Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What Can You Do?

It’s been about eight months since I started writing this blog.  I’ve avoided this subject that long,  though it’s the one issue that ignites enough fury in me that I feel I could really hurt a man, like, string him up by his scrotum from a flagpole outside the Governor’s mansion.  They have a flagpole there, right?  I’ve never been.  (If I wasn't already, I bet I'm now on a watch list for having written the words hurt - scrotum - Governor within six pages of each other.) I can see the problem clearly and at least fairly objectively I think, but a solution has evaded me.  I’m not even sure if most people know that there is a problem, or sense the magnitude of the effects that defunding education will have on this country in a very short time.  Those that do probably think, like I have, that there is little or nothing we can do to contribute to a solution, outside of voting for Frick or for Frack, and that’s just exactly what governors like Sam Brownback would like us to believe.  This morning it woke me out of a dead sleep, the question: what can I do?

I’m going to talk about public education.  I’m going to talk about our role, yes I said our role, in public education.  Doesn’t matter if you don’t have kids, doesn’t matter if they’ve already grown up and flown the nest and your job is done, doesn’t even matter if you don’t like kids.  The only reason not to read this is that you don’t like being alive and you hate the human race in its entirety.  

I’m lucky to live in Kansas, where the agenda of my state legislators is about as transparent as a freshly washed window, and the puppet strings are not so much strings as they are fat nautical ropes which are entirely visible to anyone who is willing to look up even a half inch over the perfectly coiffed hair of our plastic-headed governor.  The Great and Powerful Oz is still cooly pushing buttons behind a flimsy curtain in the corner of the room and distracting the unfortunate Tea Party with smoke and mirrors about same sex marriage and birth control and these poor fucks, bless their hearts, think they are campaigning for God himself.

There are two possible reasons that the Koch Brothers have invested so much in fundamentalist politics.  The first is that they are devout men of faith who believe that they are doing the work of God and maybe sometimes that means getting your hands dirty and buying elections.  Possible, I suppose.  The second reason is that they are capitalists who have found a group of people so convinced of their own righteousness that they are willing to allow corporations to buy their way out of environmental regulations, tax regulations, and lay down all the rules of the game in exchange for promising that gay people won’t be able to promote Satan’s Homosexual Agenda.  Seems like a fair trade, right?  I’m not going to be the one to tell them they’re being played, but the truth is that the dudes running the show would frack the holy land with Jesus’s own cross and wipe their brows with his shroud if it meant a few dollars.  They are in the middle of constructing a very elaborate and super bizarro Ayn Randian manifesto to the tune of billions of dollars in their own pockets, and you can connect the dots from their wallets right back to the dying or defunct social services in your own community.  Make no mistake, these people truly believe that educating children is a social service.  In their dream world education will be privatized, and if you can’t afford it for your kids, that’s tough shit.  The strong survive?  Yes.  The strong survive to grow up and dig ditches.  I guess the world needs a lot of ditch diggers.  

Two days ago I filled out the school enrollment forms for my three kids.  The oldest is in Junior High, the middle is in 5th grade, the youngest is starting her first year of pre-school.  Oh, how I love the pre-school enrollment form!

-What are you most proud of about your child?  This could take a while.  Can I continue on the back of the page?  

-Tell us some of her interests?  Well, she loves bugs and dirt and writing songs and writing songs about bugs and dirt.  

-What do you hope your child gains from this experience?  How to use glue and tape without getting them stuck in her hair.  Can you guys teach her that, because I haven’t been able to.  Ponytails have proven to be ineffective, so you’re going to have to work pretty closely with her.  

-What can you do to volunteer in the classroom?  Do you have any special skills to share?  Oh...

The other kids’ forms didn’t ask me that.  They just want social security numbers and who they should call if your kid needs stitches and you’re shacked up with your husband for the afternoon with the phones turned off.  

That’s what woke me up this morning.  Before 5:00.  From a very sound sleep.  Not the part about only three weeks until my husband and I can shack up while all three kids are at school.  The other part.  What can I do?

What can we all do?  Those of us who lament the hours teachers and kids spend preparing for standardized tests that in no way cultivate any of their potential or individual skills.  I actually had a young teacher tell me in a conference last year that my kid helps her sleep at night because she knows that he is going to test well.  The anxiety on her face was very real.  What kind of shit is that?  I’m not a teacher, but some of the smartest and kindest people I know are, and the frustration and indignation I feel for them having to do their job with one hand bound behind their backs by misguided state standards must be only a very small fraction of what they feel.  Those of us who are frustrated with the apathy in our state houses and the feeble and narrow minded notion that someone in the sky will take care of all this if we mandate some crazy rules about birth control... what can we do?  

Here’s the situation: the Koch Brothers and others like them are creating environmental and governmental destruction the effects of which will be felt for decades.  Simultaneously, they are lobbying to defund social services and cut spending in areas like public education.  It’s working.  Don’t take my word for it, do some research.  We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars in contributions to fundamentalist candidates, and tens of millions of dollars in tax exemptions for their corporations, and almost complete exemption from environmental regulation.  So at the same time they’re going unchecked and dumping shit everywhere and polluting our rivers and our house of representatives, they are seeing to it that the people who inherit the real debt will not be educated well enough to do anything about it.  Sound hysterical?  I am.  Sound paranoid?  I wish I was.  

I have never found powerlessness to be a hall without doors.  There are options.  Here are mine:  

I can sit back and bitch and yell TAX ME AND FIX THIS PLEASE!  but that would only work if Jesus had said anything about loving little children.  Hey, wait...  Okay, that’s just not going to work because there is no money in doing the right thing.

If I truly want to be effective in the current climate, I’m going to have to act directly and use what I have.  My special skills, like the pre-school enrollment form suggested.  That’s easy for the 4 year old set.  We’ll go sing songs and read books and hold some little hands on the field trip to the post office.  My husband will grumble about it for a few minutes on the way there, but he’ll thank me for signing him up to do it, and confirm once more that I know what’s best for him, like having a baby goat.  Besides, this wonderful art-based pre-school has been generous enough to grant us partial tuition because we are poor and my husband is kind of a big deal in the art community here.  We can pay the rest with our hands and our voices.

I don’t have a lot of money, but I have some extra time and some extra brainy brains to spare.  Two years ago I volunteered a few hours a week in the Title 1 Math room at my kids’ elementary school.  That’s the place for kids who need to catch up a little on math.  I’m great at math, but so are my kids.  They don’t need any help from me.  I put those resources to work somewhere they were useful since they weren’t needed at home.  The three wonderful women who worked in that room (they reminded me a little of the three witches in A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Who and Which and Whatsit) were insanely grateful for my help filing things and making copies and helping in small ways.  When I suggested that I could volunteer, Mrs. Who said “Let us just get our minds around this.  No one has ever offered.”  Then last year I thought I was too busy to commit to it again, so I didn’t.  That’s bullshit.  I can spare a few hours a week.

What if we all offered?

What if we each offered a small donation of time spent doing something we’re good at?  Or a little money to something that enriches and promotes something that’s been written out of the budget.  That’s a big list.  Art, physical education, music, languages.  Maybe you have a little money but no time to spare.  Maybe you know some other really busy people who have some money but no time.  Maybe you could get together to establish a small scholarship fund at a local tutoring center or basketball camp or art center.  Maybe you have no money but you know how to frame a picture or grow a tomato or critique an essay.  Or maybe, like me, you’re good at something that your own kids inherited the gene for and don’t need your help with.  Someone else’s kid probably does.  Ask an educator or administrator how you can help.

We’re going to have to tax ourselves.  

I’m not just asking this of parents of school aged children.  This is a challenge for all of us.  If you don’t have a problem with the current system, if you don’t care that today’s publicly educated children will not only not be able to compete on a global level, but might even lack the critical thinking skills to be able to identify and solve problems in their own backyards, then you are exempt from this challenge.  But if you’re like me, and you believe that they’re capable of more than filling out bubbles on a standardized assessment, it’s time to sign up.  

This is going to sound like canned cheese, but it’s the truth: I believe in us.  What can you do?

If you help teach a kid to think, you will kick the dentures out of these fat faces.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Scouts Honor: Where Motherhood Reconciles Indignation

A million years ago, I lived in a small studio apartment in Oceanside, California.  There were about two dozen small apartments in the complex, which was laid out courtyard style.  Imagine Melrose Place, then subtract some teeth and add cockroaches.  Because of the layout of the building and the paper thin walls, I was privy to a lot more of my neighbors’ activity than I’d have preferred.  But I could see a slice of ocean from my kitchen window, and the rent was, like, in the double digits, and I was scrape-the-sticky-change-from-the-ashtray-for-gas-money broke.  On the south side of my apartment lived the complex manager, a woman whose name I don’t recall, who had two young daughters whose names I do recall: Livia and Lexi.  To my north was another studio occupied by a woman named Michelle, who had a low, sultry voice, lightly tinted with the remnant of what had once been a deep southern accent.  She possessed by far the longest legs and most perfectly toned buttocks of anyone I’ve ever known, before or since.  

Both the apartment manager and Michelle regularly brought men home to their apartments in the evening.  Like I said, I wished I knew less about them than I did.  I also wished that the dude across from me hadn’t mounted an antenna on the roof so I wouldn’t have had to hear all his nerd-o CB chatter coming through my radio and phone.  I spent a lot of time at school and work and the beach, but when I was home, I read and listened to music and tried not to listen to the neighbors.  I especially tried not to listen to the apartment manager screaming at her daughters, calling them little sluts and worthless pieces of shit.  I tried not to listen, but then I’d find myself turning my stereo off and listening for the sound of something breaking or the sound of the girls crying.  There was never anything but the mother screaming.  I knew if I’d reported her, the girls would have been mute with terror and loyalty.  I watched closely for signs of physical abuse, but there were never any.  I thought surely this hideous bitch was bound to do something that would leave more evidence than her word against mine.  Something I could point to and say “Look there!  She hurts these children!”  She never left a mark.  She would scream at them and leave the house, then return home two or three hours later, usually with a young Marine.  

Sometimes I had the girls over to bake cookies and listen to records when their mom wasn’t home. The little one loved David Bowie.  Sometimes Michelle hung out with them, too, and let them put on her expensive make-up and high heels.  When she wasn’t working, that is.  We were both busy, but Michelle and I had a shared sense of obligation to bring a little nurturing into those girls’ lives.

Michelle brought home a lot of young Marines, too.  And some older ones.  And some business types, and some cowboys, and some concrete truck drivers.  The types of men she brought home varied greatly.  She was quiet and dignified, always said hello to me on her way past me on the stairs while the men following her turned their heads from me, always refusing to meet my eye.  It didn’t take long to decode that she was a prostitute.

One morning I was on my small balcony sipping coffee and watching my little slice of the ocean.  Michelle came out onto her balcony, long blonde hair falling over her shoulders, sipping her own coffee while a sheer, pale blue robe danced lightly around her long, perfect legs.  My hand to God, Tina Turner had nothing on this woman.  We talked for a minute, then she gave me a smile and a small wave before turning back to her door.  The breeze caught her robe just long enough to reveal to me the most prominent penis I’ve ever seen on a chick.  

Why am I telling you this?  It came to mind the other day when I was talking to my son, a scout of five years, about the decision of the Boy Scouts of America to maintain their longstanding policy against gays or lesbians serving as leaders of that organization.  By some bizarre twist in my associative brain, I was reminded of Michelle and this woman whose name I don’t remember.  I can answer immediately which of them I’d prefer to serve as den mother of my kid’s Cub Scout Troop.  I can tell you that I’d trust the one who is regarded by the leaders of that organization as an abomination, the perverse transgender prostitute, to teach and guide my son in matters of community service and how to load a crossbow over that wretched skank who violated her daughters’ dignity and safety and left them alone night after night so she could go pick up strangers to bring back to their home so we could all listen to her have sex through the thin walls.  

It kills me to know that the leaders of that organization, and the majority of its members, feel exactly the opposite.  I witnessed genuine nurturing in Michelle.  She saw a void in those girls’ lives, like I did, and did her best to fill it where she could.  I’m not saying either of these women would have ever wanted to volunteer for the Boy Scouts of America, but if they had, one of them would have been deemed fit to do so.  It would have been the woman who wore a cross on her neck and called her eight year old daughter a bitch.  It would have been the wrong one.  I can tell you without fear of heresy that Jesus himself would have taken one look at the two of them and picked Michelle for his dodgeball team.

After I read the online article about the Boy Scouts' decision, I scrolled down a bit to the reader responses.  I know better than that.  Nothing will make you pray that there is truth in the 2012 prophecy of impending complete human annihilation like reading the public’s responses to any story on MSNBC.com.  Hey, why don’t you just go start your own Gay Scouts of America, you faggots!  We are not good.  A cleansing is in order.  

I asked my eleven year old son how he felt about the Boy Scouts’ policy of discrimination.  His face grew tight.  “That’s really stupid,” he said.  “Yeah,” I said, “fuck the Boy Scouts, right?”  Whew!  Now we don’t have to sell that damn popcorn.  Not so fast.  “Mom, they’re a Christian organization.  I get that.  They have to hold true to their values to do what they’ve been doing, and what they’ve been doing has been good for me.”  He said it doesn’t mean he has to think like them, but that he’s learned CPR and how stop someone from bleeding to death and how to build things.  He said the Boy Scouts has made him a better, more interesting person.  The survival skills he’s learned there make him feel more confident.  He hasn’t learned to hate gay people there.  He’s still my kid, even when he’s with the Boy Scouts. He just skips right over all that morality stuff and gets right to building his tent.

Oh, this kid.  This kid works me over.

He effectively told me that maybe if more parents like me, who are teaching their kids that heart and character are the traits by which we choose our friends, let their sons be Boy Scouts even though some of the policies are offensive to us, maybe those boys can be more effective from the inside than they’d ever be shouting “Haters!” from the outside.

It takes a tremendous amount of commitment to volunteer for the Boy Scouts.  I am in no position to judge those people, having never done more than bake brownies for fundraisers.  I could never get past the part where you have to tuck that khaki shirt into your jeans.  I love my kid, but that is exactly where I draw the line.  

I’m grateful to all the volunteers who have touched my kids’ lives, the troop leaders and den mothers who humbly and courageously tuck their shirts into their jeans, the retirees who serve as docents at the museums, the author who came to read to them in kindergarten, anyone who has spent any amount of time doing something for free to enrich their lives even a little, just like Michelle did for Livia and Lexi.  There was something about the care she took, her willingness to share her very expensive perfume with little girls who didn’t know the difference between her real Chanel No. 5 and Designer Imposter’s skunky attempt at replication.  She was a nurturer, and I’m pretty sure a healer, judging by her popularity and repeat clientele. You might argue that her profession and lifestyle were unChristian, if that's your bag, but you will never convince me that she didn’t serve those children better than their own mother.  She nourished them.  She never damaged them.  

She would have been an awesome den mother.  

I’m going to take my cue from the boy on this one.  I’ve folded my knee-jerk indignation and neatly tucked it into a drawer way back in the closet of my psyche.  I did that, not because I’m not pissed off at the Boy Scouts, but because I love and support my Boy Scout.  I love the boy he is and I will love the man he becomes.  

My son has redirected the conversation in my head to this thought:  I wish that someone like Michelle would be not only welcome but enthusiastically recruited into volunteering for the Boy Scouts of America.  I trust that someday that will happen.  In the meantime, I take comfort and pride in knowing that if she were ever in need of CPR or a tourniquet or someone to help her build a campfire, my son would be able to help her because of what the Boy Scouts have taught him... and willing because of what I have.

On my honor, I will do my best...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Angst and Compassion from the Urban Homestead

I am headed to court.  I didn’t receive a citation and notice to appear.  I demanded it.  Demanded, as in “come back here and give me a ticket, and I will see your ass in court.”  

Anyone who has followed this blog can already guess: this is a story about the dogcatcher.  A juicy, meaty, Dickensian story about the dogcatcher.  I’ve even nicknamed your villain, the dogcatcher, Mr. Bumble.  Your protagonist is a tiny and sweet baby pygmy goat named Whiskey.  He is named Whiskey because that’s what my husband swore off the day before I brought him home.  To make a long story short (though I can’t promise I won’t tell it at length some day, dear), a couple nights before his birthday, my sweet husband drank a lot... I think really, really a lot, judging by the stupidity of his behavior... of whiskey and found himself in trouble with the Missus.  I’m talking serious trouble here.  Being a reasonable woman, I went out the next day and bought him a baby goat for his birthday, knowing that he in no way wanted a baby goat, but that he couldn’t exactly refuse the gift since I couldn’t have even heard his muffled protests from inside the doghouse... if he’d dared protest.  He didn’t.  Sober, he’s a wise man.  

Several weeks before, he’d proclaimed loudly that if one more thing that eats or poops moved in, he was moving out.  That was about two hours before we found out we were pregnant.  Still, he accepted his gift graciously, with a wan smile, when I announced: Happy Birthday, motherfucker!  Here’s your present.  It’s a goat.  A baby one.  I suggest you name him “Hell Hath No Fury.”   Life has a way of checking your game.  So do wives.  And that’s only two more little things that eat and poop.  It’s not like I got him a herd of buffalo, not that he could have rejected them if I had.  I’m telling you, he was in big trouble.

A large man backed into a corner by a tiny goat.
What I didn’t expect was that within hours he would be deeply in love with the goat.  Maybe he was in love with the redemption it brought with it, this tiny, shy, wobbly little creature with the odd, rectangular blue eyes, curled up on his lap and quietly bleating his wife’s forgiveness.  

Or maybe it was just because it’s a baby goat, and your heart would have to be a shriveled, moldy old walnut to resist one of those.  We have plump hearts here.  We’re all in love with the goat.  

Then last week the dogcatcher came and said “Love, bah!  Get rid of that goat.”  Then everybody started crying and some of the children stopped eating and I started writing letters to city commissioners while my kids wrote letters to Sarah McLachlan and President Obama, except they were all gibberishy and nonsensical and they couldn’t spell anything right because they had been on a hunger strike for almost an hour and they were too weak to sound things out.  Meanwhile, the goat was in a diaper on the couch because we didn’t trust that the dogcatcher wouldn’t just snatch him up while we weren’t looking, and he was laying on the couch just watching while the kids were asking me how to spell things like “coup d’etat” and “Che Guevara” and I was sighing heavily with impatience at them and asking them to please Google that shit because I am also trying to write a letter here.  

Then the next day we called and pleaded with the dogcatcher to read our petition and our letters to the President and consider making a temporary exemption while the city commission considers them, but she refused to read any of it and effectively told us that if we didn’t get rid of the goat right away, she would confiscate it and we’d never see it again.  Don’t worry, there will be a happy ending there.  And don’t worry about Whiskey, he’s with some dear friends who are taking great care of him, though they’re probably pretty pissed at us because now there is no way their kids are not going to ask them for a baby goat.  

We are petitioning the city for permanent inclusion of pygmy goats into the local pet ordinance.  They’re great pets, and beneficial ones at that, and lots of cities allow them.  We live in a pretty progressive community and I write very persuasive petitions and I’m just sure we’ll win, but in the meantime, we’ve ignited the ire of the already vengeful dogcatcher, Mr. Bumble, who is actually a woman, but the likeness is uncanny.  Mr. Bumble likes power, and she likes to use it where she can.  Which brings us to my court date later this month.  

Today’s visit from Mr. Bumble was in regard to our chicken coop, which she cited as out of compliance with the city ordinance.  The issue, she said, is with adequate shelter from predators.  Our chicken coop is walled on all sides with fencing and sheltered from above by a very large, low hanging crab apple tree.  We live a stone’s throw from the river.  We have hawks, owls, possums, raccoons, foxes, even coyotes in the neighborhood.  I’d estimate that within a quarter mile radius, for each of our chickens, there are about a hundred critters with hungry bellies and sharp claws and lots of teeth.  As any chicken owner will attest, if our chickens were not properly protected, there would be no issue.  They would just be dead.  End of story.  

They even give us water, Mr. Bumble.

Mr. Bumble first spoke with my mild-mannered husband, gave him a copy of the ordinance, and told him we need to bring our coop into compliance.  Then she got a call from me.  Not-so-mild-mannered-me.  The call went something like this:

Me: “I understand you have an issue with our chicken coop, and I’m reading the language of the ordinance, which states that we need to provide adequate shelter on all sides.  It says nothing about the specifics of what materials are compliant, only that you must have adequate shelter, which we clearly have, so we are not out of compliance.”  

Mr. Bumble: “You are out of compliance, and if you don’t put a roof on your coop I will issue you a citation. What don't you understand about that?”  

Me: “I understand this situation perfectly, and I’ll save you the trouble of a follow-up.  Come on back and write me a ticket right fucking now, because I’m not putting a roof on that coop.  It has a roof, the roof is a tree.  I’ll be on the porch waiting.”  

I hung up the phone and waited on the porch, and said something to my husband about being my father's daughter. Generally, I shrink from confrontation.  It disagrees with my basic constitution.  I know that’s surprising, considering how good at it I am, but really, I much prefer the passive-aggressive approach, like quiet revenge via baby goat.  Also, I'm a nice person. I like to make people feel happy. However, I’m aware that there are little eyes watching me and weighing my movements on little scales inside their little brains.  “What’s she doing now? Oh man, she’s letting the dogcatcher have it. Okay, now she’s getting her driver’s license...”  

For the record, I would be well within compliance to cut off my chickens' heads and serve them in a casserole tonight. Why this sudden concern that a coyote might beat me to it?

I have a kid who has been bullied and harassed at school.  If I wither and immediately comply when I am bullied and harassed, what am I showing him about courage, about bravery, about making a stand for your own dignity and for what you believe in?  I know that sounds dramatic, considering that the scene in my parking lot probably looked more like something from a Lorne Michaels movie than anything else... Mr. Bumble and I, each extreme caricatures of our peripheral personalities.  Her, the Barney Fife dogcatcher with her trousers belted tightly over her belly, sniffing authoritatively yet avoiding eye contact with me as her county issued polo shirt got snared on a low branch of the very crab apple tree at the center of our debate, while I, the pregnant hippie, smart-assed goat activist, coolly remarked that it snags anything that tries to get through it: hawks, owls, dogcatchers, whatever, now write me my ticket, you walnut-hearted goat hater.  

I’ll tell you why I’ve nicknamed the dogcatcher Mr. Bumble.  In Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble has a short episode of humanity, a brief show of sympathy, from which he retreats to fall back on his habit of insecure tyranny.  Pity is a weakness.  Mercy is too disarming.  I saw it in the dogcatcher: a pitiful moment of vulnerability that passed and quickly shifted back into an entirely transparent power trip.  That makes it worse.  I can’t hate the dogcatcher.  There’s a reason she insists on wielding the small amount of power she has in the world so ferociously, and I’m sure that reason is not a pretty one.  It never is.  Damn it, I hate this part: I have to try to love the dogcatcher.  Middle of page two says so.  If you don’t know what I mean by that, and you have some time to kill, you can read about my middle of page two theory here.

So my challenge is to defend myself and my chickens, to reclaim my husband’s goat, to be an example of bravery for my children and a voice of dissent against ridiculous micro-enforcement of twisted interpretations of chicken coop ordinances, all without degrading or damaging the fragile and obviously wounded psyche of the dogcatcher.  This means that my trusty burns and zingers must be pocketed, and I’ll have to deal with Mr. Bumble, from now on, in a respectful, adult manner.  Mano a mano.  That just made me laugh out loud, for probably a full minute and a half.  

Somehow, the notion of gently confronting authority immediately and contrarily reminds me of my angsty fourteen year old self, when everyone was out to get me and nobody understood me and the law and the man and my parents were all part of the same conspiracy to push me down and hold me back, man, and I quipped angrily and loudly in short bursts from behind slammed doors.  Until they took my bedroom door off its hinges.  I can still harness that energy and wit, but I can't call up that anger.  Not ever, ever again.  That destructive girl is dead and buried and that is that.  I'm not angry anymore.  Time and age and motherhood and love of baby goats and other living things have cooled me to a warm simmer.  And I can even find love and empathy for the dogcatcher if I try.  But I'm not lying down for her bullshit.  

Save Whiskey!