Happy Birthday, Sister Jen!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"The largest property-tax increase in King County in modern history."

King County’s 2018 property taxes will rise 17 percent higher on average than last year’s: The Seattle Times reported it’s"the largest property-tax increase in King County in modern history." 

A Seattle Times local front page article today requested stories about the impact of that tax. (The story’s not yet on the web as I’m writing this, but it will be if you want to check it out.) Because I am disabled and my income is from private disability insurance and Social Security Disability Insurance, and my partner is retired, this tax will impact us. We received our notice as I was writing this: our property taxes are high. I will submit a personal story—as requested—about our property tax hike, but today I sent concerns about the paper’s request and my hopes for the story to the Seattle Times staff.

Their request focuses on unhappy tax payers, asking people to share if they are "considering an extra job or...thinking about moving because of the rising fee."

I hope this story will include the context of a public school system that has been failing its most vulnerable kids and a state which, according to a Seattle Times column by Jon Talton on March 3, 2015, had "the most regressive tax system in U.S." (I don’t know if we’re still #1, but I’m sure we’ve not gotten much better.) In 2010, our state defeated the Bill Gates Sr. measure for an income tax on individuals who made over $200,000 a year and couples who made over $400,000 a year according to Andrew Garber'sSeptember, 2010, Seattle Times article. Though we see ourselves as a progressive city, our tax structure belies that image.

Our state’s education funding also belies our self-image. In 2010, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary decision that the state was out of compliance with its constitutional duty to fund fully public education, and in the intervening years the state has been ruled in contempt of court for not making adequate progress in adequate funding.

As a public high school teacher in Washington’s wealthier suburban neighborhoods as well as schools in low-income neighborhoods, I felt the personal impact of this inadequacy and saw the impact on my students.

The property tax hike is to address inadequate funding. In a city that sees ourselves as progressive, we need to look not only at the impact of this tax hike but also at the impact of our regressive tax structure and inadequately funded schools.

The discussion reminds me of William J. Barber’s revelation in his excellent book TheThird Reconstruction. He reveals that the recent governmental take-over by self-serving Republicans (not all Republicans are self-serving), began on the Wake County School Board in North Carolina, the system where my siblings and I were educated, a system once renowned for its public schools.

The discussion also reminds me that our nation elected a wealthy bigot to its top office, not just because of Russian interference but also because we as a nation are so easily swayed by fears—individual and communal—about losing our excessive wealth.

Recently, the progressive Baptist preacher NancyPetty traveled from North Carolina to preach at our little Wallingford church. One question she asked sticks with me: How uncomfortable are you willing to be for liberty and justice for all?

There are very real stories of people pushed into unhealthy work lives or out of Seattle altogether by this property tax hike, but their stories must be seen in the context of a regressive tax system and underfunded schools.

Our state and our nation need to ask Nancy Petty’s question: How uncomfortable are we willing to be for liberty and justice for all?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Welcome to the Upside of Downhill, Sister Jen!

Sister Jen is not a nun. She’s my sister. And today’s her birthday. Happy Birthday, Sister Jen!

Though she’s younger than I am, I look up to her. To be literal, she’s 1.5 inches taller than I am, and sometimes she wears high heals or stilts (okay, not really stilts).

More idiomatically, she’s an impressive person: smart, kind in a gruff way, funny, and unpretentious. Her credentials show that she is smart: she was a Morehead Scholar at The University of North Carolina, has a law degree, and is a vice-president for a Wall Street investment banking firm.

I notice her smarts more intimately, however. Last year at the beach, when my siblings, my parents and I were discussing later in life issues, my dad argued that the house was in good shape for my parents as they grew older. As usual, I argued with his every point. Sister Jen accepted his desire to stay in the house, and said, “Okay, if you’re going to stay there, you’re going to need to do some work to make it safe.”

She’d used the magic word: “work.” Dad was going to have to rise from his retirement on the couch and get work done on the house, something he’s always resisted. When my parents returned to Raleigh that summer, they started researching retirement housing, put money down on a place being built, and will move in August.

Sister Jen might like you to believe she’s not kind, but her gruffness is all fluff. She’s also been generous with me over the years. When Sister Jen fell on asphalt and was  helicoptered to the nearest trauma center for emergency brain surgery, I didn’t visit her in Florida because I thought I’d wait until she needed help at her home in New York. (This was before my own brain surgery, in the days when I might have been helpful.) When she returned to New York, she healed more quickly than anyone thought she would, and I never visited. When I had brain surgery a couple of years later, she came for a week to help, and when I tried to apologize for my own failure to show up years before, she waved off the apology. (Perhaps this is my way of apologizing again.)

Hmmm. Well, I guess her gruffness isn’t all fluff. Sometimes she’s gruff when someone tries to take advantage of her, particularly because she’s a woman. The year following my brain surgery, we had dinner as a family, and Sister Jen rose to get herself some ice-cream. I asked her to get me some, too. Dad said, “Hey, how about some of that for me, too, Girl.”

Jen retorted, “ She’s had brain surgery. I’m getting her ice-cream. You can get your own.”

When she was working at a different investment banking firm her first year out of college, her boss called her in to fire her. She fired back at him that she hadn’t been hired to go get coffee for the men and that the place had a glass ceiling. She left that meeting with a promotion.

One of my favorite aspects of Sister Jen is how funny she is. A few years ago, she was sitting at Little Brother Matt’s home, his youngest child G in her lap. Sister Jen said to G, “My nieces and nephews on the other side of the family call me ‘Auntie Cool.’ I think you should have a nickname for me. What should it be?”

Without missing a beat, G said, “Why are your teeth so yellow? We should call you ‘Auntie Yellow Teeth.” (G inherited SJ’s sense of humor.)

An hour or so later, SJ got up to leave, and Little Brother Matt asked why she had to go so early. “I’m going home to bleach my teeth,” she told us all, laughing and looking softly down at G.

Sister Jen and her husband still live in their six-bedroom home, their fourth child leaving the nest this fall. The home has a carriage house, swimming pool, tennis court, and lawn that served as a playfield when we were all younger. She has money in these times when money is so glamorized, but her cool seems separate from her money. For example, she was the first mom in her area to have an ipod perpetually around her neck. This is the kind of cool she is: not pretentious, but hip.

Today, Sister Jen is not just fifty, but in her fifties. I’m guessing she’ll age like Maxine, that grumpy woman on the greeting cards, who says things like, “Everyone is entitled to MY opinion.” She’s smart, kind, funny, and down-to-earth. I love all those things about her. I especially love that she’s my sister.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Begging for Support

I've been working on my memoir in the eight years since radiation for my second brain tumor. I believe I have an important story to tell, but it's difficult to see how I'll get it heard (or read). I need help with the storytelling as well as with disability insurance that I had through my district and social security disability insurance. 
Perhaps this will give you some sense of my struggle: according to disability insurance contract, I can make up to $4680 in any month but can never make more and continue to receive benefits. To continue to receive social security disability benefits, I can make money (fifty dollars or  a million dollars have the same effect) in nine different months but can't make any money outside of those months. In case you're not following the details, the rules cancel each other out and mean I can't publish anything without losing one insurance or the other. Ann and I live on this money. I can't risk it.
I've talked with lawyers and advisors for the last couple of months, driving myself in circles. For now, I've decided to keep writing my memoir, write the best piece I can, and then see what I can do. In that spirit, I'm applying for a scholarship to a writing conference this summer. It's a prestigious (and expensive) conference, so this is a long shot, but it's worth a try. 
I've drafted the essay below in an attempt to convince them to pay for me to study with them. Any feedback?
I bowed my head and then raised it to see my face in the bathroom mirror. I looked just like I had the day before: auburn hair parted on the side and curled around my ears, eyes Bluebird blue, a freckled nose, high cheek bones, and laugh lines beginning to form. “I have a brain tumor,” I said to my image. I tried four times, shifting the emphasis from word to word, but the sentence always sounded improbable. The pronouncement’s melodrama made me laugh, but this wasn’t funny. At 43, I had a brain tumor and would soon need to tell friends and family, colleagues and students in my high school English classes.
A decade later, I no longer work, and I live on disability insurance, social security, and my partner’s retirement funds. Writing a blog and crafting a memoir ease my sense of loss. The writing is so important in managing my grief that I lead other writing groups and events for people who struggle: homeless young adults, LGBT elders, and people with dementia.
I have an important story to share, a story of loss and grief in the wake of my two brain tumors, but also a story of gratitude, the gifts of learning to slow down, connecting with other marginalized people, the often amusing absurdities in my life. The story is important, but difficult to share, largely because of restraints from my insurance and social security.
In the past, I have overcome social and financial barriers due to being a Southerner, a woman and a lesbian , and I feel confident that I’ll overcome barriers again. I’ll need help, however.
In addition to disability lawyers and advisors, I need to craft a good story that helps readers understand the losses, gifts, and barriers caused not only by brain tumors and their treatments, but also by social structures. I have never been to Bread Loaf, but my writing teacher says it would be a good support for me.

I need that support. I need to tell this story. You need to hear it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Trestle

At the YMCA the other day, my very smart phone decided to play Tony Rice’s  bluegrass song, The Green Light on the Southern, Southern Railroad Line.” It was hard not to sing along to the refrain:
Oh, if I could return to those boyhood days of mine,
And the green light on the southern, southern railroad line.

Like Billy Collins’ narrator when he encounters the word “lanyard”
in the dictionary, the song whisked me into the past, and I recalled trips over Spring Hope’s railroad trestle with my Granddaddy Edwards. I must have been two or three when we climbed the trestle’s stairs and threw a penny on top of the train as it traveled under us.

I believe we did this multiple times: I remember the anticipation of going, and I’m the only one who remembers our trips up the trestle. My dad has shared other memories of Granddaddy and me together. Dad remembers that I loved to ride in the back of Granddaddy’s blue Ford pick-up. One day, Granddaddy wanted me to go to “the farm” where my grandmother had grown up and my Great Aunt Ben, her sister Aunt Leona, and Aunt Leona’s husband Uncle Bill still lived. I said I would go only if we could go in Granddaddy’s truck, which Granddaddy had loaned to a brother, but he retrieved the truck so that I would ride with him.

I suppose that story’s true: I have always loved blue pick-up trucks, though it’s never been practical to own one. I like the story because it shows how much my grandfather adored me. It also reveals my early bossy tendency.

In a photo, my grandfather holds me up to the mantle, by the family’s grandmother clock. My baby book tells me that after “Mom” and “Dad,” one of my first words was “clock.”

Another story my father tells is about the day my Granddaddy and I walked around the block in Spring Hope, (the NC town voted most like Andy Griffith's Mayberry), and we encountered broken glass on the sidewalk. I pointed to the mess and said, “Some bad boys did that, probably.” My grandfather was impressed that I had used the word “probably,” which I have long thought was because of the vocabulary, but lately I’ve been thinking that he was impressed with the concept, my thought that my assumptions were not necessarily true. This story I like because it not only suggests my precociousness but also shows my grandfather was wise, something other stories indicate as well.  My dad quotes Granddaddy’s advice on raising children: “Love them and enjoy them and raise so that other people will, too.”

Once, my grandfather’s Southern Baptist minister, Dr. Blackmoor, gave a sermon in which he talked about the two angels he had known in his life. One was my grandfather. I like to think about the angels in my life, too. This grandfather was one, though I didn’t know him long.

Mom told me about our trip to the cemetery after my grandfather’s burial. She recalls that she tried to explain to me that Granddaddy was under the ground there. She says I just looked puzzled, looked at the ground for a while, and then pointed up to the clouds. Like I said: precocious.

This grandfather, whom I knew for such a short time, is one of the angels in my life. I believe he's still with me. 

As I’ve told you before, I’m lucky.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The End and The Beginning

When Ann went out one morning last week to sweep the ice off of the front stairs, our puppy Dosey ran to the big chair in front of the window where she could watch Ann work. Watching Ann take out the trash, cook, and do the laundry are among Dosey’s favorite things. This is one of many ways that Dosey and I are alike.

My penchant for watching others work was not born when I had brain tumors. I suppose I have done this all my life. On my desk sits a plaque that Sister Jen gave me for Christmas in 1976, when I was in sixth grade. It reads, “Work fascinates me. I can sit and watch it for hours.”

My freshman year in college, a friend snapped at me one day when I stepped aside for her to open a door. “Why do you always do that?” she asked, clearly irritated.

“Do what?” I asked. I had never noticed this habit. As a Southern belle, I learned stepping aside for any handy male to open a door for me. An over-achiever, I suppose I waited for other women to open the door for me, too.

Decades ago, when Ann and I watched two women put up a tent next to ours, one watched and made comments while the other did the work. “Look,” Ann said, pointing to the watching woman. “She has your job.”

Ann had never mentioned this before, but I recognized the life-long habit immediately. We both laughed. (I am so lucky that Ann found this funny.)

Ann’s least favorite Bible story, and one of my favorites, is the story where Jesus visits Mary and her sister Martha. When Martha scolds Mary for not helping with the dinner, Jesus rebukes Martha, saying that by listening to Jesus, “Mary has chosen the better part.” (Well, he didn’t speak English, but that’s the idea.) Ann’s first name is Martha, and she takes this rebuke personally. She once gave a sermon titled, “Who will cook the dinner?” The answer, of course, was Martha. Or in our case, Martha Ann.

My disabilities have deepened this divide. Now I don’t cook because I’m afraid to use fire or knives, and I can’t remember to do things like turn off the stove. I don’t take out the trash because of imbalance, and I don’t do much laundry because with fatigue I have to take long breaks, and Ann doesn’t like her clothes to sit in the washing machine while I nap. More than ever, I watch. Now, Dosey watches with me.

Sometimes, Ann and I call Dosey, “Princess.” She’s cute, less than ten pounds with curly brown and white hair, a wiggly body, and a wide-open smile (unless she thinks we’re going to leave her in the house by herself). Cute and bossy. If someone’s too loud outside after she’s gone to bed—or if a loud car drives by or a plane flies overhead—she barks until they settle down. Also, she likes to be the center of Ann’s and my attention, so as soon as we say grace before enjoying a meal together, she begins gnawing on our wooden furniture to get our attention, not something she otherwise does. More, when she walks with Ann she holds her head high, bent tail alert, and prances down the sidewalk.

This fall, our 97 year-old neighbor Annabella asked about the puppy, and Ann said, “She’s getting kind of bossy.”

Annabella, who can be bossy herself, laughed her cannon-ball laugh, and her eyes danced like they do when she’s amused. “Of course!” Annabella said, “She’s a woman!”

The year before my first brain tumor, I was telling a guy on the MLK march that I would be going to school the next year for my principals’ certification, and he said to me, “You have to be bossy to be a principal. Are you bossy?”

I had to admit I was. “I have certain boss-like tendencies.”

In addition to supervising others’ work and having boss-like tendencies, Dosey and I have other similarities. We both sleep deeply and often, and love to curl up on my giant orthopedic doggie bed in front of the fireplace. (Doggie beds aren’t just for dogs anymore.) We both drink a lot of water, and often drip on our chins. We both adore Ann. And we both love to play a game with Snake, one of Dosey’s favorite toys. (Though I’m beginning to feel like parents who complain about reading Good Night, Moon, a zillion times to their young ones.)

Though we’re both bossy, Dosey and I are also patient, something my students and teaching mentors often commented on. When I go down the stairs from the bedroom, Dosey loves to scamper ahead, but she waits, descending a few stairs and then looking at me, waiting for me to catch up. When we walk outside, she generally zigzags ahead of me, moving forward slowly enough so she doesn’t upset my poor balance. (That is, unless she’s sees a squirrel, in which case she pulls to the leash’s end and hops on her hind legs, pulling me forward.)

Yes, Dosey and I have a lot in common, but she is also different than I am. For one thing, she’s a dog. I’m a human. She’s extraverted, while I’m introverted; for example, last week, as she and Ann walked past the food bank in our neighborhood, she stopped to greet each person in line, inviting them to pet and adore her. In contrast, I am miserable at parties where I have to meet and chat with new people, and I don’t like to be the center of attention. Also, she wags her tail so that her whole body wiggles; I almost never do that. Additionally, she pees and poops when she walks in the neighborhood: another thing I try to avoid doing.

Dosey has a lot to learn from me, and I have a lot to learn from her. From me, she’s learning to sit and lie down, to dance on her hind legs and gimme five. From her, I’m trying to learn to greet people joyfully, even when they’ve upset me. I’m trying to learn to eat every bite with absolute delight. And I’m trying to learn to be fully emotionally present in each moment, as she when she greets me each morning, as if to say, “I’m so excited that we are here in this home together, so delighted to see you again as we greet this new day. I can already tell that, with you, this is going to be a great day!” I’m trying to learn from her not to worry so much about tomorrow, but to love this day.

Wiggle, wiggle, smile and squiggle.  This is my new life.