Big, Easy Sophie

Saturday, June 12, 2010


I'm moving all my endeavors -- personal, artistic, photographic, what have you -- to a NEW SITE, where it will live FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER.

Please move to and start following me at:

See you later, Internet!

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Yesterday I jumped out of a plane.

I am not a thrill-seeker. When my family took trips to Knott's Berry Farm, I would cry or whine for an ice cream cone in order to fully avoid at all costs anything that remotely resembled a roller coaster. One year at Disneyland I went on Splash Mountain and thought it the most traumatic experience of my life thusfar, vowing at the age of eight to never again willingly participate in anything that was intended to make you feel scared.

But then suddenly there was this opportunity to jump out of a plane and I just thought, "Shit. If I don't do this, I will kick myself for the rest of my life."

Recently I turned twenty-four. It was shaping up to be the worst birthday of my life. I felt overworked and overtired, and my co-teacher's dog was sick so she had to miss the first half of the day. Teaching alone, as it always does, reaffirmed every thought I had ever nurtured that told me that I was a lousy, good-for-nothing teacher incapable of doing anything remotely useful for children. I went to swing dancing class, and it was HOT in there, and I didn't dance all that well, and for the dollar bill I had pinned on my own chest (this is a New Orleans birthday tradition), not a single person pinned another one, which made me look red as a tomato and monetarily pathetic. I called Leah over and over again because we were supposed to have dinner at Bamboo, but she forgot, so I had to ride home hungry and alone. It had rained the day before, and so the termites were out, and they mercilessly smacked me in the face and splattered against my glasses for the whole bike ride home. And I cried and felt VERY sorry for myself.

And I walked into my house, where it was dark, and I wanted to fall into bed and cry my eyes out... then suddenly the lights flicked on, and there stood everyone I loved, shouting "SURPRISE!" The living room was magically clean! Fresh flowers were on every table! A big chocolate-rosewater-pistachio cake with waxy candles made to look like tools sat next to a big heap of presents, alongside the gauzy butterfly Leah pinned next to abundant crepe paper wreaths and balloons. It was the kind of surprise party they put in movies that you convince yourself will never, ever happen to you, no matter how special you are.

So I cried again, but this time because I was so happy. I guess for the last two years I have built up this assumption that you have to make your own happiness, and that's okay, because that's just the way the world works. I thought that disappointment was just part of the everyday equation, and whenever it hurt too much, you had to go out and get yourself a new book or listen to a song you liked a lot, because no one was ever, ever, ever going to fix it for you. And then, as fucking cheesy as I know it is, this small group of wonderful people went ahead and proved me just so very wrong. Just when I thought I had it all figured out -- I was twenty-four, after all -- I didn't have anything figured out at all. And I was not as alone as I had assumed that I was.

There weren't that many of us that decided we wanted to jump this year. It was much more popular at my school last year. This year it was just Andrea, Kelsey, Saskia, Coop, Amanda, and Mark's girlfriend Tiffany. And me. I wasn't scared until we were about 10,000 feet in the air, and even then, I didn't know why I was scared. It didn't make any kind of rational sense. I knew I was going to be OK. When I drive on the highway (or any fast street, really) these days, I internalize a million different visual fantasies of the graphic deaths that could possibly happen in the next few moments. It's very traumatic, and I hate driving. But I didn't do that when we were up in the plane. I couldn't think of a single bad thing that could happen to me (now I can think of a lot: your parachute doesn't deploy; you accidentally jump into the propeller of the plane; you come in for the landing and accidentally land on a moving truck; etc.). I just felt scared, and all alone, and I couldn't stop crying.

I read "Ron Clark's Essential 55" over spring break. This is a book of 55 rules that caused Ron Clark the kind of teacher-of-the-year-my-life-is-a-made-for-TV-movie success he enjoys on a daily basis. It goes against basically everything I believe about teaching. I believe that children should figure things out for themselves. I believe that rules should be flexible and loose. I believe in a lot of hugging, a lot of conflict-resolution, and a lot of talking it out without any kind of major conflict. But I read this book, and I decided to try it. I decided to go into my classroom and demand these very ridiculous things of my students. I demanded that they fold their napkins on their laps during lunch. I demanded that they make eye contact with anyone whenever they speak. I demanded that they serve detention for sucking their teeth or rolling their eyes. I went and I put these rules on the wall, and I went over them during social studies, and I started to enforce them. And then the WEIRDEST THING happened: they worked.

I don't mean my students learned to read. I mean they learned all these things I had been trying to teach them all year. They started to be kind to each other. They started to be kind to me. They started hugging a lot more and fighting a lot less. They treated guests with respect. They made me cards and letters for the first time all year. I caught them saying nice things to each other when they thought no one was looking. And I thought, "What the fuck?" How was it that the one book I read all year that I couldn't identify with at all had done all the things I had been swimming upstream to teach my kids since I became a teacher? It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the reality that not every brain works exactly like mine. I just can't believe that not all children want just what I wanted when I was a kid. But I still am no closer to knowing what they do want, or need. All I know is that I love them. More and more every single day. So I guess I'm not so sad that my school year is a few weeks longer than everyone else's.

I sat perched out the window of this plane, tens of thousands of feet above the ground, and thought, "This is unnatural. This makes no sense." The world down there looked like a weathered computer chip. The clouds were underneath me. You couldn't distinguish a tree as a tree or a house as house. Everything was dots and circles and little peg-like squares. When I was young, when things scared me, I said my times tables. Once I learned them in third grade, they were the thing that I felt most proud of. I had had to practice and practice to nail them. I had had to say them while I was waiting in lines or when I was sitting at the kitchen table between dinner and clean-up time. I even had this record I played that said them over and over again and I would listen to it over and over again, because I just HAD to beat the 2 minute time limit -- just HAD to. And I was one of the last ones to get it, too, because in third grade, times tables did not come easily to me. I know I practiced them more than a normal kid, but when it came time to test, I flailed. I panicked. I couldn't do it. But when I FINALLY got there, I knew them. I did all my times tables through the twelves in one minute and twelve seconds -- the fastest in the class. And I had never felt so good or proud of anything. So after that, when I felt scared or uncomfortable, I'd start with the threes and say my times tables until the bad thing was over. For at least two break-ups, three funerals, and one impossible goodbye at the airport, I have held back my tears using the times tables method.

So it went: three times four is twelve, tilt back into the plane; three times five is fifteen, tilt out the window; three times six is eighteen, tilt into the plane; three times seven is twenty-one, and I fell out into the sky.

It didn't feel anything like falling. It felt like flying. There is no arguing with that. It felt like you were completely safe, because you had wings. I know a lot about wings, and I am pretty sure birds must feel that way every day.

But really, I couldn't describe it, so I won't try. The world never really came into focus. My tandem partner kept saying, "welcome to skydiving" under the shield of the parachute, and I thought to myself, "stop talking. I am starting something right now." But I don't know what it is.

I know less now than I knew last year. As I look back at my reflections from last year, I feel more disjointed, but happier than I was then. Then I was sure I had it figured out. Now I don't know.

But last year I wrote,
"This is the kind of statement I make and then less than a year later look back at and laugh out loud at because I was so many different kinds of wrong. I guess that really, everything is so complicated that something like the following statement is probably PARTIALLY true, or must be true for some portion of someone's life. Maybe it is only true for Sophie Johnson in the year 2009. Maybe it's not even true then. But. I think that you are supposed to live the things you believe. At least, I think that when you do that, you like yourself a whole lot more, and that makes you generally a lot more pleasant to be around. It is a very difficult thing to do, and I never used to do it all. Except for that whole vegan thing. And even then... I have been a VERY sloppy vegan. I will say this: I am a whole lot calmer and more satisfied with being alive when I know I haven't been doing anything knowingly wrong, per se. I like riding my bike. I like eating good, local food. I like working my ass off and coming to school as prepared as humanly possible every day. I believe in it and it makes me feel good.

Well, Past Sophie, I gotta say -- you were right on that one. Ron Clark (I know! He's such a tool! But still...) calls this Rule Number 55: Be the best person you can be. So now I look in the mirror and say that every morning. Be the best person you can be. It sounds so simple, but it's hard. Be the best person you can be. Who exactly is that, Ron Clark?

But you know what? I know. I do.

You slide into it, and you look around at the world, which is suddenly full of Big Things like Trees and Houses and Water Towers, and you think, "I like this place. It was nice to be in the air for a little while, but I never realized how grateful I was until now to be on the ground."

Friday, April 2, 2010

The radio at night

I am listening to the radio at 2:30 in the morning. I used to do that when I delivered newspapers, back when I was in high school. Nothing about that job was glamorous, nor did it ever pay even close to enough. The only thing that was ever any good about it was that in the middle of the night there is relatively commercial-free radio, and the alternative rock station in Portland (holla 94.7) would apparently just play through their Awesome Music Archives, skipping over their Archives of Obligatory Songs That Sophie Doesn't Like, Including That One by Evanescence. Well, there were two good things. The other good thing was that you got to watch the sunrise.

Lately, as it has gotten more and more difficult to get out of bed and I can't slow down fast enough to chew my own food, I've been remembering those days. Here is how my daily schedule looked that summer: 2:00 a.m.: Wake up, go to work . 5:30 a.m.: Get back from delivering papers. 8:00 a.m.: Wake up, go to second job at Target. 5:00 p.m. Get back home from folding ugly-ass sweaters. 6:00 p.m.: Go to third job helping people make and receive pizzas. 8:00 p.m.: Get home, go to bed watching Fresh Prince on Nick at Nite.

Remember when Nick at Nite played great old retro television? I wondered why they ever changed television around. In the world of Bewitched and I Dream of Genie, women were hot, blonde, and magical. They could also solve the world's problems in thirty minutes or less.

I could use a wiggly nose just about now.

Thoughts on New Orleans in spring: this is the most beautiful city on the planet right. I only wish I had time to enjoy it just for the sake of it. I can only laugh at the ridiculousness of the songbirds going nuts because the sun is shining blistering, and they are far too excited about the new flowers coming up all over the place.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ari left her comforter

It's a little cold outside and I have no interest or desire to get out of bed. I have never felt more like life has been speeding past me than I've felt in the last month. It's the sensation I imagine one gets when one is chasing something very difficult to catch like, say, a wild turkey, or a rabbit. Hunters have it rough.

But actually, I shot a rifle for the first time this weekend (and I'm pretty sure it will be the last time, too. It was way too much fun for me to ever feel comfortable touching one again). A week ago, I built my first four-layer cake (although I had help). And yesterday I watched a video of myself teaching and thought, "Wow. When did I lose sight of what was important?" So I guess that's a vague way of saying that I feel like I'm perched on top of something, getting ready to sort of slip and fall into a new, exciting chapter. The analogy I came up with here is that life right now feels like I have been sucking on one of those strawberry bon-bon candies for a really long time, and the center part is just about to explode, and I know it.

The gun was a result of peer pressure, by the way. I was at boyscout camp with high school students from Rabouin. An octogenarian in an NRA hat told me that he wasn't surprised that I didn't want to shoot a gun, because after all, I was a girl. And then, as you can imagine, I found myself learning about barrels and gun powder and copper shells and triggers and safeties, and I was doing something I never thought I would ever do. That weekend I also spent time sitting on the levee, just thinking for, like, hours. I realized that any time you feel compelled to sit and think for long periods of time, you probably should. There is probably a lot to think about.

The cake came out of a lovely week and a half with Sam and my sister, who each came and visited for their spring breaks. There are a lot of really extraordinary people in my life, which I too often take for granted.

The doubt came from watching myself yell at seven-year-olds like they were adults; came from the pressure of standing in front of twenty people every day and trying to entertain them enough to get them to learn something. I'm not actually good at it. I am way too high strung. But I'll be good at it someday, maybe, so I won't beat myself up over it too much.

Today I'm not going to yell. That's my Wednesday resolution. And that's as far into the future as I can possibly think right now. Happy Passover, on the other hand. I'm going to go make a matzoh sandwich.

(For those of you who remember, that's Derrick, [I used to call him Derrin, I think] who was probably my the student I felt most emotionally connected to last year. You can't imagine how far away from the sullen, moody teenager who refused to talk to any adult the person in this picture is. Seeing him stand there, shooting a bow and arrow, acting curious about the world around him, gave me such profound hope that I don't quite know how to describe it to you.)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

output, mostly.

I got hit by a car while I was riding my bike two weeks ago. The driver nubbed my back wheel and I lost control and smashed into a median. As far as bodily injuries go, I looked pretty bad-ass, but had nothing much to write home about, except for a mild concussion. Concussions, by the way, are funny. There are three days of my life that are just lost in my memory, and I have almost no recollection of what I did or what I was thinking. When I look back at that, it feels like I'm staring at someone's grainy photographs, of events I don't even really remember. I also got a cool bruise on my shin. Anyway, I bought a helmet, and naively assumed that anything broken could be fixed, bringing my bicycle in to the shop yesterday. No dice. I guess when you get hit by a car, you actually total your bike, and the guys at shop have to condescendingly say, "This thing is toast," as you present them with the life joy that is your bicycle. So I guess I'm in the market. Also, I'm bummed out.

Our zebra finches laid eggs, and the eggs hatched, and over Mardi Gras Break, the baby birds emerged from the nest and got very loud. This is what that looks like. (WATCH TO AT LEAST HALF WAY TO GET TO BABIES!)

I went camping last weekend, with the old crew from Rabouin. Lots of output from that. Camping is ultimately the most fulfilling activity I can think of. It's like a deep cleanse. You just can't do anything when you're camping! All you can do is look at trees, breathe, and crouch by a fire. This is heightened tenfold, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, when you go camping with high school kids who have never been camping before. It's just the fucking best. Here are some relics from that experience:

SubA: This really exists, in a place called Fountainbleau State Park. Seriously.


SubB: The boys built the fire, themselves, from wood we found around the site. And they were EXCITED. Observe.

SubC: From the sketchbook this weekend: An in-tents drawing; Mancel from below, with the clouds behind his head.



More later, with writing and insight, I promise.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brand new pair of roller skates

Leah, my roommate, who is perhaps the most extraordinary adventurer, risk-taker, and action-doer I have met in my young life (and she doesn't read my blog, so I have no real impetus to write this about her, except that it is true), is good at doing things that make her happy. For the greater part of this year, I was convinced that the things that made me happy should be the things that made Leah happy, or that made teachers happy, or that made attractive boys happy, or that made my cats happy, or that made the writers of magazines happy. I had a very strict "supposed to" notion about the way to live my life. Leah goes dancing at bounce clubs in neon-colored outfits, and therefore I should go to bounce clubs in neon-colored outfits. Teachers like to sit over cocktails and bemoan the amount of work they have to do, and therefore I should accept every invitation to sip Manhattans in a dingy bar, and I should come prepared with a Best Of list for the week's misfortunes in the classroom. My cats eat salmon and chicken liver soaked in gravy while making growling noises, and therefore... you get the idea. So on and so forth.

But in the car the other day, I said I wasn't really all that happy. Leah said, "You should go out more." I thought about that. I've gone out quite a lot this year. "But going out doesn't really make me happy, I don't think," I said. And then Leah said something that should have been so obvious to me, but which I had not been able to wrap my mind around up to that point.

"Sophie, aren't you the one who is always telling me to be okay with the person I am? Aren't you always telling me to have confidence in doing the things that make me happy?"

I said, "I like to go to museums." Leah said, "Then you should go to museums."


I lay in bed for a while and thought about the combination that made me happiest, and which was most lacking from my life. I came up with this: exploring, slowly, alone. There's just so much premium placed on having fun in public; in enjoying yourself and letting others know that you are enjoying yourself, so you can create an image of Smiling Face Dancing In The Street. Well, there's no written rule that says you have to have a partner in crime.

On Thursday I took off running.

Or rather, I rode my bike. The rules for this day were that I had to stop any time anything interested me, and take my time to take it in. In general, I have decided I am a very slow-moving person. So I was going to let myself be a very slow moving person.

I did wipe out pretty hard around a corner on my bike. I am actually a really bad cyclist. I think I crash more than any person I have ever met (I average one major spill a month, which my roommates attest is pathetic). I am in a perpetual state of looking like a map of the world charted out in continent-sized bruises. Two things I can conclude from this: 1. I either definitely should or should not join the roller derby. Should, because I can fall with great ease; should not because I fall with great frequency. And 2. I absolutely, desperately need to drop all fussy funding issues I may have with my bank account and buy a freaking bike helmet. I just know that one day I'll be grateful.

I spent the whole afternoon doing nothing but exploring a city I wish I knew better. I saw rope swings, bedazzled bicycles, people taking apart Mardi Gras floats, and a girl roller skating. Instead of a camera, I brought a sketch book. I used to be very interested in sketchbooks, but that has taken the back seat in the past few years, as everything has gotten fasterfasterfaster, and I "haven't had time" to sit and draw. Lucky for me, I met Sam Alden, whose blog is testament to the fact that he sits for ten-hour periods (I'm not kidding) doing nothing but drawing. I bought a couple of line-free Moleskines (pretentious enough for you?), and dove back into it. I am a little horrified to find that I creepily seem to only have the ability to draw little girls. At the bottom of this entry I've posted some of the sketches of the girl roller skating.

Another big revelation of the weekend: it is the fourth time I've visited a single spot along the bayou to read (the weather could only be described as "hideously perfect" yesterday), and I realized it's my favorite space in the entire city. See the self-consciously-snapped photo at right. What is it about waterways? I spent four hours there. My leggings got very dusty.

I'm ashamed to say it (ashamed because I want to be content with winter), but I am really ready for spring. The magnolia trees are blooming now, coaxing the warm weather and soft rain. Mmm.

But now comes the hard part: The week starts again. Back to the routine, back to the late nights and early mornings; frozen lunches and sore legs; stolen jelly beans from the prize drawer. No time to read the paper (and the world should know that all I ever want to do is read the paper). It's a challenge. Good thing I've been reading fucking Spiritual Midwifery (seriously) for my book club (I do like book clubs. They are one of those social gatherings -- like Crafternoons, Wednesday Night Vegan Dinners, and Radical Educator Meetings -- that I find intensely valuable). Those crazy hippies help me sleep at night.


Friday, February 19, 2010

I see the girls in the club, they gettin' wild for me

It is time for a grand re-entrance.

So I'm blasting "Welcome Back" by Mase*, eating a fresh and hot bagel, and getting down to business. My cats are excited. Seriously. I just made a YouTube video about this very topic.

So anyway, you may be asking yourself, "Why did your blog disappear in the first place? What happened to you?" I ask myself this same question fairly regularly, World. Let me tell you the three reasons for my brief and unannounced hiatus:
  1. I thought that my blog was getting a little bit gossipy. I think that's what comes with finally making friends in a place, and knowing that there are people out there who regularly read what you write. Once I had a friend in college who admitted that he would open my LiveJournal and do a Cntrl + F for his name, so he could read anything I wrote about him without having to toil through lots of meaningless garbage. I became very aware of my (tiny) readership, I suppose is what I'm saying. Once I knew who was possibly reading my blog, I would try to mention those people more often than other people, so they would feel rewarded in their reading and would continue to follow my overly extensive ramblings in hopes that they might be mentioned again. And as someone who wants to someday be a journalist,˚ that made me feel dirty.
  2. I started wondering if "fun" was really what I most wanted to be. I like feeling like a fun person, don't get me wrong. But I started paying attention to the merits of getting enough sleep, feeling healthy, being empathetic and kind, listening to other people when they talk, and being honest with everyone around me. All of that is kind of woo woo, and doesn't make for the best blogging material. Since I all-out quit smoking, drinking, driving a car when I didn't have to, and eating any sort of animal products, I have found my emphasis less on "fun" and more on "sane." I guess, dear Blogosphere, that's OK. I am aiming now more for "joy" than "fun," I think. If this means that my blog is no longer meaningful to you, kindly locate your nearest New Age health spa and alert them of my presence. I just know they'll be super-interested in my quest for inner peace.
  3. Lesson plans are hard and take a really long time. Or, moreover, my workday is 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day. It sucks everything out of me! I come home, cook, eat, go running, read, and go to bed. I turned 35 before I meant to, I think. My life got a lot boringer, I guess, but I'm okay with that.
And following Mardi Gras '10 and Who Dat Saints fever, I'm worn down, exhausted, and anxious to start over. I want... adventure. I want to explore and poke at things I've never noticed before. I want to create, and to go on long journeys and to document all of that. Just because I am a teacher doesn't mean that I can't take a little time every once in a while to seek the kind of fresh, non-work-related joy I am desperately lacking these days. I have a few immediate adventures I'd like to have, and then I think I just want to spend a lot of time riding my bike around the city and stopping whenever anything is interesting to me. I will need to buy more wool socks, because I am always getting sick and feeling cold. But really, I live in the deep South. I should not be such a wuss. And after all, I live in the best city in the world∫, and I haven't yet gotten inside every possible corner of it! A sin.

So. I want to do these things, in general:
  • Stop and smell more flowers, talk to more people, explore more holes in walls, eat more bread and drink more foreign coffee. Keep my iPod off and my eyes open.
  • Go to every bookstore in New Orleans. The fact that I haven't done this yet seems like a gregarious injustice to me.
  • Walk for miles and miles and miles, alone.
  • Build a swing in an unlikely place.
I'll chronicle these four small goals as the year unfolds into spring (it's doing this now!), and I take some space from my wonderful school and the most amazing seven-year-olds there are in the whole entire world≈, and I'll find my own corner of this tiny, incredible city.

Since you and I last spoke: Ari has departed the Crescent City for the Emerald City (two nicknames which don't really fit, don't you think?), which was a sad thing, but not an ending in my mind. She is one of the strongest, most beautiful hearts I have ever known. Having her here allowed me to see the cracks in the cement in a new way, and it let me be OK with the version of myself who didn't drink or go out late or fake it at big parties. But now she's opening up a whole new life for herself, and I feel weirdly proud of her, and excited for all the things she is going to do. But you should ask her about it. We have a new roommate, too: his name is Allie and he makes moldings for movie sets seven days a week, which he describes as "long, tiring, interesting, absurdly funny, dusty, unromantic, and demoralizing." He's extraordinary. Sam was here for Mardi Gras, and I can't believe how fast the holiday passed. We took in Muses, Krewe de'Tat, and Endymion. We also made a King Cake, so I felt I had met the bare minimum, at least, of my Mardi Gras requirements, which is impressive because I have a bad cold (turns out you get sick a lot when you work with little kids. Who knew?). Lots of good visits. My parents, too, came to New Orleans recently. I felt like a grown up. And then, two weeks later, my little sister turned twenty-one. I visited her in Colorado to see what it looked like to turn twenty-one (because heaven knows I didn't do it correctly -- I just bemoaned my ungraceful departure from childhood and watched a lot of Disney Channel in a state of miserable denial), and to celebrate her existence. I can't believe she's an adult. I guess she always sort of was, but now there's an official number to put on it. My sister is the most extraordinary person I know. How did we get so big so fast? I don't feel like I have changed much. Then again, I could write two separate biographies for the person I was just a year ago and the person I am now. Life is a paradox like that, I guess.

I am looking forward to the adventures.

* I recently sang this at a karaoke/ sushi bar in Metarie and was told that I really wasn't cut out to be a rapper. I have to admit that this was a bit discouraging. I would be lying if I told you I hadn't considered a possible future that included a primary income of six figures due to rap stardom.

˚ Don't ask me what I mean by "journalist." She is definitely a dying breed these days, as Gawker continually, pathetically, and aptly points out. But it's been my stubborn dream since I was about three years old, so I'm not giving up now just because the "newspaper" is "going extinct." Pish posh.

∫ One of them. Portland is pretty staggeringly wonderful, with its insanely black coffee and never-ending bookstores and my mom's bird feeders all choked with sparrows and waxwings and HUMMINGBIRDS. And lately I've missed Chicago a lot too, for all its sprawling neighborhoods, and the rambling El Trains and the magnificent limestone rocks on the big Lake Michigan.

≈ That my students are the greatest living human beings on the planet, I am absolutely certain. Every moment I spend with them I become a better person. I can't describe the brilliance each and every one of them brings to my life, but to cite a total cliche, just imagine you have stared your entire life at black-and-white, grainy photographs, and then someone suddenly puts a bright, color, high-definition, flat-screen television in front of you, playing clips of flowers blossoming as created by high-tech speed-capture cameras. It's kind of like that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

pre-surprise teaser

There have been A LOT of surprises in the last two weeks. Don't worry. I'll tell you all about it later.


Friday, October 30, 2009

39 percent fun!

Last weekend was really fun. It was SO FUN that I am worried that no other weekend -- not even HALLOWEEN WEEKEND -- could possibly be as fun as last weekend.

The trouble, I think, is that the week that followed was NOT particularly fun. It was one of those long-haul, rough weeks at work, where everything feels like a grindstone. Even kittens feel like grindstones. On the plus side, my job is to hang out with the most intelligent, loving, enlightening, hysterically funny people in the world, and talk to them about books and shapes and feelings and the habits of light. So even when the universe seems like one giant grindstone, all you have to do is turn around and say, "Hey,
Bracuan! HIGH FIVE!" And then at least you know that you're all in it together. For example, we did a feelings circle on Thursday. We had to go around and say Good Morning, and then say "I feel..." and fill in the blank with how we were feeling. (I was feeling obsequious. Big words are funny to people who are seven.)
Bevans: Good morning, M.
M: Good morning, I'm feeling JEALOUS.
Class: .... .
Bevans: I have a question. Who are you jealous OF?
M: (Somewhat impish laugh). I am jealous of my DREAMS.

But last weekend, after I spent Saturday at work, I let everything go. I didn't think about bills or about grocery shopping or about laminating anything or about non-toxic adhesives. I just thought about FUN.

But actually, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to Friday. It was Sam's birthday. It was a beautiful, sunny, cold day in New Orleans. It was a pretty OK day at work. And now, for our purposes, I will ask you to refer to Sophie's Ten New Years' Resolutions: Resolution 1:
1. Get over my fear of fish. I secretly believe that I am already over my fear of fish. Well, I believe that SOME of the time. Rationally, I understand that my fear of fish is irrational. And I understand this in ways that I don't understand that my fear of the dark is irrational, or that my fear of zombies is irrational. So I'm going to do something symbolic like go SCUBA diving. I'm not really ALL-CAPS excited about that, it's just that SCUBA is an acronym and you're supposed to capitalize it
I did go SCUBA diving this year, it's true, but not in an ocean with real life fish. I went SCUBA diving for a certification class with Outdoor Venture Krewe high schoolers in a big, deep pool. And that was fun, too. But my fear of fish had not been symbolically overcome.

UNTIL I was walking along on Friday, gasping under my breath because the sky looked as if a bottle of maddenlingly expensive paint had spilled all over it, and the water in the bayou was stretching out lazily among yellow-green reeds, and it was just too freaking beautiful to ever hope to describe, when I ran across what was either a) a bluebill (see right) or b) A MAGICAL FISH just lying on the bank of the bayou. I am hesitant to say it was a bluebill, because while it was that general shape, it was MUCH BLUER than that fish is. Dark blue and sparkly. And glowing. And it could talk. OK OK, it was just VERY blue, but all the Louisiana Lists of Fish I have looked at are trying to convince me that this fish could only have been a bluebill, so I'm going to go with it.

So anyway, I walked up to it because that's usually what I do when I see an object lying on the banks of the bayou. When I saw that it was a fish, my heart sank a little bit, because I don't like when creatures of the world die, but I was also excited to see it. It was so blue! I stared at it for a while, thinking, "This is really a beautiful fish." I think what must have happened is that the fish got so excited that it jumped out of the water with glee, and then accidentally ended up on land, where it suddenly could not breathe, and it died.

Only... its gill were moving ever-so-slightly. And its eyes looked oddly pleading. I was thinking about these strange fish features when the "dead" fish gathered all the strength in its helpless, legless body, and flopped from one of its side to the other.

Holy shit! I thought. Well, actually, scratch that. "Holy shit!" I said out loud, because I was on the phone with Sam, casually discussing his birthday at the time that this happened. "There is a FISH, and it's LYING HERE, and it's DYING, and I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN SAVE IT!" I threw my phone to the ground. I looked at the fish. It looked at me. I looked at the fish. It looked at me. Time was running out. Here are thoughts that went through my head:
1. The oils in my hands will surely cause this fish instant death if I touch it. But there are no pieces of cloth or smooth sticks I can use to aid me!
2. This fish may be suicidal. I may be doing it a terrible disservice by throwing it back into the water. It probably takes a lot of energy to hurl oneself suicidally at a landform from water.
3. This fish has fangs and it wants to bite me and give me a fish disease.

But I had to dismiss all these thoughts, because there was no time. I held my breath, bent over, and PICKED UP THE FISH. Then, with unprecedented swiftness and might, I hurled it back into the bayou, where I watched it swim away.


And that was only Friday.

On Saturday I spent the first six hours of the day at work, toiling away (see above). Then I came home, crawled in bed, and read for two hours while listening to Aaron Copeland until I passed out in one of those afternoon naps that actually TASTES good because it is so exactly what you need.

When I woke up we had to scrounge to finish our Loteria Card costumes. You may feel like you missed a step here, and that's because you did. Two weeks ago, Leah had the great idea of marching in the 6 t' 9 parade dressed as creepy loteria cards. We all sort of thought that cutting, painting, sandwich-boarding, drawing, and re-painting plywood would NOT be that time-consuming of a costume. But then it was. Actually, that was sort of a blessing in disguise, because it meant we all had a lot of excuses to hang out and craft and talk about boys and school and not school and crazy outfits and goals and dreams and sauerkraut. Well, not sauerkraut. But we COULD have talked about that if we wanted to do. That's how much time we had to be together. I have to admit, of course, that like most things that work out in my New Orleanian life, the pull of the work was really Leah's, and it never would have worked without her. For that I am a very lucky person.

The final loteria krewe for the Amigos at the 6 t' 9 Parade were: Leah, Hannah, Ari, Mariette, a girl I hadn't met before, and me. On Saturday evening we got to dress up in front of the bathroom mirror and spray things out of aeresol cans like we were going to a high school prom. Then we
headed down to St. Claude Street, and became spectators. No matter how good your costume is, it's impossible not to become a spectator when you are marching in a New Orleans parade. So much goes into them! You see people in crepe paper dresses and hats that light up; babies decked out in lace and face paint; tall shoes full of water and beads; amazing music and smells and everything gold and glittering and neon. This time there was Mexican candy and a mariache band. A woman filled her pull-cart with marigold plants to hand out to people watching the parade. A whole band of children rode in a Day of the Dead Carriage with skeleton faces, gritting teeth out the windows. A woman dressed like Frida Kahlo danced to the second line behind us while jutting out of enormous cardboard picture frame like a painting come to life.

See? That's New Orleans.

We marched for three hours. I want to show you pictures of everything we saw -- the wedding with the bride in a
whispery off-white lace gown, watching the parade from the church steps with her new husband and all her well-dressed guests. The sunset that made the whole parade stop and turn around and collectively groan, "Oh my God." The dancing children and drunk Mexican wrestlers throwing Milky Ways into the intersections of streets. It was all worth documenting. But my camera ran out batteries within the first ten minutes, and I guess I'm almost grateful. In the end, I got to drink it all in. That was a tremendous gift.

On Sunday, Ari and I had our annual Harvest Festival. This is its third consecutive year of existence. At the first Harvest Festival, Ariana and I lived in a house together at 140 Otis Street. We bought thirteen pumpkins from the pumpkin patch down
Isaacs and invited ten people over to carve them on the front lawn, drink apple cider, and decorate pumpkin cookies (see left).

This year, we wanted the sentiment to be basically the same, but we decided we would only invite each other. And Leah. This really took a lot of the stress out of the whole event, to tell you the truth.

But it was still ideal. We started by carving twenty apples. Then we made: pink cinnamon apple sauce (We used Red Hots. Brilliant.), apple cranberry pie, apple cider, and three flavors of pumpkin seeds, including curry, Cajun, and sugar and spice. The house smelled
so good. The air outside was cold, so we opened the doors and let all the crisp fallness of the October night mix in with cinnamon and cloves and baking apples and cranberries, and we put on sweaters and Lindy Hop music and just hung out in the kitchen for like five hours.

The pumpkins, however, presented a bit of a fiasco. They didn't have any at
Rouse's, so we had to use a pie pumpkin and a couple of white pumpkins. The white pumpkins carved out fine (and it was pretty novel, actually), but we had to use a SAW to get the lid off the pie pumpkin, which made the very thought of carving the features on the face of the pumpkin impossible. After much deliberation, we decided the best route would be to use an electric drill to make a nice pattern of holes in the pumpkin. This is not a joke.

On Monday Ari and I went to see "Where the Wild Things Are" for the second time. On a Monday night!!! Are you GETTING how much FUN I have become?!

It's Halloween again. Already! I know, I can't believe it, either. I am very excited about living life right now. There are so many things I still want to experience and do before I leave New Orleans. Thank goodness I'll be here another year at least.

That said, I can't articulate how much I am looking forward to coming home (because Portland is still, and will always be, home) for a week for Thanksgiving. I can't wait to eat my mom's cooking and to let my dog lick me all over my face. It will be weird to be home without Alexis. It's the first time we've ever not spent Thanksgiving together as One Big Happy Family.

But we're all doing a pretty good job of taking care of ourselves these days. I'm proud of the Johnson family. We have had some nutty times, that's for sure. At points, I think we actually redefined "dysfunctional." Now we're redefining it again by being enigmatically functional, normal, rational, and sane. Cheers to us.

Another month has unwound and lies, autumnal, in the rear view mirror. I am practicing, above all, patience. Tom Petty says, "It'll all work out, eventually." He was a good songwriter, so I'm gonna go with him on that one.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fun-ometer reinstated: 12 percent fun

Last Wednesday, I started to update my blog, but I wasn't even fun enough to finish said entry. I dissolved into a puddle of gross misery and left this entry unfinished. It sat in my Drafts folder, like an unhatched egg. Would you like to read it? Very well then. It was titled, "8 percent fun." If you will notice, my funness percentage has already risen since then. I am a very proactive type! Either that, or I'm a little bit bipolar.
Look at this fun percentage. Things have definitely been better. I think 8 percent fun actually might be generous, to tell you the absolute truth. Case in point: it's Wednesday night. But I'm not at Wednesday night dinner. I'm in bed, with my sweet potato puff pastry (which I can't even finish eating because for days on end I've only been eating freaky-gross foods and my stomach can't handle any more of them), chillin' out, staring at the ceiling, drifting in and out of pathetically restless sleep. It's bleak.

On the other hand, two things:
  1. I think I'm a pretty fun teacher. I really do. I know some good circle games (thanks, Girl Scout camp!), and I know bookoo awesome songs to sing, and I am pretty sure I make science fun and interesting, what with all the wacky experiments we do, and I have a lot of good read-aloud voices. FUN! I think kids even sometimes look at me and say, "Oh hey, there goes Ms. Johnson. She is the FUN teacher. I wish I could be in her and Ms. Bevans' class. They have a HEDGEHOG." Fun, fun, fun!
  2. I went to Portland this weekend, which makes me a really great traveler. And I did a super-fun prank! I didn't tell my parents I was coming. So that Saturday morning, I telephoned my mom. "I'm so glad it's you!" said my mom, thinking I was in New Orleans. "Yes, me too," said I. Then I rang the doorbell. "Oh, Sophie, let me call you back. I think Mancel has come to trim the garden," said my mom. "Ok Mom. Bye," said I. And she opened the door and SCREAMED and said "No!" a bunch of times, and that felt AWESOME. I also got to see Sam Alden, and Ben Stevens, and Vince Levy. It was a really beautiful weekend, full of a lot of good coffee, and a lot of good comic books
You know what? It actually IS very fun to travel across the whole entire country for a single weekend. So let's spend a little more time on that. Portland is unfathomably beautiful this time of year. Last weekend, New Orleans was still the spitting image of hurricane season, with smudgy storms and 90-degree heat (with 94 percent humidity), so when I walked out of the Portland International Airport into the 50-degree air without a sweater I almost swooned over and kissed the ground. This is what fall is supposed to feel like. All weekend I got to wear sweaters and scarves, and coffee tasted better and jeans didn't feel sticky against my legs, and my hair didn't end up in a ratty ball of overdone spaghetti every time I walked out the door. The weekend was so full and beautiful that I forgot to take pictures of most of it, but I have a few highlights:
How unbearably Portland-in-October is this picture? We were sitting on Broadway at a coffee shop that taught you Swahili on Wednesday nights and helped you plan your trip to Sweden on Sundays, and we ordered vegan apple cake (because any coffee shop in Portland just happens to have things like vegan apple cake) and had to wear jackets while we sat outside by the hip bikes to drink lattes (Sam) and fat cups on drip coffee (me). I am loving coffee, incidentally, more and more with each passing hour. Since I completely quit smoking, drinking, and eating animal products, strong coffee has become my number one vice. I think it is way more acceptable than any of my previous vices.

We also went to Cathedral Park, right under the St. Johns bridge (you can click on that link if you would like irrefutable proof that this is among the most beautiful bridges in the world). I had never been to that park, and I actually have dozens of pictures I took there with my jaw perpetually scraping the ground because I had never seen a place quite so sublime. We sat on a bench overlooking the park and I could see the pine trees puffing up their chests on the mountain, and the oaky things blushing for the onset of fall, and a hummingbird singing like a creaky gate on a branch right over us, and a pair of children riding Their First Bikes along the walking path, and a set of maybe eight people laughing as they shot some sort of movie by the water, and I actually cried because Earth, in that moment, seemed singularly peaceful and extraordinary. I couldn't imagine -- and I tried! -- that anything bad ever happened on Planet Earth. That was a strange thought, but sometimes when you are intensely happy, you can't help but think it, even though it seems irresponsible. I thought, How nicely all these species can coexist when every one has space to breathe and run around and be themselves, and no one is competing for anything, and everyone is nonchalantly letting everyone else exist just as they are. But, of course, the world wouldn't be the place any of us loved if it weren't for competition, and I knew that those thoughts were born out of the sort of transcendentalist utopia I had briefly fallen into, so I pulled myself out. The picture I've included is not of the space I'm describing to you, anyway; it's a little up and to the left of that bench, in an old shipyard where Sam and his family once discovered this huge propeller. Wait. I wrote that sentence wrong. Let me try again: That photo was taken in an old shipyard where Sam and his family ONCE DISCOVERED THIS HUGE PROPELLER!!!!!!!! Have you ever seen anything like that? You can climb around it and blackberry brambles are shooting up through the middle of it. I have no idea why it's there, or what it was intended for (presumably a ship, says Sam), but it's one of the awesomest things I have encountered in my brief life.

This is what the leaves look like in Portland. This photograph makes me feel tremendously homesick.

The week following this trip was tough. I think a lot of the reason for that was that I never caught up on the sleep I lost from hanging out all weekend and then traveling ten hours both ways. But also, I am not doing enough for myself in general. I almost re-typed that sentence because it sounds kind of selfish, but what I mean by that is that there are so many things in the universe that I love to do (a short list: Draw with sidewalk chalk! Go for long walks! Explore museums! Eat by myself at restaurants! Listen to music! Go to the library! Experience the cinema! Chat with wildlife!), but I haven't had the chance to do any of it in the last few months. I hear a chorus of "Told You So"s echo whenever I say that out loud, because Teach for America is generally supposed to do that to you (you know: weed the life out of you and turn you into an incredible teaching robot), but I guess I had to experience it for myself. I think the trouble is that I've grown so terribly invested in this school and in these kids, that I find myself pushing outside the realm of normalcy to do the best job possible. Now I sound like a martyr. Well, look, World: I'm not a great teacher yet, because I have only been teaching for one year. I'm still learning it! I have got to figure out how to forgive myself for that, and be patient. It will come. That's why I've decided to stay in New Orleans and teach for third year. In the mean time, I should go on more long walks, and sign up for more cooking classes. A teacher with a lot of fun in her life is a good teacher. I think Albert Einstein said that.

Luckily, I have a handful of really fun friends who are tremendously good influences on me. On Friday, we had the most successful Crafternoons (Crafter-dark?) we'd had in ages. Friday was also the day that New Orleans started to cool off. The night that night was too frigid for mosquitoes, even! We had the doors hanging open and we let the cakey smell from Leah's evening baking endeavor coupled with dusty sweaters from last year warm us up. Oh yeah; we also ordered a life supply of MSG and corn syrup from Yummy Yummy Chinese Food and ate like pregnant women. I crafted until 3:30 a.m. the next morning, which may be my longest crafting session of life. Maybe. Twelve hours is a long time. As a sidenote, I think that at some point in my life I would like to live in a house with a lot of artist-bum-types and make shit to sell at fairs and carnivals for a living. I think I would like to do that for one year. That will also be the year when I watch all 1000 of the Best 1000 Movies of All Time. I never want to watch good movies anymore. Too much work. My last Netflix batch included "Tuck Everlasting" starring Alexis Bledel and "No Reservations," which is about a surly chef who has to raise a child alone -- until she meets hunky Aaron Eckhart, and her life is changed for good! I ran into the postman yesterday and he asked me what two movies I was returning. I was like, "Taxi Driver" and "Casablanca." He said, "You don't wanna tell me, huh?" "Nope," I said.

Yesterday I took a long walk with Ari (check and check!) and we talked about boys and moving and New Orleans and our respective prior weekends. Kevin came to visit her last weekend and they got to gawk at beautiful buildings and eat bengiets (sp?), and ride the streetcar and dance to jazz music in drizzling rain. It is so wonderful to show New Orleans to someone who has never been here. I also don't know how often I have seen two people more in love than Ariana and Kevin. Seeing people in love is something I can appreciate in any phase of my own relationship life. When I'm single, I still love to see people in love. You know that when people are deeply in love, they have found a corner of their lives which will always exist in their memories and intense and whole. There are so few things in life that so completely stay with us like our experiences of being in love. I hope that when I write shit like that it doesn't come off as super-arrogant and condescending. Maybe I should have just written, "Seeing Ari and Kevin together made my heart physically flutter." That also would have been true, and maybe less annoyingly introspective. That's a picture of Kevin wearing two things that are plaid. He's pretty badass. Plaid-ass? Hmm.

I simply cannot walk around New Orleans without falling in love with New Orleans all over again. Every time I let myself take it in, I feel dizzy with infatuation.

This blog post is getting too long for anyone to feel like reading all the way through. There is a lot more I want to tell you, but I've rambled on for a long time. Here are two things I should add before I go, because they are important:
  • I'm sorry, haters, but I thought "Where the Wild Things Are" was lovely. I really did. It was the first movie I've watched that felt like I was watching one of those sleepy childrens' books that grown-ups like a whole lot more than kids do. You know, the kind with lots of little magical aspects, but not much plot. I cried through the whole thing. It did a great job of depicting childhood the way adults want to picture childhood. Yes, it was simple, and yes, it had some kind of obvious metaphors, but WHATEVER! It was built to show us what we remember about our own childhoods. Maybe in some ways it was built to reimagine a childhood we would have created if we had had the emotional depth to build it as children. In any case, the monsters said some really beautiful things, and the structures in the movie were gorgeous, and the kid was a great actor, and the house Caroline Keener lived in was perfectly staged, and I found the lack of exposition and explanation refreshing. I went with my school to see it (K-3. Not my choice, actually), and the children loved it. At least, Barshall loved it. I sat next to him and he had great commentary for the whole thing. He said stuff like, "I would like for that monster to eat the other monsters and then eat all the trees." A whole new angle!
  • Avery's birthday (I can now tell you, since he has graduated and become my friend more than my student, that his name is actually Arthur) was yesterday. Celebrating it was the fuzziest, warmest experience of my whole year, hand's down. In fact, it was how a movie might end. For one thing, a lot of things we tried to set up for Arthur last year are finally falling into place. For those of you who have been following (read: have been forced to listen to me talk on and on about) the Arthur saga, you should know that Arthur is doing GREAT. The Personal Care Assistant we applied for finally came through, and she's amazing. She has helped him with so much! She's gotten him a volunteer position at the ARC. Next week they are going bowling. Arthur looks clean and well-dressed and I've never seen him so happy. Kristen and I brought Arthur a big pizza to eat with his grandma at his house. It was gross, but Arthur sure likes pizza. Then we took him to Wal-Mart and bought him a new hoodie and some markers. It's fun to pick out your own birthday presents! The best part, though, was that we took Arthur to Creole Creamery, where he was surprised by Ms. McGough (his old teacher and my dear friend), and her fiance Drew (an amazing man, whom Arthur is also obsessed with), Drew's rap partner, and their perfect, amazing five-month-old twin boys. It was like being in a real family. Jayda (Ms. McGough) looks beautiful; and Drew was smiling constantly. The babies are cuter with each passing second. We all got to hold them while we passed ice cream around; and even Arthur bounced Savion up and down on his bum knee. I felt very nearly content in that moment.
So it's The Next Year now. What will I learn? Already, I have learned a whole lot. But only, it seems, when I get out from under my covers and poke around in the universe. That's very hard for me, but well-worth it. If I ever need proof, there's a yearlong backlog on the Internet in the form of my blog to remind me.

Monday, September 28, 2009

funder and lightning

This is probably my most original blog title yet. Especially since in New Orleans the weather is so often so stormy.

Wow, Blogosphere! It's been a long while since we've talked, yet again. Remember a year ago? I was such a good correspondent back then, while I was trying to get my fun back on track. Now I am a little less concerned with being a fun person, and more concerned with being a sane and rational one, which means it's been quite a long time since I've done any beautiful exploring or learning about this amazing city I find myself in. It's okay, though: I have time.

The weekend was nice and long. I just spent ten minutes going back in my brain trying to think of events that I could brag about this weekend, but I couldn't come up with any. Ariana and I went to the Art Museum and looked at the beautiful photographs. I broke off on my own and walked through the lonely rooms upstairs no one ever goes in because they are full of permanent collections of Chinese, Japanese, African, and Native American art that people dismiss as generic ("I could see that stuff ANYwhere," they say). I do have my hesitations about those rooms, of course. It's not really fair for museums to have those beautiful artifacts locked away in glass cases like that. They don't belong to us. When I look at the gorgeous craftsmanship of a mask or a vase or something, I feel like I am in the presence of something sacred that is being totally exploited. I tried to walk through the rooms as appreciatively as possible. I do love the Japanese brush scrolls a great deal. They remind me of my mother.

And I was riding my bike on another beautiful sunny day in the Quarter and ran into Lily and Jazzy and their friend Tah, whom I have not seen in aaaaages, and they shouted, "Sophie!" and I shouted, "Lily and Jazzy and Tah!" and they were sitting outside Port of Call, which is this famous burger place that always has bookoo people outside it. They were like, "Hey, we're going to go to Port of Call, do you want to come?" and in my head I was like, "No I have way too much work." And then in my head I was like, "Whatever! I don't have that much work! I have never BEEN to Port of Call!" So in real life I said, "Yes, I would love to." And then I joined them for lunch and ate a baked potato with chives and had an iced tea. I have this to say about Port of Call: the burgers cost a lot of money, but they did look really pretty. I have no idea how to judge a good burger. I do have an idea of how to judge "Good Burger," starring Keenan and Kel from Nickelodeon. And I judge it like this: A+.

But it was nice to laugh and to talk about not-school stuff. Examples of not-school topics that happen when you are with non-teachers (Tah is technically teacher, but she's a cool teacher who can talk about hauntings):
1. Pooping.
2. Spirit animals.
3. Sam Alden yesterday said, "Hey Sophie, I have found a word in the dictionary you maybe don't know. And the word is 'pinguid.'" And I said, "I have not heard that word before. What does it mean?" And he said, "Fat and oily." So I mentioned this to Tah and Jazzy and Lily, and we talked for probably forty-five minutes about 'pinguid.' Subtopics: Can pinguid ever be a positive thing? Would you like to eat a pinguid sausage? Was the guy one of them hooked up with last night pinguid? All valid questions.
4. Tulane.

School, to completely change the topic, is wonderful. Today we don't have students because we are doing data work, and I thought last night for a great deal of time about how much I miss them, and how sad I am that I don't get to see them today. They teach me so much every day. I can't believe we are already at the midterm assessments.

My students are very receptive to learning about history -- especially about African American history. The thing is that they often say things that are truly depressing without ever realizing it. When I read a story to them last week about Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a section in the book that talked about how Martin Luther King, Jr. fought to desegregate the schools, and my students were genuinely puzzled. At lunch Melissa said, "Ms. Johnson, black kids and white kids can't really go to school together, can they?" Apparently the vast majority of my class thinks it's actually still illegal for classrooms to be racially integrated.

But on a happier note, our table groups are named Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi; and our 2nd grade class is completely fascinated with Gandhi. There has possible never been a group of 2nd-graders more obsessed with Gandhi. There are almost no books available for children about Mahatma Gandhi, but Carrie and I both have a copy of the same one -- a dense, boring, dully-illustrated book more suitable for high schoolers than seven-year-olds. My kids daily insist that I read them a few pages from it, and they listen in absolute fascination to theories about karma, and to the stories of Gandhi's life. They can find India on a map.

My students are so unbelievably curious and open-minded. They are ready to learn and they are eager to access information. They hug each other and take care of each other when they think no one else is watching. They don't sweat the small stuff. They draw beautiful pictures and see the world in shades of pink and orange and bright blue and green (I assume, based on the color palate they choose for their art samples). They aren't afraid of school yet. They beg for homework. At what point do we get beaten down enough that we start to pull away from life? I promise you it happens sometime AFTER the age of seven.

We have two great class pets. I tried to take videos of each. One cut off within one second of video taping. The other is the most boring class pet video ever. I tried to wake Chico up but he just tensed up and hissed at me. Enjoy these boring videos. Know that if you were to come visit, you would have a lot more fun with our class pets than these videos immediately suggest.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

things are pretty good.

I feel... lucky isn't the word... I feel unbelievably happy to be alive and to have so much love in my life every day. More soon. There's a lot to say.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Let's just pause a minute and play, "WHO IS SOPHIE LIVING WITH NOW?"

Here are a few hints:
1. Both the people I am living with are in the picture to the left.
2. Both of the two people I am living with are really freaking adorable.
3. Both of the people I am living with are human people, and are not waffles, or grits.
4. I do not live with any men.
5. As beautiful as she is, I do not live with Gina.

If you have guessed ARIANA RAMPY in the Oh-My-Fucking-God-Is-That-An-Actual-Dress? dress, and LEAH HOPE FISHBEIN who cooked the fabulous beyond all words feast which lies on that table (peanut butter waffles, deep South grits, homemade bean-and-cherry sausage, rosemary apple scones, and all of it vegan), then you have guessed CORRECTLY, and you win a PRIZE!

And that prize is a brief-but-thorough update on the Life Happenings of Sophie Johnson, embedded with no fewer than Four Fun Facts about Dolphins!

(I still can't spell "dolphins" right the first time I try. That's not one of the facts. But I legitimately always try to spell it "dolfins," and it is hard for me to understand that I am incorrect in believing it ought to be spelled like that.)

So many things have happened in this last week.

Monday was a pretty regular and ordinary day, for the most part. Someone threw up in the hallway at school. I stayed in the building until 7 p.m., and then worked at home until 10 p.m., and then I felt shitty because that was too much work. So I decided that wasn't going to work for Tuesday. Thus, Tuesday was different.

On Tuesday Hannah, Leah, Karaline and I tried to have our weekly dinner, but we failed for the following reasons:
1. Hannah was stressed out and could not make it to dinner.
2. We picked a Chinese restaurant (because we were all FAR too stressed out to think about cooking) that ended up looking sketchy and then we ended up at a Japanese restaurant that was very fancy.
3. There was almost nothing vegan on the menu, except some of the sushi, and Leah hates sushi.
4. And I had to leave really early BECAUSE:

... ARIANA RAMPY arrived! The excitement is still very, very warm in my blood. In fact, I would go so far as to say that nothing in my immediate past has made me feel so warm-blooded as Ariana Rampy's arrival to New Orleans, Louisiana (by the way, DID YOU KNOW that dolphins are warm-blooded?!?!).

No, folks, she is not just visiting New Orleans. She has moved in here. She has a room in my house, with a bed, and a window looking onto our back porch, which I am constantly rediscovering as one of the most desirable hidden worlds I've ever caught myself in. And ever since she got here, the air has been full of Winnie the Pooh stories, bad eighties movies, gluten-free baking, and that arresting laughter that makes my heart stop in a kind of frightening way -- a barrier only ever broken by Ariana.

Moving is stressful. I watch Ari go through the motions of transporting beds and trafficking dressers around the house, while trying to find a job, and trying to figure out how she is going to hang her dresses up, and trying to cook in lower-than-sea-level tropical humidity, and a lot about last year comes back to me. Except that Ari is infinitely saner than I ever was last year, so while I sit around waiting for her to have a panic attack, she breathes in the dishwasher-wet thunderstorm air and says, "I love it here." This makes me love it here all the more. Sometimes humans can communicate enormous truths without even speaking. Ari being here makes me understand, with my whole heart, how lucky I am to call New Orleans home. (By the way, DID YOU KNOW that dolphins, too, communicate without speaking? It's true! Dolphins can make a unique signature whistle that may help individual dolphins recognize each other, collaborate and perform several other kinds of communication.)

On Wednesday it was Parents' Night. I ate a lot of chips and felt sick. And then I sat in my room in total shock as I looked out at a sea of parents' faces -- moms and dads and grandmas and aunts and brothers and neighbors -- and thought, "Wow. This school really works." I enthusiastically raved to moms and dads about their children, who really are the most brilliant and interesting human beings I have met in my whole life. I know that this is not the way that parent night is supposed to go. You're supposed to say all these things that parents can do to work with their children to help them succeed. But I'm no good at that. That's why I have a co-teacher.

I'll get better at it. I just love them so much. I can't even wrap my own mind around it, let alone put it into words.

On Thursday my co-teacher was sick. It was a very, very bad day. My kids all decided they were sick too (I assume mostly because they wanted to copy Ms. Bevans; and I can't blame them because she is very much worth imitating). The rest of them decided that they should be on their worst possible behavior, particularly when I was being observed. I lost Charles. I lost my temper. I lost my voice. And at the end of the day I needed to be reminded of all the At Leasts (At least the school is still standing! At least everyone is safe! At least you get to go home!) because I couldn't think of them on my own.

It was humbling. It was one of those, "Oh my God, I'm not actually good at this yet" moments. The kind where I felt like I was drowning, about 260 meters below the surface of the ocean (which, by the way, is about as deep as dolphins can swim, DID YOU KNOW?).

On Friday we all celebrated. The kids were nicer, and I was nicer. Ms. Bevans was still very sick and sat on the stool looking cross whenever someone was out of line. That actually was a better management strategy than anything I had previously tried, so I was very, very grateful for her presence -- as painful as it must have been for her.

It was a long weekend. The highlights were cleaning the house, and eating that amazing brunch. We went to Southern Decadence and just Took Things In -- men as women as men as women; dancers and twirlers; cigarettes and penises; cigarettes shaped like penises; children in coats and women with babies; vomit, beads, gendered-up Mardi Gras fare in September. The heat got very sticky. Ariana continued to bring light into the house, and Leah cooked food I never imagined could exist. The three of us went to see "Julie and Julia" last night, which I'm embarrassed to say we absolutely loved. We made a lot of really loud orgasm noises over the buttery foods that none of us can eat.

The house is feeling a bit more like a home, and I half-expect my mother to be sitting in the living room reading T. S. Eliot in an armchair before dinner. Also, I can FEEL fall. Man, I am SO ready for fall. I just love that season. Right now, it is my favorite.

I swore I would only take 15 minutes on this entry (the amount of time dolphins can stay underwater, DID YOU KNOW?), but it's dragged on and on, as it always does. My mom called a few minutes ago, and with my sister in Costa Rica for the semester (wish her happy and safe travels whenever you can! She just got there last night), I want to talk to her and see how she is doing.

It always amazes me -- and Ari is on the phone with Kevin now, loving him with all her heart from this great distance -- how far we can be from one another and how close we can still feel. What a cliche that is... but there's something very comforting in it, too. So as I turn in, looking forward to another week, I'm sending as much love as I can across miles and miles, hoping you will feel it. Onward!

Sunday, August 30, 2009


I am sitting outside on a hot hurricane-season day in New Orleans at the Fair Grinds. This is all well and good, except that the heat makes the mosquito bite on my ankle itch like crazy. Only since I moved to New Orleans have I learned to correctly spell "mosquito." Previously, I had resigned "mosquito" to being one of those words I would always have to let Spell Check correct for me. But now I've got it. Next up: avocado.

You and I have not been in great correspondence.

The amount of time I spend at work, and thinking about work, and generally immersed in some kind of work-related work, has ballooned to the size of a bloated rhetorical time-whale. But I think I had always imagined that teachers were supposed to work this much, so I don't mind it really. I have the rest of my life to sit behind a blog, making my life sound a lot more eloquent than it actually is.

That is, if I ever leave this whole Teaching At A Charter School In New Orleans thing. The more I am here, the more important it feels to be here. I guess I assumed that the gap would appear less severe if I worked at a school with parents who were involved, and a staff that was supportive, and with kids who weren't twenty years old and didn't know how to read. And yes, the gap does appear, in some ways, less severe. But in other ways, it is just as troubling, if not more so, to see kids who are still so far beneath grade level, swimming against the current. But they're seven, so it's usually a little more cute than depressing, and that makes the whole of this entire situation all the more pressing.

I am not particularly good at teaching. I don't even know if I am particularly good at babysitting. But I'm trying to work as much as is healthy, in good faith that if I take care of myself and do the best I can the rest will fall into place.

When kids are seven they say cute shit.

Example: "Oh Ms. Johnson, B told me that if you go to someone's house and have crawfish over at their house then you is cousins. Is that true?"

Or: "Ms. Johnson, you put coconut oil in your hair? Because your hair feel like the inside of a coconut."


(After reading a book about a raccoon, Ms. J hands out pieces of lined paper)
Ms. Johnson: Okay class. On this paper, I would like you to write a question you have about the book. A question ends with a QUESTION MARK. If you don't know how to write a question, I want you to make your best effort. So you will be WRITING. Not DRAWING. WRITING. A question. About the book. The book about the raccoon.
B (with a raised hand): I'm going to draw a picture of a giraffe, okay?

I get to work at 6 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m. and go home and work from my comfy bed and at night I DREAM about children and on the weekend I browse websites about leveled readers. My life has become a pathetic Teach for America poster existence. I'm kind of really proud of it.

There was a breath of sheer, unsullied fun in there, though, when Sam came to visit last weekend and I put everything on hold to show one of my favorite people in the world one of my favorite cities in the world. So prepare yourself for A LIST. Because these sorts of events can really only be cataloged in effusive, effulgent lists. We:

Stayed up too late, woke up too early, ate vegan jambalaya, cooked brunch (buckwheat waffles, avocados [sp?], mushroom and onion tofu scramble), saw assorted wildlife (two alligators, enormous black grasshoppers, myriad banana spiders, wading birds, lizards with electric blue tails) at the Barrataria Swamp, ate fresh fruit Snowballs, had alligator po' boys (mine was French fries actually, but Sam picked up the slack and ate some real life alligator), biked to City Park, opined about swans and turtles, biked to the French Quarter at night, walked along the Mississippi River and viewed geckos and ibises (is that the true plural of ibis?) in the slick swampy black water, chatted up the gutter punks about ECE, made pancakes with red plums, rode bikes on the ferry to Algiers, had carrot cake with the Sunday crossword puzzle, biked Uptown, ate vegan burritos at Juan's, found a wallet, returned a wallet, biked to Audubon Park, saved a child from red fire ants, counted one hundred turtles, listened to snippets of conversations as they passed by on the bike path ("I hear you can do the same thing with a turkey baster"), had free Indian food at Hare Krishna, slathered ourselves in grapeseed oil to lose the mosquitoes (no "sp?"!), went onandonandon and on about comic books (and on and on and on), ate black beans and eggs at the Oak Street Cafe while they closed up and the piano jazz player was starting to get a little wacky and the girl behind the counter decided she liked us because our glasses matched and gave us a free Arnold Palmer and plates of free doughnuts.

Unless you are Sam Alden (and maybe even if you ARE Sam Alden), you should have read that last paragraph with complete envy, because that, my friends of the Internet, is the archetype of The Perfect Weekend.

I pride myself so much in my ability to explore the beautiful world around me while I am alone. I have never had trouble going to the movies by myself, and I actually believe the art museum is always better that way... but sometimes, when you are so completely tangled up in your job that you can hardly breathe, you need someone to come in and pull you out of it and remind you that There Are Trees! and There Is Art! and Being Alive Is At All Times A Celebration And A Gift! So last weekend was like being handed a self-help manual to remember why we start Internet blogs to chronicle our fun levels in the first place. Because Everything is too breathtakingly wonderful to let pass by without stopping to take it in.

Yesterday was the four-year anniversary of the hurricane that brought so many of us here. I struggle to write about that because one year in New Orleans has taught me, without a shadow of a doubt, that no amount of books or trips to the Lower Ninth Ward will ever, in a million years, give me the perspective to understand the magnitude what happened here then.

I do know that the people who are here now -- the transplants, and those who stayed; those who know the intimate details of the Superdome, and those who came back; the visionaries and the misfits and the idealists and the anarchists -- are the best people, hand's down, that I have met in my twenty-three years. I am so grateful that this amazing city is a chapter in my tiny life.

And the sun has come out. We all, always, move forward.