Monday, October 10, 2016

Fleet Week

My dad is a former Navy fighter pilot. That means he not only controlled thousands of pounds of steel moving through the air at impossible speeds and made decisions at speeds faster than this ribbon of steel cutting the air, he also managed to drop that steel onto a postage stamp of a carrier in an empty expanse of water.

He fought in a war. That statement, though few in words, is too big for me to completely wrap my head and heart around. I am proud to be his daughter.

Last week was Fleet Week in San Francisco and the Blue Angels have been slicing open the sky the last few days. On Thursday at work, the first day the jets unzipped our sky, the mid-day quiet of the library opened with a shutter. Startled, I glanced up a my coworker, a San Francisco native. "The Blue Angels," she grinned. "I love that sound."

In one of my favorite essays of hers, a chapter in The Writing Life commonly referred to in anthologies as "The Stunt Pilot," Annie Dillard describes the art of the pilot Dave Rahm: "The plane moved every way a line can move, and it controlled three dimensions, so the line carved massive and subtle slits in the air like sculptures. The plane looped the loop, seeming to arc its back like a gymnast; it stalled, dropped, and spun out of it climbing; it spiraled and knifed west on one side's wings and back east on another; it turned cartwheels, which must be physically impossible; it played with its own line like a cat with yarn. How did the pilot know where in the air he was? If he got lost, the ground would swat him."

The ground may have swatted at my father. I know other jets certainly did, and missiles did, too. But he made it back, and because he made it back, I exist. Yesterday, a piercing blue and gold San Francisco day, a good man and I biked from his house to the Presidio where we had a nearly unencumbered view. I sat on the grass with this good man and watched the Blue Angels paint the sky. We ate sandwiches and talked and tried to take pictures of planes that moved so quickly. It was a perfect afternoon: San Francisco's October sunshine, the scream of jets, and excellent company.

My dad escaped death's paw allowing me to have this day and so many others. I do not take this lightly.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Beginnings

I started teaching in the fall of 1997. This is my 19th year in the field of education, yet I still, every year, feel that adrenaline-induced twisting of my brain and insides as I gear up for the start of school. Here come hundreds of more people for me to love, figure out, learn from, and do my best to help in the myriad ways that they need it. It's terrifying and wonderful.

I get asked frequently if I wish I had children, or why I don't have children. There are many reasons I don't have children, some that are too sensitive to discuss here, but I don't miss having them. I know I have been able to participate in teenage lives in ways I never would have had I children at home to love, too.

I've been thinking about this so much lately, and this has caused me to spend a good amount of time remembering my former student T. T was a brilliant rebel from a problematic home, and he frustrated me and made me laugh to tears. A goofy-looking dude, he was an incorrigible flirt who succeeded in his amorous efforts with his female classmates. He was a deep-hearted friend to those he loved, drawing those who were suffering from sick moms or absent dads into his posse. He'd come in to my classroom at odd times to talk about whatever, mostly to crack jokes, and during class, he'd draw a mustache on the inside of his index finger and hold it up over his lip to distract me to laughter. In my AP English Language and Composition class, which he had the last period of the day, he'd come in each day and pick up a New Yorker from my pile in the back of the classroom. He'd read the New Yorker during class, and I'd only occasionally be able to get his head out of the magazine. Most of the time I didn't mind because I knew he was learning in his own way, and a lot of what I could teach him, he already knew instinctively. He was a master of language. But, in the week before the AP exam, my patience had run thin. I really wanted to make sure he had a few test strategies down. I asked him repeatedly to put the magazine away. The third time, he protested: "But Ms. Wenger, this article is so interesting. It's about whether or not we should keep the penny. The penny, Ms. Wenger!"

I put on my teacher face and lowered my voice to the angry, deep tone I only use when I'm serious. "Put it away."

He did. He focused on me through class but left at the bell without saying goodbye. The next day he was back with all of his ebullient enthusiasm for life and humor. A few days later, as soon as he finished the AP exam, he came straight to my classroom and broke all sorts of College Board rules by talking about the test before 48 hours were up.

"I killed it, Ms. W," he said. "I know I did really well. Ms. Wenger, the synthesis question, it was about whether or not we should keep the penny. THE PENNY, Ms. Wenger!" He did do well. He earned a 5, the highest score possible.

I loved this kid.

He went on to college, a good school. He wrote me notes occasionally, and he even asked me for seeds for his vegetable garden that he and his housemates were growing in the house they shared in the last couple years of college. I sent him a good collection, and he sent me updates on how they were doing. He was growing other plants too, ones that he used recreationally. He graduated from college three years ago.

Sometime in college, he hurt his shoulder. His doctor prescribed pain meds, hard ones.

You may know where this is going, but it doesn't make it less heartbreaking.

When it became easier and cheaper for him to abuse heroin rather than the pain meds, he made the switch. One day two years ago, it was too much heroin or not good heroin or something went wrong, and he died.

I hate the picture still up on his Facebook page. He has a half-smile, but he looks terrified. He's skinny, and to me, he clearly looks strung out. That's not him. That's not the brilliant, strangely confident boy who wore ridiculous sweaters and could make the most mundane task fun.

For weeks after he died, I couldn't walk on campus in the morning without breaking into tears. Some days, I could make it to my classroom before breaking down, but safe in the early morning quiet of my classroom, I would cry for how much beauty in the world was lost in losing T. Then, I would dry off my face, clean up my mascara, make sure I had what I needed ready for classes, and smile at the gorgeous creatures deserving of all my attention and efforts walking into my room for the first period of the day.

This spring, a girl who when in high school loved T, and who I think T loved back, a girl who is just as brilliant and interesting and interested in the world as T, but who has made it this far in the world successfully and has learned from the heartbreaks that have come her way, called me. We talked for over an hour. Our conversation rambled over many territories, but of course, we had to talk about him. We both cried. When we finished mourning together, we moved on. She's doing wonderful things, and she's challenging herself to not settle, but to be better, a better thinker, a better person. She's working on making a career writing. Writing, Ms. Wenger!

Also this spring, a work colleague and I drove together to an event. She commented on how much she hurt from some of the pain of our students. Yes, I told her, I know. Look at how many people we get to love in our job. We are the luckiest people.

School starts this week.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Hive

I had heard about The Hive at Kew Gardens, but I didn't know how moving and immersive visiting it would be. A and I almost missed it. It's not readily visible from the central path, but we saw a corner of it reaching beyond some trees and walked over. Surrounded by a meadow of wildflowers, it sits on stilts so viewers can experience it from all directions.

Wolfgang Buttress designed The Hive after a honey bee hive; built from aluminum hexagonal frames, it is an airy space, constantly changing form and transparency as I moved through it. Lights and speakers stud the framing. Accelerometers detect vibrations in the nearby orangerie bee hive and send those signals in the forms of lights and sounds to the structure. The Hive sings the songs of the bees in various octaves of the key of C—bees' one note—lights flickering along with the bees' actions. The more activity at the hive, the brighter and louder it is.

A bee doesn't hear through ears like human ears, but through its proboscis. Underneath The Hive, several columns carry the sounds of the nearby hive. Clean wooden stirrer sticks sit in containers on the top of the columns so visitors can take one, bite down on it, and insert the stick like a bee's proboscis into the column. The sound vibrates right through the stick, through the teeth, jawbones, and seemingly right into the brain. The effect was so powerful it gave both A and me goosebumps.

Being inside The Hive was transformative. Never before in my life have I had the feeling that I stepped out of my speciehood and even partly into another. But The Hive made me feel different. Since it is connected to the nearby bee hive and every light and sound reflects what's happening there but translated to a scale I could feel and see, I had the opportunity to feel fleetingly non-human. When else does this happen? I couldn't stop smiling.

I'll never make honey. I'll never buzz at just the right vibration for a particular flower to release it's secret prize of pollen. I'll never experience a true matriarchy or Colony Collapse Disorder. Yet, for a few moments at Kew last week, I heard and saw a bit like a bee. And now my universe is bigger.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Breastplate of Faith and Love

It was the most traditional of places to break the traditions: a 13th century church in an English village still owned and managed by a lord descended from the Norman conquerers who arrived in the 11th century. There, the mussed-haired, cowboy-boot-wearing vicar married my two gay friends in a small Christian wedding. We rode a double decker bus to and from Brighton and the wedding village. There were hats, so many happy tears, and afterwards at the village pub, Pimm's cups and a roast with Yorkshire pudding. During the reception speeches, the pub staff hung around doorways, faces just peeking through the doors, watching and listening. Some of them cried, too.

Two days before the wedding, C and I took a long walk to the “big house” after the church rehearsal. We went the long public way because we aren’t residents, whom the lord grants the right to pass the short way to the big house. C was nervous and distracted before his wedding, so we didn’t talk much, but we walked in the hot day—80s, humid, clear happy sun—up the road to the manor through herds of sheep and islands of old trees. I’ve known him since he was 10. He still walks the same way, a little duck footed, no efficiency of movement, all energy and ideas and springing wit and creativity. We could have been 12 or 16 or 30, taking this walk together, with him anxious and me calm. At other times, when I have needed an edge rather than a pillow, he’s walked with me, churning out solutions and razor wit.

He’s been unhappy a lot of his life. But, a few years ago, he lost his unhappiness; he was at the most peace I had seen him. Then he met J. And, he became happy, truly, genuinely happy. This past Thursday, it was C and J who took a walk together, down the aisle built deep in the past and to their future that so many couldn't have imagined too long ago.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Independence Day

In the last month, I finished my first school year running a library, started teaching summer school, turned 41 in the best birthday celebration I have had for years, and bought and moved into a house in San Francisco. It's an imperfect house in an imperfect place and it is wholly perfect for me. In this neighborhood paint may peel off many houses, but neighbors lean over their backyard fences to share gossip and gardening tips; I can't walk easily to a hipster 'hood, but I can walk Indiana through a large, beautiful park criss-crossed with hiking trails graced with spectacular views, a park which happens to be a block and half away.

Tonight, I have my first load of laundry running in the new-to-me washer, a constant rumble of neighborhood firecrackers sputtering all around me, an expansive view of the city's downtown as fog starts to tuck it in for the night even before the evening's big show, and my feet up on my surprisingly unperturbed dog.

I have a huge future to explore in my new home and new garden. There's so much ahead. I'll share as I go.

But right now I'm here, where it feels like I've been headed for my whole life, and I'm completely happy.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Roof Racks Rock

X and I rolled out of the city in the morning on the two-hour drive up to Sacramento to pick up an inherited dresser and bring it back down to her cute little San Francisco Victorian on a hill. We jabbered all the way across the bay, through the golden oak-studded hills, and along the straight oleander-ed 99. We spent an hour in Old Town Sacramento, ate lunch and bought candy because candy is road trip food. I chose licorice wheels and she chose cinnamon bears. We traded jokes with the cashier like we were high school kids.

From Old Town, we drove out to the suburbs. The person from whom we were to pick up the dresser stood in the driveway with his hands on his hips and a near audible disapproving cluck as we hopped out of my Jeep. He had sent measurements which I had checked against Tiger Lily's interior, but wires crossed somewhere along the way, and the dresser wouldn't fit inside. Additionally, we didn't know we also would be carrying back a large majolica bird bath, boxes of china, and a clock for X's mother.

Negativity pulsed from the man. His low expectations out of X, the Jeep, and me made me fierce. Only I get to tell myself I am incapable of something. Part of the reason I chose Tiger Lily is because I believe her to be badass, and to me, badass means capable and surprising. And, she has a roof rack for a reason.

So, we ran to the hardware store and bought ratcheting straps.

It was 99 degrees Fahrenheit while X and I loaded the Jeep and strapped the dresser on top. Sweat curled X's golden hair and turned her face strawberry red. Sweat soaked through my bra and shirt. My feet sweated so much they slipped around in my sandals, so I took my sandals off. Bad idea. The concrete was like a branding iron. I put my sandals back on and kept going.

As soon as straps were tight and cargo secure, we defiantly drove away from doubt.

X treated me to iced coffee, and we told more stories on the way down. We kept breaking into laughter for no other reason than we had won. We had spent the day snacking on childhood candy, asserting our strength and freedoms, proving we were powerful, just like we tried to do when we were teenagers. Except now, we didn't have to try, we just were.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Camping With Teenagers

It is like playing Whac-a-mole keeping camping teenagers in their respective tents at night, but it is worth it, because sitting around a campfire, singing songs (even the aforementioned Oasis "Wonderwall"), listening to a scary story told by a funny young storyteller, and playing memory games in the smoke and redwood needles is special indeed.

We rolled out yesterday along the turquoise ocean, cutting through hills dotted yellow with oenethera, lupine, and coreopsis until we reached the redwoods in the low coastal range. Some kids had never camped before, and tent set-up was understandably entertaining. I had borrowed a tent I had a hard time visualizing how to put together, so I needed guidance from a young, wise camper to make it work. Eventually, with a lot of teamwork, we all got our tents up and temporary homes as comfy as we could make them, we went for a short walk, and we made a sloppy dinner, likely as loaded with redwood needles as nutrients.

After food, stories, campfire smoke, and s'mores, we retired for a night among old trees.


This morning, the adults rose earlier than the kids, and we made ourselves several pots of French press coffee. Talking with my colleagues under the lace of new redwood needles felt good, like we were supposed to be right where we were at that very moment. The kids rose and scarfed down bowls of sugary cereal. After we broke down our camp, we went for a short, easy hike. The teenagers ignored it, but the adults paused at a still rooted, downed tree that bounced like a mechanical bull. We had to play, so we stopped and did.

When I was very young in Oregon, my family lived on the side of a hill, and growing sideways out of that hill was a strapping Douglass fir that was just strong enough for my brother and me, one at a time, to climb out and bounce on it, a natural trampoline. Arms out and knees bending to the tree's bounce, we would ride it like a snowboarder rides her board.

The kids camped and felt like adults, cooking and singing and feeling all their feelings so hard. The adults—each well over 30—camped and felt like kids, playing and bouncing and just being happy around each other. Among the trees a thousand years older than any of us could fathom, each of us lost track of age.