The Mom in Me

(We lost my sweet mama, Lee Nichols, on July 25. Here’s a piece I wrote about her)

When I was growing up, many was the afternoon I heard the squeak of my mom’s Volvo brakes and knew she had arrived home from another day of teaching. But why wasn’t she coming in the front door? I’d walk into the study and peer out the blinds. There she sat in her station wagon, hands still on the steering wheel, staring into space. Often I had to walk out front and gently tap on the window.

“Mom? Are you coming in?” She’d look up from a dream. “Huh? Oh, yes?”

It wasn’t until I was an older teen that I remember visiting my mom’s classroom. Who was this woman? Her energy was boundless, not a hint of exhaustion. Light beamed from her eyes and her smile was contagious. She had created a world of fun. Kids were reading, drawing, dressing up, painting, laughing…and here was this magical creature, a teacher, singing her way around the room. They had their own songs. She had a look of delight I had mainly only seen on summer vacation or in a bakery. Children were calling out, “Lee! Lee! Lee!” desperate for her attention.

She was their god.

No wonder she arrived home, completely spent, staring into the great beyond.

On her worst days, when some parent had said something horrid or some administrator had made an awful power move, she would sigh and say, “Ev, whatever you do, don’t be a teacher.” …So, naturally I became a teacher. The contrarian apple does not fall far from the tree.

The night before my first class in Los Angeles, my mom called me to offer some advice. “Ev,” she said, “Whatever you do, avoid sarcasm in the classroom.” Yeah right, I thought. That’s great advice. Here was the queen of sarcasm. It was like Albert Einstein saying, “Avoid math in your calculations.”

And so I became a teacher, and for 16 years I also taught children. The best part of my day was always reading aloud, and as I dove deeply into children’s literature, I routinely brought home some recommended book and found to my surprise I already knew the story. My mom studied children’s literature and read us everything. The second best part of my day was grabbing a guitar and singing with the kids. The interesting part is I can’t really sing, but I seem to have knack for making up songs.

I will never forget the last day of my first week as a teacher. I pushed the last little creature out the door, stuffed papers and books into my backpack, crawled from my classroom to the parking lot, and drove home. I was found an hour later, by Amy tapping on my windshield. There I sat, gripping the steering wheel. “What are you staring at?” she asked. I was staring at my mom.

5 Cent The Musical

I woke up this morning and the numbers on my digital clock were gone, replaced by the Manhattan skyline. I took it as a sign to move to New York and open my own one-man musical, “5 Cent.” The curtains open and it’s me, on a stool, acoustic guitar in hand. I look up, smile, and say, “Good morning, Boys and Girls, Toys and Furls, Whirls and Whirls!” I spin on the stool when I get to the whirls. The crowd eats it up.

Poof! There’s a flash of light and I disappear. The smoke clears and there I am in the back, sitting in a multi-colored oak tree with my guitar. I strum and sing:

I’m a little verb, sitting in a tree
Everybody likes to conjugate me
I fly, you fly, he, she, it flies, we fly, they fly…

The crowd joins in on the beloved classic and I look out at a beautiful mix of gray-haired loyalists and bright-eyed hipsters. The loyalists look around them, thinking, maybe there’s some depth to the new generation after all. The hipsters smile and move and think, you old farts broke the world but we’ll let you live to the end of the show.

At the end of the song, amidst thunderous applause, I throw the guitar offstage and begin to swing from branch to branch in an amazing display of monkey bar prowess, suddenly releasing and flipping through the air for a triple something dismount, nailing the landing to a new roar from the crowd. An electric guitar drops from the ceiling into my hands and I launch into a turbo-charged rendition of Monkey Bite:

Well I went down to a beach town
and I saw my friend fall down
I said are you feeling all right?
She said I got a…monkey bite

And so on, through my vast library of favorites. You get the idea. Oh yeah, it’s an intense ride of joy and by then end we all crawl out of the theater. The Sharpie crew is waiting by the stage door and I don’t let them down, simply scribbling 5 and the cent symbol on their playbills. I reach into my pocket and suddenly a handful of customized nickels (each one with my face of course and my motto: “To Simplify is to Evolve”) are raining down upon the squealing groupies. They scream thank you and oh my god as I hop on my cleverly disguised e-bike and pretend to pedal away…

But then I looked at my clock again, the scrambled old world digital lines, one little segment blinking on and off, and I remember that I spilled water on the clock in the middle of the night. Must have fried its little brain. I shrug and roll out of bed, “5 Cent” the one-man musical, fading like a sweet dream as I start my work day.

I Explain Writing to Kuji

Kuj, this is called “writing,” I tell my cat. He looks down over my shoulder from his window sill perch and quickly turns back to the window. Whatever. He looks for birds in the front yard, and when he finds them, he makes gurgly noises in his throat, like he’s choking and about to throw up a hairball.

It’s kinda like, Doc, it hurts when I look for birds!

So don’t look for birds.

Now when it’s dark, he can only be looking for other cats daring to enter his territory or perhaps his friend the skunk; they have a particularly unsettling relationship.

I look up again and he looks back down at me. His tail flicks against the top of my head as if to say,

I’ve got your writing right here, FLICK. He lies down on the top of the headboard, purring.

Kuji, what I am doing is writing, I repeat. You may ask, why do humans do it? I see you are standing and stretching, acting as if you’re not wondering about writing. And, OK, you just did an amazing leap over the desktop computer and are settling into my chair. That’s a good spot for you. So long as I don’t have to let you out of the room in the middle of the night. I’m aimin’ to get a good sleep.

It’s a good question, though. What is this writing that you are doing?

He yawns. I didn’t ask that…

See, we have words that we’ve created for communicating with each other. We call those things over there, I wave my hand, books, for example, and you are a cat and I a man. We even have words for the parts of you, like your ears that point up and you use to hear, or your little wet nose you use for sniffing things which, as far as I can tell, have no smell. You have soft paws but also hidden claws. You have that tail that waves about.

Kuji sticks one foot straight up in the air and licks his crotch. My son and I call this the “One Foot Salute,” a rather advanced version of giving someone the finger. If you had to work that hard to flip someone off, the world might be a better place, or at least more nimble.

So we have names for things but we also have words for what we do, like you just jumped from the window to the desk. People walk and run when they move fast. Cats too. You purr when you make that happy sound and we say hooray and all right! and Let’s…(pause) GO!

So we have words for things and what we do with things and ourselves and other words like to say what things look like. We have colors like red and blue and green but I’m not sure you see colors. Do you? Well, more on that later. The important thing is that we have sounds that go with these words. I can say book out loud. This will make sense when I read this out loud to you, I realize. In fact, that’s the only way you’ll see and hear this because I don’t think you can read, if I’m not being rude in saying that.

By read I mean look at the little combinations of lines and dots and so on that I’m putting right here and know that they make words and words mean something.

So, I know you’re asking, why write these words down if you can just say them? True. Good question. But we write because not all words are for right now. Some words are for the ages, if that means anything to you. Other words are meant to be sent, like when you swat a hair tie and it slides across the floor. What’s a hair tie? You know, those little black circles you think are alive, but anyway we can swat words and send them flying through the air to other parts of the world. What’s the world? The world is like your territory but you know, round and relatively forever.

I see you’re heading off towards the door. I’ll talk…faster?

Then someone can pick up that hair tie in Japan or somewhere, I’ll explain later about Japan and all that, and they can read those same words, except that brings up languages. Hmm…

You’ve got both paws on the door and you’re stretching and now looking back at me.

Well said! I’ll let you out.

All the People

Imagine normal

Imagine you’re sitting in a chair in the sun

a light breeze blowing

watching a butterfly dance

and your heart is free

Imagine not worrying about a virus

or a Former Guy

or a Russian War Criminal

or a swiftly dying planet

or millions of hypnotized humans

or a revolting supreme court

Imagine normal

Imagine feet up

nose in a book

parts of your soul igniting

and a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies

cooling on the rack

No, don’t imagine

Do

Close the computer

unplug your television

Drop the phone

(and put your hands where I can see them)

Take actions which move you towards other living beings

friends, trees, flowers…

Go find a chair in the sun

in the shade

in the butterflies

in the breeze

Bake some cookies for godssakes

Reach for that guitar again

We need you whole

We need you ready to fight

We need you ready to

Imagine

Stink About It

Well, it’s about time you stink about it…

What’s that?

Think about it.

You said stink about it.

Did not.

Look, it’s right there still: stink…about…it.

(Frowns) Right where?

In the air! Where do you think words go, through the ground?! (Laughs)

Um, words don’t go anywhere. I mean, come on, just stink about it!

You said it again!

No, I did not. I distinktly did not. I just think you heard what you wanted to hear because you think too much and create things out of thin air. You’re like the statue: the stinker.

I don’t even know where to start. Luckily, it’s all there, the record of what you said, in the air above us. So, exhibit A…

There’s absolutely nothing there. You’re pointing at nothing!

EXHIBIT A, I say, you said “distinktly” and then over here, Exhibit B, look closely, you called it “the stinker.”

THAT’S It! I refuse to be bullied like this! You’re taking everything I say and…

Bullied?!

Yes! You don’t know how I loop about false accusations. I won’t be able to sleep, defending myself to my pillow all night. Luckily, I have drops I take, but I may have to double this stinkture I’ve been taking to help me…What? OK, NOW WHAT? What did I “say”?

Never mind.

No, what? What are you accusing me of now?!

I’m not going to take the bait. It’s plainly in the record, up there in the air…

That’s IT! Where did you get this ridiculous notion about words floating away in the air?

It’s not ridiculous. It’s obvious. Hello?! Why do you think they call them “air quotes” (makes air quotes).

OK…

Exactly! You have nothing to say. It’s alllll right there.

Really? Air quotes? That’s your big punch line?

Yes! I mean…how can I put this? Just stink about it!

Oops

That last piece was meant for my writing group blog. The theme was “Circle.”

In Hind Sight

What can I say? She had those eyes. You know the ones. Round. Round as a foosball. And brown. Brown as a cup of hot chocolate. And she was warm, maybe even hot like that, if you want to know the truth.

She came into my life one night. I was 27. I was riding my bicycle down the street. It was back during the Great Pandemic of 2050. Yes, there were still streets back then. And people. anyway. There I was on my bike and saw this human form crawling along on the sidewalk and normally I’d speed on by or club it over the head and consider the quality of meat of the thing, but something abut the way she whimpered as she crawled, almost a whimper in rhythm if you know what I mean, gave me pause. I screeched to a stop, which was dangerous, so I scanned the smoldering fields for any alerted zombies or wild beasts, but no one else seemed to hear me brake except her. She looked up from the sidewalk with the big round brown eyes and through the dirt and burnt skin, I caught a twinkle of something.

It might have just been radioactivity, but it spoke to me, warmed my heart.

I reached down and said here and held out my hand. She looked at it and flashed her teeth and for a second I thought she was going to take a bite, but then she smiled and reached slowly up her tattered rags and broken fingers. I took her hand and pulled her up (she howled with pain).

Now what?

I couldn’t ride with her on the bike. She couldn’t, wasn’t in the condition to hold on or to ride herself. So, I made a difficult decision. I left that bike. Do you know how precious a bicycle was back then, still is, well would be if we had streets? Well, it was like having nowadays, what?, a couple extra oxygen tanks or like some food with fiber. I left that beautiful old Schwinn lying there and I carried her twisted weightless form back to my rusted trailer and well the rest is history.

I mean it’s the future from that moment but history from this moment now when I’m telling you guys. And so that’s why I’m asking you to just let me go without a fight. She’s home, in our cave, and she’s all I care about in the universe. Those round eyes are portals to everlasting salvation, or at least art. You guys remember art?

He laughed nervously. The three, eight foot tall mutants looked at him with their various eyeballs while simultaneously looking at each other. They snorted and guffawed and said, what he took to mean, Aw , we’re still gonna eat you! And then they came for him. They closed in and he put his hands over his head and crouched into a ball.

Just then there was a loud bang and a sound like a firework shooting across the sky and one of the mutants grabbed his hind side and he was on fire. He took off running and the other two mutants turned to see where the rocket had come from and took off after him. He peered back through the smoke.

There she stood, well, kneeled, still smoking rocket launcher over her shoulder, remaining strands of greasy black hair over her otherwise bald head, a wide three tooth grin, one skinny-wristed fist in the air and those big round beautiful eyes.

Ahh, man, those big round beautiful eyes!

Read More Dance More

I’m increasingly convinced that one of the antidotes to this increasingly remote- and device-based life, is spending more hours each week reading good books. Or even bad books. Plus magazines, newspapers, and, heck, why not, blogs. Just not so much pithy or depressing or outraged social media posts. It’s like everyone’s trying to write the best one-liner on the inside of the bathroom stall, but even at its best, you’re still sitting on the shitter.

I also think we, or at least I, should dance more. Indubitably, in the next few weeks, I’ll fire up It’s a Wonderful Life yet again and when we get to the high school dance scene, I’ll think, that’s what we should all be doing most weekends. We need a dance hall revolution. We need to close up that laptop, power down that phone, turn and wave to our carefully constructed Zoom backdrop, and head bravely back out into the world. F%#* Zuckerberg. F%#* Bezos. And, though I am a life-long Apple loyalist, F%#* Jobs. You have innovated us right onto our asses, right into our glazed digital eyeballs, doom scrolling, checking on packages, and stopping to text at a stoplight. Feeling disconnected and depressed? Shake that thang.

When I read more, my mood lifts, time slows down, and instead of diving back down that digital rabbit hole, I sidestep it over to the grassy spot beneath the old oak tree. My brain comes back to life like a creek bed after the drought. Thoughts seep back into my neural pathways. Neurons snap, click, and sing. Flowers bloom. Birds sing.

I haven’t set foot in a classroom with real live students for about 20 months, but there have been a handful of moments during my #Zoomlife when I put on a good song and suddenly all of us in our little Hollywood Squares began to bob and move to the music. Suddenly, for a hot minute, we were human again.

I want more of all of that.

Bad Poetry Week

I just found myself rubbing my palms together in the kitchen and thinking, “Time to write some bad poems about whatever. Time for a bad poetry week!” One of the biggest obstacles to writing is fear of writing something bad. So, we have to find ways to embrace the bad, to enthusiastically nod our heads and step into the bad. I remember at my ten-year high school reunion, feeling kind of stiff and awkward when it came to dancing. My friend turned to me and said, “I just do my goofy dance,” and his arms went loose, his whole body let go of tension and he became a rubber chicken. I tried it and it was incredibly liberating. If you’re going to dance, dance. If you’re going to write, get goofy, get loose, and instead of letting bad snort and tease and shut you down, walk directly over to bad, hold out a hand and invite bad to the dance floor.

In the Tent by the Lake

in the tent by the lake

the water makes its voice

heard

licks the rocks all night

humming yummy yummy yum

and the wind grabs Tent

by the cheeks

pinching, shaking, shouting,

You look like-a mamma!

The rain falls in socially distanced drops

kerplop plop

ping

a pingping

a patterpatterpatter

then breaks into

a doowop a boowop a pingy pingping

SPLAT!

In the lake by the tent

Tent peeks out

under half lidded rainfly

smiles sheepish

guffaws, awwwwww

turns redfaced

can’t believe its own glory

When the clouds see the tent

it’s the rightquick glance

of a flying elephant

snorting wispy cloudboogies

Hey Tent, why not fly?

cue trumpet

gone

In the undermarsh, below Tent

creepycrawly squishy intellectuals

pace caverns and corridors

looking up,

wringing mollusks

adjusting antennae

the world has ended!

Il mondo! Il mondo!

Great Tent has landed

Sitting on the dock of the lake

with murmuring sorelle in Tent behind

two posts frame frothy ripples

like finger goalposts

for flicking triangular paper footballs

in math class

By the side of thedock

tucked, everlasting,

the big rock talks to the lake

stern, granite, shoulders above water

Rock barks, haw haw!

eagley eep yippityyip

Wow wow blippity blip wow haw!

imagines smattering applause in the wind

Rock beats chest

gazing out to lake core

tries to formulate a granular idea

but needs years

YEARS

to capture next thought

never gets a word in with cheeky cheeky birds

sputtering yeehaw jetski

and even slow humans

if we could just remember

to pause a millenia

Rock would surely supply a witty rejoinder

women are from Venus

Men are from Mars

and Rock is from Earth

and this is a dimple

filled with happy water

and by it sits

a palace made of air

curved poles

stretched nylon

mesh

and soft cotton