Sunday, April 30, 2006
Blogging Against Disablism
As a child, I attended an experimental inclusive elementary school. Half of the campus hosted students with Down’s Syndrome. The remaining classrooms housed the neighborhood kids and children from across the district who had various disabilities.

There was no teasing, not because we were instructed to refrain, but because it didn’t occur to us to do so. If a newcomer uttered a negative word, it was put to a halt immediately – usually before any adult had to intervene. Like many of the students, I spent my mornings before school assisting in the physical therapy room and my recesses with a boy named Paul.

Paul’s wheelchair didn’t confine us to quiet play. We spent most our recesses together with a pudgley playground “Duty” (that’s what we called her) chasing after us, yelling, “Stop right noooow! You’re going to killllllll him!” upon which Paul would yell, “Go faster!” as we scram-tailed it down whatever decline we’d chosen to tackle. Scenes like this happened all over the playground. They were neither noteworthy or exceptional, nor were any of the students. It was our life. It’s how we learned, played and interacted.

The announcement came towards the end of my fourth-grade year. State officials decided to shut down our school. They told us most of our friends with disabilities would be routed to a new school, designed for “them” and a few would transition into another school with “us.” No one had ever sorted us according to our physical abilities. Formerly not part of our vocabulary, the words “us” and “them” became our first indicator that life outside our campus was different.

Our determination to keep the entire student-body together vamped into a fourth grade protest. We cared about each other. We did not want to be separated. Counselors arrived to “help with the transition.” Through their counsel, we learned the outside world was not like our world. We were warned our friends might not be treated well at our new school and encouraged to become “voices of change,” to stand up for our friends, teach students at our new school what we already knew and forgive their ignorance.

By the close of the year, we were optimistic, inspired and out to change the world. On the last day of school, local reporters converged on our classroom, selecting a few children to interview and photograph. I landed on the front page of our newspaper, quoted as stating “we’re gonna change [our new school]. The atmosphere will get better.” (Precocious little brat, wasn’t I?)

The new school year began without my friend, Paul, and many other friends who now rode buses to “their school.” But, it also began with my little brother. Like Paul, David had cerebral palsy.

They called him “cripple,” “sped,” “gimp” and “retard.” He was poked and prodded, kicked and pushed over (the latter happening especially often because it was so easy, given David’s difficulty keeping his balance.) And me, the eleven year old who planned to change “the atmosphere” at my new school, learned about hate, ignorance and apathy.

Hate spreads. It spread from a small group of bullies to a larger group of kids who discovered taunting my brother was a one-way ticket to social acceptance. It spread to our new school “Duty” who turned a blind eye. It spread even to the principle, who found paddling and suspending my brother following an assault easier than suspending the assaulters – or addressing the root of the problem.

Finally, after months of rushing to the playground every recess to stand guard over my brother, the hate spread to me too. When I saw my brother lying on the ground crying, the lead bully standing above him with a satisfied grin, I pounced. He wasn’t much bigger than me, but he was a boy.

And I pulverized him.

I’ve never been proud of that, mostly because I didn’t change the world as I’d been directed to do – as I believed I could do. I didn’t change the school. I didn't change one bully. My brother transfered to another school and I was instructed to make nice with his tormentors. I didn’t, but there was no more bloodshed.

My brother and I are now in our thirties. I went on to teach children with disabilities; he headed off to L.A. and carved himself a nitche in the music industry. Neither of us forget the contrast of what came before, and after, our inclusive school. I suppose it serves as a reminder to those of us who parent, teach, counsel, love or are, ourselves, persons with disabilities, both the power of compassion and the danger of apathy.
 
Rhonda Ruminated at 5:58 PM | Permalink | 19 People Ruminated links to this post
Saturday, April 29, 2006
Meet the Turtlesons
One of the first signs of impending Missouri summer is the emergence of box turtles from their winter hibernation. I get a first hand view, being host to “Turtle Town,” my little turtle rehab center.

When I first moved to Missouri, my inner-animal rescuer couldn’t ignore the turtles. They wander across highways, looking for turtle tail. Some make it. Some don’t. When I find injured survivors, I bring them home where the kids and I nurse their injuries. Those that can’t be returned to the wild (turtles have a homing instinct and cannot simply be deposited in the closest field) become official Turtletown citizens.

Yesterday the Turtlesons, our current residents, dug from their hibernation holes, poked their little heads out and toddled off for a nice lunch. Fortunately, I was just cruising through Turtletown and caught it on film.
(Aw, quit complaining. You’re lucky I didn’t videotape it – now that would be really boring.)
 
Rhonda Ruminated at 6:48 PM | Permalink | 10 People Ruminated links to this post
Thursday, April 27, 2006
My friend, Mitchell
Though he was headed for a quick trip to Bangkok, my last email from him came from a cyber-café somewhere in Calcutta. We have a deal, Mitchell and me – I understand why he wanders the globe and he promises to check in occasionally to let me know he’s breathing, wherever he is. A couple times a year, I am lucky enough to receive from him a long, poetic letter about a moment of peace he found laying in the morning sun on a rock in the desert; bathing under a waterfall in a foreign country or digging his toes into the warm sandy beach of a tropical ocean.

And, every two years or so, I’ll pull into the parking lot of the local VA and catch a glimpse of a very tall man leaning against a little, old red pick-up truck, with a big-ass grin on his face. Those are always jubilant and bittersweet hellos because I know he will disappear just as quietly and quickly as he arrived. But, I am grateful for the visits. They make the long stretches between each one seem to fade into insignificance.

Everything he owns fits in the back of his tired and worn little truck. It doesn’t amount to much: boxes of books, personal files a few changes of clothes and a lawn chair or two. The books tell the story of where his mind has been – philosophy, psychology, literature, religion and history. The files hold degrees, certifications and employment history: elementary teacher, gallery owner, counselor. But mostly, he is a seeker – of what, he isn’t sure – so he keeps wandering.

He makes friends wherever he goes. Likely, in every city in every country he visits there is someone like me, looking forward to the day he arrives in town, wondering, upon goodbye, if they will ever see him again and missing him when he’s gone. He isn’t aware of the imprint he leaves upon the hearts of those he connects with. He doesn’t see himself as others see him: a beautiful, brilliant, compassionate soul.

He spent much of his service in Vietnam living and communing with the Montagnard people. He remembers them fondly, his face swilling with emotion when he recalls their abandonment by his government and, by proxy, himself. He talks less about what happened at the Cambodian border, but it filled his mind with demons and his body with Agent Orange. These things combined are what he runs from.

He’d be the first to tell you “wherever you go, there you are,” that you can’t outrun yourself, all the while a one-way ticket to some foreign land tucked into his pocket. He laughs at his own irony. Sometimes I think he should just bunker down, invite the demons in and face them square on. Most of the time though I understand that his quest is as much about running away from something as it is about holding on to hope. His hope is magnificent in light of the traumas he’s suffered. He wouldn’t be my friend, Mitchell, without it.

His last brief note arrived two months ago: “Can’t wait to tell you all I’ve seen – Your friend, Mitchell.”

I can’t wait, either.
 
Rhonda Ruminated at 11:57 PM | Permalink | 4 People Ruminated links to this post
Monday, April 24, 2006
Weekend Perspectives
Since it is quite easy for me to write three hundred words about the view from a park bench, putting a whole weekend into one essay might prove difficult. Telling you about the weekend is much more complicated than writing a travelogue. It was not just about a wallflower attending her first formal dance. It was also about a mother discerning if the most difficult decision she has ever made concerning her child was the right one.

Being in close proximity to my ex for three days also made it about putting my former life in perspective. I am happy to report, I made the right decision on that front many years ago – and also that the ex and I are now well practiced for the future graduations and weddings we’ll have to share. No bloodshed occurred. All sarcastic commentaries remained in my head where they belonged (a greater accomplishment than me winning the war with a pair of pantyhose.) And, I must have phoned home twenty times, elucidating my renewed appreciation for the character of my other-half.

The school sits in a tiny Midwest town established during the civil war era. The military ball is likely the town’s bread and butter as well as its bane. Hundreds of families arrive for the weekend, filling its hotels, restaurants and beauty salons. By Saturday evening, the outsiders are bedecked in tuxedos and expensive gowns and limousines share the streets with pickup trucks and tractors

From the outside looking in, it probably appears affluent, snobbish and show-boaty. But the reality is that most of the attendees aren’t much different from me. They didn’t aspire to send their children to a military academy. Their year has been marked by worry, stress, sacrifice and financial strain. And for many, like me, the weekend becomes a celebration of the turn-around their child has made—one gigantic sigh, full of relief and pride.

The highlights . . .


My Son:

A kid who once made slouching and slacking an art form has transformed into a young man in who takes a leadership position in his unit and is the first to come to attention when his commanding officer approaches. Yet he retains the goofy sweetness that makes me love him and his teachers forgive him,

The Ball:

While I remained true to my wallflower nature, I witnessed both my children stepping onto the ballroom floor for the first time, a bittersweet, yet prideful moment.

I must wear my wallflower on the center of my forehead. I about fell off my heels when another cadet’s mother approached me and asked, “Is this seat taken?” and followed-up her question with the statement, “I hope this is the wallflower table because this is sooo not us!” We became companions for the night – not surprising to our sons, who have become best friends in the last few months.

The Military Parade:

Lately, my life is about finding parallels in unexpected places. An older gentleman sat next to me in the stands and, while I was enthralled with the parade – and amazed by my son’s role – he provided a running commentary of each happening on the field and the military meaning behind it, complements of fifty-five years of attending the annual event. At the parade’s conclusion, he shook my hand and I thanked him for sharing the parade with me. He told me he was a Word War II Navy veteran. Given my history, and my son’s recent identification with the grandfather he never knew, I suspect the Universe had something to do with the seating arrangements.

He walked away before seeing the tears streaming down my cheeks.


And, of course, it was a gleeful moment when I returned to my hotel room, shed my pantyhose and pulled 52 bobby pins from my “up-do.” Still, I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year.

(You can find more photos of the weekend here)
 
Rhonda Ruminated at 11:38 PM | Permalink | 14 People Ruminated links to this post
Thursday, April 20, 2006
It's a Girl!
Dear Foo-Foo Girls,

You know who you are. Your hairdresser, nail artist and tanning salon are on speed dial on your cell phone. You wouldn’t dream of going to the grocery store in flip flops with yesterday’s hair in a sloppy ponytail. Your makeup bag is bigger than my suitcase and is organized by seasons. You carry a second bag full of objects of bodily torture: things that curl, poke, tweeze and exfoliate. You have things in your underwear drawer unrecognizable to the likes of me: bras that look like suction cups, underwear that lifts, spreads and flattens – or claims to be invisible. Speaking of underwear, you don’t just wear underwear, you wear under ensembles; you are color-coordinated from the skin up.

I don’t understand you. I used to laugh at you. Now, though, I am in awe of you. How do you do it? Where do you find the time? And, more importantly, how do you afford it? Do you take out a 30-year ARM to finance the girly-girl stuff? Borrow from your parents? Pilfer from your children’s’ college funds?

In preparation for the military baawwl I have shopped at the mall for the first time since 1987. I’ve been cut, colored, tweezed, mani and pedi-cured. I’ve shaved, buffed and bronzed. I am exhausted. The house is a disaster. I can’t remember my name. This foo-foo girl stuff is a full time job and I am putting in my resignation first thing Monday morning.

There is a reason I belly laugh through Miss Congeniality. I am “Gracie” – without the kick-ass FBI job and concealed weapon.

If, when I return next week, you see a post titled: All I Want is World Peace, you’ll know the damage done this week is irreversible.
 
Rhonda Ruminated at 2:00 PM | Permalink | 13 People Ruminated links to this post
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Observations
One of my favorite pastimes is people watching. Give me a park bench to plop down upon, a line to wait in or a flight delay and I can endlessly amuse myself observing people and building scripts in my mind of their entire lives.

The habit is likely a hangover from growing up adopted, from endlessly scanning faces in crowds, looking for someone familiar and from feeling like an alien observer of normal people, studying them that I might obtain the key to normality.

Sometimes, I don’t like what I see. Sometimes, I see a child in emotional pain; a single mother, stressed and distressed; a father, burdened with and worried about responsibilities; an old man whose loneliness weighs upon his shoulders, pushing them down.

Sometimes, I see beautiful things: A teenager not embarrassed to kiss his mother goodbye in the school parking lot; an elderly couple holding hands with a cadence that tells you this is the hand she reached for when he returned from war, the hand he reached for after she brought his children into the world. With just one effortless gesture, you know that for more than fifty years those hands have clung to each other through happiness and pain, the decades unable to shake their love for one another.

Friday night, I hit an observer’s goldmine.

The train was due to arrive at the Amtrak station at 10:30pm. I’ve never been to this little town, and felt a bit nervous about sitting at a train station, in the dark, awaiting my son’s arrival. I packed my camera and my mace, not sure which I would need.

Entering this town felt like stepping back in time. Hundreds of little shops and restaurants nestled into turn of the century buildings. The corner parks and sidewalk cafes bustled with the Friday activities of the twenty-something crowd. The sidewalks and crosswalks filled with foot-traffic – silhouettes of young lovers backlit by antique streetlamps. And through the center of it all, a roaring freight train, seemingly miles long, made its way slowly through town.

The passenger train was delayed an hour. Thrilled with the ambience of this place, I happily settled down on a bench for the wait – and the observing. Across the tracks, a young woman played fetch with a golden retriever under the glow of a streetlamp. At the corner, a couple tangled up together, deep in conversation, leaning against a red and white train crossing sign. To my side, an older gentleman, triggered into times past by the setting, told his son about “riding the rails” during the ‘40’s.

Experiences like this once found me projecting myself into a different life; the life I might have lived. In that life I might have been a street artist or a young lover in a quaint town, without a care in the world. Or I might have simply been a girl tossing a ball to a golden retriever – a girl with a real family. Now though I am content to remain on the outside looking in. It’s a familiar place, a place I’ve always been. But even that seems to be changing.

She plopped down next to me, a Starbuck’s in one hand and cigarette in the other, asking me if she’d missed the 10:30 train. She told me her twins were coming home from college. I said, “That sounds expensive,” and suddenly we were engrossed in the kind of conversation usually reserved for lifetime friends. For fifty minutes we shared our lives, discovering amazing parallels and speaking with an honestly not usually exchanged between strangers. We connected. It was real. And the time went by so quickly, the rumble of the approaching train startled us both. I saw disappointment in her face, recognizing it because it mirrored my feelings.

Our children emerged from the swarm of offloading passengers. She touched my arm and said, “It was really great talking to you. Maybe we’ll run into each other Sunday.” I told her I hoped so. And I meant it.

This is the third time in as many months I’ve been shaken from my usual position as observer and dreamer into making a real-time connection with another person. Maybe the Universe is matchmaking kindred spirits. Or, perhaps, it is the product of feeling comfortable in my own skin.

Whatever it is, I think I like it.

Update: We returned to the train station today. You can view the photos here.

 
Rhonda Ruminated at 11:14 PM | Permalink | 15 People Ruminated links to this post
Saturday, April 08, 2006
Wait a Minute, Mr. Trashman
The company is named Christian Curbside. They claim to be a hardworking Christian-based company with “strong moral values." Now, I am a non-secular utility service chooser. I don’t give a rat’s hiney if the guy who picks up my trash worships the devil as long as he shows up Monday and Friday mornings and makes it disappear.

What my garbage man doesn’t know is that I can hear him from my window every garbage day. As good Christians do, he prays a lot. Through my window, I hear his prayers:

God,

Damn, stupid, bitch doesn’t listen to a thing I say – can’t put the f*$#&in’ cans in the right place.

~~~

Jesus Christ,

On a f#$&@in’ stick! What’s that bitch got in this can?

~~~

Holy Mary, Mother of Christ,

Can’t the stupid bitch understand English? I told her ‘put the f*$&%in’ cans on the other side of the driveway!

~~~

Amen, my brethren. I feel your pain. Not.

We are at war, the garbage man and I. For a year, we’ve been leaving notes for one another. He explains the garbage cans are to be exactly three feet from the road, on the left side of the driveway. I explain such placement will cause them to role down the hill, into the road and cause either a disastrous mess or traffic fatality. He tells me he is not contracted to walk the extra one foot to the only level place I can put them. I explain his supervisor has instructed me to leave them where they are. He tells me to put them on the other side of the driveway, exactly three feet from the curb. I put them there. In the ditch. The ditch exactly center of three feet from the curb. He throws the cans into the middle of the street, upon which they are smashed to smithereens by a dump truck.

I call and complain. I carefully explain the theoretic improbability of cans on wheels remaining in place on a hillside. I lay the entire history of the Great Garbage Can Wars before Miss Christian Customer Service. I even share with her the prayers of her good, Christian soldier of refuse. She says she’ll “ask him what he wants you to do,” and get back to me. What the hell?

She got back to me, all right. In a formal letter:

“Please leave the garbage cans three feet from the curb on the left side of the driveway.”

Bless you, and thank you for choosing Christian Curbside.

I tossed the letter in the trash and said a prayer:

God,

Damn good for nothing psychopathic, control freak garbage man. You are fired. I am changing companies.

Can I get an "AMEN!" ?
 
Rhonda Ruminated at 12:04 AM | Permalink | 11 People Ruminated links to this post
Friday, April 07, 2006
The Wallflower Ball, Revisited
What could possibly be worse than the Dance of Doom? Well, okay, nothing. But, coming in a close second is . . .

Getting on a plane, traveling 2,000 miles, changing into a dress and pantyhose for the second time in less than six months and attending your 20th high school reunion. That’s right. Today in my mailbox, wedged between my “excused from jury duty” notice (there is a god) and a reminder to vaccinate the dogs, I discovered my invite to The Bellevue High School, class of 1986, 20th reunion.

Before any fellow pantyhose commiserates send sympathy cards, I am happy to announce this RSVP will be returned with the “not attending” box checked and an annotation stating: sorry I couldn’t make it, but I have exceeded my pantyhose limit for the decade. While my classmates are giggling about baldheads, beer bellies and plumped-up prom queens, I’ll be home in my comfy jammies with my feet propped up and my nose in a good book.

Related to the above reminder of how rapidly I am aging is Kim’s post, PE Teachers Are Demons From Hell and Charlie’s stroll into school day traumas, Wimmin’ Troubles. It seems a few of us have been triggered into recalling the not-so-better days of our youth. As the men shared their adolescent women and locker room angst, I was reminded of my own middle school’s real life version of the book/movie Carrie.

Our Carrie was an incredibly scrawny, frizzy haired girl with the disposition to collapse into fits of sobbing hysteria in the middle of the classroom. She was mercilessly tormented by nearly everyone. I was always kind to her, never participating in the teasing, but still carry guilt for keeping quiet while her tormentors went to work.

My memory of her sparked, I googled her name and found a swimsuit model/actress with quite an impressive resume and a body to die for. I’m not 100% certain it’s her, but if it is, she’s a far cry from the girl who forgot to wear her gym shorts and ran from the locker room in baggy, floral bloomers to be greeted by jeers from the entire student body. She’s hot. All I can say is: you go girl; you deserve it.

So, while “Carrie” does her next swimsuit calendar I am left to ponder why I remain a wallflower. I cringe at the thought of any event following a formal invitation. I am blessed my Seattle friends understand my disposition, never exclude me from their gatherings and don’t criticize me for failing to attend. They take me as I am and are pleasantly surprised when I show up.

I am not entirely hopeless. I did accept an invitation recently. I will be joining several friends for a formal dinner and an evening in a famous St. Louis mansion/bed & breakfast. They’ve been trying to drag me from the house for four years, so my enthusiasm to attend the all-night excursion was met by utter shock.

The attraction to this event? The Lemp Mansion is deemed one of the top ten most haunted places in America. Following dinner, we’ll have the entire place to ourselves for the night, accompanied by paranormal researchers.

So all it takes to get me out of the house is an invitation from people who have been dead for a century whose sole purpose is to scare the ever-loving crap out of me. I should probably question why that sounds like a better experience than reuniting with schoolmates – or perhaps I should immediately book an appointment with a therapist.

One thing is certain, however. When I arrive at the Lemp, I will not be wearing pantyhose.
 
Rhonda Ruminated at 9:52 AM | Permalink | 7 People Ruminated links to this post
Sunday, April 02, 2006
The Wallflower Bawl
Someone just shoot me. Please. The gods are conspiring against me. The Universe has spied upon my worst nightmare, making it materialize, probably just for the entertainment value. I have entered the realm of Wallflower Hell.

My son’s school is having a Spring Dance in conjunction with a Parent’s Weekend. Cool, I thought, imagining a weekend getaway in a comfy hotel and some good old-fashioned family time. We needed a little retreat.

The official invitation arrived last week:

Your Son’s School Invites You to

The Spring Ball

Attire: This is a black tie event. Men, please wear tuxedos. Women, please dress in formal gowns. And, be prepared to dance!
See you there!


What the fuck???

I do keep up on my children’s school events. Nothing about “Parent’s Weekend” on the calendar suggested to me it would include shoving my badly bunioned feet into shoes two sizes too small, a dress costing more than this month’s mortgage payment and wearing the evilest invention in the history of mankind: pantyhose.

I envisioned my role at this shindig as something akin to chaperone. I pictured parents sitting in the bleachers, taking a few photos, drinking punch and patrolling dark corners for wandering teenagers with hands to match.

Let me share my history with dresses, uncomfortable shoes and pantyhose. There are only two occasions upon which you will see me sporting any of the above: weddings and funerals. I have even left specific instructions to my beloved for my own funeral: If you insist on a viewing, I insist on being dressed in flannel jammies and 100% cotton socks. If you defy my wishes and shove my pasty dead legs into a pair of pantyhose, I WILL come back and haunt you mercilessly.

Who came up with this brilliant plan, anyway? Being a former teacher, I am quite sure the teachers aren’t looking forward to spending their weekend at work, wearing clothes costing more than a week’s salary. I am certain it wasn’t the kids’ plan. What teenager wants to see their decrepit mother all dolled up, sharing a dance floor with his peers? Surely, I can’t be the only parent facing this weekend with an impending sense of doom, can I?

Just as I am about to swallow my last ounce of wallflower dignity and seal my fate with my signature on the R.S.V.P., settled in the knowledge there is nothing capable of making this event worse than it already is, the phone rang.

Caller ID informs me it is my ex. Because our children are at school, I know no good can come of this call and consider not answering at all.

“Hello,” I say, but am thinking: Hello, asshat.

“I just got my invitation to the ball,” says he, audibly chuckling, “you’re going aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I say, whilst thinking: of course I am going to the ball, at the school I spent my life savings on with no help from you and because I am the parent who does ALL the parenting, you moronic twat.

“Hahahahaha!” he proclaims, “You have to wear a dress! Hahahahaha!”

“Fuck you,” I say, but I am thinking, well, I’m thinking: Fuck you!

And this is where things do get worse. This is where a wallflower’s worst nightmare morphs into The Dance of Doom.

My ex informs me he is flying in (in his typical arrive for the glory, hand me the bill, then disappear into the ethers fashion) for the shindig. In eight years, I’ve only had to see him twice – and both times were in a courtroom with two lawyers acting as buffers.

Pantyhose, a formal gown, fancy shoes, dancing, socializing and my ex for an entire weekend? What the hell have I done to rack up this kind of bad karma?

If I disappear following the third weekend in April, someone should probably notify the authorities. You’ll find me hanging from a noose crafted of pantyhose and chiffon.
 
Rhonda Ruminated at 5:35 PM | Permalink | 14 People Ruminated links to this post