You are born with your heart in an egg. Then life upends you, and shatters the shell. It leaves you a room to be there fully—so you can cry and sing and scold and call. Then death arrives with its saws and hammers. It cracks your chest until the chest splits and crumbles. And then you fly away.
This is a school our ship passed in Iceland. The children stood on a rather distant bluff and hollered hello. We waved, but they kept hollering. So I cupped my hands to my mouth, and I shouted my best halloo. And I scared the crap out of both James and my parents. And my mom ruffled up her sense of family decorum, and she told me to hush. But then the children—they whooped. And in unison, they all shouted, “Welcome to Iceland!”
(Originally posted May 31, 2017)
I’ve had so many great teachers that I could probably make my own Lifetime dramady, but seeing that this is teacher appreciation day, I thought I’d tell one story in particular.
When I was a senior in high school, I was editor of the school newspaper. I was very proud of this post, very proud of my column. I had a staff jersey that, for the name and number, said Short 1. And then on the front, it had the newspaper’s name: Palmetto and Pine.
Now my high school wasn’t in the absolute best part of town, and during one day that spring, the principal announced over the intercom that we should not go outside that afternoon. Gang activity was emergent. The situation was dangerous.
Mind you, this was way before lockdowns. This was mostly before school shootings. Oh my Lord, my newspaper column used to joke about the Spanish teacher using a bazooka. It was a different time.
Well. I was a newspaper reporter. And what was happening outside with the gangs was news. So I grabbed the staff camera. I tied my Keds, and I straightened my half-and-half, and I went outside to take a picture of… gangs? Musical numbers with switchblades?
This was not my brightest moment. And I will pause here to say that twenty years later, another very good teacher stopped this story as I told it to her, so she could specifically tell me this wasn’t my brightest moment. Honestly, I thought she was going to write me up right there in the restaurant.
Out I went with the camera. Out I walked past the first-floor classrooms, and the parking lot, and the bike compound. There was nothing doing. I think I saw a police car blocking an avenue. After a while, I got sweaty. I took a picture of an empty side street, and wandered back inside.
Now. It so happens that as I’d ambled past the classrooms, in pursuit of my scoop, I passed my French teacher’s window. I think he was holding study hall or something, because one of my friends said he just sort of stopped, and stood by the window, and told the class what was going on. Apparently he watched for a little while—maybe narrating the thing in French, for all I know. He was droll like that. But after my friend told me what happened, it wasn’t long before I figured out what he’d been doing. And the significance of his keeping watch has sort of grown on me as I’ve realized how foolish I’d been. I don’t know what he would have done if I’d gotten ganged. He wasn’t much of a Bruce Willis. But I think he was prepared to do something.
So that’s my story. I may have told it before. I might tell it again. I like it. Thanks, Doc.
(Originally posted May 8, 2018)
At yesterday’s community meeting, I heard an interesting thing. Somebody asked a white minister if he was racist. The answer was something I like, even though I’ve since modified it somewhat. It goes like this:
I am part of a racist community, but I try not to be racist. Still, because I know that I am tainted by this community, I will try not to become defensive when you show me ways that I am racist.
(Originally posted May 6, 2018)
Did you guys see this float by from George Takei? According to a Tinder survey–admittedly, it is Tinder–the number one fear women have about a blind date is that she’ll be killed. The number one fear that men have? That the woman will be fat. I remember this from my stint in online dating. I weighed 120 pounds at the time–but if anybody wrote on their profile that they liked a “woman who takes care of herself,” they were out.
(Originally posted April 20, 2018)
US News and World Report named Iowa the best state in the country. Our governor is all about this. And I too love Iowa, with its farms and its schools and its space. I especially love Iowa City, which Livibility ranked as the #2 most livable town in the country, and which UNESCO ranks as one of the most literary settlements in the world. But here’s something few people mention. (I’ve quoted it from my church’s bulletin): “The Sentencing Project, which compiles state-level criminal justice data from a variety of sources, tells us that the racial disparity in incarceration rates for black and white U.S. residents in the state of Iowa is 11.1:1”
After further research through the Sentencing Project, I’ve learned that the national sentencing average of black males vs. white males is 6:1. (I don’t know about females–but I assume the ratio is comparable.)
None of these stats is good, of course. But it’s clear that Iowa–that abolitionist bastion–has a problem.
(Originally posted April 15, 2018)
I love this picture for a few reasons: 1. These are my great grandmas, Blanche (left) and Nell. They’re sitting by my sister, Ali. 2. The grandmas are like, “Look at us! We’re sitting by a BABY! Quick, Nell. Let’s put on our ear protection!” 3. Blanche and Nell helped raise about half the people in my family. (And any number of them are welcome to correct what I say next.)
Blanche could have been an MLB scout. She sized up the local company teams, and could pinpoint who would win the regionals. She died in 1984, after she saw her Detroit Tigers win the series. Nell was a schoolteacher, and then a school principal, and then the house mother for a sorority. Back while she was teaching (I think), she wasn’t supposed to be married—so, from the school board at least, she just hid that part of her life. I believe I’ve also heard that she drove like a bat out of hell. Blanche did not drive, because when she was 15, she hit a cow while she was going about 10 miles an hour. She got out of the driver’s seat, and walked home. (The cow walked home, too.)
For the last few years of their lives, Blanche and Nell lived together, in the house where I sometimes go to work on my novel. They backed through the garage door once, because Nell forgot to put it up. When Nellie threw the car into reverse, Blanche knew the door was still down, but she couldn’t get the words out fast enough to warn Nell. And really, Nell was pretty hard of hearing Blanche anyway, so crash they went.
At that cottage, I thought of them whenever I left the driveway. In fact, I thought of them a lot. A great number of people have lived around that house; it’s been on our homestead for over a hundred years. But somewhat surprisingly, Blanche and Nell were the presence I actually felt. There they were, sitting in their chairs, clasping their handbags, as I went in and out.
“Did she put up the door?”
“I just saw her do it.”
“Did she put the door down?”
“She hasn’t left yet.”
“Are you wearing my glasses?”