We’re Good With One, Thanks

onlychildI remember my first post-delivery check up with my OB.  My husband and our newborn son accompanied me to a brief exam with my doctor.  All was well.  Then, on our way out, the support staff asked us when we’d be back for baby number two.

Folks, at this time I had stitches in my vagina.  Think about that.  Sorry, but just think about it.  Stitches.  In.  My.  Vagina.  And I was already supposed to be thinking about baby numero dos.  For serious?

The truth is my hubs and I have always figured we’d have just one.  It took us a year to conceive our son.  We had just started fertility testing when we found out we were expecting.  And now, at 36 and 45, it might not be easy to have a second anyway.  Financially, it also makes sense for our family to be little instead of big or even slightly bigger than it is now.

But the truth is, I think even if I’d ended up knocked up at 30 and my husband and I were in possession of some serious bank, we would still be planning on just one.

And this shocks people.  To be honest, it actually infuriates some of them.

It appears the child-free folks have gained some momentum in earning the respect of others, and I’m glad for that.  A person’s choice to breed (or not to breed) is truly a MYOB situation.  But despite the fact that having only one child is becoming more and more common, you wouldn’t believe the crap people give us for choosing to have a cozy family of three.  So it’s my intent to work through some of the comments I’ve received since my kiddo was born almost three years ago – comments delivered by well-meaning friends as well as total strangers.

“But aren’t only children awful, terrible, selfish people?”

Okay, so maybe people don’t come right out and say this to me.  But they come pretty close.  I remember a teacher I used to work with.  Every time we had a parent teacher conference with the mom or dad of an especially difficult child, she would always ask, “Is he/she an only child?”  The implication was that only children are often assholes.

Let’s try this exercise.  Think of an asshole you know.  Since most people have siblings, the odds are that the biggest asshole you know has a brother or a sister.  Yet they are still an asshole.  Why?

Because having a brother or sister is not a vaccination against being an asshole.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t only children who are spoiled and nasty.  But only children don’t corner the market on those traits.  Research proves as much time and time again, and to suggest otherwise is lazy thinking as well as ignorant and just plain rude.

By the way, that teacher who had her Only Children Are Assholes theory?  Ninety-five percent of the kids we had conferences about had a brother or a sister.

“But what if your child dies?”                          

When people say this to me, I always punch them in the face.  Well, I dream of doing so.  Then I want to thank them for forcing me to think about The. Very. Worst. Thing. Ever.  EVER.  You wouldn’t believe how many people bring this sick question up when I talk about not having more children.

I totally admit that people who lose a child and still have others to care for are given a reason to get up in the morning in a way that a person who loses their one and only simply doesn’t have.  But I don’t care if you have one child or twenty.  When you lose a kid, it doesn’t matter how many more you have.  It’s got to be the most horrific experience on Earth.  Having more than one doesn’t negate that horror, and to suggest it even minimizes it is insulting to anyone who has lost a child.

A second, third, or fourth child isn’t insurance against immeasurable sadness, people.  So please stop suggesting it is.

“But won’t the burden of your old age be on your one and only child?”

Because everyone knows the main reason to have children is to make sure you don’t end up on Skid Row, homeless, infested with ringworm, and gnawing on your own feet, right?  Riiiiiight.  My first impulse is to ask folks to raise their hands if they know of a sibling group that faced some pretty nasty battles over how to best take care of an aging Mom and Dad.  Um hmm.  I thought so.

I have an idea.  Why don’t my husband and I take the money we would spend on a second or third college education and buy some long-term care insurance instead?  We can also hope and pray our son finds a lifelong companion to help him shepherd us into the Golden Years.  But again, to have another child only so we can have two people talk about the best time to move us into Shady Pines is not a good enough reason to give birth again.

“But don’t you want them to have the joy of a sibling relationship?”

My brother and sister are two of the coolest people I know.  I honestly do not know where I would be without them.  But my husband – also an only – has had similarly awesome relationships with very close friends that he has had since childhood.  Plenty of people have super tight relationships with their siblings.  And plenty of people have horrible, estranged relationships with their siblings.  It’s a crap shoot.  I can’t justify having a second baby we don’t really want just because my son may or may not have a great time hanging out with that person.  Especially when powerful, meaningful friendships that impact an entire life shouldn’t be and aren’t limited by blood.

“But aren’t you being selfish?”

Ah, the old selfish question.  My childfree by choice peeps certainly know what I mean.

People who have multiple children have my respect.  It takes a certain skill set to have multiple children, and I know myself and my husband well enough to know – we don’t have that skill set.  Ever since we were kids, my husband and I both craved solitude, and neither one of us does well with chaos.  Some people are meant to have lots of kids, and to them, I say – go for it.  Bless you.  But my husband and I wouldn’t do well with more than one.  And we know this.

There’s nothing selfish in making a choice that makes sense for you and for your family.  There’s nothing selfish in making a choice that makes you a better parent, a better partner, a better citizen out there in the world.  What is selfish is breeding thoughtlessly or because it’s what you’re “supposed” to do.  To me, that’s selfish.

So there you have it.  My testimony for having just one.  I adore my child, and I honestly can’t imagine my life without him – even if he did cause me to have to get stitches in my vagina.  Please stop acting like my choice to have him and only him is anything less than the thoughtful, loving decision that it is, made with care and concern.  Thanks.

Making My Students’ Heads Explode!

Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you that one of the best feelings you can have as an instructor is the moment when a student doesn’t just think of you as the person who is holding them back from going to lunch, but as the person who can actually impart some useful knowledge or change their worldview.  And you know that for the rest of that student’s life, that kid is going to remember you as the person who created that moment.

As I get ready to start my eighth year in the classroom as an English teacher, I thought I’d share my top five favorite “Oh, wow!” student moments.

What the word loiter means

You would think I am kidding, but every single year that the word `loiter’ has been on my teaching vocabulary list, the result has been total amazement from my students.  They see the word on every gas n’ sip door in town but never know what it means, so this is knowledge they can actually use.  I remember one girl telling me she thought the NO LOITERING sign was “just a weird way to spell no littering.”  I’m sure she wasn’t the only one who thought that.

Dally dies

Okay, so if you haven’t read The Outsiders I’ve totally gone and ruined it for you, but this has to go on my list.  When I teach The Outsiders (also known as The Best Book Ever), my students are never surprised when they get to the part where Johnny dies.  It gets foreshadowed quite a bit plus his injuries from that church fire were pretty serious.  But the part they’re never prepared for comes a scant few pages later, when Dallas “Dally” Winston pulls a suicide by cop and goes down in a blaze of glory because he misses his best buddy Johnny so damn much.  They never, ever see it coming.

“He was dead before he hit the ground. But I knew that was what he wanted, even as the lot echoed with the cracks of the shots, even as I begged silently – Please not him, not him and Johnny both… I knew he would be dead because Dallas Winston wanted to be dead and he always got what he wanted.”

Every year when I read that part out loud, you see their little mouths fall open in surprised “Os!” and a few girls always cry.  This year, I had a kid throw the book down on the ground and yell, “I hate this book!  I hate it!”  I tried to get him to understand that he actually loved it, or he wouldn’t have cared so much that Dallas was dead.

Some words can be nouns and verbs…or an adjective and an adverb and a noun…or sometimes they can only be nouns, etc.

Remember as a kid when you had to learn, “A noun is a person, place, or thing,” and then when you got a bit more mature you were let in on the fact that a noun can also be “an idea or quality”?  And you also learned that a verb is an action and an adjective is a describing word like red, fat, or crunchy or whatever?  (You also learned what an adverb is, and a preposition, too, but I bet you twenty bucks you don’t remember those.)

Anyway, the problem with learning parts of speech that way is that kids don’t get the idea that a word can change from one form to another depending on how it’s used.  Quickness is a quality noun, but you could turn it into an adjective by taking away the “ness.”  Or turn it into an adverb by adding “ly.”

You would not believe how this just blows kids’ minds.

“Is kick a noun or a verb?” somebody will ask.

“Well, it depends on how you use it,” I say.  “In `I kick you,’ kick is a verb, but, in `He gave me a sharp kick,’ kick is a noun.”

WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?

Tom Robinson is convicted

Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we have come that my students all believe Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird will be found innocent of those trumped up rape charges brought upon him by Miss Mayella Ewell.  And of course he’s found guilty.

It doesn’t matter that he has Atticus Finch representing him and all the physical evidence points to Tom’s innocence.  All that matters is it’s the 1930s in the American South, and Tom Robinson is staring down the worst possible charge a black man of the time can face – sexually assaulting a white woman.  He was guilty in the minds of the jurors before Atticus even opened his mouth.  And the kids are shocked every time.

(On a much, much lighter note, teaching TKAM does give me the opportunity to say the word “chiffarobe” out loud several times.  That’s a fun word to say if you’ve never tried it – FYI.)

The end of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the end of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” go read it now!

Done?  Good.  Then you know why each time I study this story with my students, they grow more and more uncomfortable with each paragraph, but they don’t know exactly why they’re squirming in their seats.

But when ol’ Tessie Hutchinson gets the crap kicked out of her with those rocks, they look at me like I must be a true sicko for even introducing this story to them.

“Why would they do that?” somebody will ask, horrified.

“Because,” I tell them, “this story is a metaphor for life and how cruel and unthinking humans can be and how they often follow traditions blindly.”  Then I laugh in this evil way and they’re all truly terrified of me.

(P.S. Okay, I don’t actually say that, and I don’t do an evil laugh.  But I do try to guide them to that conclusion.)

Happy 2012-2013 school year, everyone!

Deep Thoughts About Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends

If you do not know anything about Thomas the Tank Engine, this post will make no sense to you.  But if you – like me – are the parent of a toddler who obsessively watches Thomas and if you – like me – find yourself falling to sleep with “They’re two, they’re four, they’re six, they’re eight, shunting trucks and hauling freight…” swimming through your skull, then I think you will relate to these deep questions about Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.

1. How Much Autonomy Do the Engines Actually Have?

The older episodes refer to (and show) drivers inside the train engines, but these gentlemen become less visible in the later computer-animated episodes.  Still, someone must be driving these trains, right?  Or do the trains do all the thinking for themselves?  When Thomas and Toby hustle through the Whispering Woods, who is making the decision to actually go through the Whispering Woods?  Percy and Gordon do some pretty stupid things.  So do Rosie and Emily.  If they have drivers, don’t the drivers have some say in getting them to not do these stupid things?  Thomas just runs off to the country show without making sure his whistle is secured and the driver just lets him?  Come on, drivers.

2. Is Sir Topham Hatt Also the Mayor or What?

He is head of the railroad, right?  But is he also the mayor?  What is his jurisdiction?  Is the island of Sodor so dependent on a railway system that this has effectively given Sir Topham Hatt the power to control everything that happens there?  If he is also the mayor, that would explain the fancy suit, but I seriously doubt the head of Union Pacific gets to march around ordering everyone around all the time while dressed in a tux.

3. Why Does Sir Topham Hatt Have Gentlemen-in-Waiting?

Who are these two guys who just follow Mr. Hatt around?  They’re just looking around, nervous, ready to do Sir Topham Hatt’s bidding.  These guys needs some lessons in self-esteem.  They look like they’re going to start crying if Sir Topham Hatt even looks at them cross-eyed.  That dude must be the mayor if he evokes that much fear in these minions.

 

4. Why the Relentless Capitalist Message?

Everything is about being a really useful engine – even at the expense of one’s dignity and personal health.  Thomas, Percy, Gordon, Edward – how many times have we seen them debase themselves and humiliate each other in an effort to prove to Sir Topham Hatt that they are a “really useful engine.”  I truly wish Thomas and friends would consider collective bargaining for at least one day off a week.  The trains have nothing to lose but their chains.

5. Is the Overt Sexuality Appropriate?

Percy pumped his pistons.  Bust my buffers.  I’ll be your back engine.  Emily is proud of her big wheels.  Also – what the heck is “shunting” all about?  I’m not sure my toddler son should be watching this.

 

All right – that’s it for now, but I admit these questions are on my mind way more often than I feel comfortable admitting.  I’m not kidding, either.  I seriously ask myself these questions when Elliott watches this show.  Maybe next week I’ll take the time to share with you my thoughts on The Backyardigans (Is Uniqua transgender?), Curious George (Why is The Man in the Yellow Hat so weak?) and Caillou (Does Caillou have cancer and is this why he is bald?).

 

 

 

Horrible Things I’ve Done as a Mother (So Far)

The following is a list of horrible things I’ve done as a mother (so far):

  • Had an epidural
  • Fed my son formula
  • Nursed in public, including a time on an airplane where I’m pretty sure everyone saw most of my left boob
  • Shared a bed with my son (co-sleeping)
  • Gave my son ice cream for dinner without even trying to feed him anything “healthy” first because I knew he wasn’t in the mood for anything healthy, so I just gave him ice cream
  • Applied the methods of Dr. Richard Ferber and let my son cry in his crib for prescribed amounts of time
  • Let my son go outside without sunscreen or a hat once (and it was way sunny!)
  • Let my son mindlessly watch television for hours and hours as I stared into space
  • Nursed while drinking a beer
  • After a day at work, left my son with a sitter so I could go out with friends or my husband, meaning I saw my son for a total of about an hour all day.
  • Knowingly allowed my son to eat dog food off the floor – okay, to be honest I was pretty sure he was nibbling on it, but I went into denial mode and thought, “He’s probably just playing with it,” when in my heart I knew he was actually eating it but I was too damn tired to get up off the couch and make him stop.

Okay, so – the truth is I actually don’t think any of the above items are horrible.  They are all perfectly fine, in my opinion, and yes, I have done them all.  But I’m willing to bet I could find plenty of angry ladies on the Internet and in real life that would disagree with me and threaten to call CPS.  The militant Dr. Sears types might weep at my use of Ferber and formula and wonder how I could ever think of not giving birth all natural in my bathtub despite the fact that I had back labor and contractions for 52 hours (but who’s counting).

The more conventional types would probably be super freaked out by the co-sleeping and the boob on the plane thing, and everyone might be a little disturbed by the dog food.

All right, the dog food thing is disturbing.  I’ll cop to that.

But regardless, it doesn’t take a lot of trolling around on the Internet or listening to moms chatting at the park to realize there’s a lot of mom-on-mom violence going down these days, and it burns me up.  I remember when my BFF from high school had her first kid, and I went to visit her.   Being sort of rules-oriented and somewhat hyper about doing things “right,” I projected myself into her shoes a few years down the road.  How, I asked her, did she know what to do?

“I always thought there was one way of having a baby,” Lisa told me, “and that when I had a baby, I would just find out what that way was and do it.  But it turns out there are lots of ways.”

Oh was she not kidding.

Once I had Elliott, I was completely taken aback by the number of mom blogs and forums and online debates about the best way to parent.  I was utterly shocked by the militancy of some of these ladies, and their obsession with spewing their opinions in comments and posts all over cyberspace.  I’m willing to bet that in real life parties and get-togethers, they might be too shy to say what they’re thinking out loud.  But they’re thinking it, no doubt about that.

And what are they thinking?  Here are just a few examples: You’re gross/weird if you breastfeed past twelve months.  You’re awful if you choose to work.  You’re stupid if you choose to stay home.  You’re endangering your child if you co-sleep.  You’re the spawn of Satan if you let your little one cry it out.  You’re a criminal if you give your kid Similac, which is akin to nothing less than rat poison.  (You think that’s hyperbole, but Google “formula and rat poison” and check out the absolutely psychotic commentary that exists out there.)

When I first encountered this Army of Psycho Mommies, I could only think to myself, “Wow.  These women suck.”

And it was always ladies, you know?  Dads didn’t seem to care much about such issues.  (I know my husband didn’t seem too concerned about any of our parenting choices as long as Elliott was healthy and happy most of the time.  Wow, how novel of him.)

And maybe I’m wrong, but this Internet raging doesn’t just seem to be the purview of women, but of a certain kind of woman.  A middle to upper middle class lady (usually white) who loves to tell other moms what to do.  That’s not to say that some working class woman of color waiting tables at Denny’s doesn’t have the intelligence and sophistication to self-reflect, but she’s probably too worried about being sexually harassed by her boss or busy finding affordable health care for her family to navel-gaze about how she feeds, diapers, and comforts her kid.

I’m not saying we can’t have debates or discussions.  Frankly, debating and discussing are two of my very favorite things, right up there with whiskey and pizza for dinner.  But what we can’t have is whacko, super judgy women jumping down other women’s throats over nonissues.  It’s not feminist, it’s not productive, and frankly, it’s not very nice.

I mean, think about it.  Did these women ever consider that if we stopped beating up on one another and banded together we might, oh, I don’t know, finally achieve parity in the Congress?  Just sayin’.

I’ve been a teacher for seven years and I’ve seen kids who were the victims of abuse.  Real, break-your-heart, make-you-sick-to-your-stomach abuse that had me calling CPS.  And I’m here to tell you that none of those cases involved giving your son formula or letting your daughter sleep in your bed or hiring a babysitter when your kid is 2 months so you can get a break or putting your child in day care or nursing your kid into toddlerhood or making organic baby food or spooning mass-produced Gerber out of a plastic dish absolutely covered in BPA.  I’m here to tell you none of those things qualify when you call CPS.  Not a one.

Like my friend Lisa discovered and I quickly learned, there are many, many ways to be a mom.  Probably about 95% of them are okay.  So why don’t we all just relax a little and do what works for us and for our families.

Although I’m willing to admit you should probably hide the dog food.  That’s just gross.

P.S. One of the best sites for moms ever.

What’s In My Journal

With apologies to William Stafford

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s In My Journal

Twenty million notes to self on pastel-colored Post-its –

GET MILK, CALL VET, PAY MORTGAGE.

Maybe I should have one that says

WRITE MORE INTERESTING NOTES TO SELF.

All Things Considered, sippy cups half-filled with day-old milk,

that rotund little dictator Sir Topham Hatt

(Such a know-it-all)

My son’s robotic dancing

both spectacular and bizarre.

My husband’s towers of library books

threatening to collapse at any moment

and kill one of the cats.

(I kind of want those cats dead sorry there I said it.)

And speaking of death let’s not forget the pathetic patch of grass

we call the front yard

and that we frantically keep on life support.

Maybe we should pull the plug…

(After all, it’s just grass.)

And I must acknowledge

the toasty warm sheets

birthed out of the dryer

in the late hours of the evening.

I want to sink into them

and fall asleep, but

I fold them again and again and again and again and again…

I’ll fold them forever

because I’m a grown-up

and grown-ups do laundry

and write boring notes to self.

(It’s okay.  It happens to everyone.)

 

Conversations I Never Thought I’d Have With My Husband Until We Had a Baby

Kevin:He had some diarrhea yesterday.

Me: Did he eat any grapes?

Kevin: No.

Me: Was it real watery?

Kevin: No, it wasn’t that bad.  I saved it for you.  It’s on your bed if you want to look at it.

***

Me: You know, I think he can start eating Yo, Toddler yogurt instead of this Yo, Baby yogurt.

Kevin: What’s the difference?

Me: I think there’s, like, more DHA in Yo, Toddler.

Kevin: What’s DHA?

Me: Some crap they put in kids’ food these days to make them smarter.  It’s the reason kids take Algebra I in 8th grade now instead of freshman year like we had to do.  We were so deprived.

Kevin: Dang.  We gotta get us some of that DHA.

***

Kevin: I noticed something really weird about that Baby Beluga book today.

Me: What?

Kevin: Look at this page.  It says, `Is your mama home, with you so happy?’ That makes no sense.  With you so happy?

Me: Oh, I know, I noticed that, too.  Whenever I read that page, I just change it to,  Is your mama home, are you so happy?

Kevin: Yeah, that sounds better.

Me: Remember when we used to argue about James Joyce?

***

Kevin: Guess who does the narration for the Curious George episodes?

Me: I don’t know, who?

Kevin: William H. Macy.

Me: Oh, that is so cool!

***

Me: Do you think this new haircut is, like, too mom-bob?

Kevin: I thought that was the look you were going for.

Me: A mom-bob?!?!

Kevin: Yeah.

Me: Well, I guess it was.

***

Kevin: I found those spinach nuggets you were talking about.

Me: Aren’t they crazy?  Like chicken nuggets but with spinach.  He doesn’t even know he’s eating vegetables.

Kevin: We’re living in amazing times, babe.

***

Kevin: Well, he’s finally asleep.

Me: You wanna…you know…get bizz-ay?

Kevin: I don’t know.  I’m so exhausted.

Me: Yeah, me, too.

Kevin: I have something even better.  I DVRd a new episode of Full Throttle Saloon.

Me: Is there any bourbon?

Kevin: Yes.

Me: You’re right.  That is better.

Three Months in Miami

The night the boy kills the man with his car the air is as oppressive as a fur coat in August, like it always seems to be in Miami.  Standing on that causeway, slim newspaper reporter’s notebook cradled in my hand, I hover by the door of my eggplant-colored Ford Contour, staring at the cop on the other side of the road.  He is talking to the stocky boy with the thatch of neat black hair on his round head.  The boy is 20, maybe 21.  My age.  Even now, more than ten years later, I can conjure up that boy’s face in my mind faster than I can remember what I ate for breakfast this morning.   Clear olive skin, tiny features squeezed together in the middle of a round, pancake face.  Doughy cheeks that probably don’t have to be shaved but once a week.  He is dressed in a light-colored button down Oxford shirt and khaki slacks, and he stands by the cop car, his black eyes exhausted.

I can tell he is a good person, just by looking at him.

Minutes before, I’d been idling in the newsroom at the Miami Herald, checking my E-mail obsessively and counting the minutes until 9:00 pm, when my shift would be over.

“There’s been some kind of accident on one of the causeways,” the night editor announced, and I knew what would come next.  “You’d better go out there.”

The night editor is a slender blond man named Brad, and he always wears a tie and wire-framed glasses and so far as I can tell he is one of the few people in the Miami Herald newsroom who attends church.  Even though I am just the intern he makes me go out to anything, anywhere, just like a real reporter.  That is the point of this whole thing, I keep reminding myself.

The causeways are the four-lane highways that connect the city of Miami proper to Miami Beach.  They run in straight lines just over the water, and when you drive on them it feels like you are flying over the ocean.  They are named after supposedly important dead Miamians that no living Miamians seem to know much about, and traveling on them is one of the few things I like about the city.

At the accident site I learn from the congenial cop that the moon-faced boy was driving his car on the causeway when he hit a homeless man wandering in the middle of the lane.  The man was killed instantly, and his body has already been taken away.  The cop refers to the dead man as a transient with no ID.  The boy hadn’t been drinking, and he hadn’t been speeding, the cop continues, and people aren’t supposed to walk on the causeways like they’re regular roads.  There isn’t a thing in the world that the boy could have done, he says, to have avoided hitting the homeless man.  He isn’t going to arrest the boy for anything – he just needs to wait for the young man’s parents to come and pick him up.

I scribble notes while the cop speaks – that’s the part I can do.  But now comes the part I am not good at.  I’m supposed to ask the cop in the polite, sweet, kinda-dumb schoolgirl voice I always use with cops if I can please speak with the boy.  Just a minute of his time is all I’ll need.  I have to ask his name and his age and where he’s from.  And, oh yes, I’ll also have to ask him how it feels to be a killer.

 

 It had been eight weeks since I had graduated from Northwestern University and I was in Miami for a three-month internship at the Miami Herald.  This was Miami before hanging chads and Elian Gonzalez, but after Hurricane Andrew and rising crime rates.  It was, professors told me, one of the most prestigious places anyone could go for a journalism internship fresh out of school, and I felt like a fraud and a phony for getting to go there.  At Northwestern, other industrious journalism students edited The Daily Northwestern, believed passionately in objectivity, and made little shrines to Mike Royko and Edward R. Murrow in their dorm rooms – or so I imagined.  It was the tail end of the 1990s, and although the phrase dot com had started to feel natural on most everyone’s tongues, even then the idea that newspapers might die someday seemed impossible.  Surrounded by Woodwards and Bernsteins in training, I had chosen, instead, to edit the school’s scrawny little arts magazine and hang out with theater students and directionless humanities majors, enjoying such theme parties as “Beer and Bacon Night.”  I was a journalism student because I loved to read and write, and because according to my immigrant parents, English majors didn’t get jobs.

I assumed my getting this Miami internship had been predicated on a scathing essay I had written in 25 minutes during the winter of my senior year, all about affirmative action, which won a big-deal award much to the surprise of me and others in my major.  I had taken the internship because by winning the award I felt suddenly like I was indeed supposed to be a journalist – after all wasn’t that what the award was for?  Wasn’t that what I’d gone to college for?  And with four years of school rapidly coming to a close I figured I was supposed to start doing what everyone told me I should be doing.  By turning down the Miami job I’d be committing career suicide, even though not very deep inside I had no clear idea of what kind of career I wanted.  I did have vague notions of a best-selling novel, a wealthy benefactor, and a New York City apartment complete with a bathtub that had clawed feet – but I didn’t know of any internships that led to that kind of life.

I did not want to be in Miami.  I did not even want to be out of college, because I was one of those people for whom college had saved her life.  I had felt like an over-achieving freak in high school, wondering why boys ignored me and why nearly every girl I knew was prettier and dumber than I was and seemed to be having a much better time.  I’d joined the cheerleading squad to be more like what I thought I should be, but I failed miserably.  I’d had to ask out my own Prom dates.  A girl I thought was a friend suggested I not answer so many questions in class, because it annoyed people.

College had revolutionized me, adopted me, and made me feel all right again.  I met girls who were not afraid to be smart and boys who taught me how to smoke cigarettes and the professors loved me and I learned how to wear vintage clothing and feel fantastic about myself.  Northwestern was a shell and I knew it; a bubble where being a semi-Marxist good-time girl with a purposefully bad dye job was fun and easy.

I thought it would be nice to be 21 forever.

 

The only thing I knew about the woman who had lived in my small, ground level garage apartment before me was that she had gotten pregnant and moved to London all of a sudden, leaving behind her two gray, shorthaired cats that the family I was renting from was forced to adopt.  The father in the family was an athletic marathon runner who worked for the Herald’s suburban Broward bureau, and he was waiting for me when my father and I pulled into the driveway.

The heat – the never-ending, milkshake-thick heat – was upon me the moment I left my car, like some kind of sick joke.

“Welcome to Miami in August,” my landlord announced with a ho ho ho, and handed me the keys.

The apartment’s living room was actually an old garage, and despite having been renovated it smelled musty and unfinished.  My closet was where the garage door had once been.  The bedroom and kitchen and bathroom had been added on, and those parts were homey enough, with faded yellow tiles and white curtains that had been washed one too many times.  Tiny little lizards made their way inside on a regular basis, and the first time I spotted one – while seated on the toilet with my pants around my ankles – I shrieked and stumbled out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind me with my foot.

My dear dad, as big a worrier as me, had tried in an extremely painful way during his two-day stay to be upbeat and positive about the whole experience.  The shower worked very well, the family was nice, the rent reasonable.

“Life is change, and you have to embrace change,” he’d said over and over on the ride from our home in Virginia to Miami.  I believed him in theory, but found the advice highly unreliable coming from a man who had lived in the same safe suburban neighborhood for almost 30 years.  He’d driven me to the Herald the day before he got on an airplane to leave me, and then had me practice driving back and forth from my apartment to the newspaper, even drawing me a precise little map that I would keep like a talisman in my glove compartment long after I’d left Florida.  

 

The job was a nightmare.

From the moment I made it up to the fifth floor of the Herald’s building to the big, bright white newsroom with the ten televisions that were tuned to every news station available and the bay windows that overlooked the water, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. Most of the reporters were the type of people I had hated in journalism school, the sort that were obsessed with what they did for a living and actually believed that what they did really mattered to people.  Yet they carried themselves with a sort of bitter self-importance that gave the impression that the people they claimed to care so much about did not deserve them.  They were loud and they were caustic and they were sure of themselves.  The men all seemed to be divorced or screaming to their wives on the phone, and the women all seemed to be alone and easily annoyed, and everybody seemed somewhat unhealthy, like they hadn’t been in the sun enough even though they lived in one of the sunniest places on Earth.

At first I worked Sundays through Thursdays, 10 am until 6 pm.  Every afternoon when I came in, my day editor – an overweight black man named Mike – would send me out with a plastic Herald media badge and what were usually wrong directions.  Cell phones were still a luxury at that time, and I did not have one.  I was sent out alone to car accidents and fires and train wrecks.  I had to phone rape victims and grieving widows and the parents of children who had been run over by drunk drivers.  I had to travel to bad neighborhoods that to my upper middle class eyes looked, in all seriousness, like something out of a Sally Struthers Save the Children television commercial, and I had to knock on doors and windows of run-down apartments that terrified me.  Once, I was chased back to the sidewalk by a snarling, barking dog.

How was I doing this?  I thought to myself every day.  I was torn between the good girl part of me that never messed up at any job or class assignment and the part of me that hated every second of the intrusiveness, the nervousness, the dirty-seeming nature of it all.  In journalism school they had taught us that we would be revolutionary agents of change, torchbearers of truth, wordsmiths who created sentences worth weeping over.  Instead, I felt like a harried record keeper working a factory line, trying desperately to get events onto paper so I might see them in print for one day and then begin the process all over again.

But I learned some things.  In a very short time I learned the tone of voice that you use when you want a cop to talk to you (sweet/dumb schoolgirl), when you want a city official to talk to you (semi-threatening/semi-angry) and when you want the family of a dead person to talk to you (hesitant/humbling).  It was the last one that I really excelled at because it came easy to my people pleasing nature.

“I was wondering if you might want to share with our readers what made your [son, daughter, wife, husband, etc.] so special?” I would say in this very shy voice, as if I expected rejection, which I did.  I would look ashamed of myself, which I was, and I would stare at my feet or shrug my shoulders as I waited for their reply.

I was rejected – often.  More than once I had a door slammed on me, and one time, when trying to find out more about a woman who had allegedly killed herself along with her children in a deliberately set house fire, I was called a wolf to my face.  Another time, I was sent to cover the funeral of a leader in the Cuban community and was asked by the funeral home employees to please leave, it was a private affair.  The rejection freed me up and I secretly longed for it, even though I knew my editor Mike would send me back, again and again, to try and get the quote.  On a pay phone outside the funeral of the civic leader, I gripped the receiver in a sweaty palm and told Mike the home had turned me away.  He exhaled with frustration.

“Just tell them your there to pay your respects, that’s all.  Don’t even mention you’re a reporter,” he said.

“But I already did,” I responded, wiping drops of sweat off my nose.

He exhaled again with even more frustration.

“Just go try it,” he said, and after we hung up, I imagined him complaining out loud to the newsroom about the scaredy-cat intern he’d been stuck with.

But still, there were the times that a family would invite me in, ask me to sit down and did I want anything to drink?  The mother and father of a woman killed in a hit and run were so pleased I wanted to know anything about their daughter – a working-class woman who would probably never have made the papers otherwise – that it was hard to get out of their house.  They kept thanking me and smiling at me and telling me how appreciative they were that I had showed up.

In my car after interviews like that one, I felt like a thief.

When I got back to the newsroom and sat down to write the story, I learned quickly that daily newspapers are not interested in the words but the facts.  My colorful metaphors and long-winded introductions were cut out.  When I quoted a woman saying “pissed” it got taken out because “pissed” did not belong in a family newspaper.  What did belong were tragedies, and I felt like a tragedy-spewing automaton, filling in the details.  On DATE at PLACE a RACE GENDER was (choose one) raped/murdered/assaulted, etc.  On DATE at PLACE a RACE GENDER (choose one) flipped his boat/ran a red light/drowned in his backyard pool.

I was assigned an official mentor, a hands-down gorgeous Puerto Rican woman whose nickname was Frenchie.  She had cocoa skin and thick black hair, and her make-up was always just right – a brush of pastel eye shadow here, a smear of copper lip gloss there.  Frenchie had grown up in Queens, covered the cops beat, and spoke fast and hard and quick.  She was such the stereotype of a tough dame I almost believed that she’d consciously created herself, but she was too brilliant and funny to be that affected.  She’d moved from town to town and job to job in pursuit of the stellar journalism career that she owned, and when I talked about wanting to live where there was snow and cute little brownstone apartments, she laughed.

“I don’t really care where I live,” she said.  “Is there a Blockbuster Video?  Fine.  Is there a grocery store?  Fine.  Okay, I can live there.”

She had a little black cat she spoke of tenderly and whose image was on her computer’s mouse pad, but she rarely talked about boyfriends or even friends.  She was nice to me even though my neurotic, scared self paled in comparison to her tough girl bravado, and I was in awe of her when I watched her in action, pressuring a cop on the phone to disclose something or shooting off to an editor who was riding her about a deadline.

Midway through my internship, when Hurricane Georges churned its way up through the islands on its way to Florida, she was dispatched to Puerto Rico at the last minute.

“Okay, so I’m going to PR,” she said to someone over the phone as I watched her get her things together.  “Okay, you know, they need to feel like they’re doing something, so okay, fine, I’m going to PR.”

She was so sure of herself.  So certain about everything.

One day I was sent out to cover the case of a 2-year-old girl who had been beaten into a coma by her mother’s boyfriend who had gotten upset because the little girl had eaten breakfast sausage meant for him.  The little girl, who would later die, made big headlines because her mother had once been investigated by whatever department whose job it was to look after little girls like this, but the little girl had slipped through the system anyway.  There was the press conference, the cop who called the mother and her boyfriend “monsters,” the television crews who would ask for a quote to be repeated again, this time in a better light.  Days later, members of the media would refer to it privately and casually as “the sausage case.”

“Do you want to go up and see her?” the hospital’s media relations person asked us the day the story broke, as we got our things together after the press conference.  I knew seeing her would make for a great lead to my story, and if my editor Mike found out I’d had the opportunity to look and hadn’t taken it, I’d get in huge trouble.  And I suppose I did want to see her, for the same reason we all slow down at accidents.  I wanted to know what monsters could do.

I expected it to be the worst thing I had ever seen.  But it wasn’t.  She didn’t look like a real girl, just a body.  A tiny black body attached to clear tubing, nestled in mountains of white sheets.  I stared and stared at her, wanting to pull in as much sadness from her as I could.

“Nurse, pink socks, doll-like feet,” I scribbled in my notepad.

The other reporters around me calmly took notes too, not reacting or saying anything.  I stopped writing and stared at the girl some more, then buried my face in my hands and made little sobbing noises until the hospital public relations person came over and put his arm around me.  I wanted badly to cry because I believed at that moment that I should cry.  It was sick what had happened to this little girl, and here we were taking notes on her appearance, and I wanted to feel really, really sorry about it.  And I wanted to prove to the other reporters and to the hospital public relations person and to the nurses who looked at us like we were vultures and I guess to myself too that I had not lost my humanity.  That I did not want to be part of this.

But the tears wouldn’t come, no matter how badly I wanted them too.

Back at the newsroom, when I told Frenchie what had happened, she just stared at me and tilted her head a little with confusion.  As I spoke, I felt a sense of being better than her, and at the same time I felt jealous because I could not be exactly like her.  Despite the Medill School of Journalism and my go-get-`em parents and the awards and the college arts magazine and my stint as editor of my high school newspaper, I was not going to be a journalist.  I was not going to be part of a group of people who were so sure they had made the right decision.  Who embraced their cynicism and disgust and dark humor and wore it proudly.  Who knew, or seemed to know, exactly what they were doing with their lives.

Then Frenchie told me, “You know, you really shouldn’t be in this business.” 

I looked at her and wanted to cry for real then, because even though I knew I would not be a journalist, I had no idea what else I could possibly be.  For the first time in my life I was really failing at something.

 

I hated Miami.  I hated it because it was not college, but mostly I hated it because it was flashy and full of beautiful people and I did not feel beautiful there – in fact I felt chubby and pale.  My car was broken into the first weekend after I had arrived (all I’d had worth stealing were cassette tapes and an umbrella, but even those things were taken).  The interstates were huge and commanding and full of lousy drivers.  The skies were oppressively sunny except for when they were dumping water on me by the bucketfuls.  Spanish floated all around, which at first excited me but then only frustrated me.  My mother had emigrated from Cuba to Washington D.C. as a child, and all my life my half-Cuban status had been an exotic icebreaker at parties.  But in Miami to be half Cuban was not rare and in fact not even interesting to anyone.  If anything it was embarrassing because I only spoke broken Spanish and often found myself with a Spanish-speaking source, picking through my brain for words I didn’t have, mute and totally useless.

I spent my Fridays off trying not to think about Northwestern or the adult life I was supposed to be undertaking, choosing instead to try and continue doing the calculatedly hipster/artsy things I had done in college – but unfortunately my options were limited.  There was a P.W.A.C thrift store with extremely cheap items where I always seemed to be the only customer.  The bookstore closest to my house was 40 minutes away.  There was one art house cinema full of people over 50 (“The college kids in this town,” the owner told me, “they just want to go to the beach.”) There was no live music that I was into, except for a bar called The Hungry Sailor where bad high school punk bands played.

I filled some of my time by dating a fellow intern named Andrew, who was not even half as handsome and cool as my college boyfriend Kurt had been.  Kurt, a graduate student with a wicked grin that could make me weep, had devastated me by breaking up with me suddenly during my senior year spring semester (“This just isn’t…working out.”) From Miami I sent him breezy, witty E-mails that made it sound like I was having the time of my life even though in reality I sobbed over him constantly and played too much of his favorite band, The Smiths.  Unlike Kurt, I could call Andrew at any hour and not worry if he wanted to see me, because he always wanted to see me.  He was staying in an apartment that belonged to a distant, older relative that he had never met.  The relative – an elderly widow – was now residing in a nursing home.  Her two-story, two-bedroom condo was in one of the nameless, descriptionless apartment “communities” that dotted the greater Miami area, with a new one sprouting up off of I-95 almost every day.  It was bizarrely decorated with paintings of sad clowns and images of the Virgin Mary.  I slept there many nights, letting Andrew cook me turkey chili and serve me scoops of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in the widow’s soup bowls.

Andrew was an extremely tall, painfully thin, brilliant Georgetown graduate with a know-it-all tone in his voice and shoulder-length, dirty blonde hair that he kept in a ponytail.  He was simply too eager to be with me and constantly wanted to fool around.  He was obsessed with World War II trivia and, I feared, a nascent Republican.  He told me I got hysterical too easily and that emotions showed weakness.  But he was nice enough, and he was always there.

“Let me be a real guy tonight, and take you out to a real restaurant,” he told me before offering to pay for dinner at an expensive bistro.  I thought of Kurt and the night he made me potato pancakes in his kitchen, all the while singing to me and plying me with beer.

When I was not with Andrew, my life in the garage apartment was Spartan at best.  My meals at home were pathetic.  I knew how to make nothing but instant oatmeal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and pasta with marinara sauce.  My television carried only three channels, one of which seemed to show nothing but reruns of Hawaii Five-O and The Rockford Files.  I tried practicing my guitar and recorded myself singing folk songs into my tiny handheld reporter’s recorder.  I called everyone from Northwestern who was still in Chicago and asked them for all the gossip.  I called everyone from school who was in New York and asked them what it was like there.  I called all my friends in other places and asked them over and over to tell me about their lives.  Every one of them sounded as disoriented and as frightened as me, I’m sure, but I convinced myself that I was the weakest, most frightened one.

 

The boy killed the man on the causeway at the end of my internship.  By then, Frenchie and the other reporters had given up on me becoming hard scrabble journalists like they were, and I was relegated to the night shift, doing mostly phone interviews with the highway patrol about road accidents and writing up briefs that didn’t even have my byline on them.

That night, standing by my car, I asked the cop if I could talk to the boy on the other side of the street.

“I can ask him,” the cop said, and he turned to cross the road, the blue and red lights of the cop car flickering over and over across his broad back.

The truth was, I wanted to talk to the boy my age in a way that I had not wanted to talk with anyone else I had ever interviewed over the past several weeks.  But I wanted to talk with him not with my stupid reporter’s notebook and Bic pen.  I wanted to talk with him like a normal person and ask him what it was like to be going about your business and then have something like this unavoidable, God-awful life event happen to you.  The boy was a killer.  I could tell by the beat-up look on his face that he knew it, and his mother and father who were on their way to meet him would soon know it, and they were all going to have to live with that for the rest of their lives.  A man had been alive and then he was dead, and it was that boy’s fault, whether he had meant for it to happen or not.

Do you go to school someplace?  I wanted to ask.  Where were you going when this happened?  Was it a party where all your good friends were waiting for you?  Are you worried about how you’re going to sleep tonight?  Are you worried about telling people?  Are you going to tell people?  Did you see it coming, even just a little?  Is there a second you’ll replay over and over when you’re 30, 40, 50 even?

Are you worried this will hurt you in the future?  Speaking of future, do you know what you want to do with your life?  Do you know what you want to be?  Do you still live at home?  Do you want your parents to stay away, let you handle this?  Can you not wait for them to hurry up and get here?

Is there anything, anything at all, that I can do for you?

I stood there, shifting my weight from foot to foot, nervously running my fingers over the wire coil of my reporter’s notebook as I watched the cop ask the boy if he wanted to talk to me.

I saw the boy run his beefy hand up into his black hair and comb it back, revealing his forehead, and then shake his head no ever so slightly.

The cop walked over to me.

“As you can imagine,” he said, “he’s a little bit shaken up.”

When I got back to the newsroom, I explained to Brad the night editor the facts he would want to know – the lack of drinking or speeding, that the victim was homeless.  Brad hummed a little and ran down the news of the day in his head – what would be a brief, what would be a full-blown story.  In the end he decided that the boy on the causeway was not important enough to be in the newspaper.

                                                           

I spent my last day of work standing around a smelly dumpster behind a convenience store in a bad part of town.  A store employee said that earlier that morning he had peered inside the dumpster and spotted a dead baby.

The usual suspects appeared – the police, the television crews with their vans, the curious bystanders.  We all milled about, waiting while the police investigated.  A few minutes before noon, the cops revealed to us that the supposed baby was only a bag of shellfish.

As soon as we were told the news, a blond television reporter in a short, plum suit screamed into her microphone, alerting the station that she would not need to go live for the lunch hour.

“It’s a bag of shrimp, just a bag of shrimp!”

As I stood there staring at the ridiculous scene unfolding, I thought to myself, “None of this matters.”  And by that I mean that I believed at the time that nothing that had happened to me in Miami mattered.  I had spent the past twelve weeks miserable, sitting around making enormous plates of pasta and watching reruns of The Rockford Files.  I had been so unhappy, but I had thought then that none of it counted.

I had decided – no, I had convinced myself – that all of my hand-wringing and angst was Miami’s fault and the result of my temporary existence there.  The three-month lease, the lack of health insurance, the title of intern, the boyfriend I didn’t particularly like.  I shake my head now because I know better, but I think I really thought that once those things were out of the way and I was settled some place permanently like all my other friends from college, things would be just fine.  My life would be for real then, and the loneliness, the nervousness, the uncertainty of my adult situation would magically disappear.  I would embark, somehow, on a Career that would be fulfilling and challenging and perfect for me.  I would meet the Man who was incredible in every single little way.  I would become the girl with the Mary Tyler Mooreishness I knew I truly was.  And it would all happen the minute I left that wretched Miami.

I took off on the morning of November 14, 1998.  Everything I owned in the whole world could fit into my little Ford Contour.  I could not pack fast enough.

My last day was clear, bright and, of course, sunny as hell.  As I pulled onto I-95 to head back to Virginia, I put in a mix tape and flashed a giddy smile at myself in the rearview mirror.  I was done with that town, and I expected nothing short of a miracle when I crossed the Florida/Georgia state line.  When I did, everything about those three months would be forgotten and everything would be figured out, I was sure of it.  It would be then that my life would really get started.