Mrs. Klank


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For the last three weeks I have been plopping myself down in various school classrooms around town, working as a substitute teacher. This, after eighteen years of staying home, being ‘mom’. Entering the work force is a challenge, of course, mainly because you must get up and get going so early. But the job I’ve returned to – teaching – is not all that different than momming. In either case you rarely get to sleep in. The pay is awful in both. And the benefits are limited – one gets ‘work with no obligation to put on bra or shoes’, while the other gets ‘summer’.

In many ways, these two jobs are essentially the same. The souls you ‘shepherd’ all day are gross and loud. Many of your charges pick their noses unabashedly while almost all of them whine incessantly, even if you’re literally just showing them a movie. The older kids stink, and the younger kids cry, and you forget when you’re not around hordes of children anymore how often and overwhelming just those two downsides are. Yet you tolerate these rascally little humans even as they shout ridiculous things at you, such as, “Mrs. Klank” or “Ms. Kick” over and over. You work hard to instill a handful of decent thoughts and inspirations into their growing psyches, even as you stealthily plan your next solitary bathroom break and heatedly scribble ‘Wild Turkey’ onto your ever-lengthening shopping list.

In the past two weeks, my notion that teaching is eerily like mothering has only solidified. Because mothering involves dragging your kids through society – schools, doctors, sports, music lessons. While teaching means prepping kids for leadership roles within those societies. Which all just goes to say that rarely do you mother or teach in isolation. It is a community you find yourself thrust into, not one you hand-pick for yourself. And for better or worse, you meet all kinds here. Mothers who swaddle their babes in expensive, linen breast-sacs until they are well-past three years old. Mothers who tell you flat out that your stair banisters are ‘filthy dirty’ as they stand in your entry-way, dropping off multitudes of kids for you to moniter. You’ll meet mothers who carry tiny dogs with them wherever they go yet don’t notice when their own child runs into the street; mothers who seem like they take drugs and most likely ARE taking drugs; moms for whom the word “no” has been supplanted from their vocabulary by “child-centered”. Perhaps even on the same day, you’ll meet other moms who thrive on order and execution and sincerely question you as to what type of bread you serve and when was the last time your family had a fire drill run-through? You will have awkward conversations with moms who want to confiscate your teen-aged child’s phone while they are with them, and then even more awkward conversations when you show up to a classmate’s birthday party only to realize it is actually a church rally. The list goes on and on but you get the point. Moms have to hang out with all kinds of other moms, and most of these ladies will not be your personal cup of tea, believe you me!

The same basic truth goes with teaching, but particularly so when you are a substitute. Every day you encounter vastly different set-ups and styles. There’s the classic ‘Ms. Ruler’, who comes complete with a Pier One sofa and mood lighting ensconced in one corner of her classroom. She’s forked out hard-earned money for different color-coded rugs for each activity; included picture-coded seating charts within the lesson plans; while her students are bound –  by blood, sweat, and tears, often – to Ms. Ruler’s ‘do’s and don’ts’ and that sneaky little second hand on the big, over-the-door-clock.

Then there’s your ‘Doris Day’ teachers (Que sera, sera…whatever will be, will be) who leave no sub plans at all; in fact, they’ve lost their attendance folder long ago; these teachers often have desks spilling over with old notes and stacks of books and papers, none of which are current or helpful in any way. There are no name tags anywhere within their magical kingdom, and a sharpened pencil is worth its weight in gold. These student’s whistle while they work, sing while they sum, and ‘line up’ at the door like a poorly-drawn amoeba, which then slithers down the hall eagerly consuming every other student it encounters along the way.

There’s ‘Mr. Stoplight’, whose entire lesson plan entails dire/overt warnings about particularly challenging students – Beware! Caution! Danger Ahead!

‘Mr. Bueller’, who schedules an hour and a half for the driest, most painfully dull lesson plans imaginable (i.e.; a six-page packet on the unpronounceable first emperor of china, sans interesting details or historical context… anyone?…anyone? ),

and finally,

Ms. Rainbow, whose every inch of wall space is covered with kaleidoscopic art work and inspirational sayings such as, ‘You did not wake up to be mediocre!’ and ‘Mistakes are expected, respected, inspected, corrected’. She’s penned, ‘Have fun and Enjoy their Spirits!’ in purple calligraphy atop your lesson plans, and reminds you to use ‘caring words’ to encourage students to finish up their papier mache’ projects this afternoon. “But by all means, if the sun’s out – CELEBRATE!”

Where I fit in to all of this I really don’t know –  what I can say with confidence is that every single teacher’s amount of time allotted for lessons is way too long for a sub…and that there is no possible way to predict what a student might say or do at any given time.

Take the day I asked one second-grade girl how to pronounce her name: Alallia. “A-Lah-Lee-A” she said, pleasantly. “Well, that’s just beautiful!” I gushed, thinking inwardly that I’d never remember that for a hot second. “How did you come by such a unique and exotic name?”

“My Grandma smoked a lot,” Alallia answered, rising from her desk and eyeing us all squarely as she spoke loud and proud, like a miniature Ms. America contestant. “She had a tube in her throat, so she couldn’t talk. Before she went to heaven she signed my name to my mom with her hands. Then she died.”

Thankfully the class was stunned into silence for several moments. Imagine what that poor grandma was most likely trying to sign – Help! Morphine! Pull the plug!  Well…the daughter went with ‘Alallia’ and on hindsight that seems optimistic and makes as good a story as any. However, I did make a mental note forthwith: do NOT ask students to explain their names (Sorry Tiger-Amari, you will sadly remain a nomenclature mystery).

Another day, after I had abandoned the boring but malicious Emperor of China in favor of a story on the sinking city of Venice, I asked the students to do a ‘quick write’ about one place they would like to visit, anywhere in the world, and why. A very sad boy (whose name was Tristan – literary magnificence!) raised his hand to share, which surprised me, as all morning he’d been a slow worker, struggling to keep up and stay on task, and in fact he’d broken down in tears several times out of exhaustion or sheer frustration, who knows. Anyway – he seemed to take to the ‘quick’ write concept (five minutes), thus he raised his hand, so I called on him to read his paper aloud:

‘As you all know, I have a depressive nature. To help me with this I think I should go to Canada. They say they are the nicest people in the world there. I would still be close to my house here in Washington, and I could eat pancakes, because I know they have a lot of maple syrup there. I think it would be nice to visit Canada and all those friendly people who smile a lot and maybe I would even like it there. I would eat a lot of pancakes if it is really such a happy place.”

Happy does not begin to describe my own reaction to this paragraph that contains within it the underlying essence of why one might continue to teach, instead of sailing away to a Caribbean island to slurp rum out of coconuts.

This last week as I sat in Ms. Ruler’s third-grade class on her unbelievable sofa that is nicer than anything in my own home, I tried valiantly to ‘teach’ a particularly needy student. This boy, Matthew, was tall and big and loud, and he had all the typical troubles of a very easily distracted, tall-big-loud boy, and so I had appointed him my personal ‘buddy’ that day, and let him do some of his work on the white board, and generally gone above and beyond to ensure that he did some ‘work’, to all the other student’s rightful dismay. At this point in the afternoon he was seated opposite another little boy, Jordan, who was rather frail, quiet, and polite; a speed worker who seemed to have none of the issues facing Matthew. Yet as I sat there between the two boys I noticed Jordan crying, very quietly. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Jordan wouldn’t answer. Matthew did, though. “He don’t have anymore friends!” he declared, matter-of-factly. “Something bad happened at recess, I don’t know, but no one likes him now.”

I tried to hide my shock at this frank summary, but Jordan woefully nodded agreement. “I’m starving, too,” he declared, Eeyore-style.

“Yep, he’s going to starve himself now!” Matthew yelled. “And he’s going to kill himself, too, because he don’t have any friends anymore.”

I thought I should nip this in the bud very quickly, so I said, “No, Jordan’s going to be just fine, Matthew. Jordan’s a strong, smart boy who’s having a sad moment right now but in a few minutes he will go wash his face and drink some water and come back and work with us here, won’t you Jordan, and after that it will be time to go home and Jordan will eat a snack and everything will seem much better.”

Jordan sort of shrugged, like ‘yeah, maybe. We’ll see.’

“In the meantime, Matthew, you need to start writing these words. Look at the next one there, it says astronaut. I think you could write that on your paper lickety-split.”

Matthew sank back into those beautiful sofa cushions with an enormous heave. “I can’t, teacher. My heart is too soft.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, anxiously checking the second-hand on the clock myself while inwardly screaming, ‘HOW MUCH LONGER CAN I GO ON BEING THIS PATIENT AND KIND AND WISE??? UGH!!!’

Matthew was tearing up now, too. “My heart is so soft because Jordan’s going to kill himself. And he’s starving. And he doesn’t have no more friends. It hurts when my heart is so soft like it is.”

Here I sank back into the cushions and had to agree with him. Teaching is exasperating. Momming is endless. Life is painful and slow and crazy and loud and stinky and blurry-fast and colorful and funny, too, but trying to deal with everyone’s ups and downs through all these minutes and hours is exhausting.

Mrs. Klank’s heart is too soft indeed –

even when there’s a Pier One sofa to sink into.



Eve in Paris


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Not long ago I was in a tiny, antique-type gift store within a tiny, antique town I was passing through. As I wandered the aisles I heard this conversation between the owner – a middle-aged, sweater-clad, rotund woman sitting behind the counter – and her only other customer, a tall, coiffed, impossibly straight-backed woman with a penchant for animal-shaped salt and pepper shakers.

Owner: Our 35th wedding anniversary is coming up this Spring, and Duane’s offered to take me to the new Joanna Gaines store down there in Texas, or we might go to Paris. We just can’t decide…”

Customer: That store looks wonderful. I saw pictures of it on TV just the other day. I think they’re putting in a restaurant there, too!

Owner: Yes, Magnolia Market – it’s on my bucket list. It sounds like a dream. And Duane and I would stay in Houston for a few days, too.

Customer: You know, I’d get on a plane to Texas but not anywhere overseas these days. All those people are…well, there’s just so much violence over there!

Owner: Yeah, Duane doesn’t want anything to do with Paris. He hates Europe. But you know our Erika’s there so that’s why I thought maybe. But Duane says he’s happy to go to Texas. We’ve never been to Waco in the spring before…

These two kept talking on in this way, until I was forced to hastily exit the store in order to preserve my exploding brain cells. But right before leaving I paused at the counter to smile extra wide at the woman and say, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear, so please let me place my vote for Paris. It’s magical, truly. The enormity of the buildings, the grandeur of the architecture, the abundance of public art and sculpture, the bridges, the wrought-iron balconies, the baguettes…oh my, I’m getting swoony just thinking of it all. Even the doors are works of art! Choose Paris. I promise, even if you do nothing else, just walk the streets for a week looking at the store fronts and gardens and tasting the wine and all the cheeses…I doubt there’s anything remotely comparable in Waco.”

Here I trailed off, for the woman’s eyes had gone glassy while her hands tugged nervously on imaginary nubs all over her knit cardigan. Obviously she was trying to be polite but felt I was speaking in tongues (and criticizing Magnolia Market/Joanna Gaines on top of it!).

Well, time has marched on but that exchange replays itself in my head now and again like a scene from Groundhog’s Day, because obviously our country as a whole has endured this exact same conversation. Over and over we were given the choice – Paris or Waco? History, Literature, Art, Progress, Science, Architecture, Gastronomy, the Paris Climate Agreement, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity…or…Silos, Cotton, Humidity, Motorcycles, Snakes, Tornadoes, Shoot-outs, Mammoth bones, the Dr. Pepper Museum, Magnolia Market.

Surprise, surprise – we chose Waco! Woo- hoo!

So now I weep, quietly and often, while my friends and family who voted for Waco say, “Good grief! Stop bitching and moaning. There’s BBQ and big screen tvs everywhere here, excellent football, guns enough for every man, woman, and child…it’s going to be fine!”

If you are a person who says that to me, (while I mournfully remember that this was a choice we all had – that Waco wasn’t where they’d assigned us our prison sentence, say, nor was every other inch of livable earth space washed away in an epic flood) then you and I have NOTHING in common. Zilch, nada, nyet.

Because empirically Paris is better than Waco. You can argue all you want about Waco’s finer points – and there are a few – but it is not even a sliver of Paris. It does not bear even a cupped hands-worth of its beauty or history, it’s cohesion, enterprise, or scholarship. Waco as an entity has contributed very little to the advancement of human progress, except for Dr. Pepper.  And no pictures, facts, first-hand narratives or writings are going to change your mind, friends and family…you believe against all evidence WACO is the better choice we get it! But geez, listening to your rationale is as enlightened as attending a seminar on blood-letting.

And if you are a person who tells me to calm down because Waco was the pre-ordained, chosen choice, (yes, I know, your invisible man-deity told you so), then you and I have even less than nothing in common (that would be a negative number). If you believe that a man, from a culture that is so different from ours now that you in fact want nothing to do with it, told the very first woman ever formed not to eat a certain fruit (why???), and then that woman ate the fruit anyway (apparently it was forbidden because it contained knowledge, and you know, we wouldn’t want a woman to have that!), and now she’s sinned for all of eternity (a word and concept coined by man, coincidentally), well, clearly you are reading an ancient, biased, nonsensical tome.

Because Eve did NOTHING WRONG. She hurt no one. Literally she fed someone – women’s historic role throughout the ages! But in this case, a pretend man mandated an arbitrary rule for no known reason, which Eve then ‘disobeyed’. Nothing about this story makes an ounce of sense. It only serves to reinforce what a malevolent god God is, if you believe in that sort of thing. But if this is the story you hang your hat on, the story you process into a building every weekend to have told to your kids over and over, then you and I have infinitely nothing in common. Zilch, nada, nyet.

Because Eve, along with all women, took the blame for a non-crime. She committed a man-made ‘sin’ which she now must pay for, for the rest of time (Or until we collectively get a new book, or better books. Much better books preferably!).

On and on we go.

Down to Waco,

marching and bitching and munching that apple ALL THE WAY!

(PS – Seriously. We could have gone to Paris!)


Sixteen Going On Seventeen


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Dear Annalise,

This year on your birthday you are far away, across the sea, and I miss you. I miss your smile and laughter, the sound of your flute drifting up the stairs late at night as I float off to sleep. Normally my escapes when feeling sad are booze, bubble baths, and books, but as you know we do not have a bathtub in our new house here at Kithnarra. And books – well, for the last few months I have been unable to read much, because my mind trips down winding lanes of whimsy, stumbles upon worry, then dead ends straight at weariness. So…booze it is!

Not too long ago I decided I better head back in the direction of books, at least part time. I picked up a book I knew I enjoyed, one I considered ‘fun and easy’, just so I might get back into the habit of reading without too much suffering. It was Bill Bryson’s ‘Neither Here Nor There’ – simple, short, funny chapters all about his solo journey around Europe.

Decades ago I read this book as a young, single woman and thoroughly enjoyed it. Back then I imagined myself someday visiting all the cities he listed, wandering from one chic restaurant to another, jotting down wise/witty notes on wrinkled napkins and moist beer coasters as he must have done. Now, two decades later, I read this book from the crook of my little house in the big woods, tucked into my great big, black bed – a tired, middle-aged mom who’d never made it to much of Europe after all, but whose first-born daughter was now off on her first solo trip to the Motherland all alone, like the youthful Bill Bryson of yore.

My re-read sputtered into stagnation quite quickly. For on page after page, city after city, there was nary a lady mentioned on this guy’s epic jaunt around Europe. Not only was Mr. Bryson travelling sans females, but all of the important, historical places he was visiting – castles, monuments, city sights…were filled with statues and stories of men. Pasty, rich, strategic, mistress-clad men, mostly. (For complete accuracy Joan of Arc might have been mentioned. But of course she was famous precisely for acting like a man. Gah!). Women were almost completely absent from THE HISTORY OF EUROPE. Oh, they were there alright, but jotted down unnamed, mentioned only as rather large, bosomy seat mates who turned out to be quite cushiony on long, jostling train trips.

So, my darling daughter, I never finished rereading that book. As you can probably visualize, I put it down, disgusted, and turned to wine. Because, let’s face it, the world refuses to recognize women very often. Not for womanly things, anyways. And for most of human history, women have been completely occupied by child-birthing and child-rearing and food maintenance, and there has been no time nor energy for women to occupy men’s spaces and rewhittle the world in their softer image.

On one of these nights, as I lay in bed and the wine took hold, I began to think that I would write my own book, about women – real women – who changed the world for the better, women that most of us have never, ever heard of. I dreamt I might travel to visit their birth places, follow in their feminine footsteps, but of course as soon as I started investigating the logistics of where to go and what to see, the word ‘folly’ sparkled with new life. For women leave little behind, except offspring. Women, historically, have never had the time, money, nor skill to write down even basic words to leave behind. Physically women mostly leave just dust, which is ironic considering they’ve spent their whole lives trying to wipe that stuff up.

But, Annalise, I desperately want your world to be one in which you can participate as a pivotal member. And I thought by shining a light on the women who so valiantly and painfully paved the way for women working for equality today, I might smooth the path just a bit, so to speak. So I began reading day and night, researching, compiling my own ‘binders full of women’ that piled up on my bedside table like actual props from a Saturday Night Live sketch. I noted down women who wowed me, women to whom I related in one way or another…women who whispered their stories into my ear like old friends, begging me to pass them along.

I read of women who scratched out rudimentary diaries on the plains while other women marched tirelessly through city streets, demanding birth control, voting rights, freedom; I read of women who worked their bodies into nothing but bones, or left their own children simply to raise money for bread; women who grew crops that had never been grown before; women who founded schools and took in the needy and unwanted; women who dedicated their lives to pursuing art and environmental preservation. All of these women, who nursed and toiled and organized night and day, day and night, with little to no booze, bubble baths, or even books to comfort them. Imagine!

And most nights as I read in the dark, I would tell your dad about these ladies, whisper their names out loud, there in bed, and he would ooh and ah and agree with me that the world should and could be a more balanced planet, where women and men’s words were heard and evaluated with equal vigor.

Then one night, as I lay in bed, I tried and I tried to unravel one woman’s story so that I could retell it, but I couldn’t, because this woman was a scientist – the first woman scientist to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories back in the 1940’s – and her story was so smart and sophisticated that it was just too complicated for me to understand. I grasped that she was a crystallographer and geologist, that she was a researcher who ran a program that studied the electromagnetic properties of crystals. But of course I didn’t really know what electromagnetic properties were. And I knew nothing about crystals except for the pretty ones that hung in gift shop windows.

I read further about Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood and her pioneering work with phase transitions in silicon and how she studied ways to change the state of certain materials through the application of electric fields. But how her work led directly to the development of new superconductors and lasers at Bell Labs was completely beyond me.

I turned to your dad, who as you know is quite smart, and also scientifically-minded. He was reading there beside me when I said,

“So…you know how I have binders full of women now?” He nodded.

“And you know that I am researching ladies that were downright incredible but nobody’s ever heard of them or built statues to them or chose them for their ‘extraordinary people’ high school research papers?” Yes, your dad nodded.

“Well, this one lady, Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood, was a geologist and crystallographer who taught at Bryn Mawr back in the early 1900’s.” I began.

“Uh hmmm,” he muttered, completely non-plussed.

“And I’m really not smart enough to understand WHAT she did, let alone the science behind it, but what I think, after reading what I can find about her, is that she is the reason for the lightsaber. You know, like in Star Wars? I mean, I think this lady must be the mother of the lightsaber.”

I thought your dad would laugh or whoop or do some big exclamatory gesture at this point, considering I’d now willingly brought up Star Wars as a topic of conversation after twenty-five years of marriage! But surprisingly your dad remained quiet, put his book down, and instead turned to me rather sadly. His face was a mixture of deep pity and reluctant patience side-by-side. “You do know, Kristine, that lightsabers are not real?”

“Yes…ugh! I do know that!” I replied, indignant. “But they are based on the notion that they could be real, scientifically, are they not? And this lady, Dr. Wood, studied the two things that make up the fundamentals of all lightsabers – crystals and lasers, right? And therefore, without her, I don’t think there could even be the notion of a lightsaber, could there?”

Here I was truly asking him, because as you know your dad is exceptionally smart in some ways that I am not, and Star Wars is definitely one of those ways, as is science and lasers and basically everything I was speaking of.

“No, no, no,” he sort of pity-laughed. “That’s not how light sabers work. They’re not just crystals and lasers…”

“Well, what are they, then?” I demanded, outraged. “They must be. Even I know that!”  (As you might remember, Annalise, I’ve seen ONE Star Wars movie to date, and that was enough to last me a life time).

I turned away from him then, insulted and upset. Not only did I know just enough to know what I didn’t know, but what I thought I might know was still dead wrong.

A deep quiet enveloped our bedroom that evening, as I lay there feeling disgusted with my ‘feminine’ brain. I was deeply ashamed that I was not smart enough to grasp these scientific concepts, and it physically pained me to think of myself as a walking stereotype – this womanly ‘less-than capable’ creature somehow. But then my eyes fell on my binders full of women, imaginary friends to me now, and I supposed all of those women had suffered this same feeling, in myriad ways, thousands of times, over the centuries.

Meanwhile your dad twiddled furiously on his Phobert (my name for his iPhone, as you surely recall) as I tossed those binders full of women onto the floor and began drinking big swigs of wine. I wondered if I should just travel straight to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house there in Missouri to take photos of her little farm and perhaps the beloved corn-cob doll Charlotte and call this whole idea a wrap and be done.

A long time passed. At last your dad sat up rather straight in bed, turned to me with surprised, arched eyebrows, and said, “Well, Kristine, it turns out that according to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, lightsabers use a crystal that directs a laser back on itself to make the beam. So, you are actually, factually correct. That lady whose work in crystallography lead to advances in lasers was in fact the mother of the lightsaber!“

Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood

Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood

After that earth-shattering moment of course nothing changed. Nothing at all. And on this night, as I write this letter to you, everyone in our family sans you and me are off seeing the new Star Wars movie, which yet again fails to dedicate even a second of screen-time to its most enlightened mother-figure. Because Star Wars, obviously, is all about The Father. Who cares if our noble Dr. Wood remains locked away in the attic of human knowledge, sans any credit from the masses for being brilliant and truly light-years ahead of her time? (“Honey, you’re misusing the term ‘light-year’. It’s a distance, not a time period.” – Dad) This is the way the world spins for most ladies, Annalise – epic stories swirl round us, are sung time and again of heroic men, while we women must toil, birth, dream, persevere – all while singing our own quiet victory songs within our heads…songs which carry us on, push us forward, keep us balanced, step by arduous step. So – my birthday wish for you is that whenever anyone talks of Star Wars, anywhere, for whatever reason, sing out loud and mention her – DR. ELIZABETH WOOD. Talk about her. Tell her story. Because we owe her that!

And I want you to know that even though you are now sixteen going on seventeen, you are not innocent as a rose. Because you, you were named after Annelies Frank – a girl allowed to dream but only allowed to live for 15 going on 16 years. And when people speak of you, Annalise Kirk, and mention how you used to walk around the public library calculating the square footage of the carpets with your feet; or how diligently and ferociously you practiced and studied the flute even though you were years behind the other students; or how bravely you ventured off into a part of the world you knew hardly a thing about, on your own, at just 16 – well, I hope you mention your heroic namesake as well – who wisely remarked, ‘In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit,’ because we owe her that!

Annelies Frank

Annelies Frank

Once you are seventeen you will return to a country piloted by Donald Trump and friends, so it behooves me to tell you that your life might indeed be viewed like an empty page, that men like him and his cohorts will certainly want to write on, but don’t let them. Write your own damn story! Speak out, march on, play louder, dream bigger, go farther. ‘Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness’ (Annelies Frank) You are a citizen any country should and would be proud of, Annalise, and I hope you come home to a country that values your voice, your vision, your very feminine you, because we owe you that!

Seventeen years ago, an hour before Christmas Eve, I was so very happy when you were born healthy and a girl. And I am now so very proud that you have grown up to be not just a girl, but a smart girl – a girl who likes languages and formulas alike; a girl who wants to see the world first-hand even if it is scary and unpredictable and at times downright unappetizing; a girl who works hard at things no matter the rewards; a young woman on the brink – one who is not afraid to write down her hopes and dreams and then pursue them, whatever the next page may hold.

You are sixteen going on seventeen. Happy Birthday, my love!




Spiraling Solo


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“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.” – Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

At this time last year, as lilac-tinged rhododendron’s floated cloud-like overhead and ribbons of golden chains draped from the laburnum trees like riches from the gods, we were gifted the keys to our new home, Kithnarra. Bike

It was a heady time, yet we could not actually move right in to our new abode tucked away in its veritable Eden. For the kids were still attending school in Seattle, and would be for another month. So a few times each week Damon and I would load our van full of possessions, race out to the new house during his lunch hour, unload stuff into the garage, until we could wander happily around our forested 5-acres for fifteen or twenty minutes before returning to our rental house in Seattle for the night.

After perhaps two weeks of this hectic moving and hauling 24-7 (for we were still boxing up stuff in the rental house each evening) my left knee began to ache severely and swell. My back throbbed from lifting heavy boxes into and out of the van. All of us were suddenly sleeping on air mattresses, as our usual beds were moved over to the new house, and these inflatable slip-n-slides seemed to twist round our wooden floors all while leaking slowly throughout the night, so that each morning I awoke stiff, warped, marooned in my own misery.

One Friday morning Damon informed me he had to stay in Seattle to work all day. I decided to load the car and go alone. As I drove north in such sustained, unusual silence, it dawned on me that our King-sized mattresses were now residing at Kithnarra, and that if I merely unloaded the car and then stayed overnight, I could perhaps get a good night’s sleep for the first time in weeks. This novel idea tantalized me like no other – a night all to myself! No kids, no noise, no damned wooden floors!

As I sped along the freeway I realized the plan was actually doable, too.  Since it was Friday the kids could simply come home and eat pizza with Damon for the night – no need for the car to be rushed right back. I could stop at the store, buy a bottle of wine, perhaps some roasted chicken and potato chips, then simply unload the van and go to sleep in my new house for the first time – ALL BY MYSELF!

The concept made me almost giddy.  I tried to recall the last time I had slept somewhere alone. Unbelievably, I could not recall one instance of true 24-hour aloneness in my past twenty-two years! I had spent the night in a hospital alone, but then, is one ever alone in a hospital?

As I wound down the curving drive into the mass of trees which surrounded Kithnarra, I became certain my mind must be muddled. Surely I had been alone overnight at least once in the past twenty- two years? Yet I couldn’t recall any specific time that I had been, and the longer I lifted boxes and belongings out of the van, the more certain I became that indeed I hadn’t been alone more than mere hours for over two decades. I’d always had kids, a spouse, a sister, a mother, a friend…someone along with me wherever I went for more than that.

As I dished drumsticks onto a paper plate, then uncorked the wine, a celebratory mood descended. I felt deliriously happy. Imagine – there was no TV, no internet, no electricity, no neighbors, no nothing! Just my king-sized mattress, my pillows, a good book, some wine. And silence. Amazing!

Even though my knee was so stiff I could barely walk and my back ached, I hobbled up the inside stairs clutching a lit candle and a smile. I set myself up on the bed and just stared out the windows at all the trees. Green leaves clouded my view. I could see not one neighbor, and even my sister had yet to move in next door.  It was just me and the chipmunks racing hysterically back and forth across the tree limbs.  I sipped my wine and felt perfectly content. I watched the wind wrestle the woods for long stretches in between reading passages from my book. I lit a few more candles set upon the window sill, swallowed some Ibuprofen, sipped a bit more wine, and before it had been dark for long I was out.

The next thing I knew consciously was that someone was shouting my name repeatedly. “Kristine!” the terrified voice yelled. “Kristine Kirk!”

As I struggled to wake and sit upright in the bed, I realized that the voice surely belonged to one of my daughters. “There’s a burglar in the house. Run!” the panicked voice cried in the dark.

I rose to my feet. I could see nothing in the pitch-black, but I knew instantly my knee would not allow me to run anywhere, even if there were indeed burglars in the house. I hobbled blindly towards the bedroom door, my arms outstretched, grasping the dark, crying, “Katriel? Juliet?”

From downstairs two sobbing voices responded. “Mom, hurry, run! There’s a strange car outside. The barn window is broken. There might be a burglar in the house.”

I had no idea why my twins were here at Kithnarra at all, nor what a burglar would possibly steal – there was nothing inside yet except mattresses. Still, I had to reach my girls. I stumbled blindly down the stairs, moaning with each bend of the knee. “Where are you?” I called anxiously. “What’s going on?”

Once on level ground I made my way towards the weeping sounds. Sure enough there were my twins, huddled in the front hall. They hugged me while talking in tandem, hysterical bursts:

-We came over here to find our pajamas.
-We were spending the night with Holland at her new house.
-TeeTee picked us up and drove us here.
-But then we saw the strange car. And the barn door is open!
– And that little triangle window is broken!

“Where is TeeTee now?” I asked, so confused.

-She’s gone to get the police.
-There’s no phone signal down here.
-She left us here to rescue you.

Just as I was putting pieces of this strange puzzle together, I saw tiny, yellow lights moving within the woods just outside the living room windows. The girls screamed in unison as I hugged them both ferociously. We stood huddled in the pitch dark, watching as the tiny yellow lights flashed nearer and nearer. Soon we could hear movement along the back deck. Then the patio door slid open and in popped my son Eli, his face lit from underneath by a flashlight.

The fright of this all was incredible! It was so intense as to render us frozen, yet suddenly the air popped from us like a burst balloon, and relief filled the air.

“Hello Mama!” Eli cried cheerfully, lumbering towards me in the dark. “Did we wake you up? I’m here with my friends, just showing them around. I texted you that we were coming out. Did you get my message? I said we wouldn’t wake you up, that we’d just walk around outside, so you could sleep.”

Eli’s friends rushed in, too, and soon I had composed myself enough to light some candles on the downstairs counter. The high school gang eventually turned off their flashlights, and after everyone’s breathing had resumed to a more normal pace we all began to smile and laugh. Eli dished out the remaining chicken to his friends there in the dark house and in fits and bursts we recounted the strange, stressful events of the evening.  How the twins had gotten a ride up to my sister’s new house without my knowledge. How Lorraine had told them to run over to Kithnarra to see if they could find some pajamas to sleep in. How the twins had had no idea whose car was parked in our driveway, but had seen the barn door left open and the broken window.  How Eli and his friends, meanwhile, were wandering unawares through the woods with their flashlights, howling and hooting for fun.

And me? I was sleeping soundly upstairs, with no idea these wild children of mine were creeping all round Kithnarra, literally circling me even as I reveled in my ‘aloneness’.

Eventually my sister showed up, too. She never had been able to get a phone signal so police were never called. No harm no foul, we all laughed, now calmed. All’s well that ends well.

Except that on my one night alone in twenty-two years, I was never alone. I was, in fact, wide awake at 1am, entertaining the masses.

Now a full year has gone by and of course we have tv and internet and electricity here at Kithnarra but I still have never had my night alone, not for twenty-three years now.Dandelions

Does aloneness even matter? Historically women were never deemed fit enough to go anywhere alone, except perhaps the kitchen. My situation is nothing new. Yet surely I have lost something by never, ever being out in the world alone. As Carl Jung hypothesized:

“A group experience takes place on a lower level of consciousness than the experience of an individual. This is due to the fact that, when many people gather together to share one common emotion, the total psyche emerging from the group is below the level of the individual psyche. If it is a very large group, the collective psyche will be more like the psyche of an animal, which is the reason why the ethical attitude of large organizations is always doubtful. The psychology of a large crowd inevitably sinks to the level of mob psychology. If, therefore, I have a so-called collective experience as a member of a group, it takes place on a lower level of consciousness than if I had the experience by myself alone. “ – CG Jung, The Archtypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9i)

Could it be true that I have been operating on merely the ‘animal psyche level’ this whole time? For twenty-three years? Mon Dieu! No wonder I’m tired, hungry, unmotivated to rise from my resting place in the sun.

I can’t argue with his assessment, though. It seems plausible to me. I mean – YOU spend twenty-three years un-alone, surrounded by children constantly, then tell me how ‘low-level’ you feel. (I think it might be pretty low!)

So this year I am determined to branch out somewhere, solo. How, when, where, why… I do not know. But I am operating on a high enough plane to realize that when you are constantly surrounded by people, you are less than self-reliant. I certainly am. I have no idea how to change a flat tire; fix the computer if the internet is down; drain the dishwasher when it backs up and floods the kitchen. Nor do I ever want to do those things! But it does seem that I’ve found myself at the mid-point of my possible years stuck in an overcrowded rut, so to speak, and if I’m to be perfectly honest, I’m no longer sure what I am capable of doing on my own, other than hiding out in the bathtub and drinking wine.

And so I contemplate a drive clear across the country, alone. And as I debate the realism of this quest, I wonder…can I, Kristine Kirk, actually be alone? Overnight? In my car? Out of state? For days and weeks, maybe even months, knowingly turn away from everyone I know and rely on?Car

Is it even prudent to try?

Obviously it’d be far safer to curl up in bed with a snack or two, a glass of wine, and dream the years away.

But not today, no not today!
For when I wake
I will rise
And take to the road
Like a leaf blown free of its rooted branch
Capriciously freed
Skyward into the wind
Dancing towards the sun
Crimsoned with age
Spiraling, solo, back towards earth.

Red Tape Reveries


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Reverie 1

December 16, 2014 – the date it dawned on me that five kids was somehow getting ever more expensive, what with them suddenly listing electronics and college education fees on their Christmas lists instead of Barbies or Bionicles. It suddenly felt urgent that I find a job. Not a babysitting gig, either – rather, a real, paycheck-inducing, button-your-bra, work-till-you’re-raw kind of job.

But I’d been home with kids for fifteen years, and my skill-set had not improved much above changing diapers and rinsing dishes. My one viable career – teaching – formally ended back when people were panicking over Y2K.

Still, teaching was the only career-ish entry on my one paragraph, twenty-year old resume when I typed it up. So it seemed the logical place to try to break back into the fray.

Before I could even apply for a job, though, I needed to update my teaching certificate for Washington State.

After perusing the website the process seemed straightforward: fill out the online form; pay the fee, then TA DA – I could legally apply for a substitute teaching job! Go Me!

Towards the beginning of January, 2015, I dutifully filled out the online form, typing out the names of past references long since retired or actually dead. Laboriously I searched through old paper records, retrieving forgotten addresses from far-away places, land-line phone numbers historically obsolete, even as a feeling of futility washed over me, as if my mere vital statistics were so ancient as to make me unemployable. Finally, ten or so pages later, I gave them my credit card number and hit submit.

UNKNOWN ERROR popped onto the screen immediately.  PLEASE SUBMIT AGAIN it read.

My husband, a computer professional, tried to resubmit the completed application while I panicked and wailed like a colicky babe. Unknown Error reappeared. We rebooted. All my personal information was gone. Every line of every page was blank. OMG! Damon inserted his French horn custom-made ear plugs while I wailed in despair. Dutifully he logged a terse yet polite help ticket to tech support. He then implored me to calm down, go take a tub, the world was not ending. We would wait until tech support returned our call.

A week passed. No call.

Ten days later Damon relented and called tech support’s phone number. A recording informed him that “the eCERT team is currently answering messages from January 4”; they would follow up with us when they got to our ticket. The current date on the calendar – February 2.

In early MARCH we received a call back, wherein Damon politely explained my problem (which was now his problem as I was unfit to speak on the phone). Their reply was (I’ll paraphrase): oh no, sorry about that, simply redo everything and try again. Miracles happen!

So Damon painstakingly redid the entire ten-page application, while I snarled and spat vulgar obscenities into the nether regions of our home. At last he hit submit and glory, glory hallelujah – ‘thank you for your submission’ appeared on the screen.

Fast-forward nine months and I’m an elementary school teacher! All is excellent. I’m well paid, I love my students. The only issue is I can’t seem to pass the new teacher-combat training course that’s required in order to receive my Bushmaster Model XM15-E2S, which legally I’m supposed to carry on my person at all times while teaching.

Reverie 2

April 3, 2015 – the date I received a letter from eCERT informing me that my application for license renewal could not be processed because I’d failed to send in fingerprints along with the online application/credit card info.

Oh.My.Word. If you’ve ever visited Little Red before, you’re fully aware of my computer ineptitude AND my dismal report card on dealing with people in stressful situations. But, you must know….NOWHERE ON THE FORM WAS THERE A REQUEST TO SEND IN FINGERPRINTS. It wasn’t that I overlooked it, or just blatantly ignored that step…the REQUEST WAS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND ON ANY OF THE TEN PAGES.

While I puttered in circles, speechless, Damon dove into ‘save-Kristine-from-meltdown’ action mode. Quickly he looked up office hours/directions. We could simply drive down to Olympia the following week for fingerprints at the state office. Spring Break was beginning, we were conveniently heading to Ocean Shores, “It’ll just be a quick stop. Soon this debacle will be behind us. Breathe, darling,” he crooned, pouring gin directly down my gullet as if I were a badly injured baby bird.

During the long drive to Olympia I privately stewed. Why? Why was every single thing one tried to do so much harder, longer, more difficult than it needed to be? The entire ‘get a job’ process seemed wrapped in red tape, and I found the process of ripping off piece by tiny piece exhausting, expensive, demoralizing.

At the District Office I turned to Damon and all the children lining the car’s backseat to proclaim in lofty tones that for the record I was morally opposed to beginning (or ending) any vacation by having my fingerprints taken. Then, my chin still high in the air, I stumbled out the car into my future, slamming the door behind me.

Inside the building, disaster brewed. I could smell it thick in the air. All was eerily quiet and clean, there was no line to wait in, and the lady who took my check was smiley and nice. Hell awaiteth me, this I knew.

Almost immediately a pleasantly plump, middle-aged woman named Pamela called me back to her cubicle to take my fingerprints. As soon as she grabbed my hand and splayed it across the electronic inkpad we were on our way. Her face grew cloudier by the second. Rolling my fingers firmly side-to-side, the computer insistently flashed one word over and over – INVALID.

After five or ten minutes of stone-silent, awkward hand manipulation, I said, “What’s the problem? Are my hands deficient or something, ha ha…” Pamela said nothing, merely concentrated harder on squishing my fingers around the inkpad. Finally I blurted out, “Is there some way I could make this easier for you?” (That’s honestly what I said, because she looked like a rain cloud about to burst at this point).

She sighed. “It’s just that your fingers are extremely sub-par.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means your deltas are missing! I’m probably going to have to send you to the state police to let them try.”

Angrily now she rolled my deviant fingertips a few more times back and forth for good measure before giving up for good.

“You’ll have to go to the state police right now,” she commanded.

I walked back to the car feeling a lot like Charlie Brown after a run-in with Lucy.

I informed my still-silent crew that my delta’s were missing and that it was now urgent that we drive straight to the state police! Boy were their eyes big. Damon took the news as if it were ordinary fare – mere everyday minutiae – punching in the state police headquarters to his Waze map app happily enough. I sat rigid, riddled with irritation, so incensed I felt lightening bolts coming out my head. It seemed even my fingerprints had decided they’d have better luck hanging around somewhere else.

At the state police I was led to a back room by another friendly woman – Thuy. I told her my plight, how my delta’s had deserted me in my hour of need, that the last time I had had my fingerprints taken, twenty years previously, they had discovered I had two licenses issued under one name from two different states. Theoretically I was already on the FBI’s ‘known to us’ list, and this snafu probably wasn’t going to help matters. Thuy laughed. She placed my big, pudgy fingers onto their black inkpad, saying, “No worry. We find them! No worry!”

Almost immediately the computer flashed to life and began to speak aloud into the room. “Invalid Response!” it quavered in one of those creepy, synthetic voices. “Unreadable! Unreadable!” Thuy’s sweet little laugh quickly disappeared as she rolled my fingertips first one way then the other. “No good!” she finally sighed, shaming my poor fingers once again.

“What do I do now?”

Thuy handed me my doomed fingerprint card. “Send these in. FBI will reject, mail back to you. Send again, second time. FBI will reject again. Send back third time. Now they study records then say, “Ok! You pass!” Here she smiled and patted my hand as if for good luck.

As I prepared to leave it seemed obvious I’d missed my true calling. To think I could have been a well-paid spy this whole time instead of staying home washing dishes. I probably wouldn’t have any children, true, but think how much better I’d be at going through airport security! I’d have nicer hair, wear make up all the time, maybe my bladder would function properly once again! Surely I’d have seen more of the world and wouldn’t find myself falling asleep at 7 pm every night if I were out conducting espionage. Ugh…if only I had paid more attention in German class!


Reverie 3

April 12, 2015  – the date my fingerprints were taken and mailed in to the FBI. As of today – December 17, 2015, I’ve not received even a FIRST rejection. What if I NEEDED this job? What if all the regular teachers had been shot in combat training and school shootings and they needed credentialed substitute teachers to take their place?

Reverie 4

December 14, 2012  – the date a young man walked into a local elementary school with three guns on his person and shot 26 people dead within eleven minutes. Twenty of them were children. Since that atrocity roughly 82,033 people have been killed by guns here in the United States.

And our collective response as a nation has been…nothing. UNREADABLE. SUBPAR. INVALID.

We’ve not voted out of congress any and all representatives who veto sane and decent gun legislation.

We’ve not boycotted all movies, video games, and cultural events that glorify and normalize violence.

We’ve not tightened regulations to ensure that it’s a frustratingly long, arduous, ten-page with references, online struggle for people to register to buy guns.

We’ve not marched en masse through the streets to ban assault weapons with high capacity magazines.

What we’ve done is prayed, and wept, and wrung our hands – which, frankly, is an INVALID RESPONSE!

As a nation we have in fact made it easier to buy guns since 2012. We’ve made more of our public spaces lawful to carry guns into. We’ve got companies popping up selling ‘armor’ our children can wear to school while we sit home, heeding nifty little videos on facebook or youtube titled,  ‘Active Shooter Scenario  – How to Survive’.

Talk about subpar.

Guns in this day and age are asinine, and we all need to start saying that, loud and clear. Men walking around brandishing weapons on the off-chance they’ll ‘protect’ you or me by annihilating some ‘bad guy’ is not bravery – it’s bedlam. Brandishing weapons that can shoot round after round of bullets in mere seconds – that’s the opposite of what the word bravery means, that’s butchery and COWARDICE. And we – WE – the people, waiting day after day for some miraculous answer – need to start shaming gun owners into admitting their bravado, feeling it in public, in the media, in person down to the tips of their toes. There’s no bravery in walking around with a weapon. The bravest men in all of history are not those who brandished handguns or AK-47’s – they’re those that relied on reason and integrity, wit and intellect, perhaps most importantly of all – PATIENCE – to get themselves and others out of harms’ way. They’re not those that in the first seconds of adrenaline, fear, or passion blow someone else away with the push of a finger.

Regardless of my personal gun beliefs, most men like, want, even covet guns. Somehow they feel safer with one on their person, or in their home or car, even if statistically this means they or their loved ones are astronomically more likely to actually be shot. And I’m not certain of much but this one thing: little, delta-less me is not ever going to convince my fellow countrymen of the greater good in giving up their beloved weapons of mass destruction.

So – let’s not take away the guns. Instead, let’s dream a little dream wherein we simply take away the bullets. Make ammunition illegal to bring into this country, have on your person, buy in the store. Make carrying unlicensed bullets a heavily punishable offense. At the same time, issue every gun owner ONE bullet. This licensed, identity-coded bullet would be loadable in THEIR gun with THEIR fingerprint, just the same way you utilize your fingerprint now to enter your car or become a teacher. Then, let our countrymen walk around all day with guns ready. Fire away, sir, if you’re pissed at your boss or coworker! Go get ‘em, cowboy, when you’re mad at the little lady! Fed up with Obama and all his socialist policies – wave that gun in the air and shoot it like you don’t care! You’ve got ONE shot, my friend…make it count!

Oh, there will still be gun violence alright. Even death. But not very much of it, because after those men fire their one, personalized bullet, if they’re still mad and wanting to fire more shots, guess what? They’ll have to FIND said bullet and reuse it. Dig it out of the body they just shot dead, even.

And therein lies the beauty of this reverie: Because we all know men can’t find shit. And a wee, little bullet? Just picture it – men wandering the neighborhood for days, months even, whining to their sweeties – “Please, Eleanor, help me find my bullet! I’ll be nicer, I swear!”



Reverie 5

December 17, 2015 – just another day, wherein we can read more tragic headlines, pray ad infinitum, receive emails and phone calls from our kids’ school informing us that our innocent babes are enduring yet another bomb threat or school lockdown. But let us agree that on this day, this horrifying state we’re in is by no means an Unknown Error that we, the people, can do nothing about.

Stop supporting gun culture and any and all entertainment that glorifies violence.

Stop using the 2nd Amendment as a cover for sane, legislative action, unless you’re carrying around a musket as a documented member of a well-regulated, yes – I said it, red-taped – militia.

Stop defending gun ownership. Be loud and proud in vocalizing weapon intolerance!

Then, if you want to dream a bit…remind everyone to go ahead and keep what they value most – their guns. But for humanity’s sake, let’s legislate the hell out of bullets. Let’s wrap those shiny suckers in so much red tape that they’re damned near unusable.

And just for good measure, let’s legislate that every person that wants to buy a gun must first get an eCERT and FBI clearance. That should slow things way down for awhile.

Let’s make this a country where EVERY SINGLE PERSON is finger-print reliant, not just me.

Because a girl can dream, right?




Radiant Me


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“The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone, over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.” A little maple tree heard the cricket song and turned bright red with anxiety. – E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

It’s been four months since we moved to Kithnarra. Most of our moving boxes are flattened, unpacked…yet not all. Most inside walls have been painted once or twice…not all. The paths winding between Kithnarra and Gypsy Lore – my sister’s house next door – feel familiar under foot, yet there’s always more to explore. We’ve come to know some of our new neighbors – deer, bunnies, raccoons, alpaca, owls, frogs, goats, woodpeckers, cows, turkeys, chickens – while others remain undisturbed, wild within the woods.FullSizeRender-15FullSizeRender-12FullSizeRender-11FullSizeRender-6FullSizeRender-9

Most mornings, sure as the rooster crows, boot-sized spider webs stretch between our trees like silver-misted fairy gates waiting to creak open with the sun. When daylight rises these white-veined witch eyes shimmer and glow. As I head over to retrieve my nephew from Gypsy Lore I sense them following me here, there, everywhere…peek-a-boo! We see you!


One morning last week I became so enchanted by these swaying, silky wonders that I wandered up close to one to capture it’s elegance and enormity with a picture on my iPhone. Crouched down, arms outstretched towards the web, I leaned awkwardly forward, eager to bring into focus the intricacy of its architecture.


Alas, just as my thumb clicked down, (frightening the poor spider away), I toppled forward down the slick, slanted ground, straight into the web. Sure enough, I’d been caught!

That web failed to keep me immobile however. I barreled on through, somersaulting along the dewy ground, one arm overhead to save the phone, my hat and scarf wrapped round my face. Coming to rest I saw the magnificent web I had just seconds before photographed now thrashed into nothingness. The spider, that poor little miss, darted anxiously up and down the nearby tree. As I stared at her dumbfounded, I imagined a thought-bubble appearing over her head, proclaiming in big, bold letters – WTF???.

I sat in the grass, remarkably heartbroken that I’d unwittingly ruined everything. All that the spider had produced I’d robbed away. Imagine the hours and hours she’d spent twirling and swirling there in the darkness, while I lay inert, cocoon-like in a warm, cozy bed, dreaming away. Then the light of day appeared, along with a big, hulky human who blew her house down, taking her livelihood with it in a mere breath.

Humph…what a sad turn of events! The day felt ruined and hopeless even though it was not yet 8 am. I straightened up and continued my necessary routines even as a sinking spell enveloped me like fog. I kept picturing little miss spider crawling back and forth frantically along the tree, wondering where on earth her web had got to (“Surely I left it right there, didn’t I?).FullSizeRender-5

Back home I drank lots of coffee and painted wild, clashing colors all over my walls. I told myself repeatedly to view the whole episode as an inspirational metaphor – Shit Happens! Life is but an exercise in futility! Sisyphus lives!

Still, day after day I mourned the web (having long-ago deserted the actual little spider), all while my left leg swelled, grew hot to the touch, then turned purple. More specifically, the veins in my left leg rose horribly, hideously, until it became painful to stand or walk. Eventually I took to the couch (Routinely the veins in my leg swell like this, which is inconvenient to live with but also depressing, because for most of my life the part of my body I felt the most happy and confident about were my thin, shapely, unblemished legs).

Some while later, as I lay zombie-like with my now toxic-looking legs thrust skyward atop great mounds of pillows, Damon appeared at the head of the couch and told me to get up, we were going to the doctor.

Actually, his exact words were, “You’re a farm wife now, Kristine, and I can’t afford to have you lying around. There’s a ton of work to be done!” Which I’m sure is exactly the same type of scolding poor little miss spider got when she went crawling back empty-handed to her mate only to explain that the spider web she had painstakingly spun all night had indeed – really! truly! – vanished into thin air. (“It was right there, I swear!”)

I sat up and told Damon that, while noble on his part to schedule a same-day appointment and drive me there, a trip to the doctors would amount to little more than another exercise in futility. My veins had been swelling and giving me problems ever since I’d had twins back in 2003. Over the years I’d consulted many a doctor about it, and they’d all basically told me to have them stripped and stop complaining already.

(*If you know me well, you realize any kind of elective procedure such as vein-stripping is a ‘no-go’ option, because I fall within the ‘Medical 1%’ wherein anything/everything weird or unheard of that might happen from a ‘simple procedure’ does and will in fact happen to me. So I’ve lived for years with my veins swelling and throbbing and I’m fully prepared to keep trudging along with them aching and inflamed, so another doctor seems unnecessary, right?)

But this time my leg was swollen down in my calf, which was a new turn of events, and for some reason my eyes hurt badly (had for weeks) and I was squinting and having headaches. Overall I didn’t feel very well, but obstinately I attributed most of that to too much butter coupled with melancholia over life’s tortured, ceaseless demise of individual vitality and beauty…not so much to painful eyes or swollen thighs.

Damon dragged me to the doctor’s office anyway, where the nurse took my blood pressure and vitals while I showed her my leg. Soon after a brunette, don’t-mess-with-me-Kirstie-Alley type female doctor burst through the door, took one look at me sitting crouched on the chair, then barked, “Pants off! If you’re here to be seen about your leg I need your pants off!”

Stunned, I stood and dropped my pants immediately (we really are a gullible creature, aren’t we) whereupon she took a close look at my leg (formerly a beautiful leg, I might add) then said, “I’m going to walk you straight over to the ER. This is time-sensitive now and we might be dealing with a DVT.”

Still too shocked to utter a word I sank backwards onto the chair with my pants still around my ankles. Feebly I croaked, “So my leg is really that bad, then?” Kirstie Alley looked at me as if I was an imbecile or small child that needed help. “I’m sorry,” she replied, making her voice a bit gentler. “Perhaps I was too sudden. Your blood pressure is very high, your leg is feverish, and I feel it is best if I personally walk you over to the ER right now.”

“But my eyes hurt!” I wailed, throwing my head back like an overwrought child indeed.

The lady-doctor leaned over me very gently then and led me out the door, to a hospital bed in the ER.

There a kindly male Indian doctor with a wondrous, smiley face looked at my leg and visibly winced. “Let’s get you an ultrasound right away,” he said. Which they did.  Eventually I learned that I do not in fact have a DVT. I merely have excessively hideous legs. Which pains me to type out, let alone reconcile myself to, because as I’ve mentioned once or twice before, my legs were the most radiant, most flawless, most admirable part of ME in my youth.

After the news was dispersed to one and all that the lady in Bay 2 was not unhealthy merely hideous, I was bundled home like an elderly grandma, where all my kids rushed around me in a moment of sweet concern. Damon drove off directly for the pharmacy. He returned with slick black compression hose which he unrolled gently up my bruised calves as if I was Cinderella herself, and soon all was well again at Kithnarra.

Except now I must walk around in compression hosery, which makes me look very much like a witch. And my eyes, which have stopped throbbing because I’m on blood pressure medication, still crinkle and tear uncontrollably, making me feel elderly and feeble. Each day I try to explain patiently to my four-year-old nephew Lochlan why Auntie must play ball so slowly, why I can’t walk barefoot in the pasture, why the back of my legs look like I have purple spider webs all over them when we go in the jacuzzi.FullSizeRender-2

Lochlan shrugs when I point out that I’m becoming more and more like a witch every day – with my long, black stockings; my purple spider-webbed legs; my squinty, weepy eyes. He splashes about in the jacuzzi completely unconcerned and says, “But TeeTee, you’re a nice, soft witch who gives lots of good kisses!”

And magically, as if a thought-bubble has suddenly appeared over my head, I decide that that spider web I destroyed the other morning need never have vanished into thin air after all. Forest fairies could have carried those bumpy silken threads piece by piece over hill and dale, through the woods, across the creek, clear up to that squishy, kissy witch residing at Kithnarra.  Within the darkest hours they might have fluttered over her, stitching and hitching row after row of crookedy spider webs onto the backs of her legs, while the witch-lady dreamt of a warm, colorful fairy-floss quilt, cascading down her legs in bursts of trailing stars.IMG_9510

“After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die,” Charlotte the spider reminded Wilbur gently. And it’s true – life is short – trips to the ER are good reminders of that.FullSizeRender-3

We’re all here for just a little bit, with time enough to craft a story or two. And truthfully, I’m not too interested in a tale starring unblemished, shapely legs. I’d rather immerse myself in fairy floss and witches webs here within the forests of Kithnarra, where day after day I can spin my own little threads of magic alongside the wee spiders.  Summer might be forever gone for this squishy, kissy witch, but Fall, Fall – with it’s purpled paths and gossamer gates- lies aglow right outside my window.IMG_9532

“Charlotte had written the word RADIANT, and Wilbur really looked radiant as he stood in the golden sunlight. Ever since the spider had befriended him, he had done his best to live up to his reputation. When Charlotte’s web had said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.”   – Charlotte’s Web.

Moving to Kithnarra


It began with an email. My father wrote to say he was growing weary living alone; this seemed the time to make some big changes. He’d had a number of medical issues, and felt unsure how much longer he could manage without assistance. He wanted to know if any of his three kids wanted his permanent company, perchance?

It was an odd request. My father and I had not lived together since my senior year of high school. He was an adoring Grandpa, but not hugely interested in long-term visits or overnights with us or the nine grandkids. I nervously wondered how ill he might actually be, to suddenly ask for assistance like this. It seemed against his stoic, solitary nature.

“We have to do it!” Damon declared with nary a second’s pause. “Of course he can live with us. But realistically, we’ll need a bigger house.”

Thinking the idea perhaps necessary yet far-fetched, we journeyed with my sister and all our kids to view a house for sale with a guest suite. Turns out this meant the downstairs was available as one big room, with a built-in kitchen along one wall. We wandered through the empty rooms while various kids skipped then flipped themselves about, and the sheer thud and noise of them skittering here, there, and everywhere made me realize, “This will never work!”

What we needed, if this were to be at all feasible, was a guest cottage. A separate residence, far enough from the main house that noise would not be a minute-by-minute concern. We returned home where I googled ‘homes for sale with separate guest cottage’. Four houses in the entirety of Western Washington State fit that description. The closest one to Seattle was in Snohomish County. From the looks of the tiny pictures on Zillow, the home had been on the market well over a year and seemed rather dated.

No matter. I asked Damon to call a realtor so that we could walk through it. I still had my doubts that any type of set-up would genuinely offer my father enough privacy and seclusion that he would actually want to live with us long-term. Miraculously, the realtor answered the phone right away, and after just a few minutes of research told us the property we were inquiring about was to have a new roof put on the following day, and therefore would be unavailable to walk through for a while. Could we come out right now, to tour the property?

Damon peered at me flabbergast over the dining table then shrugged. It was a Tuesday morning, about 10am. All the kids were in school. “Why not?” he said. “I’ll take an early lunch break and work late when we return.”

Willy-nilly we jumped in the car and headed north. Once off the freeway I was not overly impressed. The roads were hilly and rambling while the houses seemed placed helter-skelter, in every style and size known to man. We drove on and on for what seemed like ages. Finally we turned onto a residential street. A baby Christmas tree farm sprouted up to one side of the road, while turkeys and goats roamed the front yard of the house on the other side.

At the correct address we turned off the street towards the actual house we had come to see….but no house was visible. Instead a driveway plunged us straight into a thicket of trees and azalea plants. Immediately Damon and I felt immersed within some hidden Eden, too pretty not to ooh and aah.

The gravel drive wound its way through trees until we emerged out into the sunshine, not far from the cottage – a wooden, two-bedroom little house with its own patio and circular drive. We crept past in the car, amazed now to see a tiny Troldhaugen cabin perched among the trees even farther down the drive.IMG_1281

“Wow!” Damon gushed. “I could practice my horn in there!”

We rolled down a gentle hill, until suddenly we were at the barn. With double doors and a built-in chicken coop and even a horse-laden weathervane perched on the tippy top, it seemed too fairytale-ish to be true.FullSizeRender (10) FullSizeRender (11) FullSizeRender[2] (7)

At last we approached the main house. Long triangular windows and double garage doors peered at us warily from the trees, looking an awful lot like a 1960’s-built, Lutheran camp retreat. We parked, unsure where the front door could possibly be, and walked around the side of the house like Hansel and Gretel at the Witch’s house. Locating the front doors off to one side, buried within a meadow of wildflowers, we entered the house breathlessly. Homemade, wooden bookshelves lined every wall and hung high overhead in the entry. How you would ever reach the books residing there remained a mystery. Out every window grew endless forests of trees.FullSizeRender[1] FullSizeRender

We wandered the house in awe, not because it was so lovely, or turn-key, or even to our taste, exactly.  Rather because it was so…odd. The living room had a two-leveled floor so that one might literally plunge off the carpet down four feet as you merely ambled along. A massive stone wall reinforced the camp retreat feel. Brazen, black spotlights perched at all angles of every room, and the bookshelves, well….whichever way you looked, there they were.

Yet however strange the house was, it had an undeniably cozy charm that Damon and I both loved right away. And those views!

The realtor led us outside and there it hit me that this truly seemed an amazing gem of a house, tucked away in the trees like this. Because just outside the plunge-floored-rock-walled-bookcase-heavy living room, lay a beautiful deck with a Jacuzzi perched right at the edge of the trees. Then, a fern-covered hill that tumbled down to a babbling creek! Yowza, this place had its very own creek!FullSizeRender[1] (11) FullSizeRender[1] (3) FullSizeRender (7) FullSizeRender[1] (5) FullSizeRender (5)

Damon and I went back to the car and just sat there. It seemed entirely too good to be true. I tried to think what to say to my cautious, methodical father. Was he really ready to move? Did he truly want to relocate to Snohomish to live with grumpy old me and all these grandkids way out here in the middle of the forest?

When I called him on the way home my preplanned dialogue went right out the window. “It’s great!” I gushed. “A hidden gem! Really ideal the way it’s set up. There’s a creek, a barn, a horn studio for Damon, it’s five acres total…”

“OK – let’s put in an offer then!” my dad said. Pretty much just like that. Easy as pie. Sweet as tea. Simple as syrup.

When my sister came to have a look the following week and discovered the house next door was for sale as well, my father did not hesitate for a moment. “Put an offer on that one, too!” he announced during the next phone call. “You kids can all help take care of me!”

And so it is that three months later, we have moved to Kithnarra!FullSizeRender[1] (7) I named it this because ideally this land is a place for Kith and Kin –friends and family – to come together. Plus it’s geographically located in the way far North – Narra – yet is also where we’ll tell our stories – and hopefully together narrate many new ones.

There’s really no gracious way to say ‘Thank You’ to someone who has, sight unseen, bought you a house (and a barn, and a creek, and a whole new way of life)! I hope these pictures do a bit of justice to the place. And to Grandpa George – we really can’t wait for you to get up here and join us so we can say thank you over dinner and S’mores in person.

And to our friends and family – PLEASE come and visit us here at Kithnarra! The front door is located on the side of the house and is hard to find, but it’s always open! Soak in the Jacuzzi, splash in the creek, stay for a story or two (or three!) around the rock wall…because from this day forward, this is where Little Red shall be walking!FullSizeRender[2] (9) FullSizeRender[2] (8) FullSizeRender[2] FullSizeRender[2] (6) FullSizeRender[2] (5) FullSizeRender[2] (4) FullSizeRender[2] (3) FullSizeRender[1] (10) FullSizeRender[1] (8) FullSizeRender[1] (6) FullSizeRender[1] (2) FullSizeRender[1] (4) FullSizeRender (6) FullSizeRender (2) FullSizeRender (3) FullSizeRender (4) FullSizeRender (9) FullSizeRender[1] (9) FullSizeRender[2] (2)

Magical (Ordinary)


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This past winter, one of my sons sat nearly every night at the dining room table, hunched over the computer keyboard filling out college applications, lobbing random trivia questions my way ad nauseum. “Mom! What’s that place you were born called?”




From deep within the feathered belly of my bed, buried there with my book, I hollered out answers to him. (In this house the ‘master’ bedroom is directly adjacent to the dining room). “Now write that down so you have it for next time.”

“What’s dad’s social security number?”

Wearily I blurted out numbers yet again. “Ugh…write this stuff down!”

“What date did you graduate from college?”

“1992….Ilya Iskander! Please write this all down! Make one master sheet so you can refer to it!” (I called him by his Russian name now, to more vividly connote Great Displeasure. *Parenting tip 101 – give your children names that translate well to Russian for those times you need to yell WITH FORCE!)

“What’s your middle initial?”

“Are you serious?” My voice echoed round the snowy wilderness of my duvet, while I pictured the vast, white Russian tundra where this child’s ‘life knowledge treasure chest’ lay endlessly buried. “It’s L!”

On this night there was no response from the other side of the wall, No ‘Got it, Mom!’, no “Ok, I wrote that down,’ no ‘Aw, you’re the best, Mama Bear, for helping me with every single answer for the fifteenth time in a row!’, no nothing.

“Do you know what the L stands for?” I bellowed, writhing myself from my lair. This man-cub of mine probably did not know my middle name, though he’d lived with me for eighteen years and had already filled out five previous applications where this exact answer was required.

A lengthy pause followed before my bedroom door slowly squeaked ajar. The man-cub appeared, tipped backwards on two legs of the dining chair so that his ginger-maned profile tilted angelically heavenwards. “Do you know what the L stands for?” I repeated.

Slowly he turned his face towards me, revealing a mischievous smirk, before guessing:



As of this day Damon and I have been married for twenty three years. Huzzah! Twenty three! For such a happy occasion, it feels a bit sad to realize that we have no extra money to celebrate wildly this year; Damon has no time off from work; we are in the midst of moving yet again;  unbelievably, after twenty-three years, nothing much has improved or changed or settled regarding our life situation, except now we have five kids we’ve unwittingly dragged along to our never-ending gypsy bash.

Twenty three years ago we romantically left college hand-in-hand, to march forth into the universe with no plan, no careers, no car, no house, no savings, no idea what we were doing or where we were headed.

On our first year anniversary, after moving twice and still having no money, no careers, no plan, nor even a car, I felt little about our lives was ‘as it should be’, but obviously there was still time. Loads of time. No need to panic, things will click, whatevs!

In reality the two of us, at twenty-three years old, celebrated our first year of married life by walking out the door of our apartment to ride the Riverside public bus to the local library, where we each checked out two books. Then we rode home and ate macaroni and cheese from a box before remembering the top tier of our wedding cake buried in the back of the freezer. When Damon went to unearth it he discovered a frozen brown blob completely encased in icicles fused to the back of the freezer, like a relic from some ice-covered, cave-man wedding. With a pick axe he hacked our treasured delicacy from its tomb, whereupon we stared at it mournfully for a bit before dumping it in the trash.

I have no idea if we gave each other gifts on that first magical (ordinary) anniversary. If so, I sadly don’t remember what they were. But there was still plenty of time for nice gifts, fancy trips, romantic anniversaries. There’d be all of that and more somewhere in the future, certainly.


Twenty-three years later, it seems like time has maybe gotten away from us. We’re not doing much this year that’s more exciting than heading to the library. Still, at this point in our relationship I should offer the man who puts up with me day in and day out (!!!) a meaningful, memorable gift.

Weeks ago, like a weary Mama Bear, I retreated to my bed-cave to ‘have myself a little think’ (as Pooh Bear would say) and decide what to get my true love.

Whole days and weeks passed, yet no answer appeared. How was it that after two decades, I couldn’t think of anything this guy would enjoy, more than time away from me to practice his lip trills? (That’s a French horn thing, truly.)

The computer was no help. Google declared this our “silver plated” anniversary, but Damon didn’t care a whit about silver. Eventually, my thoughts morphed from, “Whatever would this man like?” to “Hmm….what would I like?”

Here, obviously, I found lots of answers.

Unfortunately every single item I deemed ‘wanted’ was rather expensive. Or terribly impractical for a family on the move. So instead I declared it, ‘Time for a little something!’, opened a new bottle of wine, had an even deeper think, and consolidated my options:

  1. ‘What gift costs little to no money? 
  2. Improves my marriage?
  3. Makes living with Damon more fun for the next year?’

Once simplified, an answer appeared right away: scratch Damon from the final sentence!

Yes, Damon! Because D-A-M-O-N is problematic. Shorten it, and you’re calling out ‘Dame’, the English (and German) word for ‘important matronly lady draped in pearls’. If you lengthen it, you’re shouting for Damien or Demion, which, eww…creepy.

What does that leave? Dee? Damey? Dumdum? DaMOAN? DaMONK? Damn? Damon has to go!

Could I change it around, spice it up, alter the whole thing into something I enjoyed saying more?

Well, Hello Dolly! I think I could! And how ideal…to gift Damon with A New Name! Happy Anniversary Honey! Damon! ________!

The idea seemed perfect – free, easy, a novel yet fun way to spice up our marriage. Yet if I nixed Damon, what to choose instead?

Almost immediately my heart leapt towards Winston. Winston! Say it aloud and you just feel your net worth increasing! The name sounds posh yet approachable, light and charming with an undertone of gravitas. If I were suddenly married to a man named Winston, my bank account would contain commas instead of question marks. We’d live in a home with ‘wings’. He’d speak with that scathingly intelligent British wit, wherein even off-color remarks would hang in the room like fine art (worth a closer inspection now and again). I could call my guy Win (positive), or Winnie (cute) or Wit (clever). Together we’d vacation ‘in the country’ and everywhere we traveled important people would ‘seek him out’. He’d be renowned for his verbal prowess in no less than five languages, yet still not take himself so seriously he couldn’t break into song in public places now and again. Swoon!

This was suddenly not just the perfect gift to give my husband, but also the perfect gift for me, too – Hello, Winston!

Over a glass of magical (ordinary) wine I told Damon Winston flat out that I didn’t want anything at all this year besides to call him ‘Winston’, in public, in private, everywhere in between! Also, could he speak with a British accent all the time, starting right now? Oh, please, please, please! It’d be the best anniversary gift ever.

And my guy, my Damon, my Winston, well…he tried. A valiant effort was made, on several occasions. Unfortunately his Winston sounded vaguely Australian but mostly inebriated and hard of hearing. (As a true Renaissance man in almost all areas, it never occurred to me that adopting a new persona, accent, attire, was not something my true love could do…sigh).

Now the day has arrived, our anniversary is here, and sadly I am not getting what I wanted. Winston, the dream, has died. Damon is certainly not getting what he wanted, either. (I have no idea what name he’d gift me with if he could…(Kate Upton)) Instead, he’s found himself hitched to ‘Lethargia’, eternally entombed in her cave-bed.


Last night, out of curiosity, I asked the kids what they thought Damon’s middle initial M stood for. Their answers were telling:

One quite certain Mikel

One overly confused Mordechai

One clever Most Happy

One bold Miraculous

and one astute Meriwether

We all laughed and made up new initial names for everyone in the family while we drank magical (ordinary) wine and toasted our health and ate Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon, and all in all felt pretty content. Turns out you don’t really need Winston or commas or even a fancy gift to simply be happy now and again.



After our family dinner I retreated back to the fluffy confines of my cave-bed where I read Thomas Jefferson’s reasoning regarding his choice of the famous Meriwether Lewis : “Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction,…honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him…”

Who knew a name could be more fitting than even Winston? My Meriwether really is an intrepid explorer, leading this motley crew through the wilds. He is honest to a fault, liberal, disinterested, and genuinely Merry no matter the weather. He seems not bothered at all that his name(s) veer to the extremely feminine. He indeed possesses a firmness and perseverance of purpose which means that almost every day of our married lives I have listened to him practice lip trills ad infinitum. I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him….

If life is a journey, I am glad he is my guide.

And if life is nothing more than miseries to bear, I’m thankful he’s by my side.

Twenty three years is a long time to forge pathless through the wilderness. Yet here we are, Lethargia and Meriwether, still holding hands, seeking new lands.

Still together, one magical (ordinary) day at a time.

bathroom color

Backwards, Forwards, and Beyond


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Another year has come and gone, and in lieu of a classic Christmas letter detailing the whereabouts of my family (none of whom I keep tabs on anymore, or have any idea of what they’re up to), I offer this: a year in review from my point of view, presented as randomly and illogically as if you were actually talking to me.

First of all, just this morning Damon appeared in the bedroom door after his morning shower and proclaimed: “It’s happened, Kristine. After twenty-five years, I’ve done it. I’ve come up with exactly the right saying to put on your tombstone when you die. Are you ready for it?”

Of course I was ready. As if he had to ask! My favorite saying of all time was Liz Lemon’s exasperated, “When will death come?” Damon knew I’d thought over my last utterance at great length, and long-favored “I Told You I Wasn’t Feeling Well!” Whatever he’d come up with would have to top that, obviously. I doubted him, but nonetheless sat up from under the mound of bedcovers and clutched my coffee eagerly. “Let’s hear it!” I said.

“Bed….Bath…and Beyond!” The words echoed round the room majestically, while Damon, clad only in a towel, stood with his chin pointed in the air and his bare arm raised grandly like a famed magician earning his keep.

Well…what could be said except Bravo! I flopped back against the pillows in ecstasy. It was perfect. Simple, apt, catchy too. I set my coffee cup down on the nightstand and clapped. “I can die now, can’t I?” I gushed happily. Damon nodded, tears frosting his eyes. We both smiled, delighting in the moment. Then he went to brush his teeth. And I sank back to my coffee.

So it seems fair to say that my marriage is chugging right along. As for me, personally…well, all five kids are able to dress themselves and read and write and figure some here and there, and each and every day they eagerly embrace their independence until its Need Money or Feeding time, when they mysteriously pop up near my bedside, cute as a clutch of prairie dogs poking their heads above a sand swept rise, so in this department all seems right on track, as well.

Of course, there have been a fair amount of ‘must put on clothes and go out into the world’ challenges throughout the past year: crashing our friends’ car, serving on a life-sentence jury for a person my own child’s age, navigating the college scene not once, not twice, but three times, adopting a dog named Saga, unraveling the mystery of why one child keeps keeling over every now and again, managing another child’s sudden surgeries and septicemia, keeping up with Damon’s two full-time jobs, moving house, attempting to pay for all of the above, and of course dabbling in failed careers here, there, and everywhere… But mostly, truly, I am lucky enough to putter back and forth between bed and bath, all while contemplating the great, unknowable beyond. And this seems to suit my ‘energy’ and ‘excitement’ levels just fine. “See, this is where I do my best thinking!” I yell lamely to one or another of the busy bodies going in and out the front door, even as they ignore me.

We actually did move to a new house this past year, and wonder of wonders I did not suffer a nervous breakdown in the moving. As a bonus we now reside on all three floors, which is vastly preferable to living in a segmented portion of the house. So this place – Villa Villa Koona – feels like an upgrade, and looks like one, too. Kirk House 4.0

When we moved here I stood in the vast living room marveling at all the extra space, but also at my personal growth (Ho ho ho – I didn’t accost anyone this time around!). Still, I couldn’t help but wrinkle my nose at the smell coming off the walls. They were all painted a color I thought of as “Fresh Baby Poo”. I promptly splashed a pale, Swedish Midsummer Night lavender mist across most of the walls. It’s my first purple house, out of all four houses in my grown up life, and I like it! That poem ‘When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple’ seems especially prophetic now, because before we moved here I did not consider myself an old lady, and now I do. And because of a childhood scarring, I never, ever wore purple. But now it’s on me and all around me and I don’t care a bit if it clashes with my hair. Over in Sweden purple is apparently written as purpur but pronounced something like PuhPuh (to rhyme with shh…shh!). So I’ve come full circle, color-wise, which seems happy, and sappy, and not at all blue.

The best bit about the new house besides the three floors and PuhPuh walls is the enormous sunken tub in the upstairs bathroom just under the eaves. In Bathroom World, this tub is firmly entrenched in the 1%. One must navigate a whole new social strata when visiting. Surprisingly, though, there is a downside to even exorbitant luxury. Because the tub is so tall, you must climb up three full steps to get in it. And then at the top of these porcelain steps you find there are no steps down into the tub, so you must drape your leg over the edge and plop it way, way down, all the way to the bottom of the tub while your other foot stays nicely balanced on the raised stairs. Which, if you must visualize, means you’re arcing, naked, over the tub at maximum height with your derriere high in the air, while your groin region totters precariously over an ’eminently dangerous situation’. And since I am undertaking this as a bona fide Old Woman now, I’m all veiny and purpurly, too, and the window is right there with all those koona (Native American, squirrel) peering in at me with their startled, shiny eyes…. and ack! Stop visualizing! Quickly!

Exiting the tub is even worse, because of course now you are soaking wet and the tiles, too, are a slippery mess, and unfortunate disaster LOOMS. Which is why every single time I undertake to enter or exit the tub I first caution myself in the firmest of tones, “DO NOT DIE IN THE TUB, Kristine!” But now that Damon’s come up with such a spiffy epitaph just for me, I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind and just jump on in there.

Indeed, 2015 seems destined to a rollicking start, my friends!

(And yes, I’ve just written an entire ‘Christmas letter’ about puhpuh and taking a tub. If that’s not a ‘Happy Holidays’ from me to you, then I don’t know what is!)

May Peace and Happiness keep you Cozy and Warm all the Year Through! 


– Kristine…

(and all those other Kirks, too)






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Once upon a time there lived a teacher. Her age was twenty-eight but with smooth skin and chubby cheeks she seemed much younger. Daily she showed up to the door of her classroom nervous as a schoolgirl herself. Mostly she wore patterned skorts with flat, slippered shoes, so she, too, could run down and jump hopscotch on the playground. Penny-colored hair fringed her face, and each day after lunch she reapplied a pretty sheen of Cover Girl Lipslick Demure Lipgloss so that she felt more grown up, like a real, professional teacher.

The students called her Ms. Lady. She taught fourth grade. All the Plexiglas windows of her room remained sealed shut, smudged with the ghostly prints of children long swept away by time. Daily she and the thirty-two students in her care circled inside the overheated room like fish in a small, plastic tank, imprisoned beneath the arid air and thick smog of a California valley.

On day one, within hours of the first bell ringing, Ms. Lady’s head hurt from the ceaseless chaos of so many bodies, voices, movements in such an enclosed space. She felt her breath bursting from her in bubbles as she spoke, her arms and legs moving in murky, sluggish resistance. All day long the black minute hand on the wall clock mocked her over the student’s heads, shivering backwards and forwards eight hours a day, there in the desert heat. She intensely disliked the feel of chalk on her skin as she worked, ceaselessly creating small groupings of carefully arranged letters and numbers across the black board like bites of wisdom, tempting enough for her students to digest.

Ms. Lady often stood at the front of the room like an actress, posed forever as ‘teacher’, her character symbolically cloaked in the chalky remains of once snow-white words now faded into dust before the audience’s very eyes.

At night, tucked in bed, Ms. Lady ate miniature Reece’s Peanut Butter cups straight out of the big bag and worried she’d chosen the wrong career.

Even so, as school days evaporated into misty memory beneath the broiling sun, Ms. Lady felt a growing kindness towards her students, eager to know them all better.

One boy – dark-haired, scrawny, quiet – had the unusual name Osvaldo. Or perhaps Oswaldo. No one seemed to know which it was, really. His paperwork was a jumble of both spellings. Ms. Lady sought out his former teacher, appearing in front of the mysterious woman who’d passed Oswaldo/Osvaldo on to the fourth grade even though he could not read or function in any subject at even a kindergarten level. This obese, elderly teacher – Ms. Dung – shrugged when asked how the child’s name was to be spelled, not too interested either way. Mostly she said in loud, clearly enunciated words that the child, this boy, was a ‘second-language’ learner. Ms. Lady left Ms. Dung’s room in a hurry, her skin afire with prickled irritation. Yes, obviously the boy was a second language learner. So what? How did this answer the question of his name or how he came to be in the fourth grade? Ms. Lady persisted in tugging on the tangled threads that ensnared the boy. She asked in the office, in the teacher’s lounge. She was told a translator had spoken with the boy’s mother several times, mostly about discipline issues, and that the mother spoke little-to-no English. She did admit that she, too, was in the dark on an ‘official’ spelling of her child’s name. Ms. Lady felt a wave of sympathy for the boy. She turned to Osvaldo’s many brothers running amok around the school yard, but none of them seemed to care what people called him either.

Whole weeks withered away within those school walls. Until Ms. Lady herself had to accept the fruitlessness of the Osvaldo/Oswaldo dilemma…it surely didn’t matter now. None of the students called Osvaldo by his given name anyway. They simply called him Avocado.

The nickname settled over the dark-skinned, tight-lipped boy with a finality his legal name never had. The whole school could remember him, now. In class he remained quiet and non-participatory. But once out the door to recess he was a trouble-maker. Picking fights, swearing, rough-housing whenever he could. All Ms. Lady heard upon returning to her classroom were bundles of students shouting, “Avocado cut in line. Avocado threw rocks! Avocado hit me! Avocado said a swear word again.”

Osvaldo, (for Ms. Lady never referred to him in her classroom as anything but this) would hang his head, beeline towards his desk, meekly sit almost immobile the rest of the day. He could not read at all, nor perform any basic addition or subtraction. Ms. Lady felt panicked, clueless what to do. She had no idea how to immerse this boy within his peer learning groups, nor even how to help him catch up. He was so very, very far behind.

At home, while devouring chocolate, Ms. Lady worried about her Avocado (the nickname permeated her mind). She was just a second year teacher after all, still struggling to ink lesson plans down on paper, tease butterflies from her belly, wipe chalk clean off her hands. She felt confidence in only one thing – she’d definitely chosen the wrong profession.

She continued to play teacher. Each afternoon, as the kids barged in from lunch – hot, sweaty, amped with energy – she’d pair them off into lines along the front of the room. Here they could cool down while they played a math facts challenge game. The game went like this: the front two students, at the sight of the math flash card Ms. Lady held up, tried to yell out the right answer.  Whoever answered first with the correct number earned a point for their line. Ms. Lady kept score with tally marks on the overhead projector.

Each day her fourth grade class played this game. And it was fun until Avocado appeared at the front of the line. He awaited his turn as if at the guillotine. He scuffed his feet, hung his head, thrust his hands into fists within his pockets. He was unable to guess an answer. He never scored a point. His failure was assured.

Ms. Lady couldn’t bear this depressing scene, time upon time. She didn’t want to give up the game – her other students liked it, and it helped reinforce their math facts. So one day, willy-nilly, she beckoned Osvaldo to come front and center, next to her. She handed him the dry erase marker, then announced that Osvaldo was now the official tally-keeper. Students all down the line audibly groaned or slapped their forehead in a pained expression of disbelief. Osvaldo looked at his shoes. He had no idea how to tally.

They began at the beginning, as you must. When a student would call out the correct answer Ms. Lady would tell Osvaldo to draw a straight line on the transparencies she now favored over chalk. On the fifth line, she showed him how to draw his tally mark diagonally, like a thumb stretching across his palm if he matched the lines to the fingers on his hand.

Each day during their game time, one or two kids would outright complain. “Why does Avocado always get to be the tally keeper? It’s not fair! We want a turn, too!” Ms. Lady would merely shrug them away, turning importantly to hand the marker to Avocado. “Life certainly is not fair,” she uttered privately. Publically she said, loudly and clearly, “Osvaldo is the tally keeper. He’s the best tally keeper in all the land!”

At most other times during the school day, there seemed to be an ever-widening chasm marooning Osvaldo. When she brought up Disneyland, asking the kids nonchalantly who had been to the theme park, every child waved their hand proudly over their heads except him. He merely slunk lower down into his chair. Another day a fellow classmate came running to Ms. Lady to tell her that Avocado had stolen his lizard. Ms. Lady questioned him. Immediately Osvaldo burst into tears before pulling a little two-inch lizard he’d caught down on the playground out of his jeans pocket, cupping the tiny reptile as if it were his best friend in all the world. Then he held out his hand, stoically offering it back to this classmate whose entire bedroom was outfitted with expensive reptiles bought at Pet Smart.

Repeatedly Ms. Lady noticed Avocado slunk down in his chair again and again…every time the other kids read a report, showed off a project, or answered a question correctly. This child did not belong in the fourth grade and everyone knew it, including him.

Yet Ms. Lady was not solely sympathetic. She was frequently angered by Osvaldo, often after witnessing his bullish behavior outside the classroom. Despite her lip-gloss and Maryjane’s, she wasn’t novice enough to think this overlooked child was going home and feverishly trying to catch up to his peers with reading and writing, adding and subtracting. Nor did she assume his parents would ever have the luxury of time or skill to help him, either. She guessed most of his non-school hours were spent with his brothers, and that a band of boys such as themselves, left to brave the world on their own with little-to-no luck and even less knowledge, were bound for trouble.

Towards the end of the school year, Ms. Lady went to another teacher for advice on how to qualify this child for some special education so that he would not move on to the fifth grade. The teacher told Ms. Lady because Osvaldo was a second-language learner she would have to fail him in every subject to have him held back.

Ms. Lady could not fathom failing this child. It went against everything the word Teacher stood for in her beating heart. She believed that a teacher lost all claim to use that title if a student failed under their leadership. “If he fails, so do I,” she thought achingly, repeatedly. She pictured her little Avocado, forced to see a bold-faced F in every single box clear down his report card. And his unknowable name scrawled across the top. She shuddered. Osvaldo knew enough to know what the world thought of him, to feel the weight of being labeled a complete and utter failure in every category, on every line.

It seemed so, so cruel. Ms. Lady cried big, wet tears as she filled in one letter F after the next, down the entire report card with Osvaldo’s name with a ‘v’ written along the top. Then she wrote a hand-written two page addendum which she stapled over the front, explaining how amazingly well this boy had learned to tally and count by 5’s, the few passages he had learned to read, the time he had willingly given up his most prized possession in all the world. She explained in intricate detail how on one of the last days of the school year, when she had asked if anyone wanted to share before they all went home, Avocado –  little, stone quiet Avocado – raised his hand and with his head held straight and tall walked to the front of her class. How, in the face of everyone’s amazed silence, he burst into a rousing rendition of the Bad Boys theme song from Cops, sung in its entirety in perfect English, until a wild whoop of applause thundered round the room from all thirty-one of his classmates. Ms. Lady detailed the small steps forward Osvaldo had taken that year, and made the case that although he had not met any of the state or grade-level standards, he was indeed the best tally keeper in all the land.


Once upon a time there lived a teacher, and she was impossibly young and naïve and she was me. It was in my class that a small boy sat, known to one and all as Avocado. And she and I, we tended that child lovingly, as a Teacher does, wanting only the best for him, watching and wishing for him to grow and thrive under our care.


Osvaldo is a grown man now, and I know very little about him. I don’t know if he ever made it to Disneyland. I don’t know if he learned how to read. I don’t know if anyone calls him Avocado anymore, but I think not.

I do know that he taught me more than I ever taught him. I know that he didn’t deserve to fail. Most importantly I know that a tree cannot bear fruit if it does not have plenty of sunshine, enough rain, well-drained soil, nutrient-rich fertilizer, helpful pollinators, a nearby friend….only then will it bear fruit.


At night, in bed, I google his name. I learn Osvaldo was a witness to the murder of his friend when he was fourteen years old. That he was kicked out of high school for several years. That he seems to be married now, and covered in tattoos, and sadly, predictably, a member of a notorious and dangerous Southern California gang.


Once upon a time there was a teacher, but that story seems a fairytale now….in a far-off land, amongst desert skies and chalkboard walls, in a place where once bright words scattered into infinitesimal particles raining down on sunken heads, floated wisps of muted letters swirling through the very air they breathed, burning tally marks across their souls.