Friday, July 13, 2018

Flash fiction: The Most Beautiful Thing in the Universe

The defects of the U.S news issued from the radio and thunderous grey sheets of rain sobbed against the windshield. Avery was driving through Wyoming on a Sunday morning in June unwashed, uncombed, unkempt since the last Motel 6. She stopped at a Flying J, reached for the pump before noticing the vapid digital display and--hey wait--why was it so dark? when a fat man coming out of the market bull-horned “They ain’t got no power! No generator! No gas!” Back onto the highway she realized she had to pee. At the next travel plaza Avery limped into one of the six stalls. Before she’d stood up an automated deluge of gale-force  power flush with pressure-assist HIJACKED ALL SOUND INTO THE PORCELAIN HOLE but then
No handle, no button, no unplugging from the wall, no nothing to stop the bloviating downward spiral. Five gallons. Ten gallons. Eleven, twelve. . . “OH MY GOD!!” Avery cried out, gibbered at the end of GOD in bemusement, thinking about reporting to the cashier, wondering if she should drop her shoe in the bowl to plug it, feeling married to the hurricane--who leaves a toilet just doing that by itself?
On the other side of the door, laughter. Warm, cooing laughter, louder than doves, unlike the vulturing profiteers of pain but clearly in response to her evulsion.

At the moment Avery hatched from the stall the toilet stopped flushing, and there was the brown-skinned woman in box braids, a shimmering skirt-suit and heels, lips glossed for Jesus and some better rendition of coming into the country. Laughing and laughing together: this shortest distance between two people that sometimes tilts the world right.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Time: The Social Construct

Due in part to teaching world history this past spring and being beholden to a highly regimented work calendar, I've become increasingly fascinated by how we organize time. It's deeply ingrained; it affects our self-judgment, emotions and physiology. 
I worked for 5$/hr at a horse ranch in 1996 and went out to care for the equines on Christmas day. I remember stopping to carefully notice one of the horse's large eyes as she sniffed around my wheelbarrow. That was the very first moment I ever realized that something called "Wednesday" has no power...other than what we humans give it.
This strongly resonated:

Monday, June 25, 2018

Hello blog, we meet again

It's time for something new, because I am becoming younger every day.

For the next several months I am a full-time writer. It's been more than a decade since I embraced writing as my day job.  I spent most of 2006 and 2007 gnawing away at the experience, suffering poor performance reviews and eventually firing myself and attempting to immigrate to New Zealand. Actually, I quit before I had a chance to get fired. The work was too hard. That statement seems laughable, even to myself; what could be so hard about staying home and making your own schedule? What is so hard about staring out the window, moderating coffee intake, getting to know your mail carrier, grocery shopping during the day with the elderly and mothers of toddlers?

I will leave this post unfinished.  I'm in a motel room in Price, Utah right now and my meal from the take-out place next door smells too good to put off.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Paradox: Form and Function and Education

I just published two reflective posts I had squirreled away as drafts. I told someone this morning I "haven't been writing".  I'm good at rewriting my truth to underscore the negative.

      I've taken a full time teaching position in the largest high school in Interior Alaska. I love my current position; it creates meaning from my past and hope for the future. At the same time it's abundantly clear the system of public education is drinking from a poisoned well. I'm not working inside an anomaly school, a unique district or a state dealing with unusual circumstances. And I'm not naive. We live inside a culture of blame and accountability,  so everyone reflexively points at the next guy they feel has more power than they do. It's administration. It's "downtown". It's the School Board. It's the State. There's not enough money. There's not enough space. There. is. just. not. enough. And, in this "system" there never will be. I promise. As long as we have a system that is taken up with the negotiation of power, we do not have a system that negotiates learning, joy, compassion and transformation.  Every player strutting and fretting on this stage has been tarnished by the power structure. The system rules by fear-- from tardy slips and suspension, to lawsuits and budget cuts.

I want to be succinct here, as well as inject some hope.  I've been gnawing on this thought since it occurred to me several years ago: the most intimate work of any species is education of its young. How does a duck learn to be a duck? An elk an elk?  I've had the privilege of watching the growth and development of a wide variety of mammals. What are the essential qualities of each species and how are those cultivated?  The diversity, adaptability, resourcefulness and social nature of humans is what has allowed us to take over the planet. Let me stress diversity--psychological, physiological, cognitive and behavioral. And while there are a few notable exceptions, our relationships are what motivate us, but once again, with wide variance in both content and degree.  Humans are also highly spiritual creatures (reiterate diversity here).  In conclusion, we have piles of young humans who are wired to explore the efficacy of their uniqueness and need long-term trusting relationships that explore spirituality and the communal human commitment<----  "Ms. Whitney, I don't get it..."

I walk by one door in school every day that has a sign: 1) Come prepared to class 2) Sit alone 3) No phones 4) No talking

The solution to "the problem of education" is already underway... but it is small and quiet and struggles against metrics designed for widget manufacturing and not making humans. The solution is in a diversity of options.  We want kids to show up for society/adulthood reasonably sane and ready for the unknown, because that's what we're really educating for-- the unknown.

For me, day by day, I will do my very best with what I've been given. I will keep the faith and will not be afraid.

"He Bites": Finding Compassion in the Living World

     Sitting astride the peaceful twinkle of a Christmas tree this evening, I told a friend--a burly beast of guy--that the oxytocin released during the grieving process softens and socially connects us but, not to worry, he'd have to sob for weeks to months over the recent death of his father before he'd begin to lactate. His face brightened, his calloused hands flew over his waffle-weave shirt to clutch his nipples.
     This type of biochemical narrative to life's grand events is one of my specialties, yet woefully reductionist in countless ways. The fact that my brain can inform me of the correct social circumstance in which to levy my observations is, by itself, a miracle of tangled neural impulses. The word we use to describe the invisible perfection of a functioning body and mind, that state of being that allows us to *just* cross the street/wipe our bottoms/desire cake/scratch the itch is homeostasis. It's no coincidence that the first four letters of the medical term spell "home".  We aren't confronted with the magnitude and intricacies of the body'd functioning until something goes wrong

     I'm not a midlife career changer. I make my money in two, seemingly disparate, employment arenas. I refuse to give up teaching teenagers, and I refuse to give up being a veterinary technician. If we imagine each of these job titles to be a rain drop in a puddle, imagine their radiating spheres of influence, the conversations, the questions they inspire in me--and those posed to me by onlookers. Teachers want to know why I'm not off being a vet tech 100%.  Vet techs want to know why I'm not off teaching. Fortunately, neither teenagers nor cats actually care. Therein lies the first repeating pattern.

Orbiting: Part of All and Part of None

        Here is a picture of a kitten.  This kitten will learn how to be a cat by simultaneously taking informed risks and watching other cats.  If there is something his body or brain isn't ready for, he will either not try or fail. Nature has prepared him for multiple failures by giving him spongy joints and a facile brain ready to trust and try again. Kittens, under eight weeks, readily take comfort from other animals, looking for more information and aid in others around them.
     By the time a kitten is twelve-weeks old, if it hasn't been socialized to expect affection, reliable information and resource-sharing from humans, you have a feral cat. Feral (or wild/stray) cats use foul language, they puff up act real tough, and they use and avoidant behavior, putting themselves in dangerous situations to avoid contact with you. Sure, you can socialize a cat over three months of age. It takes a loooooonggg time.

    "You were scheduled as a meeting sub, but do you mind working with two boys?" The elementary school secretary addresses me while jockeying a variety of papers in her hands and repeatedly checking the computer screen. At 7:21 on a Thursday morning she seems out-of-breath. The school secretary actually runs the school, so be extra nice. And, come to think of it, nowhere in any district in Alaska or Colorado where I've subbed have I ever met a male school secretary.  That covers about twelve years and about sixty different K-12 schools.
    "Of course!" I respond to the request at the same moment a frantic classroom teacher emerges from nowhere and gestures me towards a copy-paper box lid filled with math worksheets and twelve books from a series with titles like "Carelessness", "Listening", "Lying", and "Responsibility". The torn piece of notebook paper on which she's penciled an itemized agenda is askew atop the pile. She tells me the items are for JE, explains that he really is a great kid and to let him choose which morality book he should read--that she hopes he chooses the "Lying" one because that's the one he really needs--then she disappears, at which point  the secretary waves me towards two boys seated on the other side of the front counter just as her phone rings. The boys have the same almond-colored skin, brown hair and shining, dark eyes. The younger fellow's legs dangle from the seat without touching the ground, while his brother is firmly planted and several inches taller. Somehow the information is conveyed we are going to breakfast in the art room. I shake JA's hand (age seven), and greet his brother, age 10. JA officiously leads me down the long hallway, past the library, proudly narrating as we go. We talk about how the morning was, about soccer. I ask him the basic questions a sub never knows, or knew and forgot while at other other schools: when does school actually start in the morning, when is lunch recess, where is the bathroom and water fountain? Once at the art room JA asks the woman in charge of the plastic packages of fruits, donuts, and corn dogs if he can set up the chairs. Other kids show up. JA eats the cornbread off his corn-dog and drinks a chocolate milk while quietly chatting with other students and me. I come to understand they all go outside after breakfast before school starts. JA and I are in front of the door to the playground before he turns to me with genuine concern and asks "Are you coming outside with me?"
          "I need to check with the office about what they need next from me first, OK?"
           He seems distressed "I can wait for you? Can't you come out?"
           I tell him that, after I'm certain I'm not needed elsewhere, I'll find him.

     I'm pleased to see the secretary is sitting down for a minute, but when I tell her JA is outside, she registers alarm "No, no, no, he can't be outside! He needs to be here!"
     In my ignorant collusion, I swiftly turn around and head back for the playground door.
    As a substitute teacher you will always be both a hero and a failure for whatever school you work for. Things move too fast for you to know what's going on in the banal world of schedules, routines, job titles and the location of the pencils. You are a hero because you know how human nature works and can make up learning games within thirty seconds. All schools and teachers know this to varying degrees.
    I've almost back-tracked halfway when a woman in an orange safety vest and a radio in her hand turns the corner holding JA's hand.

       Humans, like cats, are mammals that nurture and educate. But we have developed institutions with institutionalized procedures around this process that make it nearly impossible for any one involved (learners and educators alike) to say well THAT didn't work; let's try something different. These institutions are bullies. They leave shame and anxiety in their wake, placing blame and failure on the individual, chalking much up to things like 'responsibility', 'accountability' and 'expectations', instead of spending time crafting a dynamic response to solve a shared problem. Natural systems respond to challenges to the best of their ability. Nature is instrinsically motivated to keep the natural world running. It doesn't need the elaborate punishment and reward system we humans use to keep our tower of power operating.  Humans are addicted to 'deficit thinking'. If something doesn't work out as planned we look at what failed, instead of what assets weren't used, tapped into, allowed some fresh air and sunshine.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Why I foster

Top 10 reasons to foster kittens

1. The opportunity to max out the photo/video storage on your phone
2. Spread joy on social media with pics and updates
3. Enjoy purring at 3 am as you feed kitties with a tiny bottle
4. The mystery of whether what is on your shirt sleeve is kitten food, poop, or peanut butter.
5. The thrill of watching a struggling kitty turn around and thrive.
6. All your old friends want to come over.
7. The day kittens "graduate" out of your care!
8. Watching wobbly kittens groom themselves for the first time.
9. Watching kittens discover their tail (and those of littermates!)
10. The personalities, preferences and surprises of each one.

I've been a vet tech for about twenty years now. Sometimes I worked 80-hour weeks and some weeks I didn't work in the field at all. Yet veterinary medicine is a modern science based on analysis of concrete evidence and it trusts answers that are repeatable through experiment. Even within mainstream veterinary culture, however, there is a saying "cats read the text book and then do the opposite" to intonate the unpredictability of felines.

When I started fostering kittens last summer I thought it would be a fun way to keep veterinary medicine in my life and I thought I'd seen plenty of kittens in my years. The frequency with which veterinary hospitals see kittens pales in comparison to what the shelter and rescue world sees. These people see kittens in HERDS-- hundreds, thousands in a season, and for a number of shelter employees that is ALL they do: manage kittens.  My foster kittens have given me knowledge I didn't know I was lacking. These are unpredictable, fragile, magical little spirits. I can tell you that a tiny kitten's stomach volume is 4 ml to each 100 gram of body weight, so don't expect your tot to suck down that whole bottle. I can tell you that a 4-week-old kitten should weigh one pound, I can tell you about coccidiosis, herpesvirus, joint laxity in neonates and ear mites. But I can't tell you which one will eat more if you heat the nipple, who likes a cuddle under your chin before a meal, why some won't play with the crinkle toys or eat the expensive crunchy food.

Fostering tiny kittens is consent to shed some tears as well as thrill at a dramatic turnaround. Leave what you know at the door. Save a life, provide love and nurturance. It's desperately needed.