushions and taken all the random lint trap change off the top of the dryer in the basement, I might have the luck to come up with ten individual pennies. No matter what, my dedication to dime finding would result in a bat, a rat, or a beetle coming home with me to the swamp.

Having wrung every possible dime configuration out of Monster Money, Paco sat silent for a moment before announcing, "Now I'll hug you for awhile...hey, NO, wait:  I read an even better book this morning.  It's so funny, Mom.  You gotta hear it."  With that, he launched himself back to his Kid Cave, grabbed the book, and hustled back under the duvet with a "You're gonna laugh A LOT at this one, so maybe you should run to the bathroom before I start."

Seeing that he held Froggy Plays in the Band,

I trusted his wisdom and busted out for a potty break.  Upon my return, I had to caution the lad, "You only have about two minutes until we need to get moving, or you're going to miss your bus."  Reassuringly, Paco patted my hand and assured me, "Even with pressure, I can read very fast." 

About three pages in, I realized that the book would take more than two minutes and that I am totally the mother who will drive her kid to school, if it means he gets to finish a book he's excited about. Plus, it's impossible to shut down Paco's vigorous oral interpretation (his first grade teacher commented during our parent/teacher conference, "When he reads out loud, he's like a storyteller," at which point I hugged on her and, shortly thereafter, asked if she could Baby Express me to the bathroom).

So he read.  He gestured.  He stopped periodically to make sure I wasn't missing anything, especially the part where Froggy jokes, "I'm on the phone--the SAXaphone!"  Towards the end, we had to take a 30 second chuckle break on the page where Froggy gets hit in the head with a baton.

The book done, we raced through Paco's morning ablutions, and he still had time to choke down a chocolate chip pancake and some dill pickles before dashing out to the bus.

With the little nutter off to school, I went back to bed, musing that I couldn't have anything but a shiny, happy day when it had started so auspiciously.  As ever, the kid set me up to smile.

He's done that for seven years now.  Close readers of this blog might be thinking, "But, Jocelyn, your first grader is six. I hate it when parents are so out of touch with their children that they don't even know how old they are.  This example of Negligent, Distracted Mother Jocelyn is exactly why our jails are so full."  News for all of y'all huffy close readers:  Paco is having a birthday this weekend.  He's turning seven.

And since he is the source of at least 55% of the smiles in this household, we're all finding it easy to surf the wave of excitement about this milestone.  You see, he owns us.

From the way he reads to me in the way he makes up "shoot-the-cannon" games with his beloved older sister "De-De" the way he sighs ominously towards Groom and announces, "I think we're going to need to make a project today, Dad.  Do we have wire and some foamy stuff?"...the lad is our bestest buddy.

What I'm looking forward to in the next few years of elementary school is further blossoming as he develops greater depths of confidence and coping skills, as he makes friendships that reflect back to him a new perspective of himself, as he fine tunes his schtick for more varied audiences.  He'll begin the process of separating from us, his greatest fan club, and that's just as it should be.  I'll be able to see him better once he's a couple steps away.

Already, he has found an activity that is his and his alone--something that no one in the family has done before him.  With every other lesson or sport or activity, someone can say to him, "I used to love swimming lessons when I was a kid" or "When De-De started soccer, she never touched the ball either," but with martial arts, it's his alone.

So is the orange belt he recently earned.

In the next years, he'll continue to earn and learn and carve and shape his own world. He'll become his own self and not just a kid who often wants to crawl back inside me.

No matter how he changes, though, I feel certain he'll always be a serious goof-ass, ready to tussle in the snow:

I predict, too, that when the tussling's done, he'll still have the impulse to drop for a refreshing amuse bouche spit onto his dad's leg.

And when the tussling and amusing and spitting are done at the end of his every future day--wherever he is, whomever he's become--I hope he'll always be buoyed by a feeling that he's not alone.

For always and ever, we're in his corner

and he's in ours--

a vital, sparkling elf

skittering through life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"When It Works In My Favor, I Go Biblical"

This week, I've been waiting for news.

It came this afternoon.

Girlfriends (and Furiousball, who is total Honorary Girlfriend): next year I'm going on sabbatical.

For the whole year.

Those of you who read my last post are, no doubt, able to appreciate how welcome and timely this news is.

The truth is that many of the feelings expressed in that previous post are constant, nothing new; they sum up 19 years of teaching community college students. The job is what it is. However, there is also a wearing down over time that happens, an erosion of energies and enthusiasms,

which is exactly why sabbatical was invented by God on the seventh day, when He was just plum tuckered from making waterfalls and zebras and toenails. On that seventh day, Dude jumped back, kissed Himself (or, as my students write, "hisself"), and realized He was tapped out and needed a sit-down.

So then He waved around His staff and created the weekend.  After a little more thinking, He conceded that sometimes a longer break can be more fruitful.  The concession made, He then created Wikipedia so there would be a place that could describe all of His Multitudinous Works, including the idea of periodic downtime.  The Wikipoodle defines sabbatical as

"a rest from work, or a hiatus, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year). In the strict sense, therefore, sabbatical lasts a year.

The foundational Bible passage for sabbatical concepts is Genesis 2:2-3, in which God rested (literally, "ceased" from his labor) after creating the universe, and it is applied to people (Jew and Gentile, slave and free) and even to beasts of burden in one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11, reaffirmed in Deuteronomy 5:12-15)."

This beast of burden, for one, is ready to lay fallow. 

Or whatever.

So long as it means I'm not grading Cause/Effect essays for awhile or asking the twelve-seventy-thousandth student to capitalize the word "I."

Seven years ago, right around when Paco was born, I had a one-semester sabbatical; I was stunned upon my return to campus at how re-energized and re-invigorated I actually felt.  Mostly, I thought I'd go back to the classroom and be cranky that my clog-dancing free time was over.  To my surprise, though, I felt really ready to be back--genuinely pumped up and eager to try new things. 

I maintain, therefore, that the concept of the sabbatical has merit and isn't just a way for lazy people to live out their fantasies of lying abed for three months, watching The View while self-corn-rowing their hair.

For this upcoming sabbatical, in fact, I have a four-pronged proposal (approved both by the college president and, as of today, by the state of Minnesota).  I'll make some videos to embed into my online classes; I'll attend a whoop-dee-doo conference after which I'll revamp my Short Story class assignments; I'll create a new online literature course (Multicultural Literature!); and I'll, well, I'll play around with some of the posts I've written right here and see if I can get them to relate enough that I can call it a manuscript.

So it's not like my year off will be a Year Off.

But.  Freedom from a daily schedule will have one huge side benefit:  it will allow our family to travel--ideally, to live abroad for as long as we can afford it.  I'm all about yanking the kids from school for a year and either homeschooling on the road or having them attend school in another country.  I'm urging Groom into looking at graduate programs in Art in, say, Florence.  I'm thinking about signing up with a housing swap agency. I'm not above begging friends and strangers alike if they have friends anywhere on the planet who would like to help welcome an American family as it settles in to their culture.

Basically, now that everything's set, everything's up in the air.  That's the excitement and overwhelmage:  anything is possible right now.

So hep me, Fair Readers.  If you had a year, a family with elementary-aged kids, 80% of your usual pay, and a desire to live abroad, what would you do?  How would you choose a place?  How would you find a place to live?  How much importance would you place on it having cheap wine? How would you know if your family is covered medically in that place?  And so on...

Pease, pease, throw me ideas, luvvies, so I can clap at the pretty colors.  'Cause right now I'm lurching around a place that's both a blur and a wheeeeeee!...

Monday, January 11, 2010


Sometimes I start a blog post, and then it sits as an unpublished draft for months, even years (case in point:  the draft post about how I'm not looking forward to the presidential-nominee battle between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama).  This lag is probably a good thing, as it reminds me of the importance of letting things gel, of acknowledging that writing can serve different purposes in different moments, and that some composing really is a process with stages, starting with getting ideas and moving into shaping them into something more polished and final.  However, in some cases, the draft remains a draft because the simple act of hammering out those ideas satisfied the impulse.

The fairly-unedited freewriting below is just such a draft, a thought vomit that alleviated stress and has sat, untouched, since its inception; after considering if I want to mess around with it any more, I've decided I need to toss it out as it is, just to shed the negative ju-ju in it before the new semester begins.

The backstory here is that I was grading Cause/Effect essays last term, and I came upon a run of particularly illogical, poorly-thought-out papers.  Eventually, I snapped, and I took a break from grading to pound out the start of a post--more of a rant--below.

The even backer-story is that I was grading during a week when my sleep was outrageously out of whack.  Paco, who is both charged and plagued by imagination, was unable to sleep for about three nights in a row.  He'd make it for a few hours but be up by 1, 2, 3, in the morning, crying, out of sorts, scared.  Since I can handle consciousness in the dark hours better than Groom, we have a longstanding arrangement that I'll handle things 'til the sun comes up, and then he takes over.  The upshot was that Paco and I went through all sorts of machinations to get him back to sleep: 

1)  Mama will sleep with you (however, that is about the biggest treat he can imagine, and we really get a bang out of each others' company, so lots of times we have to talk and laugh and hug--which ain't sleepin');

2)  Let's try reading (when you're actually very tired, though, books are blurry, and even Scaredy Squirrel and Tacky the Penguin flop);

3)  Merde. Let's watch a show and see if we can fall asleep on the couch in front of the monitor (this is the most successful approach, although neither of us ever falls asleep on the couch; rather, we just watch three episodes of Pokemon, until even the six-year-old capitulates, "We have to turn this off now.  I can't stand it anymore"). 

So, basically, I'd spent a few endless nights wandering around the house with a softie lad, and, as a result, was feeling both surreal and unhinged during the daylight hours.

Enter the stack of Cause/Effect essays.  The math here would read "shoddy papers + wrung out teacher = crabby attempt at a blog post."

Here's the thing, though:  after I tapped away at the keyboard that day, venting therapeutically, I went back to grading and encountered some stronger papers.  The next day, I went back to the classroom and laughed and enjoyed the students.  Plus, I slept straight through one night and found my moorings again.

So I never returned to this post to finish it up.  But it has stayed with me.  Go ahead and read the in-the-moment brain dump, and then I'll tell you what I think two months later.

I've been joking with increasing frequency that my husband needs to get a career or we need to open a coffee shop or I need to get a paper route.

Right now, this week, I'm in the midst of feeling more serious about it. Because I'm clearly in Bad Teacher mode.

Evidence? I'm put out with my students.

For being so damn dumb. So frickin' dumb. They're dumb, and I can't get over it.

I'm pretty sure that's not part of the criteria for Teacher of the Year.

I'm also pretty sure I wouldn't get points for wanting to take at least half my students firmly by the shoulders and shake them 'til their hollow heads waggle about.

Now I know I'm supposed to jolly off their poor work and regroup and come up with strategies to motivate and transform them and help to bridge their gaps.

But mostly, I want to throw them all off a bridge and wave as they fall down the gap. I might yell into the crevasse, as they fall, "You know, I'm not sure the United States has it completely right in telling its citizens that everyone has a right to a college education--because that attitude overlooks the fact that not everyone should go to college. Because some of y'all are just too dumb for it."

See what I mean?

I might maybe need to re-career myself,

preferably into a job where I don't have to interact with people.

'Specially them dumb ones.

Actually, more than being put out with the lack of innate intelligence, I'm having a wolly here about the lack of care and effort. Why am I spending more time grading a paper than the student did writing it?

That's the insult I can't get past today.

For I have to think--I HAVE to think--that if the students had put a little effort into their papers, they wouldn't have written such dumb stuff. Right?

If Student E had slowed the frack down when writing her "three reasons why digital photography is popular" essay, she might have realized how idiotic it is to assert that one of the reasons digital photography is popular is that "digital photography is very popular." She might have realized that the cause can't be the effect.

Similarly, Student Z argues that texting has resulted in a new way of communicating. Caught in her body paragraphs by this circular reasoning, she simply spun and spun, never realizing that texting IS a new form of communication and, therefore, the result of it must be something different than itself.

If Student AA had taken more than ten minutes to crank out her paper, she wouldn't have written, "Back in my grandparents [sic] day, they never had anything except public schools. Today we have home schooling [sic] and online school." RIGHT? And if she could have bothered herself to take more than ten minutes to write her paper, I then wouldn't have felt compelled to spend 13 minutes writing out an explanation to her of how "online schools" are often also "public schools" and how back in her grandparents' day (which, based on what I know of the family, was in the 1980s), there also were things called "private schools" AND HOW HOMESCHOOLING ISN'T AN INVENTION OF THE NEW MILLENIUM.

You're getting some small sense of the huff I'm currently having, ja?

And I haven't even copied for you yet this sentence: "The first Death Person in 1995 sends a text message by David Jackson." Read it.

Read it again.

Now, once more.

Did you get it yet?

I never did.

Finally, my husband read it and figured it out: "Death Person" means "deaf person." Apparently the deaf only function in the present tense, however, no matter what year they sent the text.

Can you see how this all might have a cumulative effect on the instructor? When the occasional student writes nonsense, it's goofy. I can laugh. But when every single paper in a stack of 50 has this kind of confuddlement in it,

I get defeated. New to me is the anger, though. Surprisingly, I'm just pissed off. The sun is shining, and I'm inside reading this stuff? Really?

I'm sighing loudly now, as I take the next paper off the stack. It's about the positive effects of exercise. Improves health? Check. Improves self-esteem? Check.

Gives a person something to do?


I know, on some level, that last point doesn't seem so egregious. However, think about it--and the more you think about it, the more you'll see it's the dumbest of all. An effect of exercise is that it occupies one's time?

How about you put anything into that equation; the end analysis is the same: if a person does something, then he/she has something to do. Exercise is one of a million choices.

For example, if that student took a ballpoint and inserted it, with great force, into his eardrum, that would occupy his time (and if he managed to spear his brain in the process, it would constitute the best use of grey matter he's yet discovered).

Sounds like a perfect exercise to me.

I'm handing out ballpoints in class next time. I'm telling each of them to stick the pen up to an ear.

And shove it.

End freewrite.  Huzzah to sleep and, resultingly, a more balanced human being.

What didn't end with the venting and sleeping was an underlying sense of being put out.  It's taken me some mulling time, but I've figured out that, in the moment, I was angry at the students who didn't put enough thought or time into their work.  After time has passed, though, I still have to concede that, even in the clear light of day, I have ongoing frustrations.

For sure, I'm frustrated when students don't put in the time the assignment merits.

On a larger scale, I'm frustrated whenever anyone signs up for something and then doesn't commit to squeezing out the best possible performance or outcome.

And I'm frustrated at dealing with students who don't avail themselves of resources.  If a student admits he has never done well at English or that he has never understood punctuation, and then I advise him to go use a tutor at the free on-campus Learning Center or, easier yet, to email his paper to the free online tutor (which will return his paper, marked up with feeback within 24 hours)...but then he doesn't...I. feel. my. last. nerve. warp. into. a. kink.

To wring out the another truth:  I am frustrated at the pressure to keep students happy, at an academic culture based on a business model, one in which students are "customers" (and, thereby, "always right").  While I know teaching at the community college means I'm working with a student population that skews towards learning disabilities, mental illness, and hardknock backgrounds, I do also think I have a right to expect them to--again--avail themselves of their resources, such as free counselors, free advisors, free disabilities services.  Certainly, I know it takes an amount of self-awareness and wherewithal to get oneself to the resource.  I remember well enough my own youth of blithely tripping along my own zigzagging pathway, oblivious to outstretched hands attempting to steer me straighter.

But, you know, the inability and unwillingness of a populace to do its best work has an interesting effect (which, perhaps, I could write about it in my next Cause/Effect essay):  it means the standard-bearers have to fight, constantly, to keep the standards from eroding, from wearing downwards to meet the lack of effort.  Put more bluntly:  I'm tired of having to clap for a pile of crap.

Does this inspire in you a standing ovation?

So that's where I'm at, here, the day the new semester starts.  I wrote out how I felt.  In doing so, I extricated those feelings enough to take away some of their power--to allow me enough optimism to start the rigamarole all over again.  The gut-level anger has stormed out of the house; but a swirl of frustrations still has a seat on the bay-window cushion, where it glares hostilely out at the driveway.

On the bad days, it'll see me hopping in my Camaro and peeling out in reverse, leaving skidmarks in the cul-de-sac, heading for the bar.

On the good days, it'll watch me detailing the dashboard and humming along to Dan Wilson.

Mostly, if things ever get really bad, I hope it'll confiscate my keys and send me to bed for a three-hour nap.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

"Fear Not Bold Colors"

During my early years, I shared a room with my sister.  According to the dates on the photos, it would appear I was about two when Kirsten and I moved into our shared room.  I'm also told we went to Disneyland when I was two, making that a very busy Year of Unremembered Wonders.

Here we are, christening the new girls' bedroom by whacking at it with our bums:  Kirsten, Jocelyn, and big brother Geoff, on whom I spent a great deal of my first 18 years leaning (family lore has it, when I came home from the hospital--drove myself, incidentally--he took a gander at me and announced, "That's MY baby."  'Twas ever so). 

Amazingly, that balalalika hanging ominously over my pig-tailed head never did crash down in the middle of the night.  Look at it there:  how did I escape without a scar on my forehead?  What's more, when I look at this photo, I still can feel that lined bedspread.  It had the texture of a particularly tough burlap bag.  Let's all take a moment to praise the development of synthetic fibers, 'k?  I bow before you, Empress Fleece.  I kowtow in front of your throne, King Micro-fiber.  I like to think, though, that sleeping under such a scratchy bedspread started my toughening process.

Indeed, I'm certain that bedspread is why, today, I can eat spicy curries, bite off even the bloodiest of hangnails, and remain tearless while I watching GLEE (except whenever those scrappy misfits sing "Don't Stop Believin'"...and, oh yea, when the visiting deaf choir sings and signs "Imagine"). [grudging disclosure:  I just watched the Gaullaudet choir again, singing that song, and even though I know it's patronizing treacle, I'm wiping my eyes with the edge of a pillowcase]

Sharing that room (and, later, another down the hall) with my sister clearly had its benefits:  I got tough; I hung with me sis; and consolidating two kids into one room made the house seem bigger.

But at some point, my sister reached an age where she needed her own space.  The collateral damage of that decision was me at loose ends, hanging around the house, wondering where I was to sleep.  On the hearth?  In Mumsie's jewelry drawer?

Or how about this one?  I slept in one end of the rec room in the basement.  It was my choice.  Ready to make the move from Upstairs to Downstairs (where the cool orange carpet and hip wood paneling lived), I willingly joined my brother, who'd been a bottom feeder for some time.  He had a real bedroom in the basement, and my family helped me join him under the lower-level's artifical lighting by cobbling together a "wall" made out of a screen and a big armoire.  We cordoned off the end of the rec room, threw a waterbed into the space, and dubbed it functional.

I LOVED that "room."  For one thing, getting my own space also meant I got my own clock radio.  And with a clock radio, I was able to participate in the subculture known as People Who Dial and Redial the Local Station Called 'KBear' in an Effort to Win Free Black Sabbath Tickets.  Fleshing out that fun was the fact that my new bedroom featured a full-length mirror, which nicely reflected my many acts of Twirling In Nightgown.

Despite the beauty of claiming my twelve feet of rec room, a greater future beckoned. 

'Cause my brother had a real bedroom in the basement--like with doors and a built-in desk. 

And, barring any unforeseen prison time, he would be going to college...

...leaving me at home for three years before I headed off to college--three years spent in yet another new bedroom, one previously called Geoff's Room but which quickly morphed into Jocelyn's Suite of Sweetness.

Sigh.  Looking upon my Suite, I find it hard to believe HGTV hasn't hired me to be one of its decorating experts.  Too rarely on The Stagers do we see clusters of half-deflated balloons hung at window level, thus drawing the eye upwards and reminding potential buyers to "see the light."  Too rarely on Real Estate Intervention do we see collages of Hall & Oates, Rush, and Journey assembled to convey a "these bodacious boys would love you if they met you" selling point.

And so my high school years were spent in the Suite.  I sat on the stool and used hot rollers.  I opened and closed the curtains featuring basketball and football players striving to score (at least the room saw some action).  I pinned dried corsages on the bulletin board.  I sang to "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," marching around and waving an invisible flag at crowds of fans who echoed my every lyric.  I accepted an invitation to Prom, and shut up already that he was gay.  I smashed a rogue scorpion with a clog (Montanans ain't no pussies).

After a few years, I filled out college applications there, too.  Ultimately, I left the Suite behind.  My parents sold the house.  Everybody grew up.

Of course, the bedrooms in the basement still exist inside my skull.  My younger self still occasionally visits the orange carpet, still stops in to straighten the stuffed Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear, still remembers the wheeee of sharing the waterbed with friends during sleepovers, still pings with feeling more social and lonely in that room than she's ever been since.

Those rooms of my own bred in me comfort and courage:  to call and twirl and claim and decorate and open and pin and march and smash.  They showed me how to take my own room with me, inside me, wherever I go.

Now, thirty years later, I am fortunate.  I am able to give the same to my daughter. 

For the last decade, she has shared spaces with parents and brother; of late, however, it's become clear she's ready to have a door to close.

If we are willing to knock and wait, she comes to us, in her time, of her own accord.

Her new room is the only one in the house with no radiator and, thus, no heat.  She claims she's used to it and doesn't mind the cold.  Right there is an attitude that will help her soldier through middle school.

Paint cans and IKEA held all the bright colors she craved.

Although she can't peer enough at herself these days, Girl opted for a desk rather than the vanity with full-length mirror that used to reflect my twirls.  Because she likes papers and pens, her feeling was that a desk would serve her better.

This is her reading nook, a space I could wriggle into...but then, Winnie-the-Poo-like, would have to remain in for weeks, until I shrunk enough to pop out.

As much as she likes papers and pens, she also likes bags and fuzzy carpets.

Stored way up high, in a place called Heaven, are her American Girl dolls.

She wanted polka dots all over her walls, but we talked her into hanging dottish fabric instead.

The only thing better than a journal and a ballpoint is a map.  Hanging this depiction of a WWII town on the wall gave her mind new roads to travel.

Perched on her warm comforter, new Ipod nearby, she clicks two pens,

ready to write her own stories.

Private, hardy, bright, organized, cozy, compromising,
the heroine discovers herself.

Monday, January 04, 2010

"No Jive Turkey"

When I was in elementary school, sometimes I'd score a rare, coveted invite to Shauna Bergendahl's house across the street.  She was about five years older than I and had perfect blonde feathered hair, the kind of Farrahed coif that shot her to a position as Head Majorette and a spot in the Homecoming royalty court.

With neighborhood kids flocking around her Obvious Cool, Shauna enjoyed a built-in audience, but usually we subdivision regulars were kept in the peanut gallery, out on her driveway, under the basketball hoop.

(Here you see the Bergendahl's house from my family's perspective; my brother weathered adolescence by shooting hoops and turning his back to the glory that lurked behind him.)

There, under their hoop, we could admire her dad's red convertible and her tanned skin, along with her ability to hold forth while twirling a baton and doing the splits.

I can count on one hand the number of times I made it over the threshold of her split-level rambler.

On one of those occasions, a couple of us ended up in the basement with Shauna, a dark, paneled place with slightly-fetid carpet--a rec room that created the necessary atmospheric tension for playing Ouija Board and getting scared out of our wits.

That day, The Board spit out prediction after prediction for our futures.  So confidently did the planchette float around The Board during our suburban seance that I dared not ask it the big questions, such as "When will I die?" 

If I knew when I would die, that would affect my every choice from that moment on, and I just wasn't ready to have fear of death inhibit my desire to buy the new Tiger Beat featuring Leif Garrett on the cover.

Thus, I settled for weighty questions that were still full of promise.  Most notably, I asked The Board, "Who am I going to marry?"

Slowly, glacially, the planchette began to move.  My patience strained, I rubbed my mood ring hand frantically up and down my Jordache jeans, trying to keep my Board Hand light and free of persuasion. Under my breath, though, I whispered the mantra of:  "Please let it be Andy Gibb.  Please let it be Andy Gibb.  Please let it be Andy Gibb."

"T," the planchette spit out.

"Tom Selleck?" I screamed.  "I'm going to marry Tom Selleck? He's okay on The Rockford Files and everything, but he's sooo old!  I might as well marry James Garner!"

Continuing to move easily, of its own accord, the planchette then hovered over "O."

"T-O..???  Holy zippered jumpsuit!  It IS Tom Selleck!  I am going to marry an old guy.  What's worse, he's kind of a loser; I mean, he was on The Dating Game twice and didn't even get picked.  Once his run on The Rockford Files is over, his career is going to be kaput--and, what, then I'm going to have to get a job as a nurse or a secretary or something and support the whole family?  I am so not diggin' this bogus action."

Important sidenote:  sixth graders in Montana did TOO use the word "kaput" in the 1970s. 

Undistracted by my breathless commentary, the planchette kept moving, this time indicating the letter "N."

"T-O-N? Oh, I hope you mean that -N, Ouja Board.  I hope you didn't mean -M there.  I hope you mean I'm going to marry a T-O-N of fun and chest hair--and by that I mean a lifetime of 'shadow dancing' with Andy Gibb!"

Continuing its winding path around the board, the planchette came to a stop on the letter "Y."

"Wait a spelling minute:  T-O-N-Y.  Tony?  I'm going to marry a Tony?  I'm going to marry Tony Danza of television's Taxi fame?  Really?  Wowzer."

At that point, awed by the scope of my future and the fact that I'd one day need to cook for an Italian and our five kids when my current diet mostly consisted of Twinkies and Tang, I stopped.  Removed my hand from the planchette.  Looked up and Shauna and the others.

"Can you guys believe it?  I'm going to marry a guy named Tony, which pretty much means Tony Danza." Sitting there, dazed, I hardly noticed the planchette beginning to move again.

Over the course of six more minutes of agony, the planchette spelled out clarifying details.  My Tony would have black hair.

Like Mr. Danza.

But. My Tony would have a M-O-U-S-T-A-C-H-E.

Whaaaa?  As my future splintered around me, I registered "moustache" and "not Tony Danza then" in the same nanosecond.  Were there other Tony's on the planet?  If so, did any of them have moustaches and look like they could love a suggestible redhead?

After that day in Shauna's basement, I felt a new kind of power.  Not only did I have a vision of the man I needed to look for, I had a name.  Even better, I could skateboard through life's vagaries with the knowledge that they were temporary, that my true destination hadn't been reached until I lay in the arms of a moustachioed Tony.

Don't tell my blonde, clean-shaven Norwegianish non-Tony of a husband this, though.

He's laboring under the impression that our gig is a lasting one.

I, however, still feel certain there's a fuzzy upper lip and a huge bowl of penne in my future.  Knowing my Tony as I think I do, I'll bet the engagement ring will be buried in the red sauce.

Maybe, for consolation, my current-but-one-day-ex husband can hook up with Shauna Bergendahl at my wedding to Tony.  Her tan shoulders will look great in a strapless gown as she shimmies to "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" and hollers tipsily at our reception, "You and Tony are so boss, Jocelyn! It's almost like 'He's the Boss', eh?" (which makes no sense, Shauna, since that joke only really applies if I actually had ended up marrying Tony Danza, which I didn't; praise The Virgin Mary for his Gillette razor).

Then she'll throw up her baton and her dinner, give us a flash of Spanx as she does a high kick, and land with a thud in the splits and a puddle of Sautéed Sirloin Tips with Bordelaise.

I know for a fact that's how it'll go.  I just asked my Ouija Board,

and my hands were barely even touching the planchette as it spelled out that answer.

Friday, January 01, 2010

"My Top Ten List of Things That Had the Potential to Be 10/10's This Year but Were, in Their Actualization, Mere 7/10's...and If That Concept Doesn't Hurt Your Head Just a Wee Bit, Then I Have Failed in My Mission and Need to Label This Post's Conceit a 7/10 and Add It to the List"

Balls are dropping, and I don't mean geezerly Larry King's.

There's also a sparkly one in Times Square that's making a slow descent.  People are drinking jaw-dropping amounts of alcohol and wearing pointy hats and acting as though hands moving on a clock can signify change, all of which sounds like my last birthday party, to tell you the truth.

However:  Yawn.  End of a year.  Start of a new one.

To mark the passage of time, everyone's putting out Top Ten lists, attempting to prove something actually happened besides that Brittany Murphy not eating enough and causing her ticker to seize up while it made a wheezing noise that sounded suspiciously like "haaaammmbburrrger...for the love of Fuddruckers, give me a haaaaammmbburrrger."

There are "Top Ten Movies of the Year," "Top Ten Books of the Year," "Top Ten Most Interesting People of the Year," and, in my world, "Top Ten Things of 2009 That Had the Potential to Hit a 10/10 but Failed Just Enough to Rate an Average.

Here, then, is my list of stuff that was fine in 2009 but, with the addition of a little slap and tickle, could have been better:

1)  Farrah Fawcett's last visit with her son, Redman O'Neal, should have been a moving moment of good-byes and mother-son tenderness. It coulda been a 10/10 heartwringer.  However, Mom was in a lot of pain, distracted by imminent death and the sounds of her bodily organs shutting down.  It could have been a 10, but -3 for Ryan not bringing some of his heroin from jail to that visit.  Have some compassion, you felon, and give a motha one last high;

2)  The Lost City of Z by David Grann has been getting attention as an amazing thriller and tale of adventure--one of the top ten books of the year.  I was, hence, pretty jazzed to read it, as I'm nothing if not a complete whore for a rousing "ooh, this doesn't bode well" exploration book (although my preferred sub-genre is polar expeditions that result in cannibalism). Completely ready to toss a 10/10 at Gann's story of British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett's passionate attempts to find the mythical Lost City of Z in the Amazon rainforest--and feeling quite upbeat, from the first mention of under-skin maggots, about its ability to score a top rating--I felt bereft when, midway through, the story started spinning its wheels like a jeep beached on a muddy rut in the middle of the rainy season.  Fawcett, like so many of his ilk, is monomaniacal, egotistical, and thoughtless.  After about the third time he plunges into the forest with nothing but scorn for his suffering compatriots, leaving his wife and kids back in England, penniless, I began thinking, "Listen, Percy.  I work in academia.  I know your type.  The technical term for you 'uns, in the Latin, is Jerkis Buttwipeus."  Further plaguing the book is the fact that the author, David Grann, attempts to weave his own HIGH-larious foibles in the Amazon into the story of Fawcett in several "look at what a modern doofus I am" chapters, and before I knew it... -3 for a faux-journalistic book in which the author attempts to cast himself as a character and in which the characters themselves need significantly more maggots coming out their nostrils to hold my interest;

3)  I also have to issue a loud "Feh" for 2009 in regards to light movies whose purpose was sheer escapism.  You know the movies I mean:  their only redemption is that they make us laugh and forget the reek of our armpits and the stack of dishes on the kitchen counter.  Historical examples of 10/10 "good dumb" movies would be Elf and Legally Blonde.  After such movies, viewers want to yell at the screen, "Thank you, silly movie, for taking me to a different place without actually making me think or care.  That was a damn relief, compared to everyday life!!!"  However, recent dumb movies are failing to amuse me even one "I hardly remember I have papers to grade" whit.  Tropic of Thunder (watched after its DVD release) was the most egregious disappointment, with its arrested-juvenile/male/violence-as-the-basis-for-all-humor story, but The Hangover and even the promising 500 Days of Summer also left me with a feeling I rarely get, one called "I'm smarter than this shit."  -3 for Tom Cruise's lame cameo in Tropic being ballyhooed as a comedic revelation.

4)  Michael Jackson's This Is It tour ended up dramatically disappointing fans. Seriously, I got to the venue, and the place was dark and empty, which kind of put a damper on the show, at least until I started amusing myself by krumping to the beat of the silence.  -3, This Is It tour, for poor t-shirt sales;

5)  Sadly, I have to award a shrug of the shoulders to a certain pair of jeans that I purchased excitedly in 2009. You see, in making them, Manufacturing Company used a highly-sophisticated and sought-after stretch denim which, in turn, allowed me to purchase a size smaller than usual--a fact that, because I am a lush female with shaky self-esteem, makes the case for 10/10:

Added bonus points (+2) for fun zippers and nifty accessorizing belt.  Woefully, -5 for the fact that whenever I wear them, no matter how upright my posture and unflinching my eye contact, no matter how much I whizz the zippers and flick my fingers against the belt studs, I still look like I bought jeans a size too small;

 6)  Much of 2009 was devoted to remodeling our kitchen; the project was carried out by 10/10 talents who turned a dated box of a room into a warm and welcoming heart of the home.  As we use the room, though, we can't ignore the fact that it's as high as it is wide, which means I spend a fair amount of my day on the step stool, craning for the kettle corn and cashews.  It is, quite simply, a tall room.  And even though I'm 5' 7" and not afraid to jump, height and audacity are no way to get a bowl of soup into a microwave located six feet up.  Here's my view when I warm up curried squash:

+2 for the slick stainless steel exterior; but -2 because my shrimpy kids, even standing on each other's shoulders, can't microwave me a hot toddy, and -3 for having to get on my tippy toes just to tap the "popcorn" button.

7)  How fitting that #7 on the list is a 7/10!  Ours is a game-playing family, and generally I delight in the shelves and shelves of board games that cover the paint peeling off the walls.  Anytime I go to a new place or store (read:  The Bookies in Denver!), I grab a handful of new games, pay shipping costs to get them to the frozen tundra of Minnesota, and eagerly anticipate ripping into them.  Such was the case with the 10 DAYS in the USA game:

In the abstract, this game should perfectly satisfy my social studies-oriented/travel-loving nine-year-old Girl.  The object of the game is to be the first to cobble together a trip from one coast of Our Fair Republic to the other, using train, car, airplane, and foot travel.  Girl likes it fine, but since she doesn't sleep with the box under her pillow, and since there are no mule trains to get a player across the arid Southwest, -3.

8)  Although Missouri is one of the places Where They Keep The Humidity, it does offer up a great many 10/10 experiences, such as The City Museum in St. Louis.  A +1 bonus goes to the humidity, in fact, for the verdant foliage it creates across much of the state:  trees and bushes so high and thick that a Northernish, boreal-based family quivers at the prospect of camping amongst their complexity.  +2 for the family having packed both a tent and a knobbly blue ball+7 for discovering a relatively-secluded state park, empty of drunken riff-raff (outside ourselves).

-5 for the unforeseen presence of garbage trucks emptying dumpsters mere yards from our tent at 6 a.m. -5 more for the fact that the night before the garbage trucks came, I'd done this thing I do when we're car camping, a habit loosely titled "Jocelyn Is a Night Owl and So, When the Rest of the Family Goes to Sleep at a Reasonable Hour, She Sits in the Mini-Van and Reads for Hours with Her Headlamp Because, Friends, That's What She Calls 'Getting Back to Nature'." On the night in question, I'd been reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and, even though I was really tired by about 1:30 a.m., I was at the part where I found out about--spoiler alert!--the serial killer guy, and he had The Girl and her dragon tattoo caught his basement dungeon, and I was all creeped out and couldn't even exit the mini-van to pee, which I really needed to do, much less to climb into the tent with my sleeping family, even though I was a tidge hysterical about the fact that they were ripe for serial killing themselves, laying there defenselessly in their bags, all soft and snoring, and I also was certain that the flashing light I kept getting blinded by was the serial killer coming down the road with his axe, even though I realized sheepishly each time it happened that it was just the reflection of my headlamp in the side-view mirror and not an axe blade, and so, well, ultimately I just had to keep reading because I couldn't move and was maybe crying a little and shrieking inside, and then the book finally ended, and I decided I would just want to be slaughtered with my family if that was what it was coming down to, so I climbed out of the mini-van, peed near a particularly verdant clump of trees, didn't die one tiny bit, and then was woken up 3.5 hours later by those damn garbage trucks which, mercifully, weren't taking our corpses out of the dumpsters and so, em, I think you can see why camping in Missouri is only a 7/10 at best.

9)  Some people's vision is 20/20, which can be reduced to 10/10, but my whack vision is more of a 7/10 with reduction and correction.  2009 marked the year I made the leap to bifocals, a process that wasn't all that sobering, seeing as I was put in bifocals first at the age of 7, back when people had party lines and held their babies on their laps when they drove to California.  Indeed, I greeted bifocals as welcome, especially if they made it easier for me to read by my headlamp during camping trips.  At home, where everything is stainless steel and full of games and studded belts, I generally use an Itty Bitty Book Light clamped to the tome of choice, all the better to illuminate so-so stories of British explorers with, my dears.

BUT.  This time around, in adulthood, I have found bifocals a bit difficult to adjust to, often causing bouts of vertigo when I'm out for my Walkies, little episodes of "Whoa, John Boy, where's Mary Ellen gotten off to?" wherein I feel like the earth is surging and receding beneath my feet.  For several months, I became convinced I was having blood sugar issues and was taking after my dad and grandma who developed Type II Diabetes late in life.  "If only I could eat a banana," I'd muse, "I'm sure I could find Mary Ellen."

Then I realized my blood sugar only seemed to dip when I would look downwards while out for a walk and that I was Type II Diabetes-free when looking straight ahead or even when looking up really high into the microwave.  Effing bifocals and their insidious mind games.

Compounding the mock diabetes has been the "not great, just fine"-ness of the Itty Bitty Book Light, which makes my already-strained vision work harder than it wants to.

With the ho-hum Itty Bitty Book Light in hand, I'd never find that damn Mary Ellen.  Then, what's more, the bulbs on the Itty Bitty started blowing out with regularity, which meant I kept having to walk to the hardware store to buy a replacement, and sometimes it would take me a few days to find the time to make the vertigo-imbued walk, which then meant I had no book light for a couple of days, and so I'd have to read at night next to my prone husband using my headlamp, and can you say "Serial killer flashback?"

So -6 for bifocals that make me woozy and for crappily-made book lights that lead to flashbacks, but +3 for my recent willingness to toss the Itty Bitty and replace it with the triple LED Mighty Bright, a clip-on book lamp so intense that, when I turn it on, my sleeping husband dreams that UFO's are landing outside our house.

10) Finally, the potential of my student, Tiffany, whom many of you met in a previous vlog, isn't lighting a fire in me.  To tell you true, despite Fear of Wrinkles, Tiffany is actually a good-hearted, motivated student, and I think we all know she has glorious hair--so her future should be a 10/10.  When I was able to steer her away from topics on religion (what with her being a curious combination of charismatic, apostolic, and fundamentalist) and politics (she refers to Obama as "the anti-hope," a position I'd certainly allow her to defend, but when pressed as to why she holds this sentiment, her response is a rather drawn-out, "Ummmm...because....he's....ummmm??"), Tiffany wrote some solid essays.  That noted, I do have to give her future a -3 when I take into account this chortle-inducing admission on her final exam: "Working the cash register at Subway is the most stressful job in the world because I was taught wrong in first grade or something and so I can't tell the difference between nickels and dimes."

There you have it:  the best "coulda been betters" of 2009.  I'm actually grateful that so much was so very just all right.  In contrast to the 7/10's, the periodic 10/10 experience stands out in stark relief.

Without 7/10's populating my days, I wouldn't be so aware of how excellent Colm Toibin's Brooklyn is; I wouldn't marvel at how outstanding my husband's Thai curry is; I wouldn't take thirty seconds each time I use our new bathroom to stare at the gorgeous black-and-white hex tile flooring.

Perhaps most importantly, if I weren't surrounded by "average," I wouldn't be able to appreciate the undeniable quality of the people who populate my life: 

friends like Colleen, who sent me an amazing boxed set of 1970's punk for Christmas;

family like my sister-in-law Erin and new brother-in-law Ben, who walked, just the two of them, out into a field on the Solstice and held their own personal wedding;

readers like all of you, who leave comments that heal something in me that was ripped open in junior high.

Thus, as the balls descend (this time I do mean Larry King's), I am thankful to all the 7's,

for without them, I'd live year after year, decade after decade,

blind to the 10's.