Q. Are you happy?
A. I’m happy when I’m brushing my father’s cheek with a kiss. I’m happy riding around in the car with my mom as she points out where she was born and where she first lived. That’s in Minnesota though; I live in Arizona. Here, my cats make me happy. Parts of my job also make me happy.
I like working in my yard, playing in the dirt; I'm my father’s daughter in that regard. I like telling a good story. I’m happy with the money I make. I read somewhere that you can become increasingly happy as you work up to $70,000 a year, but after that, there’s no more happiness guaranteed. That seems about right. I’ve been waiting for the Six Million Dollar Man to show up ever since I heard he existed, with the Six Million Dollar Emotions, but the $70,000 Man keeps showing up instead.
I mean, I thought I was happy. Then I got married, lost all my friends, and got divorced. Then came the DUI and the shitty apartment and the breathalyzer in my car for a year; it paralyzed me. That was over ten years ago. I was trying to get to sleep last night and there was a dog barking; this is a new dog in our neighborhood, somebody either renting or some snowbirds are back. This dog was barking and barking and I had a very kind note already tied to a rock outside on the patio in case it came to having to contact the owners. But the barking of the dog reminded me of when I used to live in a really shitty place, and there wasn’t anything I could do to get out of that place except to wait.
So I didn’t throw the rock.
Q. What’s your favorite kind of morning?
My favorite kind of morning is waking up when it’s still dark. I hope my cats aren’t far away; I hope they’re sleeping in the bed too. I don’t like to wake up to an alarm, but sometimes I have to. I set mine for six but am usually awake before it goes off.
I turn on my bedside light and say hello to everyone and put my pajamas on. I cross the hallway and switch on the light in their bedroom so they know I won’t forget to come back later. I open the front door on my way to the kitchen to let fresh air in; I set the coffee up, then head back down the hallway so I can feed the cats and freshen their quarters. I return with a paper sack full of a thousand splendid urine balls and feces.
My coffee pot sings out that exactly one perfect cup will be ready when I am finished with my chores, one perfect cup for me. I wash my hands and dry them, find a cup that means something to me, and fill it with coffee. My favorite kind of morning must be, then, the average kind.
Q. How long have you been teaching?
I’ve been teaching for 23 years. That’s half my life. There are several interesting things about teaching half your life or really doing anything half your life. One is that probably, nobody told you what you were supposed to be doing in the first place. You just went by instinct. I think that happens a lot in English. For my first class in the fall of 1990 in Fairbanks I…well, it doesn’t matter. English always meant anything: you could tell your students to write about the worst thing that had ever happened to them, or you could tell them to write about the suffering of mankind as seen through a lens of their choice. As long as they were writing in complete sentences—that seemed to be the general idea. The colleagues I thank the most are those who taught me to camouflage grades. “Put it on the last page, not the front” was an excellent piece of advice. “Don’t even give them one and tell them to see you first” also worked for awhile. “Instead of grades, give them checks, check-minuses, and check-pluses.”
Green light, yellow light, and red light is the one I most recently ignored.
I graduated early from college—in the winter instead of spring—because I had always gone summers. I had a year to kill before graduate school started so I applied to be a waitress—this was in Bemidji, Minnesota, 1989. I loved that job; it was totally outside the realm of student-worker, or wiper-downer at the tanning salon. The owner of the bar would let me come back from whatever college I was studying at and pick up shifts; it was always such a huge relief. I remember that place and those people as much as I do all of my professors, all my classmates, and all of the classes I taught.
I remember one young man I was tutoring at a shelter/center down the hill in the woods in Alaska one time during the snowy and frigid winter of 1990-2000. It was kind of an outpost of the university, on a different side of the hill from where all the sled dogs stayed. The shelter/center was well within the scope of my life in Fairbanks because I didn’t have a car or a sled dog, so everywhere I went, I plodded in my winter suit and space boots. I wouldn’t have tutored at the shelter/center if it had been too far away, because even if I was properly outfitted, waiting for a bus could have meant death-by-waiting-for-bus. For this particular sandwich job—and that’s what I’d started calling them, “sandwich jobs”, like they were sandwiched between my real jobs—I was tutoring a young man who had shot his parents on the front steps of their cabin and he had won that case in self-defense. He couldn’t have been that much younger than me or maybe he was my age. The only thing this young man wanted to write about was the scene where he had shot his parents and maybe one other person accidentally. I was his tutor for grammar and punctuation.
Q. What has been your favorite job outside of teaching?
A. My favorite job outside of teaching was selling tickets in a seaplane booth on Lake Bemidji in Bemidji, Minnesota. This would have been around 1980. I was still going to the Catholic school, but one of my girlfriends who lived down the street—who also went to the Catholic school, but who always knew a little more than I did—happened to have another friend who actually had the seaplane pilot as a teacher: he was the sixth grade teacher at the public school, and they called him Mr. G. After a thousand splendid phone calls, I was never so happy as when my parents agreed that I could sell tickets from the seaplane booth for the summer, just across the parking lot from the carnival and the nature museum.
I was so happy for that job.
I would bike down there even in the rain, even on days I knew we wouldn’t be flying. It was that fun to be so close to the choppy water and see the carnival rides all battened down, the lights still glowing in the dark from the night before. Sometimes I would get there and Mr. G would have already come and gone, which I could tell since the plane would be tied up further down the lake and the “closed for weather” sign would be hanging out on the booth. Sometimes he’d still be there when I got there though, and we’d sit in the seaplane booth like it was an ice shack in winter—our feet up, leaning back on stools, the radio playing—wondering if we should stay open for business that day, or not. How many tourists would come? Enough to make it worth it? I would really hope that Mr. G would decide to stay open.
Usually in the wake of choppy waters and with me hanging around, Mr. G would put my bike in the back of his truck and take us to breakfast down the highway at a brightly-lit spot on the lake. I would feel like a princess of the morning, and Mr. G would drop me off at my parents’ house later.
This might all sound creepy, but it wasn’t. I had a job and I had my hours and I had every reason to be there on time every day of the summer that was flyable. I loved this job, to sit in the seaplane booth sheltered from the heat with a fan on me, or from the chill with a space heater. To be responsible for keys—to know that the entire operation shut down when I had to lock up and run across the parking lot to pee. To sit in the booth even in bad weather with rain coming through the screens having to tell people we weren’t flying…even that was fun. I always understood when Mr. G thought it best not to fly, or not to fly anymore, and it was at those times when we might duck down the way to a diner for breakfast, or a burger and fries.
Those were pretty top-of-the-world days for me, especially knowing all along that the pilot I sold tickets for was also the sixth grade teacher to some other kids.
That was my best job ever.