A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Friday, March 25, 2011

I heart semi-colons

Yesterday as I stood in the hall outside an English teacher's room, I heard this conversation between two freshman girls:

Girl #1: "Did you use fragments in your story?"
Girl #2: (Dramatically): "I hate fragments! I try not to use them ever! I also hate semi-colons!"
Girl #1: (Eyes wide): "I love semi-colons!"
Girl #2: (with confidence): "Semi-colons are only good on facebook to make a winky-face."
Girl #1: "What about figurative language?"
Girl #2: "I use it if I need it, depending on what I'm writing about. If you use it too much, it's annoying."

They're my peeps. Mary

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Times, They are a-Changing.

Today I celebrate the end of my forty-seventh year. That number is starting to sound awfully close to fifty, which is of course half a century.

As a child, I imagined that everything new--telephones and televisions, cars and planes and in-door plumbing--had been discovered in the years before my birth, and that I would live in a dull era. Then the internet was born and so were cell phones, so life has not been so dull after all.

I will have stories to tell my great-nieces and great-nephews of the days when I typed my papers on a clunky typewriter, using white out when I made a mistake and making sure not to type too far down the page. I will tell them about the time, back in my day, when I listened to music on a large round, black disk called a "record," which I played on something called a "record player." I will tell them that when I talked on the phone, I was tethered to the wall. Back in my day, no one talked on the phone when they were on the toilet. They'll be amazed.

Already, I find that teenagers cannot imagine my childhood world. The first time I ever felt that I was aging was when, at the age of 22, I overheard my students preparing for their American History test. As I had memorized the dry details of the Napoleonic Wars, these students reviewed Watergate.

Watergate was my first political memory. Though I did not understand its details at the time, I sat with my parents each night as we watched the news updates on our black and white television. When Nixon resigned, I knew that something momentous had happened. My students were trying to remember the details for their test: "There was a hotel and these guys broke in and stole some tapes." They reviewed the details dutifully. "No!" I shouted, "This was Watergate!" I held my face in my hands, attempting to communicate the drama, and yelled again, "Watergate!" Nonplused, they returned to their note cards.

Friday I worked with high school freshmen Isaiah, a tall African-American boy who wears glasses like Malcolm X and has Malcolm X's bearing, and Jasmine, a Latina girl who wondered why I didn't refer to the brown people in North Carolina when I grew up. "Though there are lots of Latinas in the Carolinas now, I told her, I never knew anyone growing up who was Latino. If you were a person of color in my town, you were black.”

I worked with Isaiah and Jasmine, who had written their own poems, on how to get feedback on a poem. I read to them my poem, inspired by George Ella Lyons's "Where I'm From" and asked them to tell me what they liked in the poem, where they were confused, and where they wanted to know more.

Isaiah was confused that I was born in the white wing of Grady Hospital. He tried to imagine a hospital flying, thinking this was some metaphor. I told him that when I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the hospitals had areas for white babies and areas for black babies. Each area was called a "wing." His jaw dropped, and he seemed to doubt me.

I told Isaiah and Jasmine that when I went to E.C. Brooks Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a first-grader, no black kids were allowed to go to my school, and no white child even thought of going to school with black children. "Ohhh," Isaiah said, "I've heard of that. Like in the time of slavery."

I'm old, but not that old. Happy birthday to me. Mary

ABCs of my Brain Tumors

I've been to see so many doctors in so many departments about these tumors and their side-effects that I wanted to see if I could fill a whole alphabet.

A is for Amy, my Radiology Nurse Practitioner
B is for Dr. B, the chiropractor who informed me, after seeing MRIs of my neck, "It's chaos in there!"
C is for Dr. C, my eye-surgeon
D is for doctors whose names I don't recall, lots of them
E is for Ependymoma, a brain tumor, rare in adults, that caused me and all these nice people a lot of trouble
F: Dr. F, my childhood pediatrician
G:: Dr. G, the name children call Dr. C because her last name is too hard to pronouce, even in letters
H: Dr. H, my radiologist who loves maps and historical architecture
I: Irina, the physical therapist who taught me to walk again.
J: Joey, the rehabilitation nurse who lectured me on my need to get used to asking for help
K: "kick-a$$" the way my friend, a doctor, Robbie described my neurosurgeon
L: Lumbar puncture, the procedure where a doctor stuck a long needle in my spine and took some fluid to test for tumor cells in the spine (no tumor cells in the spine, but the procedure "leaked" and caused an awful headache. I went to the emergency room for migraine treatment and contracted the swine flu.)
M: Dr. M, the doctor who broke the bad news to me, "You have a brain tumor."
N: nurses, whose names I don't recall, lots of them
O: the round shape I can no longer make with my mouth
P: Dr. P, the natuopath who used magic to heal me from my food allergies
Q: Quiet, what my dad could not be in the recovery room or anywhere else
R: Dr. R, my neurosurgeon
S: Dr. S, the naturopath who prescribed Adre-Cor to restimilate my adrenaline systerm
T: Tumor: The thing in my brain that kept all these doctors busy
U: University hospital, where a second tumor board split along lines of whether I should have radiation or surgery for my second tumor
V: Virginia Mason Hospital, where surgeons plucked a big nasty tumor from my brain
W: Why, a word more commonly asked than answered
X: X-rays that revealed that I had pneumonia as I was beginning radiation
Y: Yuri, the technician who desinged a mask to hold me in place during radiation
Z: Zubrod Performance Scale Performance status from zero (fully active) to four (completely disabled) that expresses a person’s ability to function and perform normal daily activities. (http://www.abta.org/Dictionary/V_-_Z/135)

Now you try. Mary

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


A few years back, early in the Age of Acronyms, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) was everywhere: bumper stickers, t-shirts, lanyards and so on. I think it's a compelling question.

At my friend Rita's mother's memorial service this past weekend, the minister--having some (but not much) acquaintance with Facebook, asked, "Who Would Jesus Friend?" WWJF. I think this is also a compelling question. I only friend people I already know. Jesus would probably friend everyone, though I think the minister's point was that Jesus would friend Rita's mother.

Now, I want to know WWJS: What would Jason say?

Jason is my new teaching colleague. Picture him: thick wavy hair, a blondish, reddish, brownish color. His hair is parted on the far left, and he swoops it to the right. He always looks like he's just combed his hair: you can see the comb tracks, and his hair stays that way all day. I don't know how he does that. In his thinking pose, Jason tilts his head left and twists it to the right in a sudden jerking motion. As he speaks, his left hand turns in the air as if he's unscrewing an imaginary gas cap. As he concludes his comments, he gestures with his palm up, a welcoming gesture. He rests his hand back on his beard and pulls gently at the beard hairs, doing what Todd calls "the beard scratch." When Jason smiles, he seems so pleased with himself and the world. His blue eyes grin and his dimples deepen. How can you not love him?

Especially, when he talks. Take a listen, and I'm sure you'll agree:

Apropos of nothing I can determine, Jason says, "Strunk and White. I really prefer Strunk."

In a discussion about style, he lets people know, "I don't like it when people bite my style." I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I'm guessing I shouldn't mock his tan cowboy boots.

As the teachers snack, Jason poses a question as if he's given it great thought: "Here's a question. Should MSG-toes be classified as tortilla chips?"

Jason pretends that his classes are out of control, though as far as I've seen they are not. Talking about a class that didn't go so well, he said, "I used scream-o at the beginning of class today."

Jason and another young teacher agree about something, and they high five one another with a loud slap. Jason says, "That was a satisfying high five."

Sometimes Jason makes pronouncements, and I think they're funny, but since I'm of an older generation, I never quite know what he's saying: "We're all cyborgs. Who's not a cyborg already? I don't know. Maybe someone in the Amazon."

As this group of Language Arts teachers agrees that they will not prioritize students learning about mode in this unit, one teacher marks through "mode" on their chart. Jason says cheerfully, "See ya later, Mode."

In a discussion with other Language Arts teachers about the last day of school, Jason said, "School's out on June 24th. I'm probably going to be checked out by the 15th."

In class, Jason's student is twirling on one leg of his four legged chair. Jason tells him, "You should have at least three chair legs on the floor at all times." The student, who is bright, hears the humor and attempts to have only three chair legs on the floor, lifting the fourth. He is amused by this. So am I.

Pretending that he's dismissing the importance of his class, Jason tells other teachers that he will instruct his students, "You guys read Elements of Style. I'm sittin' at the back playin' "Call of Duty.'"

The teaching team discusses student motivation, and Jason, furrowing his brow in deep approval of a point a colleague has just made, says, "GP." We elders look at him blankly, and he explains, "Good point."

Jason's humor is like Ellen Degenerous's [sic] humor: it's witty and kind. He invites people in with his humor, rather than shutting them down. I would like my humor to be like that, too. I ask myself, WWJS.

DBMS (Don't bite my swag.) Mary

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Because my dad has often given me unasked for advice, and because we lived by the "Do unto others..." rule, I thought for a while that he wanted me to advise him as well. When I returned from a tough day in second grade, I reported to my father that my friends and I had been guessing our fathers' ages and that my friends thought he was old, maybe even forty. I recommended Grecian Hair Formula. Now that we would both take forty as a compliment, his hair is bright white. I guess he assumed that I, living by that golden rule, wanted him to ignore my advice as I so often ignored his.

When Sister Jenn was in junior high school and Dad was advising her, she asked him, "Why do you have to be so lecturous?

When Dad and I travelled to Alaska with elder hostel (he was elder and I was hostile), he arrived at the bus that was to take us into Denali National Park wearing a plaid shirt and khaki pants. This outfit seemed sartorially inappropriate for a hike to me, and I said to him, "You look like you're dressed for the movies." Later that week, he went into town and paid more for a poop-colored pair of zip-off hiking britches than he had ever paid for work slacks.

Last weekend, on our weekly phone call, Dad begn to tell me a new theory about women: "What I've noticed about women is..." I interrupted him, encouraging him to pause and to think because his sentences that begin this way gernerally lead him to the dog house, and he always seems surprisedto find himself there. Ignoring my admonition, he continued.

I cannot blame him for ignoring my cautions. I have often ignored his.

For all this, I have in many ways been inspired by his life and sought to emulate him. Ralph Waldo Emerson's often quoted  “Letters and Social Aims” works in Dad's favor: “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”  Dad's deeds speak loudly of a commitment to the value of every individual, to the importance of saying thank you, and to the belief that we are here to make the world a better place.

Dad had two overtime jobs for most of his work life: one a job that paid and the other a job of social conscience. I, too, have often overworked, though since my surgery some would argue that I overnap, and like him I have worked for social justice. His work was on behalf of children, many of whom lived in poverty, without health insurance. All children, he argued as President of the American Academy of Pediattrics, have the right to health care. Following in his footsteps, I have worked on behalf of underserved children, many of them poor and immigrants to the United States, though my work has been in the educational arena.

When I was in junior high school, I went with Dad to the small town where he grew up to pick up a carload of children that he was sponsoring to go to summer camp. Like my father, I sponsor children to go to camp, though the camp I sponsor is for older children and is called "college."

When I was in high school, my dad gave the sermon at the church in the small town where he grew up. We, his children, counted the number of times he said, "Um," but I also heard his message. He thanked each person in that church who had helped to raise him. Like my dad, I seek to say thank you to those many people who have made my life better.

After attending a conservative church in Wichita Falls, Texas, when Dad was in the Air Force during the Vietmam War, Dad determined that he would never again attend a church where everyone was more conservative than he. Sensing that he had much to learn from liberals, he and my mom chose a liberal Southern Baptist church to attend and in which to raise their children. I am certainly more liberal than my father, so for me understanding another perspective means respecting and trying to understand those who are more conservative than I am (that's most people.) I am not so fully committed to this broad-mindedness as he was, as my current church is clearly on the left as was the church of my youth,  but I do seek to enter into friendships with those whose backgrounds and experiences, including those who are conservative, give them different perspectives than mine.

In this time of tumors, I have relied heavily on Dad for advice and support, and I have also relied on him to know when not to give me advice. I am sure that this has been hard for him. More important than his advice, however, has been his constant support and love, his dedication to helping me live a full life. Just as Dad has sought new venues for play and passion in his retirement, I seek new venues for work and play as I learn to live fully with these darn disbilities. Dad and I are perhaps both old dogs learning new tricks, though he is older. Today is his birthday, so he is even further over that hill.

Happy birthday, Dad. I love you. Mary