Saturday, March 15, 2014

Up to My Ides in March

Beware the ides of March, I’m tellin’ ya.

When my boyfriend was a young man, really still a boy, in communist Yugoslavia in the mid-1960s, he spent the dull hours of never-ending school doodling naked ladies. He was very good at it. One day, during a history lesson (or “history” lesson, this being Yugoslavia), he had doodled a naked Marshal Tito (how to say this delicately?) butt-fucking a naked Leonid Brezhnev, when his teacher noticed him not paying attention and walked to his desk. What was he drawing? “I thought, oh, my god, this is it. I will be kicked out,” said my love H, (*Miss O’ will use H in lieu of a name, because she’s really trying to spare him public exposure, poor guy. –ed) in his seductive Montenegrin accent—he hated school, though, so part of him was almost hopeful. “And my teacher pick it up. He didn’t say nothin’, but he keep lookin’ at it. Finally, he said, ‘This is good. Can you make me one? But with clothes, uniforms?’” And that night H went home and drew the picture his teacher had asked for. H’s dad saw what he was drawing, and H explained why he was doing it. His dad looked at it. “It’s good,” his dad said, finally, in one of those rare instances of praise that people of our generation, and before, understand. And H delivered the drawing to his teacher the next day. “I was thinkin’ lately if this man, if he’s still alive, still has that picture.” H drew on a cigarette, smiled, chuckled. It got your Miss O’ thinking about anal.

I kid!

It got me thinking about who I was at, say, 14 or 15, and since this is a 15th, why not write about that? It’s Saturday, March 15, 2014, warm going back to cold, and I’m not exactly dying to get out of my pajamas or to stop drinking coffee. Kind of like when I was a teen.

Bordering at times on being a little goody two shoes (which phrase I just looked up—who knew?) though hardly an angel, I wasn’t a kid who really “got in trouble” in the regular sense. Your Miss O’ mostly got in trouble for laughing (H was the same, he told me)—that was third grade, when two kids who had been left back (for what would become obvious reasons), John and Linda, realized they could tell Little Lisa jokes and she would fall out of her desk in convulsions. Moving Little Lisa around on a room-wide tour of desk-hopping did little to alleviate the problem. Why was a giggler like me forever being placed in the midst of the “bad” kids? It occurs to me now that my naturally cheerful and friendly ways were supposed to have a calming effect on these very tough kids. Linda was a rock-hard bully and possibly learning-disabled, certainly hyper; John was probably learning-disabled, but so charming; each also had occasional fits of frightening temper that seemed to come from nowhere—knowing what I know from teaching, I see that they doubtless acted out partly to get the attention off their academics, much the way H did by schoolroom doodling of his feminine ideal, or fucking dictators; and partly because they really should have been outside running and jumping like mad things; or rather, like children. I don’t know what I needed to be doing, but I really liked school. Generally, I was just happy to be here.

Here Comes Trouble

Miss O' aged 11, photo by back fence neighbor, Phil Christie,
in what is most certainly March. 
I can just about count on one hand the other incidents of Trouble that I remember:

In second grade, I got in trouble with Mrs. Angle, who turned 65 that year and had to retire. I’ve written about her before, but I called her Mrs. Pills. I rolled my eyes a lot in second grade, began questioning the purpose of, for example, tracing a butterfly pattern by pressing paper and pencil against the window; wondering at the practice telling our dreams after naptime when she only accused Miss O’ of “lying” in elaborate fantasies about going to Egypt with her classmates (well, duh); and marveling at the old teacher's easy acceptance of wrongly-recited poetry lines from other students, but not from Miss O’. Mrs. Angle screwed up her tiny blood-red lips at me all year long, and while I was incapable of loathing, really, she made me feel quiet dread in her presence.

In middle school, I remember serving one detention after school, for running in the hallway. Mr. Dittman, who was the Czar of No Running in the Hallways, caught me out. A math teacher and former Marine with a geometrically precise haircut to match his background, he’d chase running kids down the hall—running HIMSELF—as if chasing down an enemy on the battlefield, willing to put even more kids in danger in the process if needed, because a cause is a cause, goddammit. The day of my detention—I vaguely remember getting written up en route to gym, running late because of a stuck locker, maybe—even the teacher in charge felt sorry for me, as we waited until 4:15 (a full hour), and I turned to staring out the window to fill the time after homework. Whoever he was, he let me leave around quarter till—I’m sure he wanted to get home, too, now that I think of it—but I could see in his face that he knew this was ridiculous. Still, on a certain level I remember being impressed that no matter how “good” a kid you were, the rules applied to all of us. If we didn’t all share in the consequences, how would we learn? I was pretty philosophical even at 12. (What was cool was discovering, while on the yearbook staff one Saturday in 8th grade, that our sponsors thought Mr. Dittman was kind of insane. We included a cartoon of a monster with his haircut, a paper under his foot with "Detention" on it, and a thought bubble, "There's a lot more where this came from." It was the first time I ever felt "in," if you know what I mean. And affirmed in my own, unarticulated take on that stern teacher. As an adult I wonder what horrors the man lived through, and marvel that he really was a good math teacher, whatever his volatility. I mean, this was MIDDLE SCHOOL, for the love of fucking dictators.)

In high school, I got in real trouble with a teacher only once, I think: It was sophomore year, and my friend Mark, during a quiet working moment in Mrs. Ayres’s English class, decided to clean out his notebook. He threw onto my desk—two desks back—a few notes wrapped up like those triangle “footballs” (remember playing paper football in the cafeteria?). Note-passing being that most supreme of evils, even more heinous than doodles of national leaders of boo-fooing, Mrs. Ayres was up and over to my desk like a shot. (It was a ridiculously small classroom in a really overcrowded high school, a makeshift formed from an old storage closet, so it wasn’t like it was hard to get to me, even though 31 of us were crammed into it.) (And it was in that same room one day that Dave Gutierrez huffed on his lighter—everyone smoked then, even school athletes, and they could get a permit from their parents to smoke in the bus tunnel downstairs, which seriously was about the creepiest way imaginable to enter a school in the morning—and the thing was to suck as much butane as you could to the top, click it, and see how high the flame would go. Once when Mrs. Ayres was writing something on the small portable chalkboard, her back turned, Dave, who’d been huffing it, as I say, all period, waiting for his chance, clicked the lighter, shooting a flame so high it singed the ceiling. It just as quickly stopped, but our collective gasp caused our teacher to turn around. “What?” she asked. We froze. We said, “Nothing” together; and as she turned she was sure she smelled something…but Southern politeness, another word for denial, (achieved after rapid-fire thoughts of “What was that/ is it more trouble than it’s worth/ is it worth calling a principal or a fire department/ god no it’s nearly time for school to be out/ let me assign this homework”) allowed her to return to the lesson at hand. Dave shook with swallowed laughter until the bell mercifully rang a few minutes later.) Where was I? Oh, the NOTES. So Mrs. Ayres took up the notes Mark had passed me and proceeded to read them. Just before class ended, Mrs. Ayres called me out into the hallway. (I noticed she never spoke to Mark, because, what, “boys will be boys"?)

The juvenile nature of the notes—a back and forth from freshman year, satirizing various annoying classmates and creating outlandish scenarios featuring their demise, or at least incarceration—caused Mrs. Ayres to lose an enormous amount of respect for me. “Lisa, frankly I thought you were more mature,” she intoned.

It was all I could do not to burst into sobs—I think I imagined that I might be arrested—but I made a decision to see her dignity and raise her a queenly: I stood very tall, met her eye directly, played the part of older-but-wiser woman of the world, casually explaining in my finest stage “offhand” voice: “I am. Now.” And I explained, “We wrote those last year. It’s what kids do,” adding thoughtfully that Mark doubtless wanted to show me how far we’d come. Or something like that. She was not terribly moved, but dismounted from her high horse nonetheless. For all my grandstanding, the look of disappointment on her face made an impression, and I never passed a note again. Well, not until years later at faculty meetings when I was a teacher. (That’s right, kids: Miss O’ and Mr. CORBIN were famous for cracking each other up as the principal led us in our professional monthlies.) I also thought hard about what it means to make fun, and decided that making fun of peers was, indeed, a really immature way to do it. The irony of this was that Mark and I were among the kindest kids you’d ever want to know. But even kind kids like to take a step out of character, especially freshman year. (Once, that same freshman year, when we had a substitute in World History I, I took advantage of busy-work to craft a “To the Editor” diatribe against student swearing in the hallways. I used my best William F. Buckley style, closing with, “Goddammit, I shouldn’t have to put up with this shit.” I passed it back to Steve Moore, who, after nodding approval, finally came to the final line and laughed so hard I thought the sub would take the paper and have me suspended, but she seemed glad to see a teenager laughing, a human thing. What did I learn? Getting away with funny stuff is awesome.) 

Generation Oh, Well

When I was a teacher, before someone lamely coined them Gen Y, I called them Generation Oh, Well. I remember coining it in the women’s faculty restroom one lunchtime, as a veteran social studies teacher lamented the lack of inquisitiveness of her students. “What do you call kids like this? Generation Zero?” she asked, rhetorically. And I quipped, “Or Generation Oh, Well.” She smiled and said, “That’s rather brilliant.” No, I thought, it’s a cheap shot, but it was sort of prescient—all these young people today, eyes and thumbs latched onto devices that promise informational access without real context, and no particular aims to gain that context. Abortion outrage (in the midst of climate catastrophe), for example, among the 30-and-marrieds that I see on Facebook sends me into fits because of their lack of historical sense and context. (That we are even debating abortion in 2014, for example, shows that no one remembers the history of the coat hanger and the back alley, the 20th century of fear until Roe v. Wade. Access to abortion was private, I’ve read, until around the time the women got the vote; surely that is not a coincidence.) This morning I happened on this wonderful article by Maria Popova about the late writer Italo Calvino, one of my favorites. In the close of a letter to a friend whose recent essay was (the antithetically named) “pro-life,” Calvino (who has spent the letter denouncing his friend’s anti-woman and anti-choice position, calling him immoral, in fact), writes, from love and kindness:

I am sorry that such a radical divergence of opinion on these basic ethical questions has interrupted our friendship.

Divergent opinions, in this case, show the difference between thoughtfulness (Calvino) and reaction (his friend), and I marvel at the infinite patience and yet firm stance Calvino maintains. He’s able to become the woman—takes the experience from a point of view not his own, and it's what makes him a writer, after all; and that makes all the difference. Can this happen in a world where kids are not looking up, looking out?

I am always sorry for anything that interrupts a friendship, and yet I know, too, that it’s how we grow. Stupid growing.

I Almost Lost to February

What I’m thinking about today, too, is how much we have to fuck up to become who we are, how many wrong turns, how much talking must be done to get any goddamn where in this life. Sure, we can talk all we want about a road not taken, but we took a road, for one reason or another, and we have to own it. But to own it, we have to talk about it, wrestle with it, fling it out into the universe and see what it’s like when it comes back.

H has evenings where all he can do is brood over the roads not taken, the money not made, and chances he didn’t take. Miss O’ has depressions. H wants to quit smoking; Miss O’ quit drinking for an extended Lent. We’ll see how it goes, but in February it all seemed to be going south. After a month of cold and snow and non-communication, Miss O’ called H over to talk. Over tea and calm reflection on who we are and where we’re going, H concluded, finally, “February was a shitty month. Lisa, we had a shitty month.” H, we had a shitty month. And some months are like that, we agreed. Love just doesn’t hold that loving feeling without mindfulness, and so, although H, regrettably, forgets to wear his back brace each day on the job, or occasionally Miss O’ breaks yet another toe and needs to remember to make a buddy splint each morning, but might not remember at all—and even if today we are more in love than before, as if that were possible, Miss O’ and her Mr. H march into March clear-eyed that we have to, whatever else happens, talk at least once every day if we are going to hang together. 

Our longest talks are about religion, and the damage religion has done to so much of human thought. We aren't talking about the idea of awe about something larger than ourselves, but about institutions and the imposed strictures on behavior and thought. The other night he told me this story: H has a Moslem name, and shortly after 9-11, a tenant in his building (where H is the super) realized this, as for the first time, though they'd known each other for years. He began treating H with contempt, walking past, glaring, or not looking at all, and H would respond by smiling, saying, “Hello, how are you?” every single day. One day, the guy pulled a giant silver cross on a heavy chain out from under his polo shirt and screamed at H, “Here is MY religion,” and H gently pulled out his own chain, with globe amulet, even as he "wanted to smack the shit out of him," and said, “Here is mine. Have a good day.” And to himself, "Dumbass. He didn't even know what it was."

The whole world in his hands.
(Or as H puts it, "The whole entire global.")
This is the man I was meant to love.

It’s March.

At Trinity Wall Street Church last weekend, I went to hear a concert of Lamentations sung by their renowned choir, of which a former student is a member. En route, I encountered a giant confluence of Hassids. I always find homogeneous groups unnerving, but especially when they are all of one religion. They don’t seem to see anyone beyond themselves. They march together, past, into, away from the world, acknowledging only each other. I see this among Jehovah’s Witnesses outside the big meeting hall on my street in Queens. I see it among Youth Groups. And I see it among big business types, for whom Money is their God. It really unsettles me, and so the music helped. I am not unaware of the irony of stepping into a church to hear it. So I’m always wrestling with religion—its historical significance, but mostly, the inspired music notwithstanding, its terrible costs. And really scary fashion sense.

But…they use cell phones. And the subway.  I don't get it.

Last night, H and I stood on my little porch—this sweet little boon of outdoor space I have in New York City, poised though it is over the co-op’s trash alley—staring up at the sky, the moon behind thin clouds, and marveling at how nice it was out, maybe 40, practically balmy. “And tomorrow up to 54, I heard,” H says, and I say, “And on Sunday, 27 and snow.” H takes a drag off his cigarette, and says sagely and with a shrug, “That’s March.” The more I think about March—it’s life, isn’t it? It’s transition and upheaval, highs, lows, hope, despair: Seasonal shifts, marriage and divorce, nailing the call-back or closing the show: And it seems that we only call each other and look to each other at moments of enormous transition—transitions are the key to everything—good theater, good growth. No news is good news…or else it’s death. March 15 seems to be a day of big transition, seasonally, historically, and emotionally.

If you don’t know “Fifteen,” the theme from a cult movie called The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, sung by the miracle of Harry Belafonte, let me tell you it’s a honey on a song. “At fifteen, I saw her/ and thought her/ so beautiful I kissed her/ from a distance/ for my young love was locked inside…”  I can’t find it on iTunes, which is a shame, but it’s a pretty song about how we see a love over time, as we change over time, in our youth. I got to humming it, “The sweetest wine in the world is the fruit on the vine,” it begins, and closes, finally, “The fruit on the vine is mine.” I don't feel that way a lot, growing older as I am, the vine withering the way it is. Beware the ides of March, I tell myself; but, dammit, plan the garden anyway. What the hell? I'm going after the fruit on the vine. Maybe I'll fuck it up, but I won't say, "Oh, well, fuck it." You, too. Maybe someone will surprise you and ask for more of what you can offer, but wearing clothes this time. 

Love from among the doodles,
Miss O’

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