The Machine (4)

Prior parts.

[indignation] What the hell kind of advice is that? Return to the water? 

Advising someone to use swimming or bathing or hot tubbing as a physical therapy against forthcoming grief when the nearest body of water requires a swimming permit that costs more than most make in a year month, the public pools are too expensive for the public, and water rationing prohibits use of bathtubs, is like throwing a firefighter an empty fire extinguisher to use on a raging flame. Sure, I considered not bathing for a week and collecting my daily water ration in some type of barrel, but how much comfort can be derived from sitting in a tepid, dusty barrel-bath. Better to recall that we are mortal, with unspoken expiration dates. Better to place the photo in a difficult to reach place beneath the kitchen sink that can be reached only by removing the dishes and soap and the wood cover hot glued over the picture, so that it cannot be held and stared into the long mornings and evenings, until the person isn’t remembered, only the person in the photo, who is someone else entirely, an idealization, a shadow, a moment.
***
The water is climbing higher and higher up my leg
The water is above my ankle and slipping to mid-calf.

The water has slipped above my ankle and is climbing to mid-calf. Crane-like against the dock presses my other (right) and wedged into a smallest gap between planks are my fingers. Any moment (past the knee) gravity will overcome my grip and pull me in, where I desperately want to be, in the satin ice of the water, wrapped in its cocoon.

A barely perceptible whine, shudder of ripples against the dock. I wrench myself up and out, teeth clenched, panting. The patrol boats are white, and this one, it’s too far off to tell, but it could be. But it could also be illegal fishers or someone who bribed the right officials for a permit. I slap my palm against the dock, then the edge of the dock. Hard, then harder. The boat is gone; the water smooth. It’s ridiculous that this water was cleansed if…no, of course it should have been cleansed for the life that belongs there…and for the rich, of course the rich…the beach is barren because no one can afford…I can’t afford…

(Fuck.)

My clothes are off/lumped on the dock and I’m in the air, I’m in, dear God, oh am I in, pouring between the sweetest sheets, skin vibrating/throbbing with a gazillion pricks/an army  as each hair erects, each pore welcomes this cleansing/purification. Surface. Breath(e). Face upward and float. Green earthy tendrils slowly creep from my hair, back, heels, heading/curling/creeping deep into the water to make anchor. I am an island, a mangrove; let fish nestle among my roots and birds and monkeys caper in my branches above. I can/will bring/invite life back into this world. But not human life—we have enough of that. No one has said it aloud—yet—but one day it will be said publicly that The Loss was necessary. We were too many, barely any part of the earth remained without our footsteps and clutter. Now there are open spaces again. Some politicians are calling on followers to replace those that were lost, so, mindlessly, their sheep engage in production sex, but when they hold that tiny human they’ll realize that their grief remains and the child will grow up beneath that shadow.

We get too attached and expect permanence. Attachment limits our ability to accept that the world is changing every second and there’s practically nothing to hold onto. No one is permanent and we shouldn’t convince ourselves otherwise. All that time and energy wasted on grief could be spent on…making really delicious tacos. [seriously?] Okay, that’s flippant, but rather than pointlessly wallowing, I wish I had spent that time…

…those hours…

…weeks…

…making really delicious tacos.

I don’t know. I spend a lot of time massaging the twitch from my clicker finger. Maximizing the space in my miniature refrigerator. Holding my hand over the door handle to the outer hallway, searching for an urge to exit into the public sphere, to move away from the stench of my skin, without a destination. Listening to my lower neighbor speak EXTREMELY LOUDLY to her pet fish, Marbles. WE’RE ALL GLAD THAT MARBLES IS VERY HAPPY ABOUT HIS FLAKES. NO, WE ARE NOT JEALOUS. I don’t understand people who talk with fish.

Some fish still live in the deepest parts of the ocean. Gorgeous exotic fish with neon colors, nightmare fish with inch long fangs, practical fish that make their own light. Every few months I check out a vintage National Geographic photo book about deep sea fish. It must be so quiet down there, and deadly; darkness often brings violence. Many of them haven’t changed since their beginning. Their world is so constant that they haven’t had to make adapt or die plans, unlike the rest of us.

Even with my eyes closed I can tell I need to leave to catch the last train. [too quick?] Skin sodden with water I attempt to propel my upper body upright, but my bones are too soft and my muscles refuse to contract. Evidently I will be sleeping here tonight, perhaps forever, and my neighbor can bring Marbles to nibble my flesh as it gradually peels away. What is the reason for returning to that apartment? Without books I spend too much time watching nonsense on my tablet or dust build up in the corners or peeking into the refrigerator.

But, no, I will be found and fined for exposure and swimming and the fees will be much too high to pay and I’ll have to carry their weight forever. The urge for life is already waning without that additional burden/impediment.

Eyes open to the dusky haze the world has become, its corners softened. I spin around to find I’ve drifted a surprising distance from the dock. I roll over, breast stroke, heave myself up, shake off, dress, lift my leaden feet to the train station. I don’t know if its the dusk or the hours spent with closed eyes, but everything is slightly blurred, as if I suddenly needed glasses, and sounds are muffled. While buying my entry code, a couple passes by to the exit, laughing as if through a bag of cotton. Heavy as my limbs are, they continue to tingle softly. The daily pain in my shoulders and wrists is absent. I shuffle around the room several times before I find the well-marked direction to the platform. I’m just a little bit drunk, I think.

As I wait, I nibble on the ridges of my wrinkled fingers, pass them over my cheeks. Because of the hour the northbound platform is empty. Several southbound trains stop and expel/birth commuters across the way. Chattering, fatigued, bright, dark, only their blank backs glance toward me. I’ve played the ghost today, maybe so much so that the northbound train—there’s the light down the tunnel—will hurtle past and I’ll be left on the platform, staring at the diminishing red tail lights.

Yet it slows to a stop and the doors clop open. Then I board, back to the city.

——————————-

Photo by Tim Laman from National Geographic

static

Inútil

I’d wondered if it would happen, if Glisa would come to class with marks clearly human in origin, like a swollen face or belt stripes that couldn’t be hidden by her sleeveless top on Color Day. But I’d doubted it. While the younger kids confide, follow their teachers like ducklings, openly crush with star-pooled eyes, the older ones stay aloof, confiding in each other or no one.

I wasn’t prepared. Can you be prepared for confession? When sitting alone on a bench, lost in space, while your students listen to music or play on tablets during an earned play afternoon? Can you prepare yourself for a tall, lovely girl who is quick to laugh, rather careless, and rarely concerned to suddenly be in tears? And what were we talking about, nothing, I don’t remember, I was in the middle of some joking comment.

“My [step]dad says if I’m not good, he’ll hurt my mom.”

Probably not. I couldn’t prepare for this secret warrior to remove her armor.

The night before, the stepfather came into her room and hit her. She doesn’t know why. He was looking for something in her room; she doesn’t know what. When her stepsister cries or whines or cries—she’s always crying—Glisa gets hit. The stepfather has threatened her with a knife. Glisa is afraid to go home. She stays at her grandmother’s as long as she can during the day. Probably everyone on that street knows what happens in that house, but her mom talks to only her sister. Her mother wants to leave, but doesn’t know to where. Glisa’s aunt is trying to get her and her brother to the States, to Houston. Her mom can’t afford to care for all three kids.

Glisa sat above me on the table, I rubbed her leg, squeezed her foot, maybe took her hand as she talked. I wondered what to say, knowing that listening was the right step, but wanting to hand her a solution, feeling helpless in this pain, trying to not let my own tears show. It’s not my place to cry here. I asked if there was someone who could help. Only the aunt. Thank goodness for the headphones, most students were too absorbed to notice our island at the crowded table, Gilsa’s tears.

“You know you don’t deserve this, right?” Glisa nodded. I murmured words about that asshole, her intelligence and wonderful personness. My hopes of her escape.

Then, she was done and went to play with her iPod. Football was played that last hour. At home, I fell on the bed, drained, teary, and am still somewhat lost.

The days after September 11 were emotional and paranoid below 14th Street, including where I worked in the West Village. Cars weren’t allowed. A stranger sold cleaning fluid in unlabeled bottles and we suspected anthrax. Spontaneous memorials grew on fences and street corners. Pictures of the missing, Have You Seen Me?s, were hung; of course they were never seen again. I knew, and they did too, the hangers of those pictures, they had to have, but they hoped, I guess, that their friend, lover, father, mother, child was out for coffee during the fall and just got…confused. Or lay unidentified in some hospital. I passed them and looked, the candles always burning. The faces gradually familiar, and I looked for them each morning.

My story of that day and the weeks that followed is inconsequential amidst so much loss and real pain. I lost no one and was not even close to being lost. I worked in the Village, a lower part of the island, but still streets and streets away. I was close enough to see the flaming maw in the first building before it collapsed. I was close enough to see the ash-filled sky as I looked south, those days that followed. The ash rained on the cars outside my arts school.

I attempted to join a blood donation queue outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. I arrived just as the crowd was disbursed: there were no bodies. Someone recently pointed out that obviously there wouldn’t be any bodies, but he wasn’t there that day, walking north up 6th Avenue, away from the cloud that obscured the lower island, huddling around someone’s open car door to listen to the report that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and feeling desperate and alone, so alone, and shuffling slowly to some where, to find someone to shake and ask what the hell is happening? I worked in a shop on Greenwich Avenue. The store was dark but I punched the access code, lifted the gate, and waited. The phones weren’t really working. They wouldn’t start working well for awhile. I found out the next day that I missed my coworker Laura by just a few minutes.

I had more luck finding warmth at a nearby church where a friend worked. He and his partner hugged me. The video footage repeated, the buildings kept collapsing. And then I wanted to be alone again, because I felt so alone and it’s better to feel alone away from people. But when I got home—190th Avenue, the trains must have restarted quickly, or did I walk? I know some did—I was alone, and that was the worst place I could be. The phones didn’t work. That night I screamed into my pillow. Why had I come here?

My luxury is that I get to forget most of that day and those that followed. I hold flashes and emotions, one of the strongest being helplessness, uselessness. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t donate blood. I had no skills. All I could do was stand behind the counter and wait for customers. My coworker Laura had a task, something to do with the search and rescue dogs sniffing the rubble. I answered a call from someone connected with our store (a trainer? supplier?) and I found my task. The rubble was hot, the pads on the dogs’ feet were burning, we sold special booties for the winter, our store could donate. But in the end this fell through. People around me rushed around, and I stood static behind a counter, completely useless, without ideas or skills. What a waste.

The Volunteer Coordinator suggested that Glisa’s mother could be killed if she told the police about the abuse. That night she emailed me a list of shelters to give to Glisa, and I did the next morning. That I could do. But not much else. I can’t take Glisa away from here. I can’t stop the abuse. I can’t stop her fear. There were days as a child I didn’t want to go home, because of my own (first) stepfather, of whom I was also afraid, but not physically. I didn’t fear that I might not leave the house alive. I can only guess what she’s feeling. I can only hug her when she asks, listen to her chatter, and laugh, these last few weeks. I can’t rescue her.

So I feel pretty useless.

I suppose that feeling has never gone away.

theresa

My gross keyboard

The Machine (2)

Read (1).

At eight hours, the screen darkens, my total clicks of the day flashes in neon-green, along with my day’s wages, at 2 cents per click. The supervisor stamps me out of the room and I collect my paycheck from the machine outside. The few friends I have envy this daily payment, but it’s only a reminder of my expendibility. Any day now, computers will be able to perform this job better and more quickly. I could arrive at my early am tomorrow to find that the bathrooms have been ripped out—because computers don’t shit—and the clocks taken down—because computers don’t care about smoke breaks. No notice or warning, and I would walk back down the stairs and stare into the rising sun, which I can’t see from The Room. I’d probably have to cover my eyes from all the light. And then

And then

Well, I’d have to look for something else, wouldn’t I? Not the easiest task for the immobiley inclined, especially when the buildings are so tall, with all those stairs to climb. Employment insurance for people in my inclination group is expensive as hell; I’d have to work double time to cover the premium. Company knows it’s just a matter of time before they’re paying for me to keep on my ass. The government requires it but the look the other way fee is cheaper. I pay it, buy a little dinner, and bank the rest.

I like (liked?) reading prediction novels, the old ones that guessed what life would be like now. They amaze me, what people thought would happen and what they were right about and did happen. We still have physical books; they aren’t popular. A lot of jobs have been replaced by machines, but that doesn’t matter so much because the antibiotic resistant plagues swept through and killed a lot of us off. They’re under control again. For now. God still exists but Jesus has been disowned, a twist of logic I’ve never understood, but I wasn’t raised a believer. For what it’s worth, people seem to be nicer now, if I understand the past correctly. But that could be from The Loss, not the disowning. I try not to think about people or people thinking if I can. Doesn’t get you much.

Microapartments stuck. They’re one reason The Loss spread so quickly: 5,000 in a building, sharing a water and air filtration system. I sleep on the refrigerator and brush my teeth over the toilet. The kitchen table flips over into a closet. The dishes are stored beneath the sink, which doubles as shower. I have one of the more experimental models, which is one thing that saved me. The entire building was a test hub and none of us are connected. My next door and across the hall neighbors died. I closed the divider and read What We Lost about fifty times.  When I’m insomniac, I hear Betty shouting to her lover that the paint on the walls still isn’t dry. The shit that sticks in brains. After the All Clear sounded, I showered and waited in line until a clicker got sick and I was rehired.

That’s when my mother died.
******
Marcos is staring. Marcos stares at me around his computer, kitty-corner from mine, always, even on days when I don’t get my window seat. Otherwise, my neighbors change.

Everyone has noticed. “Marcos loves the Machine,” they whisper. No, they don’t whisper. They speak it to each other casually, in my presence, when I pass, or in the bathroom. One day, no doubt, it will flash across the monitor when reporting my figures for the day. The system can be hacked, and has been, that day my paycheck was five times higher than it should have been. Everyone’s. We were silent and the hack wasn’t reported until a weekly supervisor stamped out. The company tried to block our paychecks, but it was too late. It couldn’t fire so many of us because that would have been noticed and the hack been reported. We kept our money and our silence.

That cold, dry afternoon of unexpected wealth I took a train to the coast. It was warm and hazy, and I slouched at the end of a dock, waving my shoeless feet over the calm blue water. The fish haven’t returned, but it’s been only ten years since this area was declared Returned to Original (RTO). RTO and PR (Permit Required) for any human based activity, like swimming or boating (row and motor). But, a weekday afternoon, the beach is barren. I hold my breath and slowly, slowly slink a foot lower until it makes contact. Still silence. Deeper, deeper until I’m panting with the exertion of resisting the desire for my entire body to feel the cool slipper spreading over it. Thanks to the hack, I can afford the contact penalty; I cannot afford the swim penalty.

Some time ago I went with a friend—taken in The Loss—to a psychic. My friend was a great believer and insisted I try at least once, to the point that she paid the fee equal to ten days of clicking. “I’ll hate you if you don’t,” she said, handing me the damp paper ticket. I didn’t then, but I see now, the slight shaking of her hand and the pale amber tint to her eyes. The early stages. We’d been given pamphlets by the government and received messages over the emergency network, and the disconnected had received personal visits regarding the signs. ATTENTION AND TIME IS EVERYTHING. I’d laughed, as you do, as I do when the border between serious and humor is unclear. And that day it was. Did she know? Because….

No, I can’t give you that, the last of her. Not yet. We’re still strangers and I have too many questions. How did you survive The Loss and how much did it cost? Or did you even know about it, living so far up here? Was it something you only had to read or watch?

heat

Flawed human

I present to you my last two students:

Glisa

I worry about Glisa’s future. Many of the female volunteers do. Her 12th birthday was two weeks ago, but she looks older. One could say Glisa is too pretty for Honduras, because beauty leads to attention, and that leads to to trouble. After her last speaking exam, she and I chatted about her desire to study medicine in Cuba (apparently it’s good there?). I encouraged her with a full heart, because Glisa is such a bright girl, and told her that she’d have to be strong and push aside those that would stand in her way, like guys, because guys would try. She laughed. She knew what I meant, but she’s only 12.

I’ve heard that life at home is horrific, that the busito driver has pulled up to the house and heard her younger brother being whalloped by their stepfather. Last year, if not this year, Glisa came to school with stripes. While the younger kids share these wounds with the volunteers, the older ones don’t. I haven’t seen anything and she is rarely anything but cheerful, but I have pulled her aside to tell her that she doesn’t need to give the mid-parcial grade letter to her parents if she doesn’t want to. Glisa’s grades are not the best. She’s careless. She doesn’t study. She chatters constantly, like its an addiction she can’t kick. I shudder when I see her stepfather. Glisa adores her mother.

If she would steal Isabel or John’s focus, there’s nothing Glisa couldn’t do. She radiates light and joy and curiosity. She’s the only person to pester me with questions when interested in a science topic and her hand is usually the first when I ask for opinions. She’s the only 7th grader who (still) loves Justin Bieber and didn’t vote for Antonio in the school elections (he lost). Glisa is silly, with startling moments of maturity and clarity. She would also fit in easily in the US.

Glisa has a crush on Antonio, which everyone knows and he exploits. She hugs me most mornings. She is so hungry for affection and attention. It could be the homelife, or not. It’s this hunger that makes me afraid for her, because someone will prey on it. I want to protect her in a glass shell.

Lizz

After watching me talk with Lizz during recess one day, a volunteer questioned why I dislike her so much. Ouch. Awkward, egotistical, needy, self-concious, unpopular, and hopelessly obsessed with a boy who doesn’t know of her existence, Lizz has been hit with some of the worst characteristics of adolescence. Were I a better, stronger, more compassionate person, my own recollected wounds of those years would help me be gentle with her, but I’m not that person.

Lizz lies to me, carelessly, obviously, then denies it when caught. She disobeys my request that she not hit her cousin, John, and is disqualified from a game, then asks why she didn’t get candy when her team wins. I give her candy so she’ll just leave me alone. She’ll wave me over to her desk with a hushed “Miss, I have to ask you a question,” in such a way that I assume it’s a sensitive matter, but it’s something purely mundane, such as having her homework ready to turn in and I should praise her for it being early, despite her doing it instead of taking notes. Lizz is convinced she is the smartest, exclaims “Miss!” in a shocked tone over…what, I don’t recall, but nothing shocking…expects exceptions and special attention. I ignore her when she complains of illness, because I’ve heard her wolf cry too often.

At first I was able to meet her needs with sensitivity, but now I’m short, impatient, and snap. She’s just a girl, and no one deserves that, especially from a teacher. I don’t know if she notices, but I notice, and that’s enough to wound what is left of my soul. Tara is another recipient of my exhausted, impatient self. She notices.

My imagined soul is spongy like a liver and now shriveled, with decayed spots, like the heart with atherosclerosis I showed the older kids in science. When I am less than kind, or give deserved punishments, or litigate arguments over whose ball it is or who broke the pencil sharpener, a spot appears or darkens. I suppose it will heal, but I’d rather it never appeared in the first place. Ah, the pitfalls of being a sensitive and deeply flawed human. Maybe the damage is mitigated by hugs from the school’s baby dinosaur.

I remain,

theresa

My gross keyboard

The Machine

I don’t know where this came from but it interests me more than the other entry I’m working on and might be more honest:

It wasn’t always like this. My days stretched between pre-dawn to post-sunset darkness, and in the light, I carefully, slowly turned the pages. Then, when the time came, I swung my arm to the chain above my head, pulled, and was clicked back into the dark.

Now, I almost never finish a book. I walk the aisles of the library, salivating over titles, book covers, and synopses. I gather a stack of the promises of escape and slide them across the scanner into my bag, which I struggle to clip shut, and pedal home with the promises digging into my back. Sweaty, home, books stacked against the false living room/kitchen/eating area divider, I stare at the titles from the reading chair, and choose that with the greatest promise of erasing the divider and cement floor and tomorrow’s 5am alarm and cold shower. But the words are crap. The words are obviously someone else’s, that person wants to manipulate me, and after a sentence or few pages my eyes slip, the book slips to the floor. Then I reach across for the next. Until everything is on the floor.

My mother died last year, and before you say this inability to read is some fallout from that, let me tell you that I didn’t love her, that she was a woman not to be loved, that her embraces were cold and she left the hearts of men and women behind her, and mine.

Do you love your mother? Do you ask yourself why? Why are we shocked at the lack of love but not its presence? If you tell me you didn’t love your mother or your father, I promise I won’t treat you any differently. I won’t offer sympathy or sad eyes or a pat on the back. Instead, if you brought this up while we were discussing dinner, I will find this a curious segue and return to the original topic. If you insist on returning to your segue, I will order pizza and then sit with you to discuss what you have chosen as our follow up issue.

Some coworkers call me The Machine. The truth is that we place far too much value on hormonal fluctuations that cause someone to love one day and hate the next. Why is this useful? Instead our efforts should be on monitoring and controlling our responses to red, blue, and the numbing effects of beige. That I didn’t love my mother is irrelevant. Did it cross your mind that she might not have loved me?

This recent stack is the most useless. I’ve held the books but can’t open the cover. The idea of attempting escape seems useless. Time is neutral. It moves. Tomorrow always comes.

I am the first, I arrive before my fellow clickers and our overseers, and I flip down the toilet seat in the last stall and perform the day’s first flush. I secretly fear (fantasize?) that one day I will find a dead body sitting on the toilet in this last stall. A coworker or one of the cleaners, perhaps a client. Again, hormones, but I can’t deny them.

My place is in The Room, the largest space in the office filled with long brown tables, narrow, crowded on each long side with computers. At the end of each row is a box of white or black mice, new and shiny or repaired and greasy. I sit in the corner farthest from the door. This is the corner with the window, the size and height of a bathroom window, but it’s a window. It lets in no light or air and its purpose is unclear for that reason, but it does let in faint birdsong. City Park is across the street from our building. City Park has trees and grass. The grass is covered in birdshit because this is the only place in the city with trees. Some days it is hard to breathe, and I walk to the park, cover my feet with plastic bags, slip on a poncho, and wade in. I place another plastic bag on a bench and sit. Imagine the smell. Imagine the cool oxygen.

In the dark of The Room, the monitor glows to life, my left hand moves from my lap to its far too familiar position around the mouse, and I start clicking. An hour passes and The Room is hazy with a hundred forefingers clicking the required minimum of five times a second. Light on blank faces flicker. The Oxymachine rattles off and on. A mouse is ripped out and dropped to the floor, “Replace!” yelped, and a replacement passed hand to hand until it is attached and clicked. This takes time and the forethinkers keep the day’s replacement in their laps. Click click click trill woot trill woot click click click trill trill trill comes in. Sometimes the song’s rhythm slips into my forefinger.

At eight hours, the screen darkens, my total clicks of the day flashes in neon-green, along with my day’s wage, at 2 cents per click. The overseer stamps me out and I collect my paycheck from the machine outside. The few friends I have envy this daily payment, but it’s only a reminder of my expendibility.

Cats!

Hagfish don’t speak Spanish

Last week’s post cancelled due to ignorance. It was something on the theme of the temporality of so much here and poverty, then I realized that nearly all I observed here could apply to poverty in the US, which lead me to wonder what, if anything, was different and what should my role be in that. I’m here trying to make a small change, why do I not do that in my home country? It all became too complicated for a weekend and I didn’t feel qualified on the topic. So the post remains in the draft box.

Today’s thoughts:

Five months in, how’s my Spanish coming along? I was so proud of my first efforts, my first fuck-ups. Full of hope and energy, I valiantly struggled to push aside the language barrier and exchange ideas with my newfound friends. No, not really. That’s how my ideal self envisioned the events, but there haven’t been many friends and the barrier falls over. My Spanish sputters along in the same old way. I teach English and live with English speakers. I use Spanish to communicate to the principal that I’m borrowing his calculator and ask if I’m really supposed to give the 9th graders extra points for the museum trip, offer one of the school cleaners a piece of cake, and request a pound of green beans at the market. I’ve learned the words for cash (effectivo), come in/move by (pase), and sloth (peresozo, the same as lazy). Flustered, I often mix up pensar (to think) and querer (to like), despite having known them for years. A month ago, when I was invited to one of my favorite homes with a fellow volunteer—a local favorite who became fluent in a year—I was reduced to observer, straining to understand their conversation for, no exaggeration, hours. Meanwhile, Vee travels in Guatemala for two weeks and returns confident and willing to barge in with broken Spanish at any opportunity.

Maybe language learning is for extroverts. More accurately, language learning is for people who are able to make small talk or say nothing, really, just for the sake of talking. It’s also for people who have confidence that others will want to talk to them. None of these are me. At a recent birthday party four of us attended, I was seated with two friends of the family, one of whom was the mother of a student. I would have enjoyed getting to know her, but it’s difficult enough to bridge that gap in English without self-awareness-reducing chemical aid like caffeine or alcohol, much less in a language I barely speak and when I’m unsure of culturally acceptable topics; and then my style of semi-intense probing might not be appropriate for a party. I’m more into the What makes you tick? conversation and less This music makes me want to dance, OMG this goofy thing happened to me yesterday you have to listen to it, Isn’t it funny how much the kids are obsessed with their phones? To each their own, I just can’t do it. If I were engaged by someone else, I would try, bravely, strongly, but it wouldn’t go very far because we’d reach the limits of my abilities or the topics I can ask questions for quickly. And generally the families assume we don’t speak Spanish, so they don’t try to engage.

When I chose to work with this school, I was afraid that this lack of learning would happen since I would be living with volunteers rather than a family, but I wanted the proximity and support of other teachers. The alternative was life with a family but possibly too rowdy for my sanity and with not as much support. There wasn’t an ideal situation, and I chose the one that would better promote teaching success rather than language learning success.

This is all a terrible way of looking at language learning and myself. I’m just disappointed that I’m this socially awkward hagfish that resists evolution, that I’m not someone else, someone who believes that she is worth talking to, even in another language, and disappointed that I can’t kick my ass hard enough to…to what? find little funny things to say? find anything to say? I’m rather negative about all of this, especially when I see how quickly my roommate is progressing, due to her newfound friends. Maybe I need longer calves.

Okay, I need to believe in the lights ahead. I do have a conversation partner at school I should utilize more. As far as topics of conversation go, I can always ask her how to navigate the cultural waters that divide us and appropriate party conversation. I could also accept my status as a perennially awkward seafloor-dwelling scavenger. We all have a part to play.

Yours in goof,

theresa

P.S. The cats at our school understand that it’s not what you say but how much sun and playtime you enjoy that really matters.

A variety of fine sign.

Ugly Girls

Because of the teaching time crunch, I usually create posts within in a short time span. I draft Saturday and refine and publish Sunday at 101pm CST. Now on holiday, I’ve been working on a post, but not this post, for a few days, looking for the in, to identify exactly what I want to share. All the bits of the theme are scattered about in different notes on Evernote. A hook is found and explored, then it meanders and I get lost…another hook is found and explored and….. It might be the lack of pressure—I don’t have to have it done today—and thus I question my words and intent more and nothing passes the sniff test. Or maybe I just have so much room to expand and think and play that my brain is giddy with freedom.

I often worry that my blog is too negative and that worry inspired a bathroom thought about audience. Way back in writing school and teachings thereafter I was advised to consider my audience. Who is my audience for this blog? Initially it was people who knew me IRL and the ephemeral cloudpeople out there who just might chance across my musings. After a few friends commented that they appreciated the blog’s honesty, a feature essential to good writing, I hoped it might be a light for readers who were, like me, tired of life-adventure blogs with an extroverted and self-assured tone, that gloss over the challenges and want to explain how things should be done and sell their point-of-view in some way. All I want to sell to the world that stumbles here is my honesty. That is my audience.

I used to believe that I could be a Writer (big “W”). I went to playwriting school and everything. When asked why I wrote, why I thought I should be known, I said it was because I had a point of view that I rarely saw outside of teen theatre. The point of view of an Ugly Girl. Now I believe this concept is popularized (no, this is not some claim to cool before it was cool), merchandized, and on its way to fetishization. But my version, the only known version in my world at that time, was created in front of the student mail boxes in the then-called Dramatic Writing Program of NYU with a girl named Miriam, shortly after my Introduction to Screenwriting class. I was one of two women in the class, the other being a very attractive and confident student who has since written her way to the Pulitzer Prize (confidence well placed!). I was speaking about something and my co-female leapt in with her own idea (rather rude of her to interrupt perhaps) and suddenly the class came alive, all the males crawled into her light, and I was blocked out. Ah, okay, this is how it works.

Ugly Girls aren’t ugly, per se, but they are on the get-to-know-them-to-see-their-beauty spectrum, or they just have a nonstandard form of beauty. They aren’t wearing the coolest clothes or make-up, their bodies aren’t up to the advertised standard, and they’re gawky or awkward or just a little off. Alienation might also be key. With few words Miriam instantly understood my troubles in class and in that conversation Ugly Girls were born. That in two words was why I was going to be a writer.

In retrospect, through the post-therapy, post-additional self-awareness, post-getting-out-of-my-head-more lens, I know my interpretation of the class dynamics may be inaccurate, but the phenomenon and what that moment fertilized, the Ugly Girls, is real.

Janeane Garofalo

Abby. The cat, however, is pure Hollywood starlet.

Miranda

Miranda. Cheeky.

Brienne kicking ass.

Brienne kicking ass.

Janeane Garofalo as Abby in The Truth About Cats and Dogs is a U.G. Miranda Hart as Miranda in Miranda (such fun), in all her 6+ foot glory, is a U.G. I’d put Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones there too. Being an Ugly Girl doesn’t bar you from personal success, but it comes with greater social challenges. (For the record, I find those three characters beautiful. I’d jump ’em in a heartbeat.)

I’ve never written about this before. I’m discovering questions. There are a lot of ugly women out there, but are they Ugly Girls? Sarah Palin is ugly inside and out, and it’s the inside that immediately disqualifies her, but were she beautiful on the inside? Maybe. Or, no, because she is attempting to be mainstream. Oh, this is a bad example. I think a key part of Ugly Girl-ness is an inability to conform to the mainstream, even if you want to, which is why Ally Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club doesn’t qualify. I’ve expressed on this blog my desire for pretty things, to be pretty and disheveled in just the right way. But I can’t. I’ve tried and can’t make it work out. I probably don’t want it enough. An Ugly Girl doesn’t have to reject the mainstream and wear that as a badge of honor; for her, it was never an option. Please believe I’m not trying to be elitist or hold up wounds as a perverse claim of superior personhood. I’m attempting to explain a way of interacting in this world.

Like I said, I used to believe in myself as a Writer, in part because of my desire to promote the Ugly Girl experience as one with equal validity. Today I’ll allow myself to say I am a writer (little “w”). My lack of confidence and skills as a writer that eventually quashed The Dream could and might one day be its own post(s). I also stopped believing in the necessity of my voice. The U.G. type is seen more in the media, though she’s impure—her status is only temporary, a, if not the, problem that needs a solution. The plots play the U.G. as a rebel against conformation for the sake of rebelling (I’m drawing a blank on examples. Anyone?) or she’s a Hollywood-beautiful actress we are supposed to believe is anything but (Minnie Driver, Circle of Friends) or all she needed was the right friends and make-up (Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club). In any event, the resolution often involves the character’s admittance into the mainstream. I no longer think the U.G. stories aren’t being written. I’m sure they are, but Hollywood and such doesn’t buy them, at least not in pure form, with a potential positive resolution being self-acceptance or something that doesn’t incorporate U. G.-ness as a problem, because those ideas aren’t what we supposedly want to buy. Or do we?

Neil LaBute is not my favorite playwright—he takes a hammer and hits you over the head with his points—but he has a play called reasons to be pretty. For about five minutes of my life I acted and there was a role in that play written for me. One woman is beautiful, the other is “ordinary.” The “ordinary” woman is an Ugly Girl. Her appearance is nothing fancy, she feels it from society, and she has a peace with it. Her story is one I longed for for years. (I’m sad to say that the Portland production was lacking.) The play was very popular and was nominated for several and won a few major awards. So there is an audience for this unsexy story, even in the US. There is an audience for the Ugly Girl.

I do regularly see U.G. stories and actresses in media outside the States. That’s nice.

In a writing class with Martin Epstein I wrote a piece about how much I hated my manipulative college roommate. A response to the piece was that it revealed more about the writer than the character. Of course, this blog is intended to reveal me, but I do attempt to control the message. I don’t want the message here to be one of self-loathing, because it isn’t, or self-pity. Of course it’s one of self-doubt, confusion, alienation, more square peg round hole stuff. But I want it simply to be neutral, without judgment.

This is one way of experiencing the world.

theresa

A card

I did it

I made it until Christmas break. I survived four months of being Miss Theresa, Miss T, and just plain Miss. Sharing a room with someone who daily complains about how fat and ugly she is (including to students, which really irks me), how stupid our students are, and observes that one of her best friends is gay but “you can’t tell” (whatever that means). Kids throwing paper across the room, abusing books, blatantly disrespecting and lying to me, and complaining how boring class is. Not having adequate supplies to do my job. Increasingly cold showers and going without running water for four days in a row. Music blasting at top volume and kids throwing firecrackers right outside my window. Levels of alienation and loneliness I hadn’t experienced for some time. Theft of my ATM card number.

I’ve also survived the above pictured Christmas card, enchiladas and plantains and impromptu punta lessons at the houses of my students, smiles tugged out of frustrated faces, and unexpected hugs. Students asking impossible questions, surprising questions. I’ve survived the kindness of our school administrator, Miss G, paying for the partition I requested be built in my room and was fully prepared to pay for, finding my path blocked by slow moving cows, and the sight of a horse sleeping outside a pulperia. The willing ear and confidence of our volunteer coordinator to my oft expressed classroom management difficulties. The rainbow cobbled streets of Copan and the overcast beach of Placencia. Days upon days upon days of sunshine and warmth (bye-bye Rayaud’s!). Daily waves with the secret pulperia owner’s daughter. Attempted conversations in Spanish with patient listeners. Generous care packages. Moments of friendship (and Bananagrams) with two other volunteers. Sightings of bright blue birds and birds with bright yellow breasts.

Now I have two weeks (at least half of which sans roommate) in which to rebuild my mental and emotional strength with reading, writing, Spanish studying, traveling, and teaching-strategy development. I foresee that my panic levels will increase as the break comes to its inevitable end, but let’s not think about that.

Shortly after we return to school on January 5, I will turn 35. While I’m not the type of person to complain that’s old, the size of the number does contribute yet another layer of urgent personal introspection to this experience. I am a person adrift, on a quest for meaning, purpose, and a way to support myself that I don’t detest. Am I any closer to finding this? Once I round the bend of the new year and catch sight of June, the end of the school year, first from afar but ever closer, I will inevitably dig for this answer daily.

What have I learned (or confirmed) since I arrived here on August 11th?
* I survive intense stress, but poorly. I also create stress when I don’t acknowledge that I’m up against unreasonable expectations, sometimes mine, sometimes others’.
* I cannot live with a roommate again, unless that person is a man with an absurdly large t-shirt collection.
* I do not want to teach a class of kids under age 14.
* It’s easy to get by with minimal Spanish but real conversation takes more words.
* My moods are much more manageable with near-daily infusions of sunlight.
* I can live minimally.
* People can be so kind and nice to me.
* I don’t want a job where people think it’s okay to run over me, a.k.a. I need to demand respect.
* I don’t want a job that takes up my entire life, because I need time to read.
* I love making people happy.
* Life without a clothes dryer is okay, as long as it isn’t rainy.
* Life in Portland, Oregon has influenced me more than I’d like to admit.

So I’m gonna let the post fizzle to a close with this list. I need to nap and then pack for my trip to La Ceiba, where I plan to spend some time at Pico Bonito National Park.

Ta ta,

theresa

Christmas card

Bubble thoughts

I don’t have any Important Thoughts screaming to crawl out of my fingers today. Really, what is occupying most of my thoughtmosphere is Christmas break—one week, baby! One week until I can push the planning and worrying and kids into a box and tuck that into the closet for just a little while. Between now and then I need to coordinate the 7th grade Christmas presentation, find a present for Joe, my Secret Friend, make an extra-credit-for-failing-students-because-it’s-illegal-for-students-to-fail homework packet, and avoid putting everyone in permanent time out.

Here is, in listicle fashion, what’s been knocking around in my head this week:

1. Jellyfish. I feel helpless when I suspect my students are making fun of another student in Spanish, but I’m uncertain and don’t know what to do. It turns out that after I drew a jellyfish on the board that some of the kids compared that unfavorably to another’s head.

2. Bananas. On grade day, when students are absent and parents visit teachers to pick up report cards, I commented to the school cook how much I was enjoying the quiet. This prompted a bevy of “Children are the lights of our heart”-type responses from the cook and two mothers who were helping. I left the kitchen that day embarrassed and convinced that I was now on the cook’s bad side. I’m glad to report I was wrong: she cooked me, and no one else, a sweet banana on Friday.

3. Fridays. Fridays are the worst days for the 7th graders and me. While we have only two classes together that day, I’m so burnt out and they’re so squirrelly that we almost always end the week on a bad note.

4. Dichotomy. I am unable to reconcile my frustrations with a student who disrespects me during class enough to ride the busito home with her to tutor her sister for free. While I enjoy the tutoring, it is awkward for me to have casual, occasionally confessional on on my 7th grader’s part, conversation when I was so annoyed with her only two hours earlier. But, I’m also just really tired. She’s a good student who has more life stress than a girl her age should have. I tabled the tutoring until after the break.

5. Song. How the heck do I teach a song that I can’t even sing?

6. Goof. Two of my 9th graders asked me if I am a serious or silly teacher. They said I am silly. I said I am serious with a touch of goof. This was a goofy-teacher week, no doubt fueled by break anticipation, that involved a lot of arm bending and waving (animal undulation and oscillation), hand fins on my head, sides, and butt (more oscillation), and cruising sllloooooooowwwly across the class to demonstrate that while turtles may be slow, they do locomote.

7. Oatmeal. I must not finish all the maple brown sugar oatmeal (gluten-free, care package gift) this weekend. Helloooo, sweet tooth.

8. Gifts. What do you buy a 13-year-old Honduran boy?

9. Holiday. Over break I plan to travel to La Ceiba—the party town of Honduras, but I’m going for the nature—and may be lucky enough to stay in someone’s apartment, if her current tenant is still out of town [update: the tenant is coming back into town; other plans in the works]. Also, it’s expensive traveling solo but not wanting, because I already live in a house with five other people, to stay in a dorm on my vacation, because I have to pay for two people.

10. Borax. So many cool Christmas science projects involve Borax. There is no Borax here.

11. Grrr. “It’s all in your head.”—roommate to me.

12. Water. Sometimes the morning shower is a little too cold.

13. Teaching. At about 26 classes a week, I have the heaviest teaching load. Is this a normal load? Do I do a normal amount of planning? If so, I don’t think this life is for me. Then again, the school did just give me two textbooks that appear to follow the science curriculum. If they find a biology text, I just may have cut my planning time significantly.

14. Students. I really like some of my students.

15. Bubble. I rarely peek outside the microcosm that is my teaching life in this small town. While I see the headlines and occasionally read articles, I don’t have strong emotions toward any of them, like Ferguson or face-sit ins. I get the gist and move on. On reddit I’m more likely to look at cat pics. Is this good, to so willfully disconnect from all the rest of it? I am not a good citizen of humanity.

16. Feet. After school my feet are really stinky.

Undoubtedly,

theresa

textbooks

Impossible science

I’m not feeling this blog entry today. I’d much rather be escaping into The Princess Bride, which I splurged on during a NOOK $2.99 sale yesterday, but I’m afraid of losing my routine. I promised myself that I would try writing again during this adventure, after years of fear squelching the urge. I suppose I’ll have to make peace with the imperfection, reluctance, and negativity that will be this post.

Today was the monthly teacher meeting between the Honduran and volunteer staff. It began at 8 a.m. It was in Spanish, which is great practice for my listening skills, but that didn’t override the earliness of the meeting or its devolution into circular, seemingly pointless digressions or that it lasted over three hours. I just wanted to put my head on the desk and cry, especially when “Thanksgiving” was mentioned, a day where each volunteer brings a specialty dish of his/her country (It coincides with the U.S. Thanksgiving, which doesn’t make sense considering half of the volunteers are not from the U.S., but let that go.), or when the school Olympics were mentioned, a yearlong event that includes, as I see it, additional opportunities to do school work outside of school hours, or when I learned that our winter break would be two days shorter than first reported. When I’m unhappy and lonely, I get ugly inside.

I want to quit, I really do. I want to be on that rooftop in Copán, reading a book and drinking coffee. In one of my early posts I mentioned that as tough as the previous school week had been, I wasn’t dreading Monday; now, I am, because when I think about preparing my science classes, I get nauseous. I should be planning right now, except I deserve this one day a week to myself. Exams are over and we’re in our second term (or parcíal). During the first, all three grades were learning the same science topic, albeit at different speeds. It was tough enough then to design the curriculum, from scratch, based upon the at times obscure learning goals set by the government. (I consulted /r/scienceteachers for terminology translation assistance.) Now, the curricula have diverged and I have two different topics. On the plus, I have four biology texts to choose from; on the negative, none of them have all the information I need and I must, again, rely too heavily on Google (animal nutrition, anyone?). I must somehow find interesting projects that are cheap (my pocketbook), need no science equipment, and require materials that are locatable in town in a day, because forget about planning weeks ahead, or days, I’m usually planning everything that night, with “look for interesting projects” on my continual to do list. And no matter how interesting I try to make my lessons, the behavior and complaints derail me. Whenever I think of the teaching advice “Be the most interesting thing in the room,” I want to kick someone.

Previous years’ science teachers didn’t do this. They just taught from whatever books they had and taught all three grades the same science lessons. Last year’s teacher gave a lot of worksheets and free periods. He had time for several tutoring gigs outside of school. I suppose I could do the same, but I was told that our graduates were barred from entering some bilingual high schools because their science knowledge was sorely lacking. Am I asked to do the impossible? Am I asking myself to do the impossible? As in, give these kids an excellent science education when I have absolutely no training in science and three weeks training in teaching English, and the school has minimal resources for me to give that excellent education and the classrooms are so loud, even when my students aren’t speaking, that I have to shout to hear myself? Probably, but I want guide my students to the marvel and wonder that is our universe, from the stars to the cow’s four stomachs. These kids deserve excellence, especially the ones that love science, that ask me the most weird and wonderful questions, the geeky boy on scholarship who wants to join NASA.

You, dear reader, may be thinking that I’m a perfectionist, and you can join the queue of disbelievers when I say I’m not. Perfection is impossible. I do, however, strive for excellence. I have a strong sense of obligation. I have been charged with a task and must do my best to carry it out; I just know that my best isn’t good enough. There are gaping holes in the knowledge I’m passing on, simply because I don’t have the time to re-understand what I learned at my students’ age. The work I put in does pay off. I am some of my students’ favorite teacher or science is their favorite class. I explain things clearly and well. I’m patient and “gentle.” These are comments written on my students’ parcíal exams (Bonus point – What do you like or dislike about this class? There is no wrong answer!), and I’d like to think they were honest. I allowed a few hours to glow. And, yes, a student did write that my class is boring, and I thanked him with a genuine smile and gave him the bonus point. But right now, after a few weeks of depression and sadness and frustration, I am asking myself what my effort is costing me. None of the other volunteers plan as much as I do. My roommate often does hers at the last minute. And while I have the reputation of creating amazing lesson plans, at least for English, I am sure they all think I’m a little crazy for spending four or five hours a night planning. But if they had to teach advanced science, maybe they’d put in the hours as well. Or not. Because the previous teachers didn’t.

Anyway, I am thinking about how long I can sustain this, about the cost of being here. Yes, there’s the monetary, but I mean the psychological. I don’t deal with stress well. I eat, I cry, I…. I’m lonely, isolated, and alienated. I share a room with someone (soon to be someones) who doesn’t see reading as a reason for leaving me alone. My only outlets of relaxation are reading, Netflix, and this blog. I’ve started running as often as my joints will allow, physical therapist be damned!, and that helps, kinda, except because I find running boring, I run with Vee, who complains a quite a bit. I have to wait until my stolen debit card arrives before I can buy a guitar (I wanted a banjo but those aren’t sold here.), something I think will help on Saturdays, my free day. I’m not learning Spanish. While don’t regret my choice and all I miss of Portland is one person, I often wonder if I should have just wandered Central and South America instead, focused, for once, on pleasure, but I thought I needed structure of some kind and purpose.

I don’t deny that there are fantastic moments, some of which I’ve shared here. This week the aunt of a sixth grader gave me a wonderful haircut for free. She is not professionally trained and usually does dying, styling, and trims. She was hesitant. In a town of waist length hair, it was probably the first short female cut she’s ever done. During the haircut, the sixth grader gave my face a makeover. The experience was undeniably sweet, and I will return. I gave an English lesson to the sister of one of my seventh graders. It was fun, we laughed a lot, and I was paid with a chocolate-cornflake licuado. Many of my 8th and 9th graders loved the video clip I used from Little Shop of Horrors in my carnivorous plant mini-lesson. I see evidence of improvement in the English of a few of my 7th graders, who are very behind. I love all of this.

Why are such moments not enough? I bask in their warmth, but the hole inside my chest gapes wider and resentment chills and fills it, and sadness. Why should I feel resentment when I made the choice to be here? Because I’m already giving so much, yet more is asked of me? Why isn’t it enough for me that I know I’m giving it my best, even when I fall short simply because I’m human and am being asked to do, well, something extremely difficult? Why do I still feel like a loser? Because it seems easier for the other teachers? because I’m not filled with the humanitarian-aid joie de vivre glow that pervades other volunteer blogs? because I’m still the awkward, reclusive, shy, insecure, impatient person I always am? because for once I just want people to see me and smile?

So why am I not quitting? Because I’ve made a commitment, because maybe this will get better, because I have nothing else.

And there you have it,

theresa