ms. york

pre-2009 i was not a violin virtuoso, so the damage my stroke did to my control of my left hand is an inconvenience and even a source of amusement at times.

i had not been training for a marathon when i was diagnosed with my brain tumor, so losing my ability to run didn’t force me to re-examine my identity.

i never was much of a fan of the circus, so my constant vertigo doesn’t deny me my dreams of life on a tightrope.

my double-vision hasn’t robbed me of a gold medal in the olympic biathlon.

but you know what i was before the medical drama of 2009? i was a good teacher. i was ms. york, and that meant something.

2nd grade

the last day of my last class at loleta elementary

to finance the second year of my master’s degree, i applied for a position as a graduate teaching assistant in the speech communication department at osu. i was relieved when i was hired, but even though my friends and family were enthusiastic nearly to the point of giddiness about my return to teaching, i wasn’t. now, after the end of fall term, i can see why. i was scared. scared that i wouldn’t still “have it.” scared that i’d have to figure out how to be a person who used to be a really good teacher. because i don’t know that i could have survived that blow to my identity.

lately i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about teaching and classrooms and identity and authenticity. i’ve been “percolating” this post for months, but i haven’t been able to get it right. so i’ll take my own advice and get it down without worrying about getting it right.

several months ago, one of the professors on my thesis committee told me that i should read a hidden wholeness by parker palmer. i tracked it down and read it on the train to seattle a week later. dr. anderson was right – it was exactly the book i needed to read on that exact train ride. it got me thinking about when in my life i’d felt the most authentic. to me authenticity is that place where the circles that make up the venn diagram of my life overlap, and trying to expand that overlap is how i define living a more authentic life. as i read palmer’s book i kept hearing the phrase “room five” in my head. room 5 was the multiage classroom in jefferson, oregon, where i taught for the best part of my teaching career. life in room five wasn’t all fun, but while i taught there i got to spend the majority of my waking hours being myself. and sharing space with other people who were being themselves.

room 5 didn’t spring to life fully-formed like an elementary athena. it was actually part of a chain of things that continues to be created today. my parents have played a big part – sure, their logic and consistency haven’t always made my day, but they made for a childhood where i felt safe and capable. as i’ve gotten older i’ve realized how fortunate i was to feel safe and capable as a young person. i aspire to do what i can to give those feelings to my students.

feeling safe and capable - thank, mom and dad!

feeling safe and capable – thanks, mom and dad!

my childhood neighbors, the charnows, did this amazing job of treating me as a friend without making me need to be more mature (or themselves less mature). it’s hard to describe, but it’s been the way i have built relationships with young people starting with the 3 charnow children, who were born when i was in elementary school.

living across the street from these fine people made such a difference in my life.

living across the street from these fine people made an enormous difference in my life.

when i was an undergrad, i worked at an infant/toddler center. my bosses were merilee and janet. they taught me a lot about child development and communication with parents and families, and also recognized that my instincts with kids were pretty good. their confidence in me helped me increase it in myself. as leaders they worked from the strengths of their employees – i didn’t realize that they were doing that until much later in my work experiences. i started babysitting for janet’s daughter, zari, and in the process became great friends with both of them. my life would be a very different place without the infant center.

merilee left notes like this around the infant center.

merilee left notes like this around the infant center.

and the lives of the people in my classes would also be very different if it wasn’t for my parents, the charnows, and the infant center. I built up some habits and instincts which have influenced the way i approach teaching and classrooms and work.

i started my elementary school teaching experience in a little rural school in kneeland, california. i student-taught in a K-3 multiage classroom, under the guidance of susan adams and her classroom assistant, jim cress. their classroom was a community, and i was fortunate to have it as a model early in my teaching career. i walked in the door every day and knew that would get to laugh and think and be seen. the mrs. adams and jim that those students knew were who they were in their whole lives – those were not invented school personas. they set a tone of appreciation in that classroom, and i am so grateful to have been a part of things. it changed me.

kneeland

my first teaching position was as the only 4th grade teacher at a small rural school in humboldt county, california. i started teaching as soon as i graduated from college – i was 24 or 25 (about the age that my first students are now – so cool). it was a pretty hard-luck school in a hard-luck community – there were a lot of families living in poverty, a meth problem before very many folks knew what that was, and a lot of parents who hadn’t felt successful in their own school experiences and weren’t sure how to interact with the school system to support their children. of course these didn’t apply to all families, but i found myself drawn to the families and students who most needed my help. i realized that we all wanted to feel safe and capable, and that i could find things to like and respect about anyone who crossed my path. when i modeled that, my students did the same thing. it was awesome. i loved that school and even though i was excited to move to oregon, i was so sad to leave loleta. 

i doubt it

then kegan demant friended me on facebook. it hadn’t occurred to me that facebook would end up bringing the loletians back into my life. when i saw kegan’s name and realized that i was going to have a way to know those former students as adults, i was thrilled. most friend requests started with something like, “you probably don’t remember me, but i was in your 4th grade class.” don’t remember you? i’ve never once been friended by a former student i didn’t remember. i think that comes from the charnows – paying attention is the way to make your world meaningful. there’s always something important going on if you’re paying attention. and from the infant center i learned to focus the majority my attentions on assets not deficits. and susan and jim’s big contribution was that everything was improved if kriste and ms. york were really different names for the same person.

egg drop

when i start communicating with a former student, they inevitably ask me what they should call me. my answer is that they can call me kriste or ms. york – i answer to both. i still call my beloved high school english teacher “mr. pickering.” and he makes fun of me about it.

lately i’ve had an incredible surge in the ms. york department – yesterday a woman i work with pointed this out and wondered if the universe is trying to tell me something.

universe

this summer i finally got around to asking a young woman from loleta about her younger brother, who kept me on my toes (this is a compliment) when he was a 4th grader. turns out that he’s an inmate at san quentin – not exactly what i wanted to hear, but i got his address and wrote him a letter. he wrote back right away, and getting an unprompted letter from his 4th grade teacher blew his mind. his letter was great – i could certainly still see that spark in him that i loved when he was a kid. we’ve written about a dozen letters since then, and he’s gradually painted a picture for me of his teen years and prison and the people who have impacted his life. i really am enjoying getting to know him again, and i’m aware that as ms. york i have a huge amount of credibility with him. i’m not trying to save him or convince him of anything – i’m really just enjoying the give and take of our correspondence. and maybe i remind him how it was to feel safe and capable – he hasn’t had much of that in his life.

a few months ago i got a friend request from a person with a last name i didn’t recognize. i looked at a few of her pictures and realized that it was one of those holy grail people i’ve always wondered about. i get choked up just thinking about it. then i found out that not only did i get to have her in my life again, but she was temporarily living with her brother and sisters about an hour away from me. so a week later i was sitting in a pizza parlor with the family. and the resilience of these people – they had terrible trauma happen in their lives, and have somehow remained absolutely delightful people. i even got to go trick-or-treating with this young woman and her two children.

halloween

loleta – the next generation

i left loleta to move closer to my parents into corvallis, oregon. i got my dream job teaching a primary multiage class (grades 1/2/3) in jefferson, a community that needed good teachers. my classroom was room 5, and it meant something to be from room 5. a new principal came to the school my fifth year teaching there, and when he announced that over the summer he would dismantle the multiage program, i knew that i needed to leave. i couldn’t stick around to see the culture of our classroom taken apart. i am still sad (and a little angry) that i couldn’t stay. i took a job in corvallis, which ended up being a blessing because when my trauma hit that next summer i had a support network where i lived which was critical to my recovery, and to my quality of life.

that year teaching in corvallis also gave me an important analogy for what i was doing in my classroom. a co-worker once accused me of “really encouraging” a student who was a first grader and the embodiment of delight. yes, i encouraged him. i encourage all of them. i think of my classroom as one of those cool rock tumblers that seemed to be running at the back of every classroom in the early-eighties. my job isn’t to make someone into someone they’re not. it’s to smooth some of the rough edges and polish them up. i was able to do some of that with the 3/4/5 class i taught that one year, and i really enjoyed spending the day with the characters who ended up sharing space with me there.

this represents how i feel about room 5.

this represents how i feel about room 5.

but man i have missed jefferson. this summer i started driving again, which meant that the 30 minute trip back there was something i could do. so i invited my sidekick mrs. (redding) schmidt to meet me at the mexican restaurant for lunch. we talked about authenticity, and she also felt like room 5 was the place in her life where she was her most authentic self. while we were chatting, a young woman brought us a basket of chips. it was katia! she was in the first group of students i’d had in room 5 for all three years. from facebook it looked like her teen years were going pretty smoothly. and then there she was, in the flesh. her younger brother, who was also a room 5 kid, came to meet her there when she got off work. which meant that this happened:

room 5 reunion

i guess that this post has taken me so long because i have a lot to say.

back to the present. now i’m teaching a recitation section of intro to public speaking. once a week a few hundred students, mainly freshmen, go to a mass lecture on theory taught by a professor. she supervises a group of GTAs and adjuncts who teach classes of 20 students twice a week. we get to do the practical stuff, and my class somehow synthesizes all of my interests and skills. i love it. i loved the way my students came together as a group in the fall. thinking about how that happened last term and in the dozen years of teaching before that helped me to be able to label my expectations for myself and my new class that met for the first time yesterday:

111 rules

during one lecture session last term, the GTAs gave short speeches to model the use of visual aids. i told the story about the only toy a student ever got back out of my epic toy collection. i brought the toy jesie swapped for it – next time i’m bringing jesie, who is now a high school student in corvallis. i asked my students to give me feedback about my speech. here’s one i loved:

evil

during one of our last sessions, i pointed out that i have pictures of each of my classes and asked if i could take one of them. they humored me.

111 f13

in the last few weeks i’ve reconnected with one of the room 5 kids. tyson. as my friend deb told him, he’s a legend. i bet i’ve said his name hundreds of times since i left jefferson. we became friends on facebook a year or so ago, and it seemed clear to me that he was having some turmoil in his life. at the end of november i sent him a happy birthday message (he turned 18!) and we started messaging back and forth about our lives, until i did the math and realized that i could just drive to jefferson and eat a meal with him. so we made plans. it was fantastic to be able to sit at a table with him –  i was his captain of his fan club when he was 8 and i still am.

on her wall my grandma florence had the Y page from a room 5 alphabet book we made way back when – “tyson is yelling at ms. york.” here’s the illustration:

original

tyson liked the idea that we update it. my grandma would have loved it.

this time he wasn't actually yelling at me - maturity.

this time he wasn’t actually yelling at me – maturity.

we’ve gotten together every week since then. it has been fantastic to have time to talk about the future and the past and the present – i think that it’s meant a lot to both of us. yesterday he headed to job corps in estacada, which i think will be a great thing for him. i’m looking forward to being a part of it, and glad for the time we had before he left.

then yesterday while i was waiting for a class i was looking through the contacts on my phone and saw a name and wondered if it was my former student noah’s mom. noah spent a lot of time with me when he was a first grader in room 5, and after i stopped teaching in jefferson. then i dropped off the face of the earth. i didn’t tell him what was going on because the plan was that i’d be back up and running within a month or two after my surgery. when that didn’t happen, i disappeared from his life and i’ve always felt bad about it. i wanted to explain that i hadn’t forgotten about him. and i missed him – i really enjoyed his company. we had gotten into a pretty great routine. so i texted this number in my phone and it was his mom! she said that they’re still nearby, that noah is doing great, and that he’s 13 and the oldest of 5 siblings. i asked her if we could get together this weekend. and then like magic i was talking to noah on the phone. i told him a little about what had happened and, empathetic and kind person that he is, he asked me what i’m studying at osu. i suggested that we catch up over lunch this weekend. i said that i’d take them all out, and he asked if it could just be me and him this time and the rest of them can come next time.

so good

kriste and noah circa 2009

so it’s a pretty cool time to be kriste. or ms. york. i answer to both.

forty things from my fortieth summer

1. my new car – my mom got herself a new car, and i got her hand-me-down. not bad, eh? closing the back has been reminding me of something, like something i did in another life. the other day i finally realized that it’s what i imagine spinning the wheel on the price is right is like. so far i’ve successfully resisted the impulse to stand next to it after it’s closed and jump up and down while clapping and saying, “come on, one dollar!”

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2. wilburys deconstructed - my love of driving around to tom petty music and of this video inspired me to make a great mix. my favorite stuff by the wilburys in their other incarnations. it’s pretty damn good.

3. the leoncavallo family of augusta, georgia – seriously. three quality individuals.

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in this photo, i’m playing the role of doug leoncavallo.

4. successful ice cream stops – in portland ME i wandered into a little ice cream shop and one of the customers said to me (in a friendly way), “have you been in here before?” i said that i hadn’t and asked her to tell me what to get. she said banana cream pie ice cream, something i would never have chosen. it was delicious. then i had it again in downtown durham. in augusta, we discovered an amazing ice cream store, bruster’s - so many flavors and the counterfolk were begging us to have samples. i don’t ever remember what kind i ended up getting – i just remember that it was crazy-good.

5. unconditional positive regard - thanks to zari and cheryl strayed, i did some thinking about who has UPR for me and vice versa. here’s one example:

upr

6. the bachelorette – oh man it was a good season. sweet sweet des.

7. PRI – i completed my goal of driving to the pizza research institute in eugene.

8. pistachios on pizza – i was introduced to this in durham, NC, not at PRI. it’s crazy how delicious they make your pizza.

9. portland, maine – the country is bookended by cool cities named portland

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this is outside a pub in portland, maine.

10. a drag queen softball game – running in stripper heels for charity (them, not me)

11. dr. pepper – having a car means that i can transport a 12-pack from the store to my apartment. a can of it is like dessert for my afternoon.

12. the china delight lounge – this whole “where dreams go to die” thing? i’m not seeing it.

photo (93)

13. cards against humanity – another thing that came my way thanks to zari. i got to hear many wildly inappropriate sentences read aloud this summer. the china delight lounge is the perfect place to play.

14. blondies – why am i just now finding out about these?

15. capers – no, not the food. the other kind. i had two going for my buddy robyn’s 40th birthday last month. here she is finding out about the first one:

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16. former neighbors

back in our spot

me and olivia back in our spot. i miss having her and her family around.

17. other people’s babies

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olivia, jeff, nico, and liz

18. swedish fish

19. larrupin & ramone’s coffee – i didn’t make it to humboldt county this summer, but i did get a few tastes of it thanks to susan and janet.

20. amtrak – i did a lot of amtrak traveling on the east coast this summer. and a few trips up to portland and back.

photo (92)

1) jaqui is not asleep
2) that food isn’t all emily’s

21. the city of baltimore – zari & kristin – i get it. what a cool city.

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gin and tonics on zari’s roof

22. mail – i’m now penpals with a former student who is in prison in california. not exactly a dream of mine, but it’s good to hear from him – i can still see the 4th grader he was. a good opportunity to practice unconditional positive regard.

23. license plates – when i was with the carter family in boston, they started playing the license plate game. now i notice them, too. i haven’t spotted a massachusetts plate yet.

photo (89)

me with the oldest carter daughter, james. sitting on some famous writer’s grave – i don’t remember which one. james is much more interesting.

24. evening strolls – i’m bringing them back.

25. grilled pimento cheese sandwiches – so tasty. i ate this one in aiken, south carolina with kristin and henry. it’s the reason that south carolina is filled in on my tattoo.

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26. my 40th birthday tattoo

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my first post-40 trip was to visit robyn and her husband phil in seattle. she asked to pick washington’s color. it’s green.

27. assertive pedestrian – when i’m out walking, i’m doing my part to assert my rights as a pedestrian. if you’re stopped at a stop sign and you make eye contact with me on the curb, i’m going to cross the street in front of you. if you go anyway, even though you see me and i have the right of way, i’m going to give you a mean look. i can’t give you the bird like i’d like to, because my parents would find out. but you’d better believe that i’m giving it to you in my mind.

28. generous driving – i’ve learned a lot about driving from the time i spend walking, and i try to practice generous driving. like giving pedestrians the right of way, waving the other guy through the intersection when it’s a tie, and stopping before the crosswalk. revolutionary, i know.

29. lifesavers – i had totally forgotten about them until i started spending time in various airports this summer. so tasty, and people are delighted to be offered one. now that i’m mature i like pineapple the best.

30. shorty shopping carts

31. monroefest – i got to spend a good chunk of the bounty of benton county hanging out at hard times distillery in monroe. and what do i have to show for it? good times and a bottle of moonshine.

32. a tumor piñata – sandy helped me finish a tumor piñata for tumorfest. i hope a few more folks make one next year.

tumor pinata

33. listen – my word for year five

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34. east coast small-town 4th of july parades – muskets! and creepy local traditions! can i do this every year?

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35. oblation – jaqui took me to this awesome shop in portland. i managed to keep my spending from hitting triple-digits. but it wasn’t easy.

36. second street – my street is so damn great. i’m glad to go out on adventures, and glad when i’m back on my street.

37. balsamic blueberry crisp – possibly the tastiest thing i baked all summer.

38. butterscotch – it tastes good! i had no idea.

39. fry-day – last month macey and i made our fry-day dream a reality, and we spent a day deep-frying candy bars. in round one we fried half of our assortment (frozen – there’s a tip for you) with one batter recipe. some were amazing and some were disgusting (circus peanuts? whose idea was that?). round two we fried the other half in funnel cake batter. for round three we did an all-star round of our favorites in our favorite batter (funnel cake of course). i thought that the best were toblerone, reese’s peanut butter cups, and rolos. macey liked all of those, but hershey’s cookies and cream bars were her number one. you should probably invite us to your halloween party – we’ll bring good treats and we spent time planning our costumes for this year.

rdj

macey’s costume has to do with her current celebrity obsession,
robert downey jr.

40. tumorfest – such a good way to end to year 4 and start year 5. i can’t describe how much tumorfest means to me.

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seis de mayo

it was my 40th birthday last month. on the seis de mayo.

a moment before this picture was taken an elderly woman in line behind me said, "smile big, dearie!"

proof

i have been looking forward to turning forty – it seems like a solid age to be. i’ve worked pretty damn hard to make it here, and not everybody is as fortunate as i am. so i’ve been feeling ready to claim a new decade.

i’ve known for a while that i wanted to mark turning forty with a tattoo, and my ideas went through many stages. i wanted to acknowledge my connections to california and oregon. i briefly thought about getting wrist tattoos of their two flags, but oregon’s flag is hideous.

the scale is wrong, the colors are wrong. as much as i love oregon, i do not want this on my body, even temporarily.

the scale is wrong, the colors are wrong. as much as i love oregon, i do not want this on my body, even temporarily.

my neighbor liz and i have talked about reclaiming the trampstamp as a feminist statement. when the wrist tattoo idea was rejected, i started thinking about a trampstamp – all of my tattoos are balanced on my body, and my lower back is the place i have left (since a chest tattoo just isn’t my style) to keep things symmetrical. i thought about getting outlines of oregon and california, but they don’t go in the right direction for that spot. then i started thinking, “what would charles kuralt do?”

kuralty bliss

charles kuralt reminded me of a few things. i thought about how much i enjoyed being in north carolina last spring, it was so different than where i live, and i feel like a better citizen for having spent time there. it occurred to me that i have never really dreamed about going to london or paris or tokyo – i dream about going to detroit. i would love to cruise around the back roads of america in an RV and see the country and talk to regular folks, like charles kuralt did. through all of this thinking, my tattoo idea came to me. i knew right away that it was the perfect thing.

while i was working this out, my buddy zari and i were talking about getting tattooed together on my birthday; our friend molly also wanted to go with us. then z went and moved to baltimore, and my tattoo hopes were dashed. the three of us really needed to do it together, so i thought of the perfect bribe to get zari to come back to oregon for “drink & ink,” as molly christened it.

i have been friends with zari since she was 3, and i met molly a few years later.

i have been friends with zari since she was 3. she introduced me to molly a few years later.

my bribe worked, and zari got plane tickets to come back to oregon. the plan was set.

molly, kriste, zari - at z's college graduation.

molly, kriste, zari – at z’s college graduation.

i was getting oregon’s state motto – “she flies with her own wings” – as part of my tattoo. a few weeks before my birthday, molly asked if it would be ok with me if she also got the motto. tattoo twinsies?! of course. then zari wanted it in her tattoo, which seemed so damn right.

we spent the afternoon of my birthday with denise, who has tattooed me a few times before. i went first, then zari, then molly.

zari's tattoo

zari’s tattoo

zari got the bear from the california flag, along with the oregon state motto, representing her life on the west coast. the top part of the motto is in molly’s writing, and i wrote the bottom part. we had a long philosophical discussion about who should write which part. i think it looks so damn cool, and it’s a huge deal to me that zari is walking around baltimore with my writing on her thigh.

molly and denise, talking tattoos.

molly and denise, talking tattoos.

molly's tattoo

molly’s tattoo

molly got a hummingbird on the inside of her arm. the motto is in her sister’s handwriting.

here comes mine.

think RV

think RV

this tattoo is a mindfulness piece, to make me think about how i spend my forties. if you look closely, you’ll see that oregon is colored in, because on the first day of my forties that’s where i was. i’m going to fill in every state i visit between may 6, 2013 and may 5, 2023. my grandpa lives in oklahoma, and i should go visit him. ditto for my cousin’s dad in mississippi. my mom’s family is from michigan, and i’ve never been there. washington is the first state i’ve been to since my birthday – i took a quick train trip up there to visit robyn. since she was first, she wanted to pick washington’s color, and she chose green. there’s math involved in coloring in a map – the US can be done in four colors, so i know which color oklahoma should be by the time i get there.

the bribe was that if zari came back for my birthday, she would be the one to write the motto. molly drew the compass rose, based on one that was in the floor of a hotel where robyn and i stayed last summer. the envelope in the middle came from molly’s realization that our relationship as adults has been strengthened by the letters we write to each other.

so happy to see molly when she got back from many months in brazil last year.

so happy to see molly when she got back from many months in brazil last year.

while i was getting tattooed, we started trying to name state capitals. z & m started researching state mottos on their phones. denise was getting into the whole US geography thing, too. i’m pretty sure that it was one of the nerdiest tattoo sessions ever.

i feel like i started this decade in a pretty rad way. it was an honor that these fine women were there with me. i really can’t put into words how i feel about them, so here’s a picture that captures it:

the last time the three of us were together - drinking cocktails at terminus last year.

drinking cocktails at terminus last year.

ashes to ashes

i did not inherit my grandma's sense of style.

i did not inherit my grandma’s sense of style.

january 19th would have been my grandma florence’s 94th birthday. she wanted to be cremated, and her ashes had been in a box in my parent’s guest bedroom closet since soon after she died last march. my mom and i decided that her birthday was a good day to scatter her ashes – the next thing was to decide where. in 2010 we took gflo to our friends’ vineyard, harris bridge, to go wine tasting. it was a lovely warm late-summer day, and we sat on their deck while amanda played with their young daughter and nathan brought us tastes of the dessert wine they make. each time he came out with a bottle he’d ask us what we thought of the last one. gflo wasn’t a fan of sweet wine, and she let him know. so much so that last year when i mentioned to him that my grandma had died, he said, “the one who hated our wine?”

that's harris bridge in the background.

that’s harris bridge in the background.

gflo liked the idea of her ashes ending up in the pacific ocean, because that’s where my grandpa fred’s ashes were scattered by the fiendish-sounding neptune society when he died about fifteen years ago. the marys river (yep, no apostrophe) runs under harris bridge, meets up with the willamette near downtown corvallis, which empties into the columbia in portland, and eventually out into the pacific near astoria. mom researched local statutes about scattering ashes, which is an ok thing to do if you have the landowner’s permission. nathan and amanda were glad to have their vineyard be part of the story again, and mom and i made plans for the 19th.

"tyson is yelling at ms. york." possible gflo's favorite picture of me.

“tyson is yelling at ms. york.” possible gflo’s favorite picture of me.

time for a related story.

i moved to corvallis less than a year after my grandpa fred died, to teach a primary multiage class in jefferson. the kids ate lunch in our classroom, which i grew to really love. some of the most interesting conversations i’ve ever had took place when i was sitting in a tiny chair at a low round table with a few 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders. one in particular comes to mind.

in my grandparents' front yard

you’re not seeing things. my grandpa is rockin’ a purple blazer.

the conversation was about grandfathers. i said that my grandpa fred had died (it was still recent enough that my breath caught when i talked about him). one of the kids asked me if i visited his grave. i got to, “he doesn’t have a grave, he was–” before it occurred to me that i had to finish the sentence – “cremated.” “what’s cremated?” asked one of the kids. i proceeded to explain in as little detail as possible while still being accurate. tyson, in the picture, shouted, “they burned up your dead grandpa?” yep, they did. another question, “what did you do with his ashes?” i said that they had been scattered in the ocean. tyson again - “they threw your dead grandpa off a boat?” yep, i guess that’s exactly what happened. and it was the first time in months that was able to think about my grandpa and laugh. thank goodness for second graders.

even if my legs were long enough, i would not have been allowed to have my feet on the table.

even if my legs were long enough, i would not have been allowed to have my feet on the table.

mom and i wanted to do something when we scattered gflo’s ashes, but nothing too fussy because she wouldn’t have liked that. i suggested that mom read the obituary she wrote (it was really for both of her parents, because there wasn’t one for grandpa when he died). she asked me to read the blog post i wrote about gflo. we decided to get a bottle of harris bridge wine so we could toast our mother and grandmother.

the "smokin' hotties" picture from the obituary my mom wrote.

the “smokin’ hotties” picture from the obituary my mom wrote.

on her birthday, we brought gflo’s ashes to harris bridge in the snazzy quilted bag we got for that purpose last year on mother’s day. january 19th, 2013, was cold and cloudy, but at least it wasn’t raining. we unpacked her ashes, brought along the wine, and walked up to the bridge.

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mom opened the plastic bag inside the box, and let gflo’s ashes fall into the marys river. she read the obituary and we drank a little wine.

see that lighter bit of the river? that's her ashes. it was kind of amazing to see.

see that lighter bit of the river? that’s her ashes. it was amazing.

we walked down to a spot along the river, and i read my blog post. there was more wine drinking, and less tears than i would have expected. i think that my mom and i both feel really thankful to have had gflo around as long as we did. grandpa too. they were pretty damn cool people to know.

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i’m looking forward to wine tasting at harris bridge on a warm day this summer – i’ll sit on the deck and look out at the marys river, and raise a glass to my fabulous grandma florence.

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MRI cheat sheet

recently, more than one of my friends has had a reason to ask me for tips about having an MRI. makes sense, because if hospitals gave out punchcards for them i’d have earned some free ones in the last few years.

behold the jesus christ tumor. named that by my uncle, because when he showed it to his fellow neurosurgeons they often said, "jesus christ!"

behold the jesus christ tumor. named that by my uncle, because when he showed it to his fellow neurosurgeons they often said, “jesus christ!”

i had my first MRI at the age of 36 – it’s the one my ENT sent me for to rule out an acoustic neuroma as the cause of my gradual hearing loss. at this point you likely know that the MRI actually ruled in an AN. i had many MRIs in the 5 weeks i spent in the hospital in phoenix. part of the tumor is still in my head, so i have an annual MRI to catch any regrown early enough to treat it with the non-invasive gamma knife procedure instead of brain surgery. about a year ago i had a sudden increase of some of my neurological symptoms (vertigo, fatigue…), so i had a few bonus MRIs to see what the problem was (my shunt stopped working) and what to do about it (deal with it).

with those MRI credentials, i’ll give you my pointers/advice/knowledge. with a disclaimer: i’ve only ever had head MRIs.

1. ask if you’re having contrast.

sometimes your doctor will want a particular kind of imaging that calls for contrast. i’ve had two kinds – one where they give you an injection of the dye and then pop you back into the machine, and one where they hook you up to an IV and pop you back in with it hooked up. it’s not all that bad, just a good thing to know before you get started.

once before giving me contrast, the MRI tech said, “after a minute or two, it’ll feel like you wet your pants.” if she hadn’t warned me there is no way on earth that i would have believed that i hadn’t just wet my pants. so if you’re having contrast, ask if it’s that kind.

2. having an MRI is kind of like going to the dentist.

MRI machines are loud. and they require you to keep your head really still. for those reason, the tech will put in earplugs then pack you into the headrest with pieces of foam to keep your head from moving. and then he or she will chat with you. you can’t hear a word of it, and you can’t nod along. so be prepared to smile and say things like, “that’s great!” and hope that the tech didn’t just tell you that he’s having his dog put to sleep later that day.

3. say yes to a pillow under your knees, and a blanket.

don’t be a hero! when the tech asks you if you’d like a pillow for under your knees, say, “sure thing!” want a blanket? “that would be great!” you’ll have a little thing to hold and squeeze if you need them to stop for some reason, but i doubt that the tech will appreciate you using it because your toes are cold.

4. come prepared to nap.

when you have a head scan, you’re only in the machine to the top of your chest. the surface you’re laying on is pretty soft, and if you’ve taken my last piece of advice, you’ll be feeling positively comfy. there’s a mirror right above your eyes, angled so you can see out across from you into MRI mission control, but i say close your eyes and imagine that you’re in a loud sensory deprivation tank. you don’t have to do anything but lie there (in fact, that’s really all your supposed to do), so you might as well relax. the tech tells you through an intercom how long the next scan will be (mine range between 30 seconds and a few minutes – i’m usually in there for about half an hour all together), but if you fall asleep then none of that matters much.

5. get rid of all of your metal stuff

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, so on your intake form they’ll ask you if you have any metal in your body, like piercings. so take that stuff out before you go. leave your rings and necklaces and earrings at home. if you have a piercing that you can’t take out, ask them about it when you make your appointment.

6. don’t watch this video until after you have your first MRI. seriously.

you’re welcome.

creative nonfiction

the pharmacy building is my favorite on the osu campus. i don’t know why. this is my view as i head back home from the coffee shop in the basement of the library.

i’m loving grad school – wonderfully busy. here’s the essay that was due today in my creative nonfiction class. the assignment was to write 1200-1500 words, with an episodic element.

If I Had a Million Dollars

“If I had a million dollars,

If I had a million dollars,

I’d buy you a house,

I would buy you a house.

If I had a million dollars,

If I had a million dollars,

I’d buy you furniture for your house,

Maybe a nice chesterfield or an ottoman.”

~ Barenaked Ladies

When the quick phone conversation with Dr. Benton ended, I wasn’t sure what to do next. It was about four in the afternoon, and he had just told me that the MRI I’d had at noon to rule out a brain tumor as the cause of my hearing loss had in fact revealed a very large tumor on the nerve connecting my ear to my brain. He suggested that I speak with a neurosurgeon within the next day or two. Conveniently, I already had one of those – my uncle Yancey. But before I called him, or called my parents, I felt like there was something else I should do next. Unfortunately, sorting through the things I’d learned so far in my thirty-six years of life revealed that I had never been told what you should do when you find out that you have a one-in-a-million brain tumor.

So I did the only logical thing I could think of.  I walked out my front door, across the street, and into 7-Eleven, where I bought myself a slurpee and a lottery ticket.

When I was a kid, my parents and I spent many weekends in a cabin two hours east of our home in a Los Angeles suburb. The cabin had no phone, no TV. It had a swing and decks of cards and bird feeders and trails in the “wilderness” down the driveway. In the nearby town of Big Bear, across the street from the Italian restaurant where about once a month we ate a 5-course meal with cheese and apples for dessert, there was an arcade. I traded in my allowance for tokens, passed by Ms. Pac Man and shooting games and the contraption that would flatten your penny and give it back to you with a bear where Lincoln had just been, and spent all my money on Skeeball. I waited all month to hear the sound of the wooden balls rolling down the chute after I put in my token and pulled the lever. The scuffed balls were the perfect fit for my hands, still a little sticky from garlic bread.

I didn’t play Skeeball for the blue tickets that folded out of the machine at my feet. I played for the thrill of watching the ball move away from me at just the right speed, just the right angle, to jump the concentric circles and disappear down the hole marked 50.

It is true that, in each house I’ve lived in since those days, I’ve set aside some space in my mental floorplan for the happy day when I become the owner of my very own Skeeball machine.

Since I sold my car a few years ago, I’ve become a frequent bus rider. The stop down the block from my old house has a shelter, and now I live a short walk from the Transit Center, where each bus line begins and ends with its own refuge from the rain. But this being the Pacific Northwest, in other parts of town I’m often soggy when the bus arrives. While riding bus 6 through my old neighborhood I’ve often admired a wooden shelter, clearly build by someone on the block. A few times I’ve gotten off at that stop just to spend thirty minutes sitting there in that safe haven until the next bus comes by and stops for me.

As I’m carried around town, with the freedom to gaze out the window that I didn’t had during my two decades as a driver, I imagine organizing residents and business owners to build shrines to public transportation at each stop along each route. In my mind I can see these sanctuaries most clearly when it’s raining.

My walk to the other side of downtown often leads me through my neighborhood used book store, usually in search of titles in the trashy paperback series I read to clear my literary palate. This summer I repeatedly found myself drawn to a hardback book with a book jacket the perfect shade of yellow, which I put back on the shelf because I couldn’t justify spending close to thirty dollars on a book when I had a bookcase at home filled with titles I’d yet to read.

The day before I headed out of town on an end of summer adventure with a friend, leaving behind a season of strained family relations and ushering in my triumphant return to a college campus, there I was back in the bookstore with the yellow book in my hands. I decided that this was the time to give in to temptation, so I bought it.

In my rhetoric class, I’ve learned that they call what happened kairos – the right place at the right time. My agnostic friend Jesse calls it synchronicity – paying attention to things that seem to happen for a reason without giving them any kind of divine meaning. This is How, by Augusten Burroughs, turned out to be exactly the book I needed to read on that very day. I never had to use the flap of the jacket as a bookmark because I read it straight through; I inhaled it. I immediately re-read it, loving its weight in my hands, thinking that it wouldn’t have meant quite as much without the security of its thick cover. On a trip that included time on three boats, it was just the anchor I needed.

I grew up in the suburbs – it was a steep walk to the black metal mailbox that tilted on a stand with four others at the end of my driveway. When I’d go with my parents to the post office to buy stamps, I was captivated by the orderly rows of tiny doors, each with their own small lock. I grew up to become an habitual letter-writer, and I still find myself fantasizing about adding a tiny key to my keychain, blithely filling out change-of-address forms in my imagination.

One of my pen pals, Meghan, is a friend from a summer I spent as an exchange student. Meghan lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where she minds a lighthouse and her two spirited sons, not to mention her recent reanimation of the tiny schoolhouse in her village. Just what I would expect from a woman with a 2-digit post-office box number.

Each autumn I send out dozens of Thanksgiving cards, with gratitude for the people who bring good into my life. In the last year I’ve become friends with Jessica, who lives in my same city. I asked her for her address, and when she responded with a two-digit PO Box number, I decided that the time had come for me to channel my envy into figuring out how to get one of my own. Maybe Jessica and Meghan can write letters of recommendation for my application.

I buy exactly two lottery tickets each year, and always on the anniversary of that cardinal MRI (my ‘Scanniversary’). One I include in a letter I write to Dr. Benton, with gratitude for saving my life. The other I allow myself to slowly scratch with a penny from my pocket, like Charlie peeling away the wrapper on his precious bar of chocolate.  He opened three Wonka bars before he found the golden ticket  - maybe I’ll allow myself two more lottery tickets next year.

oh man, i love this book.

can you tell me how to get?

i have a to do list. it isn’t very long. please don’t call it a bucket list.

here it is:

1) see david letterman live (i crossed that off on a train trip around the US in my mid-twenties)

2) see the northern lights (this is really because of a charles kuralt story)

3) visit every state in the US during my forties

4) get a master’s degree (4 weeks down)

5) re-learn how to swim (last week i did a lap with only a kickboard)

6) drive cross-country

7) have a pet cow named henrietta

this week i crossed another one off that has been so deeply a part of me that i realized that it existed in the same moment that i realized i could cross it off.

8) live on sesame street

“i can see my apartment from here.”

i grew up in the suburbs outside of los angeles in the second half of the seventies. and i ate sesame street up. loved it.

but i wasn’t sesame street’s target audience. it was developed to enrich the lives of new york city kids – to give them experiences outside the city that they might not get otherwise. it had the opposite effect on me. i loved the idea of stoops, a grocery store down the street, people out walking. after i moved to corvallis, i bought a house with a big yard, in a part of town where not many people are out walking. it was a great house for me and my foster daughter, but i fantasized about living downtown. so when the opportunity presented itself about a year and a half ago, i was ready.

here’s how i connected the dots. last week, i stopped to talk to RJ, a guy who’s often out playing his harmonica down my street, to thank him for saying something to me a few weeks back about how well i’m walking without a cane. i had just gotten big waves from the guys who work at the hot dog shop.  then this happened:

on my walk home from campus that afternoon, i started thinking about that “these are the people in my neighborhood” song. and then i realized that i’ve always wanted to live on sesame street and i do now.

when bert and ernie’s lease is up, have them come talk to me.