Who is Charlie?

Lately I’ve been having trouble getting to sleep. I finish reading, turn off my light and close my eyes… then some rebellious part of my brain hears “PARTY!” and gleefully begins to list all of the things I need to do. These wild worry-happy neurons are willing to let pretty much anything in:

  • things I should have completed but haven’t
  • things I need to do for school
  • things I need to do for my family
  • things I need to do in the morning
  • things I need to do before I die
  • things I don’t really need to do but, you know, I might as well add to the list

Any self-respecting 50-year-old working-parent-brain knows how to handle an unplanned fret-festival: paper. I live by the mantra on the paper is out of my head, and I keep a pencil and post-it notes next to my bed. I like using the little ones because they imply that my lists are somehow manageable. I also like to pretend that I won’t fill up three or four or five…

Things usually look more manageable in the morning, even if sticky notes litter the cover of my book. But Monday, I woke up to this:

Um, y’all… I don’t know anyone named Charlie. And who is the questionable person who goes with Charlie? What activities do they need? Was I planning them? Do I need to plan them? I have no idea.

I spent Monday dutifully crossing off most of the things on this list, but Charlie lingers. What does Charlie need? Who is Charlie? If I didn’t know better, I’d say that my list-making brain was playing a practical joke on me. I suppose the only solution is to go upstairs and read for a while and see what I put on tonight’s list… Maybe I’ll wake up with things for Charlie to do.

All Hallow’s Morn

Andre calls up the stairs, “Honey, have you seen the raven?”

“It’s in the basement,” I holler back.

“I’ve checked there. Surely we didn’t give it away. That’s not our style.” He keeps muttering as he goes back to making biscuits.

I put the finishing touches on my mascara and check on the “Midnight black” eyeliner that now forms dark circles around my eyes, then confirm, “There is no way we gave away the raven. I’ll look when I get down.”

In the bedroom, I slide into the old-fashioned gray dress that spends most of its life in a heap at the bottom of the closet. Because of the way it’s made – sleeves that button on, a heavy hood in the back – it regularly slips off of its hanger and I rarely notice until Halloween comes around again. The thick material doesn’t wrinkle much, and I don’t think it would matter anyway. I pull my hair back into a short ponytail and head down to the kitchen.

“Are you sure the witch hat is in the box?” I ask. “I only saw the wig.”

“It’s there,” he assures me, “but it might need a little dusting.”

To the basement, to hunt for a raven and a witch hat. By the time I’m back in the kitchen, both boys are downstairs. 

“Do you have the permission form?”

“Yeah, did you see the viking helmet?”

“Oh, I couldn’t find the raven, either. Mr. 12, any chance the raven ended up in your room?”

His mouth stuffed with half a biscuit, Mr. 12 shakes his head.

“What are you wearing?” I ask him.

He counters, “Did you find the screaming mask?”

“No, all I could scare up was a scythe. You could use a graduation robe for the gown.”

He ponders for approximately one second. “Nah. I guess I’ll do the lion for school,” he says, “but I’m definitely going as the dinosaur tonight.”

I nod, and put on my wig.

Mr. 14 looks up between biscuit number two and 3. “Weren’t you a witch last year?”

“She’s always a witch,” says Mr. 12, then he giggles.

“Has anyone seen the raven?” Andre is still hopeful, but if that raven is in the house, it’s really well-hidden.

“Dad, give it up,” says Mr. 14. 

“Fine, then I get the Viking helmet,” Andre retorts.

“No way!” Mr. 14 gulps down his drink and moves towards his backpack.

“A hat is not a costume! And don’t forget the permission form!” I call after him.

I finish breakfast and put on my chunky witch shoes. I find the hat and shove it onto my head over my wig, forgetting that it won’t fit into the car and I’m just going to have to take it off again. I grab my bags and get ready to go. At the door I look back to say goodbye. The viking is gone. The lion is wiping away biscuit crumbs. No one has found the raven. And the permission form is still on the table, waiting.

Happy Halloween!

First Impressions

What he likes best, my 12 year old, is comfortable clothes. What he likes are sweatpants and t-shirts, sneakers and worn socks. He likes things that are broken in, soft, slouchy. 

Because of this, he spent the summer showing more and more of his ankles as his legs grew and his pants didn’t. He spent the summer with gaping holes at his knees and growing holes in his t-shirts. He spent the summer in stained, ratty clothes – familiar and freeing.

But September loomed and the week before school started, his dad insisted on clothing culling. Both boys dragged clothes from various drawers and dark corners and piled them up in giant heaps in the middle of the floor. Sizes were checked. Those things that were barely holding together were consigned to the rag pile. Items that were still in good shape but nonetheless did not meet individual style standards – such as they are – were gifted to the neighbors’ kids. Everyone agreed that having pants with intact knees and shirts without stains was a desirable goal.

Or so we thought.

On the first day of school, Mr. 12 appeared in the kitchen wearing perfectly respectable sweatpants (if there is such a thing) and a beloved but besmirched t-shirt. I pointed out the stain and asked if he would change it, just to humour me. He agreed. Moments later he returned… wearing a shirt dotted with several small holes. I maintained my composure but suggested that this shirt, too, should be changed. Mr. 12 was less enthusiastic about my second request.

At this point, his dad, somewhat chagrined, I think, by the reappearance of these shirts that he had assured me were gone, chimed in. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’?” Mr. 12 had not, and he agreed to change one more time.

And that was the end of that. 

Just kidding.

The next day, I only got a passing glance at my child as I scrambled out the door on my own way to work. His dad didn’t look too carefully either. This explains why we only noticed his less-than-new shirt (ok, it had holes. again) after the school day was firmly over. I shook my head and started to explain our “your shirts shouldn’t have stains or holes” theory – the simple idea that seems to be anathema to him. He listened patiently, then shook his head with mock sadness. “It’s ok,” he reassured us. “After all, I can’t make a first impression twice.” He skipped away, laughing.

Since then I’ve gone back to letting him dress however he likes.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org who have created this community where teachers practice and share their writing. What a gift!

Watching and worrying

“Hey,” I say, all faux-casual-like, leaning against the doorframe that leads into the tv room. Two lanky fourteen-year-old boys look up from the couch where they loll contentedly. Across the room, the twelve-year-old glances away from his computer to see what’s happening. “So, um,” I realize that my casual act is not fooling anyone, but I press on, “have you heard of Andrew Tate?”

I can practically hear their eyes roll. And though I would not have said it was possible, they relax further back into the couch, bodies stretching. They are already done with this conversation I have just started. My oldest glances up languidly, “Yeah. Why?”

“Well, um…” I don’t know what to say. Maybe I thought they weren’t watching Andrew Tate? Or that somehow they wouldn’t know who he was. I hesitate. I want to say, please tell me you are not watching videos made by a misogynistic racist jerk, but that seems like overkill.

My fourteen year old gives me a withering look and says, “Mom, if you use the internet, you know who Andrew Tate is.” I do not tell him that I did not, in fact, know who Andrew Tate was until relatively recently.

“Do you watch him?” I ask. By now the 14 year old friend is joining the conversation. He smirks while my son sighs.

“MOM! It’s like, you can’t not watch him. If you watch videos his videos are there. He doesn’t even post them himself. He gets other guys to post them. They’re just there.”

The friend concurs, “Yeah, they’re kind of everywhere. You can’t avoid them.”

I take this in. So, yes, they watch Andrew Tate. Now what? “So, um, what do you think of him?”

The boys have had enough of my beating around the bush. They tell me that he’s obviously a racist and a jerk. They can’t quite come up with the word misogynist, but they know that what he says about women is not good. They watch his videos anyway and insist that they are not actually influenced. “We know what he’s doing,” they assure me.

I am not comforted, at least not right away. I don’t like this, my boys out in the wilds of the internet listening to jerks who say hateful things to preteen and early teenage boys.

I try to broach the topic again later, but my kids shut me down. “MOM! Just… stop worrying about this.” I tell them that what we consume affects what we think. They are stoic. I suggest that their brains are wasting energy on not believing this. They disagree. Finally, I let it drop.

The next day at dinner, my older son tells us that Andrew Tate has been banned from several social media platforms. We talk about whether or not other platforms should ban him. Mr. 14 says no. “If he hasn’t violated their terms, they should leave him up there. If they don’t want him there, they should change the rules.” My husband tries to push his thinking, to encourage him to consider when something should be banned. Mr. 14 is nonplussed. “You can ban what you want, but it’s not like it goes away.”

Dang. We continue the conversation, but he doesn’t budge.

For a week, they tease me with information about Andrew Tate. They tell me about his money and his cars. I respond by sharing the idea of the Bechdel test, by pointing out places where we encounter systemic inequities in our daily lives – should the prime minister of Finland be censured for partying? (Mr. 14’s take: “Probably most people who run countries shouldn’t really party.”) Should a female news anchor be fired when she lets her hair go gray? (He says, “I don’t think TV is a good choice of careers if you think they don’t care when you get old. They do.”) For a week, I worry that I should do *something*, although short of banning the internet, I’m not sure exactly what.

Several days into this, one of the boys yells, “Hey Mom, come quick! It’s another Andrew Tate video.” He bursts into hysterical laughter. And I start to get it. To them, Andrew Tate is a joke – he’s a show, and a stupid one at that. My kids are internet skeptics, completely unphased by the idiotic behaviour that shows up on their screens. They don’t believe that Tate has all those cars or even all those fans. They see him for what he is – a flash in the pan who behaves badly to get attention. They watch him when he shows up in their feeds, but largely to mock him with their friends.

So maybe what I was worried about is not quite the right thing. I can’t prevent my children from seeing things on the internet; there aren’t enough parental controls to stop the world from coming in. My boys aren’t any less at risk than other kids, but their generation has a different relationship with the internet than mine does. We’re going to have to negotiate this together, and in the meantime, I think the kids are alright.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting the Slice of Life

Uprooting

After three weeks away and an 18-hour drive home, the kids and I pulled into the driveway. I unlocked the doors and opened the back hatch, handing bundles to the boys as they made their way inside. There, in the waning light, I saw several dandelion plants nearly as tall as the 11 year old dragging a suitcase up the front steps. Long green blades of grass – not grass I had planted – poked up between the paving stones and around the azaleas, visibly proud of how quickly and well it had grown. And even the enthusiastic grass had nothing on the tomatoes: they had grown exuberantly, abundantly, outrageously, and then, exhausted, had laid their heavy branches down on the sidewalk, creating a thick verdant obstacle course for passersby. The plants were out of control.

I paused, arms laden with the miscellaneous car detritus that appears at the end of a long road trip, and shook my head slowly – as if I could somehow reconcile this sight with Andre’s text from last night: “I did some trimming of the garden so you wouldn’t be totally horrified, but you will still want to get out there to rip stuff up.”

I was, in fact, totally horrified.

As I stood, rooted to the spot, our neighbor Mike came over to welcome us home. I sputtered something about giant dandelions and he laughed, “Yeah, Andre didn’t get a lot of gardening done while he was home*.” Mike had watered the plants while we were away, and he’d kept at it even once Andre came home because Andre had to work. Now, together, we stared at the wild tangle that occupied the space previously known as the front yard.

“Girl,” said Mike, “get in there and get some sleep. We can deal with this tomorrow. I’ll help with the tomatoes.”

Saturday arrived, hot and humid. I rummaged through the shed and found stakes, twine, a small garden fork and a large yard waste bag. The morning was for pulling things. Out came the dandelions (really sow thistle), carefully culled so that their fluff didn’t spread seeds everywhere. Up came the grass – and more grass and more grass and many little bulbs. What was this stuff? I wiped the sweat from my forehead and checked my phone: nutgrass? nutsedge? Who cares? I ripped it out ruthlessly. 

I paused for a long walk and a short lunch. The afternoon heat was more than I could handle, even with water, but after dinner Mike showed up, as promised. We staked one tomato plant after another, slowly clearing the sidewalk as we discovered dozens of green orbs hidden in the leaves. For a while he tied and I weeded. Then he weeded a little, too. Then I weeded some more. By the time the sun was setting, we had overfilled the yard waste bag and were both happily dripping with sweat. I wiped a dirty hand across my face, stood up and stretched, high and long. 

“It looks good,” I declared. 
“That it does,” he agreed.
“I’ve got more to do tomorrow.”
“Yes, you do. It’s a good job done for today, though.”

We surveyed the yard – tomatoes upright, paving stones visible, azaleas able to breathe – and said goodnight. I went inside and washed off the dirt, then fell asleep knowing that all that uprooting really meant coming home.

*To be clear, the house was immaculate and he’d left cold beer in the fridge and lovely treats for us to discover, so I’m not complaining. Not everyone is a gardener.

Family Reunion

What I want to say is that it is a terrible idea to start a 17-hour drive the day after the school year ends. And that this is the reason we somehow forgot my suitcase. And that I had packed all the toothpaste, among other things. And that I had to replace everything which is part of the reason I was fussy until about four hours ago.

What I want to say is that 18 people in one house is, more or less, 12 too many, even if one of them is my adorable 13 month old niece who, for reasons none of us can quite fathom, is basically happy all of the time.

What I want to say is that South Carolina is hot, even at the beach, and that most of us are ridiculously sunburned even though we’ve only been here three days. And we were too far away to really appreciate yesterday’s fireworks, and what were we celebrating, really, since each day the beach appears to be full of straight white couples and Roe has been overturned and there were 21 mass shootings in the US between July 1st and 4th and as we drove down here we passed within spitting distance of at least two of them.

But then I meet my sister’s partner, a woman who makes her very happy and who, as it turns out, makes a delicious daiquiri. And my Cuban sister-in-law is tucked away in the shade, reading and cooing at the baby. And my brothers are on the beach, kicking a soccer ball with my son while my partner plays in the ocean with my nephews. And I marvel that my family has dealt with addiction and divorce and depression and suicide attempts and miscarriage and abortion and money troubles and the list goes on and on. Some of us own guns; some of us abhor guns. Some of us are vegan; some of us are enthusiastic meat-eaters. Some of us have MDs; some of us never finished college.

By all rights, we should not get along at all, and sometimes we don’t, but for the week of the family reunion, day after day we laugh and love and find the things we have in common. The grill sets off the fire alarm – again – and the kids try to fill the pool with water balloons and then, after dinner, we have a birthday cake to celebrate birthdays we’ve missed. Tonight, we are all in the main room with the baseball game on mute while Jamie and Donna serenade us with old time bluegrass music and about half the family sings the chorus.

This family reunion – so many of us joined in such unexpected ways – doesn’t fix everything, of course, but it’s not nothing. Some nights, once I’ve recovered from the long drive and the end of the school year and all its attendant fatigue, I think it might be (almost) everything.

Many thanks to Two Writing Teachers, whose weekly Slice of Life keeps me writing and thinking.

Parting at Morning; Meeting at Night

I learned about Robert Browning’s paired poems Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning in 11th grade with Mrs Braswell. This morning, all these years later, their titles echoed in my head because – for the first time ever – both Andre and I had to leave the house before our children left for school. In fact, we were both gone before the older child woke up. They had to get up, get ready and get to school entirely on their own. To make this happen, we all had to be on our A game.

Last night, we packed lunches, checked breakfast provisions, laid out clothes. This morning, Andre was gone before I even woke up. Half an hour later, I was up, getting ready. I gathered my things, then kissed Mr. 11 awake, told him to brush his teeth & hair, remember his lunch and make sure Mr. 13 woke up in time for school. Then I left.

We’ve left them alone in the evenings plenty of times with (almost) no qualms, but somehow this was different. Would Mr. 11 actually comb his hair? Would his brother wake up? Would either of them eat breakfast? Would they remember their lunches? Leave on time? Lock the door? These questions would remain unanswered until I got back from work. Would they let themselves in after school? What if Mr. 11 lost his key? Would they feed the cats? Would they feed themselves?

I vowed to go home right after my classes ended, just in case, but a teacher in my department was having a very bad day, and I stayed to help them calm down. The kids had another 45 minutes alone.

As I finally gathered my things, I realized that I hadn’t worried about my children at all during the conversation: I’d been focused on the problem at hand. And when I walked in the door, I knew immediately that everything was fine. Mr. 11 had remembered his tutoring session; Mr. 13 was doing his homework. All the keys were where they were supposed to be. The kitchen counter provided evidence that they had eaten (if not tidied up).

And just like that, we’ve passed another milestone. Over dinner, it was clear that they were tickled at this new bit of independence – Mr. 11 says I should tell you that I was too worried and they were awesome. He’s not wrong.

To be fair to their nervous mother, they did forget to feed the cats.

What counts? #SOL22 26/31

I slept in a little and was rather pleased with myself. Downstairs, I made toast and tea, did some puzzles, checked the news. I baked banana bread and washed the dishes, started the laundry and went for a walk with my spouse. We agreed on another attempt to limit screen time in our household. I met with friends to talk pedagogy, instruction and life. Afterwards, I cleaned out the fridge and warmed up some lunch. I tried to convince the teenager that the new screen time rules would not, in fact, be a disaster for him, then sent him off to a birthday party. I bathed, checked on a friend sick with Covid, cycled the laundry, and responded to emails. I repotted three plants, rooted some succulents, and set up for seedlings. I swept the floor. I gathered the kids and dropped them at a friends’ house, then gathered the moms and went to a fundraiser. (Because of Covid, we took our food to one house, leaving the kids to enjoy their pizza at another.) We caught up as we ate.

What did you do today? we asked and each, in turn, we responded nothing much.

None of us are sleeping well. We are weary.

Now, having rearranged moms and kids and homes, now finally sitting down to write, my thoughts cycle through the endless list of things left undone: more laundry, tidying, grading essays, planning lessons, baking a birthday cake, reading…

What did you do today? Nothing much.

What counts as something?

The cool sweetness of blackberry jam, a counterpoint to the toast’s warm crunch
The quick delight of the last numbers falling into place as I solve the grid
The slight tug of the fork as the banana mixture thickens; the smell of brown sugar and chocolate permeates the house
The wet crumble of dirt and the earthy promise of life
The unending tumble of children
The warmth of clothes pulled from the dryer, the slow warmth of soup in ceramic bowls, the warmth of friends who understand weariness

What did you do today? Enough. I did enough.