Category Archives: Living in the U.S.

Recycling

We never had to recycle in Ireland. We lived a life of relatively little waste. Our four acres supported a huge garden of potatoes and tomatoes, beans and peas, squash and vegetable spaghetti, raspberries, strawberries, brussel sprouts and courgettes, bushes bursting with gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants, and trees filled with apples and plums. My mother canned and froze produce, and our hens lay eggs which I gathered daily. For several years we got milk from a cow down the road. I’d carry a bucket down to the farm, and my friends would milk Polly straight into the bucket. My mum made butter and cheese and ice cream from the cream that she skimmed from the top of the bucket. We’d dip ladles into the fragrant white liquid in the bucket and drink it at dinner. The “milk” I buy here in the U.S. has never come close to tasting like Polly’s milk, which was subtly flavored with the sweetness of buttercups and clover, or sometimes the taste of wild garlic.

Even after Polly was gone, our milk generated little waste, only the tiny foil caps that topped the glass milk bottles the milkman brought daily. If we didn’t get them inside right away, the birds would peck through them and drink the cream at the top. Mum always poured the cream off and collected it for ice cream and my dad’s coffee. I remember now that Zeke has never seen the way milk and cream separate naturally, the way the cream rises to the top, a creamy yellow, while the milk below is white.

We got meat from the butcher, chopped right there on the block before us off the hanging carcasses of the animals. He wrapped the cuts in butcher paper. No styrofoam and plastic packaging for us. Afterwards we burned the bloodied paper, along with the cereal boxes and other paper products our lives created.

It’s different in Ireland now, of course. Individually packed packages of fruit, “homemade” soup in plastic containers, meat from the supermarket and milk in cartons. The difference is that food is not over-packaged there, and that you pay for every kilo of garbage the garbage truck hauls away. Paying by the kilo for one’s garbage is an incentive to reduce waste, to recycle, as is the fundamental world view that seems to be lacking in general over here, that the earth is precious and that we must protect it. In Ireland, if you were to step into a grocery store without your own sack, you’d be laughed out of it — or at least looked at as if you’d stepped off another planet. And you’d be charged for every flimsy plastic bag needed to pack home your groceries.

Here in my town, recycling is difficult and limited. I haul much of my recyclable waste to my father’s house in the big city three hours away.  My hallway is cluttered with boxes of it, aesthetically hideous, but better than tossing it.

I write this because today is Blog Action Day, and I want to contribute. Maybe, in the not-so-distant future, I won’t feel like an alien when I walk into the grocery store with my canvas bags. Maybe the real objects of disdain will be those who expect free plastic bags with their groceries, with never a thought for landfills filling up and filling up, spreading their poisons into the earth and the water, destroying what we and multiple other species need for life.

Maybe.

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The states I’ve visited…

Now they just need to be in blue… (not for their actual political color, but for what I’d like them to be.)


create your own personalized map of the USA

Good Enough Mother

“Good enough,” my sister said. “Over there, I could be a good enough mother.”

We sat in a resteraunt that it has become a tradition to visit together when I go to see my dad. She was six months pregnant, and had just returned from a two-week trip to Ireland. She was finally showing a little, her baby curled into a tight round ball in front, the rest of her still tiny and thin.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“My friends, they don’t have much money, but they have all these kids, and the kids run around in old stained clothes, sometimes with snotty noses. Cait will just lean over and use some rag to swipe at Aisling’s nose when she’s running by, and Aisling will duck and keep running, and they’re all outside, milling around in the muck, playing in cardboard boxes. They don’t have iPod and playstations and their own rooms. And you know, if they were over here they’d be judged and Cait would be judged, and she’d probably spend all her time worrying because Brendan didn’t have the right rugby clothes or Maura wasn’t pretty or whatever. And now, she just hangs out and lets them play and they’re all out there having a good time with the neighbors’ kids, and she knows she’s a good-enough mother. She’s not always trying to be the best.”

“You don’t have to get kids brandname clothes over here,” I said. “They can run around in the muck and get dirty.”

But I couldn’t help remembering a couple of less well off acquiantances I’d had whose children were Zeke’s friends. One of them specialized in having garage sales where she sold off mounds of expensive, barely used children’s clothes because she wouldn’t let her kids be seen in “rags.” She could barely afford food, and I remember more than once paying to take her kids to the local fair and on the rides, but they sure did always have better clothes than my Zeke. The other friend stopped letting her children visit after the third time she arrived to find her twins and their older sister covered from head to toe in mud. They’d been playing in the sprinkler and then rolling in the ditch, pretending to be pigs. They were all having a blast. A little mud never hurt anyone. I’ve been known to hose off my daughter outside, fully dressed, when she was younger. Before she turned into the quintessential American girl, with her perfect hair and her perfect nails and her horror of anything that might harbor a germ. Sigh. Everything I did to raise her like a little hellion, the way I grew up, was subsumed under American commercialism.

I’ll never forget the day after her seventh birthday. We had bought her a pair of dance pants that she’d been begging for. She came home with a huge grin on her face. “I have friends now,” she said. “They liked my pants.”

I should have taken her out of that school right then and there. But what school over here is different? The pressures on girls to look a certain way, act a certain way, be pretty in a certain way are unrelenting. Zeke held out for a long time. In the most important ways she still holds out, an incredibly strong kid with a willingness to befriend everybody. Really she’s the only kid in her school I know who has friends amongst the skatboarders, the preps, the jocks and the stoners. But still, she likes her Hollister.

We’ve come to an agreement. She allows me to be dowdy Adah, with the well-patched and worn (and not purchased for $60 that way!) jeans, with the “crazy” hair and the ragged fingernails. And I allow her to be Zeke, always groomed, with the always -painted nails and the straightened hair. She wears makeup (not much, and tastefully applied), and I don’t. She buys brandname clothes, and I don’t. I marvel at how different we are on the surface, but I marvel even more because deep inside we’re really the same.

Back in the sandwich shop near my dad’s house, my sister sighed. “I wish I could move home,” she said. I felt the usual prick of resentment, and pushed it down. At least moving home could be an option for her. It isn’t, for me, the one sister who wants access to Ireland and who doesn’t have citizenship.

“Why can’t you?” I ask.

“Remember Cait and Ian’s house?”

“I do.” I have memories of an older council house on a corner lot on the outskirts of Dublin. Nice enough on the outside, but cracked walls and leaking ceiling and dry rot and fungus on the walls on the inside.

“Well,” Ruth May said. “You know what it’s worth?”

I shook my head.

“1.3 million Euros.”

I know house prices in Ireland, especially Dublin, are high. But that… that is ridiculous. Cait and Ian bought in before the housing boom. Their three-bedroom council house could buy more than 10 of my little condo. Well, I guess Ruth May really can’t move back. She’s as trapped here as I am.

I’ve been trying to convince her that raising a child over here isn’t that bad. “Look at Zeke,” I say. She looks at me and turns away. The truth is, in my family, Zeke isn’t that well regarded — except for my dad, who since my mother died has turned out to be the most tolerant and quietly loving grandfather imaginable. By Irish standards she’s totally obnoxious, though as Dad reminds my sisters, by American standards she’s absolutely normal. (I say she’s better than normal, but she is my daughter!). But the fact is, it’s hard. Hard to hold to the standards of my era, my country, my own upbringing. The only way I can face it is to let go of those expectations and just love her, even if, in Ireland, she might be misjudged. I tell Ruth May that. She looks at me suspiciously.

“Try not to let other parents judge you,” I said. “The baby won’t know the difference until it’s older, and by then maybe it’ll have learned something from you about not giving in to social pressure. And at some point it’s going to assert its own, individual self. Remember that plaque you gave Zeke when she was a baby? The one that says ‘children are not clay to be molded, but plants to be unfolded,’ or something like that? Well, it’s true. Your child will take his or her own path. But if you just hold firm to what matters to you, fight the big battles and let the little ones go, then it’ll be OK.”

I hope I’m not setting myself up for failure. Zeke is only 14, and could go astray yet. But I somehow don’t think so. She’s as strong-willed as I am about the things that matter to her. And she has a strong compass and a sense of what’s the right path for her. She has no problem withstanding social pressure either, despite — or perhaps because of — her constant association with older kids, some of whom have made questionable choices. But she rubs off on them, not the other way around.

As I sit with my sister it occurs to me that maybe I have been a good-enough mother — even though I’ve had, and will continue to have, many doubts about it. And I hope that Ruth May can get to a point when she can look at her child and say the same thing, and that in the meantime, she can just take a deep breath, stop doubting herself, and love.

Teaching troubled students

My retired colleague Sidso sent me a link to an article about Cho and his creative writing teacher. I read it and thought of all the troubled students I’ve had over 16 years of community college teaching. Most of the time my students are wonderful, hard-working and dedicated, often with families and jobs that make it hard for them to put their all into my classes, but usually willing to do their best. Occasionally I’ve encountered difficult students though, like the young man last quarter who sent me a veiled email threat that turned out to be a gesture of frustration with no real bite to it. Once a Russian mail order bride (no joke — there are too many of these tragic women in my area) with a history of mental illness attacked me in my office. It was laughable in some ways. She was tiny, barely five foot and probably less than 100 pounds. I could have knocked her over, could have shoved her against the wall with one hand and called security with the other. But still, had she had a gun, in her enrage state, where would I be now? She was angry about her grade, vituperative. In class she burst out in unseemly and inappropriate attacks on me and the other students. She refused to leave, to wait her turn to have her questions answered, to be patient and listen to my response to her angry queries. After her second explosion, I called the dean, who then was brand new and didn’t know me. She told me nicely enough that she was sure I could handle it, and hung up.

The next day the student, I’ll call her Maria, followed me to my office, blocked the doorway and tried to grab papers out of my hand to see the other students’ grades. I asked her to leave until she was calm enough to talk rationally, told her I’d call security if she didn’t. She launched herself at me. I had the phone in my hand, and I dialed security while I held out my hand to fend her off. She left as they arrived, and they took her off for questioning.

The next day, she was back in class, duly warned. She exploded again in the middle of a presentation by her classmates. I asked her to leave. She refused. We had no phones in the classroom in that building, and I had to leave to walk a couple of hundred yards to the nearest phone so I could call security again. She walked behind me, screaming obscenities. A couple of my other students came with me; they told me afterwards they feared for my safety.

After VTech, our college administration is discussing ways to get phones in all the classrooms, even the aging ones. I wonder at the changes since I began, at a time when there were few computers on campus, and only one phone for the entire English and speech departments. In the morning, I’d answer the secretary’s phone by running out from my office to take messages before she arrived an hour later than I did. I’d write them on the triplicate message book that sat by the phone, and tape them to doors. No one wondered what would happen if a student went berserk in the classroom. It just wasn’t something that entered our minds.

After Maria attacked me in my office, she was told she had to talk to the vice-president before she returned to my classroom. I heard later she went after him, too. He was six foot five and at least 200 pounds. The security officer who told me chuckled at the image of that tiny woman pummeling the chest of a man twice her size, and at the time, so did I. It never struck us that she could be dangerous in any but the most metaphorical of ways. Even so her violence garnered her a restraining order. Despite the orders from the administration of the college, she returned after class a day or two later and tried to push other students aside to talk to me. When I told her she’d have to wait her turn, she wrote obscenities on the board about me, speaking in vehement Russian invectives the whole time. In the end I, and the handful of students who had been waiting to question me about their papers, all accompanied me — and her — to the department office, where once again I dialed security while she screamed at me in Russian in the background.

This time the police came. This time she was expelled not only from my class but from campus. I never saw her again. Sometimes I imagine the squalor in which she lived, her hopeless pre-teen son struggling in poverty with a mother whose condition verged on dangerous. I felt for him, for her, knew that she’d come from Russia into a marriage with an abusive man that she’d never met before the arrangements were made, knew that she was desperate to stay in the States because what she had in Russia was worse than what she had here, knew that I had seen gentleness and kindness in her, under the rage. What drove her to such blind fury? What had she seen, experienced, to unleash in her such uncontrolled venom? I wished there were a way to understand her, to have helped her transition to college. I want to have helped her the way Cho’s teacher, Lucinda Roy, who tutored him independently after he was expelled from a creative writing class for taking pictures of women’s underwear under the desk, wanted to help Cho. In the end, Roy did what she could for Cho and it wasn’t enough. I did what I could for Maria and it wasn’t enough. She just left the country, I think, went back to the darkness and poverty of her life in Russia. At least she didn’t have a gun during those days in which her taut anger fueled her.

More people are dying in Iraq. More kids bring guns to school, or call in bomb warnings. Four years ago, the president of this country met an imagined threat from Iraq with “shock and awe,” an attack campaign birthed in arrogance and folly, and gone terribly wrong, one based on unimaginable violence towards others. No wonder so many citizens and non-citizens here think threats and pain need be met with violence in return. When I started teaching in 1991, we thought of angry students as disruptive, as minimally physically violent at times, but never as a threat to life. Today I can image a scenario where a student turns on me and fellow students with a gun in hand, reacting to a perceived threat in the way the leaders of this country have acted — with absolute violence towards the Other.

Still, I like teaching. Maybe in 16 years my awareness of the possibilities inherent in every classroom situation will be different again. I just hope I never lose my fundamental belief that most people are good, that when I walk into the classroom, it really is a safe place, even if, once in a while, a student gets frustrated.

Antidepressants — again

My friend Diana sent me a link to a site that reveals that Cho Seung Hui, the boy responsible for the Virginia Tech massacres, was on antidepressants. Given my experience with those deadly drugs, I believe it. If I’d had a gun during those times, it would have been hard for me to resist the siren call of those images of me dead that followed me everywhere, and the blind rage that fueled me might have exploded into something deadly.

When will the stranglehold that the drug companies have on the American medical system be broken? How many more tragedies of this sort must occur before family doctors stop prescribing antidepressants as though they are cough drops. They should be prescribed only by psychiatric experts with NO ties to drug companies, only under close supervision, and only as a last resort, when all other natural means have been exhausted.

The doctor who was my family physician for 15 years tried to prescribe antidepressants for my daughter’s headache diagnosis before Christmas. She didn’t tell us what the prescription was, or what to watch out for. She didn’t warn us of the increased suicide risk for adolescents. When I Googled the vaguely familiar name I saw the enormous red-flag warning box that showed up on the screen: “Warning: Do NOT prescribe to minors unless all other options have been ruled out.” Something like that. Needless to say, my daughter’s father and I didn’t fill the prescription, and that doctor is no longer either mine nor my daughter’s health care provider. My daughter is taking a naturopathic substance for her headaches, and is doing much better. She had ALLERGIES, for Christ’s sake. Was my ex-doctor senile, insane or just being paid off by the drug companies?

Something has changed in me, though. I used to get so angry about everything that was falling apart in the world around us. News stories of disappearing bees — with all the horrifying implications contained therein — would have shrouded me in gloom, in memories of my mother’s beekeeping, in what we will miss when we cannot taste heather honey anymore, in how that tiny loss presages much darker times. The endless reports of carnage in Iraq, paired with images of a genial president claiming, “We’re making progress,” would have filled me with dread and a sense of helpless anger. The tidal wave of junk food that one day could claim my daughter’s health, and my growing inability to help guide her to healthy food choices would have weighted me into despair.

Oddly enough, I recognize something now that before I didn’t. I really am helpless. And it’s OK. I do the little things I can do here at home, like recycle and keep fruit and vegetables available, and buy whole grain and organic. And I accept that I have no control over anything beyond my own small world. And even in that, my control is limited, no more than a convenient illusion. This handing over of my life, my control, to something other than myself has lightened me. If I can find three things to be joyful about, that is enough:

  • Sun and cherry blossoms and silence
  • My dogs waiting eager-eyed for their walk
  • Zeke’s kindness, which I see in her interactions with her friends, with me

Closed: Threats, dysfunction, idiocy

My campus is closed tomorrow. The college received a threat of an undisclosed nature and now we cannot go to work. “Security will be on hand to turn back students who try to enter the grounds,” the office manager, her voice taut with excitement, tells me. She used to be a police dispatcher. She falls into the language of law enforcement easily.

I have to pick my daughter up from rehearsal early. I drive to my office after I’ve stopped by the auditorium. “Wait here,” I tell her. “I’m going to pick up some papers to work on tomorrow.” She shakes her head, both nervous and thrilled by the unexpected, not-quite-comprehended threat, and accompanies me into the building. Decker Hall is deserted. I walk upstairs to my light-drenched office in the late afternoon stillness, grab papers and my textbook, and we head downstairs again. The silence is eerie. I’ve been here often enough during breaks to know the building in all its moods, but still, today the silence is different, weighted with my tension.

The crazy thing is it’s a crazy tension. It’s bound to be copycat fools out there, seduced by the promise of headlines and photo shoots, or some kid desperate to get out of a final paper or a test, or hungry for some control over something, anything, in a life in which he feels powerless. But still, a frisson of tension speeds my movements. I can’t wait to get out of the building. “Terrorism” has won, I think. People live in terror of terror. I am glad to emerge from the dark stairwell into sunlight, to get behind the wheel of my car. On the way home, Zeke tells me of a bomb threat at her high school, which was ruled a child’s bluster by the administrators and dismissed without lockdowns and announcements of terror. I’m glad. But deep inside I think, “What if…?” and the “What if?” shows me how deeply this culture of violence has inserted itself into my psyche.

When I first came over to the U.S. some 20+ years ago, people frequently asked me if I was afraid to go outside in Ireland for fear of IRA shootings. “No,” I said. “Not over there. But here I’m kind of worried. People have guns here, and they seem a bit unstable.” Even back then I sensed the difference in attitude towards violence. I recognized an underlying paranoia and and depth of fear in too many people. Now I find myself wondering if I’m turning into one of them. Not for myself, certainly, but for my daughter.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “I’m sure closing down the college was an overreaction. In a few weeks, things will go back to normal.”

I hope I’m right.