Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Ritalin Years, Part Three

The fifth grade gym teacher, Mr. Phillips, was a merciless tyrant. What he lacked in height and fitness he made up for in volume. There was no occasion, in this portly little man's mind, to speak to children in a normal tone of voice. To him, we were junior delinquents, scheming behind his back to make a fool of him. Discipline, not fitness, would be our only salvation. A shy black boy once asked to go to the restroom a few minutes into class. "You shoulda taken care of that before class, boy! You can hold it now." The kid cried as he pissed himself, and I hated Mr. Phillips forever.

A friend of mine had just returned with her family from Iran, where they had lived for a year while her father was stationed there. She was a bit of a celebrity upon her rejoining class; her family had narrowly escaped during the hostage crisis, and everyone wanted to talk to her. This year I only had gym class with her, and I was determined to get the skinny on life in Iran before I lost my chance. As we sat on the gym floor awaiting the start of some rediculous game involving a giant rubber ball, I coaxed her into a surreptitious exchange, keeping a close eye on Phillips. Having established that she had gotten out of the country quickly and with little fuss, I moved on to the more important details of life in Iran.

"So, do they listen to cool music over there?"
"Not really, its kinda weird," she said.
"What about movies? You've seen Saturday Night Fever, right?"
"Oh, heck yeah. The Bee Gees rule!"
"Omigod, they're all total foxes! Which do you like better, Barry or Andy?"
"Andy's not in the group, dorkus. And anyway, Barry is way more hunky."

A single giggle, and Mr. Phillips was on top of us. "Hel-LO, Ladies! I hope there's something really important going on back there, because I HATE being interrupted!"

I took a moment to picture him in his underwear. "No sir," we said in unison.

"Then what say we Shee-yut UP?"

Shee-yut up. Even I knew, at my age, that was totally rude.

We sat quietly and watched two boys bring in the massive red rubber ball. We had just played this stupid game a couple of days ago: the class lines up in rows with one half facing the other half, and we all try to lob the giant ball past the team facing us. Mr. Phillips saw no reason to mix things up. We were lucky to have a giant ball, and not the back of his hand.

"So, real quick: do you have the soundtrack to the movie?" I whispered.
"Heck yeah."
"Which is your favorite song?"
"I dunno. Stayin' Alive, I guess." She was getting nervous about getting busted. I had to keep her attention.
"'Open Sesame' by Kool and the Gang totally rules the world."
"Don't know that one," she said, her eyes on the tyrant, who was at the front of the gym barking instructions.
"Oh, wow, you've got to hear the whole thing. There's all these other cool songs on it."
She shushed me suddenly and pointed to Mr. Phillips, who was eyeing us. I estimated him to be out of earshot.
"Up Phillip's ass, forget him! You totally need your own copy of this album."
By the look on her face, I had misjudged. Mr. Phillips was barrelling toward me, teeth bared. He grabbed me by the arm and shoved me ahead of him, toward the gym door.
"You go on and tell Mr. Morgan what you just said about me, word for word, young lady, and don't you come back in my class today!"

"Fine!" I shouted as he slammed the gym door. Mr. Morgan was no problem. I was his favorite. Whenever I ended up in his office for something, he'd pat his leg and I'd jump up in his lap. He'd tell me how pretty I was, and how smart I was, and that I should really try harder to be a good girl. I never got in trouble. It was our little secret. I grinned and headed for the principal's office.

I was suprised to find Mr. Morgan a little aloof with me when I arrived. I told him what happened, going for the sympathy slant ("He's always yelling at us and I couldn't take it anymore"). He said something about a meeting with Mr. Phillips and my homeroom teacher and dismissed me to lunch.

Determined to put the incedent out of my head, I began to plan my lesson for Fred and the new girl, Lacey. Today was alphabet day. I nibbled at an ice-cold industrioburger and doodled pictures of Snoopy and Woodstock, singing the ABC's. Snoopy was easy to draw; Woodstock was the real challenge. Fred could draw him rather impressively, for a first-grader.

I was putting my lunch tray away when Mr. Morgan tapped me on the shoulder. "Come on over here, Tif. We're going to have a talk."

He led me over to where my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Blakely, sat precariously in a child-sized plastic seat, her large rump spilling over the sides. Her normally sweet face now looked disturbingly grim. Behind her, chawing on an imaginary piece of gum, stood Mr. Phillips with his arms crossed, looking satisfied.

Mrs. Blakely pulled out a chair for me. "Tifanie, we know you're a smart girl, and we've tried a lot of things to make you understand that your behavior is inappropriate. Nothing seems to work. Mr. Morgan talked to your mother today, and let her know that our next step is to take away your recess time."

I looked around, stunned. Mr. Morgan's eyes did not beam with adoration. Mr. Phillips pursed his lips into what looked like an evil smile. They were serious.

"Well, so, you mean, if I act up again?" I tried, feebly.
"No, we mean right now. You're going to go up to homeroom and sit quietly until recess is over."
My heart raced. But surely, as a tutor of first-graders, I still had some negotiating power. "Actually, I don't really do recess anymore anyway. I teach those kids in Mrs. Robertson's class."
The three adults looked at each other, and for a moment, it looked like this would make the difference. After all, I had already willingly given up recess time to help them do their job.

After an excruciating moment of silence, Mr. Phillips broke out with this: "As far as I'm concerned, young lady, if you can't behave and watch your smart little mouth, you got no business teaching those kids."

Mr. Morgan nodded. "Mr. Phillips is right, Tif. If you lose your recess time, you lose your teaching privleges."
"Go on now," Mrs. Blakely said. "We'll let Mrs. Robertson know."

I begged through tears to be allowed to teach a final session and say goodbye to Fred and Lacey, but it was nothing doing. I was screwed. My gig was over.

The bottom dropped out of my little world. Dazed and shaking, I dragged past Mrs. Robertson's room to my own homeroom, and laid my head down. Stupid old fucker Phillips. He really enjoyed that, didn't he? I spent the rest of the hour fantasizing about marching up to the front of gym class and hurling anathema at him, to shouts of encouragement from my peers.

Later in the week, I snuck around the edge of Mrs. Robertson's door and pressed a gift into little Fred's hand. It was a little diecast racecar with Snoopy at the wheel, taken from my own collection. "Take care, little guy," I said. And as I walked quickly down the hall, I heard him shout "Thank you! Thank you!"

Monday, July 18, 2005

Portrait by Stephen Schwolert

Wow. My portrait is done, and it's a-fucking-mazing.
I can't tell you how weird it is to look at yourself in a portrait, especially one so uncannily dead-on as this one. I feel suddenly inadequate, like maybe I've cheated. What have I done to deserve to be immortalized in oils? When I die, will this portrait go to someone who knew and loved me, or will it hang in some Goodwill store somewhere next to a pair of decrepit macrame owls?

Now that it's done, I wonder, what possessed me to comission a portrait of myself? Have I become narcissistic in my late thirties, having spent so much time thinking of myself as a complete waste of oxygen for so long? Is all that inheritance money burning a hole in my pocket?

No to both. But I think spending a chunk of my inheritance on this indulgence is a way to communicate with my mothers.

Mothers. I typed that by accident, but I realized I should leave it. I had two mothers before I had none; one gave me up for adoption and the other adopted me to help her bear the burden of her own mother. There's something about having this portrait done that feels like giving the fucking bird to both of them.

This gorgeous canvas was done by the incomparable Stephen Schwolert, who I hope now knows how good he is. Steve shouldn't have do anything but this for a living. Thank you so much, Steve. You're a great friend and a tremendous painter.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Republican advantage: Framing Theory

During, and ever since, the last election, I've found myself furious at Democrats for their seeming inability to grasp (let alone compete in) the Game that Republicans play so well. I've never been quite sure myself what it was that 'Game' was, only that Dems sucked at it, and it was costing them almost all of the confidence America once had in their ideals. How was it, for instance, that the Repubs had created such a strong, clear agenda while making Dems look like mealy-mouthed intellectuals with no interest in The People? And how did the Republicans manage to crumple John Kerry's image like a gum wrapper, while Dems seemed just to be shouting hopelessly into a deaf crowd serious concerns about the mismanagement of the war?

So I was reading the NY Times this morning and came across this article by Matt Bai about the way Republicans have used language to capture the American attention. It's a long article, but check it out. It will fill you with a sense of Orwellian dread, while at the same time offering hope that the Dems have finally figured out what they need to do to prevent our government from becoming a one-party affair.

Now, the Hub says I shouldn't put NY Times articles links on my posts, because some people aren't registered to the NY Times. Well...register, for Chrissake! It's not that difficult.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Let's just get this outta the way.


The urge to show one's animals on one's blog is apparently impossible to resist, because I'm the *last* person who wants to see them on someone else's blog. I mean, truly: nobody really gives a flying rat's ass what your pets look like. Yet, here I am, unable to help myself.

Nuka and Orson

I mean, does everybody think their fat tabby is the most beautiful creature ever to grace a dingy tile floor? Please.

Ella and Genji

Fortunately, for those of you who read my blog (all four of you), my animals are clearly superior specimens and well worth admiring. Oh, yeah, and for all you parakeet lovers, here's my bird:

Mr. Pea

No, this is not a stock photo, this was taken in my driveway. This is Mr. Peacock, aka Tarzan, Pasha, and Bob, depending on what part of the neighborhood you ask.

Okay, Mr. Pea is not technically mine. He's actually a semi-feral bird that showed up in the backyard one day. But I'll be damned if anyone spends more than I do on gourmet peacock food for this guy. In my head, that makes him mine.

Alright, now that I've gotten that out of my system, I swear that these creatures shall never again appear on my blog.

Until, of course, they do something really cute that the whole world simply must see.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Ella. RIP, little sister.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Ritalin Years, Part Two

If I look back and try to find the positive, character-building messages I received from my teachers during my stint in the gristmill of the Fort Worth Independent School District, I come up with fuck-all. Well, to be fair, there was that Breakfast Optimist Club Award I got for reading skills, which afforded me a fuzzy photo in the community newsletter. But that was the same year I had to endure Mrs. Ashburn, who seemed to be unclear as to which century it was. If we so much as looked like we were thinking of misbehaving, she would dig her bony thumb deep into the flesh between our shoulder and neck and hold it there until she had slowly recited the class rules. She also made us stay in from recess once a week to listen to Bible stories. How I hated her. I saw her years later selling panties at Stripling's and Cox, barely ambulatory in what was surely her final decade. I remember thinking that evil made people live longer.

With each beginning of a new grade, there was hope that I would straighten up and fly right, that I would forsake my disruptive ways and fulfill my destiny as a posterchild for the success of the public school system. The principal and my new fifth grade homeroom teacher decided that, despite my love for clever potty humor and for sharing it during the pin-drop silence of spelling tests, I should be cultivated as a leader. With responsibility given to me, I would begin to walk the straight and narrow. I was offered my first job. Instead of enduring my regular social beat-downs at recess, I was given the task of tutoring first graders who had fallen way behind.

Walking to the first grade classroom from lunch was a grand moment in an otherwise miserable day. Where once I had trugged along the hallways, embarrased of my embroidered coulottes and greasy hair, I now held my head up high. As the only tutoring student, it was clear that all the teasing and harrassment I received daily was mere jealousy . I told myself: all those other kids now had nothing on me. I was no longer just a student, I was a member of the staff, possessed of authority and power. I would be a great teacher one day, and the rest of the snotnosed brats would collect my garbage at the curb.

My first student was a boy named Fred who just couldn't wrap his mind around either the social graces or the alphabet. He was smaller than the other first graders, and lacked all his teeth, and I wondered if someone had mixed up his birth records. He liked Snoopy and whispering the word 'shit' and snickering. My task was to make him understand that his success in society for the rest of his life hinged on understanding the words 'please' and 'thank you'. It seemed to be a simple enough lesson to me, and that my own mastery of the two words empowered me to pass this on to him. But it wasn't that simple.

I drew a picture for Fred of a stick figure holding a ball, and another stick figure saying, "May I please have the ball?" I explained---very thoroughly, I thought---the concept of politeness. I then drew the exchange of the ball, and Stick Figure Two saying "Thank You!". Both stick figures had wide grins, which I intended would show how politeness makes everyone happy. "Now, let's try," I said to Fred, putting a hand on his shoulder to make him stop squirming and giggling. "Let's pretend I have a ball, and you would like to see the ball for a while, what do you say?"
"Gimme the ball!" he declared.
"That's the old way. We wanna do it the new, polite way. Look at the picture. What do you say?"
He studied the picture for a second, then pulled at my shirt. I leaned in.
"Shitty shit." he whispered, then burst into laughter, covering the left side of my face with a fine spray of child spit.
Mrs. Baker, who had been working at her desk, came over and spoke a few stern words into Fred's ear, and he shriveled like a salted slug. She had her doubts, I knew, about the little guy, and about me. When she walked away, I felt I had to level with Fred.
I leaned in, with an eye on the retreating teacher. "Okay, sweetie, look. You gotta learn this stuff, so that Mrs. Baker gets off your case, and I gotta teach you this stuff, because I'm going to be a great teacher someday, and I need the practice. So what say we help each other out here?"
"Mrs Baker is shitty," he whispered.
"Yeah, she is. So do we have a deal?"
"Please-thank-you," he said.

As my slow but sure progress proved my competency, I was given another student, and I alternated in between them every other recess. My pupils adored me, and grinned like puppies when I came into the room. With this extracurricular responsibility, my own grades improved. I began to see a future forming ahead of me, one that would take me to heights at which I could look down upon my previous tormentors with sweet pity tinged with retribution. There was not only hope for me, but at last, a clear path to my destiny as The Most Intellegent, Capable Woman Ever To Walk The Earth. But thanks to the Bee Gees, it would all fall apart very soon.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


During the final cleanout of my mother's house after she died, I found the ruins of a dollhouse in the storage shed. It had been given to me as a birthday present. I had begged for one after being enamored with the ones at a local hobby shop. These little houses were painted and warmly furnished with irrisistable miniatures of every imaginable household object, down to tiny red apples in china bowls. The one I got was empty and unpainted and it made me cry. It never occured to me that you had to paint the damn thing yourself. In the state in which I found it years later, it was a perfect image to underscore the loss of my childhood home.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Resurrecting The Ritalin Years

"Only to the extent that we expose ourselves to annihilation do we discover that which is indestructable in us" Pema Chodron said. It took me until my early thirties to realize she wasn't advocating doing so with expensive vodka and weed. What weren't indestructable were my stomach and self-esteem. The back, too, from years of waiting tables, bartending, and laying crumpled in bed with a belly full of Grey Goose.

I was given the name 'Tifanie' by the people who adopted me because it wasn't enough to pick a name that sounded prissy as hell, it also had to carry a spelling that would afford me years of ridicule and mispronunciation. During elementary school I went by nicknames, usually something shortened: T.J., Tif. For a whole summer I called myself Vette, after a beloved tee shirt with the car's nickname written in loopy rainbow cursive. The nickname stuck until I started getting teased for wearing the shirt to day camp every single day, clean or not.

I was an intellegent, impatient, loudmouthed little shit from kindergarten to middle school, despite pharmeceutical intervention. Ritalin was an afternoon regimen for me all through the elementary years. I was on the highest recommended dose, which doesn't suprise me now, knowing how my mother adored medicene. At the time, I didn't really know what they were for, just that every day before I got my ass kicked at recess, I was to march straight to the office to receive my medication: a small, bluish-white tab, pressed into my hand by the office secretary. I don't remember feeling any different; I was still bored, wiggly, weary from endless taunting, and focused solely on foiling the teacher and winning a roomful of snickers.

I was recognized as a 'gifted student' at some point or other, which amounted only to batteries of tests, getting yanked out of class to participate in accelerated reading programs, and the expectation that I would set some sort of example. The child psychologist I saw wanted my mother to skip me from the second to the fourth grade. I only got the news as a side note, driving back home from his office, along with her decision that it was a bad idea because I would "be at odds with my peers." Considering that the most interaction I'd had lately with my "peers" was sitting in the grass while a group of kids threw grass clods and insults at me, I was supremely pissed off at her. So instead of bragging rights and higher learning, it was pills and spankings for me, for a good long while.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Waiting for Photo

I thought that now, since blogger will download images, I'd take the time to shamelessly display some of the animals I know everyone is pissing themselves to see.

Problem is, blogger is a tad slow in the uploading process as of yet, and I'm getting restless. I'll continue to blog until the photo shows up, and hopefully ease the tedium of waiting.

DAY ONE: I don't blame blogger for taking so long. After all, this is a new thing, and it's probably being used by a bazillion bloggers at once. I can wait patiently.

DAY TWO: My spirits are still up, although this is definitely a test of will. Haven't left the bed yet, as I'm afraid I'll miss the publishing of my first photo (by blogger). I will wait.

DAY THREE: Some people might not understand my vigil, and would certainly criticize me for losing my job and laying in my own filth, just for a photo. But it is they who are the the losers, with nothing good enough to wait for.

DAY FOUR: Feeling weak. hanen't eaten. huband left today, took cats to anmal shlter.

DAY FIVE: Okay, fuck this. The world will just have to wait to see how precious my cats are. Sorry to disappoint.