Monday, May 19, 2003

Last Friday while I was waiting for Josh to pick me up after work, three women passed by on the sidewalk. They're regulars. I often see them at that time and place.

They're all what you would call "huge" women, no doubt clinically obese. Their attire is modest and middle-class, casual, not "office." slacks and blouses, jeans and tee shirts. One is blonde, another has short hair about my color before I started coloring it -- mouse-brown. I don't recall the third's coloring. I'll observe more carfeully next time I see them.

I'm a product of my society (as though that were an excuse) -- until Friday their chief -- their only attribute in my mind was their size.

But Friday one of them had a little jar of soap and a bubble ring, and was blowing bubbles as they walked along chatting and laughing. The light breeze was at their backs, so the bubbles streamed forward a little with the force of her breath, then swung to the street side as they matched the wind. I couldn't help but smile -- that's what bubbles are for, they make you smile.

And then, a full 30 seconds after the women had passed out of my view, the air between the buildings on either side of the street was filled with bubbles! The ones she'd gifted on the previous block were just going by my point of view from inside my building's foyer.

They glimmered in the sun, danced and curlicued in the micro-breeze eddies, and then they, too, were out of my range of sight.

I sat transfixed by the little magic, and then I recalled that these ladies are always smiling when I see them, always engaged in lively conversation.

How our prejudices blind us to the vibrant truth.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

In grad school I was a Teaching Assistant, which meant that I supervised the Biology 102 lab a couple hours a week, and that I led a Discussion Group (DG) 3 days a week. The PhD profs would give the students their lectures 2 or 3 days a week, the students then had a lab and a DG on the topic.

I worked very hard preparing my DG materials. I'd go over the topic's more difficult concepts, then we'd do Q & A. I tested them at regular intervals and kept a grade book on their scores.

Most of the students then were the "normal" 19-to-21-year-olds. The course was for non-majors. So I'd look out on this roomful of bored or sleeping students and know that this was all the biology they'd probably ever get. I felt a great obligation to teach them as much as I could. Most of them seemed to feel a great obligation to resist learning.

One semester I had a 50-something "displaced homemaker" in one of my groups. I felt immediate empathy for her. The first day of class she arrived in a bright-colored double-knit pantsuit, nylons and low pumps, and her gray hair was coifed and sprayed into spun-sugar rigidity. She was nervous and timid, and she blanched at some of the students' language--but she was my best student.

I had been where she was, a brand-new college student older than "the norm." I knew intimately her fear of appearing stupid, her doubts about her ability to succeed in college, and the middle-aged semi-fear of "these young people," even though I'd only been 25 when I started college.

I'd also taken the friend of a friend, literally by her shaking hand, and walked her into the Admission Officer's office (he happened to be a neighbor of mine, but by then, my junior year, I wasn't afraid of Admin anyway), and sat with her while she asked him how to apply, whether there were grants, loans, or scholarships she could try for, and whether he thought she could make it through college. (Does an Admissions officer ever say No to that question?) She was a home-salon hairdresser, a single mom, and she wanted more, for herself and for her kids. Her voice vibrated with fear, and though it steadied during the conversation, she never lost her fear, and she still hadn't applied for college when I graduated and left that town.

Years later I saw the movie "Educating Rita." The single shot that still sears my memory is when Rita went to that ivy-covered Administration Building to apply for admission. She stood at the bottom of those stone steps, took a deep breath, patted her lacquered spun-sugar hair (she was a hairdresser too, a lower-class Briton with a savagely chauvinistic husband, and parents who simply couldn't understand her yearning for education), and started up the steps. The lines of her body were tense and crooked with the weight of her entire life pressing down on her--everyone she knew telling her in words, action and attitude that "her sort" didn't go to college.

They shot the climb, brilliantly, from behind Rita, and it was Julie Walters' genius that her whole body, her whole being, told you what a heart-breaking act of courage she was performing. I cried at that scene, for joy and pride in Rita's bravery.

Anyway, my 50-something student's semester resembled Rita's remarkable journey. The first sign was when she started actually discussing biology in our discussion group. Sometimes she even disagreed out loud with the other students.

Then she showed up one morning with a new 'do: short, combed, and left to riffle freely in the air.

By the end of the semester, she was wearing jeans and sweatshirts and sneakers to class.

The strain had relaxed out of her face, and she laughed and teased along with the other students. Of course she got an A, that was never a question. And this former "displaced homemaker" had stepped whole-heartedly into the stream of life.

I felt honored to have witnessed the metamorphosis.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Terry B. deMille

I had a lot of little cowboy and Indian and horse toys when I was a pre-teen. Each one was different. There were some cowboys and Indians that were permanently bow-legged so you could snap them onto a horse. They'd stand on their own but they stood with their legs spraddled in a wide inverted U. I didn't care, I played with them as though they were normal.

I also ignored scale. I had a plastic Palomino about 10" tall at the ears. He was at least 25 times the size of the other toys, but he was part of the cast anyway. He stood stolidly on all four hooves, legs straight, looking straight ahead. To make him trot, I'd pogo him up and down in short hops. For a gallop I'd rock him, back hooves to front, back to front, along the floor or sofa or coffee table.

The furniture -- mostly in the living room -- was my cliffs and mountains surrounding the canyon of the floor. Little Indians hid behind the tops of the sofa cushions, lying in wait for the unsuspecting settlers (or bandits, or cattlemen) to come trundling into the canyon.

The good guy was a spraddle-legged cowboy with his right arm extended forward holding a six-shooter, and he always rode the white trotting pony. There was another identical pony, except he was brown, and the Indian chief always rode him. I don't think I did a lot of battle scenes -- often the cowboys and Indians were all mixed up together in the good guys' and bad guys' camps. I spent many hours Saturday mornings playing with this assortment.

When I got a small package of Army green G.I.'s, they were just folded into the mix. Sometimes I played G.I.'s and Japs (I was born 5 years after the end of WWII), and then the Western figures got assigned new roles.

Then I got a Barbie doll (TM) and she fit pretty well on the Palomino -- I ignored that her legs stuck straight out in front of her as she perched on the saddle.

Many hours. I wish I could remember some of my scenarios, but they just "passed through" me, as Goldberg says, just flowed through my child's imagination and were forgotten, like water in a stream.

I wonder where all those toys are now. Probably in a landfill. Or maybe -- and I hope this -- they got sent to Goodwill and other children got to play with them. I like that idea. By now they might be in some 1960's buff's collection. That'd be great -- they'd be ready for retirement by now.

But I bet they'd like to be on display together, maybe in a basement rec room, watching their owner's busy life. Maybe someday a grandchild will come along and say, "Grandpa, can I play with those?"

I hope he says Yes.

Monday, May 05, 2003

As a writing exercise, I want to write about some time in my life when I felt most out of place. When I started writing that sentence I thought I'd not be able to think of one, but before the sentence was done a memory popped up.

It was a birthday party given by the parents of one of my junior high classmates, I'll label her D.F. She was beautiful in a Sophia Loren-ish way (if you like that sort of thing), and her parents were rich. They hosted all of us in D's homeroom class, plus some of her friends not in our homeroom. Maybe fifty 13-year-old kids.

I don't remember exactly where it was. It may have been in the Peony Park ballroom (I don't think so), or the Blackstone Hotel (maybe), or the downtown Brandeis if it had a banquet room. Wherever it was, it was lush.

The tables bore china, crystal, and more silverware than I'd ever seen in my life. I had no idea what to do with all that silverware. I don't remember who sat on either side of me but I don't think they were friends of mine (that would have been K.R., who was doing fine on the other side of the room).

So I felt very graceless and crude from Minute One. My hair stuck out funny, my clothes didn't feel right. Most of the other girls were stylish and expensive dressers. They all knew how to put on makeup--many of them already wore bras! They never emitting raucous barks of laughter, or bit their nails. They knew what to do with that extra silverware.

We were served sandwiches cut into four triangles and held together with toothpicks topped by colorful cellophane curlicues: red, blue, green, yellow. The bread was stuffed with about 20 layers of meats, cheeses, lettuce and condiments, so the triangles stood up about 5 inches high. I had a terrible time eating those adroitly -- in fact, I didn't. I managed one triangle, and the second deconstructed itself all over my plate and the surrounding (snow-white, of course) linen tablecloth. I left the rest untouched and yearned for dessert.

I vaguely remember sparklers, and a fabulous cake, so we must have had cake. I also remember a uniformed waitress bringing around a silver tray with a collection of chocolates, each one its own little marvel of sculpture. I wanted to take several, some to eat at home, but I at least knew better than that. I took ONE.

The afternoon dragged on, with everyone but me seeming to have a good time (there were, God help us, games). I was so miserable and self-conscious that I wanted to die. Probably others felt similarly, but I was too self-absorbed to notice. That was probably a good thing. I'm sure all I would have been able to do for small talk was make snide comments about the fanciness and how much this all was costing.

At long last, it was over. The Daddies rolled their cars up to the door and mine appeared and I threw myself into the passenger seat and he drove his little social butterfly home, hallelujah. I changed immediately into play clothes and shot outdoors looking for my fort-building, apple-grenade-throwing best buddy. It had rained that morning. There were gutter dams to build, mud to grind into our jeans.

I've learned a lot since then, most importantly what to do with all that extra silverware.

You bundle it up and jam it head-down into that extra crystal water glass.