Thursday, December 27, 2012

Love Company

I’m sitting at the head of my parents’ dining table, suddenly in charge of running their eight millimeter film projector so the three of us can watch some old movies.  My brother-in-law has given me a quick lesson, and I’ve drawn pictures of what the projector is supposed to look like when the film is correctly loaded.  Now there is only me and my infant talent lying between my parents and an evening full of nostalgia.  No pressure.

I pick through two plastic grocery bags full of Kodachrome films, each one in a small yellow mailing box, all taken by my dad.  If I was in a Blockbuster, the movie sections would be labeled “Navy”, “Fishing”, and “Family”.  Tonight we are watching Navy.  I call out possible choices to my dad, who sits on the couch next to my mom, the back of their heads to me.  

“What about ‘Tiger Balm #3’?” I say.  We sit in the quiet while my dad considers this.  “Nooo,” he says, and I can tell he’s concentrating.  “That’s the Tiger Balm gardens in Hong Kong.  You showed me that yesterday.  Pick something else.”  I guess we’re Tiger-Balmed out.

“How about ‘U.S.S. Midway Ops #4’?” I ask.  Again we think this over.  “I’m not sure what that is,” my dad says as loud as he can, his voice gruff.  Unable to turn around, he speaks to the Da-Lite Picture King screen set up in front of him.  “That’s my ship,” he says. “Try that one.”

I open the yellow box and read “Operations and Gunnery” on the inside flap.  I take out the reel, press it onto the loading spindle, and begin the process of threading it through projector’s gears, looping it around, just enough space here, just enough tension there.  My hands struggle to insert the lead-in strip into the tiny slot on the take-up reel; I bob and weave trying to find the sweet spot where I can see what I’m doing.  Finally the film is loaded.  Lamps out.

I find my chair and flip the projector’s switch on.  The screen jumps to life with young sailors dressed in whites, hanging over the edge of metal railings, choppy blue sea in the background and all eyes turned towards the flight deck.  The camera moves slowly from one end of the ship to the other, stopping at just the right moment to catch a plane coming in.  A small plane with its pilot in a bubble lands perfectly and comes to a short stop.  Its wings fold up and it rolls away.  Dad-the-sailor is ready for the next one, and the next one, and the next one.  So is Dad-the-king.  He sits next to my mother, and I love the back of their heads so much, I watch them more than I do the planes. In the light that comes from the projector’s small but million-watt bulb, I do a quick check to see that all parts are moving, that the film is not unreeling onto the floor like yesterday.  

I’m getting better at this.


Movie time is over and my mom goes to put her nighty on, but only after making sure my dad is up off the couch, firmly in control of his walker, and pointed towards the kitchen.  Soon lemon cake, then the news, then pills, then eye drops, but not necessarily in that order because we go with the flow around here.  The only part of that that my dad is interested in is the lemon cake.  He has napped all day and isn’t ready for bed.

“Tell me something,” he says to me when we are both situated at the table.  I nod.  “Can you get on that machine of yours, and punch in a name, in hopes of finding someone?”

“Absolutely,” I say, lifting the lid of my laptop.

“I have often wondered,” he says, “what ever happened to my cousin Robert.”

I ask the full name and my dad clears his throat. “Liebeg.  Robert Liebeg.  L-I-E-B-E-G.”

“What do you think happened to Robert?” I ask while I type, information already coming up.

“He died in the Korean War,” my dad says deliberately, then raises a shaky hand and points his finger. “But that doesn’t mean I know what happened to him.”

I skim through a few results while my dad tells me what he remembers about Robert: “He was older than me, just by a few years, and he was bigger than I was.  Husky guy.”  He smiles a little and grunts instead of laughing. “We worked together one summer at a resort.  He got me in a wheelbarrow once and pushed me all over the place.”

I’m finding a lot of information on POW Robert W. Liebeg from Love Company, including what looks like an entire book on his unit’s capture and confinement in Korea, written by one of the survivors.  I tell my dad about this and ask if he wants me to read some of it to him.  He gazes at me, his head tremoring slightly.  I never know if his eyes are moist with real tears, or the artificial ones my mom puts in them four times a day.

“Most certainly,” he says, clearing his throat and sitting up a little straighter to listen.

While my mom plays a computer game in the den at the other end of the house, I read out loud to my dad about Love Company’s capture near Pyongyang.  The details are almost immediately brutal.  A few pages in, I come to a sentence that reports the execution of thirty men, all POW’S.  No names are mentioned, just the number of men killed.  I stop to ask my dad how he’s doing, and he’s not doing well.

“Thirty men,” he says, frowning. “But who were they?  My cousin could’ve been one of them.  He could have been in any number of those groups you just mentioned.”  His cheeks are flushed and he is agitated.

We sit in the quiet. The kitchen clock ticks.  It’s a good thing my mom’s not around, because if my dad could trade places with Robert, he probably would, and then I would really be in trouble.

I close the lid on my laptop and get my dad’s brown eyes to focus on my brown eyes.  “Ready for some lemon cake?” I ask gently.  Before he can answer, my mom rounds the corner in her bright floral nighty and sings out, “Who’s ready for some lemon cake!!”

Hearing might not be her long suit anymore, but her sense of timing is still sharp.  She always saves us from ourselves.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

You Can't Go Wrong With Nice

When I was born, my umbilical cord was attached to my face.  The doctors were able to tie me off and use part of the cord to fashion an ear for me; my left ear is actually my belly button.  I was lucky in that my doctors got it right, because the same thing happened to my brother eight years earlier in 1960, but when they tied him off, they shorted him a lobe.  Instead he got a gnarly little lump of flesh.  When my brother was a teenager and wanted to get his ear pierced, there wasn’t even enough earlobe material on his left side to put a piercing through, so he got his right ear pierced instead.

I mention the earlobe situation because in moments of aggravation, it seems like I’ve been tied to America’s medical establishment ever since, one way or another.  There was the Filipino doctor in 1982 who took a quick look at me and called my mother at home later to tell her, in broken English, that I had herpes.  That was awesome.  I certainly did not have herpes, for I was 14 and pristine, but it’s pretty hard to argue that when a doctor is practically shouting the word over the phone to your mother, a word coming out sounding much more like “happy's” to me as I listened in the background.
That first major misdiagnosis put me in a stressful and emotionally exhausting position that culminated in my sitting on a kitchen chair in near-paralysis, trying to explain the situation to my parents after my dad got home from work.  I don’t know how my mouth managed to move.  I had to actually say the word “herpes” to them.  I thought I might die.

Now I live in Arizona with fibromyalgia, my inner roommate, as if I needed somebody else in there.  Fibromyalgia is like having arthritis of everything internal, and it costs about a jillion dollars out of pocket to diagnose because only through the process of elimination can a diagnosis be determined, a fact taken full advantage of by the doctors here in Phoenix.  Personally, I feel they eliminated a lot of things that I obviously didn’t have, like elephantiasis.  Just because my brother has it doesn’t mean I do.

Fibromyalgia affects different people differently.  For me, it’s like having groups of tiny flying monkeys living in my body, dormantly hanging out, until they decide for no particular reason to fly around and bite me, sending hot shooting pain across the top of my hand, or down my neck.  I have both military monkeys and circus gypsy monkeys; one thing they all like to do is swing on my nerves.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a doctor for something weird: throbbing, fire-like pain up and down my right arm.  I’d been carrying both the arm and the pain around very tenderly for about three months, not knowing what to do.  I’d sit in my recliner at night, exhausted, my right arm resting on ice packs, thinking about why I didn’t want to see a doctor.  Finally, one day I just did.  I’d never been to an Urgent Care before, but I’d heard they were very busy and one could wait all day to be served.  So, I packed a beach bag full of reading material, healthy snacks, and Diet Mountain Dew.  I put it in the backseat of my car and went to teach my classes.  I stopped by my house real quick, then drove to Urgent Care as the sun went down.  I walked in with my beach bag and my bed pillow, ready to stay the night if necessary.  

The only people waiting were a little family whose little boy had put a game up his nose.  Them, and me—and I was called back first.  Apparently this place’s definition of “urgent” differed from mine, or maybe they had read my intake paperwork, which had me checking off symptoms that surprised even me: Are you on fire?  Yes.  Are you skeletal?  Why, yes I am.  Once I was back with the doctor, and I remember this so clearly, he turned to the wretch that I had become and said with pity in his eyes, “Arizona.  Not good place to be sick.”  Then he handed me some prescriptions and off I went on the journey I’m still on (not via the prescriptions though. I’m not a pill girl).

So here I am and it is today, a work day for most but a vacation day for me because I’m a teacher and we’re on break.  I’m taking advantage of the free time I have to finally make some phone calls and do some research for new stuff on fibromyalgia.  I open a drawer and take out the white sheets of paper from my physical therapy place, the ones with pictures of people doing weird stretches and exercises.  I need to start doing those again.

When I was in my twenties, I would use time off like this to do maintenance stuff on my car, so it wouldn’t break down on me next semester.  Now I do that for my body. 

So I’m on the phone, trying to be nice, having been on the phone all morning as I fixed and tweaked and paid and listened and held and arranged and paid some more and checked back later to make sure that different doctors’ offices were collaborating on my behalf.  Ha. Ha. Ha.  I want to be nice to everyone because my mind is so busy trying to process what happened in Newtown that it’s not communicating with me anymore.  I’m on my own again, and you can't go wrong with nice.

Nabe, my neighbor, comes over in the middle of all this.  We share custody of our youngest child, Leo, an eight month old kitten.  Nabe and Leo are playing in the living room while I talk on the phone to the woman who will be the last person I inflict myself on today.  My niceness runs out when she tells me, tartly, that more pills will be waiting for me at the drugstore.  “That’s the temporary solution our office can provide for you.” 
I am tired of temporary solutions.  I ask the lady why she’s being so short with me when clearly I am the one suffering from not one but two miswritten prescriptions by some kind of doctor runner-up who didn’t even ask me to take my clothes off for my annual physical.  For twenty-five bucks I want my naked body thoroughly examined, not more pills and the wrong ones at that.

“I have other patients waiting,” the woman says, with only 10% patience in her voice.  I say okay and thank her, and we finally hang up.  I walk over to where Nabe is sitting on the couch.  Leo is curled up next to him, asleep.  I stand there in all of my stay-at-home glory, curly gray hairs sticking out everywhere.  

“You know what was wrong with that conversation?” Nabe says.

 “I lost my temper, and I regret that,” I say. “It’s not that woman’s fault that my doctor’s office sucks.”

We look at each other and he seems surprised that I got it.  

“But you don’t know the history to all that!” I say. “Any person in their right mind would go nuts trying to deal with all this disorganization and the resulting lack of good care, my care, and then just basically being told to go back to square one.  Nobody is helping me, but they want me to make all these appointments so they can make money off me.  That’s just how I feel.”

But Nabe never wants to hear excuses.  The build-up to today doesn’t matter to him.  He scolds me for being rude, and he’s right.  Today is today.  It does not have to exist with the awfulness of the past pulling it down, or the freak show of the future scaring it away.  Today is innocent. 

I love how Nabe can get me to better places.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A School Bus in Winter

Yesterday I made it a point to turn off the outside world so I could read my students’ final papers, review their attendance and homework, and study their progress in class all this past semester.  Then I stuck needles into the papers and used the witchcraft known as “a master’s degree in writing plus twenty years’ experience” to conjure my freshmen’s final grades out of thin air.  

Feeling celebratory and social—it was the last day of the semester, a Friday, my sister’s birthday!—I made some fresh coffee and turned back to Facebook and CNN.  You already know what I saw.  

Maybe because it’s winter and the kids were so young, and probably because I don’t have children of my own, the loss from yesterday in Connecticut reminded me of another tragedy: a school bus full of children slipping down an embankment onto a frozen lake and going through the ice.

The bus scenario is from a movie I watched a long time ago, The Sweet Hereafter.  I had rented it in the Indie section of Blockbuster, where I usually went for my important movies.  I watched it sitting home by myself, transfixed by the way this story played out, 20 children dead. 

Movies aren’t real; I know that.  However (and I choose this contradiction not to detract from our current tragedy in Connecticut but to quickly move us towards a future where there aren’t any more like it), the way my mind works, I see 20 students die, I want to prevent whatever caused that from ever happening again. Because—as I said to my niece this morning in a rush to convey my main point: “The only thing that pisses me off more than my students attacking me is other people attacking my students.”

My own community college classroom here in Arizona can be a frightening place sometimes, unfortunately, and I hate to admit that, but it’s true.  If I tell a real story, will I get in trouble?  Aren’t we already in trouble?  Why am I afraid to tell the truth?  Several semesters ago, I was having trouble with a student whose writing skills were very poor and whose opinion of me as an authority figure was even poorer.  He crossed his arms across his chest and looked at me with disgust every day we met.  He was four times my size.

One day, he angrily left my classroom with another paper that had earned another failing grade, and he came back with his father.  There they stood, in my classroom while I worked with a student, standing between me and the only exit, between me and the door that has a security lock on it primarily because the administration doesn’t want the computer equipment in the room to be stolen.

I can’t honestly say that I was afraid that day, because I don’t scare easy, not in the classroom anyway.  However (and for these men, I choose the contradiction with full force and no hesitation, definitely no shred of the type of civilized apology that might or could be associated with a contradiction, because in this case, I do mean to be contrary), they could have easily been armed.  This is Arizona.

This is America.

I’ve been a student since 1973, when I started kindergarten, to just a few months ago, when I sat in a municipal building one night for traffic school.  In the years between, there was high school, college, and four years of graduate school.  I’ve been teaching at the college level since 1990 when I started as a graduate student in the M.F.A. program at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  I have been a teacher in the State of Arizona for 21 years.  I was introduced to the idea of guns in schools a long time ago, as a student myself in Fairbanks.  One of my classmates had started submitting odd gun-related stories for our teacher and the rest of us to read. One night he did this again, then he got up and went to stand in the corner with his back to us.  The teacher let him stay there.  Later that night, that kid came to sit next to me at the bus stop, and I remember feeling sorry for him.  Then he was gone from school.

The next year I transferred to Arizona State University, a much larger campus, where it took one of my own students having a grand mal seizure in a classroom on the second floor of a very large building with no offices or phones of any kind around to make me realize that there should be some way to communicate from a classroom to the outside world.  That was 1991.  Yesterday after the shooting in Connecticut, one of my high school teacher friends told me that when she and another teacher were testing out the “Push In Case Of Emergency” button in one classroom, it went unanswered until finally one of the secretaries at the front desk of the school picked up, threatening detention.  This is 2012.  

Yesterday,  December 14th.   

Now I sit here with clenched teeth, wondering how many more times we will see a school shooting in the news before drastic and widespread measures are taken to prevent another one.  I wonder why I keep sitting by, school shooting after shooting, doing nothing.  Am I waiting for this terrible thing to come to my school?  I don’t want to wait that long.  I know some of the answers now, solutions that to me seem obvious and feasible:

1. Put metal detectors up by all the entrances, and security staff in place for enforcement.
2. Install bullet-proof windows and doors throughout.
3. Provide teachers with instant access to emergency services at all times.
4. Find a better security advisor than me.

I plan to inquire about this at my school.  I suggest that you do too, if you have a school.  Even if you don’t, you might know someone who went to school once, or you might have gone to one yourself.

You are among the fortunate who lived to tell about it.

What can Arizona do to honor the beautiful lives taken in Connecticut?  What can we do to let families know that their losses will not be in vain?  We can stop wasting time trying to dismantle anybody’s second amendment rights.  Focus more on what should be of top priority for any state in this nation anyway: the physical safety of children, teachers and all school staff members when they are on campus.  Any campus, for anything, at any time.  Major improvements to safety need to be made before improvements are made to whatever happens on the campus itself, like education or medical services.  You can’t give either to people who are already dead.

Let us not get desensitized to large groups of children being murdered by people who walk into their schools with guns.  Let’s memorize the name “Newtown”, and not think about Connecticut as the latest school shooting or the second worst school massacre ever.  If teachers can teach without a textbook and everything is free on the Internet, and especially if there is no privacy anymore, let’s start harnessing the full extent of those possibilities and start spending the money we save on barricading our schools in an attractive, environmentally friendly, life-preserving way.

I’ve waited too long to voice my opinion publicly about this issue.  I have held back, thinking my voice too small to make a positive difference but loud enough to cause trouble…for me.  For the past few semesters—which really means for the past few years—I have felt more like the paperboy of my life, whistling by my own front yard, tossing collection after collection of news into the driveway, good or bad I never find out because I never have time to read it.  I've actually been avoiding it, but it's time to do something different and better now.  Since I know about schools and I work with students—and I am among many people who I don’t want to see get hurt—it is my responsibility to take action.  I would not be a good student of my own if I did anything less.

Recently, I canceled the newspaper at my house, literally just last month, a life-long tradition over.  Even more significantly: I quit my gym.  I have been running on a treadmill for too long.  I need yoga or something.  I also ran out of bottled water before my scheduled delivery time next week, so now I’m drinking city water filtered once, not stirred, straight from my refrigerator’s dispenser.  That is not a recipe you want to write down if you live in Phoenix, but it’ll do for now because it buys me time to write and pray for Newtown, which is the very least I can do.

Write and pray for Newtown.