One of the pure joys of my job — teaching English on the college level — is getting to spend time with young people still working out their identities and finding their own way. In my composition classes, they tell me (and each other) their stories, and in my literature classes, they wrestle with Emerson, Dickinson, and Shakespeare, among others, absorbing it all and testing new ideas against their experience. We discuss, we debate, we search for meaning, we try to find common ground.
Two miserable characters — the larger one in a terry cloth bathrobe and fleece pajama bottoms, the smaller one in his new school clothes and orange parka — stand at the bus stop, huddled together in a sad and pathetically ineffective attempt to generate some small bit of warmth between them on a brutally cold and windy January morning, the first day of school and work after Christmas vacation.
Teachers worry that their students will lose momentum or enthusiasm for learning during their time away from school right in the middle of the school year, but the boy in his new school clothes has indeed learned something over these past few weeks. He has learned about inertia, not just the dictionary definition of it, but the implacable reality of it.
We’re all at home, on vacation at last. Ella Fitzgerald is wishing us a swinging Christmas, as she does every December. First “Jingle Bells,” then “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” then “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and on and on, her voice like honey butter on a hot dinner roll. Tammy and Kayden are in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies and joking about the utter foolishness of boys of all ages, including the one who keeps darting in and out of the kitchen to swipe Hershey Kisses — which are intended for the cookies — and another one who is sitting in the living room, enjoying a glass of Pinot noir while watching the cat make a punching bag out of a silver ornament hanging on one of the bottom branches of the tree. The dog is curled up on one arm of the recliner, also watching the cat, as he often does.
I am in my office between classes, eating egg drop soup out of a little plastic container with a white plastic spoon, checking email, separating student essays into stacks, wondering whether I will be able to make it until Friday, when my next appointment with the chiropractor is scheduled. Every six months or so, my back slips out of alignment and I spend a few miserable days in varying degrees of pain, with tingling and burning sensations radiating through my torso. I gobble down muscle relaxers and handfuls of Ibuprofen, but get very little sleep until I’m properly aligned again and the pain finally abates, a square inch at a time, a minute at a time. I don’t have time for it, not with the end of the semester bearing down like the gray, oppressive sky just outside my office window, but back pain is notoriously indifferent to my plans and responsibilities.
I cannot take a nap, at least not on purpose. Whenever I try, I twist and turn as if my wrists are tied behind my back and I have to work myself free. Try as I may to fall asleep, I cannot help obsessing about the things I should be doing, worrying that I may feel worse when I wake up, that I may have insomnia from having slept earlier in the day. A nap has to sneak up on me like a big cat stalking its prey, pouncing on me while I’m listening to jazz in my easy chair, or reading the short stories of Herman Melville. The older I get, the easier prey I become for such naps. When I wake up from naps, I’m usually confused, even disoriented. Where is everyone? What time is it? Why am I reading Herman Melville? Who is that man knocking at the door? Or am I merely dreaming of a man knocking at the door?
We called it “in-between weather,” too warm for a coat, too chilly for short sleeves. Back then, just about every boy in town — and many of the girls, too — wore flannel shirts from late September until spring came around again, when mothers would neatly fold a whole slew of them and pack them up in boxes labeled “Winter Clothes” with a black magic marker. It seemed that all I ever wore were flannel shirts or tee shirts, unless I had to go to church or a funeral, or unless I had to dress up for a rare family picture. Mom made us dress up for Easter and Christmas, but we didn’t go to church that often otherwise, so my dress shirt and dark navy pants hung in the back of my closet, segregated from the others, a “uniform for special occasions” that I would outgrow before anyone would be able to tell it had ever been worn at all.
It is a fine day for a cookout, this Father’s Day. It is hot enough that most of the younger folk are wearing shorts and T-shirts, revealing traces of recent sunburn and the random bruises and scratches of youth. This one has a strawberry from trying to steal third base, that one a burn from a dirt-bike muffler. Most of the boys have brought their girlfriends — some faces are familiar, others fresh and wide-eyed and eager to make a good impression. They pay special attention to the toddlers, trying to make them giggle, making over their tiny sundresses and overalls with grand gestures and exaggerated praise, as if the toddlers had put a lot of thought and care into what they were going to wear today.
Though I will wear one sometimes as a “fashion statement,” on most days I do not wear a watch. I don’t really need to wear one. Everywhere I look, I see the time of day. In fact, no matter where I go or how hard I try, I cannot seem to escape the passage of time. It’s on my cell phone. It’s on the oven AND the microwave in our kitchen. It’s on the dashboard of my car. It’s on my computer screen, lurking down in the right hand corner.
As a teacher, I most assuredly do not need a timepiece. Everyday, the world around us changes so fast it seems we ought to be strapped into something to avoid being flung into orbit. Simple tasks become complicated burdens. I have been known to stare at gas pumps in astonishment, looking at the assortment of options spelled out for me on the pump and the equally astonishing assortment of cards in my wallet, trying to figure it all out as if it were a column in the second round of Jeopardy. Do I want to pay inside? Pay out here with credit? Where is the button for debit? How do I qualify for the three-cent-per gallon discount?
Tammy is out in the yard burning the couch. There is no telling where this will end. All by herself, she somehow managed to push and pull an overstuffed sofa out of our guest bedroom, through the downstairs den, and out the backdoor into the yard, where she proceeded to push it end over end from one side of the yard to the other to our burn pile. Then she set it aflame. Perhaps next year, they can add this as an event in the Highland Games along with the caber toss and the Scottish hammer throw — the sofa roll and burn. She is so gratified to see the couch reduced to its blackened metal frame — the charred bones of some prehistoric beast — that she soon adds a faded maroon recliner to the pile.
I have no idea. I’m in the bedroom watching the Panthers playing the Ravens when my son drops in to check the score and watch the game for a series or two.
Her name was Glenda. She was a senior and one of the more popular girls in school, a volleyball star and a member of assorted clubs, the kind of girl who shows up in a lot of photos in the yearbook. Her younger sister, a very sweet and charming girl that everybody just naturally liked, was in my freshman biology class and had, over the summer, undergone a radical bodily transformation that was thrilling and perplexing in equal portions. She wore her flannel shirts looser in a mostly futile attempt to deflect this sudden new attention, but one day she accidentally nudged a pencil off the edge of her desk with the bulky biology text, and when she bent over to pick it up, her loose shirt betrayed her. I knew then my life would never be the same.