You Can’t Sit With Us: Reflections on a “Mean Girls” National Policy

Detail from photo of immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station, date unknown; New York Public Library Digital Collection
Detail from photo of immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station, date unknown; image, New York Public Library Digital Collection

Find someone who looks like they need a friend, and be that person’s friend: it was my mama’s mandate to me on the first day of third grade, a tall order for an eight-year-old kid at a new school, but the outcome for me that year was a tight friendship with a sweet, third-generation Scot. It lasted until her circumstances prompted a relocation with relatives in Louisiana, but we enjoyed months of camaraderie before that day arrived, and I’m glad I knew her.

The simple be-a-friend exercise earned me a number of meaningful connections I might otherwise have missed through the years; when I became a parent I repeated this mandate to my own child, who internalized it well and continues to practice it himself, and with far more aplomb than I ever possessed, all the more remarkable in his case because he’s been on the receiving end of exclusion too often in his young life. Or maybe that explains it.

Exclusion. Nobody likes feeling left out. This morning I checked my news feeds on the ‘net and found little beyond a collective hue and cry centered around that theme writ large: the exclusion of people seeking refuge in our great land.

Anybody who knows me at all understands how I hate jumping into the political fray. I eschew conflict, most especially political conflict. One afternoon last week I listened to the late Mary Tyler Moore explain in a 1995 interview how she grew up in a repressed family bereft of conflict because unpleasant things were simply never discussed—they were just there, and nobody talked about them; she went on to describe how she borrowed some of her own mother’s real-life proclivities to play the role of Beth Jarrett in the movie Ordinary People.

I confess I own some of that. Talking openly about conflict is risky, because it lays open the possibility of controversy, which can be downright ugly. Speaking out about deeply held convictions puts us at risk of estrangement from the people we love and admire and call our friends. And that is why I eschew conflict, at least I think it is.

I still cleave to the notion, however naive, that we have far more in common with each other than not. And anyway, I don’t think the world needs to know our opinions about everything, as social media suggests it does—including the opinions of the delusional, the unhinged, or simply the misinformed among us.

Misinformed. Never mind fake news: last week a colleague linked me a poorly written HuffPost article about an exercise trend that draws inspiration from the ballet world. The writer got a few facts about classical ballet dead wrong, and not surprisingly; people outside the ballet world who try to report on it get it wrong more often than not. A few hours earlier I’d watched a news clip showing moments from a professional ballet company in their daily morning class. Seems nice enough, positive marketing for ballet. But I cringe every time a reporter stands there nodding her head knowingly while the ballet rep explains something, and then attempts to “translate” what they’re saying for the audience, distilling it I suppose so everybody can understand. But they rarely synthesize the facts correctly; something important is usually lost in the translation, and the reporter’s comments often perpetuate the misconceptions floating round in the public mind’s eye to begin with.

That’s just ballet. What of the story of an entire ethnic group? Or a faith tradition? Or a profound world event, for example the Holocaust, or the tragedy that is Syria?

In first grade a favorite rainy day activity was sitting in a circle where one kid whispered something—a word or phrase—into the next kid’s ear, who then whispered it into the next kid’s ear, and so on, until finally the last person had to say it aloud. It was never anything close to what the first person said, so the phrase “Lego blocks” emerged instead as “dirty socks” or some other thing that set off the first grader giggle box in everybody. Nobody was disparate in that classroom setting: we were all one, each of us united in this fun game that demonstrated how simple it is for a thing to be lost in translation. Nor were we desperate.

Desperate. How desperate must be a person or family to willingly risk everything—everything, including their lives—to leave their familiar homeland for a better life elsewhere? Surely each of us has imagined ourselves in that person’s shoes and felt anguish at the prospect of wearing them.

When my son visited me during the holidays a couple of years ago he brought with him a close friend, a young man of Palestinian descent whose family has owned a beloved East Tennessee eatery for decades. One night during their visit Handsome Chef Boyfriend prepared Yorkshire pudding for us and explained to my son and his friend all about this favorite food in the context of his own family. Then he asked my son’s friend about his family’s culinary traditions, which spawned a beautiful conversation that went on for some time. Earlier my son—who is of Mexican descent—and his friend encountered some scorn on the sidewalk when they were shopping one town over, based solely on the somewhat “ethnic” appearance of each of them. They’re both Americans. 

My son is a funny and irreverent guy; he is also fiercely loyal. He handed back the scorn, which was deserved.

We’ll never all “just get along;” the size and scope of our problems can never be reduced to the silly word just. But we owe it to ourselves not to be misinformed, lest we risk isolation that finally ruins us. The mandate to find somebody who needs a friend and be that person’s friend has never felt more timely.

Oh, Just. Let. Me.

Patient Scout Surveys the World
Patient, Camouflaged Scout Surveys the World

Scout was mainly charming at work all last week, save his single throaty warning growl misdirected at the company CEO. He was walking towards us with a scary cardboard box, though, so you can imagine. Still, Scout was patient through long hours of copy writing and editing, and for that he was rewarded with a romp—the second in a single week—at the top of the world, better known as the Mile Around Woods. I used the panorama function on my iPhone to try to capture the view; it scarcely does justice to that breathtaking vista here in the southwestern corner of Vermont.

However patient is sweet Scout, I am the opposite. At the top of the world, I have a chance to reflect some about that particular character flaw, and to ponder other great questions of the universe, which I did on Friday.

In seventh grade I developed my own font; there are no surviving examples to show here, but imagine the stylized, glowing scroll inside Tolkien’s celebrated ring, change it to swirling English runes, and you’ll have a close approximation in your mind’s eye. I worked tirelessly on that font in my social studies class whilst the teacher droned on impassively about nothing at all. A kid who sat next to me tried to copy it. I hated he was doing it, but could not stop him. One day I finally spoke up, because he was getting it All Wrong: let me just show you, I implored him, because you are ruining it. Encouraged by this intervention, he asked me to write out the entire alphabet for him in my font.

At home I painstakingly created a master list of upper- and lowercase letters: if somebody was copying my work, they better get it damn close to how it was supposed to be, went my thinking. I was keenly interested in showing him how, even if I’d rather yank the silly pen out of his hand and just do it for him. Patience.

More patient as an adult, I discovered teaching came naturally to me when I opened my small ballet school in Knoxville. Sitting in pedagogy classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, I also discovered my beloved mentor possessed the same sensibility about getting things right, whether he was talking about executing a movement, correcting a student, or using the correct terminology.

Terminology. That resonated with the wordsmith in me. Don’t agonize over it, he said, if you’ve been calling a movement this for years, when you should have been calling it that. But he emphasized at least knowing the correct language, often with the accompanying subtext of how a position or movement came to be called what it is to begin with.

One of my favorite examples is the term passé versus the term retiré. Many ballet teachers mean this position when they say “passé:”

Retirés All
Retirés All; photo, Xavier Battle

Strictly speaking, it means “passed” or “passing” in French (the infinitive form is passer, meaning “to pass”). This denotes movement, in this case movement of the foot from the front of the knee to the back or from the back to the front. But when you’re simply talking about the position of the leg at the front, the back, or even the side of the knee, you really mean retiré, which means “withdrawn:” the foot is withdrawn from a position on the floor and is now placed at the knee of the standing leg. (If anybody in the ballet world is reading these words, they’re rolling their eyes about now.) It’s really just semantics, as they say.

Does it really matter? Practically speaking, no. Ballet teachers, dancers, and choreographers will go on saying passé when what they really meant to say was retiré, and the world will keep on pirouette-ing on its axis (and by the way, pirouetter means to spin, and tourner means to turn, in case you’re interested). But I liked telling the story to my young students , and nowadays I like telling it to anybody who will listen.

In my work as a copyeditor I sometimes feel pulled to wear my teacher’s hat again, but mainly can’t in the interest of time: the goal in a marketing agency is to roll out the strongest possible content in the voice a client wants and hand it to them as quickly as possible—there’s really no time to dawdle. Sometimes I make copyedits a writer never sees, other times I make a suggestion and leave it to the writer to fix the copy, but occasionally feel the need to explain why I’m making a particular change.

Lately we’ve had some lively discussions at work about modern writing conventions, about using language that’s not technically correct but “sounds” better in print than what is correct, because it flows more naturally, as it might if you were simply talking to somebody over coffee. I’m okay with this most of the time, especially if it makes a client happy, but also because absolute propriety in language is just plain silly in some contexts.

Other times language is downright sloppy; comma placement seems to rear its head on many of these occasions. I found this example yesterday when I was rummaging through the bathroom cabinet:

Band-Aid Blunder
Band-Aid Blunder

I’m a huge fan of the Oxford comma (more eye rolling) because in most cases it clarifies the meaning of a sentence and saves the reader needing to read it twice. But in the Band-Aid box example, there’s also a missing comma. As written, we’re to think applying a bandage will clean our dry skin: placing a comma after the word “clean” takes away any mandate to scrub and instead tells us where to stick it. (Not sure what’s going on with all that capitalization; it bothers me, too.)

There are other spots where a comma is called for, and so I have added them in red:

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Does it matter? Nah. Everybody on the planet knows how to use a Band-Aid. Am I both an obnoxious and an impatient editor? Most assuredly.

I leave you with this scene from one of my favorite kid movies, because impatient Woody and I are kindred spirits, and because it’s fun.

Stretching Dollars, Counting Blessings

Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil
Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil

Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.

But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.

Naps are important, too.
Naps are important, too.

Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.

Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.

A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.

We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.

Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.

Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.

Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.

Three Dollar Chicken
Three Dollar Chicken

HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)

I know there be chicken.
I know there be chicken.

The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green  onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.

soon_to_be_stock

soon_to_be_stock_2

and_then_there_was_stock
And then there was stock.
Almost souped.
Almost souped.

The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.

soupy_blessings

 

Bee in My Bonnet

Coffee Table Inspiration
Coffee Table Inspiration

It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.

The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)

Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.

Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?

Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.

In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.

But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)

I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.

Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.

If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.

Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.

Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.

‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.

 

1.1.17: Time to Press Reset

New Year's Eve Morning 2016
Perfect Light, New Year’s Eve Morning 2016

Some people claim they don’t need a special calendar day or a personal milestone to turn a new leaf, they can do it any time. I don’t possess the self-discipline for that: positive change comes to me on occasional birthdays or after emotionally significant events, mainly. For the time being New Year’s Day will do.

A friend and I once stood in the kitchen of her big, old Southern home with one eye on our boy toddlers as they scurried around and fired finger weapons at each other. She asked what I planned to do after mine no longer demanded every waking moment of my day. “I’m taking up golf,” she quipped. I could not tell whether she was serious or joking: this particular friend did not strike me as the kind of person who’d choose golf as a post-mommying avocation. She had a beautiful new baby grand sitting in her living room; it might have been for show as so many are, except she was also an accomplished pianist in another life. “You should take up the piano,” I said, only half joking. She grinned.

Our unspoken words went something like, it’s funny how much of ourselves we’ve given up for the privilege of full-time parenting these children.

I could not have known at that moment how in a few short years events in my life would reconnect me with my own performing arts past, how life would hand me rich and varied and terrifying and wonderful and tragic and deprived and fulfilled chapters, still in the make.

new_years_eve_walk_5

When I moved to Vermont just over four years ago I didn’t have an inkling how bad things would get for me, and soon after for my beloved Clarence-the-Canine, but remained as optimistic as my character would allow. I knew winters would be rough, had no idea how rough, and discovered over the course of four of them I’m not really up for the challenge. I also discovered how many privileges I’d taken for granted when I lived down South. And I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to find connections. Nor how simple to find the most important one of all. I discovered people here are the same as the people there, with a couple of caveats.

I also underestimated my own grit and determination.

new_years_eve_walk_4
The Most Important Connections

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Last year was difficult, although I don’t need to tear out my hair and thrash and wail about it. I was grumpy and will keep on being grumpy ‘til a few promising new sentences unfold. At least give me my grumpiness in the winter. I’m still hopeful for 2017.

new_years_eve_woods_1

I feel about as bad physically as I ever have; it’s time for sanctions. I’m a little worn down emotionally, too: being bitten in the face by an anxious shepherd was harder to process than I imagined. I want to feel better in 2017, starting now.

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I’ve missed spending time outside, a thing every dog demands. Thank the universe for Scout-the-Lab, a good dog with a remarkable disposition, who’s already blown that whistle: more heart-thumping time outside in 2017.

new_years_eve_scout_3
Superhero

I’ve written more in the last year than ever; some of it was good, some not so much. I want 2017 to be the best year of writing thus far, with new outlets for writing.

Time, resources, and circumstances have made it difficult to assuage my culinary passions, as silly as that sounds coming from somebody who lives with a chef. I want to reconnect to the kitchen in 2017.

I feel called to help somebody who needs it; I hope Scout and I will undertake this together in 2017.

new_years_eve_walk_1

I’ve found beauty through the lens of my camera; I want 2017 to show me more.

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I enjoyed an unexpected and happy reconnection recently with a beloved mentor I haven’t seen in a couple of years. I want to stay connected with people important to me in 2017.

I also want to practice civility in 2017, and hope the rest of the world will too, but most especially my fellow Americans. We can’t afford not to be civil to one another, especially now.

Come on, winter: let’s get it done. Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2017.

sycamore_stories_masthead