Sei sup mmmmmmmmm: ripple in still water.

I wanted to write tonight. I took care of all the things I needed to take care of today and I was all ready to give myself time to sit and write. But I couldn’t. I mean, obviously I could have in a literal fingers-to-keys kind of way, but not in a metaphorical making-meaning(ful)-meaning kind of way.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

I wanted to write about this video I took from JM’s car in Paris this summer.

I wanted to write about something satisfying. Like about taking a group of high school seniors to listen to a conversation with US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on a Friday night and having them come out of the talk and say, “He is all about the Social Contract, isn’t he?”

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But, no.

I suppose if I were a writer, I would say I had writer’s block. But I am not really a writer, am I? Only in so far as one with an Instagram is a photographer, or one who goes to church is a Christian (I wanted to write about the Pope too, because I cannot get enough of the Pontiff.) Instead, I sat. I considered meditating, but I didn’t want to make the cat move, and I sort of suck at meditation anyhow.

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken,
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air.

I turned 45 this week. I sat with that for a while. 45. Forty five. Cuarenta y cinco. Sei sup mm. Fifty minus five.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

Maybe that is why I can’t think of anything good to write. Maybe by the time you get to be this age, you are supposed to have a whole bunch of real things to write about, and here I sit with my immaculate home and my two cats and some loud Eighties music in my unbearably hip neighborhood, and no typical accomplishments like husbands and divorces and kids and shit to write about.

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

I was born in 1970. Do you know how long it takes to scroll to that year when you are filling out your birthdate on-line? You have to pick your finger up off the touch pad at least twice. That shit is crazy. Nixon was the president and my Grandma M tried cocaine. That would have been something to see.

In 1970 things were pretty fucked up.

I came of age in the 1980s. Do you know how accidentally iconic the Eighties have become? What I know recall about the Eighties could feather your hair. I still love the music, hipsters still love the fashion. We are all still paying for the politics.

In the 1980s things were pretty fucked up.

I got some education in the 1990s: formal and otherwise. Do you think everyone assumes the time they opened their minds is the more relevant than that of others? I don’t know, but a lot of shit happened in the nineties. And then at the end of 1999 the world didn’t end and I think a lot of people thought that was pretty fucked up

I had my mid-life crisis in the mid-90s. Which makes sense because I never really thought I would live very long (which is kind of dumb of me because the women in my family tend to live a very long time.) For whatever reason my mid-life dramz kicked off at 34. It took me about four years to sort that shit out.

Mid-life crises are pretty fucked up.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

On the weekend leading up to my birthday I met someone who is in her mid-30s and appears to be on track to have a midlife crisis just like mine. (Apparently it’s not just movies and politicians from the decade that never go away.) I told her I had to sail away to China to deal with it. She did not get the musical reference, but I am fairly certain she is on board with the rest of it. I predict she breaks up with her boyfriend before the end of this year (not due to my counsel, mind you – I am not a meddler, just a sharer.)

Maybe the reason this birthday isn’t sitting so well with me is that I don’t have anything to be in crisis about because I already got all destructive and ridiculously reckless ten years ago and so it feels empty of purpose. I emerged from my midlife crisis down one Wal-Mart-shopping boyfriend and one suburban tract house, but as my kids would say: I am not about that life.

Life in with the suburbs was pretty fucked up.

You, who choose to lead, must follow
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

This week was my fifth repatriated birthday. The birthday itself was not particularly eventful, but at this point in one’s life, that seems like a win. A dear friend I have known since the 8th grade said to me, “I hope you feel how much you are loved.” Yes, L, I did. And here I am, in a great city, with great hair, a few new wrinkles, amazing friends, no involuntary responsibilities, and I am alive.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

So, happy birthday to me: good hair, good shoes, wrinkles, and a potty mouth, but crisis free. That’s livin’: L-I-V-I-N.

That seems like a lot to write about.

I’ll get back to writing in no time, I am sure.

You hate to write and that hurts me…

“Oh my gaawwwwwd. I hate writing!”

This extended, full-bodied, overly punctuated declaration, emanates with strength, but not actual malice from one of the most vociferous students I teach. The irony of her simultaneous loquacious nature and proclaimed disdain for the words that allow for this is not lost on me. But at the moment it reminds me of all the things I have been thinking as I read page after page after page of forced reportage on subjects ranging from bioethics to drone usage, reproductive rights to media consolidation, the disappearance of empathy as a result of internet use to wealth disparity. Amazing and interesting (and self-selected!) subjects all. And still the writing… it  reads like the pained prostrations of an injured (or maybe insolent) child.

When I turn to my student, one who always says to me, ‘Why do you use such big words?’ [To which I always say, ‘Because why not? What else could be more powerful, surreptitious, surprising, thought-provoking, amusing… all at the same time?’] I remind her, as I do in so many situations, that her hate, her vitriol, is always a choice.

How can you hate writing? I think as I reflect on her spoken words, (and the abused lexical orphans I have been trying to salvage in the papers I have been reading.) You, who have taken every freedom these words have offered you, changing them, reshaping and redefining them. You objectify and adjectify. You noun verbs and adjectivize nouns. You coin neologisms with a wondrous recklessness. That’s suss; wet; trifling. They have allowed you to do this in order for you to show your best, most creative, most unique, charming and interesting self. They speak for you, they let you do things to them, anything you need!

How can you hate writing? I wonder as I look at this young lady who has explained to me the nuanced differences between ratchet (the adjective not the verb or the noun) and ghetto (the adjective – of course – not the noun). This same strong woman so wildly influenced by tone – yours and hers.

How can you hate writing? I wonder as I see in her face a wide open future we both genuinely hope for. How else will you be able to leave the legacy you dream of if no one has the ability to write it down, to find the perfect words that can capture all that is you?

That is why I use all those big words, I think.

Charming
Dazzling
Fascinating
Splendid
Magnificent
Beautiful
Bewitching
Statuesque
Pulchritudinous!

She smiles and she knows, and this is how I know her earlier attestation is frivolous, flash, perfunctory even. She doesn’t hate writing, she just hasn’t got to know it yet.

And I get back to reading the essays. And the first magnificent paragraph my eyes fall upon begins thusly:

In the near future, we may no longer have to subject our children to the random flurry of the genetic lottery. In fact, thanks to the fascinating advances of modern science, people today can cherry pick certain biological traits for their potential future offspring.

Perhaps we are going to be alright after all.

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Feel the Power.

Empowerment is a terribly obvious concept that becomes painfully elusive when a definitive explanation is required. The easy way out is to say it is a deeply personal and therefore entirely subjective notion. But that cannot be true when it is something that is apparent to everyone when they are in the presence of it. So, it is not good shoes. Or a Black Amex. Or being physically intimidating through size or aesthetic. It is not a style or something learned, picked up from the celeb du jour. It is not exactly some higher consciousness or enlightened state. (Though I would be remiss to suggest that none of these things contribute to empowerment.) In the simplest of terms, the only measure of empowerment that I could settle on is eye contact. In every context, manifestation, or situation that I could consider, the greatest equalizer of status, position, persona, and character has always been eye contact.

A while back I was asked to contribute a few words (ha – a few – well, I tried…) to a publication I have been fortunate enough to contribute to a few times on how I would describe empowerment. My contribution is above. But since then, I’ve been thinking about it more. I am lucky, as I have never really felt absent personal power. This is not to say that I have not been in situations and circumstances where I did not have the power I imagined, or that I always effectively exploited my prowess, but at the very least I have felt worthy of being empowered.

When I first was discussing the prompt with the lovely Ginger, editor of the magazine, we were trying to succinctly – as much as one can over cocktails – to get at the heart of empowerment. We tossed a series of ideas back and forth; what were the times we felt empowered, how did we recognize this in others, how did one achieve it… It was delectable food for thought.

  • Empowerment to me means being able to look someone in the eye no matter how they are treating you.
  • Empowerment to me means looking into the eye of those who most people would choose to ignore.
  • Empowerment to me means having the courage to stand up for what you believe in without having to demean others for holding different priorities.
  • Empowerment to me means having the wisdom to know that some people are dangerous, be it physically, psychologically, or emotionally, and you are not weak to walk away.
  • Empowerment to me means recognizing that some people will never hear you or see you or acknowledge you in a way that makes you feel good, and you have to let that go.
  • Empowerment to me means owning your thoughts and actions and knowing you are the only one who has control over them.
  • Empowerment to me means seeing the potential in people.
  • Empowerment to me means understanding that kindness is not weakness,
  • Empowerment to me means keeping your head up when people lay their shit on you, and knowing that it will always, eventually, make its way back to them, and you have no role to play in that reality.
  • Empowerment to me is seeing the students I teach stand up for what is right – and most importantly stand up for themselves.
  • Empowerment to me is knowing that my height, my shoes, my situation, have nothing to do with the presence I can wield…
  • Empowerment to me is knowing which droids are the ones you are looking for.
  • Empowerment to me is understanding that we are all in this together, and those who choose to ignore that fact will eventually realize they were wrong.
  • Empowerment to me is having the courage to be authentic.
  • Empowerment to me is this 11-year-old boy taking down ignorant racists with grace and calm.
  • Empowerment to me is one of my 15-year-old students standing up on a stage all by herself and belting out a classic:

And sitting with all these thoughts on the yoga mat today moving from prasarita padottanasana to sirsasana – my favorite asana for gaining perspective – I thought about how lucky I am to be able to look people in the eyes, something that the shifty, the shady, the less than honest, the insecure, the big talkers with no walk… are unable to do. At the end of my practice sitting in agnistambhasana, I thought about the traditional Hindu/Indian salutation of namaste. It means ‘I bow to you’ in the most literal sense, but in a larger context it suggests the spirit that is me sees the spirit that is you.

That is empowering.

And so are my girls right here… check out the spirit in Kheyaira, Kara & Lud.

Own your shit and look people in the eye… not bad rules to live by.

Fall Semester Endeth. Finally.

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It was rather a long haul, I must admit. And when pressed for reasons why, they do not easily come to mind. For the first time in many moons I was teaching a known and familiar curriculum, my class sizes are totally manageable, my life, fairly stable. So, what then? What made this the longest-semester-EVER? It could be that I closed it out with some truly funky gross sickness. Or that the election made it all the more tense. Or perhaps it was the unfortunate placement of the winter hols (not to be misconstrued and unfortunate hols….) I am not knowing.

But I am glad it is over.

Or mostly over.

Now that the window to turn in work has really closed, and my grades are all done and entered, comes the most aggravating part of being a teacher. The begging for grade changes. And these come primarily from able-minded students who chose to coast all semester for various reasons, approaching all sorts of threat levels on the teenage drama thermometer, but rarely from the kids who really, truly, need to speak up.

It gets me thinking about grades: the medium of exchange in the world of academia, and it is a conundrum. How accurately can a grade reflect ability? Hard to say. But a grade certainly can reflect intention and adherence to protocol. And I wonder which might be the more important.

There must be a medium of exchange. Of that we all agree. Just look at UC Santa Cruz where for years they endeavored to do away with grades and offered narrative evaluations at the end of courses. (I weep for those graders). But in the end, they all had to be translated to grades anyhow if a student had designs on graduate school of any sort. So they were rendered moot. Now the professors there spend hours upon hours writing narrative evaluations AND give a grade. Awesome.

Anyhow, since there must be some benchmark, something that says, yes, this student was conscious, this student learned the ‘majority’ of the material, this student made academic gains in skill, this student improved upon their understanding of…. of what? We have grades.

The use of grades is not a new rule. It is not like last week I told my students, “Okay, we are going to give you a grade at the end of all of this so impress me!” All along, students know that the grades are what come at the end and that this will be the measure affords them choices down the road. Or not. Seemingly, if one is aware of all this, then they would make decisions accordingly. Even if they are teenagers who are categorically not renown for decision-making skills, this seems like a fairly cut and dried situation. Recently I was handed my high school transcripts, along with my original college applications (mom has been cleaning out the garages…) and I had a look.

I graduated from a very mediocre school, it seems that should be admitted. We didn’t have too many AP choices (though I took them all) and I took PE every year. I also recall being fairly disenchanted by high school towards the end (par for the course, I think.) This being said, I graduated with a 3.76 unweighted GPA and ranked #16 in my class. I entered UCSD as a sophomore by credit (partly due to AP scores and partly due to an exchange program in Guadalajara.)

What is more striking to me now is not the difference in my grades to those of my students, but the other little things. Like, in a million years I would have NEVER contacted my teachers about my grades. They were what they were. [I think my mom talked to three of my teachers in my high school career about grades… Geometry, World History and Economics…. the first for a cheating accusation – which still stands as one of the most hilariously inept suggestions ever, not because I never cheated, but in this case because of whom I was accused of cheating from (!) – the second for a D on a test that was clearly a teacher sending a message – got it – and lastly for a personality conflict (shocker) with a teacher that had compelled him to lower my academic grade rather than my “citizenship” grade.] In fact, I remember getting report cards and that was how you knew what your grades were – there was no online program where you could track the entry of every grade. The equation seemed simple: do work, get points. Don’t do work, don’t get points. The consequences were also simple. Bad grades, no sports eligibility, or something. This was not within my high school self’s ken. For me bad grades equated to, as my mom often plainly reminded me, limited choices down the road. “Huh,” she’d say. “Well, that will eliminate some of your choices in the future.” I have told you already that she was a master of PsyOps.

Now we are working with kids facing the following realities:

  • Far greater competition to get into college
  • Far less significance for having gone to college
  • Far greater uncertainty about the future
  • Far less cultural and social value on education outside of performance markers like position of status and salary

Knowing this it is shocking to me that some of my students who, with more resources and support than I can articulate, still do so little while having this strangely passive attitude about it all, like, maybe something will miraculously happen at the end and that D- will become a B or even an A. And if this does not happen then it was not their fault and it just is what it is.

Then comes the justifying. My favorite one is the whole, “Oh, I could totally get A’s I am just not into it (the more honest among them will just say they are lazy – though with a disturbing hint of pride.)” There are also the blame shifters: this is not my fault it is… my family, my job, I can’t take tests, I suck at math, I got a concussion, my — died, I got suspended, you don’t grade fair. There’s the bargainers. If you change my grade I will: never be tardy again, do all my work next semester, whatever. The latest addition to the repertoire has been the intellectual entreaty. This I find most interesting. Not just for the semantic two-step it affords, but because of the ultimate irony that it exposes.

As a high school student, grades are not a measure of intellect, it is a measure of the ability to be a student. While these two things certainly overlap and intersect at various points, the reality is that they are very different. In high school, grades are measuring the degree to which you are able to demonstrate skills that will help you develop and refine your intellectual acumen down the road. If you glean some cool information along the way that is awesome, but it is a bonus. As your high school teacher I am looking at your ability to get shit done. Can you be on time? Can you remember a writing utensil…. ever? Do you meet your responsibilities? Do you do what you say you will do? Do you take the steps necessary to allow yourself to succeed? (Assigned reading for homework does not mean you have no homework, FYI.) Do you know how to effectively and appropriately communicate with peers and teachers, and do you realize that unique approaches are required? Do you turn in the work which you clearly think you are above doing in spite of your opinion? Do you know how to find answers to your questions? Do you know what questions to ask? Can you manage all of the above 90% of the time? Okay, then, you get an A. If not, then you did not take care of your business and you do not deserve an A. Truly. It is not a mystery.

And don’t worry, it is the job of graduate school to access your intellect, so that is waiting for you down the road.

That is, assuming you made a couple of wise choices along the way, and remembered to bring a writing utensil to class, at least occasionally.

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