An Impractical Way of Improving the World


Mahebourg, Mauritius

When left alone with my brain—between podcasts and the speed of life I maintain, it doesn’t happen often—I can get pretty idealistic, relinquishing anything that resembles possibility, feasibility, or likability. I dream up these ways of making the world better. My latest idea infringes on common sense. It trounces logic. And it forgets the concept of privacy. Despite these drawbacks, I think with this little brainchild, the entire world would become a place even Ghandi would approve of.

I think I actually borrowed this concept from a 1999 Kevin Costner movie (I love Kevin Costner). In For the Love of the Game, Costner is on a date with the journalist who becomes the love of his life, played by Kelly Preston. She says she thinks people should wear signs around their necks just saying what their story is or what they’re thinking. Billy (Kevin) asks what hers would say and she writes down, “Yes.” That’s a little simple for what I’m planning here but it’s a starting point. I always knew Kevin Costner and I would save the world together.

So here it is. What if we all had descriptions of our hardships or what makes us good people floating above our heads for other people to read? They might say things like “I am unemployed but trying really hard to find a job” or “I lost custody of my kids because my ex-husband is evil” or “I used to run every day but then I found out I have a heart condition and now I can’t walk any faster than this.” Alternatively signs might read “I teach kids how to crochet in my free time” or “I visit a nursing home on Tuesdays and bring Reese’s Cups for a woman named Mary” or “I’ve worked on Baltimore’s Westside for 40 years.” (Okay, all of those three were about my mom.)

I’ve got some stipulations.

  1. The signs would have to be true but since this is my fantasy world, I’m not going to worry about how the fact checking works. Not my problem.
  2. They’d have to say the good things about people which would hopefully force people to make better decisions. I won’t address whether or not they will include the bad things people do. What do you think?
  3. The point of the signs is for interactions with strangers. You don’t have to have them out when you’re around people you already know.
  4. I do think that hardships should be part of the signs, just because I think that hardships help us see humanity in others. We soften when we know someone is going through something. I haven’t decided about things like “I won the lottery” or “My dad’s a billionaire and I get $25 million when I graduate college.” (Okay, those two are about me.) What do you think?
  5. The signs would not display our inner-most thoughts. As Aubs pointed out, if they did then we’d be in trouble.

I solidified this topic for today’s blog while reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. At the start of the book, he paints the world of West Baltimore.

“The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty, or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away.” (p. 14)

What if my signs allowed people to see one’s struggle and know it and feel for it? Would there be less shooting? Would we all be more likely to look at someone else, read his story, and think, “Yea, I know what that’s like.”

With our clothing it’s already as if we wear the story we’re trying to portray, right? So why not just wear what you want and then rely on your sign?

My signs would be helpful in traffic. My car is where I say the most terrible things I’d never say to anyone out loud. And I know it’s bad. If I could read the struggle (let’s ignore the obvious concerns about driver safety for a second) someone has, I might be less apt to be angry about a shitty lane change or more willing to let someone in front of me. I might be less likely to yell to my Corolla but really to that other driver, “F you you f-er.” Because who would actually say that to someone who is a human, good person who goes through the hard parts of life? Only a monster.

This might be one of the reasons I like The Bachelor shows so much. Everyone has his or her neat little story. Rachel was the bachelorette who hadn’t found a guy who would commit. Dean is the one who has the weird daddy issues. Nick kept getting rejected. I think ABC coaches each person to form his or her story and then asks all people to stick to their respective tales of woe. There’s no room for nuance in Bachelor Nation. We viewers can’t handle it.

I guess since this will never happen, maybe we should all just live in a way that each person we encounter has struggles and does good things. And, we should live in a way that our “good things” parts of our signs are something we’re proud for others to read, even Ghandi’s ghost.


The Defender (a throwback piece)


I wrote the first version of this in April 2014 in Tim Wendel‘s Nonfiction Workshop. I don’t really have a reason to pull it out right now other than it has been rejected from some publications, so why not post it on my own publication?

Also, it’s almost time for Back to School. Here’s to all my teacher-friends! You make the world go ’round. 


The Defender

I have a recurring fantasy. No rose petals or white candles, no marathon win or gold medal. No. My fantasy is one in which I get respect.

This dream starts with a real memory. I am at a wedding reception, one that I attended in August 2013. In a recycled bridesmaid dress, I’m in a money-themed Boston hotel, a former Federal Reserve. Colossal reproductions of American currency cover the walls. Grover Cleveland on an old one hundred dollar bill, Hamilton on the ten, Grant on a seventy-five—who knew? Chandeliers the size of Ferraris float above our heads. And I just take it all in.

These are my boyfriend Chas’s people. Someone related to the groom owns the Phoenix Suns. These are not my people. Someone asks if I am wearing a J. Crew bridesmaid dress from last season. I’ve been discovered and I am on edge.

Chas returns from the men’s room and tells me about a man he overheard. The man had been spouting off to a friend during urination. About teachers.

Chas recounts the conversation for me at our table—overpaid, underworked, lazy, freeloading, whiny. Demanding, but not deserving. I beg Chas to show me this guy. Just tell me where he’s sitting, what he looks like. In my fantasy, not as he did last year, Chas points him out.

Here is that fantasy. As I suspected, he is tall and attractive in my imagination. I find him near the coffee. He’s a softer version of Clint Eastwood. I tell him I’d like to speak with him. His smile wrinkles all collapse toward his nose.

“I’d like to discuss something with you,” I say, in my seventh-period-on-a-Tuesday-voice. One hand on my hip, the other gripping a beer of the common folk—Coors Light or Bud—I tell him about teachers.

And I let him have it, “I heard you have a thing or two to say about my job. Well let me tell you, Ca-linttt. I work sixty hours a week, but I’m paid for thirty-five. I work weekends, holidays, snow days, late nights, early mornings. Most weeks I work seven days. I’ve had seven hundred and fifty people walk in and out of my doors in five years and each one left with something. I give out confidence and knowledge. I hug with my words and counsel with just a look. Literature dances on my tongue. In a given day, I am fourteen different people for one hundred and forty different children. I produce progress. I make learning fun. You had teachers once. Look at you now! Owning the Phoenix Suns and shit. You want to talk about teachers?”

For some reason in the past year, this reverie has crept its way into my brain. I get to be the Defender of Educators. Teaching for me has become an identity, a persona, a comforting cloak, a crusade. In the deepest depths of my heart, though, I am starting to truly hate it. 


I was newly twenty-two when I walked into Homeroom 29. I was their sixth teacher in as many months. After four and a half years of college and five months of internships, I would take my rightful place in front of the class. No, I’d take my place throughout the classroom, because truly good teachers don’t teach from the front.

I would save the world, and I’d start by coming prepared. They didn’t have a classroom for me. Instead, I worked from a cart and taught in four different hallways. If two shelves and four wheels would be my “room” then, by God, I’d decorate those shelves and wheels. On day one, I brought all the writing utensils Staples offered and in every color they had, none as bright as my fluorescent optimism.

Through the education grapevine, I had heard my new school was tough. Behavior issues, academic deficits. Low socioeconomic status, a high free-and-reduced-meals population. Tough was just what I was looking for, to be needed, to be in a place where I could affect change. I’d reverse the odds for my students. Yes, their lives would be better, and they’d always remember Ms. Doran from seventh grade Language Arts.

Colleagues and administrators alike cheekily told me to start by burning sage to ward off the evil spirits. A state Teacher of the Year had walked out forever the morning before I walked in. One of my classrooms was nicknamed “The Vortex of Death” because of how many teachers had disappeared from that room. I asked kindly to move that class around the corner.

“Don’t let students work in groups,” they said. It was January. The months of anarchy and abandonment by five other teachers meant these kids could only handle deskwork. Make them packets of deskwork. Desk. Work.

Use stickers when you grade. Be tough but be gentle. Show them you’re going to stay. Assign detentions. Call home. Send “Good News from School” postcards. Learn their names—fast. Differentiate between the six girls named Destiny, the eight with the last name Johnson. Be consistent. Routine is important but vary when possible. See them as individuals but ensure equal treatment. Tell parents when the kids act up. Tell parents when the kids succeed. Remember your own needs. But eat your lunch fast. Allow yourself to care, but don’t, please no, don’t ever let them see you cry.

During my first week, from inside the faculty bathroom, I overheard a conversation between two of my new colleagues talking in the hallway. “She looks so young,” I heard while lathering up the public school soap. “You think she can do it?”

“There’s no way…” I opened the door to face the faithless. The complete sentence would have been something like, “There’s no way she’ll last.”

That week, someone put a Snickers bar and school T-shirt in my mailbox along with a note that read, “Your staff is completely behind you, Amanda.”

After both events, I went into the closet that they called my office and closed the door. I didn’t let them see me cry. The best part about your first year is that you never have to do it again.

My fifth period class looked like the opening scene from a movie stereotype about teaching. I was Michelle Pfeiffer shaking in my heels in Dangerous Minds. Paper balls sailed. Students walked around at will, danced if the mood struck, smacked one another for fun. Pants hung low, skirts rode high. They were wordsmiths though. “Fuck” and “bitch” were carved into multiple desks. Pens and pencils, who needs ‘em? And my voice was a lost detail.

I looked for opportunities to reward students. The first positive phone call I made regarded a boy named Dilon because, in the midst of the madness, there he sat. His face was serious, eyes bright, and concentration unfaltering. He was one of four kids who actually completed the work I assigned that first day. He wrote his name on his paper, included the date; he even handed it in. And he smiled at me. I rushed back to my closet to call his mother. I told her that Dilon was studious, respectful, a model for his peers.

“Oh, thank you so much for calling,” his mom said.

“Please congratulate him for his efforts,” I said in the oldest version of my voice.

“I sure ‘nough will,” she said.

Dilon became my fifth-period-ally. He’d pass out papers as though everyone would actually do something productive with them. He’d sit back down and complete whatever I planned for the day. He didn’t carve expletives into his desk.

Months passed. Some of the other kids started to sit down. Eventually though, Dilon’s mom couldn’t afford his medication any longer. So just as other kids were starting to realize I was serious, he became a baggy-panted, screaming, paper-ball-thrower. I suspect he wrote “shit” somewhere on my desk to add to the quilted array of “fucks” and “bitches.” I somehow survived the rest of that year. Dilon didn’t get any more positive calls home.

About a year later I saw him in the hallway. He was wearing shorts, bending over the water fountain. As I approached to tell him that he’d gotten taller, I noticed an ankle monitor around his leg. I froze. Then, I went back to my classroom and shut the door. I had lost track of him. The police had not.

Optimism dies an ugly death.


Gifted and talented classes came with their own headaches. On the verge of tenure during year three, I met with a parent one day after school. She wasn’t specific about why she wanted to meet. I had gained some confidence with parents, so I didn’t ask.

Mrs. Z wore a shiny green coat and a smile. I pulled up two student chairs, tennis balls on the feet, and sat, ready to talk about her son’s performance in Language Arts. She spoke first.

“You cannot grade,” she said in a thick Russian accent. “If you cannot grade, you cannot teach.” 

“Excuse me?”

“You are ruining their confidence,” she said, pulling out two of her son’s recent assignments.

I spend between six and eight hours every Sunday grading papers. I neglect my family. I shoo my boyfriend. I don’t hear Gram and Mom sing in the choir. No, I grade papers. Many times I find papers I’d poured over stuffed in the trash. My comments, numbers, notes, and “great thoughts here!” don’t even find their way into the recycling.

Mrs. Z placed the assignments on a desk and there was my cursive. Large lettering and suggestions for improvement were scrawled all over. I breathed in deeply and blinked to suppress what was coming. I met her tarantula-leg eyelashes and asked her what she was expecting out of her son’s grades.

“You are too harsh,” she said. “They are only in sixth grade.”

“I know what grade they’re in, ma’am. This is a gifted and talented class.” 

She continued with “your lack of compassion,” your unnecessary strictness, your flawed grade scale, your inexperience, your inability to listen, your, your, your. By the middle of this tirade I could not hold back my tears, which had been welling since her first comment. She kept going, pointing over and over to where I had written three out of five points. I began to sob. She continued her chorus of insults as I stood up to get a tissue. Mascara had bled onto my cheeks.

I didn’t tell her that her son’s class had thirty-five students and, when they added a thirty-sixth a few weeks ago, I had to search the school during lunch to find an extra deskforegoing my sandwich. The desk had writing all over it and gum all under it. I didn’t whine that I was working my ass off keeping all of them engaged. That I found ways to integrate technology, to encourage them to work collaboratively, to make their learning meaningful. I just cried.

Eventually, she must have felt satisfied and left. I’m not sure how I got her to go, but I was still crying for an hour after she’d gone. Alone in my room and trying to catch my breath, I checked her son’s overall grade. He had a B+. Never schedule a meeting without knowing the reason.


The first time a fight broke out in my classroom there were no warning signs. I was helping a student in the front row complete her work. I heard something strange, looked up. Two boys in the back of the room had become frothing monsters. To this day, the fights sicken me. The children watching the brawls become ugly versions of themselves, cheering and gleaming.

This time it was was Ronnie versus Deonte. I sprinted the four steps to the back of the room. For me, the next twenty seconds on that linoleum, under those fluorescents, felt endless.

Ronnie’s mother was a drug addict. I’d spoken to her on the phone, and each time it seemed as if she’d taken a hit of something hard just before answering. “I’m really concerned about his grades. He just doesn’t seem to care at all.”

“Ohhhhh. Really? I’ll sp sp speak with him. What’s your name again?”

“Ms. Doran. I’m Ron’s Language Arts teacher.”

“What class is this?”

“It’s Language Arts, ma’am. I am Ms. Doran.”

“I appurciate you carin’ about Ron. Thank yaaa for callin’.” She hung up. No change in Ronnie.

Deonte was quiet. His foster mother was a small, fiery Indian woman. We’d met before. She told me she’d already “given up” Deonte’s brother who was one year older. I later found out that “given up” meant she sent him back to the placement agency. She told me she would give up Deonte too if he kept skipping homework. I reminded her that he was a nice kid who cared about school. “Yes, yes,” she said, “but the homework.”

I reached the warring students and stopped for a split second. It was like waiting to join Double Dutch—the second jump rope always gets in the way. The second jump rope was Ronnie. Arms flew, punches landed and missed, hands ravaged shirts, faces contorted. Most of the class had sprung out of chairs and formed a circle around the boys and, now, me. The three or four pacifists who remained seated weren’t interested in risking their safety for a tussle between two featherweights.

In contrast, the circle of twenty-five was grateful for the show. Most grinned as they mosh-pitted closer and closer to the boys who had now stumbled to the ground in a tangle. Now Ronnie was winning. He threw his final fist while on top of Deonte.

I wrapped my arms around Deonte’s sinewy middle, which was about the size of a jug of apple juice. Another student bear-hugged Ronnie. And we both pulled. One school rule is that teachers are not actually supposed to intervene physically in fights. So I also yelled, “STOP,” in a loop. My one official duty. It wasn’t enough, and they swung and pulled as two other rational people tried to calm them down. When Deonte realized it was me holding him back he started to relent. We backed away together. The boy who had grabbed Ronnie was saying, “It’s not worth it, man. Let it go. Let it go.”

Later, when the boys had both settled on clenching their little fists at their sides and breathing through their noses like horses—attempts to seem tough—the principal came to my aid. To her surprise, having dealt with countless fights in a decades-long career, I was crying. Crying because they were no longer fighting, crying because they did fight, crying because I cared about them. Crying. I don’t remember what she said to me in that moment when she saw my pink, moist face, but I know that when she touched my shoulder gently, her look was one of: “Honey, I’m sorry I brought you into this.”

She took the boys and within fifteen minutes my class sat back down, and I tried to keep going with the lesson. My heart still fluttered. I couldn’t eat that day. A week later they were both back in class, peacefully sitting a few rows away from each other. At least there was no permanent damage.

Sometimes you have to break the rules.


A few months ago, in third period, I again heard something I hear all the time. “I hate reading.” This time the words sprung, proudly, from the mouth of one of my best students, Abbey. She was holding court with a group of kids who did not have As.

“I’ve never finished an entire book,” she said, like they all say. I walked up and started in on my doctrine about reading being essential to life. I share books from my own library all the time, but the student often loses it or puts it back without me looking, the spine untouched, pages unread. In this moment though, I thought of something and retrieved The Fault in Our Stars by John Green from my own bag. I was fresh from this cathartic story about two sixteen-year-olds dying of cancer and falling in love. The characters speak like adults and feel like witty friends. Its cynicism, sorrow, and raciness totally matched Abbey. I pulled it from my bag and handed it to her. “Take it home. If you can’t finish this book, I will leave you alone,” I said. It was Friday. The following Tuesday Abbey came to my room, handed me the book back, and said, “You win.” 

What if books kids wanted to read were part of the mandatory curriculum?


By the end of my first year they called me the Doranator simply because I stuck it out. Since then, I’ve broken up countless fights, staved off angry parents alone, mentored children of drug addicts without calling home. I can monitor a hallway full of hundreds of hormonal middle schoolers with the best of them and deliver an impromptu speech about effort and diligence. After a recent snap speech a boy in my class told me I sounded like a poet and said, “Ya know what? I’m actually gonna do my homework tonight, Ms. Doran.”

Five years in, I’ve proven myself to my colleagues. They even give me the kids other teachers can’t control. I have taught five interns, directed two school plays, produced four literary magazines, written my own course proposal, and won Teacher of the Year at my school. And yes, I am proud.

But five years into this career, I receive acupuncture and talk therapy. Anxiety haunts me like a jittery specter. Even when I feel okay, I’m just a bad day away from rounds of harsh self-criticism and obsessive self-doubt. My perfectionism is a sickness. I lose sleep over small nothings. I get angry at work. I will obsess over one negative comment from a peer for a week. I have nightmares about being late, though I’m usually the third teacher to arrive in the morning. I get home from a long day, and I keep working even if mine was the last car in the parking lot. I furiously pick at the skin around my nails. I forgo all those dates and dinners out in favor of grading reams and reams of papers. And of all of this, I am sick.

So you know what, Clint-wannabee? There’s a lot of fun in teaching. But there’s self-sacrifice too. If you think we’re all freeloading, lazy do-nothings, know that many aren’t that way. The level of optimism required to teach isn’t even sustainable. The mountain of forces against us is mostly to blame: the testing, the class sizes, the lack of parental assistance, people like you, ubiquitous violence in our world, people like you, fickle administrative support, tough curriculum, unrealistic standards, and inconsistency between teachers, schools, counties, and states, and especially people like you.

Still many of us, we just blame ourselves in the end. That’s why it’s hard to get good teachers to stay—myself included. We can’t help but pine for the nine-to-five-world. So if you want to denigrate an entire profession while you’re peeing at a wedding, maybe you should thank your teachers that you can put a sentence together while drunk.

Deep down, teachers know the thin line between love and hate. And I’ve learned that five years in, I’m too often on the wrong side of it.

Gram and Amanda

Please keep our girl Gram in your prayers and/or nondenomenantional thoughts. (Look at that crazy uncle who snuck in there for appearance #2!)

Now I Know I’m…Still Crazy After All These Years

Before I start my weekly ramble-session, I want to take a moment to ask for your nondenominational thoughts and prayers for my Gram Mary Lou. She’s not feeling well right now but she is among the toughest humans this world has ever seen. Offer one up for her, pour one out for her, eat a crab cake in her honor, whatever. If you’ve met her, you already know she rocks. Plus, she’s a fantastic version of “crazy” making her the perfect start for this blog. I once heard her argue about the locations of the different Polish Catholic churches in Baltimore for 45 minutes. She spots grammar mistakes in thank you notes. She can finish a Saturday crossword puzzle. Alone. Without the internet. And, she’s been kicking cancer’s ass for over a decade. Plus, she’s just so cute!


A pair of my absolute favorite crazy people.

Crazy has not always been acceptable. In the olden-timey days, it was good for one ticket to misery in an asylum. The most minor mental illness could have you committed. Now, I submit that we’re able to let our freak flags fly a little more; although, we can likely all agree that our country has a long way to go in dealing with and caring for people with mental illness. I’m not here to make fun of anyone’s condition, I’m just here to say that we’re all a little nuts–and it’s time to see ourselves and laugh in the mirror. Life’s more fun that way.


This is how “the insane” (and whatever other evil names they had for them) were treated in the olden-timey days. I took this photo at Dr. Guslain’s Museum of Psychiatry. Gives ya the heeby-geebies! I wonder what kind of contraption they’d put me in.

You know that feeling of tears pouring down your face in a room full of straight-faced or even smiling people? You know those times when you leave a note on a car across the street because the driver parked like a jerk and you’re staring out of your window eating a bowl of Cinnamon Life © waiting for him to come out and “learn today”? You know that feeling of running the streets of Ghent with your husband trailing behind as you charge in and out of wine bars searching for a free place to go #2? You know when you’re mimicking Catherine O’Hara in Schitt’s Creek cooing “Alexisssssssssssss” in your best rich lady voice and then you remember that your next-door neighbor’s name is actually Alexis? You know when you’re standing forlornly in front of your broken coffee maker in your kitchen and you and your husband decide to drop trou’ and moon it while yelling, “Take that Mr. Coffee!”? No? You don’t know these common experiences? Hmm.


I mean the guy had TWO huge utility vans. I decided to mix up the verbiage just in case there was a second driver the next morning.


My view of one of my notes.

Lately I’ve said the sentence, “I am insane” several times per day to several different groups of people. I feel like I need to put it out there—although, they probably already know—because I must announce that I know what I am doing is not normal. While you may not relate to these exact situations, except for maybe mooning your coffee maker, I’m sure you, too, are convinced that you are crazy. We all are. I guess that means that the word crazy really just means “sane.”


You should’ve seen the aghast-ness of the staff at Kisling’s when they realized I had snuck Joe into their restaurant. Fortunately, it took them 90 minutes to spot this oddity.

In the past few weeks my crazy seems to have really taken off, like a 747 cutting through clouds of sanity, soaring into the world of lunacy. For two weeks, I have been somewhere between 3-4 different people all wrapped into one little body. SAT course co-teacher, Director of Scholar Development and crew leader, yoga student, and then just me, pretty much failing at being a good friend, daughter, granddaughter, sister, and especially wife. Last night I left yoga teacher training and just filled my Corolla with deep-from-the-belly, self-pitying sobs—the kind that sound like gaaaa-hook-gaaaa-hook-gaaa-hook. The thing is, I’m fine. Life actually feels great. I had just pushed myself to my maximum, totally sucked in my yoga teaching evaluation, felt menstrual, had too much laundry to do, and needed a real cry—it’s been a while. I now know that my maximum Amandas is 4. I cannot be more than 4 people.

The older I get, the more I get to know myself. It’s really been a journey—one of therapy, acupuncture, a meditation course. Lately, yoga has also really helped me do this—see me, know my needs, and then act on them. Do I sound like the most first-world diva? Probably. But, at least I can say that—and I don’t ever pay retail for anything. It’s like the more that other people tell me to look inward, the more I listen to them and then listen to myself. Thank you, Erica; thank you, Lauren P.; thank you, Shambhala Center via Chrissy K. Thank you, yoga.

I get better at reading my body and mind every single day. It’s so enlightening to actually pay attention to yourself. I don’t think I ever did this as a kid and maybe didn’t start until I was 25 or so. This might sound super meta but you are always with you. And that’s easy to ignore when it hasn’t occurred to you to realize it. While this phenomenon of knowing when I’m mentally exhausted or moving way too fast or about to “gaaa-hook” makes me feel even crazier, I think it makes me saner.


Something that might enrage a true sane person. One of my students must have enrolled me in this website service. Look at the username she chose for me. Hi, I’m GangBangBitch. Love my outfit though.

When I’m having full, two-sided conversations in my car, filling in an eyebrow without a mirror, tweezing my chin hair in front of anyone who cares to watch, letting my students braid my hair, watching Netflix while grading papers while texting while eating cheese, calling everyone babysis because it makes me giggle, I know I’m absurd.

Many times, I cannot justify my actions even to myself but I know that I don’t know why I am doing something. Ya dig? Knowing that I don’t know my “why,” ideally, helps me rethink that choice the next time. Should I pick off my left big toenail to the point of needing to wear sneakers instead of flip flops? Not this time! That’s why god invented pedicures—I call it “defense.”

With this, I encourage you to meet your crazy. Look him or her in eye, shake hands, and say “Welcome, I know you’re here to stay so let’s do this together.” You’ll both be better for it.


On top of being a total nut, all of the people I love are total nuts too.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

– Jack Keroauc in On the Road

Some of the best “mad” ones…


IMG_8891 2

This is my mom’s brother, Uncle Michael. He may look normal but do not let him fool you. He’s wonderfully odd.

What’s in a Boundary?

Druid Lake

The old boundary around Druid Lake. (Now they’re doing construction and I think this rusty fence will be removed but I kind of like its shabby chic character.)

I am often struck by the utter diversity of the English language and how one word can mean such different things. I am sure other languages have similar homophone and homograph patterns but being that I am American, I can speak only English, and I can only speak for English homophones and homographs. The best explanation of homophones is by R&B singer, Brian McKnight and Cleo the Lion. It’s only a minute—just invest the time.

When I pause and consider words that have such different meanings, I’m amazed by homographs like ring, form, bat, I can (can!) keep going but I’ll spare (spare!) you. Then there’s the homophones that vary widely in meaning such as ale and ail or air and heir. I’ll metaphorically slap myself across the face here because this piece isn’t actually about homophones or homographs, it’s about a word that I have been hearing and thinking about a lot recently. In different contexts it can be completely lauded and coddled, yet in others it’s vilified and spat upon. I think that navigating this homo-graphic/-phonic concept will always be one of the great (meaning large) struggles of my life.


Take a deep breath–I’m not actually going to get political. As elected officials argue about “the wall,” point values of immigrants, and their own egos, the boundaries of countries are dominating the news cycle. What’s amazing to me is that these somewhat arbitrary boundaries, or borders, weren’t even decided until about 150 years ago and in one case, we gave up a piece of land less than 50 years ago. The Gadsden Purchase got us the southern part of New Mexico and Arizona in 1853. We got this land literally on sale for $10 million. Then, in 1970 we gave Mexico the Horcón Tract, a piece of land that we had forgotten was technically ours. At the time, its residents paid Mexican taxes, attended Mexican schools, and one journalist called them the Forgotten Americans. An American company had already forcefully dried up the Rio Grande in the Horcón Tract so we said “Oh well, you can have it.” And that boundary was solidified. But still, doesn’t it look random? Just sayin’.


In 1983 Madonna released “Borderline,” which, word-wise, has almost nothing to do with boundaries although she repeats a close synonym throughout the song: borderline. Is this actually lyrical genius by lyricist Reggie Lucas? Or did those syllables just fit?

“Keep on pushing me baby
Don’t you know you drive me crazy
You just keep on pushing my love
Over the borderline”

Either way the music video brings it back to the borderline. In the short drama, seemingly Madonna is in love with a Mexican (gasp!) but occasionally makes out with her photographer who drives the ugliest sports car I’ve ever seen. She is actually hanging out near what seems to be the borderline when she plays billiards with her Latina lover. It’s a classic battle between the guy with the ugly, yet expensive car and the poor, billiard hall foreigner. Watch to find out who wins. I’d recommend putting the volume on mute though. “Borderline” is surprisingly offensive to the ears.

The word boundaries has such extreme meanings. It can be so positive and then so negative. When people talk about boundaries in a positive way, it’s often about setting limits on what is appropriate. Positive boundaries that everyone is supposed to set are personal, emotional, mental, and maybe more. Boundaries are cast out as negative in the cases of Doctors Without Borders, Love Without Boundaries, and the one that I see the results of daily, redlining.

As an educator, one has to teach boundaries to children. It’s a tough concept to get, even for adults. When I worked at Panera in high school, I learned about a certain boundary in an icky way. One day a man that came in and talked to me often called me to the side of the bakery and asked if I wanted to go to dinner with him some time. He was maybe in his 40s. I was maybe 16. I was always friendly because I was a good employee and I loved that job I did not realize that some people take friendliness as an invitation. That was a shivering introduction to boundaries.

When I was 20, I moved into Mt. Vernon into an apartment called Four Reasons with my friend Lauren. The day I brought in my new mattress with my dad, I greeted a new neighbor. I said that my name. He said his. I probably called him “Neighbor” instead, like a dufus. A few days later I received two letters from him, sitting on top of the mailboxes in our building. We call these “The Sugar Bear Letters.” They’re a combination of really, unfortunately funny and extremely gut-wrenchingly sad, and an example of a real need for boundaries. But, in these two incidents I learned that others sometimes cross your boundaries without you even knowing you needed to set them.

Sugar Bear 1Sugar Bear 2

Boundaries have been in my head lately because I need to establish some. Just ask anyone who loves me. As I am setting up what my dad called “the gig lifestyle” I have to figure out where my boundaries are. Teaching is an amoeba. If you let it, teaching will literally infiltrate every part of your day even, and maybe especially, your dreams. It’s boundary-less, if you let it be. And that’s what I did. I’ve carved out my new job to be 32 hours per week + hopefully tutoring + maybe teaching yoga. Not knowing how this whole piece-meal thing will work, or even if it will, I have to set boundaries. I’m in this new position because I worked myself into crippling anxiety and I needed to get out. But it’s up to me to prevent that from happening all over again.

After Four Reasons, I moved in with my friend Pilar who gave me something I’ve kept for seven years: my Certificate of No. I don’t often think of it nor use it. But, I keep it as a reminder. I think I will give it a prominent spot on the fridge where it was when I lived with Pilar. Thanks, P.

Certificate of No

At the end of each day, I know I will be better at everything I do if I have time to myself. The older I get, I am realizing I might be one of those introverts disguised as an extrovert. I love people and my people are the best people. But, I recharge alone. Well, alone with The Bachelorette on in the background or a “This American Life” filling my kitchen. I clean the kitchen and bathrooms. I wax my armpits. I look at our garden. I sweep the floors. I practice yoga or go for a run. I bake a dessert. I fall asleep reading. I make a Goodwill pile. I take a bath. I can’t explain why these activities recharge me but I literally just described my perfect day.

In my “new life,” I may try to set my boundaries around my alone time and allow the rest to fill in organically. That sounds less stressful to me than a structure like “I will spend one hour doing this, two hours doing that, 34 minutes cooking dinner” and so on.  Something I am finding difficult about this is that I love everything and “get out of your comfort zone” is a mantra for me. I want to do everything. The second I hear about some new opportunity, idea, event, type of yoga, race, book club, gathering, social justice cause, I just want to join. My inner Amanda might be on crack. But the outside Amanda needs a lot of naps.

Boundaries can be controversial, nebulous, worn-down, necessary, too strict, welcomed, or maligned. What a word! And we all have to find out what it means for us and then make that perfectly clear to the people around us.

Lake Roland

I don’t really have a reason for including this picture other than it’s awesome. Lake Roland circa 1992.

PS: Happy Birthday to my baby cousins Ben and Zack who are 19 today but still 18 months old in my heart.