Monday meal: Two ladies, two bitches (Sunday Nibble #31 Part 2 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the profiles of two women who have had a profound impact on me into two parts. In case you missed the first part, his is the second of the two ladies. The bitches were two of the female dogs I’ve owned, who were also influential in my life This is part two. Here is part one.

 

Betty

She wasn’t all that young when she taught me, so I’ll assume that she’s either dead now or very old, but I had a very interesting relationship with one of my two high school AP English teachers. She was Ms. Betty Bivins — well, she went by “Mrs.”

She was a wide, thick-set but not heavy older woman with red hair that may or may not have been henna. My overall impression of her was that she consisted of squares and cubes with Conan O’Brien’s hair-do before he became famous for it, and a penchant for textured pantsuits that resembled flocked wallpaper in tones of either orange, red, or green over white or cream.

The word formidable comes to mine in both talent and personality, and this is appropriate, because she was my first actual Grammar Nazi.

I hated her for it from the start. But by the end, everyone in the class and I knew all the rules backwards and forwards, and for the semester I wound up in a regular (not remedial) English class (the why explained below), the grammatical and technical abilities of those kids were clearly nowhere on our level.

What she did was this: She gave us a list of common grammar and spelling errors, like mixing up it’s and its, or confusing your/you’re or there/they’re/their, along with commonly misspelled words like, well, “misspelled,” or “privilege,” and whether to use “affect” or “effect.” (That one has a sneaky hidden triple point score, thank you psychology!)

I think there were something like fifty items on the list, and she had a master book with our names down the first column and the rule numbers at the top, with two check boxes under each rule all the way down.

When we turned in a paper, if we messed up a rule, she’d make a check in the book and mark it in red on our paper with the rule number. If we ever made the same error twice, that particular paper would fail no matter how good it otherwise was, and that would affect our overall grade.

I know that one because of her, by the way.

She was, in effect (see what I did there?) the kind of editor I became, and young me wasn’t happy about it at first, especially on that one day when I screwed up and “it’s’d” when I should have “its’d.”

Now, I kept a diary back in the day and I remember finding it as an adult and reading through it, very amused for two reasons. One was that I didn’t really write about any of the more… interesting stuff that happened in my life (Narrator voice: “Sex. He means sex. Mostly masturbation, but also sex.”)

The other is that in those first days of high school, I raved about most of my teachers, and then would just tersely note: “Xth Period. English. Hate it.” And no, I don’t remember what period it was. I do remember reading, as an adult, my entry on the day I got my first mark in the Big Book of Grammar sins, though. “Xth Period. English. Bitch, bitch, BITCH!”

But, of course, stubborn little bitch that I am thanks to Mom, I was determined to never fuck up anything in the Big Book again, and I didn’t. And I started to realize that Ms. Bivins really encouraged my writing. A lot. And eventually, we clicked, and during my second semester, she was my favorite teacher and AP English was my favorite class, second place a tie between AP History (Mr. Sholl) and Spanish (Ms. Navarro).

There is a point to mentioning AP, too, which is going to come up in a second. “AP” stands for “Advanced Placement,” and this is a high school track that actually counts as college credit. In fact, because of all my high school AP classes, I actually started college as a second semester Freshman and could have technically graduated a semester early, but instead stupidly took on two minors. And an extra semester of debt.

So we get near the end of first year, I’d been telling Ms. Bivins about a science fiction novel I’d been working on. I think I may have even bravely given her some pages, and she suggests, “You know, you could write this next year as an independent study in lieu of your English class, with me as your advisor…”

Side note: although it was (cough) a few years before The Purge, that science fiction novel was basically that, but set in a distant dystopian future. And, ironically, I was given the idea by a fellow student who was already in the “regular” English class first semester and he explicitly pitched it as, “I think this is an interesting idea, but there’s no way in hell I could ever write it, but you could.”

I titled it Free for All, and I actually still have a printed manuscript of the damn thing around here somewhere.

Anyway, what reason was there to say “No?” to something that could become the next great YA novel? So we created the pitch for the independent study, she got it approved at the school level and, as far as I knew, it was good to go before summer break according to someone at LAUSD downtown.

I came back that fall for the new semester, and when I got to what was supposed to be my independent study class, Ms. Bivins welcomed me with a look on her face that made me think her entire family had just died in a fiery car crash.

She explained that only that week, during the student-free day before classes started (aka “yesterday”,) some ass-clown administrator downtown had said, “Wait. You can’t do a core class like English as an independent study!”

But here was the Catch-22. I couldn’t just go right back into the AP English class either because, reasons. So I found myself being escorted by a very sad Mrs. Bivins to a regular English class already in progress, where I spent a semester in hell because it was just so goddamn boring.

It felt like repeating the curriculum and reading level from back in middle school — Tom Sawyer and Lord of the Flies and the like. Been there, done that. And, like I mentioned, the level of English written in that class was, well… average, really. If you’re not sure what that is, go read the comment section for any online newspaper or media website, then count the number of times you cringe because of the writing. Yeah, that level.

Now, it wasn’t that these people were stupid. It’s just that not everyone is good at language arts in general, or their own native language in particular — never mind if they’re not a native speaker. I get that. I’ve known Medical Doctors and PhDs in other fields who couldn’t spell or string together a coherent written sentence to save their lives, but they are good at what they do.

And I cannot count on all my fingers, toes, and other parts (i.e. hair) the number of plumbers, handy-people, mechanics, cleaners, and so on who don’t speak much English at all, but who light up in Spanish when I tell them I understand — and who are ridiculously good at their jobs.

Seriously, if we ever have a disaster in space, all we need to do is send up a Mexican with some duct tape, PVC pipe, a tile knife, a couple of adjustable wrenches, a mallet, one black plastic trash bag, and a friend, and that shit is coming home safe and sound.

(Note to anyone taking issue with the last paragraph: It was a humorous way of saying that the ingenuity of people from Mexico or of Mexican descent never ceases to amaze me. White people whine and call a professional. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans look at the problem and solve it. Period. They could MacGyver their way out of anything. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between growing up with privilege and not. But I do digress…)

As for all those wypipo who never learn how to English… in a lot of cases, they do learn their own technical jargon very well, so you might be surprised to see that lawyers aren’t necessarily literate outside of their particular bailiwick. They can write briefs, arguments, and opinions all day, but ask for an essay, and it ain’t gonna happen.

Hint: this is why paralegals really exist. To fix the regular English screw-ups that sneak into their bosses’ stuff so that they don’t look stupid in front of the judges.

But here is the insidious thing: In Mrs. Bivins shooting for the Moon and missing so that I landed back with the muggles for a sad late summer and most of autumn, she actually did me a gigantic favor without ever having to explain a thing, because I don’t think she even realized it, either.

Let’s get back to that “AP” part. See, it also happened to be that most of the people in all my AP classes were also people I’d been in classes with all through school since about first grade, provided that we all went to the same three schools. So, minor cast changes along the way, but for the most part, we seemed to wind up on the same train from age 6 to 18.

Now, it made sense in elementary school when we all spent the entire day in one room, with one teacher. But once we popped up into middle school and the sudden wonder of six different classes, six different rooms, and six different teachers, it should have gotten more random.

It didn’t. So on day one in middle school, there I was in home room, with mostly all the same people I’d been in class with on the last day of elementary school — and that continued on through the days and the years.

The only place it seemed to break down was in P.E., but I can’t help but think that this was strictly engineered by the sadistic coaches, who wanted to toss a bunch of jocks and nerds all together in one locker room at the same time, and then tell them, “Shower time!”

Yeah, we had to nude up and do that back then. I didn’t mind at all, But it was the only class I could remember that seemed to mix all levels of students, from advanced on down. Then again, while any typical period might have dozens of different classes in dozens of different rooms at the same time (my school were huge), P.E. had all of them at one time, in one place.

But the exception proved the rule. The only time I had class with people I wasn’t always in class with from the beginning was in the only class that did not test intellect, only physical ability.

Oh yeah… we’d all gone through that one at about twelve years old. I remember failing miserably on all counts so, while those of us from many levels did P.E. together technically, I was still lumped with my fellow nerds in the same Coach’s group, and at least he was less of an asshole than the others.

That didn’t stop them from having us do things like play flag football against the group full of aggressive jocks. It was like The Hunger Games, except with less death.

Still… why all of this grouping?

Well, ultimately, it was because all of us, around the beginning of 1st grade, were given an IQ test in that wonderfully systemically racist way of perpetuating “white superiority,” seeing as how IQ tests were originally created by big fans of eugenics.

But we took those tests and, unbeknownst to us, we were sorted into groups. I happened to wind up among the top tiers — “Gifted” and “Profoundly Gifted,” although I never heard those words until years later. But the end result was that our cohort, who were tested as well above-above average on the alleged “IQ” test were fast-tracked to…

Well, honestly, privilege. Now, granted, it was Los Angeles, so at least our gifted group was not 100% white, and everyone in it earned it. But here was the problem. Well, two problems.

One is that the particular IQ test they were still using at the time was later determined to have an enormous cultural bias, which did tend to weed out people from lower socio-economic backgrounds of all kinds. The other is that, because of this test, the top group got more resources and attention than everyone else when, ironically, we were the ones who probably needed it the least.

Put Mrs. Bivins in a “regular” English class, and she could probably bring them up to “our” level in a semester. Meanwhile, give us the rule book and make it a challenge for us to catch each other’s errors and… same result, cheaper method.

But this forever opened my eyes to how our entire school system is not really interested in improving everyone. Rather, it’s only interested in dumping everyone in their proper box, from Alpha to Epsilon, and doing form a very early age.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s Huxley’s Brave New World right there. Which, come to think of it, Mrs. Bivins did have us read during our second semester. So… maybe she had always planned ahead, and was setting up an object lesson she knew that I’d get? I don’t know. All I do know is that she, more than anyone else, gave me the push onto the path of pursuing this crazy “be a writer” thing.

Image source, Mohamed Hassan via Pexels. Licensed for free use.

Sunday nibble #31: Two ladies, two bitches (Part 1 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the story into two parts. This is the first.

Dazé and Shadow

I’ll tackle that choice of title right off, because it is absolutely literal. Today is August 23, and that happened to be the day that I picked — because it was closest to the likely one — for the birthday of two of my dogs late, great, Dazé and Shadow. So yes, in the absolute definition of the word, bitches, but they were my bitches.

Okay, in reality, I was theirs, but that’s why I’m including them here. The bulk of the article is in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women in America finally being given the right to vote — and it is shameful as hell that it took 132 years from the ratification of the Constitution to the Amendment that fixed this major defect.

August was also the birth month of one of the women on this list. I don’t know when the second one was born, but I do know that the third was not born in August.

But I include those two dogs of mine as an example of how nurturing and protective feminine energy as opposed to masculine. In fact, it’s why I will only ever adopt female dogs.

Oh, I’ve known male dogs. I’ve lived with more than a few, interacted with many, and ultimately they are for the most part… well, go search for YouTube videos of “Stupid Things Frat Boys Do,” and you’ll get the idea.

Male dogs are energetic, and goofy, and they’ll hump your leg when you let your guard down, but they clearly don’t really have as much going on upstairs as their distaff counterparts.

I’ve written about it before, but Dazé always ruled the roost, no matter how many other dogs were around and how much bigger they were than her, and she did it without ever showing aggression. She was totally devoted to me, but never submissive. It always felt like an equal partnership.

Shadow could not have been more different in the sense that, while she was totally devoted as well, she was also completely submissive and dependent. Dazé saw it as her job to take care of me. Shadow saw me as the one who was supposed to take care of her.

But it was a pair of valuable lessons that led to a really amazing relationship with dog #3 (not born in August), Sheeba. Dazé taught me what a dog could do for me. Shadow taught me what I could do for a dog.

I guess that Sheeba must have been up on her Hegel, because with her it was a combination of both; a wonderful give and take in which we took care of each other. Dazé never needed my help and Shadow could never give me hers. With Sheeba, it truly was a two-way street.

That’s probably a big part of the reason that she was the only dog whose loss did not immediately inspire me to go out and rescue another, and it’s going on four months now. Sure, current events in the year of several plagues have also had an impact, but I’ve done surprisingly well without. At least for now.

But, to get to the important part: Here are three women who have had an enormous impact on my life.

Gloria

Okay, most people knew her by that name. I knew her as Mom, She taught me some of my most important skills: never put up with anyone’s shit, always question authority when they seem wrong, and cooking and baking are true and enjoyable art forms.

Keep in mind that my mother died when I was fairly young, after a long mystery illness that only seemed to be made worse by medical treatments from male doctors (only) who would never even for a second take seriously my mother’s attempts to tell them how the symptoms changed depending on what part of her cycle she was in.

“Oh, that’s all in your head,” these men who never had periods would tell her in that mansplaining tone. Looking back, I think the whole thing started with a bout of acid reflux that led to hyperventilation that happened (coincidence?) on my 13th birthday.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Mom was brought up with huge amounts of Catholic guilt and body shame, so wasn’t exactly that in touch with things. Looking back, to be honest, I’ve had the sudden “feel like you can’t breathe because your windpipe suddenly shut” thing a few times in my life, but I very quickly learned the cure for it: Hold your breath.

And yeah, I’ve felt guilty that I wasn’t there for her but, then again — I was 13. I was in school, like I was supposed to be. So it was just the next door neighbor there to rush her to the ER, toss her into the hands of the un-empathetic male doctors, and I think over the next few years they managed to medicate her to death.

Since her family all lived on the east coast, I really lost contact with them for a long time, since I didn’t have their phone numbers, or the wherewithal to fly or drive out there, and my dad certainly wasn’t doing it. But when I reconnected to my cousins and surviving aunts not that long ago via social media, one thing became immediately clear.

They were all like her, so they were all like me, at least in all the good ways: Stubborn, opinionated, feisty, creative, and feckin’ clever Irish-Americans.

This was partly what drove her to the west in the first place, because she had a bird’s eye view of her own mother’s hypocrisy when it came to religion. The Catholic Church ruled all! Except… only the church that the Irish people went to. The Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Latvians may have gone to Catholic churches as well, but they were filthy immigrants.

And it was perfectly fine if my mother invited her best friend Beverly to come to Grandma’s church on Sunday, but god forbid that my mother would even be allowed to go to Beverly’s church, because they were some weird, unacceptable Armenian Orthodox cult!

But the real biggie — and the one that actually wound up having the greatest impact on my own life, although I didn’t know it until long after she’d died — was that her first marriage not only sent her fleeing to the west, but it had everything to do with her relationship to me.

Long story short, she’d married her (Polish Catholic) high school boyfriend, George, at 18. She got knocked up (though not right away), he got drunk and violent a lot, and in her eighth month he gave her what we quaintly term “A Catholic abortion.”

That is, he pushed her down a flight of stairs and she miscarried, and there went the woman who might have been my older sister.

She had the marriage annulled (the good Catholic way!) then headed west, to shock her mother by marrying a much older and divorced (gasp!) man with three adult kids who was maybe Protestant (what?) but definitely not Catholic (clutch the Rosary!).

They married, she got knocked up while they lived in a tiny Hollywood apartment, moved to their suburban home when she was about five months in — and then wound up delivering me two months prematurely back in Hollywood and, apparently, she freaked the hell out.

In all honesty, why wouldn’t she? She’d already lost one child in the 8th month, and here I was, popped out in the 7th month and not completely baked, so they had to stick me into an incubator. Somehow, it worked, I survived, and I’m still here and, oddly enough, I also managed to be the tallest member of my family on both sides and among three generations, at least.

Yeah, I don’t know what’s up with that part, either. Apparently, all of my grandparents barely grazed five feet. I topped six, and I only have one nephew who came close.

Anyway, the result of my mom’s life experience up to my birth was that she was ridiculously protective of me. Fearing losing me like she had her daughter, I would never say that she was clingy and suffocating. Rather, she did what she could to keep me close to home.

Good or bad? I don’t know. She certainly kept me from being over-adventurous, something that didn’t change until after her death — but I’ve always wondered: If she hadn’t done that, would I still be alive now, or would I have died in some stupid incident before I turned sixteen?

On the other hand, if she had lived on to a normal age, and if she were still around today (entirely possible), would our relationship be loving, or would she have long since driven me absolutely nuts? I have no idea. What I do have is one childhood incident that, to me, demonstrated her absolute devotion to keeping me safe.

I was in the 3rd grade, meaning that I was about 8 years old, and was out sick for a day. The procedure at the time was for returning kids to turn in a note from a parent at the office excusing the absence — basically, “This is Jon’s (parent.) He was out sick yesterday, but is feeling well enough to return today. Signed (parent.)”

Welp, up to this particular day, my father was always the one who wrote and signed the notes. He was also an architect, so he could writer block letters like a goddamn laser printer, and his signature was in perfect cursive.

Mom? Well… she was born left-handed and went to Catholic school, so what do you think? Yep. They basically tied her left hand to a chair, forced her to learn to write with her non-dominant hand and so, as an adult, her handwriting was even worse than mine at, oh, I don’t know… eight years old?

You see where this is going, right?

Dad forgot to write the note that day, so Mom did, and I took it in. An hour or two into class, I got summoned to the principal’s office (his name was George Linnert, btw, a total dick, and he is probably long since dead by now) to be accused of forging the note.

I tried to tell him that my mom wrote it, and if he just called her, she would tell him.

Nope. He was being a total dick, so he told me to write down, “I did not write this note.” And then he refused to believe me and threatened suspension, plus calling my parents in to tell them what an evil, evil boy I was.

Guess what happened when I told my parents about it that evening?

Yep. Mom went ballistic, and the next morning she did something so freaking amazing that I still remember every moment of it. I was going to walk to school, but she said, “No. I’m driving you.”

Okay, cool. Except that… while Mom has her license, she also absolutely hates to drive and never does it, and is nervous as hell. Sure, it’s not all that far to the school — maybe a mile at most — but I think she wanted to make a point.

So we hope into the Ford, she very, very cautiously backs out of the driveway, then takes the back streets to the school, leads me up the steps by my hand and into the principal’s office, very politely tells me that she’s here for a meeting with Mr. Linnert…

…and then the second we walk in the door, she proceeds to rip him not a second, or a third, but maybe even up to a fourth asshole and all I can do is just stand there in awe of this woman, this powerhouse, my mother, taking the piss out of an authority figure that, up until this moment, all of us had feared like the grim reaper.

I don’t even remember what exactly she said, except that it involved questioning his intelligence, asking if he got off on intimidating little boys, and whether he actually knew how telephones worked?

End result? She marched his ass to my classroom, we all entered, and he groveled and apologized in front of the teacher, my, my mom, and the entire class.

It was goddamn glorious. But I guess that’s why she was named Gloria in the first place.

R.I.P., Mom.