Driving On

25 September 2009

This essay aired 16 October 2009 on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM. 

I was terrified that she was going to turn around and slug me. I can only imagine the look on my face that one of the teens was gleefully capturing on her cell phone.

I was lost in thought driving home one September evening, considering how fortunate I was to have just paid only $88 for over $1000 worth of medication. I was about a block or so from my house, when I noticed a crowd gathered around two teen girls fighting in the street.

This was not a simple exchange of punches: one girl was beating the crap out of the other. Both girls were on the ground; Girl A had two fistfuls of hair in each of her hands and was pulling with all her might as she kicked Girl B as hard she could in the shoulders and ribs. Girl B was struggling to break free. The two were surrounded by 8-10 teenagers who were doing nothing to stop the fight. About three houses away, two men in their twenties were standing by a car in the street, not making any move to intervene.

Instead of turning the corner toward my house, I drove forward, past the snickering men, into the crowd of laughing teens, and up alongside the two girls. The situation was a bit harrowing for me as a woman alone in her car in the evening, the circle of teenagers separating just enough to let me into the circle, but not ceasing their jeers and taunts.

Calmly, but firmly, I said to the girls, “Stop. Stop. C’mon, get off of her. Get off of her. Now step apart.” When Girl A stood up, she was no more than about six inches from my head. I was terrified that she was going to turn around and slug me. I can only imagine the look on my face that one of the teens was gleefully capturing on her cell phone. Girl A took a couple of steps away, still facing Girl B, her eyes filled with rage, taunting her to fight again. “Walk away. Walk away,” I continued to urge in a clam, steady voice, trying my best to cover my fear with an infusion of patience and kindness.

Though the girls had stepped apart, my presence in my car with its “Peace is Possible” bumper sticker was not having the diffusing affect I had hoped for. The taunts were rising, the crowd was not dispersing, the cell phone continued recording, and my pleas to walk away were going unheeded.

It is excruciating for me to admit, dear listener, that at this point I drove away, watching the scene in my rearview mirror. I drove about thirty yards when the girls started lunging for one another again. I pulled over, called 911, and reported the scene. The dispatcher asked me if I saw a weapon. “No,” I replied, “but this is a particularly brutal fight.” He told me to call again if I saw a weapon. “I don’t live on this block and I have to get home to my family, ” I told him. “Alright,” he sighed, “I’ll send someone out.”

I returned home, deeply shaken, handed over the chemotherapy medication to my husband, and related the story to him and our two teenage daughters.

So many questions about this incident keep swirling around in my head: did Girl B suffer permanent damage to her neck or shoulders? Was her hair pulled out by its roots? It was a warm evening and the houses all had open windows and doors and this fight went on for some time, and yet no adult came out to break it up. And why would the 911 dispatcher not take seriously the gravity of the situation? No one was willing to protect Girl B.

Mostly, though, I have been consumed with the coulda-shoulda-woulda’s. I could have driven back and, again, urged the girls to stop fighting. I should have driven up to the men and demanded that they intervene. I would have gotten out of the car when Girl A started her taunts, but when I saw the rage in her eyes, all I could think of was my thirteen year-old tearfully insisting in the face of her father’s rapidly advancing cancer that I must stay alive. So I drove on.

These days I drive down the block where the fight occurred every opportunity I get. I know that I will not be able to redeem the choice I made to drive away from the scene. I just want to continue to be a steady, friendly presence, waving hello to everyone I see, hoping, hoping that peace will be more than just a possibility.

Life on Course

27 August 2009

This essay aired on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM in August 2009.


It’s been twenty four years since I graduated from college, plenty of time to reflect on which of my classes truly have helped me in my life.  Here is my list, dear listener, of the five courses that I recommend that everyone take in college:

1. Photography

All your life you will be taking photographs that will capture images of important moments and people in your life.  These memories can be made even more poignant when the composition is strong and the image is crisp and clear.  Many of these photographs will become treasures to you in a way that no other possession will as your life moves from one phase to another and as loved ones leave this world and these photographs become gateways to so many memories.

2.  Anatomy and Physiology

This one is a no-brainer — ha, ha.  All of us see doctors and all of us, or someone close to us, will likely have a medical procedure or a serious illness at some time in our lives.  Medical care can be expensive and complicated; talking to doctors can be baffling.  Studying Anatomy and Physiology will not only give you a schema for beginning to understand what doctors are talking about, but it will, more importantly, give you a schema for knowing what questions to ask in order to better understand your condition and the consequences of proposed treatments.

3. Child Development

Understanding how a child’s brain experiences the world at different stages in the growth process is so helpful in having successful relationships with the children in our lives.  How many times have you seen adults take very small children to restaurants or doctor’s offices and expect these little ones to sit still and quietly for very long periods without any books or toys or crayons or paper, angering when the children cannot comply, and making them feel bad about themselves or, worse, punishing them for behavior they are not capable of stopping?   Or parents who complain bitterly about their teenager’s need to assert their independence and explore the world for themselves?  By understanding a child’s motivations, capabilities and limitations you will be able to better work with them instead of against them.

4. Composition through advanced composition

I cannot emphasize enough that there will be too many occasions in this world where you will have to express yourself clearly in writing: perhaps to your boss justifying the job you do, perhaps to your municipality challenging an unfair assessment, or, perhaps, to a church full of your friends and family if you are called upon to eulogize a loved one.  Sounding intelligent, thoughtful, and reasoned in your writing will help you tremendously in getting ahead and getting what you want and what you need in this world.  Not sounding that way will have the very opposite effect.

5. Statistics

Statistics was one of the most challenging courses this philosophy major and English minor took in college.  The skills I learned in this course have served me well both professionally and personally every single year since I graduated.  Understanding both how to look at your world quantitatively and what these quantities tell you is essential in this culture.   Daily we are bombarded with statistics about almost every aspect of our lives.  Not only is it important to be able to look at these statistics with a critical eye in order to assess what they are, or are not, telling us; but it is also important to be able to create number stories about our own world to let others know just what we add up to.

These five courses reflect both my prejudices and experiences; your five recommendations might be very different.  But to anyone who is engaged in educating themselves (an activity that does not end once you receive your diploma), my ultimate recommendation  to you, dear listener, is to take courses in a variety of disciplines, especially those outside of your comfort zone.   Some of these classes I have listed above were very difficult for me and I did not get my best grades in them, yet I have utilized the knowledge and skills I gained from each of them throughout my life.  The world is a surprising place and in a flash will wrench you out of your comfort zones.  Being able to understand how to look at the world artistically and scientifically and sociologically and analytically and numerically will help you negotiate many of the discomfort zones you will find yourself in, and maybe even help you succeed with a bit of confidence and panache.

Love Apple

27 August 2009

This essay aired on NPR affiliate WVPE in May 2008. I received quite a bit of feedback from my male friends on this one. One friend said that she was surprised that NPR would air something this racy.

A desirable pattern was emerging. Planting the Sungold or the aptly named Gardener’s Delight seeds became a sort of foreplay.

I am here today to strongly encourage you, dear listener, to grow at least one cherry tomato plant this summer. While everyone knows that garden-fresh tomatoes have a superior flavor that store-bought ones never achieve, this is not the reason I am encouraging you to grow your own. No, I have taken the time to write this essay and have come down to the WVPE studios to record it in order to confess to you the most delightful and compelling reason for growing your own garden-fresh cherry tomatoes.

Truly, it is not a difficult or expensive endeavor. All you need is a cheap, five-gallon bucket from the hardware store, a bag of organic potting soil to fill it, and one cherry tomato plant.

When you get all this home, punch about 5-10 small holes for drainage into the bottom of the bucket using a drill or a hammer and nail. Fill the bucket with the organic potting soil and then pour two or more pitchers of water into the soil to thoroughly moisten it.

When you plant your tomato, you actually want to bury most of it in the soil because new roots will grow out of the buried stem, making for a stronger and healthier plant. Remove all but the top two sets of leaves, dig a hole in the center of the bucket to accommodate the newly-denuded stem, place the plant into the hole with the leaves above it, and then fill the hole with the remaining soil, pressing gently as it fills.

Place the plot or your pot where it will receive at least six hours of sun each day. For the remainder of the summer you will only have three short tasks for this very desirable outcome:

  • Water your tomato plant. You may have to water it every day during hot spells, otherwise check it every other day.
  • Remove suckers. These branches, called suckers, will use water and nutrients without producing fruit. As your plant grows, you will notice new branches sprouting at the junction of the stem and a mature branch. Just pinch off those suckers with your fingers.
  • Remove any weeds. Weeds zap nutrients from the soil that would otherwise feed your plant.

By mid August you will have ripened fruit to enjoy.

I have been growing tomatoes in my yard every summer for the past eighteen of the twenty years I have been married. I planted my very first tomatoes when I was nine, too innocent at that age to detect the potent powers of what in colonial times was considered the love apple. That always seemed such a strange moniker for a vegetable. It wasn’t until we planted our first garden that I experienced the bewitching qualities of that lusty little fruit.

The tomatoes of our first garden ripened in mid August, on what is always in my mind one of those very warm and sultry summer days. That first experience set the scene for every year since: my husband arrives home on his bike after work around 5:23 and comes in the garden to kiss me hello, I hold up the second perfectly-ripe tomato of the season for him to see (for I have sampled the first to assure perfection), and lovingly place the fruit of our labor into his mouth. He bites into the tomato and a mixture of joy, pleasure, and satisfaction dance across his face.

I will confess, dear listener, to the delightful and compelling reason that I have grown cherry tomatoes each and every year since that first one eighteen years ago: feeding my husband the second perfectly-ripe tomato of the season that sultry August afternoon was an incredible turn-on. Believe me, no one was more surprised than me to find that gardening, of all things, could illicit such an intense response – and a response of that nature!

I forgot this phenomenon over the next twelve months, when it happened again the following August, and then again the succeeding August! A desirable pattern was emerging. Planting the Sungold or the aptly named Gardener’s Delight seeds became a sort of foreplay. Setting the plants into the garden in late May or early or even mid June awakened the anticipation of the pleasure that lie two and a half months ahead.

I finally confessed this phenomenon to my husband after five or so years of gardening delight. So now whenever he greets me in the sultry mid-August garden and I hold up the second perfectly-ripe cherry tomato of the season, I return the twinkle in his eye as I slowly push the fruit into his mouth and he bites down on that firm, juicy flesh and experiences the sweet, luscious explosion of the fruit of our labor. Love apple, indeed!

I must emphasize that this is my response. It is funny how two people can have such different reactions to the same event: while my husband is simply enjoying the second perfectly-ripe cherry tomato of the season, I am having an altogether different experience.

Bothered and Bewildered

27 August 2009

This essay aired on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM in October 2007.

It was unseasonably warm that Halloween in 1992, as if August had snuck back for one last joyride. The first flush of trick-or-treaters who climbed up our steps included mature toddlers clutching a parent’s hand and plastic pumpkin treat buckets, eyes so eager for candy given by an otherwise taboo stranger that they could not always manage to say “trick or treat”, but produced a “thank you” when prompted.  Kindergarteners, some brave, some timid, some orbiting their family and friends with the unbridled joy of the night’s magic, delighted in the parade of the costumed revelers.  Fourth and fifth graders, emboldened by their assumed identities and the fair weather, boisterously demanded a preferred brand of candy from my bowl.

 

And as the night went on and the neighborhood grew dark, the trick-or-treaters became bigger and more intimidating: teenagers out for fun and free candy, the look in their eyes daring me to refuse them, promising the mischief the night could hold.

 

The most heartbreaking were the teen moms, alone, holding their costumed babies in front of them with their treat bag, lightly exclaiming “Trick or treat!” in voices still carrying a trace of the child they themselves had so recently been, pretending that the candy bar I slipped into their bag was for their infant.  What magic, I wondered, did this night hold for them?

 

My melancholy turned to bewilderment when a teen father climbed the stairs with his baby girl.  His hard, acne-smattered face squinted from the smoke rising from the cigarette dangling at the corner of his mouth.  He croaked “Trick or treat” gently as he lifted the treat bag and the four-month-old toward me.

 

The baby girl gazed up at me, pink-cheeked, pure, and perfect, blond hair and blues eyes glowing and twinkling like the moon and stars of that glorious gift of an evening.   And suddenly I found myself horrified by the prospect of her life.  Though I knew that the Snickers bar I placed in her bag would be eaten by her parents, I was overwhelmed by the irrational vision of her choking on caramel, nougat, and peanuts; overwhelmed by the smoke-filled air her tiny, growing body breathed in every day; overwhelmed by the manner her immature parents’ choices would shape her future, shape her psyche.

 

In recent years we have had a similar parade of trick-or-treaters come to our door each Halloween.  The biggest and most disheartening difference is the ever-growing number of children who come without a costume, sometimes accompanied by weary parents, all too often un-chaperoned.   Two years ago a mature-bodied twelve-year-old came to our door scantily and provocatively clad as a prostitute.  Without thinking I blurted out, “Does your mother know you are dressed like that?”  “Yeah,” she said, motioning her thumb behind her, “she’s right there.”  And last year, for the first time ever, I had costume-less parents in the 35-and-over crowd trick-or-treat for themselves, an act which bothered and bewildered me beyond belief. “Aren’t you the wicked one!” I laugh as I begrudgingly drop candy into their bags.

 

Teen parents still bring their babies to my door: lone mothers celebrating quietly with their infants, or groups of teens pushing their babies in strollers, laughing loudly in the night, one or two not even bothering to bring their costumed child to the door in their pursuit of candy.

 

The image of the smoking teen father and his beautiful baby girl so haunted me that Halloween in 1992 that every year since I have on hand a dozen or so jars of baby food so that when a parent brings her baby to the door and says, “Trick or treat,” I look the baby in the eye and say, “Have I got a treat for you!” and drop a jar of sweet potatoes or pears into the bag.  Every young mother’s face lights up at the unexpected inclusion of her precious baby in this celebration, a look filled with the magic of a mother’s love for her child as they share their first Halloween together.

Across the Universe

26 August 2009

This essay aired on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM in March 2009.

One day, six or seven, maybe even eight years ago, three large, yarn-filled cardboard boxes arrived at my front door, sent to me by my beloved mother-in-law in Oregon.  When I called her to thank her, she told me that she did not want to die and have people find all that yarn in her house and think she was crazy.  I informed her that everyone already knew that she was crazy, but loved her all the more for it.

There were many beautiful and expensive yarns in the box, some in skeins, some in partially knit projects long ago abandoned.  This collection doubled my already respectable stash and seemed to me an embarrassment of riches.  Many of the colors were not to my taste: where I prefer rich tones, my mother-in-law preferred pastels.  She also had a weakness for mohair, a yarn that drives me berserk.

Last week I finally found a pattern for a pair of fingerless gloves I wanted to make for myself: simple in design with an eyelet pattern at the end giving it a sweet, interesting touch.   The only problem was that the pattern called for a yarn in a size (weight, in knitting terms) that I have not worked in.  I just was not up to doing the math to figure how to use the yarns I had on hand, when I thought that I should dive into my stash to see if there was anything in there I could use.

I will confess to you, dear listener, the vast extent of my stash: I have two cedar chests, a basket in my living room, and six tote bags full, as well as a new collection that I will tell you about shortly.  I used to think of myself as a fiber slut, but I realized when I absolutely had to turn my car around and go back to the yarn shop in Valparaiso that I had just spent three hours in so that I could buy the Mistletoe-colored sock yarn for my youngest child, that I was instead a color slut.  When I confessed this epiphany to the talented and prolific knitter who was ringing me up again, she looked at me knowingly, almost painfully, and said, “I know.  It’s almost as if they are calling you.”

No one else in my house knits, but they all exclaim with delight when they see the cedar chests full of yarn thrown open like treasure chests full of sparkling jewels.  I adore my family for responding that way.

Sure enough, in one of the cedar chests there was a bag of DK yarn from my mother-in-law, an abandoned pair of matching children’s sweaters.  She must have put it down for too long, forgetting how quickly very small children grow, and when she picked it up again, there was barely enough yarn for a sweater for one child.  Much to my delight, I found in that bag a few balls of a deep, reddish purple of which I am particularly fond, and a couple of balls of a deep dusty-purply- rosy pink that provided a gorgeous complimentary contrasting color.

My dear, dear friend April was over for a visit that day, and I began the project as we chatted away an early afternoon.  After she left, I looked at the couple of inches I had completed and thought, “I can make something prettier.”  I pulled out my Vogue Knitting where I found an intriguing stitch pattern for the body of the glove, tracked down a pattern for the gusset from an Interweave Knits magazine, used the original pattern’s eyelet ending, and bound it off with technique from my Vogue Knitting that I had never used before.  I felt such a sense of pleasure and accomplishment as my eyes danced up the deep reddish-purple crossed-diagonal rib to the dusty-purply-rosy pink eyelet finale with the spot-on perfect bind off.

I visited my mother-in-law for the last time exactly a year ago this week.  Her always plump, tireless body was now delicate and frail, rapidly losing the battle to cancer.  A lifelong sufferer of ADHD, she lamented to me in private how torturous it was for her to have to sit in a chair day in and day out in the house her parents built over eighty years ago on the farm whose daily chores had given her ADHD an outlet.   The third round of chemotherapy had adversely affected her brain and she asked me to teach her to knit again so that she would have a pleasing activity to help pass the time.  She was barely able to grasp the needles and was completely unable to grasp the motion of pulling one loop through another to create a knitted fabric.

To see this woman who so delighted in yarn and knitting, who taught herself how to knit while struggling through the lessons of AA some 30 years ago,  unable to tap into the pleasure and solace that the colors and rhythms of knitting gave her, absolutely broke my heart .  She was stoical about her inability to reclaim her beloved craft and gave me her collection of needles to take home with me.

A few weeks ago, two immense, yarn-filled cardboard boxes arrived on my doorstep, sent to me by my beloved brother-in-law a few weeks after the funeral.  My mother-in-law had died with a house full of yarn, this time increasing my stash by at least 25%.  But this time when I opened the boxes, the colors and textures of the yarns danced from Lois to me across the universe as I laid them out in my living room.  I don’t know where she is now, but with these needles and this vast quantity of yarn, she remains in my hands and in my heart, lifting my spirits and soothing my soul.