A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Learning to Ask for Help

A few days before coming home from my month in the hospital following neurosurgery, my nurse Joey pulled a chair up beside my hospital bed and gave me a lecturette. The theme was, "You're going to have to learn to ask for help."

At the time, I thought she was criticizing me for not accepting help in the hospital. I found this strange. After all, friends and family and nurses were walking me to the restroom, flushing the toilet for me, and helping me take a shower. What else could I ask for?

I am learning that Joey was a seer who could see into my future. Now I visit the restroom and shower on my own, but I still need lots of help, and I'm learning to ask for it.

When I haven't been able to drive, friends have driven me to and from work, university classes, my writing group, and the hospital. Ann does so much it's hard to list, so I'll just give a couple of examples: Ann fixes my meals for me and puts ointment in my eyes each night.

My friend Jane read articles for my university program to me. (Bless her heart: she even said they were interesting.) At the beach last summer, Sister Jen read to me my childhood friend Heather Newton's novel. When both Ann and I have enough energy at night, Ann reads to me then, too.

Ellen helps me think about social justice issues and resources that I'm interested in. My parents and siblings have all traveled to Seattle when I needed help. Students in the schools where I was working moved their friends and backpacks out of my path and held doors for me. My friend Pea is my technology consultant. My school district has given me medical leave when I've needed it, and colleagues have generiously donated sick leave.

Sister Jen tells me that letting people help me is doing them a favor. So thanks, and you're welcome.

Really, the list goes on and on.

I think Sister Jen's right, so even if you don't have brain tumors, this is a good thing to remember, but don't overdo it. That's the trick.

Now I need to ask you for help. In order to convince agents and publishers that someone will read the books I'm writing, I need to increase traffic to my blog at www.cantduckit.blogspot.com Please read and comment when you can. Really importantly, share the link with others who, you think, might be interested in reading it.

I'm going to start posting once a week,  on Wednesdays. Once a month, the post will be an encore presentation of an entry that lots of people have commented on (mostly to me personally); most weeks, I'll post a new entry.

As I say so many times each day. Thanks. And thanks again. And you're welcome.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Happy birthday, Mom!

My mom was born a few years back on May 22, so this is her birthday blog.

You've probably noticed already that Mom's sweet and strong with a sweet and strong soprano voice. You may not have noticed that she's pretty funny, too.

On a recent visit with Raleigh friends Bob and Sue to see their long-time friends no-butt Walt and skinny Rosemary, Mom was excited when Rosemary, who has lost a lot of weight recently, offered to give Mom some of her old clothes. Mom swears Rosemary said something about a pair of blue jeans.

Mom tried on an outfit of Rosemary's and then went into the hall to ask about the jeans, but she didn't need to ask because they were lying in wait for her in the chair.

Mom tried them on, struggling into them, but couldn't get them zipped. Nope, these won't do. Then she went down for breakfast.

At breakfast, no-butt Walt said to the group of six, "I can't figure out where I put my blue jeans."

Everyone got up to look for them. Mom asked, "Did you look under the bed?"

No one could find them, so no-butt Walt had to wear some other britches for the day. The group got into the van to tour around Portland. In the car, Mom whispered to skinny Rosemary, "Rosemary, I couldn't even get your jeans zipped."

"What jeans?" asked Rosemary. "I didn't give you any jeans."

The truth of the whereabouts of no-butt Walt's jeans occurred to them both at the same time and they giglled like schoolgirls.

See. Funny.

Happy birthday, Mom!

Monday, May 21, 2012

My Easter MIracle

Some changes since my brain surgery and radiation, like having crossed eyes and balance problems, are obvious to everyone. Others are obvious only to me.

Since surgery, I've been singing with just a few vocal chords. Actually, apparently we don't have vocal chords, just modulations of air over membranes, but it has seemed like I've been singing with three and that I use maybe seven now.

Easter Sunday morning at church, when I opened my mouth to sing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" with my three vocal chords, all seven kicked in.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm still no lark.

I am, however, singing now rather than speaking with intonation, which is different than singing.

It's my own rebirth, my own Easter miracle, and I'm having these miracles all the time. A year or so ago, most of the paralysis in the right side of my face faded, and now Ann says you can hardly tell I had paralysis there before. (I can still tell: I still can't whistle or drink from a straw.)

Still, it's exciting to notice my own private revivals, separate from any intention on my part, just plain gifts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Taxi cab driver-philosophers

My parents gave me cab rides for Christmas, so when I can't take a bus, I take a cab.  This gift is one of the many benefits of brain tumors.

Talking with cab drivers  is one of the benefits of brain tumors. Some people think I'm being sardonic when I write about the benefits of brain tumors. But I'm sincere, and I'm not crazy. Just read ahead and you'll see...

Today I took a cab to and from the Mac store for my one-to-one session for learning about my Mac.

I like to talk to the cab drivers and learn some of their story, their perspective on life in Seattlle.

This morning's cab driver was from Kenya. He was maybe in his thirties. He moved from Kenya to Minnesota and then to Seattle. "I don't like extreme weather," he tells me. "In Minnesota, the snow is cold and the heat is humid. Seattle is better."

He tells me that in Kenya he had five brothers and three sisters. "Here in the United States, you have small families. I don't like that. I like big families. And the Chinese, they have one child. They are crazy, but I think they changed that now because 70 percent of the country was old people.

I tell him about a family where I grew up: the Donleavies. They had 13 girls and 1 boy.

"That is crazy," he says. "I will have to think about that."

This afternoon's cab driver was greying at his temples, and he was tired. "I worked Sunday from 3 in the afternoon to 5 a.m. That is 14 hours. Thi morning, I set my alarm for 7 a.m., but when I heard it I turned it off. I was too tired. Sometimes, I think, 'What is the point?' I will not get rich. I will just drive this cab and be tired.

"I have lost my values here [in the United States.] Here it is buy, buy, buy. I have to have a house and the right car, or people say, 'Why do you have that bad car?' I said that I would not lose my values, but I have.

"Are you off work today?"

I tell him, "No. I had surgery and I have to change careers now."

"Oh no," he says. "I hope you are okay. Are you okay?"

"I hope so," I say.

"That is good because as long as you have your health, it is a beautiful world. I had three careers before I came here. You have to start over, and it is hard. Then I came here, and I went to school and drove a cab. I was learning, and I felt young. I got married and had a family--two girls--they have so much energy and innocence.

"Now I have to take care of my children. I hate it when people don't do that. If you bring them into the world, you have to take care of them. Otherwise, what is life for?

"I work to put bread on the table. One time a woman was in my cab, and she said, 'The Asians, they work hard.'

"I said to her, 'Excuse me. Do you really think that? One ethnic group is hard working and another is not? What about the individual? I took an exam yesterday--that was when I was in school--and then I drove a cab for 16 hours. And then I get up and do it again. Is that not hard work?''

I say, "Oops. That's my house. Right there."

He backs the taxi to my curb. I say, "Have a nice day."

He says, "One more hour. Then I don't work. It will be a beautiful day. Did you see that movie, A Beautiful Life? I think life is like that, as long as you have your health. Okay. Have a  beautiful day."

Sunday, May 13, 2012


My Mom's middle name is Adele. So is mine. So is my niece Gretchen's.

The name used to be one I seldom heard, but now the Blues singer Adele has made the name famous again. The famous Adele is a Grammy winner. Mom is an amazing soprano. Gretchen's just six years old, but she can carry a sweet tune.

You might think musicality runs in the name, but I inherited my father's voice.

My mom and I are different in other ways, too. I love to travel. Mom stays awake worrying at night if she or anyone she knows plans to get on a plane anytime soon. I like beer and Mom thinks it tastes like horse piss. (Dad always asks, "How does she know what horse piss tastes like?") I love poetry, and Mom prefers the saga of a family torn by forbidden love. Mom's mother was a tough woman who pushed her children. My mom spoiled me.

Still, I've inherited things from my mom in addition to her middle name. Neither of us cooks any more, for example. I have her blue eyes, though mine are a little crossed since brain surgery. I like to think I've inherited her spunk.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom! Thanks for all you give me every day! Mary

P.S. Even though you don't like poetry, I'll close with this sonnet by Christina Rosetti for you on mother's day. Thanks to poets.org for today's poem:

Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome      by Christina Rossetti

Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,
To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;
Whose service is my special dignity,
And she my loadstar while I go and come
And so because you love me, and because
I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:
In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Butterfly Bouquet

Yesterday marked the end of my 26 year career in education. It’s been a good ride, and it feels like the right time to go.

I taught in a Dallas private school, two suburban public schools, and two schools near SEA-TAC airport, many of whose students are living in poverty and some who have come as immigrants and refugees to the United States mostly from countries in East Africa, Central Europe, Southeast Asia, and Mexico and Central America.

I taught freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors in Language Arts classes to students who were labeled “gifted”, “regular”, and “struggling” or “remedial,” though all of my students fit in each of those categories from time to time.

In addition to Language Arts, I taught integrated Social Studies and Language Arts classes that we called Humanities. I taught Journalism for a paper that was one year recognized as second in our state. I taught Remedial Reading to high school students at least three years behind in reading.

In addition to teaching, I was a department chair. I helped design and start three new schools. I was a national education reform consultant, working in schools that taught significant numbers of students living in poverty. I managed and did some of the writing for Advanced Placement courses and A.P. Exam Review at Apex Online Learning. I led professional  development. I was a literacy specialist, working as a teaching coach and as a leader in a district’s teaching and learning department.

I’ve learned from a lot of people: my students and colleagues, my own teaching coach, professors at the University of Washington and Harvard, and other consultants and specialists.

It’s been a varied career, one that I’ve loved, but with these disabilities, fatigue, and my experiences with tumors and their treatments, I believe that I can now better serve in a new field.

Literacy colleagues at the district office gave me an excellent book, Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!, a book based on verse and sketches by Dr. Seuss before he died and recreated by writer Jack Prelutsky and illustrator Lane Smith.

The story’s setting is an oddball school full of oddball teachers who are passionate and weird. They don’t follow a state curriculum. The students, however, must take the state’s tests, and because they are smart, creative thinkers they do well.

 I believe that students learn best when they are truly learning and not just prepping for tests, and in my experience students taught in this way perform well on state tests, in addition to learning in creative and exciting ways. Only in this way have I seen schools be exciting places of hope.
The misbelief that educators must teach dully to a dull test is, in my experience, wrong and counterproductive.

At the end of my last day, my teaching colleagues and staff gave me an amazing bouquet of yellow roses and daisies with purple cut out butterflies. The butterflies have poems and notes from teachers and staff on the backs.

Since I have been an English teacher, the bouquet is appropriately symbolic. The colors of the high school I am leaving are purple and gold, like the bouquet. I will attend the School of Social Work in the fall at the University of Washington, whose colors are purple and gold.  

The butterfly was chosen by the Collaborative Ependymoma Research Network as a symbol for the hope that research into these tumors, the type of brain tumors that I had, provides.
The poems and notes are the lyricism of my days before and after tumors.

To this career and to all of those I have met along the way, many thanks and much love.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pendiente! An R-rated entry

My English speaking friends who study Spanish, too, have similar issues in confusing words, and they haven't experienced brain trauma, so I don't think my Spanish issues have to do with my brain trauma.

My friend Jerry, exasperated one day, gave in to the Spanish curse word he could think of. "Pendiente!" he shouted, and banged the table with his fists. The outburst did not cause fear and trembling, as he had expected, but laughter. "Pendiente" means "necklace."

Jerry confused the word with another word that can be used as a curse word. "Pendejo" literally means "pubic hair" but is used more like "asshole".

Another time, careful not to yell "Pendiente!" Jerry yelled, "Conejo!"

“Conejo” means rabbit. 

Reflecting on his confusion, Jerry explained, "In some countries it has the same sexual connotation that 'beaver' has in American English. Since “pendejo” is used as we use 'asshole' but is more strictly defined as 'pubic hair', confusing 'conejo' for 'pendejo' is not far off the mark.

"I pride myself in not being very good at swearing so I guess I’ll have to try to stick to 'pendiente'. As far as I know that doesn’t have any sexual connotation although I inadvertently got laughs from the Salvadorans when I said 'pendejo pendiente'. I found out later that “pendiente” not only means “necklace” but also 'hanging'. "

Susan, who takes Spanish classes with Jerry here in the U.S. and sometimes in Guatemala, had similar problems. At a cooking class in Guatemala, Susan explained, "Mi esposo me come todas las noches." She meant to say, "My husband cooks for me every night," but instead she said, "My husband eats me every night."

She got a similar response when she explained that she rode a horse five years ago: "Monte uno caballo con cinco anos." What she said was, "I mounted a horse with five anuses."


Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I already know a lot of groovy, hip, filthy synonyms for cool. Now I know one more. In El Salvador, it's Chivo!

We've had guests from El Salvador for the past couple of weeks. It's been a blast. I haven't spoken Spanish, at least not intentionally, since surgery in 2007, so communicating has been a challenge. Rosaly, Armando, Maria  Jesus and Julietta have been creative listeners and seem to have understood me from time to time. And I, them.

Sometimes I've struggled to remember even simple words and phrases. In the shower washing my hair one morning, I wrestled with how to say, "My hair is wet." I thought, "Mi caballero está enojado," but then I realized that though this was close, I would have been saying, "My cowboy is angry." So I thought some more. Oh right: "Mi caballo está mojado."

After I got out of the shower, I told Ann about my near mistake and how I corrected it. She responded, "I thought pelo was the word for hair. There must be two words for hair. You're just more advanced, so you know two."

I smiled smugly and nodded. Later I remembered that caballo is horse, so I would have been saying, "My horse is wet." I just could not remember, so I went to Google's translater: "Mi cabello está mojado," is what Mr. Google says I wanted to say.

If I had told them that my horse was wet, I'm sure they would have responded, "Chivo!" and I would have smiled smugly and nodded, thinking,  "Yep. Cool."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Potluck Waiting to Happen.

Roberto said, "Feel free to look around the studio while I take our other guests on a tour of Youngstown." I nod. "Thank you," I say. "Maybe I will."
Old school (literally, not in the current hip sense) windows  from waist high to 20 foot ceiling light the room with the afternoon sun.
Wondering how artists--or at least these artists--organize their homes, I poke around: I and the grey and whte cat.
On the black chalk board from the days when this cooperative was a public school, Annie has written, "Bienvenidos a Nuestra Casa," and since she's girly, she's drawn a heart. I chalk poet Saul Williams' words, "I drew a blank. I think it's the best thing I ever drew." The white chalk screetches like it did back in the day when I was in school, and we clapped our  hands to our ears to block sound's incision. In lavender, I chalk, "Paz y Justicia," thinking graffiti but achieving more of the ex-teacher's almost straight lines.
I sip my beer, rest in the silence, and look around. Every nook, every cranny is filled.
On top of the false wall is a bird cage. No bird. I think it's being stored there. Perhaps the memory or the plan of a place big enough for a cat and a bird.
There's a giant $1000 bill taped to the desk behind me. "I deserve to be wealthy," it says. Grover Cleveland, the president whose portrait centers the bill, has his tongue in his cheek, but you have to look closely to see it. I stand to see more. On the music stand, rests a matte framed black and white photo of a bridge and tall buildings in the snow. Is that New York City, where Robbie's from?
Pinned to a wall the size of three doors is a chaotic collage of photos, post-cards, art, and stuff. In one photo, Annie and Robbie hug and look at the camera. It must be cold because they're wearing parkas. A red and white post-card reads, "If what's in your dreams wasn't already inside you, how could you even dream it?" More photos of people, friends I guess, looking at the camera. A drawing of birds. A doorknob. Ah. This is a door.
There's a  framed photograph of a teenage boy turning to a man in an era of coat and tie photographs. Somebody's grandfther as a boy? Below it and to the left, a giant drawing--or is it a photo--of an open mouth: like Mick Jaggers mouth in its bigness but with smaller teeth and lips. And its more symmetrical, more oval. Cut out of posterboard is a homemade cloud shaped sign in a  girl's orange and green lettering:
i wish i knew
who i was
before i was ME.
Another doorknob. I don't look inside. That seems nosy beyond Robbie's invitation. I round the corner, towards the front door. A white cat curls on the bureau . I open  the drawers and the cat peeps in. I don't know why this doesn't seem too nosy, but it seems okay to me. The cat doesn't object. The left drawer is stuffed with white board markers. Fat ones and skinny ones. All of the colors. They don't smell like fruit like the ones I like best. Where's the white board? Thesepens must be for teaching about  poetry and prejudice. (Sounds like a Jane Austen novel: Poetry and Prejudice.)
The right drawer has seven pair of sunglasses for two pair of eyes. (I once heard that Seattleites buy the highest per capita number of sunglasses of any city in the country. Probably because Annie and Robbie live here.) And there's a yellow plastic Easter egg. No candy.
Hanging on  the wall above my head is life-sized red, yellow and blue Shiva (Is that Shiva, the lady with all the arms?)
Two steps and I pass the steps to the loft. Under the steps are shoebox sized cubbies for a gazillion pair of girlie shoes.I haven't seen any dirty clothes. They must be somewhere. Maybe they're in the loft.
I round the corner again. Ah. I'm at home here: a bookshelf crammed with books. Some books are up and down like you see in a library but lots are angled or stacked, like they were crammed here in a hurry. Maybe last minute straightening up? I wonder what this place looked like before the straigtening. I'll bet some of these books were by the couch and on the kitchen table.
The books are so tight that it's  hard to see what's here, but I can make out a few: Film Theory and Criticism, The Language of Life, The Zombie Survival Guide. I'm not sure why, but I think this is Robbie's shelf.
I walk on and on the wall is an antique mirror. I check my hair in the mirror. A single curl falls onto my forehead as usual. ("I knew a girl who had a curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid.") I wonder if I'm being very very good or horrid right now. Sometimes, it's  hard for me to tell.
I continue a few steps toward the kitchen corner. I pass another bookshelf. This one looks like Annie's: Uprooting Racism, Blood Child, Theatre of the Oppressed.
In the corner that is the kitchen, a table is covered with bowls of food: potluck waiting to happen.
Past the table, behind a screen, a computer on a clean desk.  Only a single card with a cat. Strange. Humans don't clean desks like that. Maybe that's where the books were.
In the middle of the room: two sofas, three chairs, a stool and a bench wait with me and the cat for the others to return. The cat jumps onto the back of the stuffed chair, warming his face in the sun. He opens his eyes--not wide, but as slits--and bobs his head up and down as he looks out the window. What does he see? I don't see it. He turns away and jumps down, ignoring me.
I hear voices in the hall. I return to my chair and sip my beer as if I've been here all along. Our guests return from their tour of the coop, and I must end my self-guided tour of their studio.
Thanks for opening your home, Annie and Robbie. Gracias para making the world that I get to live in a kinder and more fun place y para becoming part of my life.