Monday, January 26, 2009

Stand and Reconsider

“I really think I was born to teach.” – Homer Simpson

You’ve heard the old saying “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” But what about those who can sort of teach but didn’t find a full-time job after two years, gave up on it, and never looked back? I guess they become over-educated corporate worker bees before making a brief detour into SAHM territory, blogging the night away to keep their old spark from dying of malnourishment. Oh, by the way, I’m talking about myself.

That’s right. I was an aspiring high school English teacher. And I was reasonably good at it. Um, I think. I mean . . . I was no Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver. I wasn’t Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or even Jack Black in School of Rock. As a student teacher (and later a substitute teacher and tutor), there wasn’t much opportunity to develop my own curriculum. It was all about the textbooks, vocabulary words, and spelling tests. But I was still able to spin some creative lesson plans out of some lackluster material, helping the kids memorize what they were supposed to memorize. It was great fun.

And it was exhausting. The hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. The hours are relentless; up before dawn, grading papers late into the night, on your feet all day trying to keep teenagers interested in material that sometimes bores you to tears yourself. I am incredibly shy by nature, but I’ve worked hard to overcome it as an adult. The stage fright I’d have before each class was intense, peaking at shrill anxiety and nose-diving into deep worried sadness. I couldn’t eat, so I’d just drink cup after cup of weak tea in the faculty room.

But then the kids would show up to class and it would just work somehow. I’d ride that anxiety like a toboggan, keep my shoulders back, breathe, and use its power for good. It was about acting, really. You’re a personality. For the most part, the kids tolerated my quirkiness with begrudging, eye-rolling fondness. Some of them even adored me. Some of them suspected I was full of shit. (And they were probably right. But the amazing thing was how I was actually able to filter out the negativity and truly not care. I have never been able to do that in any other context.)

As the weeks went by and my confidence increased, I started to believe I loved teaching! And maybe I really did. Or maybe it was just the sleep deprivation talking. But despite all the exhausting work involved, I felt so lucky to be avoiding “the office,” so glad to be doing something hands-on and meaningful. I remember attending my aspiring yuppie friends’ wine tasting party, listening to them all talk about their office jobs and feeling so thankful that I got to spend my days with teenagers instead, flying by the seat of my hippie skirt.

But really – and this is a hard thing to admit, but here we go – I think I just loved the second chance at high school. I was 24, which isn’t that much older than a high schooler when you think about it. I was young enough to share their pop culture, but old enough to be just slightly more impressive than a peer. I had a little fan club of cool kids in my 11th grade classes. They’d give me their short stories to read. They’d tell me when a show was coming up that I might want to see. I maintained professional boundaries, but I have to admit I was way more excited to be accepted by their little group than I should have been. Ugh. How embarrassing.

When my student teaching assignment ended at that school, I went on to subbing. Nobody’s going to tell you that they loved being a substitute high school teacher, and I won’t either. But still, there was something exhilarating about the job. The pure challenge of it. Facing a room full of hostile boredom or hormone-fueled chaos, and somehow turning it around. Actually getting the little darlings engaged in their vocabulary lesson with some creative spontaneity. Out-smart-assing the smart-asses. I truly hated all the ramped-up performance anxiety I’d feel beforehand, but I could always beat it once class began. And beating it was such an incredible high.

Tutoring was even better. I spent the summer working with kids who needed to retake their English classes, providing a one-on-one summer school of sorts. One family even paid me extra to drive out to their son’s summer camp and tutor him there. That fall, I tutored for Philadelphia Futures, helping kids get inspired to write well about subjects they cared about. That’s where I had my proudest professional moment, defending one of my students against a bitter teacher who gave her a D simply for writing about racism she experienced on a family vacation. (“This doesn’t follow the assignment! It was supposed to be a narrative essay!” Um, yes. It is a narrative essay about her experience with racism! *smacks forehead*). So, I went through the assignment line-by-line and proved to the teacher how the paper did, in fact, follow the instructions. She changed the grade and didn’t give us any trouble after that.

Meanwhile, I was patching together an income with temping and teaching an occasional writing class at a local junior college, still looking for a full-time teaching job. I filled out dozens of applications a week, went to job fairs, clumsily tried to network my way into something. But it just wasn’t happening for me. The job market was saturated with high school English teachers at the time (which became frighteningly clear at the job fairs). It seemed the way to get a job was to pick one school and just sub there faithfully until somebody died. No thank you.

I’ve always wondered, too, if maybe I was just too wacky for anyone to seriously consider hiring me. I was so offbeat-looking in those days, growing out my dyed-black hair, trying to tame my quirky-postmodern-librarian look into a conservative little suit. I could never quite pull it off. And, of course, there was my ever-present social anxiety. I’d been able to work off its energy in the classroom, but you can’t really parlay anxiety into delightful wackiness when there’s a row of school administrators frowning across a table at you. And without an outlet, that anxiety just sort of sizzles around your neck and shakes your voice a little. They can smell it on you. Combine that with no full-time classroom experience, and it doesn’t add up to success. At least, it didn’t for me.

It was a sad relief to finally decide not to pursue a teaching career after all. No more stage fright. No more working around the clock to the point of exhaustion. No more surfing a classroom’s volatile energy or watching students get so bored they start drawing on themselves. Time to find a plain old office job where I could hang up some “Life in Hell” cartoons, sit at a desk and work in peace, come home and watch TV at the end of the day. Nothing wrong with that. Right?

During this time, I had a recurring dream in which I’d been selected to be an astronaut. But at the last minute, the space expedition gets cancelled. In the dream I’m always relieved to have avoided going up in space after all, glad to be among the safe and familiar. But at the same time, in the dream I find myself wondering what it would have been like, knowing I could have met the challenge, feeling a little ashamed not to have that chance to prove myself.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Mr. Black and I were married on a perfect October day, and that month holds a sweet little place in my heart. But really, our relationship is all about January. Grey, rainy, mud-puddled, miserable January. That’s the month we first met. And, one year later, January was the month I moved from Philadelphia to Seattle to be with him.

Moving to Seattle in the middle of winter – in a La NiƱa year no less – isn’t exactly enviable. But for me it was one of the most romantic things I’ve ever done in my life. It was my own personal chick-flick moment, a real-life version of running through a crowded airport to catch the guy for a roll-the-credits kiss while some love song swells in the background (let’s just say “Renaissance Affair” by Hooverphonic, since I was listening to that pretty much constantly as I packed up my apartment).

Every tedious detail of the move was thrilling. I remember feeling dreamy just pulling into Staples’ parking lot to buy more bubble wrap. There was a packing frenzy, multiple trips to UPS to ship my boxes, a lively series of going-away parties with various groups of friends. I left my beloved apartment, all carpet and windows and walls, still echoing with all the fun times I’d had there. I got on a plane with my cat and some suitcases, flew through the night to the other side of the country, and dropped from the rain-soaked sky to make Seattle my new home. Seeing my guy every day after six months of long-distance relationship felt so incredibly luxurious, I barely knew what to do with myself.

This wasn’t my only long-distance relationship, by any means. I’d spent the better part of my twenties falling for guys who were about to move far away. Austin. Santa Cruz. San Francisco. And less exciting places like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. I don’t know why.

A co-worker used to tease me that I was driving them away (I know, hilarious!). Self-deprecating as I am, though, I really don’t think that was it. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to be close to anyone. Or maybe I was hoping one of those guys would turn out to be some sort of Jack-Kerouac soulmate-type to spirit me away to a more exciting destination. (I’d always aspired to move somewhere new and exciting, but hadn’t managed to get much further from home than Philadelphia on my own. I love my solitude and I love a good adventure, but I couldn’t bring myself to be, you know, alone alone.) Or it could simply be that it’s easier to strike up a meaningful conversation with someone who’s about to leave the state and has nothing to lose anyway. A sort of carpe diem mentality takes over and makes for some delicious weeks before you lose each other in the shuffle.

That’s how it was with Mr. Black at first. We were an instant mutual sensation, spinning in a field like Lisa, Thelonious, and Linguo. I knew he was planning to move back to the west coast, but that only made it feel downright necessary to spend weekend after weekend in each other’s arms unapologetically. Because we both knew there was an end in sight.

Except neither of us actually wanted it to end. And before I knew it, I was running errands in the warm rainy winter with an actual boyfriend. We bought a TV together. And plastic hangers. We drove a rented car all over Southcenter’s cheap furniture district in search of the perfect sofa (and didn’t find it).

But there was something magical about all this rainy minutiae. I remember waiting with him to cross a busy street in the University District. It was so wet, so relentlessly wet, the rain seemed to be falling in all directions from every surface. Then I happened to glance toward downtown and was positively mesmerized by the way the clouds obscured the skyline into something hazy, purple, and ethereal. Like a Monet.


I couldn’t stop looking at it, couldn’t stop being amazed that I could be here at all, simply here in this painting with this man who made me so endlessly happy. That’s how it was in those early January weeks.

Sometimes. I have to admit, it was a little like that last scene in The Graduate, too. Joy! Together at last! But everything else was kind of empty. No job, no friends. Just romantic love and static. My new apartment’s buzzer was broken, so I spent those early afternoons waiting by the window in my empty living room for the UPS truck to arrive with my boxes. Looking up at that milky sky, I felt like I’d just been dropped here out of nowhere.

When I was planning to move, people loved to warn me about the rain in Seattle. I’d scoffed. Who’s afraid of a little rain? But seriously. Rain. Every. Day. My glasses were in a constant state of mistiness. I learned to tuck my hair up into a hat before heading outside. I’d brought an umbrella with me, but it wiped out in a swift gust of wind during its first hour of use in a Safeway parking lot. Mr. Black still teases me about that. Apparently no one uses umbrellas here.

But sometimes, unexpectedly, the clouds would rip open and volumes of sunshine would pour through, boundlessly generous, as if making up for lost time. “Sunbreaks,” they call them. Walking home from the grocery store one day, I gasped to see a row of huge snow-capped mountains startlingly close on the horizon. Where did they come from? I’d been walking down that street every day for three weeks and hadn’t seen them before. “The mountains are out!” a woman shouted to her friends, and did a joyful dance down the sidewalk. And when summer came, the mountains were out all the time, gleaming over the brilliant indigo lakes and Puget Sound like a postcard. I was in love. Not just with my guy, but with this place.

That was ten years ago. I still can’t quite believe it’s been that long, even with all the changes that have happened. Ten years.

I still feel incredibly romantic for my guy and my city. I still have moments of pure amazement that I get to live this happy life in this beautiful place with people I love so much. This is better than anything I could have hoped for when I was taking my first tentative steps into adulthood. And whenever I come back to Seattle after an east coast visit, the city feels alive to me somehow. So many corners saturated with so many memories. Those taller-than-tall evergreens. The eerie green glow of the Space Needle at night. That the rich, misty air.

And yet, sitting down to write this “Ten Years in Seattle” post feels a little disconnected somehow. Even as I’m brimming with dreamy nostalgia, it feels a little disingenuous to impose a happy ending on it all.

Because the story isn’t really over. Happy though it may be, it’s not “ever after.” This life is a constant process, and 2009 is shaping up to be a somewhat challenging year. Trying to go back to work in the midst of an historically sucktacular economy. Sending The Boy off to kindergarten in the fall, hoping like crazy that somehow this volatile world will be kind to him. And each year that goes by makes me feel a little more uneasy about living this far away from my parents.

This is also the year I turn 40. Sometimes I really feel like I’ve made my peace with that. Other times I can’t even fathom it. I mean, come on, 40! That’s older than the characters on “thirtysomething,” and remember how grown-up they all seemed when we were watching the show back in the 80’s? How can I be turning 40 when I still speak in Simpsons quotes and dress like a college student who’s slept through her 10:00 a.m. class?

Oh well. I’ve got a few more months to get used to the idea. And while the future is a little uncertain right now, I have high hopes for the best. We’ve made it this far, after all. Happy ten-year anniversary, Seattle.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Leggy Blonde, Goodbye"

Watching my married friends flirt with each other can feel a little icky sometimes. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s my inner adolescent response. Or maybe I’m embarrassed for them. But I think there’s a fair amount of envy there, too. As I’ve said before, I’m not above the occasional crush myself, though I try as hard as I can to never reveal it (so I never see much reciprocation).

It’s funny how those instincts I learned to mistrust years ago still make themselves heard sometimes. By the time I was in my mid-twenties I’d learned how to smell a relationship disaster a mile away and not go near it. But oh, honey, how the heart still yearns for a little disaster sometimes.

The summer before I met Mr. Black, for example. I was chatting with some gorgeous long-haired hipster in a bar. I asked him about his tattoo and he grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me right in the face with his ice-cold blue eyes and said “No. You’re too hot to talk to,” and walked away. But not for long. He was at my side all night long, equal parts scaring me and driving me wild. I slipped out of the bar when he wasn’t looking and hurried back to my apartment, catching a glimpse of him peeking out the door and looking up and down the street for me as I fled. I got away safely. But part of me still wished I was back there reenacting the honeymoon scene from Secretary with him in some alley. (Okay, so the movie hadn’t been made at the time. But you get the idea.)

Then there was the guy I met in another bar, out on the town for the first time since his divorce and obviously a shattered mess. Overweight, endearingly nerdy. His buddy who’d dragged him out was busy hitting on my friend, so we talked. He was enamored, mistaking my wing-woman friendliness for flirtation. That old metaphor about dancing eyes? This guy’s eyes had the Fred Astaire top hat and cane. He was visiting from DC and kept begging me to visit him there sometime, all but getting out a calendar to schedule the date. Pathetic. But intoxicating. I resisted, but the temptation was huge. This guy adored me just for showing up and talking to him. And who doesn’t love to be adored?

These potential hook-ups would have been instantly regrettable, and I’m glad to have avoided them. In real life, I’ve managed to pick a guy who’s just the right balance of exciting and sane, a guy who still tingles my toes after 11 years. I’ve avoided the angry ones. I’ve avoided the ones who need to be rescued. But in crushland, I still have the worst taste in men. Something in me still craves a bad relationship.

And a crush is a relationship of sorts. A very one-sided imaginary one, but a relationship nonetheless. You see the person now and then, have these little innocuous interactions, then go off to derive a subtext of yearning and closeness that may or may not actually be there. The romantic part takes place in your mind, but it doesn’t work without actual feedback; actual interaction with the person.

As I mentioned in my other “crush” post, I try to avoid flirtation (and sometimes friendly conversation or even eye contact) with my crush objects because I’m so paranoid of the little cartoon hearts and singing birds that surely must be flying around my head. How dreadfully embarrassing. Also, I don’t want anything to actually happen. It’s just a mild diversion rooted firmly in the imagination. A sort of “chick lit” role playing game.

So why even bother with it in the first place? It’s just fun to imagine being desired, I think. Not desired in a “honey I love you” way, but in a thrillingly dysfunctional “oh I need you desperately” way. All I want is to skirt around the danger zone for a quick thrill, but I don’t actually want the real drama, the real lows, the real business of another person’s neuroses and unfamiliar perspective muddying things up. I know. It doesn’t make much sense to me either. But there it is.

It’s like being a recovering addict trying to recapture the best, most transcendent drug-love moments in your life without actually putting the poison in your body. Impossible. Luckily, a sexy, super-smart, aging hipster geek of a husband is my anti-drug, as is my busy life among these tiger-cub children of ours. I barely need the hit anymore. But I need it a little bit, so I seek it in safe places where there’s no chance of it actually touching me.

My most recent crush was on the periphery of a circle of acquaintances. We’ve only spoken to each other a few times; I rarely even see him. But somewhere along the line, he captured me with his vague sense of loneliness and sad sense of humor. And those occasional TMI references to his missing sex life…kind of lame in itself, but so intriguing to see him clumsily seek an acceptable way to express some version of desire. I wanted to befriend him, but the opportunity never arose. Then one day he showed up and I just about died, suddenly plowed down by the speeding crush truck.

It’s been a lovely occasional distraction. But it’s over now. Even in crushtown, there has to be enough substance there to sustain the fantasy. There has to be a real possibility that this person might actually like you; that this could actually happen if only you let your willpower slip. And if you start to gather too much evidence that there’s no basis in reality for this crush, that it actually is 100% your imagination…well, that’s when the imaginary break-up has to happen.

My crush, it turns out, has a crush on someone else. He’s obviously wild about her. He looks at her with the tap-dancing eyes, the swirling cartoon hearts. The pitch in his voice goes up when he speaks to her and the lame jokes come at a rapid pace. I’d be deadly embarrassed for him if I wasn’t so crushed. Of course, she is just as oblivious to him as he is to me. It’s a regular freakin’ “Twelfth Night” around here. And it’s time for me to move on.

If you’ve been floating along on the dream that some guy likes you, and then you find out it was all your own fabrication – even if you never actually wanted to consummate the crush, even if you never actually liked the guy that much in the first place – it still feels like the rug’s been pulled out from under you and you’re hitting the floor with an ugly thud, shocked by the stark realization that you are not the one he wants. And no, it’s not that I really wanted the guy in a real life sense anyway. I really want the one I already have.

What hurts about this is something I can’t quite pinpoint. Even in imaginary crush world, it sucks to be passed over, I guess. And I will miss this one. It was so easy, so in-air-quotes, so dependably and conveniently in the background, so easy to imagine meeting him on the astral plane. Sigh.

But there’s no point anymore. And really, I ought to be getting over this whole “crush” business by now and just read some nice Twilight books or something. My husband kicks all these losers’ asses, anyway. That’s why he gets to have me in real life.

Take us out, Murray.

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