Whisky sour, please

As I navigated the cobbled streets on the way to the hotel, I hoped that would be less awkward than I had been at 13. I was 20, on my way to meet a charming British gentleman at his hotel in Strasbourg, France.

I was studying abroad and my aunt’s father-in-law was attending a meeting not far from my temporary home. My aunt, always interested in strengthening the ties between the people she loves, had insisted that we get together. So here I was, teetering precariously through the ancient streets on brand new heels to meet a man I barely knew.

The last time I had seen Bill – the only time, in fact – was at my aunt’s wedding 7 years earlier. I had been an awkward 13 who fell hard for a handsome blond British boy who’d flown in for the wedding. He was one of my very first crushes. We had spent a lot of time gazing and each other and dancing. There is a distressing amount of photographic evidence of this. Bill, the bride’s father and the 15-year-old’s great uncle (I think), apparently found me charming, though looking back I did not recollect feeling charming in anyway. ‘Self-conscious’ would have been my choice of description.

I was definitely self-conscious now, as I walked into the lobby of a fancy hotel on the River Ill and glanced around for a man who was 44 years my senior. Ah, there he was, crossing the room with a welcoming smile. I can’t remember if he kissed me on my cheek or placed a comfortable hand over mine, but I’d bet he did both. He embodies graciousness, and his kind presence calmed me as we said hello.

He immediately suggested an aperitif, and naturally I agreed, but as we walked across the lobby to the elegant bar, I was suddenly aware that I had no idea how to order a drink. Of course I had been on dates before, and I’d been to college bars, but I wasn’t a big drinker, and since I wasn’t of legal drinking age at home, I’d never ordered a drink in a fancy restaurant. What was I going to do?

We sat down, and my increasing panic must have shown. A glass of wine? Surely not a beer? I didn’t even know the names of most cocktails. My eyes darted to the bar as the waiter approached. Then, quietly but with a sparkle in his eyes, Bill leaned towards me and said, “If I may. I suggest a whisky sour. In my experience, the ladies enjoy the sweetness and the men are always impressed by the whisky.”

I ordered my first whisky sour that evening, and I kept ordering them for years. Bill was right: I impressed many a date with a confident, “whisky sour, please.” Their sweetness accompanied by the complex undertones of the whisky always brought the echo of a lovely evening in Strasbourg, France with a charming older gentleman who saw me as I could be.

Bill turned 90 this week – my aunt, still connecting us all these years later, has been sending me pictures of the celebrations –  and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him a few more times in the quarter century since that evening. To me, he is the epitome of graciousness. So today, I raise my glass to Bill, and to his clever recommendation and simple kindness to a young woman he barely knew in a restaurant in a foreign country 25 years ago. I’ll have a whisky sour, please.

All we need is a miracle

Update, July 10, 2018: My friend, her daughter (and the rest of the family) are in for a long, grueling year or more, but the doctors say that they have every reason to believe she will live. I’ll take it. THANK YOU for all the support you shared when I was in my deepest grief.

My father is a not-quite-retired infectious disease doctor. He chose this path in the late 60s when infectious disease was a research-based kind of medicine, a good fit for my logical, thorough, bookish dad. He liked identifying symptoms, looking them up in the library and finding the best diagnostic fit; disease was a puzzle to solve and he’s good at puzzles. He also liked talking to the patients, but from the stories he tells, I think that was a skill he developed over the years.

He does tell a good story, and by the time I was 10 he was a teaching doctor who was often invited to give lectures in other cities. Sometimes he would take one of us with him, and as I got older sometimes I actually listened to what he told these doctors: corny jokes, technical details that were of no interest to me, and a few stories that marked me deeply.

My favourite story was when my dad talked about a patient he treated in the early days of CT scans. The young man came in complaining of severe headaches. They checked him out and finally ran a CT scan. The diagnosis was devastating: he had brain cancer. The young man was a youth pastor and had a long-planned church retreat scheduled for that weekend. He asked if he could put off treatment for a few days and attend this final retreat. The doctors agreed. When he returned, after a weekend where his whole church prayed for him and took care of him, his headaches were gone and he felt much better. His surgery was scheduled but the doctors decided to do one more scan because the technology was new & they just wanted a clear image to be sure about what they were dealing with. The image came back – no tumor. It was just gone. They had the previous scan: tumor. They had the new one: nothing. A third scan confirmed it: no tumor. What happened? Did they make a mistake the first time? Did the prayers work? My logical father could only say, “Sometimes in medicine you have to believe in miracles.”

My mother-in-law is a nurse who worked for years in a cancer treatment centre. Just moments ago she told me a story about a patient of hers who was diagnosed with mesothelioma and was given mere months to live. He was distraught, naturally, and spent three days in a panic of fear and anger. Then he remembered that he was a statistician and he could understand statistics, so he pored over the numbers and realized that the odds that he could live longer than the median were in his favour. He lived for 20 more years.

I would like to request a miracle, please. The 4-year-old daughter of one of my best friends was diagnosed with cancer on Friday, and I would like a miracle now. She is such a vibrant, funny, smart, HEALTHY little thing. There is nothing wrong with her – except this cancer. Cancer. She is four. I am trying very hard to remember that sometimes we have to believe in medicine and miracles. People are praying for her in all the various ways that people pray, but I’m having a little trouble praying right at this moment. But stories, I believe in stories. So please, accept these stories as my prayers. And if you can add your own, we’ll take that, too.

 

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Report Cards

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We got our children’s report cards today. One was wonderful. The teachers clearly know him. They wrote kind things, “His contributions to class discussions have enriched the learning experience of his peers” and precise things, “He is happy to practise throwing and catching with accuracy while playing Ethiopian dodge ball” and clear suggestions for the future, he “is still working on socializing less in the hall and in the washroom.” I feel confident that the report card is a reflection of his learning at this moment in time.

My other child’s report card was less effective. There aren’t even really any good phrases to share. Apparently in reading he “interprets context clues and uses several reading strategies.” Well. There you go. I’m an English teacher, for pity’s sake, and I’m not 100% sure what that means for grade 4. The whole report card is general phrases that were almost undoubtedly lifted and used from one child to the next. I know the teachers have a LOT to do, but this report card feels very sterile, and I have no faith that it tells me anything at all about my child.

So… what was I doing today? Writing report cards. Exam period ended this morning; report cards are due tomorrow morning.  It’s a brutal turnaround. For each student, I enter marks for 6 learning skills in addition to a numerical mark for the course and, of course, comments. For the comments, the school board provides teachers with a list of codes, organized by subject, that we are supposed to use. Each code links to a specific approved comment. Every student should have one comment from each of three categories: Strengths, Needs, Next Steps. The comments are grammatically uneven (some use second person verbs, some use third), general to the point of uselessness, and older than our curriculum (“new” in 2007). I hate them.

We are allowed to write narrative comments, but we are strongly encouraged to use the codes. Usually I split the difference, turning the codes into complete sentences, inserting student names, stringing multiple comments into one sentence. I aim for some personalization, some sense of the student on the report card. I want something better than “uses reading strategies”. This semester, for my small class of “Applied” level students, I managed personalized narrative comments, but for the large class I took over 2/3 of the way through, I’ve had to stick with the drop downs. Here’s an example:
Creates superior products
Uses creative thinking skills very effectively
Continue to explore creative ways to apply language and symbols
Continue to increase your personal reading

I know there are real limits to report cards (460 characters to be precise), but I wish I could send students off with something better than “creates superior products.” I wish my report cards could reassure the students and their parents that I really did see them, I really do know what they learned. Maybe next year I’ll get closer, but for now, here’s what I wish I could say instead:

Your child’s eyes light up when she talks about writing. She loves to try new things – once she stops being scared – and she’s learning to be confident that what she says matters. Even when she was half-asleep on her desk because school just started too early, she was still polite and she mostly managed to wake up enough to try the writing prompts. The day she cried, she had friends to comfort her. The day I needed her to step up, she did it. When she writes, she puts her whole self into it, and sometimes what she creates is breathtaking. And sometimes it isn’t, but she’s learning to handle that. There is no numerical score for “this child is doing just fine and my heart swells to think of her growing to adulthood.” Nevertheless that is her final mark.

Last day

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I decided to wait until the end of the school day to write this week’s slice because it’s the last day of classes and I wanted to write about the last day. I am kind of terrible at last days – Do we prep for exams? Do we play? Do we reminisce? – and I guess I hoped that if I paid attention I would find the perfect slice and suddenly I would be good at last days. It was all going to come clear as I wrote: this is what I do, and this is what we learn, and it looks simple, but it’s really amazing because, as it turns, out I have this “last day of school” thing down.

Instead I’m sitting in an Adirondack chair on my back porch. I’m barefoot, wearing my favourite blue sundress and, while the late afternoon sun still shines on the rhubarb and the mint in my garden, I am luxuriating in the shade. Birds are calling to one another and it’s that perfect temperature when you can’t quite decide if you should call it warm or cool. Sometimes a gentle breeze blows and sometimes one of the cats comes to rub against my legs. My children are playing together and I can hear them laughing.

It was a good day. I brought Timbits* and freezies for a bit of a celebration, and the students and I mostly laughed and talked. There was some drama in the hallways and such – last days can be stressful – but it mostly stayed out of my classrooms. It’s not the kind of day we will remember, I don’t think.

I was a little worried about that when I sat down to write, but now, with the breeze and the sun and the quiet and the cats, I’ve decided that it’s probably ok to let some things slip away without without a fancy farewell. Exams loom, then the flustery excitement of graduation, and then summer. Today was more of a pause than an end. That’s probably enough – and it’s going to have to be.

 

*For all the non-Canadians: Timbits are donut holes from Tim Hortons. Freezies are, apparently, called “Freeze pops” in the US – they’re just popsicles.

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Up again

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He’s up again. I tucked him in, sang him songs, kissed him. I hugged him one more time and promised to check on him later.

But here are the footsteps on the stairs, the pause in the next room, the little blond head peeking around the kitchen doorway. “Mama?”

Just one more kiss.
Just one more hug.
Just one more snuggle.

Up we go. I run through our relaxation routine. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in and make your body hard as ice. Breathe out and melt. Melt your toes, your feet. Your ankles, your calves. We move up his body, melting into the bed.

I melt, too. I move with him into a space of quiet. Our breathing is even. It’s time for sleep.

He’s down. And now I’m the one who has to get up again.

Looking at you looking at me

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See more posts every Tuesday at Two Writing Teachers.

We live in an urban area – our neighborhood is called “Centretown” for heaven’s sake – but that has not stopped wildlife from declaring us invaders and insisting on reclaiming their land. Specifically, in my backyard, the squirrels and raccoons are feeling pretty comfortable.

The squirrels have more or less become family pets. They laze on our porch railing, in full sight of our cats, who have decided that they might as well all be friends. Convinced that my garden is just a complex food delivery system planted for their pleasure, the squirrels pause, looking up at me happily, as they take bites of nearly-ripe tomatoes and then toss them aside. They’ve gotten fat enough on what I grow that they don’t even bother eating all of the scraps of food that my children leave behind on their daily rounds through various backyards.

The raccoons are significantly less tame. A few years ago, a BIG one lived in our neighbourhood. This thug was at least the size of a small dog and came out the victor in several scraps with neighborhood cats. I think he might have been a mafia don in a previous life. Evenings, by light of the moon, he nonchalantly climbed over the raccoon-proofing on our neighbor’s fire escape and wended his way upward to his favourite spot on the landing, where he would sit and survey his domain. Unsecured trash cans were regularly mauled at night: not just turned over, but nearly destroyed by scrabbly paws and sharp teeth. I looked both ways before I went out to clean up the detritus, afraid that I would catch the offender in the act and suffer the consequences.

All this to say that I was not surprised to hear a loud commotion in the trees as I read on the back porch on Sunday. Distracted from the page, I decided to look for the source – and there, smack in the middle of the tree hollow of the Manitoba maple, a little face was staring out at me. I looked at her, she looked at me, and we were both still for a minute. Then, motion in her home: a baby – and then another! The babies were eager for mama’s attention. There was a lot of squeaking and pawing. Mama gave up looking at me and turned to take care of her brood. I watched, entranced. She nursed her little ones and, later, gave them both a good clean (to their apparent dismay). Finished, and looking slightly harried, she gazed out of her hollow again.

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The photo is a bit blurry, but there are mama and baby peeking out.

For my part, I made my mother-in-law take a break from cooking to come look. A few minutes later, my children arrived home from their activities and became part of the gazing back and forth. My husband found binoculars. The babies peeked out on occasion. My boys looked back. All the parents supervised.

Mama and babies are active just around the time we get home from school, so my boys and I have observed them for three days now. The raccoons have a clear routine; we do, too. Mama nurses and washes the children. I go in and out, getting dinner ready and settling my own children. Daily, Mama looks at me; I look at her. Then we both go attend to our chores.

I’m pretty sure her partner is the mafia don of raccoons, whereas mine is a civil servant, but for now, I’m enjoying this bond with another mother.

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I didn’t take this one, but look at the cuteness.

The doctor is IN

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I was sitting in the English office, staring at the computer, chin resting awkwardly in one hand when she came in with two dozen eggs. Two dozen farm eggs, collected this morning before school. “I HAVE YOUR EGGS!” She is always this enthusiastic.  “WHOA! YOU DON’T LOOK SO HAPPY!” She is even this enthusiastic when she is being empathetic. She pulled out a chair and plopped right in. “WHAT’S WRONG?” Even this enthusiastic when she is asking questions.

What’s wrong? Well, nothing and everything of course. I’d been sitting at that computer, staring it down, wondering what to write for today’s slice. I usually write my slice on Mondays, but that hadn’t happened because I was distracted by a thorny issue. Okay, thorny issues, plural. Today I’d had a meeting before school, another at lunch and one more was scheduled for after school. I’ve been running like crazy, and I’ve had no time to breathe much less think. I’ve been so caught up that I haven’t even replied to the comments on my last post, haven’t even started reading today’s slices. In the moment of quiet before she came in, I’d been mulling things over and trying to sort the public from the private. I wasn’t so worried about what to write as what not to write, and what not to write had been weighing me down.

Though I hadn’t thought to seek her out, I couldn’t have asked for a better sounding board than our chief custodian. She is amazing. I swear I can tell she’s coming before she opens the door. She laughs so loudly you can hear her a hallway away. She curses freely in French. She sells us farm eggs and Epicure cooking spices. If you report a spill, a clogged toilet, graffiti, a broken window… anything, really, she will have it fixed, sometimes before you manage to tell your office mates you’ve reported it. She dressed as Super Mario for Halloween. She posts all the funny results of her goofy Facebook quizzes. Everyone in the school talks to her. I’ve threatened to put a picture from Peanuts where Lucy plays Psychiatrist  – The doctor is “in” – on her door. She is a force of nature.

Five minutes after she sat down, five minutes after I just spilled all the things that I haven’t been able to talk about with others because of that whole public/private issue, five minutes after she focused the whole of herself on me, I was done. “OUAIS,” she drawled, her English peppered with French, “YOU HAVE A PROBLEM, FOR SURE.” She nodded, thoughtfully, considering her next words: “YOU ARE FRIED. GO HOME.” I told her about the meeting after school. “WELL THEN, GO HOME AFTER THAT. YOU CAN HANDLE IT.”

And you know, she wasn’t wrong. I am fried. I did need to go home. I can handle it. And now, thanks to her, I’ve written my slice, too.

She turned around as she left the office, “ALSO, YOU OWE ME EIGHT DOLLARS FOR THE EGGS. YOU CAN BRING IT TOMORROW.”

 

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