Saturday, January 07, 2017

Meadow Rx

At the home on the edge of the Southern California canyon where I lived for a while, I had a meadow. It was small, it took a while to grow in, but it was a great pleasure to watch fill in and change, catching light and breeze. Here, at my new home on the slope by the bay with skyscrapers and the Bay Bridge rising to the north, I need another meadow. I need a place that adds to the peaceful beauty of my yard, a place where Indy can sit in the sun, that needs little water, that moves with the frequent singing wind, and in which I can tuck bulbs that will poke their petals up like surprise satin gifts throughout the year. Lawn? No way—this is so much better, and I don't need to mow it.

Over my winter break, I've been working on making this happen whenever it isn't raining, but it's been raining a lot so my progress was slower than I liked. I pulled out two banks of rosemary because no one needs that much rosemary. The previous owner, probably in an effort to make the yard look tidy quickly, laid solid white plastic sheeting—not landscape cloth—under a deep layer of mulch. While no weeds can grow up through the plastic sheeting, no water can run through it either, and I want my soil to absorb as much water as possible into the underground aquifer, rather than lose the rain as it runs off into the bay. So, I've pulled lots of plastic sheeting out in preparation for planting. In the corner of my yard, under the robust manzanita tree, probably the selection Dr. Hurd (tall for a manzanita and covered right now with plentiful white flowers), I have worked to install the small meadow.

Unlike the very drought tolerant Carex praegracilis I planted as the backbone of the meadow in the dry Southern California yard, I've planted Carex pansa and lots of it; it is more appropriate for my current damper climate. Right now it looks like bad hair plugs, but it will grow in.

I bought the Carex pansa plugs at Bay Natives nursery, a nursery on the far eastern edge of the city, tucked up against the lapping waters of the San Francisco Bay. There, loose chickens and roosters strut and play soccer with snails, landscape-clearing goats talk happily to each other in the pen near the fruit and vegetable plants, James Taylor blasts over the speakers, and feathers are everywhere, settling over the large propagation area and flitting between the gravel stones in the parking lot. (As a side note, I really, really don't like James Taylor. I had a roommate who would play him every time she was depressed which was often during that period of her life, so in my brain, his music means deep sorrow. I try to avoid it whenever possible. But I won't hold James Taylor against Bay Natives. The nursery offers so much that brings me joy that it easily wipes out the residual gray attached to him.)

Tucked among the Carex plugs, I planted narcissus, ipheon, alliums—all necessarily gopher resistant—some California native bulbs and perennials, as well as lots of poppies. This meadow of mine will probably be too colorful its first spring. But, after having been hungry for my own soil again for so long, I want all the flowers. I may have to edit over time, but this will at least let me know what works well here.

Some people need live music fixes, frequent hits of adrenaline, or a tri-weekly doses of SoulCycle to feel human. Those are pleasant experiences for me, but not necessities. As for me, I'm a dirt junkie.

Friday, December 23, 2016

My Name Is John Hannibal Smith

I'm the captain of a ship I never imagined, a ship of books, informational and media literacy, of studying students and students just finding a place where they can be comfortable. My crew is motley: a just-graduated-from-college alumni volunteer; a young, energetic science teacher with a deep love for sloths; a very tall, shy but funny football coach and social science teacher; a wise mother of four who teaches social science and coaches softball; me. Do you see a trend? Nary a one of us is a librarian. And, our library rocks.

A couple weeks ago, I took the group out to happy hour to celebrate Christmas. The shy football coach relaxed, his shoulders shaking with laughter. The science teacher told funny stories that made her eyes water with giggles, and the alumni volunteer supplied us with entertaining facts about teachers who taught her. The mom of four peppered the evening with her easy, gentle laugh. It was good.

We like each other, not just because we have a good time together at happy hour, but also because we each provide something vital to the team. The volunteer is an organizational genius; the mom brilliant in student relationships; the sloth lover the best, most dedicated tutor for struggling students I've seen. The football coach cares deeply about research and databases and gives smart advice about subscription purchases. Not one of us imagined being where we are, but each of us gives wholeheartedly to the team's success.

Our employer wanted each of us as part of the community, but didn't know where else to put us, so we ended up together. I joke with my group that we're a family of orphans. The coach said no, we're the A Team and he's clearly Bosco (the Mr. T character) and I'm Hannibal. Whatever metaphor you chose, it works. I didn't come up with this plan, but I love how it has come together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

It's Okay

Last night, before meeting up with the good man I have been seeing, I parked my car at a fancy lot downtown. The valet took my key, and trying to determine how deep in the lot he should park my car, he asked how late I'd be. I did a little math. A quick drink, the movie, probably some food afterwards. "10:30, or maybe a little later," I told him.

I ran into the good man on the way to the bar, we kissed, and walked in together. Within 45 minutes, he had broken up with me in a good and honorable way. I didn't cry in front of him, nor did I cry in front of the valet who asked why I was back so early.

"I thought it was going to be a late night, but I was just broken up with instead."

"Seriously?" He scowled at the concrete beneath his feet. "You deserve better."

I didn't cry until I was almost to my friend's house, where I had headed straight from the parking garage. When I got there she held me. But it was just tears of sorrow, not those of fear, feelings of betrayal, hopelessness, or worry.

A year and a month ago, my tears were very different. This morning, even though I am sad, I'm also deeply happy. My community here in San Francisco is a messy bouquet of delightful people, and I value each of these relationships. These local friendships, the friendships I have with my other scattered people, and the love I have from my family were great buoys to me in the struggle. However, I am also proud of myself. In this year, I eschewed anger. I embraced a new reality, a new career, a new city, and a reimagined financial future; I bought a house, and though wiser than before, have kept my heart open. I've done this pretty cheerfully, too.

The loss of all I appreciated in the good man makes me sad, but if he doesn't appreciate me as a good woman, then that parking lot valet is right.

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.