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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Memories of September 2001

In early September of this year, I got a lovely message from my cousin Viki, who lives in western Hungary. At the time I received it, I was in a delicate emotional state. After several months of surgeries and complications for Trent, as well as having our car break down to the point of no repair, we had one final, heartbreaking blow. We had to make the decision to have our darling little dog, Paris, put down. She had been our Babygirl for twelve and a half years, so it was devastating. When the news stories and memorials started to come on the television and internet right around our wedding anniversary, September ninth, we felt it even more deeply since our emotions were so raw.

I received a message from Viki telling me her September 11, 2001 experience. At the time these things happened, we had not yet met each other, and I had not met any of my Hungarian relatives, which makes the story even more precious to me.

In September 2001, Viki was a new University student. Until the new students go through a special ceremony, they are considered to be merely a visitor to the school. After the ceremony, which was to include shaking hands with President Mádl Ferenc (while wearing white gloves), she would officially join in the University society. During the program, someone came up to President Mádl and whispered something in his ear, and then they both left. The Vice Chancellor of the University told them that the President had to go to Budapest because of an international affair. There were no handshakes, so they all felt let down, but they were official members of the University now.

When they arrived back at the school, all five hundred of the older students were sitting silently watching the television. Nobody said anything, just sat there mutely, as my cousin says. They found out that there was a terrorist attack on the USA. All of the day's classes were cancelled, and they spent the entire day watching the events unfolding on tv. Viki says in her message, "Katrina, I didn’t know you then, but I think we felt commiseration with America. I saw more documentary films about 9/11 this week, and I decided to tell you, that we feared for American people." I think many of us did not realize how great an impact the events of that day had all over the world. It touched my heart very deeply to know that people everywhere were sharing our grief and shock.

And now, for my dear cousin, I will share my experience of that day.

Trent was driving the both of us to work in downtown Denver that morning. We both worked in the telephone customer service center of a large bank. Trent was a telephone banker, and I was a trainer.  We had the radio on in the car, and they said something about a plane crashing into the WTC. What? Then they said something about the WTC being on fire. I remember being really irritated. Why couldn't they get their story straight, was it a plane crash or a fire? When we got in to work, my coworker Jeff was on the phone with his wife, who was filling him in on what was coming across on the television news. I learned that a plane had crashed into the WTC.

Suddenly Jeff went pale and told the coworkers gathered around that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon complex. My blood ran cold, and I was in complete shock. An attack on US soil? My friend Danielle and I burst into tears and ran down to the employee breakroom to watch some of the news coverage. That week, I was training a small class that was advancing to more complex servicing of accounts. Needless to say, we accomplished almost nothing that day. No one could focus. We were talking about the towers being hit, how it was done, and by whom. We got updates in the training room from Danielle about the towers collapsing and the flight where the passengers re-took their plane and crashed it to save other people's lives. Some of my current and former trainees came to tell me that they were going to have to write wills and get their affairs in order, because they might be shipping off to go to combat.

We were living in a world that we did not recognize that day. I remember doing a lot of weeping. I also remember asking my boss if she would go in to an empty office with me to say a prayer. Soon the country's shock and sadness began to give way to anger and most of all a desire to be of help. I do believe that this time will go down in the annals of US history as being one of our darkest moments, but also one of our finest.

Something that made me feel strange is something that I have shared with very few people before today. I have been to New York City twice, in 1987 and again in 1992. Both times I saw many wonderful sights and enjoyed so much about this amazing city. But I never got around to seeing the  World Trade Center. On both trips, I neglected to make the time to go there. I remember saying to my fellow travelers on both trips, "Well, I can see it the next time I come here, it's not going anywhere." Those words still haunt me, because we never know what will be there the next day, or whether we will even be around on the next day. As a result, I try to remember to enjoy life and beauty and adventures when I have the opportunity. We may never pass this way again.

Note: I have written the Hungarian President's name in the traditional Hungarian manner, which is last name first.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Snack Attack

Believe it or not, when I was a youngster, I was so skinny that my little Grammie used to say that I needed to turn around twice to make a shadow. As you can tell from my profile photo, I am no longer a little-bitty mere slip of a girl. I am a woman of substance. I'd like to be slimmer, and have lost and regained weight just like a lot of other people. I often have the best of intentions and am then derailed by a dirty-fighting nastybeast. It is called the Snack Attack. I don't know about any of you, but my Snack Attack is particularly evil.

Do you find yourself just relaxing, and then craving some low-fat, low-carbohydrate, high-fiber, low-sodium treat? Not me. I can be watching a gruesome scene in a horror movie and find myself thinking I really wish I had some potato chips right about now. Or chocolate cake. Or buttery popcorn. (And not the airpopped stuff, either. I am not a goat, and therefore have no desire to eat packing material.) And freshly-baked bread with a nice chewy crust...please excuse me for a moment while I get a napkin and blot my lips in a very ladylike fashion.

Knowing that I love food, if I see a headline online about healthier snack choices, I am always willing to take a look. I realize that there are people who are wiser than I am about how food affects the body, and what things you can eat to make yourself feel full longer. I have decided that all of the people who write these bits of advice are not normal. I think they are all teeny-tiny women who are so skinny that they can buy their clothes in the toddlers department, but only if it is a fashion-forward toddlers department, of course. These are the grownup versions of those girls you knew in high school and college - the ones who eat one lettuce leaf and a glass of water and say, "Oh, I am so full! I shouldn't have eaten so much!"

But Katrina, you are thinking, why do you say this? Well, maybe you haven't read some of these articles I have seen lately. Some examples of the madness: a good breakfast that will keep you full and satisfied until lunch is one piece of toast slathered (!) with one teaspoon of peanut butter. Are you kidding me? That sounds more like a breakfast appetizer! Can you throw in a glass of milk and a banana? But that isn't even the worst. "When I find myself really hungry in the afternoon (what, the four-ounce endive and tofu salad wasn't enough to satisfy you?), I just eat eight almonds. Then I am totally satisfied and full until dinner." See, I probably would have put the almonds on the endive salad, along with some chicken and mixed berries. Then my lunch wouldn't have left me hanging an hour after I ate it.

Maybe I am just doomed. Instead of Jekyll and Hyde, it's Katrina and the Snack Attack, a horror story in five chapters. And I don't want you to think I scoff at good nutrition. I love vegetables and lots of other healthy stuff like nonfat Greek yogurt. I had a salad for dinner. But I still want some chocolate. Doomed, I tell you, doomed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nem! Nem! Soha!

No, I haven't lost control of either my mind or my keyboard. Today's blog title is Hungarian for "No! No! Never!" This was one of the rallying cries of the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet Occupation. The Revolution began fifty-six years ago today, on October 23, 1956. It is because of this Revolution that I was born, and also that I was born in the United States of America.

At the end of World War II, Hungary, among other places, was placed under the control of the Soviet Union. Between the actions of the Soviet soldiers and the Secret Police, and other things like very poor harvests, the Hungarian people suffered greatly during this regime. Many families had to hide their daughters in pigsties and woodsheds to protect them from being raped by soldiers. Even in the small village in Western Hungary where my family lived, people suffered from great hunger. Many people had to resort to eating plants that would normally be considered decorative, or even weeds. For their own entertainment, the soldiers would make boys have fistfights for a chance to eat a piece of toast. The Secret Police were no less cruel. One of my relatives, for example,was forced to wash a floor and then drink the dirty water out of the wash bucket. 

This sort of treatment, and much that was far worse, was rampant in Soviet-occupied Hungary. I have read and heard stories of people being taken away for questioning and torture. One was of a woman who was in poor health and was required to stand at attention on one foot until she collapsed. This torture was inflicted on her repeatedly for many days. I won't talk any more about the brutality of those times; I think that I have given you a good idea of the fear and pain that were a part of everyday life.

When the Revolution began, the Hungarians didn't really have any weapons to speak of. University students shoved rocks into the tracks of Soviet tanks. When the tanks stopped, they climbed on and pulled out the soldiers. Some people who don't really think fully when I say this will sometimes laugh, but my heart is filled with pride and sorrow for these brave people who so wanted freedom that when no other weapons were available, they fought with rocks. The Soviets were rousted from Budapest, but only for a matter of days. On November 4, 1956, the Soviet Army came rolling into Budapest, all of Hungary, really, with numerous tanks. They shot and killed men, women, children, even those who were already wounded. To show their "superiority," they tied the bodies of dead Hungarians to their tanks and dragged them through the streets. As many as thirty thousand Hungarians were killed. To this day, if you are in Budapest and look up at the walls of the buildings, you will see the bullet holes from the tanks. 

My father was a revolutionary organizer in his little town, so the Soviets had slated my father, mother, and my three siblings who ranged in age from three to six, for execution. So in the middle of a night in early November 1956, they walked out of Hungary and into Austria. I don't know how they got past the guard post and machine guns; perhaps the soldiers were busy elsewhere. But my family were part of an estimated two hundred thousand people who fled Hungary into the West. My parents were fortunate to have some relatives in the USA who sponsored them so that they could bring their family here, and here I was born.

I wanted to honor my Hungarian heritage on this, of all days. Yes, I ate some paprikas csirke (chicken paprikash), and my thoughts have been on what my family and their countrymen endured. There are also other ways in which I honor my Hungarian-American heritage. It is perhaps because of these combined heritages that my freedoms are so precious to me. I know from history how important it is to speak one's voice to preserve these freedoms. It is why I consider my ability to vote not just a right, but an almost sacred responsibility. It's also why any time I go to a baseball game, I am usually crying before the end of the National Anthem. These things remind me that both of the countries of my heritage, the USA and Hungary, are built on the sacrifices of people who were willing to die to make their world a better place, free from tyrants. It is in their honor that I say, "Nem! Nem! Soha!" 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Feed Me, Seymour

We had the great pleasure of serving dinner in our home to our friends Marie and Thayne this evening. We had invited them a couple of weeks in advance, but hadn't discussed the menu. When we saw Marie about a week ago, I decided to ask what they would like me to make for them. Would it be my famous casserole? Or perhaps my green chili? I was so pleased when, without a moment's hesitation, she said, "Oh, can we have paprikash?" Of course I agreed. I love any opportunity to share a bit of my Hungarian heritage, especially in the form of food. And I was thrilled that she likes it enough for me to want me to make it for her.

I think one of the dearest gifts we can give each other is to share with them the foods we love. For me, at least, when I am cooking or baking something for people I care about, it seems that the food tastes better.  I have often shared my recipes for cookies and other dishes with my friends. And have been told time and time again that "they just don't taste the same." No, I am not a kitchen genius. Yes, I most definitely have my special tricks and techniques. But my knife skills are abysmal at best, and my "techniques" would likely get me laughed out of any and all culinary schools or professional kitchens. 

I have come to the point where I can make my signature dishes without referring to recipes or instructions. Instead of cooking these dishes with my head, I am able to cook them with my heart. Is it possible that one's good feelings can add flavor to the food? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Maybe I am looking at the wrong end of the equation. Does knowing that the food we eat is well prepared as well as lovingly prepared improve the flavor? I'd like to think both things are true. So I will continue to share my love through the kitchen, as well as in other ways. I encourage you to do so as well. And in the words of the mean green mother from outer space, "Feed me, Seymour!"


p.s. 

As a child in Chicago, I was a member of a family that sometimes made a meal for six people out of one potato, so I know how real the problem of hunger is. I would like to remind everyone reading this that there are children and adults everywhere that do not have enough food to eat. Please remember them when you see donation boxes or "spend $5 to feed a family" promotions at your local market. And when you go out to a restaurant and are asked to donate an extra dollar or two to help feed the hungry, please consider doing so. I thank you on their behalf.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Gracious, Goodness

For some reason as I was puttering around the kitchen today, I started thinking about someone who hasn't occupied any space in my mind or my life for a number of years. She was a coworker who briefly turned into a friend. There were many things about her that I loved, as she was radically different from anyone I had ever known before. Ivy, as I am going to call her in this blog, was an incredibly outspoken person. To put it into perspective, Trent and most of my friends will tell you that I am pretty straightforward about things. But I manage to do so with consideration and gentility. Bwaaahahaha! That gentility part sounds so classy, right? Seriously, though, I think we can be upfront about things without hurting another's feelings if we engage our brain before we engage our mouth. Compared to Ivy, I am one step away from being completely closed-off.

Ivy was the kind of person who would say very intelligent things and then follow up by being completely out of order. It was things of this nature that, for me, began the ending of our relationship. We were both tellers in the drive-though of a busy bank in downtown Denver. I truly loved my job, and was able to have fun with it. I had made a conscious decision early in my banking career that I was going to have a positive and happy attitude with customers. And that philosophy worked well for me. But Ivy made me wonder why we were friends when she asked me, "Don't you think this job is degrading?" I was stunned. Where I got satisfaction from helping people with their accounts, even if it was something as simple as processing a deposit, she felt shame at having to be of service to someone else.

Being in a drive-through, we were able to listen to music while we were working. I'm a person that pays attention to what people enjoy or respond to. During a conversation about music, she mentioned that she really liked an artist whose song we had just heard on the radio. He had a distinctive voice which really appealed to her. So when Christmas time rolled around, I went to several different music stores until I found his most recent album. I was excited knowing that she was going to absolutely love my gift. When the day before Christmas rolled around, she opened her package and said, "Oh. I was excited because I thought it was going to be so-and-so's (a different artist entirely) album! Oh, well, maybe I'll like this one."

I was stunned. It wasn't just because she didn't like the gift I had put so much thought and effort into getting. It was the response. I know that like me, everyone reading this has received at least one gift that has really been a letdown or a real head-scratcher. But receiving a gift graciously is as important as the act of giving itself. Hey, I know I have been the recipient of a few gifts through the years that made me wonder if the giver knew anything about me other than my name, but I have always accepted them with pleasure that someone cared enough to give them to me. And I have never gone to the store the next day to return or exchange.

I'm not trying to say I am a perfect gift recipient. I may be sitting there thinking, "Wow, Aunt Susie does have taste. Unfortunately, it's all in her mouth!" Maybe my experience with Ivy, although hurtful at the time, was a good experience after all. I learned first-hand that an unloved gift can cause more pain and embarrassment to the giver than the receiver. So the next time your Aunt Susie excitedly gives you an atrocious scarf, be gracious. Give a gift back by thanking her and then wrapping it around your neck. I can almost guarantee that it will create a precious moment that you will both be happy to remember.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cruelty

For any of my readers who have come here to read something funny or lighthearted, I apologize. Recent events in the news have been weighing heavily on me, so I am going to be serious tonight, as I am from time to time. There are two news stories that are making me want to write these things tonight. One is about a girl in Canada, Amanda Todd, and one is about a girl in Westminster, Colorado, Jessica Ridgeway. Both of these lovely girls are now gone from this earth, and their stories had some things in common for me. 

Amanda Todd made a silly mistake when she was thirteen and was hanging out with her friends. They were playing around with a webcam, and someone spotted a potential victim in Amanda. She was told how pretty she was, and encouraged to "flash the camera." After a short time, she received internet messages telling her that if she didn't provide full-body shots, the pictures of her breasts would be sent to all of her family and friends. A list of these people was included. Social network pages identified her as a person of loose morals. She changed schools more than once, and tried to dull her pain with cutting, and use of drugs and alcohol. She was constantly hounded by bullies, and verbally abused and beaten. After she tried to commit suicide by drinking bleach, online messages to and about her included pictures of bleach bottles and comments that maybe if she used a different brand of bleach, she'd be successful next time. Amanda lost all of her self-esteem and desire to live, and took her own life.

Ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway's mother watched her walking off to school at 8:30 a.m. Friday, October 5th, and then went to bed. She had just worked the night shift, and was going to sleep during Jessica's school hours. Jessica never showed up to meet her friends at the park three blocks away, and never made it to school. Unfortunately, when the school called about her absence, her mother didn't hear the phone ring. As mentioned before, she was sleeping after her normal work shift. Jessica's mother didn't realize that she was missing until late afternoon when her daughter didn't come home from school. People from all of the surrounding communities searched for her to no avail, including my friend Melissa, who lives in the same neighborhood. A dismembered body was found two days ago by some people who were, to the best of my knowledge, doing grounds keeping at an open space. It was disclosed today that the body was that of Jessica.

So, what do these stories have in common? It is more than the tragic loss of two young lives and the sorrow of the families and friends affected by their deaths. As I have seen the news stories and people's comments about them, I have noticed some disturbing things. Amanda was a child who made a childish mistake of trusting someone who sweet-talked her. This was met with torrents of abusive comments. The comments haven't stopped with her death, either. I saw some heartless comments in regard to her mistakes and her death. Unfortunately, I have seen some cruel comments directed at Jessica's mother, as well. Instead of being concerned over a missing child, many people were blaming the mother. She should never have let her walk three blocks, they said. That makes her a bad parent, they said. How could she be so awful and lazy as to sleep through the phone calls? In essence, they were saying, of both stories, that "she got what she deserved."

Instead of blaming the bullies, or the horrible person who killed and discarded a child, they are blaming the victim. It makes me wonder if we have become so cruel as a society that our youngsters have taken this into their everyday behaviors. I am not saying that bullying is anything new. I was on the receiving end of bullying that was cruel and matter-of-fact. When someone tells you that you are too ugly to have a pretty name, or that you are so ugly that a war started over who was uglier, you or another person in the class, you know what bullying feels like. These kids were dreadful, as kids can be. But where do they learn this pattern of behavior? Could it be from hearing their family say something about Mrs. Jones being fat and stupid, or Grandma being a dumb old woman? 

Are we unable to face the fact that there are predators out there who can easily abduct and kill children as well as adults? Does the fear of losing one's own children make people try to find blame in the parents? After all, if the child is dead because they had a bad parent, that means your child is safe, because you are a great parent, right? Wow, maybe I have accidentally hit on something. By trying to make the other parent's situation different from their own, they create an idea that it will never happen to them.  I don't know their reasons, and I suppose I never shall. But I hope I never catch myself blaming the victim in such a tragedy. To me, it is the cruelest thing of all. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Where's Simba?

Anyone who has worked in retail can tell you that some days you will just have to deal with one challenging person after another. On days like that, it is especially important to have something that you can do to bring you back to your happy place before dealing with anything else. Which is why, on a chilly afternoon in February, I spent part of the afternoon walking around the zoo. I figured that the people I had been dealing with had been acting like animals, so I might as well see some other animals to help myself relax. After all, it has been my experience that the animals at the zoo only get demanding at feeding time, which is a better reason that fussing over why a shop doesn't carry products from a rival company.

Since it was midweek and a bit breezy, there weren't very many people wandering around the zoo that afternoon. I was able to just watch the various animals and forget about the annoyances of the day. If you haven't figured it out yet, I really love animals, so it makes sense for me to hang out with them to ease my stress. I worked my way around several exhibits until I found myself watching the big cats. It's funny that someone who loves dogs as much as I do finds big cats so fascinating, but I do.

As I was standing outside watching the lions enjoying some fresh air, a mother came up next to me with her two kids. One was a baby in a stroller and the other must have been about three of four years old. I heard the boy say to his mother, "Mom, where's Simba?" I had a smile on my face since I was watching a pretty healthy-looking Simba at that very moment. In fact, he was watching us in return. I could imagine him thinking that we would make some very delicious snacks. Hey, it's not a stretch...he was looking right at the little boy and licking his chops!

Mom replied to her son, "Well, honey, he's right there, don't you see him?" Little Joey was very concerned. "No, Mommy, I don't see Simba, where's Simba?" Mom and I glanced at each other over Joey's head. How could he not see the lion? It was sizing him up for dining purposes, after all! Mom again told Joey that Simba was right outside the enclosure. "But Mom, I can't see Simba! Where is Simba, Mom?" Getting concerned, I helped point out that Simba was in front of us in the lion enclosure. Granted, he wasn't super-close, but Joey should have been able to see him. 

Joey was becoming frantic. "Mom, I want to see Simba! Where is Simba?" Mom told Joey, "Don't you see him, honey? He's right there. He's standing up and looking straight at you!" Joey gave his mother a withering glance and said, in an I-am-so-digusted-that-my-mom-is-so-stupid tone of voice, "MOM! That is Mufasa! Where is Simba?" Mom and I took one look at each other, and I had to walk away. I really didn't want little Joey to think I was laughing because I was making fun of him. Yes, it was an incredibly funny moment, one that still makes me chuckle. I had gone to the zoo that day to get away from the annoyances that people had caused me that day. All it took to melt away my stress was a little boy who wanted to see Simba, and decided that maybe his mom didn't know everything after all!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sesame?

As you may know, I used to train telephone customer service employees for a large banking corporation. The hours spent in the training room could be fodder for any number of stories, every one of them true. Recent events in the political arena made me remember this particular experience.

When you spend numerous hours training less-than-exciting, but necessary, material to a group of people, sometimes you have to do a little something extra to keep their interest. Let's face it, since you are training the same things over and over, sometimes you have to take extra steps to make sure that YOU don't get bored. One of the dangerous energy slump times is right after lunch. A full tummy and a chair can sometimes make a person sleepy. 

For me, however, it seemed that my early afternoons were when I experienced a bit of an energy rush. After all, I had eaten some good food and had a few laughs with my fellow trainer, so I felt ready to roll. On one afternoon, as I was training some probably boring procedures, I was trying to make the session less dull by speaking in different voices for the different customer examples I was using. As I scanned the training room to see if everyone looked like they were catching on, I noticed that Jim, one of my favorite trainees, was shaking his head. Worried that he may not have understood the procedure, I asked him what was up. "Katrina," he replied, "watching you train is like Sesame Street on crack!" I don't know if anyone in the class thought it was as funny as I did. I was laughing too hard to notice!

The next day after lunch, I was feeling particularly wacky. My class and I were both having fun with the learning experience. In the midst of a burst of laughter, I caught sight of Jim, sitting at his computer with a little smile on his face. "I know," I said, "Sesame seed on crack!" I actually managed to make Jim laugh out loud that day. And I had to laugh at myself as well. My mouth had betrayed me once again, but it ended up being something that was pretty funny. The whole class had a good time with it, and we were all energized enough to make it through the afternoon.

I hope that my friend Jim remembers that day as fondly as I do, and can still get a chuckle of two out of it. Thanks for helping create one of my favorite training memories. Have fun with your kids on Sesame Seed Street!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Gentle Giants

About a week and a half ago, our friends Thayne and Marie invited us on a day trip. We went to the Pueblo, Colorado area and Colorado Springs to do some sightseeing. We were fortunate in that the trees were changing into their autumn dresses, and the sights were beautiful. We made a pit stop in Colorado Springs on our way south. As Thayne was fueling up the car, the rest of us headed inside the gas station in search of WCs and snacks. There was a man who was filling up his pickup truck and being supervised by an absolutely lovely long-haired Saint Bernard. She was quite friendly, and more than willing to spread her slobber among as many people as cared to fawn over her. This gentle giantess weighed about two hundred pounds, but I am pretty sure that she is two hundred pounds of marshmallow and other sweetness.

She made me think of another Saint Bernard, a short-hair, that belonged to my next door neighbors when I was in high school. Mugger (I doubt that he ever jumped on anyone and stole their purse!) was a sweet, droopy-eyed love of a dog. Oftentimes when I happened to be on my way home from school, or just in the front yard, he would come over to see me. Actually, he sort of shambled over like a four-legged John Wayne. And probably weighed more! After permitting me to pet him, rub his ears, and so forth, he was ready to play. 

Playtime for Mugger consisted of him taking my wrist or forearm in his mouth and leading me around the yard like his own personal human toy. His magnificent tail would sway gently as he led me up and down and around the yard. Mugger never scared me when he did this. Yes, he had my arm in his big, gaping mouth (big, gaping drooling mouth), but he never once hurt me. After I let him know I was finished playing, there was never a single tooth mark on my arm. Great slimy slobbery patches, yes, but never any mark of any other kind.

Most of the kids in the neighborhood were high school age, with the exception of Debbie and Mark, the kids I would end up babysitting full time. Oftentimes there were no kids their age to play with. That was never a problem for Mark, though. He would march his five-year-old self over to the neighbor's front door, ring the bell, and ask, "Can Mugger come out and play?" Mugger gladly came out to play with this little boy who weighed less than a quarter what he did. I am sure that not only did Mark get led around the yard, he probably also took Mugger for pony rides. Nobody, not even Mark's mom, ever worried about the two of them playing together. Mark would always be safe with this sweet and gentle giant.

Unfortunately, Mugger's life ended up being a short one. When he was about two years old, my neighbor took him to swim in a creek. She didn't realize that someone had spilled tar there, and of course Mugger didn't know it was dangerous. Even though she got him to a vet right away, the poisonous effects of the tar on his skin ended his life. His passing left a hole in the hearts of everyone who knew him, and I am sure that Mark was crushed at the passing of his best friend. Whenever I see a Saint Bernard, I think of two things. Buck in The Call of the Wild, and Mugger, one of the sweetest dogs I have ever known. Here's to gentle giants!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Substitutes

One of my favorite high school teachers was my Psychology teacher, Mr. Marcucci. Not only was he good-looking and a sharp dresser, his class was a great learning experience. As a matter of fact, I learned so much from his class that I wasn't required to take the final in my first-year college psych class.

Something that made Mr. Marcucci and his class so appealing was the way he treated us. We were used to being treated as kids, younger and therefore to be talked down to. On the first day of class, he told us that since we were Seniors we weren't babies anymore. We would soon be going out into the world as adults, so he was going to treat us accordingly. Instead of following the usual policy of having a parent or guardian call in to excuse any absences, we were required to take care of it ourselves. We would be the ones writing our excuse notes. Actually, it was brilliant on his part, because it taught us to really think before missing class. This morphed into really thinking about it before not going to work. 

Mr. Marcucci's class wasn't easy, but I enjoyed it every day. He made learning such a joy, and was very candid about things that had happened in his life. No other teacher ever opened up to us about the stress and shame he felt living with an alcoholic parent. But he did. And he told us about his grandmother, who helped raise him, and how he'd get embarrassed by her doing things like going to the store in her slippers. After he got out of his teen years, he realized that, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't that big of a deal. He also shared the tragic story of losing his wife and firstborn in childbirth. I know it couldn't have been easy for him, but he wanted to just be up front with us rather than have inflated rumors spread.

One day, my friend Colleen and I headed to his class, ready for our next learning experience. Before we got to the classroom, the word had gotten out. Mr. Marcucci wasn't at school. There was a sub. Everyone decided they would rather skip class than spend the time with someone who would be, in our opinion, a poor replacement. And I mean everyone. Colleen and I went to the supermarket and got some doughnuts before heading off to our other classes.

The next day, Mr. Marcucci was back, and he was furious. I imagine he was embarrassed by the fact that all of his students had shunned the substitute teacher. After all, our behavior had reflected poorly on him. When class started, he calmly told us that he was disappointed in our immature behavior. He informed us that we had two choices. Either we could have our parents write us an excuse like you'd do for a kid, or you could have an unexcused absence for the class. I knew I was not going to be in trouble, because I had already told Gram that I skipped the class, and Colleen had told her folks as well. So we decided to write our excuse letter together and take the unexcused absence.

I don't want you to think that we just said something to the effect of "we decided to skip class because we thought we'd be bored." Oh, heck no! We decided to have fun with it. So with a combination of our honest story about what we did that day and my interest in creative writing, we wrote something that was more like a story. We talked about how we had been heartbroken to find out that he was not there, and that we heard the doughnuts at the store calling our names. We also made note of our guilt and shame, and promised never to behave that way again. Since I was taking a Spanish class, we signed it with "hugs and kisses" in Spanish.  

It turned out that we were the only people in the class that didn't ask our folks to bail us out. But our story pleased him so much that he read it to the class the next day. And even though we received an unexcused absence for our actions that day, we had earned our teacher's respect. We had done something we shouldn't, and took full responsibility for our actions. And instead of reacting to the consequences with anger, we chose to use a mixture of acceptance and humor. I think that on this particular day, our teacher realized that we had learned something from him, and that he was helping us to become adults. And I like to think that for that feeling, Mr. Marcucci would have accepted no substitutes.