Random thoughts from an animal-loving French prof / mom of three on things she finds beautiful, funny, sad, or strange.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Work in progress

The semester is over, my annual respiratory infection is gone, and I'm now in New York getting some much needed R & R and holiday cheer. With any luck, the black cat will be back soon.

Meanwhile, I'm (finally) getting started on my other gig, blogging with the Attachment & Trauma Network. It's a cause I really believe in, so I encourage all my readers to click the link and enjoy.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Searching for a starfish

You probably know some version of Loren Eiseley's story, the one where a child is throwing starfish into the ocean one by one, only to have an adult chide him for wasting his time. After all, he will never save them all, right? The child, however, has the last word, that his efforts do matter to each starfish he saves. 

It's a good story, albeit beaten to death by motivational speakers slightly overused, and it's not a bad response to November 2016, a month I generally think of as follows:

I am not just talking about THAT day. I might have been able to withstand that. Doubtful, sure, but it's what I'd like to believe. 

No, my fracture came a few days later when Vesbo, subject of Why are they always orange?, crossed the Rainbow Bridge. "I just really needed to save him," I sobbed on the phone to my parents. "And I failed."

Eventually, I cried (most) of the tears I had to cry. In their place, nothing. Yes, I had my friends, my family, my students, and they all held me together more than they will ever know. But deep down inside? That's where that big dark space was born.

Then I opened yesterday’s mail. One of the envelopes, larger than the others, bore the return address Open Arms India. I eagerly opened it, and there I saw her. Our sponsored child, holding a picture of… I looked closer…us. There we were, my family grasped in the hands of a child with a phenomenal smile. 

Something in me started to spark, a piece of my inner power grid coming back on line. I looked at that smile and thought maybe, just maybe, we were playing some small part in making that light shine. For the first time in weeks, I felt something like belief. 

I don't know what the future holds, and that thought scares me half to death. So does the fact that no matter what I want or what I try, I won't be able to save every cat or every child. 
But maybe, every once in a while, one of them will be my starfish. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

On (not) being a writer

I don't know when I first thought I wanted to be a writer.

Scratch that.

I don't know when I started writing.

Scratch that too.

I am not a writer. I don't even know if I want to be one. I just write. Always have, always will.

Ahhhh... Now we're on to something. Not that the nature of this "something" is especially clear, of course. After all, it's not as if I've never seen my name in print. As an academic, I have published a fair number of articles and book chapters over the years. That counts, right? Then there is this blog, whose posts do not appear magically out of cyber-thin air. Quite the contrary– much like academic writing, channeling these thoughts through pen onto paper actually requires fairly serious butt-in-chair time (yes, I am that odd creature who writes most of her blog posts longhand).

Okay then. Perhaps I am in fact a writer. Cool. Well, cool except for one little problem. I haven't yet written the thing I want to write. I am possessed by a pretty huge, mostly true story that's just dying to get out. I'm talking wakes me up in the middle of the night just to remind me it's still here. In case, you know, my memory was wiped by space aliens or I somehow otherwise managed to forget. As if. Anyway, it's here, it's real, and I bet at least a few people would read it if I could just coax it out. Yep. Coax. As badly as it wants out in the dead of night, it is awfully shy when it sees my open notebook. Go figure.

This push-and-pull has been going on for a while now. As in years. And it's time for it to end. This story is going to get the attention it deserves, and not just "when I have the time" (as if that were a thing!). To make that happen, I've done two things. One, I found a writing group. Well, it found me. Point is, I now have a safe and structured writing home where my story and I will be accountable to each other. And two, I've decided to nurture other people's stories by writing for and managing the ATN blog. ATN stands for The Attachment & Trauma Network, an organization of not-so-ordinary angels who have thrown many a lifeline to families just like mine.

So... stay tuned. It's going to happen. I will wrestle my story into a book or die trying. Meanwhile, please, check us out at ATN. It's an amazing place.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Things we (shouldn't) take for granted

The other night, my middle daughter was invited to an awards ceremony at UC, aka my workplace since 2001. We didn't think twice about it until the announcer started listing the participating schools. We realized that many families drove an hour, even two, to a place we see so often that well, we've stopped actually seeing it. As we walked to our car, parked in a nearby lot that only an "insider" would know, I commented that I hadn't realized this would be such a big deal. My daughter replied something like, "that's because it's Cumberland. It's just always here."

Two days later, our conversation still won't let me go. When did my privileged place in the world become so...I don't know...ordinary? I know that's probably just the dual effect of habit and of time, but still, that doesn't make it okay.
I mean, look at it. This is an American college campus, which are among some of the prettiest spots I've ever seen (and I've seen an awful lot). That this one is full of red brick buildings –a personal favorite– and located in the beautiful Appalachian mountains is the icing on an already delectable cake.

Besides, being here means I get to work with a lot of incredible people. My administration supports me, my colleagues sustain me, my students motivate me to get out of bed each and every day. No, it's not perfect (we all have our dark places), and yes, this Francophile with a Yankee attitude has days where she probably creates more problems than she solves, but hey, that's all part of the adventure.

The best part, though, is that I am getting away with an epic scam. I love languages, especially French. I love to read. I love to write. And by some miracle (okay, a miracle plus a PhD...), I have stumbled into a profession where people will actually put me in a room full of books and pay me do all three. There's even a coffeemaker, for crying out loud! Do I do it perfectly? No. I don't always even do it very well, or at least not as well as I'd like. But I come at it with energy and passion and a constant desire to improve. The result? I feel like I've won the lottery, only better. Unlike plain, cold, hard cash, this the kind of thing that stays with you forever.

So here's to our blessings and our loves. May we never take them for granted again.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Yeah, this is real too

A child, maybe 12, moves across the parking lot. Progress is slow, weighed down as he is by a leg cast and bulging backpack. He places his crutches carefully, looking up every so often, only to drop his eyes again when he sees how much parking lot remains.

The other parents stare, first at him, then at his mother, waiting alone by her car. 

"How long has he been crossing this lot, anyway?"

"I'd never let my kid get away with that."

"Bless him. That'd stop if he just got a little extra attention and love."

"That kid needs a good whipping. Then he'd move!"

If you are horrified, you should be.

If you think this cannot possibly be real, you are probably right. At least I hope you are. After all, what kind of person would criticize a child so obviously in pain? What kind of jerk would blame his parents because a broken leg had slowed him down?

Yet thousands of families endure something similar every day. Every. Single. Day. Not because of something visible, something obvious like a broken leg, but because their child suffers from wounds unseen, some of which were inflicted literally from the very first. Some combination of hunger, abuse, trauma, and neglect caused the child's brain to develop in unexpected ways, with a broad range of maladaptive behaviors to match. 

For parents of these kids, the phrase "pick your battles" takes on a whole new meaning. We have to pick so often and so quickly –yet somehow also carefully–, that I can just about guarantee we're not picking the ones you want. Yet trust me, we believe in love and discipline and everything else that goes into making a family work. It's just that our normal looks way different from yours. I wish I could say we 're sorry, sorry that our families make you so uncomfortable, so concerned. But we can't. We can't waste time apologizing for something that isn't our fault. Like the mom whose son is wobbling around with cast and crutches, we have bigger fish to fry.

What we can do is ask you to give us the benefit of the doubt, accept that we are actually doing the best we can, however imperfect that may be. Maybe this video will help. Do we all experience everything in it equally? No. But it does give people a chance to speak a lot of hard truths, truths they want the rest of the world to hear.

Remember, the support you give the family is love you show the child.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Wait, WHAT?! I agree with Glenn Beck?!

It was early one fall semester, a few years ago. My elementary French class and I were still getting to know each other when the ballplayer in the front row piped up with something straight out of Glenn Beck. My reaction was swift, and to me, predictable.

"I prefer to think for myself." 

"He just asks questions," came the reply, faintly tinged with what I perceived as aggression.

"Great," I thought. "One of those. Let's just get through this semester. It's not like I'll ever see him again."

I was wrong, and thankfully so. The student went on to minor in French and remains one of the best and brightest I have ever had. Mind you, there were plenty of things about which we never could agree, but we kept talking and learning from each other all the same. Those conversations became one of the highlights of my week, and even now remind me why I became a professor. Idealistic and cliched as it may sound, I want to open minds, including especially my own.

Time passed. Seasons changed. My opinion of Glenn Beck, however, did not. That is, until the other day, when in the New York Times I read his Op-Ed, Empathy for Black Lives Matter. Here's the part that got me:

After the massacre, I invited several Black Lives Matter believers on my show. I got to know them as people — on and off air — and invited them back again. These individuals are decent, hardworking, patriotic Americans. We don’t agree on everything, certainly not on politics; but are we not more than politics? I refuse to define each of them based on the worst among them. No movement is monolithic. The individuals I met that day are not “Black Lives Matter”; they are black Americans who feel disenfranchised and aggrieved; they are believers; they are my neighbors and my fellow citizens.
We need to listen to one another, as human beings, and try to understand one another’s pain. Empathy is not acknowledging or conceding that the pain and anger others feel is justified. Empathy is acknowledging someone else’s pain and anger while feeling for them as human beings — even, and maybe especially, when we don’t necessarily agree or understand them.
I haven't followed the story much since, but I can easily imagine Beck was excoriated on all sides. In his camp because our heroes are supposed to be unchanging monoliths; in camps closer to my own, because, well, he's Glenn Beck. Never mind what he actually said, right? He's just another one of them. Others near my camp may have read, even liked it, only to dismiss it as too little, too late. 

Now that last part, I get. I really do. I almost went there myself. After all, how many times have I felt that way? How many times have I caused others to feel that way about me? 


But...this. "Too little, too late" implies there is no chance for growth or change. There are no second chances, no mercy, no grace. And that, I cannot accept. It goes against everything I believe as a Christian, parent, teacher, friend. As humans are we not gifted with the ability to transcend our limitations, especially those that are self-imposed?

Am I the newest member of the Glenn Beck fan club? Nope. I don't even agree with everything he wrote here. But I have to admire his bravery in extending a hand, knowing full well that many would just as soon slap or even sever it, anything but risk a stranger's touch.

Surely each of us, in our own little corners of the world, can do the same. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Why are they always orange?

To be fair, it's not that they are all orange. After all, the spirit animal of this blog is a black cat, named for my handsome man in a tux, Lucky, and Clawdette is our second calico after Calliope. But there seems to be a disproportionate amount of orange, and it always comes when we least expect it.

First, there was Claude. A colleague found this little ball of fur wandering on campus, and had a feeling we'd take him in. She was right. We meant to find him a home, but, well, we already had. He was the first house cat my daughters ever had (longtime residents Lucky and Calliope mostly ignored our decision to add human children to the household). We were heartbroken when only a couple of years later, we lost Claude to feline leukemia.

Then there was Norbert, the subject of Everything I need to know, I learned from an orange cat and Sometimes, the cat is orange Another colleague found him scaling a brick wall outside her home. You couldn't miss him if you tried, and honestly, why would you try? He was larger than life, and for a while, larger than was strictly healthy. He and my second daughter were inseparable- the only thing he never did for her was learn to walk on a leash. Though he lived with cancer longer than anyone could have reasonably expected, he finally succumbed and our hearts broke again.

After that, we had a tacit pact to keep the resident cat population at two, and we held it there for a while. Then we started to see the strays around town and I found myself saying, "ok, God, if you send us another cat, I think we're ready. Just please don't let it be orange."

Not long after, I heard yowling outside. When I went to investigate, out from under the porch came an affectionate, starving, thirsty cat. And... he was orange. I told God I did not think this was very funny and that it might be nice if just once in a while She would let us bargain. The response was a prompting to give the cat some food and water. So I did (in my experience, when it comes to God and cats, you don't mess around). He ate, drank, found a comfy patio chair, and went to sleep.

When I told my daughter, she burst into tears. I told her I had to save him, but was afraid of hurting her heart. If she wanted me to foster him then find another home, I would. Before long, however, she came outside and said, "let's see this orange cat."

His name, she says, is Vesbo.

From left to right, top to bottom: Claude at Christmas, young Norbert, Vesbo (also known as Beau)                                                  

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The psychology of shoulders

I've never woken up well from anesthesia. Not when I was a teenager having my knee scoped. Not when I was having that same knee reconstructed whilst in grad school. And not when I had a tendon in my right shoulder repaired. So when, on the afternoon of June 23, I woke to the vague sensation that my left arm had been strapped to my body, followed by the far less vague sensation of nausea, I did what any sensible person would. I went back to sleep.

Who knows how much time passed before I woke again. This time the evidence was clear. I was still nauseous, and my arm was most definitely strapped to my body. The nurse, who needed me awake to send me home, caught my eye. I decided to ask the obvious question.

"You had a rotator cuff repair, honey." 

Far too out of sorts to object to being called "honey" (for once...), I asked to see my doctor. I had come in for a simple tendon release, the kind of procedure that barely makes a blip on the radar. The surgeon, however, confirmed the nurse's statement. My rotator cuff had been completely torn.

After a week spent deliriously cycling through Percocet, broken sleep, and pain, the staples were removed and I started physical therapy.

And with it, unexpectedly, the very near loss of my mind. 

It wasn't just the pain, though there was plenty of that. It wasn't just the blinding frustration of feeling clumsy and useless. It wasn't just the realization that there was no way I could safely travel to New York one more time before school. And it wasn't even the pile of work accumulating as I sat helplessly by, my shoulder encased in ice.

It was that single, insidious, two-word question: "what if?" As in, what if it never gets better?

To make matters worse, I found myself robbed of my failsafe coping mechanisms. Writing? A leftie with her left arm in a sling can't exactly enjoy the soothing flow of ink on paper. Music? I'm a pianist, and while I've seen people perform marvels one-handed, I'm not one of them. And running? Completely off limits. 

This may sound melodramatic, but if demons are real, this is what they tell you: "your life as you know it is over." And because your demon-silencing mechanisms are out of order, you start to listen. It gets very, very dark, and no matter what you do, the "what-if" demons won't shut their foul little mouths. Before I knew it, I was down on myself for feeling down, proof if ever there was that mental states are not something people can necessarily control!

Thankfully, the mantra we try to teach my mentally ill son is true: "this too shall pass." I'm on a long road- rotator cuffs don't heal overnight, and wounded souls have an unpredictable timetable all their own- but my life once again feels like it is...literally...in my hands. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Don't tell us it isn't real

The year was 2008. After months of following the presidential campaign, I finally gave in and covered my "Ready for Hillary" sticker with one supporting Obama. Yes, I lived in the Bible Belt, surrounded by a pool of political red, but I can't really say as I cared. After all, my political leanings have never exactly been a well-kept secret, no matter where I've lived. 

(Photo compliments of ballotvox.prx.org)

Then one hot summer's night, my almost-middle-schooler was playing ball. She is a born athlete who loves the game, but that night, things began to drag as both teams ran out of pitchers. In desperation, they pulled my kid from her usual spot at second to try to close out the game. It wasn't pretty, but she did it. The final inning came mercifully to an end. 

That's when I heard the guy shouting. He insulted the officials, the coaches, and yes, even the players, honing in quickly on the closing pitcher. Admittedly, my kid did not have her best game, and admittedly, she was easy to spot, being one of the only brown girls in the entire league. But that does not explain why, on a team of twelve, we were the only ones followed to the parking lot, or why we were treated to a fresh level of invective when he saw my Obama bumper sticker. 

Except... Except, of course, it does. It explains it all. We were there. We heard every last ugly word. 

This isn't even close to the worst example you'll ever hear, of course. It isn't even the worst one my kids have ever lived. But it is one reason why you can't tell us that racism doesn't exist. We can't hear you over the yelling. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What to do when you can't write...

When you've learned it's going to be more like 2 months than 2 weeks until your arm will be strong enough for you to face the "empty order" of the page, what is a writer to do?


1) Heal. 
2) Read. 
3) Share. 

Thanks to the writers and friends who are keeping me company on the road to recovery, and especially to George Ella Lyon, who gifted me...us...with these words:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Black cat down a paw

The black cat has ideas. Lots of them. Thanks to a fantastic break from my usual routine, my brain now somewhat resembles that of an actual feline chasing a laser pointer. I might still be looking for my voice, and yeah, I'm wondering if this might be how it feels to have ADHD, but man, I have a lot to say!

Unfortunately, I can't say it all just yet, not just because of the whole where's-Waldo game I'm playing with my voice, but also and mostly because I have a torn tendon in my left shoulder, which happens to be on the same side as my writing hand. If I don't get it surgically repaired soon, well, I prefer not to follow that particular train of thought. So if you're reading this, please send thoughts, prayers, positive energy, whatever it is you normally send.

Meanwhile, here is a preview of possible coming attractions:

5 Things I Learned Grading AP French (that I might write about more later)

  1. We need to put ourselves and others in situations where we can all be our best possible selves.
  2. Some episodes in our lives put us both wholly in and wholly out of our comfort zones. That can be an energizing place to be.
  3. Even introverts are not meant to be wholly solitary. One of my new friends put it perfectly... I'm an introvert learning to be an extravert. Glad to know I'm not alone!
  4. Our culture needs to start valuing labor in human terms. Our work should serve people, not the almighty dollar.
  5. In spite of the scary state of the world, there are places where people of many backgrounds come together to do good work. I believe this spirit of collaboration and community is meant to grow and spread.

Finally, to conclude, a pair of unrelated bonus thoughts that the black cat may chase down later, when she gets her left paw back:
  1. Thoreau wasn't wrong. We should all go back to the woods at least once in a while. And turn off your #$%^ cell phone when you do!
  2. It gets harder and harder to leave my personal empire state of mind, aka Upstate New York. I don't know what to do with that just yet, but I know it's there.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Finding a voice

According to the stats kept by Blogger, here are my three most-viewed posts:

1) Kidneys vs. Brains
2) Why the Black Cat?
3) Some things are NEVER okay

They are way ahead of most of my other posts, and I've been wondering why.

I think I might know now.


The first and third are about giving a voice to people whose problems our culture would rather ignore: the mentally ill, especially children, and women, especially those victimized by male aggression. The other most popular post is also in its way about voice, given that the Black Cat -Chat Noir- is the part of my soul to whom I've given free rein in this blog.

Yet there are many days that I don't know what the Black Cat is supposed to say or how to say it. I have a voice, and apparently it's a decent one, at least on its best days. Yet how do I know when those days will strike? And how do I keep that voice true to itself and all the things I want need to say?

Hard questions.

As my blog description says, I want to write the beautiful, funny, sad, and strange. Yet if I face facts, I tend to be on a soapbox when people read me most. Is that then my true voice? The one on the soapbox? Soapboxes are all well and good, and Lord knows I love to prance around on mine. But is that all there is?

What about the rest? Can the voice declaiming from the soapbox also translate the extraordinary world that surrounds her on every side? Can she convey the beauty in the strange and the strangeness of the beautiful? Can she claim in writing the sometimes biting, sometimes silly humor that gets her through the day?

Or is the soapbox on behalf of the silent and the silenced her truest home?

More hard questions, questions to which I have no answer. If you do, please tell me. And if you don't, well, please just keep on reading. Maybe we can find my voice together.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Some things are NEVER okay

Let's take a little quiz.

When is it okay for a man to hit or sexually harass a woman?

A) never
B) when she "asks for it"
C) never
D) when he's "joking around"
E) when he's being attacked by a female assassin in hand-to-hand combat
F) both A and C (and maybe E)

Although I got a little silly with "E," this is no laughing matter. One would think that in 2016, when women can be chosen for positions of power, when Katniss Everdeen has ruled bestseller lists and box office alike, when Nadia Bolz-Weber and Krista Tippett are among those addressing religion in an old-new way, this barbaric behavior would be a thing of the past.

One would be wrong.

Start with this news story:

French Lawmaker's Fall Over Harassment Claims May Hold Lesson for Men

And before you dismiss that as, "oh, those nasty French," click here:

Men Read Horrifying Sexist Tweets

That's not even close to as bad as it gets. Do you know that this is going on in our schools? That girls not old enough to drive are getting smacked around and called names too awful for me to type? That many college orientations now include freshwoman "how-to-avoid-rape" sessions? That worst of all, girls are so used to it that they believe this is how it's supposed to be?! I'm not just talking about girls with low self-esteem here. I'm talking about all girls, even strong, confident, intelligent girls. 

It defies understanding.

It breaks my heart. 

And it makes me really, really mad. 

There are a lot of beautiful and wonderful things in this world, and usually those are the things I try to write. But this terrible darkness exists as well, and unless we shine some light on it, it will remain.
PS Sorry this post is sans photo. Couldn't get the image of blinding white fury to show up on the page.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The story I want to read

Maybe you've heard the statistic: 80% of couples parenting a special needs child end up divorced.

Then again, maybe you haven't. I hadn't until I heard it repeated like a mantra as my own marriage fell apart. I think people were trying to reassure me, to let me know that with those kinds of odds, I was in no way alone. Perhaps it helped. Could it be that in a weird way I was comforted by being in the majority for once? Maybe. I don't know, though. That doesn't really sound like me.

Besides, I was alone. 80 percent is meaningless when you're the one curled up on the front porch with your insomnia, watching the stars, wondering how on earth you are going to raise three humans to adulthood. Heck, there are days when you don't know if you can manage pants!

One such sleepless night, I decided to research that number. Although 80% is almost certainly inflated, the threat to marriages is real, with sources suggesting special needs families have divorce rates at least 5-10% higher than those of the general population. This still placed me squarely in the alone-not-alone group, and not just because of my son's alphabet soup of diagnoses. After all, the cracks in my marriage had been there for a long time. The extra stress just turned them into chasms.

At any rate, the exact number is beside the point. Statistics have their place, but stories aren't made of numbers. They're made of people. And what I want to know is this: where are the stories about people like us? families like mine? women like me? Where are our novels, our plays, our films? Where is our epic love story? I've mostly found two versions: a) shattering tragedy full of heartache, estrangement, institutions, and death, or b) preposterous Disneyfication featuring an improbable cure and/or a white knight sweeping in to save the day. What ever happened to the truth being in the middle?

I hear you. If it's truth I want, I should read a memoir. Better yet, write one. Guess what? I am. There are parts of our story I want need to tell. But it's not enough. Much as I love memoir, fiction is where I go to fall in love. Nothing beats the intoxication of other worlds, other lives. I just wish sometimes those other worlds were a little more like ours, those fictional characters a little more like us.