Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Material Girl (?)

Being a kid in the 80s meant caring, deeply, about the material possessions that informed my identity. My brother and I craved name brand clothing so much that we named our first bunny rabbits Guess and Polo. We counted our unopened Christmas presents. Despite these excesses, though, our single mother modeled opposite behavior: she never used a paper towel to wipe a spill without swiping the entire kitchen floor with it, until it hung limp and greasy as an old man's balding ponytail. Mom hated shopping, grew a garden, and saved any leftover food, no matter how small the amount, to be eaten later. When recycling became a household choice, she embraced it wholeheartedly, dutifully rinsing out the soda cans before plunking them into the plastic bin.

My relationship with stuff has undergone a radical transformation. I love the feel of a well-worn pair of jeans; I love finding that creative non-corporate edge of "fashion"; I love saving money, so I shop at thrift stores, where an outfit costs less than a trip to the movies. I, too, grow a garden, recycle, hand-make birthday cards, try never to waste even a few bites of food. I am grateful for this consciousness, mostly because it feels good.

Still, I consume, often unconsciously, because I am still a child of the 80s burned up with desire for a new bangle bracelet and striped leg warmers. In Berkeley on Friday I came dangerously close to blowing some hard-earned cash on a new pair of earrings at a hipper-than-thou boutique. But instead I crossed the street, browsed the Lonely Planet guidebooks in the bookstore, then joined a friend for a rollicking poetry slam where twelve to nineteen year-olds hollered raw truths like the Beats blowing lyrical mad genius symphonies into America's heart.

On Saturday, the holiest of holy days for me, pure do-nothing or do-everything day, we (that is, my fiance and I) headed north under a bright sunny sky. We wandered the ramshackle streets of Geyserville, landed at an antique store, where (surprise surprise) I found a darling hand-painted jewelry box that I wanted. It cost only twelve dollars, and somehow that fact momentarily trumped the fact that I already have two jewelry boxes, and, ironically, that I hardly ever wear jewelry. I strolled around the store trying to convince myself that this thing would enhance the quality of my life, but ultimately left empty-handed.

We walked along the railroad tracks, overgrown with sweet peas, poppies, and fennel, and picked a bouquet of wildflowers, and thought how pretty our wedding would be, with flowers just like these. We stopped by a cemetery where we listened to the quietness of life already lived, and picnicked in the grass. We were sitting near the Russian River, talking, when the sun began its cool descent. It was about as lovely a day as it gets, here in this spring-green Sonoma County paradise, and part of what made it so luscious and inspiring, was not having to buy anything, being free enough to not spend money, to appreciate the sublime beauty of partnership and grass and decrepit buildings.

The difference between me and wealthy people, as someone very wise once said, is that I have enough. I am not poor, but I'm starting to realize I should thank heavens that I'm not and never will be rich, either.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Love Those Kids!

Sometimes I cannot imagine my life without teaching. Specifically, teaching the sweet, bright, and crusty-eyed misfits that inhabit the kooky world of Nonesuch, where redwood trees shade our cozy fire-lighted schoolhouse. As financial woes threaten our sacred plot of bliss and love and havoc, as I imagine life beyond Bones Road, as I consider teaching in the big bad scary world of college or, dare I even think it, public school, I find myself relishing the teenagers I spend my days with.

Like Marisa, who brought me a bundle of freshly-ripped scallions from her garden, left them on my table in the morning. On the wipe board she'd written the couplet "What is this life, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare." Marisa has short wild hair the color of strawberry lip gloss; she's got dirt under her fingernails and hairy armpits; she volunteers, reads voraciously, and wanders through Santa Rosa's scrubby blond hills. When she's really passionate about an opinion in class, she blushes, and it reminds me of me, except I can only wish I were a tenth as savvy and smart as she when I was fourteen.

Like Mike, who has resisted reading novels for years, trudging through the rhetorical swamp of "The Color Purple" like a soldier who's lost all his ammo. In the past, he's gone months without doing homework. But yesterday he helped to lead the class discussion of "Slaughterhouse Five," his philosophical mind accessing Kurt Vonnegut with ease and beauty. He even researched the three types of irony. Our discussion ran five minutes over, and still, we could have kept going and going.

Like Jackie, who French braids my hair and draws pictures of me with a huge loud mouth and unruly locks. At fifteen, she's an old pro at dumpster diving, scoring bags of Traditional Medicinal tea that staff and students drink throughout the day. Sometimes she "dumpsters" a frilly hoodie she thinks I might like, or a copy of Dante's Inferno. I have never witnessed her being unkind to anyone, ever.

Like Jora, who is seventeen going on thirty-five, with knowledge and experience that would make Madonna blush. She wears tight low-cut shirts, swears like a sailor, tells me when my body odor is out of control. She recently wrote an essay exploring how she, unlike most of her cohorts, doesn't smoke pot; she's naturally high. It's easy to forget she's a kid. But then I notice her smooth sincere face in class, absorbing my mini-lecture about "The Scarlet Letter," patiently waiting for her turn to talk, excitedly, about what she thinks Hester and Dimmesdale will do, and why they love each other so.

Like Cody, who has given me a hug every day for the past four and a half years, since he was a tiny shaggy-haired sixth grader who would jump out of my classroom closet to scare me. As a tenth grader, no amount of black T-shirts, visor-tipped beanies, or baritone can mask his pure essential sweetness, his eagerness to get back to school when he's away for more than a week.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ode To Spring

All the flowers in all the pots on my porch are unfurling their tight-fisted little buds, like a toddler who finally releases her hold on mommy's finger.

We brew a jug of sun tea in the garden for two days, sweeten the warm amber liquid after a game of thunder on the basketball court. Served over ice it's the best thing all day.

A week ago I was skiing in Tahoe, at seven thousand feet above sea level, fresh powder from an early morning snowfall. Ease, quiet, solitude, focus, bliss. A prayer. May I bring that mountain meditation home with me, snap it into it's rightful place in the puzzle of my hectic life. Let be be all there needs to be.

Kids take St. Patrick's Day very seriously. I completely forget about the requisite green excitement, so thrilled am I at seeing my first paid articles in print. What surprises me most is Nate, fifteen-year-old punk kid, cultivator of nonchalance, in bright green sneakers and dark green bandanna, waiting for me in the morning with an elfish grin and pinched fingers.

I lay on the trampoline at school, reading "The Scarlet Letter," glad I'm the teacher and not the student wrestling this heavy prose to the ground for the first time. I'm tempted to hurl the black novel into the mint-laden grass and drift off to sleep. I wonder if Cami and Jora will actually read the assigned fifty pages by tomorrow. I am almost sure I wouldn't have when I was in high school.

Boy it sure feels good to break out the sandals! The old crusty ones still bearing the outline of last summer's escapades, the spiffy new red ones I bought in the mall at Christmastime, the new-to-me baby blue pumps I found in the thrift store the other day, a steal at five bucks.

On the basketball court I balk at my winter body. Pale legs, with hair grown dark during these months of hibernation. Softer around the belly. Motivation kicks in: I'm ready to tone and strengthen, to shed winter's insulation. Can't wait to swim and run barefoot through the grass, and watch my nose freckles multiply.

So we change the time, robbing from morning's sleeping hours to pay afternoon's play-time hours. I've been tired all week long, grumpily snoozing through the alarm, lazily marveling at the endless warm afternoons. I think about Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians (if you haven't yet read "Slaughterhouse Five," trust me, you won't regret it), who pity the human concept of chronological time, in which moments are over and gone forever. To them, "all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Manifesto Against AT&T

The history of all hitherto existing cell phone companies is the history of class struggle. Corporation and customer, greedy owner and desperate consumer, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stand in constant opposition to one another, carrying on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ends, either in total ruin and demoralization of the contending classes, or, as can only be hoped, in a revolutionary reconstitution of cell phone companies at large.

How do these companies do it? They amass huge customer bases because no one can do without their product. They offer an overwhelming assortment of service plans that seduce you with words like "unlimited" and "roll-over." They outsource their customer service jobs to places like India and Pakistan, where their workers learn to mask their accents, adopt American names, and live like hamsters, toiling on the Western treadmill all night, sleeping when the sun shines. When you talk to these people, because eventually you will, they sound like tired foreigners who just want to get some sleep. They will tell you what you want to hear, just to get you off the phone. Can you blame them?

You will talk to them for so many reasons: you will break up with your boyfriend and need to scratch his account from your joint plan; you will move to a new house and want your internet service transferred; you will reduce your cell phone plan, given that you've accrued all these roll-over minutes; you will realize, with profound aggravation, that you are still paying for your ex-boyfriend's cell phone; you will realize, with horror, that you are still paying for internet at your old house; you will realize, with stunning bewilderment, that your bill is still sixty-something dollars, even after you've reduced your plan.

As you wait on hold, your ear sore and sweaty, your heart pounding, your feet frantically apace, you wonder how this nightmare began. You vaguely remember the golden old days of your cell phone inception, when that shiny new gadget gleamed with possibility and convenience, when the company, known as Cingular, seemed almost quaint with their jolly salesman and simple paper bills. You trace the problem to the buy-out, when Cingular, a mere trout in the corporate world, was eaten by AT$T, a veritable shark. How many times have you been bitten? How many times has an AT$T representative made you feel better, induced that warm feeling of accomplishment, time well spent, crooked places straight? How many times has that feeling been shattered by the next bill, a cruel slap of systematic fraudulence?

You know you are not alone. You tire of the constant battle. You badly want an alternative, but in this bleak corporate-dominated world you are weary and tired, afraid of wasting anymore precious time. You understand why AT$T survives: because people get demoralized, stop fighting, pay the extra money, acquiesce to the erroneous bill, anything to get off that damned phone.

You've heard whispers about this newer company, called Credo Mobile, but they sound too good to be true. Admittedly "progressive," they contribute a percentage of their profits to good causes; their coverage is the same as AT$T; you get a thousand minutes and a thousand texts for fifty bucks a month; they will cancel your existing account for you, saving you yet another call to AT$T; they pride themselves on, are you ready for this, no hidden fees!

The phone call was so easy you've practically forgotten about it. In a few days you can expect a new phone; in a few weeks, a bill that has already been explained. Even better, something that you cannot put a price on, you will never, ever have to call AT$T again, you will never have to ponder a tear-stained bill with that sinking feeling of dread and hopelessness.

Or will you?

You actually aren't certain that Credo Mobile will be any better; after all, they're a corporation out to make money too. What you are certain of is that AT$T has one less prisoner. What might happen if everyone who has ever been f**ked by this company decided to stop giving them money?

Cell phone users of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!