Sunday, November 23, 2008

Work ethic

My regular Starbucks barista cheerfully took my order, but when she reached for the pastry case she froze, then stood very still, holding onto the register with both hands. "I'm sorry," she said, still mild, still pleasant. "I need a second...I'm just having a minor contraction." And you could just about hear everyone's pupils dilate in line behind me, spontaneous High Alert: should Were we going to be on the 5:00 news tonight?

"Do you need to be...uh, excused?" I said uncertainly. Because, honestly, I can do without the apple fritter if you are about to birth a child next to the bean-grinder. "Is this just Braxton-Hicks, or is a big day...imminent?"

It was the former, it turns out. She's got a month and a half to go, though her other babies came early; she's trying to stay active and work, but I guess certain strains and indulgences--like stretching for my donut--trigger a response. So we were all amused, and enormously relieved, frankly, and people scuttled away with their coffees and got on with the day, somehow enlivened by the near miss, the possibility of a new person blossoming into the world. I am still thinking about it, somehow, like we we all weathered an exciting, happy accident together.

I'm thinking, too, of Holly, who's been plagued with false labor herself for days on end. Three weeks to go, little Secondo! Turn yourself around, there, get pointed earthward for the journey. Auntie Him is waiting here with the rest of 'em, so eager to meet you.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The whole world looks upon the sight

I spent several of my primary-school years at Wing Luke Elementary in south Seattle, a diverse school in a high-poverty neighborhood. My mother had enrolled me there both for the lure of a magnet program for gifted kids, and because we had volunteered for Seattle's pilot school-desegregation program, a year before it became mandatory. (For what it's worth, Seattle was one of the only large cities in the nation to desegregate its schools without a court order.) Starting in the second grade, I took a bus 45 minutes each way from a north-end neighborhood that was generally whiter and more affluent (though we weren't the latter).

The bus ride was tedious, but I liked the school. Wing Luke was a nearly-new building at the time, a modern school laid out in an open-classroom format. Multiple grades were grouped together in four wings of the building known as "pods;" the giant rooms could be roughly sectioned off with bookcases and folding screens, for grade-appropriate instruction in math and spelling, but then they'd bring us all together, first through fourth graders, for things like movies and art projects and field trips. I remember it being a particularly vivid and engaging atmosphere. Loud, maybe. Very loud. But fun.

I had--or shared--several wonderful teachers during my Wing Luke years, teachers who brought a multicultural perspective to their lesson plans before that term had been invented. They did this very cleverly, through two main channels: holidays, and food. So: for Hanukkah, Mrs. Eskenazi taught us to gamble for peanuts with a dreidel, and also plugged in a Harvest Gold electric skillet at the front of the room and made approximately a hundred potato latkes. Brave woman. On Chinese New Year, Mrs. Chinn arranged to have a lion dance team come in, weaving through the little desks, and gave us each White Rabbit candy and a red envelope with a new 1978 penny inside. For Boys' and Girls' Day, in Japan, we made fish kites and ate seaweed crackers from Uwajimaya. If you are guessing that these lessons appealed to my essential nature, you are correct: parties, presents, and special foods? Yes, please! Sign me up. I remember going home to my mother and, on more than one occasion, demanding to know why everyone didn't celebrate everything. We'd been missing out, on these holidays I'd never even heard of! I had been deprived!

The layout of the pod classrooms allowed our teachers to impart another significant lesson, when we studied the Civil Rights movement that year. Our classroom had two drinking fountains; one had good water pressure and one, for whatever reason, was leaky and slow, its handle difficult to turn. There were also two exterior doors: one led directly to the playground, for maximum recess-time capitalization, while the other was on the far side of the room, on the street side of the school. If you left through that door, you had to walk the long way around the building to get to the jungle gym and hopscotch grids, the window in the gymnasium where they dispensed jump ropes and kickballs first come, first served.

So. For a week, in 1978, our teachers performed a variation of Jane Elliott's blue eyes/brown eyes experiment--they segregated the fountains and the doors. They were fair, at least: if you got the good door, you got the crap fountain and vice versa. I don't remember which combo went to who, now, only that they put up the requisite signs we'd seen pictured in our social-studies textbooks: WHITE. COLORED.

You couldn't do it now, in today's litigation-mad society. Someone would sue the pants off someone. But I have no recollection of telling my mother about this, or of any other adult intervening. For a week, we endured; we followed the rules. It didn't turn as vicious as the Elliott exercise is rumored to. If you screwed up, a teacher would reprimand and correct you, but gently. Plus the spoils and disadvantages were equitably distributed, so that if you had to trudge around what seemed like half a block to get to the playground, well, at least you could easily slake your thirst later. I wonder, now, if they expected us to resist--to protest. For whatever reason, we didn't.

We had seen the photos in the books: the signs, but also the young people, dressed up fancy to our eyes in dresses, in suits and ties...and being blasted by fire hoses, bitten by dogs. It was a few years yet before we learned of kids being jabbed with lit cigarettes, beaten within an inch of their lives, blown apart in a church basement, for daring only to demand their dignity. They were kids, so many of the Civil Rights activists in the 1960s. It's the point David Halberstam makes in even the title of his chronicle of the movement, The Children--that these were mostly college students, high school students, some even younger. I have been flipping back through that book a lot this week. And I have been thinking, time and again, of my teachers.

I don't know if they were disappointed, that we went along with their experiment so easily. I remember being redirected, a few times, to the "right" fountain or door, and what I experienced was primarily a sense of personal embarrassment and shame, at making the mistake. I was a teacher's pet kind of kid, terrified of breaking a rule--even an arbitrarily imposed and morally bankrupt one. Then again, we knew: this was a temporary inconvenience. What had been plain fact, in our parents' time, had in a generation become merely bewildering: a bizarre restriction that made no sense to us and, at any rate, was over with in a blink. Or mostly over, I guess...because I have not forgotten it in 30 years. Because the lesson has been on my mind, now, for all of this extraordinary week.

I have been thinking about my friends with kids, too. How for this next generation coming along behind me, an African-American President will be a plain fact; how the caveat once appended to so many children's aspirations--you can be anything you want to be in America...except--has overnight become a dim weird relic of history, lumped in with my and my parents' past, the benighted past when we did not know any better. Someday, someone's kid will find this moment in our history bewildering, fusty, dare I say...boring. And I could not be any prouder or more grateful for that thought.

The following photographs were taken by 17-year-old Nita Vidutis (yes, a kid) at an Obama rally in Manassas, Virginia, the Monday night before the election. They've been posted everywhere--I got them originally from the YWCHB blog--but are entirely worth seeing again. Look at these kids' faces. Look at their fathers' faces. Oh, look. Look.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Perhaps you have noticed?...that in the 48-hour period since election night, every. single. media outlet, newsmagazine, and tabloid television program has done a Puppy Segment? Thursday evening I was at the gym during the prime nightly news/infotainment clip-show hour, and I could simply look up and down the bank of TVs at the front of the cardio room and, every couple of minutes, see at least one correspondent wrassling around in a back yard or shelter or kennel, dropping the microphone and getting licked to death and snorgling a chihuahua or a labradoodle or a cocker spaniel. It is abundantly clear, what we have all seized upon in this monumental moment of our nation's history; obviously, I am guilty of the same, see below. And for two days, at least, I have decided to surrender to it, find it hilarious, and think of it as one of the things that makes America great. We are in dire economic straits, in the U.S.; we are conducting two wars; we have made a huge step forward in our nation's civil rights history on one front, this week, and stumbled badly, shamefully, on several others. The road ahead is steep, and rocky, and it is going to be hard, for us and for President-Elect Obama.

But for a few days, it has been like living in a bright glowing parallel universe. People smile and make eye contact, share their tables and their newspapers in the coffee house. I went to the blood bank this afternoon and it was packed, a madhouse of volunteers eager to give something of themselves, to endure a quick needle stick and then some cookies and apple juice, in the name of civic responsibility. And for a few days--before we all pick up the rope again and pull, before we put our shoulders to the wheel--the news is only sweetness, a refuge where in every headline and on every channel we're all picking out puppies, puppies, yaay, OMG puppies!!1!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Morning in America

Before I go to bed, one more word to two more little girls:

Sweethearts, go get that puppy!!!

Grammy, Nan, Daddy, Phyllis, Barb: I wish you were here to see this with all my heart, I do.

Pride and joy

The expression on this little girl's face?

That's the closest approximation of what I'm feeling, right now. (Via the hilarious/blubber-inducing Yes We Can (hold babies) photoblog. Oh, there are more of them; this is just the one I fixed on first.)
Oh, please. Please. Please.

Monday, November 03, 2008

People get ready

This election cycle has frayed my last nerve. The enormity of the moment, the glimmer of light at the end of an eight-year, grim-ass dark tunnel, the sheer duration of the battle...all of these combined have left me dropping my emotions all over the street like canned goods out of a ripped grocery bag. I am hair-trigger weepy, starting at 6:30 this morning when I saw two people standing on an I-5 overpass in a driving rain, holding aloft a gigantic banner that bore a single word: HOPE. I looked at Joan Walsh's recommendations for an Election-Eve cry on Salon, and teared up at each one of them, had to go back to the Donuts and Bacon campaign (via Mike) just to get my wits about me. So when I read this afternoon that Senator Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, had passed away, I had to put my head down on the desk again.

I was raised by a single mom and, effectively, by her mom; my grandmother was inarguably a far more influential and active and engaged presence in my life than my father ever was. I referred to her often as "my third parent." This is far from the only parallel that leads me to believe that Barack Obama understands something of my experience, can speak to and for me...but this among many things strikes a deep chord.

My Grammy weighed less than 100 pounds soaking wet, and upon every visit would ply you with lemon-poppy seed cake until you begged for mercy. She was also fiercely protective of her family, proud of our accomplishments to a mortifying degree, and unabashedly liberal in her politics. Like Obama's grandmother, she would have been 86.

In November 1992, I was in my first quarter of graduate school and had just moved into my own apartment, so recently that I was still assigned to the polling place nearest the house where I'd grown up. On election day I stopped by "home," and together Grammy and I walked down to the defunct middle-school library, cast our ballots for Bill Clinton, and went home to cross our fingers and bite our nails, because there was no Internet to hover on. I had an afternoon class that day, and most of us adjourned to a campus pub afterwards, where Democratic bedlam rolled out in expanding waves from every announcement of poll returns. At some point I called Grammy--via pay phone--to shout my joyous, tipsy disbelief, the entire bar roaring "Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye" to George H. W. behind me. Here's what she said: "The bars are open, on Election Day?" Apparently, the blue laws in Washington had been more draconian in her time.

Tomorrow morning I'll go alone, to the basement of United Evangelical, probably in the torrential downpour the weather peeps are predicting. I am casting my vote for Barack Obama, and I'll be thinking of my Grammy, and his, and my aunt PJ, who was a devoted campaign volunteer before cancer swept her under and away. Of all the people, these few among them, who dreamed of and fought for this moment but did not live to see it. And I am awed: by how privileged I am to do this. By the epic significance of this instant in American history. By the future that I am putting my hand to, there in the booth. By the hope I have clenched in my fist.

We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Paved with good intentions

Oh, all RIGHT, already, WHATEVER, shut up, you:

On the plus side, I clocked just over 2,000 words of unintelligible mess today, so for 24 brief gleaming hours, I am ahead of the game. Two things convinced me to subject myself to this again: one, Erin, who noted that, while she hasn't always hit the 50,000-word novel goal, she has always come away from the experience with at least a good short story. I'm thus trying to look at this as a mining operation.

And two: the lady profiled on the front page of the NaNo site today, who finished her 2007 novel with minutes to spare and immediately after expelling a tiny brand-new human being from her body. My excuses are made of far flimsier stuff.