We Have Problems

Define rape. Now differentiate it from sexual assault.

Define sexual assault. Now differentiate it from sexual harassment.

Define sexual harassment. Now differentiate it from flirting

You now know one of the problems we have.

Even “uggos” and “fatties” are sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and raped. Actually, I was sexually assaulted more times when I was heavier than I have at a smaller size, though that might be a numbers game: I was fat for longer than I’ve been less fat.

Did you catch that?

I’ve been sexually assaulted more than once.

More than twice.

More than three times.

I think the count is five times.

I was not raped, so everyone can calm down (I guess, but I’ll have more to say about that later). Two times strangers masturbated next to me in a movie theater and reached for me and leaned in to me as they did it. That IS sexual assault. The first time I didn’t even know what was happening, so he faced no consequences. The second time, I moved seats but did nothing more.

One time I was fondled from behind on a public transit escalator. He got his hand in there real good. That IS sexual assault. At first, I thought it was someone innocently but rudely mishandling their umbrella. When I realized what was happening, I only glared at him.

One time a man on the subway tried to stroke my leg as he masturbated. That IS sexual assault. This was the most recent incident, and I felt strong enough to say loud enough for the whole subway car to hear, “excuse me!” I shamed the man off the subway.

The first time, when I was 12, a boy grabbed my butt after verbally harassing me. He also cupped his hands on my mouth and breathed on me, not like a kiss. That was the only time I held the guy accountable to more than shame. He was a preacher’s kid, so in addition to the school’s punishment, daddy made him call me to apologize, at which time he denied doing anything to my face/mouth… like grabbing my butt and saying nasty things was acceptable gross behavior, but something else wasn’t. The worst part is that I thought the boy was cute, which is probably why he chose to target me in the first place.

ALL of these are sexual assaults, so when women ask if a stranger grabbing their boobs “counts” as sexual assault, I get irate. I will not make trauma a competition, but I do understand the violation of rape is more private than some types of sexual assault; and as far as sexual assaults go, I do consider mine minor. The fact remains that any kind of sexual assault is an invasion of personal space, often body parts associated with sex, ans is worthy of note. Women should not worry if the way their personal space was invaded “counts” as sexual assault. It’s not a point of comparison that we’re raising. It’s a point of WHY THE FUCK DOES THIS HAPPEN SO OFTEN?

You see another one of our many problems.

I’ve asked myself why I didn’t hold the men who assaulted me accountable for their actions. Some of it was the sheer shock that it happened in the first place. Some of it was not knowing how to find the man after the fact, when I thought about doing something. Some of it is simply the fact that I was raised in a society that objectifies women and tells us over and over that we are not allowed to take up space in the world, to have an opinion (much less voice it), to stand up for ourselves against men. I’m ashamed of myself for the four times I did nothing. I think too many women live their lives assuming that kind of thing “just happens” and assume there isn’t anything they can do about it.

Problem #3.

Sexual harassment is an even grayer area because it relies a lot on perception and can be anywhere from comments that can be easily shrugged off to behaviors that make people feel physically threatened without being physically touched. I myself have been guilty of sexual harassment that I’ve chalked up to humor. I don’t want to become a comedy nazi, living in a world where people call foul at any off-color remark, so it’s hard to know where the hard and soft lines are when it comes to what we say.

You guessed it, another problem.

Furthermore, when it comes to sexual harassment, I can understand why many men are so confused. While society is delivering damaging messages to women, it’s also sending mixed information to men.  We talk about dating and courtship using words like “game” and hunt.” Well, “game” is problematic because it presumes that there is a set of KNOWN rules, which we all know are not clear and are not universal. It also implies that there is a winner and a loser, a victor and a defeated party. “Hunting” implies predator and prey, and in the animal world, that usually ends in death, not sex. Moreover, we talk about “the chase” and “playing hard to get.” I hear you, guys, when you say, “So am I supposed to be persistent and prove to her I’m really interested or am I an asshole for mentioning that she looks nice?” Would John Cusack’s character in Say Anything standing outside a bedroom window with a boom box held aloft still be romantic in today’s mixed up world? Or would that be something to call the cops about?  It can’t be easy when you think about how much money the 50 Shades franchise has taken in – yes, it was all consensual and contractual, but the idea seems to be that women want a man who takes control when it comes to sex. (And then I hear Beyonce singing, “I’ma LET you be the boss of me” … it’s about a completely conscious release of control, not the control being TAKEN from you without your consent, understanding, acknowledgement).

Yet another problem.

I don’t know that I have viable solutions, but I think the first step is acknowledging each person as a human being, not something else (like an object for your pleasure, whether that is your visual pleasure or your sexual pleasure). I think another step in that same direction is equally valuing each human being’s rights to his/her personal space. Men and women are entitled to take up the same amount of space in the world, to speak at the same volume for the same length, to have control over who touches them and who does not, and in what ways they are touched. That sounds really simple, but apparently it’s not.

Men need to stop saying “I have a daughter, a mother, a sister” when they condemn the behavior of other men. I appreciate the public condemnation, but re-frame the way you think of women. We deserve to be treated with respect not because we’re sisters, daughters, mothers, but, like I said above, because we are HUMAN BEINGS.

Like I said, we have problems.



Emotional Masochism

A dear friend sent me a Whatsapp message on Saturday evening that began, “Lady with the words…” in which she asked me about the meaning of some John Mayer lyrics. I love everything about the exchange that followed. We met because of John Mayer’s music, so it figures that she’d ask me about his lyrics 15 years later, but our friendship encompasses so much more than our shared musical loves. We also know the agony of loving Jordan Catalano and wanting our hair to be redder than red. We dream big and we make those dreams reality, regardless of how crazy anyone thought we were when we dared to dream. We’re products of 1982, and even though she’s English and I’m American, our shared frame of pop culture references binds us together. We love an impossible romance in books and movies. In fact, between her influence and randomly having to teach Gothic Literature, I dove into Twilight.

We were on a subway platform discussing books and relationships one night. We were talking about the broody outcasts who are unsuitable for one reason or another but always seem to draw us in. Without much forethought, I identified what we were talking about as emotional masochism. It’s like some people heard “the course of true love never did run smooth” and fully accepted it as fact, so stories like Bella and Edward, Jordan and Angela that are full of angst and uncertainty are the standard. It’s not so much that one partner creates the drama like some high maintenance princess; it’s more that without the push and pull, an emotional masochist can’t feel the passion. It was a huge “ah ha” moment for her. I don’t know that it changed the way she approached relationships, but giving it a name somehow made it more acceptable. I check my own emotional masochism every now and then, worrying that I’m oddly addicted to having all the feels.

I tried to explain the lyrics the way I understand them. I can’t be totally sure when interpreting what other people have written, but I love that she asked. I took John Mayer’s entire catalog into consideration to answer, which prompted her to say “tortured soul,” and spurred me to remind her of emotional masochism. Somewhere in the course of our exchange, she assured me she wasn’t high. It was a lovely chat that wasn’t emotionally masochistic because our friendship is not painful except that we rarely get to see each other.

…just a great figure eight or a tiny infinity

Why are you like this?
Like what?
Like how you are.

And a happy 40th birthday to Johnny boy!


Existentialism 101

It could be because the handful of Advil has finely coalesced with the NyQuil to bring me out of the cloud of head congestion I’ve been in for days, but I feel relatively okay right now. It might pass. Hopefully it won’t.

Existentialism is a philosophical response to the chaos some thinkers saw in the world in the early twentieth century.  Everything they thought they knew was crumbling around them, so they figured, “hey, maybe it’s all meaningless!” The key to living as an existentialist and not going completely insane, in my opinion, is to do precisely what the existentialists intended: make it matter for yourself, knowing that you’ve made it up and that everyone else has too.

I don’t know if I’m an existentialist, but I certainly understand the idea of needing to make something meaningful because the very foundation you thought you were standing on is eroding beneath you. I do think there are some universal laws. I don’t think all the choices people make are valid – I’m a judgmental bitch, and I hold myself and others to high standards. But I also think that there’s something to be said for recognizing that “the rules” that society has are often arbitrary, so why follow them? Everyone has a different version of what is good, what is valuable, how to put the world in some kind of order.

In the time I’ve been quiet, which has been too long in my own judgment, I’ve been thinking about what makes me happy. What are the things that I want in life to make it matter, to make sense of the world?

One point I’ve come clear on is that I do want to teach. I love working with young people. I love helping young people understand what they read, how they think. I love guiding young people to new ideas. There is an infinite hope in working with young people. Maybe I can’t personally make the world a better place, but maybe through working with the next generation, I can help shape the new world. I recognize the tension in that statement too – the humility to know I can’t make change but the arrogance to think I can influence people who might be able to. It’s a weird kind of power, I know. I don’t abuse it or take it for granted, I don’t think.

I also know that I believe education should let young people question everything. I value analytical thought, so if you come up with more questions than answers, I’m happy. Unfortunately, as I gain clarity about the fact that I do want to teach, I am also sure that New York City public schools do not foster the kind of education I believe in. This isn’t really news to me, but it was a point driven home a week ago when I substitute taught a test prep class. NYC students in eighth grade have the option to take a high school entrance test called the SHSAT. It’s very much like the SAT, and it allows students some choice in where they go to high school. The top scorers are offered seats at specialized high schools, so they can choose where they go. It’s a lot like college admissions, which is daunting. The test is stupid though, as are the prep classes. It’s not about critical thought and creative problem solving. It prepares kids to be little test taking robots in competition with each other.

Part of what I’ve been struggling with is my beliefs about education. I have always thought a solid public education is fundamental to democracy. As a student growing up in one of the best funded counties in the country, I benefited in countless ways from public education. As a teacher, though, I see that my experience as a student was probably an anomaly. The system is not designed to meet children’s needs. It’s a machine. I’ve railed at it before, but something finally broke in me this year. Now that I’m sorting through the pieces, I know I’m too subversive to ever become a leader within the current system. I don’t want to walk away though. That’s why it’s been hard to figure out what I’m doing with myself.

For the time being, it means I’m going to set my sights on international teaching, which is what I thought I should be doing, but I needed time away from a classroom to truly see that.

Another puzzle piece of happiness I’ve managed to figure out recently is that I like having a pet. I took my cat to my mom’s because I’m going to be traveling for a while, and I’ve been without him in my apartment for less than three days. I don’t like it, especially because I’ve been sick and wanted to cuddle. I like having animals around. They’re calming and entertaining. They’re easier to deal with than people too. And it’s nice to be needed.

So, existentialism 101 – what makes it matter: teaching and animals. It’s a start to bringing order to my chaos.

Let’s Talk About Guns. NOW.

I’m one person, and these are my opinions.

Family and Personal History with Guns

Both my grandfathers and my father were in the military, so I know that they were all trained to use various types of guns and other weaponry.

A family story that I’ve heard repeatedly and don’t know the accuracy of (because my dad taught me at a young age “never let the facts interfere with a good story”) tells of a time when my grandpa was beating my dad so relentlessly that my grandma got the shot gun and held in to grandpa’s head, saying “If you lay another hand on him, I’ll blow your brains out.” The gun saved my dad’s young life.

When I was very young, dad was still in the Army reserves and kept a shot gun or rifle (I don’t remember which, nor do I know the difference between the two) in a cardboard box under his bed. I knew not to touch it. That was enough “gun safety” to prevent accidents around my dad’s house.

We had various boarders at mom’s house in the extra room to supplement her income. One of them was a friend of hers from way back. I did not know until after the evening when he beat the shit out of her in front of me that he kept a gun in his room. He did plenty of damage with his fists, so I’m grateful he didn’t think to use his gun. That was the last night he spent in our house.

At a week-long sleep away camp sponsored by the state of Virginia for children who were blind or visually impaired, we did archery at one campsite. Regardless of our levels of blindness, we learned how to load and shoot bows and arrows. The camp moved to a different facility after a few years. This facility had a rifle range instead of an archery range. Blind and legally blind children learned how to load and shoot rifles. Depending on your vision, you could ask to have a beeping target. We got to keep our targets. I probably have mine somewhere. Yes, blind and legally blind children in the state of Virginia learned how to load and shoot a rifle. I learned how to load and shoot a rifle as a 12 year old. Let that sink in a little.

One of my favorite teachers from high school who has become a friend and mentor as I’ve been a teacher was also an avid hunter. He no longer hunts due to his arthritis (I think). He introduced me to the perspective of having some guns for sport.

One of my closest friends is married to a police man who serves on the SWAT team and is in the military reserves. He has four guns in the house, I believe. Each is kept safe from their two young children. I don’t feel uncomfortable when I visit them because I know he is trained in their use and safety measures. I know my friend has worried in the past about when (not if) her son will learn how to use guns. I’m not sure what her current feelings are.

In his early twenties, my older brother went to a shooting range from time to time. As far as I know, he never purchased a gun.

As a result of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I received training of what to do in an active shooter situation. Being a teacher in a large city school, I learned what to do in three generalized scenarios and participated in multiple drills of each possible scenario throughout the school year.

On Sunday, the day of the Las Vegas massacre, I finished reading Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett. The story is about the one “gonne” that exists in the Ankh-Morpork society and the havoc it wreaks on the city. It also characterizes the “gonne” as a sentient being that speaks to whomever is holding it, convincing the bearer that he is truly powerful for the first time in his life, that he is a god.

Family and Personal History with the Constitution

With two grandfathers and a dad having served in the military, there was a certain amount of patriotism in both sides of my family. I was brought up loving America, its complex and often uncomfortable history, its freedoms, its grand experiment with democracy. I lived within 10 miles of Washington DC most of my life. There was a strong sense that certain government programs that assisted the working man were great. I also got a sense that rugged individualism was very important, that you shouldn’t let “The Man” (any type of oppressive authority) hold you down.

I learned about the Constitution and the freedoms it guaranteed. I also understood pretty quickly that the Constitution was written at a time when only white men counted, so it was a flawed document. One of America’s values that I am (was?) most proud of is the ability to amend our Constitution as the times change, allowing non-landowning men to vote, allowing woman to vote etc. It is a living document, not set in stone.

That Said

I do not understand how guns have become so interwoven into some people’s American identity.

I do not understand how a statement written in the late eighteenth century can apply without any revision for context in the twenty first century. “Arms” at the time the Constitution was written meant a musket that could fire one bullet before being reloaded, a process that took time for even the fastest shooter. If you are a die-hard Constitutional purist, then people have the right to more than one of these muskets. If that is the case, I’m all for it. Yes. everyone can have a few eighteenth century era muskets. Fine.

I have never tried to purchase a gun, but I very much want to now. Not to have a gun. In fact, I wouldn’t go through with the purchase. I want to see for myself how easy or hard it is to get a gun legally. I’m especially interested because of my personal and family history with mental illness, anger issues, and violent tendencies, as well as my poor vision. It is my understanding that there ARE laws that prevent immediate purchase… in some states. That there ARE laws that require background checks… in some states, to various depths of your history. I do not know what limits are placed on how many guns you can buy at a time or over a lifetime. I do not know what limits are placed on how much ammunition you can purchase in one go or over a lifetime. In the case of Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, reports have shown he bought “33 firearms, mostly rifles, in an 11-month period” (CNN). I don’t know if current laws being properly enforced could prevent this, but if they can’t, I advocate new laws that limit the number of guns any individual can purchase in a year, over a lifetime. Surely even a hunter who switches game based on the season only needs a few different types of guns to achieve ideal sportsmanship.

Given that I don’t know much about gun laws, I also don’t know much about how well they are being enforced. I do know that the laws vary from state to state, so another concern I have is how we regulate the way guns move in our country. I visit Virginia frequently, but I live in New York City. I might be able to easily purchase a gun in Virginia and bring it back to New York without anyone knowing. It is then up to me to register it in New York? What if I don’t want to because I’m planning something nefarious? Even if there are gun laws that are enforced appropriately, how do we prevent situations like that? I’ve seen people saying that if we “outlaw” all guns the way we have “outlawed’ all drugs, we will just have an illegal gun problem like we have illegal drug problems. Yes and no. I think drugs worry me less because the damage you do if you misuse drugs is usually only to yourself. Emotionally it extends beyond you, but it’s not like a gun being misused. Drugs are not designed to kill and guns ARE. I would be okay if we made all guns (or certain types of guns) completely illegal to cut down on the number of deaths that they are causing.

I also know people feel very strongly that having a gun provides them with a certain amount of security and protection. I see people arguing that the safest thing to do is to arm MORE people, that MORE law-abiding “good guys” carrying guns would prevent the incidents wherein “bad guys” use their guns for evil. I go back to saying that a gun is designed to kill. I don’t want ANYONE, no matter how saintly, carrying around something that is specifically designed to end life. The personal security argument also breaks down completely in the Las Vegas massacre because there is absolutely nothing anyone in the concert crowd who had a gun could have done to stop what Paddock was doing.  Personally, this argument is false because I would not feel safer carrying a gun. There is no situation in which I would feel protected and more secure if I had a killing machine at my disposal. Even if I was being attacked, I wouldn’t want a gun because I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t want to be responsible for taking a human life. I’m also not convinced that me having a gun would prevent someone from hurting me or taking my property of the person was really set on hurting me or taking my property. I would defend loved ones any way I could, but I also don’t know that I would feel more capable or confident about doing so with a gun in hand. Those feelings may be unique to me though. I just don’t feel like a gun would be some kind of security blanket.

I also know people feel that it is disrespectful to talk about gun laws after yet another mass shooting. I can’t agree with that diversion tactic because if one of my loved ones died in a mass shooting, I would damn well hope it galvanized the nation to change. I would be grieving ABSOLUTELY, but I would also be looking for a way to honor my loved one by making his or her death something more than a senseless tragedy that we can almost expect as a nation. I would hope that if I was a victim in a mass shooting, that my loved ones would take action so my death was not just another number added to our national obsession with guns. I mean no disrespect to the victims and their families by talking about this. In fact, I do it out of complete respect for them that their loss is not purposeless.

To tell me guns aren’t the problem also makes little sense. I fully support the use of psychology in background checks because I strongly believe that mental illness is PART of the problem, but to say someone like Paddock could have done as much damage with some other weapon is, frankly, ignorant. In all the school shooting cases, it is similarly ignorant. Yes, anyone can learn how to make a bomb using household materials if they dig around enough on the internet. They can then put that bomb somewhere and cause widespread damage. We have seen that happen. But besides bombs and driving large trucks into crowds, they is NOTHING else that can cause the type of damage guns can. If a person (or a few people) come into a school or movie theater or concert with knives, the speed at which they can kill people is significantly reduced compared to the use of a gun. In the Las Vegas case, there is NOTHING that could have done more damage from where Paddock placed himself. You cannot rationally argue that guns weren’t a huge part of the problem in this massacre. Also, simply because you can think of another way to cause damage doesn’t mean that the guns involved are less culpable. It just means that you can think of a lot of ways to hurt people – which says something about your mental state.

One thing I am seeing is people talking about requiring gun education and registration similar to the way we regulate driver’s licenses. You have to take a written fact-based exam and a road test to get a license in the first place. You have to register your car and renew its registration annually. You have to renew your driver’s license at regular intervals as well. There are age restrictions on when you can begin to drive. We regulate the use of automobiles because earlier leaders recognized that not doing so was a public safety issue. It seems reasonable to similarly regulate guns, which are machines designed to kill, not to get people around town more quickly, in a similar manner.

I don’t have the answers. I am one person who has strong opinions, who understands where my opinions come from, and who wants to stop gun violence. I want to understand alternative perspectives, but I cannot find someone who can engage in a discussion using logic, which I require when we are talking about something that is vitally important.

How’d You Meet?

(Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about the massacre in Vegas. Yeah, I’m listening to Tom Petty’s greatest hits. But I can’t put any of it down in a way that makes any sense, so I won’t even try.)

It’s one of the first questions you have to answer if you’re seeing someone new. If you’re getting married, you better be ready to tell the story ad nauseam.  Sometimes it’s phrased differently: how do you know each other?

It used to be that saying you met someone online was a black mark against you. Now, most people shrug when they say they met on Match, OKCupid, or Tinder. In fact, a lot of people ask themselves how people even meet one another without using the internet. Apparently generations before us figured it out because here we are, right?

People will even ask the question about your friends, not your love interest or partner-to-be. What if you can’t remember? What if it’s not an exciting story?

Here’s how I met some people:

Sunday School… I don’t even remember anything we said to each other the first time, but we were all always in the same class because we are the same age. We learned how to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed by heart. We had Tuesday confirmation classes together.

Church choir… my mom couldn’t drive me because she wasn’t home from work yet, so your whole family adopted me one night a week.

Church hallway… you know my mom and she trained you to come up to me and say who you were because I don’t see very well. I then learned to identify you by your perfume.

Class at school… most likely I needed to borrow a pencil or whiteout. You are now one of my closest friends (and in the case of both the pencil and the whiteout, you have North African heritage).

John Mayer message boards… I had money. You had a car. We went to concerts. My mom did NOT think it was safe, but when I kept coming home in one piece, she got over it.

The dorm… we were placed together randomly as roommates and THANK GOD we kinda like each other. You lived across/down the hall, downstairs. You were probably into music or psychology, so we had something to talk about.

The cafeteria… elementary school, middle school, high school, college… You were nice enough to let me sit with you. You probably laughed when I said something funny.

Traveling… We were the only ones from our neck of the woods on the work trip, so we bonded. I didn’t like anyone else in the group because they were obnoxious, so we ate (and likely drank!)  together. Study abroad counts here, even if it also counts as dorm, cafeteria, and class.

Through a friend/family member… someone who I already thought was cool gave you pre-approval, so I gave you a shot.

Work/work-related conference/training… we happened to be paid by the same organization and spent at least eight hours a day together. We may secretly hate each other, but in the name of ‘professionalism’ we were decent to one another or avoid each other (if possible). If we get along, we probably went to lunch or happy hour and learned we’re pretty cool. Maybe we gelled because everyone else seemed batshit crazy and we needed to laugh about the insanity. Maybe I was the one teacher you felt like you could talk to and we’ve kept on talking now that you’re out of the unreality that is high school.

There are far more random ways to meet people too. The other day, I needed to buy kitty litter. It was $8.99, and I wanted to pay with credit card. The store clerk said they’d only take a card for a purchase over $10, which is bullshit. I blinked at her. The guy behind me said he’d add his one item (a coffee drink) to my tab and then give me cash for it. It was a good solution. We aren’t getting married though. I’m not sure I’d recognize him if I saw him again. But it goes to show you.

The baristas at coffee shops I frequent know me by my drink. All they need to ask is if I want it hot or iced. We might chat about life, weather, music, apartments, roommates while they prepare my drink. We don’t hang out outside of this brief daily interaction, but we could is what I’m saying.

So today I was talking to a friend’s sister and she told me a story that I want so very much to be the “how we met” story for someone, if not her.

There was a first responder cookout in the apartment complex she lives in, so she went down to have some grub and admire the beauty of firemen (I assume.) She had some chicken chili and a few beers I imagine. She then took the elevator back up to her apartment. One of the first responders was riding with her when her digestive track decided the chicken wasn’t agreeing with her and she let loose a horrible burp, bordering on a gag-possibly-vomit situation. In the elevator. With the (in my version HOT) first responder. He very attentively asked if she was okay, if she had a history of indigestion, if she needed help. If it were me, I’d be a mix of mortified and ready with a witty response. I likely would have wanted to evaporate into the air. I might have even gotten out of the elevator before my intended floor to escape the guy’s concern, regardless of how nice he was being.

That’s all there is to the story, but my fictionalized version, which I told her immediately, ends with “and now we’re married.” Not only would that be a fantastic story to tell about how you met someone, but also if a guy sticks around after you burp-puke, he’s a keeper. Gents, we ladies do have all normal bodily functions like you, so don’t get weird when we burp or fart! (I’m not saying we should all lead with our most deadly flatulence, but let’s not deny it either.)

You really don’t need the internet to meet people, but there’s no problem if you use it to meet people. There’s no judgment here, just an awareness that there are still and have always been myriad ways to meet other human beings. The French president met his wife when she was his teacher, but she has a great figure, so I’m sure no one thinks twice about it. (Why can’t you tell a woman she has a great figure?… ugh. Again, I won’t even try.)

Universal Themes

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certification for English teachers of adolescents includes a four part portfolio and a six part test. The portfolio documents stuff you should already do in the classroom if you’re any good. The test is short essays on six topics, three of which are pedagogical, three of which are subject specific. You have exactly half an hour to read and answer the question for each topic. And it’s on a computer with a countdown clock in the corner, so it’s a bit like diffusing a bomb, or at least it felt that way while I was floundering to write something that made  sense. Good job me because I got my National Board Certification on my first try, hitting the top of the NYC DOE teaching pay scale before I turned 30. Yeah, topped out before 30… I’ll come back to this idea in a minute.

One of the subject specific topics was something called “universal themes.” The general idea is that most literature conveys similar messages, that any number of pieces can be sharing the same or very similar truth. It’s been a while, but I think it gave a passage and I had to come up with something else that had a similar theme. I used a John Mayer song, as you do. The fact that it was a subject specific test was funny to me because the definition of “theme” comes into question in English departments I’ve been a member of. So has the definition of “Thesis.” You’d think these two words that make up a huge part of what we English teachers teach would have a common definition. Well, they don’t. They’ve caused discussions that revealed me to be a judgmental bitch (read: discussions during which I sorted my smart colleagues from the dumb ones). I don’t think it should be hard, though, as teachers of language, to understand that, while “theme” may have alternative definitions in other contexts, in the context of literature, it only means “author’s message, stated as a complete sentence.”

That means a theme of a novel can never be “Revenge” or “family.” Those are not complete sentences. Nor is “The importance of family.” These are single words or fragments and are, therefore, motifs – recurring ideas in the piece of literature. They are an inroad to theme, but not the theme itself. To get from a motif to a theme, you have to ask “What about revenge?” It’s not always easy to answer, but it’s the way to get to a theme. And no two people will state a theme exactly the same way. Often, themes may seem a little cliche, but I think that’s what the idea of “universal themes” was playing on – many, many writers are trying to tell us the same thing, so when we get the message, we discover that it’s not a new thought; rather a thought expressed to us through a different story. Ah, how literature can make the world both smaller and larger at the same time! This is part of why I loved doing independent reading choices with students because eventually they discover that even a story from a place or time they’ve never imagined can resonate with them here and now.

In non-literature contexts, theme could mean something less specific, but when talking or writing about literature, it’s the author’s message stated as a complete sentence. Except a lot of people disagree with me about that. You might think that all the teachers at one school could agree, for the students’ benefit, on a departmental definition; however, I’ve worked in large schools where the English department is at least 20 people, many of whom are opinionated, some of whom enjoy the sound of their own voice. So even if we should, for the sanity of our students moving from one English classroom to another, nail down a departmental definition of theme, we never really did. Ditto thesis. These poor kids! How can they know how to answer an essay prompt “What is the theme and how does the author convey it?” if they don’t know how the teacher they’re writing for defines theme? And worse, if the teacher (or state test, as the case is in New York) doesn’t even use the word theme, instead dumbs it down with the vague words “controlling idea?”

So we don’t know what the hell a theme is, much less a universal theme. Except that I like my definition, so use it to understand all that came to mind while I was walking this morning.

I was thinking about universal themes in what I’ve read in the last few weeks. There was Hunger by Roxane Gay, then another memoir called Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Next was Terry Pratchett’s Men At Arms.

One, among many, themes of Gay’s memoir is “The world cannot tolerate people of a larger size. It does not know what to do with them except criticize.” Well, this theme feels universal because it goes beyond fat people. Animal Planet now has a show to “makeover” your too fat pet! The theme is universal because it extends even to the animal word. Of course, the not-so-subtle subtext of the show is that you are a horrible person for letting your pet get fat. Just like you are a horrible person for letting yourself get fat. Ugh. I didn’t watch the show, only saw commercials for it. It made me angry. Of course I have my own hang ups about fat, but I also grew up with a fat cat who I loved endlessly. And I wouldn’t have put him on a diet for anything! He was the best cuddle buddy ever.

Hillbilly Elegy had many themes, some of which were very close to home because I definitely have some hillbilly in my family tree. There were a lot of contradictory ideas that Vance was trying to reconcile in his memoir. I am familiar with many of them, and that was one of the most prominent themes: the contradictions we learn in our upbringing are repeated generationally, but eventually they have to be identified, investigated, and reconciled in order to break the cycle.

As for Pratchett, well… one of my dear friends and her family love his novels, and this was my first foray into his world. I wasn’t sure if I was smart enough to get it. I think I understood enough to enjoy it and understand its appeal. One theme of Men at Arms is all too universal this morning with the news of what happened in Las Vegas: a gonne (Pratchett’s word for gun) can cause a person to feel s/he has the power of a god and turn him into a murderer, even against his better judgement.

Around mile 3 of today’s walk (which was about an hour ago) I had some wonderful thread that tied all of this together in a neat, whole … thing. Now that I’ve come home and actually set it down not on paper but in cyberspace, I’m not totally sure what that thread was. Maybe it’ll come back to me. If not, at least I know another universal theme in my life is true: you have to pace yourself because if you get to the top too soon, there’s nowhere else to go. This is true in the novel Corner Shop by Roopa Farooki wherein a Bangladeshi boy dreams of success as a footballer in the EPL. My own life shows the theme because I hit the top of the pay scale a few months shy of my 30th birthday and now at 35, I need a change of direction.

Part 7 of x (So, I’m writing a novel over here)

While this is the seventh installment I’ve posted here, it’s actually the back end of what I’m calling chapter 3. It’s page 39 of the master document I’m working with, but when I convert it to a font I’d actually use, it’s a little longer.  This section is more than the product of today’s efforts. I’m proud to say that I worked on it fairly steadily last week without the disciplinary reminder that posting something provides.

I don’t know if anyone is following the story. My mom and a dear friend requested that I send them the story in larger chunks so they didn’t have to navigate the blog to get it all. I know that’s easier now that I’m continuing with it instead of just experimenting. Mom is also sure it will be a sell-able novel when I’m done, but she’s my biggest fan.

If you have a lot of time on your hands (or something about this story intrigues you) here’s what’s come before:

Part 1: Meet Hannah and Katie

Part 2: Meet Liam and Annie

Part 3: The Coffee Shop

(all that is chapter 1)

Part 4: Meet Jeremy

Part 5: Dealing with the Loss

(those are chapter 2)

Part 6: More about Liam

(That is the beginning of chapter 3)

Now, to conclude chapter 3!

Katie and Annie sat patiently at the kitchen table as Liam strained the pasta over the sink.

“Daddy, can I have cheese on mine?” Katie asked, knowing the food was almost ready.

“Yes, my love. You can get the parmesan out of the fridge if you’d like. You can also get water or milk for you and Annie,” he answered as he put a lid on the pot of noodles and stirred the meat sauce where he’d hidden several vegetables he knew Annie might not eat if they weren’t disguised.

Katie used a stool to get glasses out of the cupboard and put them on the table. Then she put the milk carton in front of Annie. “Do you want milk with dinner, Annie?” she asked.

Annie eyed the carton that wasn’t nearly as exciting as the small box from the coffee shop earlier. She hadn’t chosen milk then either. Now her little nose turned up at the offer before she vigorously shook her head.

“Annie would like water. Do you want milk, daddy?”

“No, thank you. I’m going to have a beer. Can you get one out for me when you put the milk away?” Katie poured herself some milk before doing as her father asked. She couldn’t open the bottle of beer, but she took one out and set it at her dad’s seat at the table. She then filled a glass with water for her sister, letting go of it only when Annie put both her hands around it. “Great helping, Katie. Now come show me how much you want on your plate to start,” Liam praised his daughter.

Katie took her plate over to the stove where her father stood ready to serve. “I’m hungry. May I please have a big scoop of sketty?” she asked.

“Only if you set a better example for Annie. You know what it’s really called.”

Katie rolled her eyes at Liam and huffed before acquiescing. “May I please have a big scoop of spa-ghet-ti,” she emphasized each syllable of the word.

“Yes, you may. Next time without the eye roll,” Liam said as he filled her order, adding a big scoop of sauce. Katie went to the table and began to eat. Liam prepared Annie’s plate, cutting the long noodles so they’d be easier to handle with her toddler cutlery. He made sure the squash, broccoli, and cauliflower in the sauce were well camouflaged and then set the plate in front of her. Finally he prepared a plate for himself and joined them at the table.

“Is mummy going to be here tonight?” Katie asked as she twirled a long noodle around her fork.

Liam didn’t know. This was another part of their marriage that made him uncomfortable. What was he supposed to say to his daughters? How could he explain that he and mummy didn’t talk about whether or not she would be home for dinner? How could he tell his girls that their mummy would probably yell at him for making spaghetti because it wasn’t youth preserving or fat busting? “I’m not sure,” Liam couldn’t lie to them, but he always chose to say as little as possible. He didn’t want them to pick up on the distance between their parents.

“She probably wouldn’t eat spa-ghet-ti anyway.” Katie continued to annunciate the word while showing an understanding of her mother’s eating habits. Liam tried not to laugh, but Katie was right. He let a little chuckle out as he took a bite of the carbs he knew Rebecca would hate nowadays. Hannah would eat spaghetti. Where did that come from? He’d only seen her drink espresso. Yeah, she’d put chocolate in it, which Rebecca would never do even if she allowed herself the caffeine in the first place. Liam had no way of knowing what Hannah would and would not eat. He had to stop thinking about her.

As if reading his thoughts, Katie asked, “Did you send my birthday party invitation to Hannah yet?” This time Liam didn’t bother to hold back his laugh. His daughter was psychic, and it would be scary if he didn’t find it entertaining.

“No, my love. I haven’t sent the official invitation to Hannah, but she said she would be there. Don’t worry.”

“Who’s Hannah?” Rebecca asked from the archway into the living room. She’d come in quietly, so it was the first anyone noticed her.

Annie excitedly waved her arms in the air, “Mama!” She was strapped into her seat, so she couldn’t run to her mother. Rebecca walked over to her and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“Hello, baby. Oh, what’s this? Spaghetti sauce all over your face?” Rebecca began to wipe off the Joker smile that covered Annie’s face.

“Hannah’s a really cool lady I met today when I went after a puppy. I couldn’t find the puppy, but Hannah was sitting on a bench, and she looked so sad, so I talked to her. She’s really good at guessing and spelling. We spelled coffee and Annie and apple. She colored with us at the muffin store, and she’s coming to my birthday party,” Katie gushed, answering her mum’s question.

“You met a lady in the park and had coffee with her?” Rebecca’s tone was even as she pet Katie’s head, but she shot Liam a look that had ice in it.

Liam almost laughed again. Was Rebecca jealous? Did she think he’d picked up a woman and taken her on a date with his two daughters in tow? He’d heard of men using dogs to pick up women, but using your children seemed a bit much. He was attracted to Hannah, but he didn’t feel guilty about it. Rebecca hadn’t paid him any romantic or sexual attention in years, so what could she possibly be jealous of? He wasn’t on her radar, and he’d done nothing wrong by befriending Hannah and thanking her with a coffee for keeping Katie safe. He wanted to say as much, but he didn’t want to instigate a fight in front of his children. Liam nodded and said, “Katie took to Hannah straight away.”

It almost sounded like Rebecca growled, but Liam couldn’t be sure. Katie didn’t seem to hear it. She looked up at her mum and agreed, “Hannah’s brilliant. She’s from America, so she talks different, but she can talk like gran when she wants to. Mummy, do you want any spa-ghet-ti?” Hannah looked at her dad with a grin before returning her attention to her mum.

Rebecca made the same face Annie made when Katie offered her milk: her nose turned up slightly as she shook her head. “No, thank you. I’ll make something for myself. You can have a bite of mine when it’s ready if you’d like.”

Katie had tried some of her mum’s various health foods. Sometimes the breakfast was good, but nothing else had pleased her. She playfully imitated the dramatic refusal her mum and sister had done in sincerity, scrunching her nose and twisting her head in the negative. Liam laughed, earning him another icy glare from Rebecca.

Liam cleared his throat and directed his attention to Annie, who was licking her plate clean and getting sauce on her nose and forehead in the process. “I guess you liked that even if mum won’t eat it. Would you like some more?” he asked Annie with a smile.

“She’s probably had enough. She certainly has enough on her face,” Rebecca disapproved.

Annie put the plate down, rubbing her hand through whatever her tongue hadn’t licked up. She looked from Rebecca to Liam and back again as she sucked on her fingers. Rebecca made an exasperated sound while Liam continued to smile. He didn’t understand how Rebecca could be so frustrated with their toddler when she’d only just gotten home. It was bath night too, so he didn’t care how messy Annie got. He loved watching her enjoy herself. Settling her eyes on her dad, Annie tapped her now clean but covered in saliva hand on the plate to indicate she wanted more.

Getting up to get her another serving, Liam said, “Don’t worry, Bex, I put v-e-g-e-t-a-b-l-e-s in the sauce, so it’s not as unhealthy as it looks.”

Katie started to investigate her plate, moving bites around to find the ingredient her dad was trying to hide. “Daddy, what’s v-e-g-t-a-b-s?” she asked.

“V-e-g-e-t-a-b-l-e-s, Katie. Not whatever you said. Don’t worry about it,” Rebecca corrected her daughter.

Katie frowned at her lap and continued to scoot food around her plate. She didn’t like the way her mum had dismissed her question and told her she was wrong. She didn’t like being wrong, or at least she didn’t like being wrong and then not learning what she could do to make it right. Hannah had been so nice when she was helping Katie spell. She didn’t tell Katie she was wrong even when she was wrong. Hannah had found a way to get Katie to realize it on her own.

Liam’s thoughts were much like Katie’s. He frowned as he got Annie her second helping, thinking about how easy Hannah had made it seem. She was full of encouragement, not admonition. Why was Rebecca so stern? He set Annie’s plate in front of her and walked behind Katie’s chair instead of going to his seat. He leaned down and kissed the top of Katie’s head. “Good try spelling, my love. I’ll tell you what it spells later if you promise not to be cross with me for trying to be clever,” he whispered to her.

Katie raised her head and resumed eating. After a few bites, she said, “Daddy, you don’t have to try to be clever. You are clever. Maybe not as clever as Hannah though.”

Rebecca didn’t bother making a sound or sending Liam a look this time. Instead, she stood up from the table and silently moved through the kitchen, making her own dinner. As she worked, she had no more interaction with her family who continued to eat heartily and enjoy their meal.

“Daddy, I cleaned my plate. May I have some ice cream now?” Katie asked when she’d finished.

“Well done! Do you want orange or purple?” Liam asked over Rebecca’s snort of derision as she chopped ingredients for a salad.

“I want… orange tonight. I was spelling with an orange crayon with Hannah. How do you spell orange?”

“Ooooh that’s a tricky one,” Liam said as he took Katie’s plate to the sink. Rebecca’s shoulders were tensed up around her ears as she chopped more aggressively. Liam leaned in to whisper, “Relax, Bex. It’s peach sorbet, all natural colors and flav…”

Rebecca cut him off before he could finish, whispering angrily back at him, “You’re always sabotaging me!” She stomped out of the kitchen, leaving her half-made dinner on the counter.

Annie and Katie looked at their mum’s back as she stormed out. Annie whimpered, but Katie was quick to use her big-sister magic to distract her. “Annie, you want purple or orange ice cream? Daddy, Annie can have ice cream, right?”

“Yes, she may. She liked the purple last time, blueberry,” Liam tried not to let his wife’s quiet explosion ruin dessert with his girls. He served them each a scoop of sorbet.

“How do you spell orange anyway, daddy?”

Liam was at the sink, his hands in dish gloves. He smiled at Katie over his shoulder as he answered, “O-R-A-N-G-E.”

“I knew the O, but a G? Spelling is hard,” Katie mused as she treated herself to another spoonful of peach sorbet.

“It sure is. You’re better at it than I ever was. Keep at it,” Liam encouraged as he put the last of the dishes on the rack.

Annie and Katie finished their colorful sweets and Katie brought their bowls to the sink. She used the stool to get high enough to rinse the bowls and load them into the rack the same way she’d watched her dad do. Liam looked at his wife’s abandoned salad on the counter. Rebecca thought he was sabotaging her by serving all-natural sorbet to their daughters? He had completely lost touch with his wife. He didn’t understand her at all.

“Should we put it away?” Katie followed her dad’s gaze to the cutting board and unfinished salad.

“Let’s leave it for mum. She might want it while you’re in the bath,” Liam replied, moving to free Annie from her seat. He gathered her into his arms and looked at her still messy but smiling face. “You look very ready for bath time, little one. Let’s see if you managed to get sauce in your ears this time.”

Katie laughed and raced up the stairs ahead of her sister and dad. She loved bath time almost as much as she loved animals. She liked all the toys she and Annie had for the bath, and she liked the way her hair felt after she washed and combed it. It was soft and smooth and it smelled good. Liam didn’t bother to check on Rebecca behind the closed door of their bedroom. He proceeded to get the bath ready for Annie and Katie while they put their dirty clothes in the hamper. Liam gave the water a temperature test with his hand as his two girls marched into the bathroom wearing only their biggest smiles.

Liam let his daughters have a longer bath time than usual. They were having so much fun playing with their dolphins, mermaids, and scuba divers. Katie had a running monologue, telling Annie an underwater adventure story. Annie laughed and played along as her big sister enchanted her. Liam loved how helpful and adoring Katie was. He hoped they would always get along so well. Rebecca didn’t make an appearance during bath time, so Liam went ahead and washed both heads of corn silk hair before getting Annie out first. He dried her off with her unicorn towel and rubbed lotion on her baby soft skin.

As he helped Annie brush her teeth, Liam urged Katie out of the bath. She reluctantly got out, dried off, and put lotion on herself. Liam and Annie joined her in their shared bedroom where Katie picked out their bedtime book and Liam gently combed Annie’s hair.

“Please go clean your teeth. Then I’ll brush your hair and we’ll have story time,” Liam directed when he was done with Annie’s hair.

Katie looked at her dad for a moment, a decision clearly weighing on her precocious mind. “I’ll clean my teeth after you give Hannah my birthday party invitation,” she bargained. At the mention of the birthday party, Annie clapped and giggled.

“Well, well. Are you sure you don’t want to be a solicitor?” Liam was amused. “How about I brush your hair first? Then we can text Hannah before you clean your teeth.” He didn’t want to be steamrolled in this negotiation.

“What’s a solicitor?” Katie asked, turning her head to her dad to get brushing so they could get texting.

“Someone who is good at making deals to get what she wants,” Liam explained as simply as he could.

“I like getting what I want, but I like animals too. Is anyone ever a vet and a solicitor?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe you could be the first.”

Liam carefully untangled a few knots in Katie’s hair. He was working through the last one when she decided it was time to text Hannah, yanking her head out of Liam’s reach before he got to the tips of the strand he had in the comb. He released the comb before he could pull her hair, and Katie turned to him, the comb hanging from her head as she smiled and asked, “Where’s your phone, daddy?”

Liam laughed at her. She was so excited that she didn’t even notice her hair accessory. Annie saw it and squealed at Katie, who whipped her head around, dislodging the comb and sending it flying toward the dresser. They all laughed when it landed in the middle of the floor. “I suppose we’re done with your hair. Okay. What should we say to Hannah?” Liam took his phone from his pocket as he picked up the comb and placed it on the dresser it hadn’t quite reached.

“Tell her we’re getting ready for bed,” Katie suggested.

Liam began a text conversation with Hannah as he’d done earlier. Maybe this time he would be able to send her something with his daughter dictating what he should say.

Katie is getting ready for bed but won’t clean her teeth until I text you

“Did you send her a smiley face too?” Katie sat in her dad’s lap so she could see the screen. Annie scrambled to join them, not wanting to be left out.

“You didn’t say anything about a smiley face,” Liam frowned, pulling up the emoji menu. “Which one should we send?”

“Annie, pick one,” Katie directed. Annie selected a face wearing sunglasses. “Good choice. Daddy, are there more?” She asked as her fingers answered her question for her. She chose a cat face. “Okay. You pick one and then send it.”

Liam didn’t use a lot of emojis, but the thumbs up seemed innocuous, so he added that to his daughters’ choices and sent it. “Now teeth for you, Katie,” he nudged her off his lap.

“No. She didn’t write back yet!”

“I thought the deal was you clean your teeth after I text Hannah. I texted Hannah. You didn’t say anything about her texting back.” Liam was oddly proud of himself for catching a little girl in a verbal trap, but he knew chances to be smarter than Katie were only going to become fewer and fewer as she got older.

“I said invite her to my party, not just text.” Katie wouldn’t be outmaneuvered.

Tell Katie I used to make deals to brush my teeth too

“What did she say?!” Katie heard the ding on Liam’s phone and knew something had come through. Liam read the text to her with a laugh. “Hannah’s funny. Tell her about my birthday party now.”

Now I’ve been instructed to give you the party details. It’s Sunday, Regents Park Zoo main reception, 1:30-4:30, animal show at 2 followed by food and other activities

“Done and dusted. Now your teeth!” Liam said in the sternest voice he could muster when talking to his daughters. Katie decided she’d gotten what she wanted and went to brush her teeth while Liam put Annie into bed.

Haha she might be a better CEO than vet. I will be there

She sure is bossy. She’s in the bathroom finally

“Did she say anything?” Katie asked as soon as she came back. She didn’t wait for an answer, taking the phone out of Liam’s hands as if she could read the message for herself. “She did! What did she say?”

Liam read Hannah’s message as he herded Katie toward her bed and under the covers. “I’m going to put it on silent while I read your bedtime story,” he tried to calm Katie.

Before he could switch it off, his phone dinged again.

Good. Oral hygiene is important. Tell her and Annie goodnight from me

And dinged again with a bed and zzz emojis. Liam showed it to both Annie and Katie, relaying the message.

After agreeing that Hannah was cool, everyone settled in for story time. Katie had picked something set in the jungle. As he read, Liam kept thinking about Hannah. He wondered what she was like as a child. Her comment seemed to indicate that she was willful like Katie. He wanted to know if she was closer to her mother or father, what kind of bedtime stories she preferred, if she had any brothers or sisters. He knew she wouldn’t miss story time with any children of her own just because she was fighting with her husband. Did he even know if she was heterosexual? Jesus, he needed to focus on the story. Annie yelled because he forgot to show her the pictures on the last page. He forced himself to keep his attention on the jungle story, kissing Annie and Katie goodnight when he finished. He turned on their nightlight, which projected stars on the ceiling, and pulled the door nearly shut behind him.

He took out his phone, turning the sound on, and sent another text to Hannah.

Jungle animal bedtime story. I thought they’d never quiet down!

Katie is going to be wild at the zoo, isn’t she?

It’s going to be bedlam. I’m not sure if having you there or being able to touch some of the animals will be more exciting for her

No competition, the animals for sure!

I don’t know. She didn’t stop talking about you all day

She’s sweet. Should I bring anything?

Just yourself Liam paused before sending his reply. Should he offer to let her bring a guest? It might answer some of his questions about her. What was he thinking? It didn’t matter if she was single or not, heterosexual or not. He was a married man. Hannah would probably be more comfortable if she knew someone there besides the birthday girl. Feel free to bring +1 he added and pressed send.

I wouldn’t want to impose

Not at all. the more the merrier. I’m sure we can use all the adult eyes we can get

Haha that’s right. You’ll need lots of strong arms to wrangle all the kids, especially once they have cake

I didn’t even think about the sugar high. Bring an army with you!

I’ll see what I can do

Liam noticed the bedroom door was still closed. He wondered if Rebecca had gone downstairs to get her dinner and come back up. He didn’t know what to say to her. He didn’t really want to talk to her at all. He’d rather continue exchanging texts with Hannah, but he didn’t know what else to say. He put off checking on Rebecca by going downstairs to see the state of the kitchen. The salad ingredients were where they’d been, so it looked like Rebecca had stayed in the bedroom throughout bath time and story time. He knew he should try to smooth things over, but he was confused about what he’d done to upset her in the first place. Hannah wouldn’t have flipped out over sorbet. There he went again, thinking about what Hannah would do. She seemed to know kids would eat cake. He was pretty sure she would understand giving his girls a scoop of sorbet after they ate a good dinner. Liam decided to send Hannah one last text before approaching his wife.

Thanks again for keeping an eye on Katie when she wandered off. She’s quite taken by you. We look forward to seeing you again

It sounded a bit formal to him, but he wanted Hannah to know what an impact she’d made. On Katie, of course.

It was serendipity. She made my day when she sat next to me. I can’t wait to see her at the zoo

Smiling as he put his phone away, Liam climbed the stairs. He peeked in on his daughters to see that Annie was asleep and Katie was laying quietly, letting her thoughts drift. He blew her a kiss and whispered for her to close her eyes. Then he walked down the hall and quietly knocked on the bedroom door. There was no response, so he opened it slowly. He found a suitcase on the bed and Rebecca in the closet taking clothes off their hangers.

“You aren’t staying the night?” Liam asked.

Rebecca silently continued to pack her things, ignoring her husband’s presence.

“You know the girls love to watch Puffin Rock with you before breakfast. Can you wait to leave until tomorrow?” Liam tried to appeal to her motherly instincts.

Rebecca huffed in response, still packing.

“Bex, come on. Talk to me,” Liam stood in her path to the closet.

“Move,” Rebecca demanded.

“Not until you talk to me. Why won’t you stay the night?” Liam folded his arms.

Rebecca turned away, starting to close her suitcase. “Fine, I’ll get the rest later.”

“Rebecca, please. Tell me what I did that upset you. You said I sabotage you. How am I sabotaging you?” Liam put a hand on her suitcase to keep her from leaving.

Rebecca didn’t fight him over the suitcase. She stood back and eyed him head to toe and back again. She folded her arms and took a deep breath. “You really don’t know.”

“No, I don’t. I don’t know why we spend most of our nights in different houses. I don’t know why you don’t talk to me anymore. I don’t know what upset you about dinner tonight. I don’t know, Rebecca!” Liam was exasperated. He sat on the edge of the bed in front of the suitcase. He looked at Rebecca standing there, fuming. He wanted so much to fix whatever was wrong, but he honestly didn’t know why she was so upset. “Please, tell me,” he pleaded.

“That’s why I can’t stay here tonight or ever again. You don’t get it. You don’t understand me anymore. Everything you do undermines me, and you don’t even notice!” Rebecca burst in a hiss. Even as angry as she was, she knew to keep quiet so she didn’t disturb the children.

Liam put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. So, he didn’t get it, but wasn’t he asking her right now to explain? Running his hands through his hair, he lifted his head again. “I know I don’t get it. Will you please help me understand?” How was he supposed to know what he was doing wrong if she wouldn’t tell him? Was he a mind reader? Yes, they’d been together a long time and overcome a lot, but that didn’t mean he knew her every thought.

“No. I’m too tired to explain. I’ve had enough of you standing in my way instead of supporting…” Rebecca went on, but Liam got lost in his thoughts. She didn’t feel supported? He was standing in her way? Weren’t they the same people who had stuck together through injuries and career changes and media frenzies? He didn’t think he was any less supportive of her now than he had been all along. He knew he was no less grateful for her support than he’d ever been. What was he missing? Even now, she wasn’t being specific about what he was doing wrong or what he should be doing instead of what he was actually doing. Had they grown so far apart that he wasn’t in tune with what she wanted? “… solicitor Monday,” Rebecca concluded.

“Wait, what?” Liam shook his head.

“I’m meeting with my solicitor Monday. We can divide things the way we already have, if that’s acceptable to you. We can iron out the details this week.”

“I don’t understand.”

Rebecca scoffed, “Of course you don’t. I want a divorce. We’re getting a divorce.” She walked around Liam to get her suitcase off the bed and left the room. Liam sat there stunned. He heard Rebecca struggling to get her bag down the stairs, but he was frozen in place by the word ringing in his ears.


Sir Paul McCartney!

I would never identify myself as a fan of The Beatles. I know their hits, but I can’t name what album any one song was originally on. I recognize their cultural significance, but I never downloaded any of their music (legally or illegally). I can name all four of them, but I probably couldn’t name more than ten songs.

I am a huge music fan though, and I love concerts. So when a friend invited me along to see Sir Paul McCartney, I was happy to tag along. I’ve been to a lot of concerts in all kinds of venues. I have never seen someone perform for over two and a half hours. I have never seen someone rotate between so many different instruments. I have never heard someone tell stories spanning so many decades and including so many other cultural icons. And the guy is 75 years old! He was phenomenal.

When we got in line to have our bags searched, a man there with his wife asked us why we were there because we (me 35, my friend 36) “are so young!” If you want an environment where older gentlemen are friendly without any level of creepiness, go to a Paul McCartney concert. In line for drinks, another man was similarly uncreepy and friendly. The audience included kids as young as 8 and people as old as 80. It was a little sad that so many people around us stayed seated for so much of the show. I mean, if the 75 five year old performer can stay on his feet, then certainly his audience can give that energy back to him, right? On a beer run, one guy boogied with us and said he was excited to see people dancing; everyone else were a bunch of losers! He was probably 50.

I kept thinking about the young Beatles and wondering if they had any idea what role they would play, if they sensed how huge they would be, like they knew they were headed for the stratosphere. I was also sadly aware that so many artists who are similarly iconic didn’t make it to 75 like McCartney has, felled by drugs, alcohol, crazy stalker fans.  It must be an absolute trip to be Paul McCartney! How do you keep your head about you when you can control 20,000 people at a time, directing them like a choir? And to know that emerging artists would kill to write a song with you? To know that the people on stage with you each night (especially that drummer) are living their wildest dreams? It has to be heady stuff.

Particularly during “Back in the USSR” and Sir Paul’s story about Russian government ministers telling him they practiced their English to his music, I felt warm and fuzzy about the transcendental power of music. It might have been that I had some whiskey too, but I’m going with the music being more potent than the alcohol.  I was overwhelmed with the power of music to unify people. During “Let It Be” I heard the simple but important message anew and felt calm and peaceful. Music did that. The words, of course, but you don’t even need the words to understand the melody and the mood.

Basically, if you get a chance, go see Sir Paul McCartney. Even if you aren’t a big fan of The Beatles. Even if it’s expensive. Go. Absorb the magic in the venue. Be a part of something legendary.

Hindsight and Foresight

I know exactly where chapter 3 is headed, chapter 4 as well. But I’m angry at myself for not having written them yet. Today I took the important step of re-reading what I’ve written, but I’d run out of time to write the continuation by that point. I’m developing self-discipline, but it’s slow going.

My vision continues beyond chapter 4, but I haven’t gotten so far as to decide how the whole thing ends. Which connects nicely to the thoughts that kept me up last night and have returned now that it’s time to start winding down for today.  Looking ahead, looking behind, not knowing the end.

I know exactly why I started to think about Carson last night. It makes sense in the way that “history repeats itself” makes sense. It also makes NO sense because I won’t explain it as well as I explain anything else in my life. Because I’m STILL worried about people’s judgments of things I did when I was 17 – like what the fuck? It was a lifetime ago. No one, except for my fragile ego, cares. But if I keep making the same mistakes, it’s not that long ago. The feelings of stupidity renew themselves. Every time I tell myself “This time it’s different because _______ ” fill in the blank. And each time it is a little bit different. The specifics of where I messed up are slightly different, indicating minimal progress on my part.

Anyway, I was thinking about Carson and the mix CD he made me that he wrapped in “application for time off” paperwork from his place of business. He knew I hated my job. He knew I loved music. He knew how to talk to me, how to reach me, even if with just a single ray of light sneaking through the tiny cracks in my walls. Carson was an amazing human being who I knew was amazing, but I didn’t recognize that he honestly thought that I was also amazing, that I was worth his time and energy. I look at it now and facepalm repeatedly because Carson should have been a booster shot for my self-esteem. And I wouldn’t let him be. I didn’t even see it. I didn’t see that he wanted to really know me. I wasn’t a curiosity to him. I wasn’t a punchline. I wasn’t an afterthought. But I had so much armor on against the whole world that I didn’t know what was going on, much less how to process it. He paid attention when I thought no guy would ever bother. And he not only paid attention, he paid very close attention. And he wasn’t just observing. He granted my silly wishes. But I was too closed off to understand that kindness from a guy was a real thing.

I don’t think I realized what I learned from Carson until well after a few others came along to chisel at the tiny cracks he made in my walls, my stubborn armor. Others have approached the task in a similar manner – I do love music, a well-timed joke about lube, and obscure movie references. Each time I’ve believed a little sooner – but still too late – that I am not a curiosity, a punchline, an afterthought. I might not be a long-term lover, but I am a person of interest. I try to be a little less guarded, a little more honest about why I built my walls in the first place. But it’s hard. And it takes a shit ton of patience on all sides.

Hindsight is 20/20, and for all my emphasis on foresight when my friends get into relationships that have red flags all over them, I’m terrible at letting the lessons I learned last time (or the time before or the time before that) fully inform what I do this time. Even as I write about someone who I knew when I was 22, I know there are fresher examples that demonstrate my glacially slow growth. Maybe that’s why I won’t explain as thoroughly as anything else – because my fragile ego knows it’s not just mistakes from when I was 17 or 22 or 24 or 27 – it’s hindsight that tells me foresight isn’t going to be worth much because I’m on some kind of low self-esteem hamster wheel.

The Shades of Words

I’m obsessed with words and meanings. I’m a reader. I’m a writer. I’m an English teacher. Words and meanings are my currency. But words and meanings are slippery buggers too.

There’s the denotation of a word – its dictionary definition. Except that any dictionary worth its salt will likely offer a few definitions, not all of which are connected to one another. Then there are words that can be used as different parts of speech, so the denotation depends on the context in which the word was used. Speaker and audience also have to know what all the words in the denotation mean.

Then there’s the connotation of a word – the things different people associate with the word without those associations having to do with the word at all. Some connotations are so widely known that they actually become part of a word’s denotation. But because connotations deal with personal associations, it’s often difficult to know what baggage people are bringing to any given word. Generally, connotations can be sorted into positive or negative.

When teaching the difference between denotation and connotation, I like to use the word “father” as an example. The denotation is male parent; the connotation depends entirely on your relationship with your male parent and whether or not you call him father, dad, daddy, pop, pa, old man etc. We then recognize that certain contexts call for different words that mean the same thing. If you’re trying to butter up your daddio to give you some cash, you might not call him father; you’d use a perhaps more endearing, less severe word. But maybe father connotes an endearment to you and you bristle when I say it’s in any way severe.

That’s what I mean when I say the shades of the word. The light, shadow, color, temperature any given word takes on in a particular context are its shades. And there’s not always an accurate accounting of how others have shaded their words, so meanings often go missed or mixed or lost or assumed.

Love: The English language really fucked this one up when it simplified what the Greeks laid out for us. Philia, eros, platonic, agape… way clearer than a catch all. Thanks, English :::grumble, fist shake:::

Pure: some people think of pure as an alternative to saying virginal or unsoiled or clean. I understand that in some contexts, but where my own writing is concerned, a lean toward a more scientific shade of the word. When I use pure to describe my writing (or what I want my writing to be) I mean “in its most potent form” or undiluted. A while ago when I revisited some of the stuff I wrote in Ireland last summer, I said one piece was approaching pure. It had potential to be one of the purest things I’ve ever written. In that case, I meant undiluted, in its most potent form.

Matter: this word can be used as a noun – what’s the matter? Here it means “problem” usually.  Mind over matter. Here it can mean problem, but might mean circumstance, which has less of a negative connotation.  It can also be used as a verb – You don’t matter. I guess here it means count, belong, have a say in. This one fascinates me because the word sounds so stupid. Some words don’t start to sound stupid until you repeat them a lot, but matter sounds stupid right away.

Fancy: Major bang for your buck because fancy can be used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Noun – flight of fancy, meaning some kind of creativity or imagination. Verb – what do you fancy? meaning what do you like (also you fancy him! similar meaning). Adjective – well, it gets even trickier here because one person’s connotation of fancy as an adjective could be very different from another’s. And then there’s “Fancy Dress” in British terms, which might mean you’re going to a costume party even if the costume is decidedly casual.

All of this seemed very important last night when I wasn’t sleeping, though it’s a simple point I’m making: sometimes we have no idea what the fuck another person is talking about because, while we use the same words, we don’t have the same meanings. Whether it’s denotations that include other words we don’t know, connotations that are different from our own or completely unknown even to the speaker’s conscious mind, or all the shades a word’s speaker and audience give it, we are talking past each other if we don’t stop to nail down what someone means by the words s/he uses.

And that’s the difficulty of communication and relating to others.