Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Saddest Day

Two weeks before last Christmas, a co-worker slipped on the icy sidewalk and broke her ankle.  On that same day, another co-worker’s wife totalled her car in a ditch, a student was hospitalized for anxiety and the only thing on NPR was people agreeing with each other about the Senate Intelligence Committee report claiming that the CIA’s interrogation techniques amounted to torture.  There was no snow, just an imperceptibly thin layer of ice that seemed to highlight every barren and gnarled tree limb, discarded beer can or sandwich wrapper and abandoned lawn furniture.  It was not a great day.

For a variety of reasons, I took a different route home from work that led me through an unfamiliar neighborhood.  I don't remember feeling particularly angry or sad, but with all of the bad news of the day, I think it is fair to say I was feeling a little bit down.  I was driving slowly to judge and admire the tacky holiday decorations when I suddenly had to veer closer to my side of the road as I met a hulking brown UPS truck that came careening towards me from the opposite direction.  After the truck had disappeared and I had passed several more inflatable snowmen, I found myself squinting at several large, shadowy figures moving awkwardly in the road up ahead.  Although it was nearly dark, there was just enough light for me to make out the shape of small heads and skinny legs sandwiching the fat bodies of wild female turkeys, stuffed from a fall of collecting neighborhood acorns and birdseed.  I slowed to a stop and waited for six big galumphing turkeys to cross in front of me from left to right before continuing on.  

As I passed the six on the right, I noticed one more on the left.  It was flopping around in a terrible way, with one wing outspread and one leg dragging.  My mind jumped from blaming the UPS truck for hitting it to sympathy for both of my coworkers to anger at terrorism and torture and before I knew it, I was pulling a U-turn and returning to the spot where I had seen the poor injured bird.  By the time I got there, another car had stopped and there was a middle-aged man standing with his arms crossed and brow furrowed looking down at what I can only describe as a beautiful, brown, feathered creature.  Our cars were on either side of her with headlights shining directly towards her, so each feather glowed with iridescent purples, blues and teals.  She had calmed from her earlier frenetic movement and was now just sitting, as if on a nest, looking from me to the stranger and back as she made low, warbly gobbling sounds with her throat.  

Both of us had stopped on impulse, not because we had any idea what we should do and so there were a few silent moments, where each of us was hoping the other would come forth with a plan of action.  There was no blood, and the only injury seemed to be in the turkey’s left knee joint.  Her head, neck and body seemed fine, and her demeanor was cool, calm and collected.  Based on this, we made the truly anthropomorphic decision to give her exactly what either of us would want were we to be abandoned and injured on the side of the road.  I got a warm blanket from my car and wrapped the turkey in it.  Then the man gently picked her up and held her in his arms as he swayed back and forth telling her that she was beautiful and that everything was going to be okay.  Since we weren’t really sure what to do next, I took out my phone and started calling around for help.

My first call was to my firefighter husband, who was working through the night, thinking that he would know what to do.  He didn’t answer, which meant that he was dealing with someone else’s real emergency, which is legitimate, but still frustrating.  I was tempted to call 911, but envisioning a headline on that said ‘She Called 911 For WHAT?!?’ stopped me.  So I looked up the number for the local police department and called them.  When I explained our situation, a very nice dispatcher explained that the police department was for handling crime and suggested I call the animal control officer.  I dialed the number he gave me and learned that animal control was only available until 4:30, and it was currently 4:35.  I called the police back to ask for a second suggestion and they told me that they could either send an officer by to shoot the turkey or I could try calling a local representative from the state’s Fish and Game department who might be able to help me.  

When my new friend and partner in compassion overheard me discussing whether the turkey should be shot or not with the police officer, he simultaneously glared towards me and drew the turkey in towards his chest.  He kissed her on the head and said, “I will NOT let them SHOOT her!”

Each subsequent phone call reached a dead end, and we found ourselves standing in the pitch dark under a freezing drizzle that had started to fall, trying to figure out what to do.  What I had learned was that if we could get her through the night on our own, there were several options for getting her to an animal rehabilitator in the morning.  And somehow, in the light of all of the sad and bad things that had happened that day, I just really wanted to make one good thing happen.  So next thing I knew, the man was tucking the turkey in the front passenger seat of my car, snuggly and warm in a blanket, and buckling the seat belt to hold her securely in place.  Her demeanor hadn’t changed and she was still looking from left to right, blinking at each one of us with eyes that truly seemed to overflow with raw emotion.

We shook hands and drove away in opposite directions, which is when I was hit with the reality that I now had to take this seat-belted and injured turkey with me to pick my daughter up at daycare and to then somehow nurture it through the night.  Fortunately, three-year olds ask a lot of questions about everything, so although Harper’s questions were many, they wasn’t much different than when I  came home with a bag of groceries: “Where did it come from?”  “Why is it in your car?”, “What are you going to to do with it?”, “Can I have it?”

When we arrived at our house, the rainy drizzle had frozen to ice, so we carefully trod the brick walkway into the house.  On my first trip in, I carried backpacks and lunchboxes in one hand and tightly held Harper’s hand with the other, lifting her up over the really slippery spots.  We got inside and began the evening routine:  let the dog out, turn the lights on, open the woodstove and get the fire going.  Fix a snack, turn the radio on, unpack our school bags.  We had just decorated our Christmas tree, so I plugged the lights in.  When I turned the radio on, I switched the station away from talk radio about terrorism and found a station playing the cheesy Christmas music of my childhood.  Once we were settled in, I grabbed some old towels and made a little nest in front of the warmth of the now roaring fire.  I went out to the car and gingerly took out the turkey, who was nearly as heavy as my daughter.  She was alert and bright eyed as I carried her in and sat her down on the towels, carefully tucking her injured leg under her body.  After a hectic day, I was happy to just sit next to her, gently stroking her back and gazing at her as I wondered what was going on inside her cashew sized brain.  My dog came and sniffed her uninterestedly before laying down next to me on the other side.  Then Harper came and sat down next to our odd trio:  dog, mom and turkey, all gazing at the leaping flames, breathing in, breathing out to the rhythm of the Charlie Brown Christmas special theme song.  She put her hand next to mine on the turkey’s back and made such a pure, clear statement of fact:  “Mommy, she is so beautiful!”  

No doubt, the turkey was brownish and blackish with weird lumpy growths and odd dark hairs and feathers coming every which way off her face, which you would think made her homely and gross looking.  But  there something about her dark eyes and the curve of her neck and the intricate detail of glittery striped, spotted and plain feathers that made me feel oafish and ungainly sitting on the floor next to her in my turtleneck and corduroys with only some gaudy beaded earrings for decoration.  I have read that it is a primarily female trait to constantly compare ourselves to others, which perhaps explains our awe at this bird as we sat on the floor with her by the light of the fire on this cold December evening.  

Regardless, it was a genuinely nice moment on what had mostly been a crappy day.  So you can imagine my surprise when the turkey cocked its head, drew a breath, and dropped dead on the hardwood floor next to us.  There was no wheezing or gasping, just alert and upright one second and then limp and cold on the next.    

Not wanting to lie to my daughter about the turkey ‘sleeping’ or wanting to tell her that a living breathing animal had just died in front of her, I decided to try to dodge both.  I quickly picked up the turkey and carried her down into the basement.  It was striking how different she felt when I carried her this time: a cold solid mass, absent the pumping and beating and breathing of life.  I set her down on the cold concrete floor and took a moment to figure out what to do.  The ground was too cold to bury her and I figured that the internal injuries that had caused her death made any meat on her bones unsalvageable.  

What I wanted to do was to go back upstairs and restart the evening.  Sit of the sofa, eat cookies, read Christmas books and open the cards that came in the mail.  But I knew that I had to deal with the cold dead turkey corpse first.  With no coat, and only a pair of rubber rain boots on my feet, I carried her out into the cold.  I walked straight back from the basement door towards the woods.  It was very cold and very dark and I imagined being spotted by a neighbor in this ridiculous situation.  Still I trudged onward.  Finally I ended in a little hollow in the woods, where I knelt and gently laid the turkey to rest at the base of a large white oak tree.  I felt like I should say something, but I didn’t know what, so I just paused for a moment before turning and running inside to escape the cold.

Once I got back inside, I made dinner and did some laundry as I would have on any other night.  Harper asked me what happened to the turkey and I explained that she died.  I found myself actually grateful that I was explaining what it meant to die in the context of a wild turkey instead of a close family member or pet.  She asked where the turkey was, and I explained the spot in the woods.  When she asked what would happen to it, I explained that it’s hard to find food in the woods in the winter and that some lucky animal would come across her body and eat it in order to have enough energy to make it through the long cold months.  

As January and February passed, one coworker’s ankle healed and the other got his car fixed after haggling with the insurance company.  My teenage students continued to suffer from and learn to deal with anxiety and the CIA remained questionable.  While I certainly wasn’t devastated by the death of the turkey, I can say that I wondered about what happened to her out there in the woods.  As the temperature stayed low and snow continued to fall, I wondered what coyote, bobcat or fox, pushed to the limits of endurance would stumble across pounds and pounds of meat, nestled in a sheltered alcove.  I imagined a pregnant mother, struggling for food in the hopes of delivering healthy springtime pups, able to rest and eat instead of trekking over treacherous terrain in search of small morsels.  

I honestly don’t know stopping on the side of the road to help a wild turkey was a good thing or a bad thing or if it even mattered at all.  If there was an easy lesson I could ascribe to it, I probably would have moved on and forgotten it.  Had I saved the turkey, I could have ended this story with some version of a ‘do the right thing’ quote.  Had I been ticketed or arrested for tampering with wildlife, I could end with something about how good deeds rarely go unpunished.  But as it is, all I have to reflect on and wonder about is a plethora or turkey feathers uncovered by melting snow and blown into my yard by the wind, and the lingering memory of a moment shared with my daughter, my dog and a random wild turkey.  


Where on earth was your May post?!

When I started writing Stories About Life, my goal was to post one story each month.  I did not post any stories here in the month of May, which I'm sure has been a disappointment to you all.  However, I did write several posts on a different blog, which are about a boat trip that I took as part of the NOAA Teacher at Sea program.  While they may lack the snark and sarcasm you have grown accustomed to, I tried to make up for it with cool pictures.  So go here to check them out, and stay tuned because my June post is just moments away.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

At least I didn't wet my pants

Surely you remember that day in your middle school science class when you had to blow bubbles through a straw into a solution of bromothymol blue to watch how the slightly acidic carbon dioxide from your breath causes it to turn yellow.  I have to believe this is true, because otherwise, how could I justify forcing this activity on the students in my science classes?  

Several years ago, I was attempting to teach my middle school students basic chemistry by doing this very activity.  I had arrived at school early to unpack beakers, mix chemicals and set out straws and safety goggles.  The students were to first blow bubbles into a windshield washer fluid- blue solution and use a timer to find out how long it took to turn yellow.  Then they were instructed to do jumping jacks for thirty seconds and repeat the process with a new beaker of bromothymol blue solution. Scientifically, the exercise would cause them to exhale more carbon dioxide, liquid would turn yellow much more quickly the second time.

As the students filed into class, I partnered them up and passed out crooked photocopies of instructions.  They sat down at black lab tables, where the more mature students focused on either trying to start or end romantic relationships through a series of hand gestures and facial expressions, while the less mature students focused on drilling holes in the tables with paperclips or shoving gum into the holes drilled by immature students in previous classes.  With this in mind, it is no wonder that my rapid fire, didactic instructions for the lab activity sailed over their heads and right out the window.  

When I told them to begin, I saw one student suck a mouthful of liquid up into her mouth, while another student immediately attempted to do jumping jacks as his partner blew bubbles into the beaker.  Although I tried to steer them back on course, I saw other students continuing to wink or drill, and it became clear to me that I needed to orchestrate some kind of dramatic moment, like teachers in movies always do in order to ameliorate the situation.  

So, like the movie-star teachers do, I slammed the door loudly and shouted ‘Everybody STOP!’  Truly, this was an unusual move for me, but dramatic times call for dramatic measures.  Inside, my mind was wandering to what I had packed for lunch, whether I would go to the gym after school and how many miles over my oil change I had driven.  On the outside though, I was all business.  My initial tactic of talking fast and loud at the students had failed, so I was forced to try a new tactic.

I scanned the room and quickly called Bill to the front of the room.  He was a  student who was bright, although easily distracted by every girl, insect, plant, poster or window in the room.  I explained that he and I would demonstrate the activity and when we were sure that everyone else understood how to do it, the rest of the class could proceed.  This was a student who had recently beat me at a classroom ‘trashball’ contest, so to be completely honest, I was happy to set up another friendly competition so that I handily beat him and reset order in our world.  I turned to another student named Julia and handed her a timer, instructing her when to hit start and stop.  After donning our safety goggles Bill and I both blew bubbles into our beakers until they turned from blue to yellow.  

Up to this point, I have described a pretty typical day in what I believe is a pretty typical middle school science classroom.  It is what happened next that made this day what into what has become one of the most seminal days in my teaching career.  In order for what follows to make sense, it is important to consider these two facts about me:  one is that I have always been competitive to a fault and two is that I had only recently returned from maternity leave.  The importance of these details will soon become evident.

After we had blown bubbles into the first beakers, I instructed Julia to set the timer for thirty seconds, and I looked at Bill and challenged him to a jumping-jack contest.  The students on my side of the room were to count how many jumping jacks I did and the students on Bill’s side of the room were to count how many he did.  Julia shouted ‘Go’ and we furiously started jumping.  

I would describe myself as a generally fit person.  I exercise frequently and had recently completed a 46 mile hike over 20 peaks in New Hampshire’s white mountains.  Based on this, I had expected that 30 seconds of jumping jacks would barely tax me at all and that I could continue teaching as if nothing had happened.  However, the factor that I had not considered is the considerable loss of bladder control that resulted from squeezing a cantaloupe-sized baby-head out through a kiwi-sized tunnel during childbirth.   

For the first ten seconds, we were neck and neck.  Then suddenly, I felt a little drop of pee squeeze out.  Certainly this is gross to consider, but from time to time it happens, no big deal.  But this time, the drop grew to a trickle.  And then the trickle grew to a full stream.  The seconds seemed to slow to minutes as the full horror of what was happening became clear:  in front of a whole class of students, while engaged in a ridiculous contest of athletic prowess, I was full-on wetting my pants.  All of the reading I had done, papers I had written and hours I spent observing other science classrooms in preparation to become a teacher had not prepared me for this moment.  

You might have guessed that I would run from the room crying, or at least quit the competition and concede the win to Bill in order to excuse myself and get cleaned up.  But for some reason, when I had gotten dressed that morning, I had put on a v-neck sweater, a conservative, but short denim skirt, white tights and knee high, brown leather boots.  And so as the pee kept flowing, I felt it trickle down my leg and begin to fill my left boot.  My eyes widened as I realized that I was literally peeing my pants and that no one had any idea.  

The last ten seconds passed and the contest was over.  My boot was full to just below the ankle with pee and I was sweating, not from the exercise, but the embarrassment and  exhilaration of realizing what had just happened.  

I blew bubbles into the second beaker, and instructed Bill to do the same.  As expected, both beakers turned yellow almost immediately.   For insurance, as I set my beaker back down on the cart, I ‘accidentally’ spilled a little onto the floor, just in case.  The students started working, and I was grateful to see that they had a much better understanding of the process, thanks to the clear demonstration we had provided them.  I sloshed from group to group, helping them fill out data tables and reset their timers.  At the end of class, the bell rang, the students went to lunch, and I went to the bathroom where I removed my boot and poured a trickle of yellow-brown urine into the toilet.  

I leaned back against the stall wall and closed my eyes.  In that moment, I was convinced that what had just happened would go down as one of my worst teaching moments.  However in the years that have passed since then, I have come to view it as one of the most formative.  After you have peed your pants in front of a whole class of students and carried on as if nothing happened, it makes many other potentially traumatizing situations seem trivial.  Student calls me a bitch?  At least I didn’t wet my pants.  A small to medium-sized fire breaks out in my classroom?  At least I didn’t wet my pants.  A parent heckles me, a coworker harasses me, a fight breaks out?  At least I didn’t wet my pants.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Greatest Gift

It didn’t take long to dig through the topsoil and into a layer of gravel followed by a layer of sand.  My father-in-law had the shovel and I held an open red plastic cooler in one hand, like the kind you would fill with ice and a six-pack if you were spending the day out on a boat.  It was hot for June, and the sun shone brightly.  The air was still and quiet, so when flies began to show up and buzz around us, they seemed louder than usual.
As I watched the hole get bigger, I tried to trace the convoluted path through space and time that led me to this particular moment that I found myself sharing with a 65 year old man who had been a stranger to me just a few years prior.  It might have begun when I was a young girl growing up on a farm, where the cycle of life was constantly present in the birth, feeding, milking, and slaughter of dairy cows.  Or it could have been when I met my husband, who to this day tends to nurture and even delight in my more curious decisions instead of gently coaching me away from them.  And vaguely in the background is moving to the Live Free or Die State, where we get to make our own decisions about helmets, seatbelts and kindergarten.  While each of these events may have contributed in their own minor way, there are a few key events that clearly led me to this day.

Several months prior, I had given birth to a baby girl.  There’s really no way to explain the experience, so I’m not even going to try.  Suffice it to say, by the end, I was physically, mentally and emotionally taxed.  Still though, when the doctor offered to show me the placenta, which came out after the baby, I couldn’t resist.  And when she placed a pink plastic tub in front of me, I have to say I was amazed at the large mass inside that glistened blue and black and purple.  To be honest, I swelled with a little bit of pride in the fact that all of the cheese and full-fat yogurt and egg sandwiches I had binged on during my pregnancy had actually turned out a squiggly little baby AND this juicy porterhouse steak sized lump.  So it stung a little when the doctor told me that it would be ‘medically disposed of’ and before I could stop myself, I asked if I could keep it.  After all, I made it, I weakly explained.  

The nurses exchanged a glance.  ‘Oh, she’s one of those,’ they said with their raised eyebrows.  Frankly, I would have thought they had already figured that out.  Between the doula that we had hired and her collections of tinctures and salves and my five page birth plan which we mostly ignored, I thought it would have been no surprise that I asked to keep the placenta, even though it was truly a spontaneous request.  Still though, they complied and soon I was wheeled out of the room, nine pound baby girl on one side and a white plastic tub labelled ‘WHALEN--PLACENTA’ on the other side.  

In hindsight, I hadn’t actually wanted to possess the placenta for any reason.  I think I had felt vulnerable and like I didn’t have control of any part of the whole birth situation.  The baby was in charge, the doctor was in charge, but I was never in charge.  So when I saw the opportunity to make one small decision for myself, I leapt at the chance.  But truthfully, had I been shown the placenta just a few minutes later, after I had begun to gather my wits, I likely would have let it pass.  Instead though, as if becoming a parent wasn’t enough, I had also taken on the burden of managing this lifeless purple organ.  

When we were getting ready to leave the hospital, more than one nurse circled by our room to say ‘Don’t forget to grab your placenta from the fridge before you go!’  When they said the word placenta, they lowered their voices to pretend whispers that actually accentuated the word more than if they had just said it normally.  Thanks to these nurses, there was no opportunity to casually leave it behind like how leftovers get forgotten and shoved to the back of the fridge until someone finally gets fed up and throws everything in the trash.

Naively, I had pictured us leaving the hospital with big smiles on a sunny day, me in a breezy print dress, the baby nuzzled in my husband’s arms as we confidently strode off into the sunset.  Instead, they make you strap the baby into the carseat before you walk out the door so they know you do it right.  And they made me roll out in a wheelchair, carrying the white plastic tub on my lap.  

In the excitement and bustle of arriving home with our new, pink baby girl, the placenta was relegated to the freezer, next to pans of lasagna and half eaten tubs of ice cream.  Several weeks later, after the dust of adding a new family member had settled, I realized I needed to figure out what to do with it.  Unless you have been in this situation, you probably have never considered how complicated it really is.  Oddly, I struggled to decide whether the placenta was something I should dispose of immediately and never speak of again, or if it was something I should cherish and try to do something special with.

I will review each option separately.  The easiest option would be to get rid of it.  However, this is more difficult that you might think.  I didn’t really like the idea of just schlupping it into our trash cans and then waiting for a month or more until we made it to the dump.  Nor did I care for the idea of composting it, only to look out the window and see my dog carrying the fruit of my womb in his mouth like common roadkill.  The third and somewhat sketchy option didn’t appeal to me either:  rolling the placenta up in a plastic shopping bag and sneaking it into the trash outside a  Dunkin’ Donuts.  While I could probably pull it off, I feared ending up an overblown news item on, especially since I hadn’t lost the baby weight yet.

Since none of these ideas really rang true to me, I thought that maybe there was some primal instinct driving me to find purpose or use for the fading organ.  As a kid, I watched typically herbivorous holstein cows deliver slimy black and white babies only to turn around and chow down on their placentas as casually as they would eat fresh grass from my hand.  And in college, I remember learning about the valuable nutrients trapped in the placenta that new mothers can only recapture through placentophagy.  And although the economy of recycling these hard earned proteins appealed to me, there were three reasons why I did not pursue this option.  The first was that in our modern age, adequate nutrition is no more than a trip to the grocery store away.  The second was that I haven’t eaten meat in many years, although perhaps if the dairy cows made a special exception, I could to, if it weren’t for reason number three:  Freezer Burn.  In the hospital, the placenta had looked kind of special and beautiful, but I have to say that it had not aged gracefully and was now a sickly grey color underneath a thick layer of frost.  So eating the placenta, while a fine choice for others, was not going to happen.  

With throwing it in the trash out, and eating it out, I was kind of at a loss.  So I did what any other reasonable adult would do when they felt conflicted about what to do with their frozen placenta:  turned to google.  After twenty five different search permutations, all related to ‘placenta traditions,’ I actually hit on an idea that appealed to me.  I learned that in some areas of the world, there is a tradition of burying the placenta in the ground and then returning a year later to plant a fruit tree in the baby’s honor in that same spot.  This idea is really a win for everyone:  the mom doesn’t have to eat the placenta, the kid gets a cool tree, the tree gets great fertilizer and everyone gets fruit!  

By the time I learned of this tradition, the ground had thawed, the birds were singing and the time for digging holes was right.  Unfortunately though, our yard has pretty terrible soil, and the light is bad and it’s on a big hill.  If I was going to follow through with this placenta tree project, I thought I should at least do it somewhere that the tree could have a shot at a healthy, productive life.  However, my father-in-law, who lives not too far away, has a small orchard which is bordered by a christmas tree farm.  Another thing about my father-in-law is that he is a competitive gift-giver, always trying to think of the most creative, thoughtful and over the top gifts.

In the past, I had given him tote bags that I made out of chicken feed sacks, rare seeds from around the world and even a framed collection of detailed animal silhouettes that I had snipped out of white paper.  While these gifts were easily outdone, I knew that the plastic tub in my freezer held something that could never be topped.  A bonus was that it would really be a two part gift, since I would have to return a year later to plant a fruit tree that would hopefully thrive in the soil made rich by the nutrients I had worked hard to collect during my pizza and chocolate fueled gestation.  So with Father’s day right around the corner, I printed up a little blurb about the placenta tree tradition, sealed it into a card and got ready for the big day.  

I will admit that as I am writing this, it seems a little odd. But at the time, it seemed as ordinary as wrapping up a tie or ordering a book from Amazon.  The weekend of Father’s day, my husband was at work, so I took my daughter and we went to deliver the big gift.  I’m not sure how you would react to someone pulling up in your yard a half-thawed placenta in a cooler that she was  fully intending to bury it in your yard, but my father-in-law was nothing but gracious, if not a little surprised.  

So once the baby fell asleep, we headed out to a special spot in between a lilac and an heirloom apple tree and started digging.  When other cultures do this, there is probably some sort of ritual--maybe a song or a dance or at least a maraca that they shake or something.  But frankly, I couldn’t really think of anything to say.  So we stood wordlessly side by side and when the hole was big enough, I tipped the cooler up until the gelatinous, bloody mass fell in.  We exchanged a solemn glance, which I interpreted as ‘we must never speak of this again.’  Our eyes turned back to the hole and watched as he shoveled the layers of sand and soil and sod back into it.  Although the moment may have been slightly awkward, it was awkward in a kind of sweet and special way.   As far as harebrained ideas go, I would have to say it ended in the ‘weird but nice’ category.  And it was certainly better than getting arrested for illegally dumping medical waste at a rest stop.  

Planting the pear tree over the placenta.

You can check out pictures of what a placenta looks like here:

Monday, February 2, 2015

Literacy in America

I was recently at a coffee shop getting a cup of coffee with a coworker when he excused himself to use the restroom.  A moment later, my phone buzzed and I found that he had texted me a picture from the bathroom.  It was a picture of a small sign with instructions directing the user to pull the handle in an upwards direction to eliminate liquid waste and to push the handle downward in order to eliminate solid waste.  

Initially, I saw this sign as yet another pathetic attempt at greenwashing like a sign asking you to take only one napkin at a Philly Cheesesteak stand on a street corner, but as I reread the complicated instructions, I realized that there, in the coffee shop bathroom was the key to saving our country.

I regularly hear or, ironically, read about how America is in trouble because of all the middle schoolers in Finland and Japan doing fancy math and using sophisticated words just to show off.  And it makes me wonder what is wrong with the youth of today that they don’t just learn to read and write because they are told to like every other kid in the G.D. world.  Well, every other kid that has the luxury of vaccines, water and food, that is.  And sitting there in the coffee shop, I realized that the problem is that we haven’t properly incentivized these skills.  All kids hear about in school is ‘your future blah blah blah’ and ‘livable wage health insurance student loan blah blah blah.’  As adults, these are the things that are important to us and so we love to talk about them.

But the problem is that kids don’t care about these things.  So what we need to do is make the benefits and rewards of reading more concrete.  Gone are the days of reading for reading’s sake because now when you want to be entertained, there are far better ways than sitting down with a heavy book whose pages you literally have to turn only to nod off, lose your place and then have to restart the whole book next day.  We live in an age where anything worth consuming can be done on the internet and with rare exception, takes less than four minutes.  Which is why reading is pleasure is dead and we now need to move on and refocus on reading as function.  

In order to do this, we need the architects, engineers and manufacturers of all of our stuff to get on board.  They already have one foot on this train, and what I mean is this:  when you look in your refrigerator, you will see all kinds of instructions for how to open different kinds of bottles and jars.  Most likely the text reads ‘Twist to Open’, but you probably don’t know this because you probably already know how to open everything in your fridge without instructions.  Certainly you’ve seen other examples of this: ‘Remove Wrapper Before Consuming’ or ‘Do Not Use Underwater.’  And although these little quips make for dull but time filling conversations at work or lame parties, they do little to actually help us out as individuals or as a country because everyone knows not to eat cookies still in the package or blow dry their hair in the pool.  Still though, they are are commonplace, ignorable and most importantly, they are phase one in my plan to spread absolute, unequivocal literacy from the purple mountains majesty to the golden plains of this great country.

It’s the next part of this plan that will really make a difference.  You see, the problem with these little labels is that they are too simple.  They use plain language to explain something that everyone already knows how to do.  Instead, we need to see complicated instructions on products that have been designed to be difficult to use.  The toilet handle in the coffee shop is a start.  In order to really appreciate what the instructions are asking you to do, you need to be able to read and understand directional language (up, down), states of matter (liquid, solid) and logic (if x then y).  The problem with this sign though is that it doesn’t quite go far enough, because even if you couldn’t read, you would be able to make the toilet flush.  Imagine a similar sign on an unfamiliar flushing mechanism.  You would have the choice to carefully read and follow the instructions or face the humiliation of leaving your waste, whether liquid, solid or a little bit of both lazily floating in the bowl for the next person in line to come in and judge both your reading ability and your bodily function.  

Another example is the annoying dinging in my car that rudely reminds me to buckle my seatbelt the instant I sit in my car instead of recognizing and respecting that fact that in my state, we ‘Live Free or Die’ and buckling up is a choice not a requirement.  It took a significant amount of research, all of which included reading detailed instructions, mainly in the form of chaotic blog entries, before I learned how to disable the dinging so that I could buckle my seatbelt at my leisure instead of under imaginary pressure from a judgmental little sensor.  Again, through literacy, my use of this product was improved, however it still would have been possible for me to use my car and tolerate the dinging.

But imagine taking these two examples one step further.  Picture yourself attempting to walk out of a gas station only to come up short because the door didn’t open when you shoved your shoulder against it.  You are left with the choice of either reading the instructions or pathetically pretending to check out the display of windshield washer fluid next to the door while waiting for someone else to come along and read the sign, which has been switched from the almost condescending ‘PUSH’ to ‘When exiting, please depress lever while applying pressure and then look up and into the camera above the door and to the right with an expression of steely resolve as if to suggest today is the day you are going to make a real and meaningful change in your life.’  

By including little inspirational messages in each of these small sets of instructions, we may even see an overall morale boost in the general population.  Think of the difference you could make when you approach a crosswalk only see that the sign says ‘Cease forward progress and flash a smile of encouragement to a nearby stranger.’  You scan the passing cars only to see a man with one hand on the steering wheel while the other hand angrily squeezes and shakes an unopened package of cookies.  And as the car slows to turn a corner, you flash him a wildly enthusiastic grin which falls and turns to pity as you see the man’s unbuckled seatbelt and through his open window, you hear a slow and sad ‘ding...ding...ding.’