Monday, November 6, 2017

The Applesauce Factory

Illustration by Andrew Gillespie

My kids are finally getting to the age where the work they do actually makes a positive difference in our household. They are also still in the phase where their productivity requires a lot of work from me. In fact, every single day on the drive home from school I brace myself for job-time.

They are forever alternating which job they consider the worst, most offensive job. But no matter which job it switches to, they all agree as a team that it's terrible. And they all agree as a team which job is now the easiest. So it's never as simple as assigning each kid their own job of preference. There will always be one kid who feels completely dissed, and one who everyone is jealous of.

They fight over who grabs the broom first, and they fight over whether the living room cleaner actually has to bring their siblings' possessions all the way to that person's bedroom? Or if it's legitimate to simply drape the item over the shoulder of it's owner and run away, cackling.

They frequently attest that the sibling assigned to chicken duty yesterday could not possibly have done their job. They want me to come outside and inspect the number of particles stagnating in the water trough. “There is NO WAY this water was changed yesterday, Mom. Look at that! There is poop and sediment build up. Too much for one day!”

I have to call them back to the dining room and point out all the crumbs they missed sweeping, remind them that dishes should be washed in warm or hot water, and once a week I hold a mini-workshop on how to place a book on a bookshelf.

There are so many tears and so much stomping. The part of my body that controls my firm-voice is physically exhausted. I wonder if that's one of those muscles that's good to exercise... or not so much? It's somewhere in my diaphragm. Am I going to end up with a diaphragm hernia?

Then the sunshine of parenthood peeks, unannounced, over the horizon. Suddenly everyone unanimously decides to get excited about a genuinely helpful project.

Such was the case on Monday, October 30. Inspired by the 7 paper grocery bags and 3 milk crates all heaping with apples dumpstered by one of our housemates, the kids had the idea to make an applesauce factory.

Until this moment I'd been completely daunted by the dumpstered apples. They were seriously overflowing. Our back porch looked like something out of a Shel Silverstein illustration. I appreciate dumpstered food in our life. It saves money and it saves waste. Cooking with dumpstered food is a way that I can feel like an activist without having to leave my house. But sometimes the piles are staggering. In order to appropriately process all this food, I need the life of a colonial woman. I can either have a job, or I can handle all this dumpstered food. But not both.

Even when we don't successfully eat all the food before it goes bad, simply disposing of it is an industrious process. I can't just toss 250 apples into the compost. If they are going to decompose at a reasonable rate, I have to slice them all into quarters first. Same with bananas, oranges, pears, etc.

That Monday morning I'd set my goal at surviving a no-school-day-before-Halloween with no physical injuries. I was denying the presence of the apples by not even looking out the window.

Then Grant suggested the applesauce factory.

I was thrilled that they all wanted to, as they like to call it, “do a teamwork”. But I was a little nervous about all the knives. The boys are 9 and the girls are 7. They cut with sharp knives semi-regularly, just not usually all at the same time.

We identified our blood circles and talked about the natural consequences of entering someone's blood circle. These boundaries were clearly delineated by the cutting boards.

The kids were so excited that they arranged the workstation themselves and even agreed on each person's job without fighting. Grant was the peeler. Ash cut whole apples into quarters. I cored the apples, and Maggie and Aubree cut the quarters into small pieces. Every 20 or 30 minutes we'd call “clean up!” and everyone would stop their job, clear the far-flung apple bits and peels from the floor and table, re-wash their hands, and get back to work.

The kids even got the music going, because I have yet to figure out how to use the stereo at our house. I pretty much got over-teched when people quit using CDs.

We laughed, talked, and reveled in how awesome our applesauce factory was for nearly three entire hours before the kids started getting grumpy and I began to fear that someone could lose a digit.

Our original goal was to make every single porch apple into applesauce and, of course, to get into the Guinness Book of World records for the absolute most applesauce ever made by a group of children. I told them I'd look into whether there was already a category for that, and what the current record might be. Fortunately... they have not yet remembered to check back with me about that research.

We fizzled out with two grocery bags still left to slice. However, our family moral is quite high. The very next day the kids minced 5 pounds of broccoli for our broccoli cheese soup.

I feel hopeful that the Heart and Spoon Rapscallions have entered a new realm of household productivity.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

White Girl on the Internet

Illustration by Andrew Gillespie

I am 40 years old, and I'm finally figuring out that I haven't been using my white privilege appropriately. No, that's a lie. I've known it for years. I'm just now willing to admit it and work toward fixing the problem.

My overall suckyness in this area was brought to my attention by a black woman who I love: one of the many black people who are pretty much “over-it” with white people. I had noticed that she wasn't responding to my Facebook messages in the same way that she used to so, finally, after about a year of noticing this, I asked her what was going on.
She replied honestly that it was hard for her to be friends with white people. She had a lot of white friends who she always imagined would have her back, but now – after many of years of seeing them post activist statements on Facebook in support of the environment, or gay rights, or whatever, and not seeing very much about racism – it caused her to feel like racism wasn't really a priority for her white friends.

In my corporal walking-around human life I do address racism, though I discuss it far more often with children than I do with adults. Obviously it is important to talk about racism with kids, but I'll admit that this is also my comfort zone. I should have more conversations with adults about racism. Especially those who are more educated than me.

I have moved across the country many times. The majority of friends who I've accumulated throughout my life never see me in person. It's likely that at least half of them will never see me again. At this point in our culture's development we have to acknowledge that most of us have an internet personality as well as a corporal personality. And I have realized that my internet personality is an embarrassingly passive white girl.

I read posts that others make about racism and I have been affected by them. It is through other people's personal experiences that have been conveyed on the internet (supplemented by conversations with friends) that I have come to my current understanding of my white privileged.

It wouldn't take any extra time for me to share those posts that shift my thinking about racism. It wouldn't take anything from me at all, except perhaps a little more bravery about exposing confrontational thoughts that have changed me.

Perhaps if I worried every day about my children getting hurt or humiliated when they head off to school because of the color of their skin, I might share those articles and essays.

Or maybe I still wouldn't.

Because sometimes it's actually harder to publicly advocate for yourself. Because you have so much at stake, and because people accuse you of making it up, or being dramatic. Doesn't it usually mean more when the problem is so obvious that even people who aren't personally affected notice and demand that it stop?

I think we can all see this easily in smaller examples. At school, when someone is being bullied, we don't expect that vulnerable person to do all the work to stand up for himself and make everything stop. We easily recognize that the vulnerable, bullied child needs backup – a lot of backup – from people who are not getting bullied. We expect the surrounding children to stand up for the victim, and we expect the administration and the parents to support the victim too. All of those support systems are required to make the instance of one little human getting bullied to come to a halt. And that is why we are all integral in this fight against racism.

I've learned, partially from the internet, that as a white person I have a very important voice in this fight. And the louder I make my voice, the better. Right now it seems that the internet is the greatest bullhorn we have.

The internet is not my comfort zone. At. All. But it is impossible to make a difference while staying in our comfort zones. So, it's just another thing I'll need to learn to become comfortable with.

Another lesson I've learned is that – in order for some of us to gain better perspective – sometimes things have to become more personal. For me, realizing that I had hurt someone I love because I wasn't using my voice as loudly as I should be, really made a difference.

I will also commend the friend who decided to tell me what she thought. Because I know that she is really tired of explaining things to white people. And there was a huge part of her that did not want to have that conversation with me. I know she has done that conversation about fifty million times. I appreciate that she did it again, for the fifty million and oneth time. I'll try to make it worth her energy.



PS – The following quote inspired me to write this:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

- the Talmud

Friday, June 9, 2017

Passionate Mediocrity

Illustration By Andrew Gillespie
I used to really, really, want to be a writer. But as time passed that changed. Now I just really, really want to choose the right thing to do with my day.
I used to think I was a failure when I didn’t choose to write more often because I thought it meant that I didn’t have enough discipline to “make my dreams come true.”
Now I can’t even say with certainty that I have “dreams”. For a while I wondered if maybe I was just making excuses for my lack of discipline.
Is it enough to just hope for a mediocre day? Does that mean that I’m settling?
Part of what happened is that, as I got older, I realized that if I wanted to continue to have vitality for my children and my life-partners and my community, I was going to have to take care of my body. That takes time.
Part of what happened is that I fell in love with my kids’ school and wanted to be there as often as I possibly could.
Part of what happened is that I accumulated more and more people to love, and maintaining relationships takes time.
Can I do all of these things and still be a writer? Well, I’m writing right now. But this isn’t exactly what I was imagined a “real” writer would write.
However, I don’t want to BE anything anymore, except proud of the choices I make for each individual day. I’ve decided that, for me, it’s better not to have a plan or an ambition. And that sounds like an American’s version of failure. We always think we need a 5-year-plan and a 10-year-plan. But the truth is, I love my life. And the things that I love the most about my life are not things that I planned. They are not even things that I could have ever imagined or visualized.
These are my ultimate goals:
1)      To keep my body healthy.
2)      To be nice to the people around me.
3)      To make good decisions that honor the trust and safety of the people around me.
I have realized that when I make goals that are more specific or ambitious than the three above, I end up compromising one of those basic three, or I set myself up for failure. 
That is a reality that can be very hard for me to accept. Maybe because I am an American and our American ideal has us all growing up thinking that we are supposed to be exceptional and famous in some way.
But I’m currently going for a different version of exceptional. I am attempting to be exceptionally chill with the-way-life-goes. Perhaps I’ll call my new philosophy “passionate mediocrity.”
Isn’t it funny how much we all cringe at the word “mediocrity”? But it just means “neither good or bad.” Which is how life usually feels. Whether you’re famous, or poor, or sick, or heathy, or young, or old. You usually still have some good days and some bad days and a whole bunch of mid-range days. If you add it all up and divide it by the total of your life, the answer will probably come out to be somewhere in the range of… mediocre.
Of course, there are exceptions that fall below mediocre for people who endure serious tragedy, war, discrimination, mental illness, or chronic pain. But I can’t think of anybody who experiences ongoing euphoria.  Truthfully, those of us who fall in the mediocre range are the privileged ones.
So… why not passionately embrace the mediocre? Be mediocre with a spark in your eye!
Let’s all get satisfied with what we’ve got! And if you’re discovering that some version of mediocrity might apply to you, try not to get all depressed about it. Practice mediocrity with style! And, for goodness sake, be nice!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Managing the Drop-In

Illustration by Andrew Gillespie

Living communally with kids is something that most Americans choose not to do. As I take inventory of my communal life, I think it’s probably because of the drop-in. 

I’ll define ‘drop-in’ as: The random entrance of a housemate, friend, or neighbor who may or may not have a need, deliver a gift, or require some communication. 

Managing the drop-in is a pretty serious deal. After living communally for 20 years, and communally-with-kids for 9 (which is a whole different ballgame) I’m only now realizing how much of a presence the drop-in plays in my life. 

This is my goal:

To live in an environment that is not entirely in my control, while still maintaining control over my emotions, my reactions, and my priorities for my children.

It’s a practice that requires me to be open and flexible but also maintain solid boundaries and communicate clearly. Communication is always the most important thing.   

I am most emotionally vulnerable to the drop-in during the hours immediately after school until dinner. Lately, with these extravagant daylight hours, we haven’t been eating until almost 8:00. This creates a vast, gaping danger-zone that spans from 4:00 all the way to 8:00.

During this time the kids are expected to wash their lunch dishes, do their jobs, study their spelling words, complete work they didn’t complete at school, and read for 15 minutes. After that they have free-play until dinner. 

Getting the kids to practice appropriate work ethic while doing their jobs and homework requires a lot of feedback and concentration from me. Truthfully, I don’t ever manage to give individual feedback to each of the four kids during this time. One kid will inevitably push everything under a bed or a couch, and I will ignore it because I just spent the last 30 minutes teaching someone else how to effectively sweep under the table.

Grant might spend the entire homework period carving a cardboard box into a cat house, and I won’t do anything about it because Ash has a spelling test the next day and that’s my priority. 

Sometimes I want to sit next to Maggie while she reads Green Eggs and Ham, but I won’t be able to focus because Aubree is telling me that I need to email Andrew 14 different photographs of Narwhals off the internet NOW. She wants him to print the pictures BEFORE he leaves work so she can present her project to the house TODAY. 

She also wants help finding cardboard for her trifold poster, and we’re out of glue sticks.  Can I call Kate and see if she’ll run by Target on her way home?

I suggest breaking down Grant’s kitty house for the tri-fold, but I’m met with an enthusiastic “NO!”

My brain says: “Your crisis is not my crisis, child. Chill the Hell out!”

My mouth says: “I’m glad you’re so excited about Narwhals, but let’s slow your roll a tiny bit so that this doesn’t have to feel like an emergency.”


And this is when the other humans walk in.

Usually when they first start talking I can’t even register what they’re saying because I’m still in the part of my brain that really wants to tell an intellectually stimulated 6-year-old that she isn’t allowed to study Narwhals until mid-July.

The housemate might say something like, “I really need to talk to you about the community food budget right now. My dietary needs are completely changing and I’m wondering if I can work out an exception to the food share.” 

Or else they could saunter in to the midst of this and begin the narrative of last night’s Tinder date followed by a request for advice. I actually enjoy conversations about people’s Tinder dates. And I love giving advice. I just can’t process the story around Narwhals, cat-houses, spelling tests, and Green Eggs and Ham. 

I have housemates who would take one look, offer me a beer, and start cleaning the kitchen.

And, truthfully, each of these scenarios could involve the same housemate, depending on the day and their level of communal awareness. It can be hard to know the vibe of a room before you walk into it. I’ve certainly committed some memorable social faux pas in that way. 

We also have plenty of friends and neighbors who do the drop-in.

I have a neighbor who could show up at any moment and, without solicitation, break into an academic-style lecture on how to grow better tomatoes. Though he could just as easily hand me several bags of homegrown tomatoes, and wordlessly walk away.

I have a neighbor who will bust right into my homework scene and ask if her 3 kids can come over for an hour while she rearranges her furniture.  

I have friends who will show up to borrow some fish emulsion and end up staying for dinner. Or they might bring an offering of cabbage starts.

I have friends who will walk in and beg me to listen to this totally raunchy R&B song that they’ve had in their head all day and we’ll end up analyzing the lyrics together. I’ll decide that it’s a great song. Or maybe it was just a great moment? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. By the time I re-emerge, giggling, to the designated homework arena the kids are long gone.

I have a friend who will hear one of my kids making an entitled-white-kid-statement, and he will pause to have a gentle conversation about different perspectives which will take about 15 minutes and completely derail the flow of academic time. Does that matter now?

I also have a housemate who might suddenly decide to dissect the opossum he just killed because it was eating all the chicken’s eggs. This is just the perfect combo of gross, dramatic, and educational to keep the kids entertained for a long time while I start dinner. Besides, what would I even say?

“Ignore Cypress slicing into that rodent and get yer butt in the house to study spelling!”

Yeah, right. So much for tomorrow’s spelling test.

I have friends who will come over to cry about the totally unfair situation that happened that day at work and then decide to do a complete purge and reorganization of our Tupperware shelf. This is therapeutic for everyone, although it requires me to answer an ongoing deluge of questions like, “How recently did you see that lid to the 70’s-style-rectangular-container that’s good for watermelon in the summer?” 

It’s hard to keep Maggie on track with all-those-places-that-dude-won’t-eat-green-eggs-and-ham when I have to keep shouting things like, “I haven’t seen that since we took 6 dozen brownies to the school!” 

And we have friends who will walk in, take inventory of the scene, and then silently and weirdly disappear. 

How could I ever say “no” to this life? 

When you live in a single-family home with friends who schedule their visits, this is not an intensity that you have to navigate. That’s probably a sigh of relief for you. Sometimes I feel jealous of that. Just like you might sometimes wish that someone brilliant and hilarious would just walk in your door – with no effort toward planning - and put on some good music and help you make dinner. Or talk to you while you fold the laundry. 

I try to remember that there’s always a nugget of calm in the chaos. And if you don’t let the chaos toss you around, you can find it. It’s a hard, hard skill to learn. But it’s the lesson I work the hardest on, and one I’d like to teach my kids.

Friday, November 4, 2016

When the Words Haven't Been Invented

Illustration by Andrew Gillespie

There are four parents and four kids in my family. Each parent has two biological kids and two non-biological kids. All eight of us work hard to evolve our family lovingly and gracefully. Because our family is not the "status quo," this requires some amount of emotional and intellectual processing.
Grant, our oldest, has experimented with calling me and Benjah his ‘step-parents’, and calling Ash and Maggie (his non-biological siblings) his ‘step brother’ and ‘step sister’.
I will always let the kids call me whatever makes them feel comfortable (as long as it isn’t rude or demeaning). So, when I hear Grant tell someone that I am his step-mom, I nod and agree.
I don’t feel like a step mom, though. When people have step parents, it implies that there are two separate households and some type of shifting between the two, which is not our scenario. But, because no specific word exists to accurately describe the relationship between me and Grant and Aubree… I can understand why he’s attracted to that term.
All-the-kids call all-four-parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ on occasion, though they use those terms for their biological parents more often. They also call all-four-parents by their actual names. I am happy to respond to either a ‘mom’ or a ‘Jes’ from any kid who wants my attention. Names and definitions flow loosely in our household. The important part is that everyone feels loved, prioritized, and taken care of.
Last week, on the drive home from school, Aubree called me ‘mom', and Maggie cut in saying, “She’s more my mom than your mom! You know?”
I quickly responded, “That’s rude Maggie. I am ‘mom’ for both of you.”
But of course, then, I had to think about that. Am I more Maggie’s mom than Aubree’s? And, If I was… what does that even mean? What does it mean to be more of a mom?
Of course my feelings for Maggie are different from my feelings for Aubree. Just as Maggie and Aubree have different feelings for me and Kate.
People have told me before that I am not really Aubree and Grant’s mom. And my argument has always been, “When a child is adopted, would you tell that parent that their relationship to the child isn’t ‘real parenthood’ simply because there is not a blood relation?” Probably not.
However, it’s true that there is another variable in our family. A variable that can’t be denied. All of our kid’s biological parents are prominent figures in their daily lives. Does the presence of Kate and Andrew negate my ‘momhood’ to Grant and Aubree? Does my and Benjah’s presence make it so that Kate and Andrew are not Ash and Maggie’s actual parents?
Does any of this matter? Do we need a definition? Do we need a vocabulary word?
Sometimes I desire definition and sometimes I don’t. But it doesn’t matter what I want, because there are not words, at least not English ones, that describe my family.
Words define the way we think. So it is difficult to progress, as a culture, when we don't have words that accurately describe our evolving experiences. 
Relationships and allegiances between people have boundless possibilities. The word “family” could caption a limitless number of snapshots. And none of those pictures has to be “less real” or “less valid” than any other.
As a culture we tend to think that families who don't follow the traditional format:
mother + father + kids = family might be a less legitimate family.
I know this is true, because I live in a non-traditional family, and I still catch myself viewing other non-traditional families as "less real" than "normal families."  

My family even, occasionally, struggles to validate or understand OUR OWN familial relationships, simply because there aren’t words to describe them. And if there aren’t words… do those relationships actually exist?
The answer is YES. Yes, Aubree, I am your ‘mom.’ Or, if ‘mom’ means ‘related-by-blood’ or if ‘mom’ means ‘in-the-absence-of-your-blood-mom’ then I am something else. I am some word that I don’t know. Some word that means: I will protect you, and make you comfortable, and pack your lunch, and rub your back while you puke, and keep you safe while you throw a temper tantrum and, in general, prioritize your needs over my own – in a healthy kind of way.  
And Grant, I will endure your fascination with chopping up large boxes and taping them together into extravagant sculptures – even when there isn’t room for that in the house. And I will exclaim proudly about how brilliant you are when you do all those self-initiated science experiments. And I’ll hold you and kiss you and nuzzle you even while you make weird noises and bite me like a rabid squirrel. And I’ll tuck you in, and dig through loads of laundry to find you a pair of “comfortable” pants.
Whatever that means to you, little ones, that is who I’ll be.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Homework Blues

Illustration by Andrew Gillespie
I like the idea of doing homework with my kids. I imagine sitting cozy at the table, one-on-one. The kid is trying their hardest and at least vaguely intrigued by the assignment. Maybe we have little cups of tea. The kid is coming up with his own ideas about how to pursue the project. Planning together, we’ve both got that giddy excitement; the kind you get when you’re about to make a train out of a refrigerator box.
But the reality of homework doesn’t go that way.
A few of my kids have taken longer than the “standard” amount of time to lock down on the reading, writing and math. I’ve been a teacher for a lot of my life. I’ve spent significant time with kids at all levels of academic ability. Some of them, it seems, don’t even need to be taught. They just inhale an awareness of ‘the silent e’ like it’s a molecule tumbling around with their Oxygen and Nitrogen and Carbon dioxide and stuff. They just know when to use ‘C’ vs. ‘K’. It’s autonomic. Like a heartbeat.
The learning spectrum is splayed all-the-way-out in my house. I’ve got kids on the easy end, the hard end, and gallivanting all across the middle. And that’s really difficult. It feels crappy that the kids who need the most help, want NOTHING to do with school in the evenings, and the kids who ascend to the next reading level sometime during the night while dreaming about a rocky-road ice cream cone, are the ones who voluntarily pull out extra workbooks and fly through the pages, for fun, on a weekend.

Obviously the paradox makes sense. When something is easy, we feel successful, and we want more of it. When something is hard, it makes us feel like a failure, and we’d rather do something else. Especially young people who haven’t had time to learn that success, and even joy, comes from challenging work… which is a whole other core-concept that some kids grasp quicker than others. Some are born with an inner drive: an innate perseverance that holds strong even through multiple failures. Other kids fail, and just wanna quit.
I have one kid who, more than all the others, DOES NOT like homework. He refuses to be lured, no matter how creatively or enthusiastically I present the homework agenda.
Long ago I quit calling it “homework.” We do “projects,” “research,” “explorations.” We “gather information” and we “strategize.” I use a timer. I use incentives. I make up songs. I also get really really pissed off. I take away screen time and I yell. I tell him that, as much as I wish I could be his personal cheerleader for his whole entire life, it just doesn’t work that way. He needs to grow some personal initiative.
I walk away.
He breaks the pencil. Then he usually begs me to come back and he promises to maintain a better attitude. And he does! For about 4 minutes.
It hurts my feelings. I want him to enjoy hanging out with me so much that homework is fun!
Last Thursday night I fell asleep thinking, The only way we’re going to meet the due date on this project is if I keep my kid home from school.
In the middle of the night he woke up sick. It was completely random, and I jumped at the opportunity.
By morning he really wasn’t sick anymore, but I kept him home anyway. It was finally the one-on-one homework time that I’ve always dreamed of.  We cuddled, we drank tea, we laughed. We got SO MUCH work done! He never even asked for screen time. We spent close to four hours on homework that day.
It probably went so well because of the time frame. Morning to mid-day, his brain was at top-form. After a full day of school, this kid is pretty fried. Also, I wasn’t competing with his free time. On the weekends he feels entitled to a day off. Friday mornings are already slated for school, so what did he have to lose?
Following that wonderful experience, I feel tempted to keep him home from school once a month for homework purposes. But whether or not I do that, it feels good just to know that he does have the drive, the interest, the ability, and the attention span - under the right conditions. And, truthfully, I should have known that already. His teachers have never complained about his participation during school. Why do I get so hopeless?
When I was a teacher, it was easier for me to get creative and to have more optimism about my struggling students. It was my job to remember that each kid was capable, and that I just needed to uncover the right method and inspiration. As a parent, its far more difficult. I’m too emotionally invested.
With this kid, I really have to take some steps back for perspective and creativity. I have to lose the fear, which leads to judgement, which leads to anger. I can’t be his mom during homework time. I have to be his teacher. Or at least finagle a better hybrid of the two.
I struggled a lot through school. This kid struggles in different ways than I did, but I’m familiar with the sensation of hitting a wall over and over and over again.
For me, every academic lesson felt like a locked door and, one by one, all my friends figured out how to get it open. As soon as I’d finally unscramble the information and turned the door knob, I’d walk into the next room only to discover that the population had already dwindled to practically no one. By mid-year, I just wandered deserted, perplexing hallways of countries, capitals, fractions, spelling words, and periodic tables, trying to look like I simply enjoyed taking my time.
I remember all the people I frustrated, and all the people who tried. And though I consider many of them ‘mentors’, none of them effected any resounding academic AHA moments for me. They helped me feel smart and successful regardless of my confusion. And they made me feel worth the black hole of time they invested in prepping my brain for success. But TIME was the ultimate clicker. Time was what made it all come together. Well… time and all the cumulative work.
So, with this sweet boy of mine, I guess the ultimate goal is to keep his self-esteem high, his sense of humor in-tact, and plug away at the work ethic. Because, it WILL come together in the end. And all we can do in the meantime is nurture the soil.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Driving Vans

Illustration  by Andrew Gillespie
Two months ago I became the primary driver of a big red van. His name is Big Red Clifford.

Nobody can stop themselves from telling me how huge my van is. Like somehow, as the driver of the thing, I haven’t yet noticed that I’m larger than everything around me except the city bus. I also think that, because it’s red, it stands out even extra.
The other day, just after I picked my kids up from school, I stopped at a stop sign next to the church parking lot. Many families from our school park in the church parking lot and wait for their kids to walk there in order to reduce congestion on the street during pick-up time. So this 4-way-stop is a highly populated area at 3:25 in the afternoon.
As I waited at the stop-sign, I turned to look at the families gathered in the lot. Suddenly I realized that about 7 of the kids were standing right there on the corner pumping their fists in the air, the way you do to trains and semi-trucks when you want them to honk their horns.
It was undeniably funny, but also terrifying. Partly because I realized, in that very moment, that I’d never honked my horn before. I didn’t know what it would sound like, and I wasn’t even positive how to do it. I didn’t know if there was a button on the steering wheel, or if I was just supposed to mash down on the middle. All my kids were yelling at me, “HONK! HONK! They want you to HONK!” My brain momentarily froze. Aside from all my mechanical insecurities with the horn, I was also dealing with the fact that this was a four-way-stop with multiple lanes to keep track of and, as it was about 10-minutes after school dismissal, I also had to factor in all the young, impulsive pedestrians.
Fortunately, in this moment, a defense mechanism kicked in:  social denial. I just LOVE that one. I keep it in my back pocket. Living communally with children, I access it several times a day. I completely shut my brain to all the shouting and arm pumping. I focused on traffic, turned the corner, and THEN… after we’d almost passed the church parking lot, I gave this super tentative little honk. It was not at all what anyone was hoping for. A total anticlimax. My kids were all like, “WHAT WAS THAT?”
Oh well. Everyone was safe. That’s the important thing. And now I know how to honk my horn, AND I know that it sounds like a NORMAL horn. I won’t lie. I half expected it to blare resoundingly like a train whistle or a semi.
I am NOT a car person. I don’t even know one type of car from another. Last year people had to work really hard to get me to understand what a Suburban was. So… getting lots of attention about my vehicle every time I drive somewhere is really overwhelming for me.
Oddly, despite my general distaste for cars and driving, which can be partially attributed to my horrid sense of direction, this is the THIRD phase of my life where I’ve been required to drive folks around in an outlandishly large van.
When I first moved to Eugene, I got a job registering voters. I was really good at it. Mostly because of the aforementioned defense mechanism. The social denial. I just completely turn off all regard for what anyone thinks, and barrel full bore into registering voters. I think the people who weren’t as successful probably had more pride than I did. I got yelled at, cursed at, and once I was even sprayed with a hose, but I registered SO MANY VOTERS. Therefore, I got promoted.
Getting promoted meant that I drove all my coworkers around in the giant van and dropped them off at their “turf.” After the drop off I was supposed to meander through everyone’s turf, knock on a few doors, and make sure that whoever answered said, “somebody has already been here!” This statement was always made in a grumpy manner. Understandably.  
I really wished I didn’t get promoted.  I got paid more, but I HATED driving that van. I never knew where I was going. My coworkers had to direct me everywhere, starting from which way to turn out of the parking lot. And even if I liked spying on my coworkers (which I didn’t) It took me forever to re-track my route to where I’d dropped each person off. After about 2 days I just quit checking on people and spent my whole shift practicing my route to retrieve them all. That way I would look less like a moron on the way home.
When that job was over (after the election), I became a teacher at a school for teen moms. Besides teaching, I also picked all the students up from their houses each morning, transported their babies to various daycares, stopped at the district high school to pick up a cafeteria lunch, and then landed at our school. This route could take over an hour each way. Our mode of transportation was a white, Ford, 15 passenger van.
The hazing period for that job was atrocious. Until those girls decided they liked me, which took about 6 months, they slaughtered me while I was driving. Teenagers can smell fear and they could tell that I didn’t like that van. They loved announcing that I was going the wrong way, even when I wasn’t. If I stopped at a yellow light, they called me a granny. If I drove through one, they shouted, “Are you trying to kill our babies?”
Eventually I just turned up the radio until I couldn’t hear them anymore. I held my breath and bit my lip to keep myself from crying while BeyoncĂ©, Amy Winehouse, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, and Usher grooved out their perspectives on love, sex and failure. The girls danced in their seats until the van shook. I prayed that I wasn’t damaging any 8-month-old ear drums. Eventually we worked through my newness. I drove that van for four years.
And now I’ve got Big Red Clifford to contend with. I’m not scared of driving a big van anymore, and my kids are already used to the fact that, while their other parents take shortcuts, Jes takes the scenic route. This van is difficult for a different reason.
No one ever had much to say about the old, white, commercial vans I previously drove around, but Clifford elicits A LOT of attention.
People are all-the-time asking me, “what’s the gas-mileage on that thing?” Or, “how long has Nissan been making vans?” I have no idea! I fill up the gas tank when it gets empty. All that information is not my job. I drive the kids around. The other van owners deal with that stuff.
I think what’s going on is that vehicles represent things to people. My teen-mom-mobile basically said, “she-drives-a-lot-of-people-around.” But I feel like Clifford is saying something more complicated than that. It’s like I’m sportin' a T-shirt with a giant band logo on the back, and everybody knows the band except for me. I've never even heard their music.
Obviously this is the time for my old faithful defense mechanism. The social denial. Why is it suddenly hard for me to find?
I just gotta do what I did before: turn up the music. For this crowd I think it’s Katy Perry, Survivor, John Denver, Meghan Trainor, Taio Cruz, And Taylor Swift. And we’re just gonna dance. And I’m gonna take people places because for some reason, whether I like it or not, I’ve apparently been put on this earth to be a bus driver.
Sometimes we have to get comfortable with our obscure life-paths. We don’t have to like them right from the git-go. We can even try to change them. But after a while, it might just be unavoidable. I think me and Clifford are in it for the long haul.
He did come with a GPS, even though I don’t know how to use it. And red is my favorite color.