Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I Do What I Do

Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. I get paid very little and don't have health, vision or dental insurance insurance. I haven't had my teeth cleaned in 3 years. Not that I need it; I avoid sugar and eat healthfully. My income tax return says that the government owes me money every year and they're sorry the taxed such a small amount of income. The refund check looks embarrassed. My monthly paychecks are pathetic, especially in summer when adjuncts are limited to a certain number of classes lest they fall into the full time category and then be afforded benefits.

And I'm a full time graduate student. I've been a full time student since 1997, earning a biology degree, an English degree and a master's. Now I'm coming up on my last year of college, ever. It's a scary thought. I returned to college because I can't make enough money as a teacher with a master's degree. If I want to help people- and really my life and focus as a teacher has been to help people- I need a doctoral degree. And the starting pay for what I want to do is around $35k per year. Yup. That won't even cover my student loan payments.

So why do I insist on teaching adults that they can find voices as writers? Why do I insist on returning to places that pay me peanuts so that I can spend time with reluctant writers and recovering addicts? It seems, well, a retarded strategy. I should by all rights just get a teaching certificate and take a cush job at a high end high school or private school and take summers off to relax and watch my 401k build up. Maybe plant a real garden. Maybe have some children and get a tan for heaven's sake. Spend time at the lake. Or the ocean. Travel.

Because sometimes I get a bigger kick and payoff than you'll ever find in a 401k. Sometimes, ok a lot of times, my students teach me more than I teach them.

I spent this summer semester shoving 16 weeks of curriculum down the 8 week program's throat. I don't believe in abbreviating the work. It has to be done. And tonight was the last night. I bought pizza for the whole class and gave the final exam. Students were to use the skills they had learned over the course of the semester to argue what their grades should be. They could refer to their essays, assignments, the syllabus and class and environmental notes or videos, handouts and anything else they thought would be helpful.

I have a lot of amazing students this semester. Among them are some pretty decent writers who just needed a little shove in the right direction to develop their confidence. One in particular stands out. In her forties, she wore glasses and dressed modestly and kept her long dark her neat and straight. She checked all of her work twice and worked closely with a few other students, rarely volunteering in class but writing insightful and grammatically sound essays. Overall, I got the distinct feeling she was paying attention.

She handed in her final tonight, thanked me (and I her), and quietly left the class. Her paper reflected thoughtful consideration of her work in the course and came to a logical conclusion that she deserved a particular grade for the course. I concur. Her paper was in correct MLA format and was of appropriate length and addressed all of the proper higher order and lower order concerns. I never worried about her a bit. She sat on the front row and showed up early, every single class period.

At the end of her paper, she wrote: "You know I am a convicted felon. I have been to prison a couple of times. I got my GED in prison. I always feel like an outcast. Like I am different, and should not speak about such things. I have never felt that way in your class. I need to thank you for that. I did not want to put that in the body of the paper but I wanted you to know what it meant to me."

The emperor has no clothes and I've no right to complain. I feel so small next to so tremendous a person. And grateful. How lucky am I to get to do what I do?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Don't Be A Hooker

My grandma once told me that the only thing I'd need to go out on a date is an aspirin. "Hold it between your knees until you get home", said my sweet apple pie loving Grandma. "Don't be a hooker", added my sister.

One of my facebook friends posted a link to a comedian who discusses his experience dating women and getting frustrated at the lack of clear signals. He was making out with a woman and she stopped him twice from touching her rather intimately, but the next day asked why they didn't have sex. Apparently, she likes it when a guy won't take no for an answer.

Huh? I don't get it. Give a guy signals in the hopes that he ignores what you're telling him. So that you can feel as though you're living dangerously? Is that somehow normal? If so, in what universe? How does this help men to know what normal is when they're dealing with women and sex?

There were some comments about how difficult it is for men to date women in Oklahoma. It must be rough. I wonder if it isn't a cultural thing. Maybe an American thing. Maybe just a grown up thing. Maybe a gender thing.

The way women and men communicate is vastly different. Tons of research says that men talk to solve problems and women talk to feel better. That's the shorthand version anyway. Luke and I both know this and when I just want to talk and he's solving problems that don't really exist I just ask him to listen and that's his job. I just have to clearly ask for what I want. I used to assume that the other person would just know that about me. I mean, hey, if you love me, you'll be able to tell what's wrong, right?

Noooo. It's my job to clearly communicate my expectations. Otherwise, resentment will consume me and my partner will be both baffled and angry at my crazy behavior. "Why are you upset?" "Oh, like you don't know!" "Uh, nope. Sure don't." I had that conversation over a hundred times before I realized that the fella(s) in question really didn't know what the hell I was talking about. And it's not because they're dumb.

I might be in a relationship now but I spent several years in Oklahoma dating guys and trying to be a better person about it. At first, I didn't know what to think and the men I dated didn't know what to think about me. I don't like make up much and don't paint my fingernails. My hair/soul is allergic to cute bows. I have a job, I'm well educated (a little overly educated) and speak my mind. I have a lot of self confidence and regularly engage in intellectual discourse. I also paid for dinner/drinks/coffee about half of the time. You know why? It's only fair. I think of myself as equal and that means that I don't mind ponying up for the pleasure of a guy's company. And it lets me out of the dinner-for-sex scheme.

Men reacted in three ways. First, they were upset. I had a guy end our date when I paid for our wine. He took it as an affront to his manhood. Well, best to know that up front and part ways without wasting time. The second way was to pretend he was indulging my feminist sensibilities. It's not a cute oddity or quirk and I'm not playing here. Seriously, don't fucking patronize me. The final way was to thank me sincerely and to appreciate a person for being a grown up. I like that. You can always tell when someone is being genuine. Oh, and there is a fourth way. Luke always promises to put out if I pay for dinner.

So yeah. I have I have a little advice for the comedian in his communication connundrum. It's perfectly ok to say what you want to the lady in question. If she is giving you mixed signals, just clearly tell her what you want. Nothing wrong with "I totally wanna fuck you." In fact, that's kinda hot. It also opens an opportunity for dialog. If she isn't up for that, then she has an opening to give you news you may not like but at least you know. And she can set parameters, like "Ok, but not without your latex gimp outfit" or "I want to know that you're emotionally invested in this first". Then you can dump her on the floor and run or profess your undying interest in devotion. And then run.

I haven't always been good at being clear about what I want or what I am looking for in a relationship with another person. Usually though, it's not because I'm being coy. I don't do coy very well. It's fake and makes me feel dirty. No, when I'm giving mixed signals it's because I either haven't figured out what I want and how I feel, or I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. And something I figured out from having amazing male friends in my life is that even if they don't get what they want- say I don't feel attracted to them like they do to me- it's best to just be up front about it and take that chance than to confuse, frustrate and ultimately disappoint someone else. And how do you accomplish that? You say "I'm not attracted to you." Yeah, the secret words.

I could see why someone wouldn't want to say that. I mean, here is this neat guy showering you with attention, activities and engaging in dialog. He's doing it because he likes you and hopes you like him too. Or maybe that you'll have sex with him. Whatever, guys don't particularly deal in covert intentions in regards to their relationships with women. If you just get real for a minute once you've figured out what category the guy fits in- friend, friend with benefits, lover, boyfriend, or whatever you've worked out, you owe it to him to let him know. Otherwise, you are lying. And that is what will cause the confusion. And it's decietful to let a guy continue to pay for everything while you know it's not leading everywhere and you're letting him think it is so you can get eat out at Red Lobster. Their food sucks anyway.

Now guys, you have to also give women a little bit of a break. Sometimes we don't know how we feel about you. Maybe you got a unibrow that we're not sure we can live with. Maybe you don't fall into every single one of the match categories we hold in our heads and we need time to figure out how big of a deal that is. "Wait", says the dude, "What are these match categories? Something like tall, handsome, rich, good taste in expensive jewelry with a proclivity for chick flicks?" Yeah, something like that. When women are younger or less mature, we make this impossible list of characteristics we want from men. Lots of times, women will date outside of this- far outside- and end up in unhappy and sometimes abusive relationships because we don't hold out for someone to treat us how we want to be treated. Let's not blame the victim here- abuse is abuse and really there is no way to be 100% sure before committing to a relationship.

Women with a little salt in them know to listen to other women who are way more wise. I know several women who are older than me and they know a lot about relationships and what it means to be a good person. They share what they know and aren't afraid to call me on my shit. Anyway, we revise the fantastic guy requirement list to include fewer superficial things and more substantive ones. We also add what we bring to a relationship and what we can give.

For instance, I need a man who is very laid back because I'm a little on the type A side. I need someone who is very confident because I am somewhat of a know it all. Oh, and a deep and abiding love of coffee is pretty important. And someone who is gregarious enough to handle my introtertedness. In return, I offer a sense of humor, adventurousness, and willingness to say I'm sorry when I'm wrong. And to take Midol when I'm being cranky. And it doesn't hurt that I can cook and am very secure. The point, of course, is to give women a little time to observe you while she spends time with you. Fellas, you might do well to employ the same tactic. I kept a little ticker in my head and by the end of the third date, it was either yes or no for sex. That's probably a little in the overshare category but whatever, you laughed about the latex gimp getup.

Here's the thing: Men smell good but they break easily. Big guys, strong guys, tall guys, fat guys, skinny guys... they all have feelings. They are all someone's child and from first grade right up until he met you at La Baguette for a semi-swanky dinner, that man who smiles so sexy at you has been making fart jokes with his buddies. Men aren't that mysterious and if I'm honest about it, I'm not that mysterious either. And I generally laugh quietly at fart jokes.

Dating has changed. But still, don't be a hooker.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

They See Me Rollin'

I bought a car today. A little red Mazda Miata. It's older, and convertible with good tires and no obvious leaks. I listened to the engine and took it for a test drive. For an older car, there are no big shimmy's or shakes. Needs a dent fixed and the paint touched up. Not sure where to have that done. It did fine on the highway and I got a sunburn on the way home. And it gets like 30 miles to the gallon.

Luke went with me, you know, for support and shit. And I needed a ride. There's a cute thing that guys do. They look under the hood of the car. I'm not sure what they do under there. The seller was a mechanic and I'm a not-mechanic. I believe that if you look up antonyms for English teachers in the dictionary, there will be a photo of a mechanic and a mathematician. As far as I could tell, the battery was ok and the engine was relatively free of gremlins and hamsters. I didn't ask Luke what he was doing under the hood the same way that I don't ask an electrician what he or she is doing when they're screwing around with tools around electrical outlets. Best to stay out of the way and not distract. You never know when some power surge is going to come through and make a human meat puppet out of an electrician. I try to not be around for those events.

For me, it's magic. I know how engines run in a fairly rudimentary way. I understand 4, 6 and 8-stroke cylinder engines and can show you what a gasket looks like and could probably change the oil in a car if I was forced to at gun point. For that matter, I could also probably cook a gourmet 4-course meal twice weekly and sew frilly aprons. The fact of the matter is that I'd rather not do either of those things.

You know what I like?


Yes, magic. I love it when the electrician fixes the outlet, the timing chain on the car gets replaced, the food that a server brings me is perfectly prepared and when I have a little money left over at the end of the month. I like the idea of mathemagic. I don't much care about how those things happen. Magic and hard work. And clock hours spent studying, practicing and perfecting a craft. That's how anything well done is done well. Through the careful use of alchemy.

I have a place in the great wheel of life. I am a cog; I am a writer. I love the way sentences work. I enjoy compound, complex and simple sentences and I love to use them for maximum effect using the correct rhetorical appeals considering the context of the writing. Really, I do. Did your eyes glaze over? Do you know what I'm talking about but couldn't give a rat's ass? Good. We're even.

So I left the guys to put their heads together under the tiny hood of a tiny car. I took a photo to send to my brother because he used to have a Miata. And to Kerry because he's been helping me look. Ultimately, I decided how much I would be willing to pay and the guy and I came to an agreement. And I have a new old car and a sunburn from driving home from Edmond to Norman with the top down in the middle of the day. It's hot out there.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

No Man Is An Island

We all need other people in our lives. No man is an island, as John Donne would say.

I am someone who loves isolation. I am an introvert, though you can't tell when I'm teaching. It's been a theme in my life since I can remember. I liked my older siblings but they didn't always want to play with me, nor I with them. So when I didn't have another little friend, I was always just fine playing by myself. When we lived in Eureka, California when I was very little, I'd hide in the closet and hang out for hours. I've just always been very self-sufficient. I remember when I was in kindergarten. I overheard my mom talking to her husband and saying that there wasn't going to be anyone home when I got out of school the next day. I'm sure they worked out some arrangement, but I didn't hear that part. Instead, I got off two stops early from my normal bus stop, and checked myself into a daycare. That's where kids go when their parents aren't home, right?

When I got older, I became a latch-key kid in second grade. I got home from school before my sisters. I wore a key around my neck and let myself into the house, made a sandwich and watched television until someone else got there. And in high school I had my own car and we lived pretty far out of town.

As an adult, I moved from Washington to Las Vegas, and lived there for two years. We left, not because of the desert but for the teeming mass of people- people I never learned to trust. I don't think I made a single friend outside of my boyfriend in that time. So we moved to Oklahoma and I got married and divorced.

Norman became my home and I thought it would be much like all of the other places I've lived in my vagabond life- another stopping place on the way to somewhere else. I attended a dojo in Tulsa for 7 years and the Hargraves are some of the neatest people I've had the privilege of calling friends. I met Dr. Diane Holt-Reynolds there and she became my mentor. I met Janis Cramer and she helped me become a teacher. And I made friends at the College of Education and at OCCC. I mentored other teachers and taught students and bought a house. Cathy Klasek helped me move in. Hell, she picked it out and made me talk to the owner. I wouldn't have bought a house without her help.

It was my friends who sent me off to Washington with best wishes and welcomed me home with open arms. I remember when I went to tell my Grandma that I was going to move back to Oklahoma. She didn't even let me get that far. She said, "I know you are unhappy here. Go back home to Oklahoma where people love you." And then we both had a good cry.

It's people like Luke who pull me back from the ledge when I get all wound up about the state of the world today. I have to pull back and sometimes I can't do that on my own. Plus my friends make me laugh. We meet for coffee or conversation or class or what have you, maybe a dog walk. Usually one on one, because crowds aren't much of my thing. I have a couple of good friends that I have only known online. But that's why the telephone and internet were invented.

All of these people form my family unit. I rely on them to keep me sane and healthy. I do the same for them. I help when I can. It's not natural, though, to ask for emotional support from another person. When I was growing up, reliance on anyone but yourself wasn't such a good idea and it usually led to disappointment and disillusion. After awhile, you learn not to lean. But I can learn.

I'm not an island. You're not an island either. We need each other, even though we're not always at our best. In fact, that's when we need each other the most.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I don't want to be here anymore

"Mindy where did our country go? Why did it leave? When is it coming back? Because if it stays like this - I don't want to be here anymore.

It breaks my heart."

This was part of an email exchange between me and a friend of mine tonight. He's anxious about America. I can't say I blame him.

Now I realize that the past is never as good as I remember it. I know that. But I also know the difference between my romanticized pastoral memories and the reality of the world that died on a September day in 2001.

I liked a lot of things about our pre-terrorist world. One was the mostly absent word "terrorist". We had financial prosperity under President Clinton and were'nt in hock up to our asses to China. I could drive from coast to coast without having to show my papers. I could take bottles of wine on an airplane without having to remove my shoes and submit to pat downs and searches. There wasn't a giant ecological disaster that's so bad we don't even know how to stop it and are turning to private citizens to come up with ideas. Hurricanes hadn't destroyed New Orleans, Haiti was poor but not starving to death daily, and at some point, there were still salmon and sturgeon in the rivers up North.

Once upon a time, you could make it on a single salary and people had time to spend with each other. People didn't waste so much and didn't drink oil, high fructose corn syrup and fillers for breakfast. There just weren't as many people, period.

Now today, all of that has changed. America is a teenager, selfish, wasteful, indolent and sullen in her stance as a world power who can't pay her bills. She meddles in the business of other countries and fights losing wars, too proud to admit that she shouldn't be there anymore. We've polluted our environment and begun to burn our world in our selfishness.

I've had to place myself on a moratorium from the news for a week. I can't stop watching the oil spilling into the Gulf. It terrifies me to witness the blatant oppression of women in Oklahoma- the systematic removal of rights, the privatization of prisons and the placing of 300% more women in prisons here than anywhere else in the United States. We currently incarcerate more women in Oklahoma than in the entire world. Many states spend more on their prison systems than on their education systems.

There is so much oppression in the world; dangerous political parties becoming extremist and radicalized. To see racism run amok, dominant ideologies pressing out minority voices and religion taking residence in government. It's becoming fascist and totalitarian. I am afraid we are not a free people anymore. I am just afraid.

What can I do? I'm just one person. I raise the alarm, I recycle, I teach tolerance and try not to drive too much. I check on my neighbors, write to my grandma every week and call my family.

I want someone to tell me it's going to be ok. Right now, I don't see a future that's anything I'd want to turn over to my children.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

How I Learned to Drive

Yesterday, I sold my little Ford ZX2. It got good gas mileage and was gray and I just sold it because I want something else. I learned to drive when I was 14, I think. I had a step-dad named Gene and he was a pretty cool dude. Long tall Texan in Washington state. Real easy personality. Not much bothered him. Red/orange hair, short beard, freckles and a roadrunner tattoo. Buck teeth. Nice man. Family man. Treated us well. He and my mom bought a little 50 acre place way up the North Touchet, past Baileysburg, Crall hollow, Hatley gulch (really washboard, that road was), and past Wolf fork. You go left at Eaton's old place which is the property just north of Don Beaver's cabin with the carved beaver statute in the front.
Half mile driveway, all gravel~nobody else lived in that particular gulch. Had a little spring crick (that's slang for creek) running through it and seven acres of hay. Little barn half way up. Wild fruit trees, roses, bull snakes and some rattlers. Deer elk, occasional bears, lots of coyotes and sheep. Our sheep. Rogers gulch. If you get to Cahill or Bill Stearn's place, you've gone too far. Bill had a big dog too. Remember Bobby, that Great Pyrenees that would lay in the road? Yeah, cars would pull around him. Too much damage if you ran him over. He'd come over and beat up on our dog. Poor Corky-snorky-muppet-butt. It was probably because of his name.
Our house was really two trailers pushed together. One was a two bedroom double-wide with an extended out living room. The second was more of a camp trailer with two rooms and a kitchen/bath in between. Gene insulated them from the cold Washington winters with hay bales and we built a huge deck with a pantry and a roof that spanned both trailers. It was cozy, if ugly. Gene also built several outbuildings and a shop for himself and later an air compressor. And he trapped coyotes and foxes for their hides. I could go hunt or skin and dress an animal, but just couldn't bring myself to learn how to stretch a hide.
Gene taught my sister Patti how to change the oil and a flat tire. He taught me how to drive. In our one-ton Dodge pickup with lockboxes and manual transmission. It was the Blue Turkey. It looked a little like this. He parked it on the the lower driveway and I climbed in the cab. Gene explained about the clutch/gas exchange and how I'd need to practice that transition or none of it would work. I killed it. I killed it again. And again and again. I wanted to stop, quit and not learn how to drive a clutch. Nope, nothing doing. We still had the 1973 Toyota Corona Deluxe that Patti let me drive when I was 8. Why couldn't I learn on that? Because this was a valuable lesson. I got frustrated and had to calm down, but Gene didn't let me get out of the cab. He wouldn't let me give up. So I didn't. Finally, the truck went forward. Then backwards. Then forwards again. I realized I was shaking and that I had a death grip on the steering wheel.
Over the course of six months, I got better at it and used the truck to haul hay from the barn to the animals. Corky would jump in the back for a short ride. Once, I backed it into the broad side of the barn. Didn't even phase that truck.
I've had other cars over the years. I drove the Corona a lot, and our little blue Datsun truck through the rest of high school. No tape deck, only a radio that worked some of the time. If you pressed the gas too quickly, some thingamajigger would come undone. It would accelerate out of control until you turned it off, pulled over and popped the hood, reconnected the accelerator and went on your way. No real big deal. No air conditioning on any of our cars anyway. We had 2/80 a/c. Roll down two windows and drive 80 miles per hour the way nature intended. With our mom in her Bronco, it was 4/60. Not as good. Yvette and I would be late for school (as usual) and we'd go as fast as we could, honking past Uncle Vernon's house and performing a little low altitude flying. That's about as much fun as I ever had, and I didn't even realize it.
Over the years I've had a few different vehicles. Most were crappy but some were fun. I bought a 1977 Firebird that I taught myself to powerslide in. When I lived in Las Vegas, my car was rear-ended and my ex-husband let me drive his non-air conditioned, two-toned (primer black and brown) Toyota. Yes, no air conditioning in Vegas. I almost died on a daily basis. No wonder I hated it there.
I'm not sure what I'm going to get next. I have a little time, what with my scooter and bicycle and only needing to get to the city to teach twice a week. I sort of want an old reliable truck so I can haul stuff. The kind like the Blue Turkey, where if I wanted to I could put a camper on the back or some stock railings and haul around a couple of sheep. I guess it doesn't make a huge difference though, since I don't have a camper or a bunch of livestock.
What I really want is what I already have: someone to believe in me.