Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What Lies Beneath or Why We Should Encourage Girls To Be Whatever They Want To Be

I always think of yard work and gardening as meditative activities, so I rarely grumble when it's time to clear the flowerbeds of weeds. Armed with my shovel, I move forward happily in anticipation of the time it will afford me to work through plot lines for the book I'm writing, or (more treacherous terrain) try to figure out why I haven't been writing lately, or to contemplate my place in the world. It's monotonous work, weeding. But it's good, physical work, and each time I push the spade into the earth, taking care to avoid tree roots and water lines, I am grateful that at sixty I can still do this.

A few days ago, just as I'd begun to tackle a patch of soil near my agapanthus that had become overgrown with stray grass tendrils, I felt the shovel hit something hard. I moved back a bit, then gently pushed the shovel down deep and under, hoping to scoop up what I assumed would be a large rock. What emerged was softball sized. But it certainly wasn't a rock. I had unearthed the shell of a small tortoise.

I'm not squeamish (trust me; I've held freshly delivered human placentas in my bare hands and examined them to make sure everything came out all right), and I love all things reptilian (possibly with the exception of Diamond Back rattlesnakes, which I believe are the spawn of Satan), but I have to confess my stomach did a bit of a turn when I realized what I'd unearthed. After all, it was the body of an animal that had died. So I took a moment to have a quiet meditation over the remains before I began to examine them.

What I discovered was that the body of the tortoise had lain interred long enough to be reduced to a skeleton. As I slowly turned it over, the bottom shell fell away and all the bones sifted down through the dirt into the hollow of the shell. Slowly, carefully, I brushed and sifted away the soil. There was his skull—missing the lower mandible, which I found a few moments later. I recognized the pelvis next, as it was the largest bone. The tiny vertebrae that had once held the tortoise's spinal column in place were a marvel to consider as they rested in my palm.

In those moments of close examination, I was grateful to my college biology teacher who insisted we learn the name of every single bone in the human body. As a young person, I found the exercise tedious. Now I appreciate how well the knowledge has served me over the years. I thought of Annie Dillard and her amazing prose about the biology in her own backyard. And I recalled my first exposure to the writings of anthropologist Ashley Montagu. I was still in junior high (though already a confirmed writer), and I thought how wonderful it would be to spend a lifetime studying the unique zoology of humans and then writing about new discoveries and conclusions that could be drawn from them. Years later, a friend would introduce me to the brilliant illuminations of Loren Eiseley, but by then I'd launched into my college coursework as an English major, and there was no turning back. Still...

If I'd been given direction as a child, if I had not been told repeatedly, "Girls don't... " whenever I leaned toward the boy side, I would not have followed the discipline which seemed practical but has turned out to be a bit static and stuffy, and would instead have followed what always seemed to me to be so dynamic and exciting that it was, perhaps, just beyond the reach of an average tomboy being raised by a single, working class mom.

I have saved my treasure of turtle bones in a large metal tin. Perhaps before I retire I'll come across a student eager to find an engaging science project who will be happy to do the painstaking work of organizing, mounting and identifying this jumble of leftover parts. If I find her, she may have these bones with my blessing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What it's like teaching high school Part I

This will be—What do they call them?—an "occasional series" recording some of the not-so-mundane aspects of my day job. When I established the blog, I did not do so with any intention of ever talking shop, but I realize now that with just a year and ten weeks (but who's counting?) left in my teaching career, I should document some of the good stuff.

The other day at lunch I was chatting with a couple of my seniors about the issues they need to address in order to change the world as soon as they've earned their college degrees. We do this often. Ricky, a young man of strong faith who has a very acute sense of morality, was explaining his idea for an internet search engine that would distinguish between moral and immoral search results. Our conversation was interrupted when Mirella, one of my freshmen, brought me a doughnut. This was a unique and happy occasion. I don't think Mirella has ever ventured into my classroom during lunch before, and I rarely eat doughnuts.

"I brought this for you," she said, "because you didn't get one of Myles' cupcakes. Remember?" Wow. How did she remember? The incident with Myles had occurred way back in early October, just a few weeks into the new school year. In class one day, Myles had mentioned something about being disappointed in not getting cupcakes for his birthday. (High school is quite a transition from elementary school and junior high. My freshmen are always devastated when they find out we take final exams on the last day of school—no party.) Myles sits in the front. At that time, Mirella occupied the last seat in his row. Hearing the note of sadness in his voice, she leaned way out in her seat and called up to the front, "I'll bring you cupcakes tomorrow, bro." She didn't know his name. They'd never had a conversation. She simply offered. He smiled, said "OK!" but none of us were really expecting her to bring cupcakes.

The next morning before school, my door opened and Mirella walked in holding a package of four gorgeous cupcakes.

"These are for—what's his name? Myles? I won't be at school today." Dang, right? A young woman of her word with a great follow-through ethic. I couldn't wait for 5th period.

When Myles came in I showed him the cupcakes—all four just for him—and his face lit up. Of course, I had to tease him and say I might swipe one.

"Oh, go ahead, Ms. Murphy," he said with sincere grace. "I'm sure I'm not going to eat all four of them!"

I thanked him profusely but declined, explaining that the cupcakes no doubt contained ingredients that a sixty-year-old woman with high cholesterol should not be ingesting.  "For example," I said, "these probably have... " and I held the package aloft carefully so I could read the ingredients listed on the bottom.

That's when I saw the warning label: "This product manufactured on equipment that processes products containing peanuts." My heart sank. Just that day I'd received a medical alert about Myles from the office. He has a peanut allergy. The cupcakes would not be safe for him.

"Myles," I said slowly, "I'm going to save your life here. You can't have these cupcakes." I explained why, but he wasn't upset (though a little disappointed; they did look tantalizing). "That's OK," he said, "it's the thought that counts. It just makes me happy that Mirella did such a nice thing." He handed the cupcakes off to some friends who eagerly offered to eat them for him.

Mirella heard about it the next day when she returned to school. And here she was, six months later, bakery bag in hand. "You didn't get a cupcake," she said, "so I brought you a doughnut." I opened the bag, extracted a beautifully crafted chocolate doughnut with sprinkles, turned a deaf ear to the screaming sirens of the diet police in my head, and took a bite. It was heaven. Mirella waved a hand over her shoulder as she went out the door.

I continued my conversation with the seniors, chewing slowly, savoring every bite (and silently recalculating what I would eat for dinner). The bell rang, the kids picked up their mess, and as she was about to leave, Katelynn pulled a cookie from her lunch bag and plunked it down in front of me.

"Peanut butter," she said, "with Nutella in the center. I made them last night. See ya later, Murphy."

If you think for one minute I saved that homemade peanut butter cookie with—bonus points!!!—Nutella inside for later, you don't know me well enough to know my weakness for cookies.

And if you think that all the teenagers of this generation are self-absorbed, amoral zombies who are devoid of human emotion, you should come on down at lunchtime and meet my kid crew. They're pretty special.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The rest of my crew

The cats have been demanding equal time on the blog. That's how cats are, I suppose. A dog will ask nicely, hat in hand (so to speak), eyes averted. A cat will make a demand and stare, exasperated, as you apologize for not being able to fulfill her whim more quickly. At least, that's how it is around here.

Eight years ago I brought home a stunted black female cat who'd had her tail chopped off by someone or something evil. For the first year, she'd let me stroke her head and shoulders, but I couldn't reach my hand near her tail or she would (gently) bite me. The rescue had named her "Sugar Plum"—stupidest name ever for a cat, I said. And then I never changed it. She slept curled by my feet but otherwise remained somewhat aloof, which was fine.

We moved to Mt. Baldy with Boo Radley, my black panther of a male cat, but two years later Boo died after a lengthy illness. Sugie and I, bereft, were left to bond with each other through snowy winters and warm summers as we watched bears, bobcats and raccoons scramble onto our deck. I couldn't have a dog up on the mountain, so Sug was my only companion for five years. By the end of that journey, she had learned to crawl under the covers when it was cold, burrowing in against my side like a kitten. This remains her habit now, even when it's warm at night in the summer, and she usually stays long enough to purr me to sleep. One night, after I'd been gone for a week to Missouri and she'd had a housesitter feeding and caring for her, she crawled in beside me, then reached up and licked my face. This has become her habit as well, licking my hands when I come home from work or my face when she purrs me to sleep at night.

Now I can pet her anywhere on her body, stroke the brush all the way down her back and up her stub of a tail, pick her up if I need to and she is never, ever aloof. When I read in the morning, she jumps into my lap, purring loudly and kissing my hands over and over. She is one of the most loving cats I've ever had. And yes, for those of you who are familiar with her story as it appeared in Chicken Soup forthe Soul: I Can't Believe My Cat Did That, she still rolls over happily when I sing "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" by the inimitable Four Tops to her.

A year and a half ago, a friend posted a photo on Facebook of a tiny gray kitten her sister had found abandoned in a Target parking lot. I had been looking for a black kitten as a companion for Sug, but this gray kitten with her adorable face and urgent plight (in a household where the patriarch was demanding there be "no more cats") kept calling to me. I had named her Purrl before I'd even met her. I brought her home, screaming and crying in the cat carrier, and my life and Sug's have never been the same since. For the first five months, she was quite an impressive eating and pooping machine. I had her claws trimmed when she was spayed, but they grew back with a vengeance, and she has managed to pretty much destroy two very lovely loveseats.

But Sug and I adore her. Purrl (aka Purrlie Girl, Purrl Jam, Jameez, Jamerz and PURRL-STOP-IT) is a bit... quirky. Sug still tries to offer her nose touches and head kisses, but Purrl invariably jumps away, her eyes growing round and stupefied, as if she can't imagine why another cat would ever approach her in such a way—despite the fact that she allows me to regularly pick her up, hug her, kiss her head and otherwise lavish her with affection. She is a bit of a lunatic, and when she's really happy, she celebrates by simply galloping through the house at top speed, her tail crooked and her ears flattened like a kitten.

So when she stopped eating on Valentine's Day, I was more than a bit concerned. I'd been out of town overnight, and when I returned, I noticed she hadn't eaten much. I watched her closely that Sunday and saw that she wasn't very interested in her food. By Monday she was lethargic. As the week progressed, she slowly stopped eating altogether and wanted only to curl in a ball and sleep. I took her to see my vet on Friday and held her while he shaved her neck, drew blood and gave her an IV to hydrate her. When the blood work came back the next day, there was nothing definitive, no infection, no common cat disease. (She is vaccinated against everything). I spent that weekend sitting close to her, stroking her head, asking the Universe to heal her and telling her every hour or so that she had to try to get better because Sug and I couldn't possibly continue our journey without her. For the most part, she remained curled in a ball, getting up to vomit once every four or five hours.

On Sunday, just after I'd been on the phone with the vet discussing methods of hydrating her, she got up, ambled slowly to the water bowl, and drank a few sips. Forty-eight hours passed with no change, but Tuesday when I came home for lunch to check on her, she seemed ever-so-slightly better, just enough to weakly trudge to the backyard and lay in the sun for the time it took me to wolf down a sandwich. I picked her up gently to carry her back in to the couch, and she purred. That night, she ate one single tiny kitty treat, the first sustenance she'd had in nearly a week. She slept beside me all night without getting up to throw up, and the next morning she ate two tiny bites of food. I cried.

We are two weeks past her illness now, and she is back to tearing up the furniture, running around the house for the sheer joy of it and chasing kitty treats across the hardwood floors. I have no idea what made her sick, but I am thrilled that she is still with us. Before Purrlie, Sug and I had become like two old dowagers, set in our ways and clinging to our daily routine. Purrl shook up our lives, made us play with toys and laugh out loud again. And in her fearlessness, she showed Sug how a cat can actually be friends with a dog because when Sgt. Thomas Tibbs came along, Purrl thought he was just one more slightly large plush toy to rub up against and play with. Even Thomas, I think, is glad that Purrlie Girl has survived.

As I have said before, at the close of every day, I spend the last moments before climbing into bed on the floor with Thomas, petting his head and telling him what a great dog he is, and now Purrl joins us, lying quietly beside me, purring and smiling at her big red friend. I feel blessed every day that each of these slightly flawed, slightly quirky characters has come into my life.