September 18, 2009

The Great Divide



One benefit that linking into Two Writing Teachers provides is a window into elementary education and blogs and sites that address their concerns and issues. One such is the Infinite Thinking Machine, and his latest post, about the reaction to his daughter's commentary on Obama's speech, was a fascinating look into our "attention economy." Although that term implies a monetary system, in reading further I think it also could be applied to an "attention society," or as he put it, a society where everyone just wants to be recognized. The use of YouTube and the multiple discussions about Web 2.0 in the classroom leaves me feeling slightly queasy (see The Natives are Getting Restless, a series of notes on Wesley Fryer's blog).

I teach in a classroom that has too many student desks for the room size, dirty floors, two whiteboards (one has a row of student desks in front of it), a series of pull-down charts (one titled Muslum Leaders up to 1100; that spelling is theirs) but no pull-down projection screen. I also have two overhead projectors on moveable carts that are positioned at the front corners of the room; only one works and that was on the higher cart that blocked views of the students, so I switched them out. I wheel them carefully between backpacks, student desks to project, then return them to the front. There is no Smartboard, no computer, no digital projector, nothing that would indicate that this classroom exists, not in 1972 when it was built, but rather in this century.

So what will happen when a student, who has had access to a classroom at the elementary and/or secondary level with its digital bells and whistles, comes into mine? While I try to change up activities, engage them in discussion, there is no way I can match the level of interactivity and awareness that they've experienced in their fully-funded classrooms in their prior educational venues. Do the teachers at those level wonder how they fare when they finally leave the halls of high school and move on?

I'm in the middle of grading their first essays. The error rate ranges from 1 error to 39 (the most so far) in a three-page paper. I wonder what happened in their earlier curriculum that they think turning in such an error-laden essay is appropriate, and this after they had a peer-review with a rough draft. Many cannot read at a college level (our text is not dense, but rather a "friendly," conversational-style text, fairly free of political issues). About five of those well-schooled in the "attention economy" carry most class discussions, and even allowing for natural shyness or reticence of some students, I have to assume the rest have not even cracked the book.

I feel like I'm my grandmother, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, addressing the basics of a good education: reading, writing, disucssion and most of these students are unprepared. I know several of them are skilled video bloggers, all of them have cellphones and are proficient in texting (it shows in their emails to me) so I can't say they aren't fully in the web mesh of this day and age.

While I appreciate that the cutting edge of web technology is changing our classrooms, our children's approach to gathering information, and our teaching, when they hit a classroom without Web 2.0, can they still function?

Is it too much to ask of them?

September 15, 2009

Welcome Back to My Real Life

I returned to the classroom yesterday after our second international trip (this time to Munich). I was feeling pretty jetlagged, but ready to go again. We had Peer Review on their first essay, which is a section of class where they bring in their essays, trade with a classmate and then evaluate each other's essay. Not only does it 1) give them an earlier due date so I don't have to read first drafts, it also 2) gives them a chance to have someone else take a look at their essay and 3) improve their editing skills.

See? I've thought it all out.

Except what do you do Student A brings in the SECOND essay to be reviewed? The essay that I'm going to assign tomorrow with a spiffy assignment packet, a presentation and all sorts of tips and strategies?

I met with Student A, a highly decorated (tattoo-wise) military veteran who is in his late twenties, and gently asked him why he chose to do the second essay.

He unfolds a note from his orthopedic doctor explaining that he's going to have surgery soon and he'll have to get up and move around, may not be able to sit. I said that's no problem, just please take a seat on the very back row so you don't disturb others if you have to move. And it's okay to get up and walk around OUTSIDE. As a teacher, can I just say things aren't looking real great?

So I herded him back to the subject at hand.
--Why did he do the second essay?
--Because I want to get ahead.
--But you can't really do that one yet because we haven't finished the first one. Besides, I haven't given out the assignment sheet yet.
--I looked in the Course Calendar and read what you said and went off of that. (He pulls out his notebook, stuffed with papers every which way.) See? Here's all my research for my paper on Tattoos.

Note to self: add "tattoos" to the list of banned topics. And I'm wondering if while in the service, that not only did he enjoy the local tat parlor but also the local drug dealer? *Focus, focus.*

I start him on brainstorming some topics to write about. He reassures me that it's no problem to write an essay about the first time he served in combat--It will be a wonderful essay, he says. Really wonderful.

Wonderful.

August 30, 2009

Jetlag

In spite of the picture above, I believe it's easier to adjust to jetlag when I'm heading out on a visit to Europe, excited about finally seeing all those sights I've noted in my guidebooks. I swallow a melatonin on the plane, skip their meal, set my watch ahead and try to adjust quickly. Of course, I've not gone to India or Hong Kong lately, which is completely inverted from our day.

We arrived home Friday from our trip to Italy (you can view our travel blog--click on the link to the right). The plane arrived at 1 p.m. Our luggage arrived at the carousel at around 2 p.m. and we were through customs about 5 minutes later, even in spite of my candied citrus peel and wrapped Italian candies for my classes. We arrived at home at 4 p.m. after enduring LA traffic. I was at the grocery store at 4:15 p.m.

I stared at the meat counter. I was jetlagging, seriously jetlagging. I looked at the chicken breasts and didn't think I could remember how to cook those. The fish looked too complicated too. Definitely couldn't face crab, real or fake. The man behind the counter looked at me. I looked at him. I shrugged my shoulders, smiled wanly, and moved on. We had pasta that night, a pale imitation of what we'd had in Montepulciano for lunch, even though I'd bought the expensive, imported pasta in the store that day.

Last night was worse than the night before. I'd taken my melatonin, but the weird thing is that even though my mind insists that it's dark and I should be sleeping, I awake at midnight, hungry or something, or at 3 and find my way to the bathroom, or 5 and decide I'd better give up. I finally got up at 7:30 a.m. groggy as I was when I turned in at 9:30 the previous night.

The worst thing is I can't seem to get traction in my own life, the teaching/grading life that begins again tomorrow full bore. It's going to be an interesting week.

August 6, 2009

It's Thursday


It's Thursday and that means two papers on the driveway--we have the LATimes weekend subscription and greedily dive into real news.

It's Thursday and my Fix-It man can come and put in the light switch in my laundry room that's eaten up 5 hours of my time, four runs to the hardware stores, three different purchased switches.

It's Thursday and it's supposed to be cooler today, but the morning was sunny and hot when my husband and I took our walk.

It's Thursday and I finally got the dead bananas on the counter made up into two loaves of Banana Nut Bread.

It's Thursday and I think I have enough energy to tackle three little almost-done chores around the house: living room curtains, bathroom curtain, quilt backing.

It's Thursday and I heard my daughter's voice today, clear and lilting, with a hint of a smile. Yesterday she went into surgery to cut the child-bearing machinery off at the knees and her heart, already hurting from her peripartum cardiomyopathy hurt more because as she said, "I have no choice in this matter."

It's Thursday and I woke up early, remembering our last phone call last night. I wandered around the house in the early morning, the dawn beginning to break, wondering how she fared on her anti-emetic medicine that she said made her chest hurt even more. I planned her funeral, throwing open my mental closet about what I should wear, how I could help her husband, how to keep in touch with her little children as they grew.

It's Thursday and when I told her all this, she gave the smallest laugh, saying "No Amazing Grace at my funeral. I want the pallbearers to dance down the aisle like they are in that wedding video on YouTube."

It's Thursday and that laugh was what I needed to hear.

It's Thursday and it's already a better day than yesterday.

July 31, 2009

Hmmm.

Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed.
Ray Bradbury

That about takes care of my writing for this summer, I guess.

I've been compiling quotes on writing for use in my first day of class. I used to do some sort of a game, where they'd interview each other and introduce each other and names, and jokes, and people liked it. But in reality, no one remembered anyone's name, and unless they had some sort of fascinating hobby, like being a bouncer in a bar, no one paid much attention. And it takes sooo much time and while it broke the ice, I'm ready for a change.

So I'm compiling a series of quotes--some short, some lengthy--and I'll pair up these students, have them talk about it, write about it for my First Day Writing Sample. Then they'll get up and talk about it a little, and intro their partner.

In reviewing all these quotes, some taken from a writing journal I kept for one of my classes, it reminds me that I once wanted to be a writer. Yep. I did. I have an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and then went back for an MFA in Creative Writing (CRWT). All so I can make a pittance a month (I figure I'm safe from pink slips as we adjuncts make practically nothing at all, so we're the last great bargain) and teach English, in which I have no degree in at all. I have offered (begged) to teach CRWT, but those plum jobs go to the full-timers, of which there are NO slots for us adjuncts to slide into. I've tried that one too.

But trying to get back to the person who wanted to be a writer from the person who now teaches English and is tired most of the time seems like a grand yawning canyon in the space-time continuum. I almost believe I can do it sometimes. I think of Frank McCourt, who taught writing in high school for years--years!--and then wrote Angela's Ashes and Teacher Man (the latter book which I recommend highly, for all you writing teachers out there). Another over-60 writer was Harriet Doerr, who began at 67. Norman Maclean was 78 when A River Runs Through It was published. Tillie Olsen began publishing in her 70s; although she did write a brilliant first chapter of a book when 19 (which was published in the Parisian Review), work, children and housekeeping responsibilities kept her from the writing world until she was older.

What keeps me from leaping over that chasm? I've identified a few things:
Unwillingness to hurt others with possible revelatory writing
Fatigue, of brain, of body
Grading papers during the semester
Lethargy
Internet
Letting other people's needs/wants/desires/hopes cut to the head of my line of needs/wants/desires/hopes.
Belief that I can't be an Evil Knievel and glide over the divide of my life
Belief that I can't be disciplined enough to write, daily
Belief that I can't rise to the top of the publisher's slush pile, even I did write
Belief that I can't.

I happened on the NaNoWriMo site. It almost makes me believe that I can.

July 29, 2009

A Quilt, or Two

I couldn't really talk about these before because they were both gifts. The one above was for my son and his wife. When I made the first round of HUGE quilts, they'd just gotten married and weren't really sure they wanted a quilt (she told me later her grandma made VERY traditional quilts, and she's more of a modern gal). But after seeing some of mine, we all went down to the fabric store last Thanksgiving and picked out the pattern and fabrics; I added some from my stash when I needed to broaden the palette.

I gave this to Matthew and Kimberly this weekend, and they seemed happy to have it. I'm sure they'll send me a photo of it on their bed soon (hint, hint) and I'm happy they like it.

I didn't really have a name for it when I sent it off with them, but today I had some time to think about it. . . and go through my favorite quote book. I couldn't resist Marlowe's verse, from The Passionate Shepherd to his Love:
Come live with me, and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove,

That valleys, groves, or hills or fields,

Or woods and steepy mountains, yield.
While it's everyone's mind runs to the obvious (we are so conditioned) I read it on a different level. The quilt has zig-zags, that when looked at from a sideways direction, looks like little mountains, so the name is Steepy Mountains. And for Matthew and Kimberly, who are one of the Most Alive Couples in the universe, they will have lush groves in their life, mysterious woods, rolling valleys, but also the steepy mountains and fields and fields to sow and tend and harvest. Of course, I wish them cuddle time under this quilt, but I wish them most of all, that they live together forever and ever and be each other's love.

This one, titled Sun and Sand was made in honor of the marriage of my son Peter to his love Megan this past weekend. While they both live in Davis, the wedding was held in Monterey, where a lovely confluence of beach and tide pools and sun and sand occurs. The colors of beigy/yellow of a warmed beach and delft blues of a clear summer sky I thought would represent the world around them on the weekend of their wedding.

It was begun in a class I took last summer, and I wasn't quite sure about it initially. It's hard to see the final project when you've just spent hours at the sewing machine. I bothered my friend Rhonda in Washington, DC until she said finally: "Get it quilted, and then decide!" I took her advice (she's an award-winning quilter with impeccable taste), and when I brought it home from the quilter's, I fell in love with it. I'd already decided it should go to my newlyweds, but boy, did I have a hard time parting with it!

And isn't that how love happens? We begin, we stitch our lives together, not always knowing how things will turn out, but over time, we blend our hopes and dreams and fears together, and our love changes a few disparate pieces, a lump of wadding and some raw materials into a sun-bursting of a quilt. And we like it, and each other. (Of course, this is all rather cheesy, but hey, I've just been to a wedding and I'm all aglow.)

I first discovered this experience when I was stitching a quilt at the bedside of my mother, who had just had a heart attack. I had just pinned the quilt top to the batting and backing and struggled to get it in the hoop to quilt it. I sat there day after day, visiting, working. As I put more quilting stitches in, the quilt sandwich ceased to be three separate pieces of fabric and instead started to behave as one piece.

Enough of the metaphors. . . I just know I send my love to these two couples with my hands and heart and quilts.

July 11, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

This is a reading summer, among other things. First summer I've had to myself since before I started grad school, about five years ago, and I'm really enjoying it. I have one more week before it all ends and have two more books to read--wonder if I'll make it? Don't expect this many book reviews from me for a long time--I'm such a sludge in the reading department when the grading begins.

Anyway, I finished Olive Kitteridge this morning. Written by Elizabeth Strout, it is an episodic novel about a retired school teacher, Olive, but it's also about her town. The New York Times puts it this way: "The presence of Olive Kitteridge, a seventh-grade math teacher and the wife of a pharmacist, links these 13 stories. A big woman, she’s like a planetary body, exerting a strong gravitational pull. Several stories put Olive at the center, but in a few she makes only a fleeting appearance."

"In one story, Olive bursts into tears when she meets an anorexic young woman. “I don’t know who you are,” she confesses, “but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.” “I’m starving, too,” Olive tells her. “Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?” “You’re not starving,” the girl replies, looking at this large woman, with her thick wrists and hands, her “big lap.” “Sure I am,” Olive says. “We all are.” (from the NYT)

Some other favorite lines--
In discussing an older couple, Strout writes: "He put the blinker on, pulled out onto the avenue. 'Well that was nice,' she said, sitting back. They had fun together these days, they really did. It was as if marriage had been a long, complicated meal, and now there was this lovely dessert."

Olive goes on a trip to New York and from the plane she saw the landscape: "fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun, father out the coastline, the ocean shiny and almost flat, tiny white wakes behind a few lobster boats--then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat. . . seen from up here it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed."

She's not an easy character, with her constant inner judgement meter running, the abrasiveness she demonstrated sometimes, her moodiness (which gets her into some sad situations), but she's a woman who has a generous heart, most of the time.

The Times noted that the weakest chapters are those where Olive only appears briefly, and I agree. But I loved the discussion of these characters who are past the hot bright burning-out of youth, who have to live with their faults, and with the faults of others. As a mother-in-law, I got a kick out of her reaction to her daughter-in-law, that uneasy push and pull feeling of losing a son, and not knowing how it will all turn out.

In grad school, I read so much coming of age stuff, that sexual passion lit that drives the under-thirties. Sometimes I found it tedious; as the oldest student in the program it was so much yesterday's news. I longed for novels to read that explored the landscape of the middle-aged character, with a life of, as Olive puts it, "big bursts and little bursts."

Read the book to find out what she means.

July 8, 2009

Commerce, Downtown LA-style


Between Ssexxy Accessory and TU-TU fashion, I knew I'd arrived in the garment district of LA.

Unlike how I imagine NYCity's district, with racks of clothes being pushed around by runners between showrooms and ateliers, I also knew I was in LA's district by the smell of grilled onions, fresh for the pupusa take-out lunches. Other tip-offs are the mannequins, neatly lined up, bottoms-out, advertising their wares in a cheeky fashion, pockets and decorative stitching all in a row. There were also extremely fluffy dresses for First Communion, stacks of white T-shirts and colorful socks, as well as hanging garments lapped shoulder to shoulder so they looked like a headless-legless line of chorus girls, flapping in the hot LA breeze.

I was traveling up Maple Street to Michael Levine's--any sewer's mecca. I needed large buttons and Jo Ann's and Hancock's weren't offering anything with any kind of style. Getting to LA is half the adventure for those of us out in the sticks.

Most of us on Highway 60 were pushing 70 miles per hour when a small white car suddenly swerved right, overcorrected, swerving to the left, sideswiping the pick-up truck in front of me, then hitting the cement median wall. At that point, the principles of physics took over, scattering the bumper pieces into the faster lanes, and propelling the car back across four lanes of traffic, where it screeched and crashed into the right-hand wall; several cars stopped to help. We all crept slowly around the debris, then like true Angelenos, picked up speed again. A car with the license plates "Ms. Spedy" swept by me on the right. It was a miracle no one was pulled into the accident. The cynic in me supposed, "texting."

It reminded me of the pick-up truck traveling next to us when Mom/Dad were taking me to the airport last week. A loud explosion, and the shreds of the tire went flying--one right over our windshield. Dad pulled over to the right to give the swerving truck a chance to maneuver, then we slowly moved back into the traffic and on our way.

Back to the buttons. I crept around the block, looking for a meter and found one! Quarters to the rescue, but it wouldn't accept them. I pulled forward the next empty one. Ditto. The two shop owners brought me out a bag to put over the meter, and said, in a lilting reggae-ish patois: "Some folks park here free all day." I hurried over to Michael Levine's, bee-lined for the buttons, where I found what I was looking for. On the way out, I noticed their quilt fabric section. Another day, I thought, until, walking back to my car I noticed a parking lot right next door. One free hour's parking with purchase from Michael Levine's.

I'm not dumb. I moved the car, and headed back into the store.

After a pleasant interlude, I headed home, trying to escape the city. It's common knowledge that if you're not out by early afternoon, because of LA traffic, you won't get home in any timely fashion (as reported on the news radio on the way in: most commuters in Los Angeles spend--waste--70 hours per year in traffic, down from last year's 72 hours).

No mishaps on the way home. I used to do these little jaunts more often, but work, family and church responsibilities had filled my time. So, a sort of an adventure--silly little one--but a welcome respite from the norm.

July 3, 2009

Collections of Nothing

I've decided to have a real summer, complete with summer reading (besides my Slicer compadres--it seems we've all relaxed down a notch, beginning with the tale of Tracey's stay at the beach , Juliann's thoughtful notion about being intentional about summer plans, and Lisa's reading on a rainy day--a perfect way to begin a summer). My sister runs a book review website for me, my three sisters and my mother, encouraging us to read and share our thoughts. So here's my thoughts on my most recent book.

Let's start off with the review from the New Yorker:
"What makes this book, bred of a midlife crisis, extraordinary is the way King weaves his autobiography into the account of his collection, deftly demonstrating that the two stories are essentially one. . . . His hard-won self-awareness gives his disclosures an intensity that will likely resonate with all readers, even those whose collections of nothing contain nothing at all."

Collections of Nothing, by William Davies King is small book, with his collection of envelope liners on the dust jacket, one of his quirky collections. He's collected cereal boxes, stamps, keys, dictionary pictures, food labels, and gears among other things, a vast collection that ended up in his garage where his soon-t0-be ex-wife deposited them. And that's how the book opens.

A verifiable collector of collections myself, I found many things reverberated with me in this little tome. Some notable quotes:
The essence of most collecting is to have the world in miniature, and I was determined to be a King (11).

Collecting is a constant reassertion of the power to own, an exercise in controlling otherness, and finally a kind of monument building to isure survival after death. For this reason, you can often read the collector in his or her collection, if not in the objects themselves, then in the business of acquiring, maintaining, and displaying them. To collect is to write a life (38).

"To have and to hold" is a resonant phrase for a collector. Ever object that comes into a collection experiences that wedding ceremony. . . . We are born wanting to be had and held, born collectible, and with a little luck we never stop being prized possessions (74).

Life marches on, while collectors trail behind, carrying a shovel and a sack (145).

Only one chapter was slightly boring to me, where he speaks of his senior thesis and quotes one of his villanelles; plow through this chapter and you'll find the rest of book an interesting dialogue between him, his collections and the reader.

It is published by The University of Chicago Press, and is a quick read, but a book you could dive into again and again.

June 10, 2009

Fifty Lessons

A columnist for a regional newspaper, Regina Brett wrote: "To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me. It is the most-requested column I've ever written. My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here's an update:
(My favorites are in dark pink.)
1. Life isn't fair, but it's still good.
2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.
3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.
4. Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does.
5. Pay off your credit cards every month.


6. You don't have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.
7. Cry with someone. It's more healing than crying alone.
8. It's OK to get angry with God. He can take it.
9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.
10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11. Make peace with your past so it won't screw up the present.
12. It's OK to let your children see you cry.
13. Don't compare your life to others'. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn't be in it.
15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don't worry; God never blinks.

16. Life is too short for long pity parties. Get busy living, or get busy dying.
17. You can get through anything if you stay put in today. 18. A writer writes. If you want to be a writer, write.
19. It's never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else.
20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don't take no for an answer.

21. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don't save it for a special occasion. Today is special.
22. Overprepare, then go with the flow.
23. Be eccentric now. Don't wait for old age to wear purple.
24. The most important sex organ is the brain.
25. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: "In five years, will this matter?"
27. Always choose life.
28. Forgive everyone everything.
29. What other people think of you is none of your business.
30. Time heals almost everything. Give time time.

31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.
32. Your job won't take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.
33. Believe in miracles.
34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn't do. 35. Whatever doesn't kill you really does make you stronger.

36. Growing old beats the alternative - dying young.
37. Your children get only one childhood. Make it memorable.
38. Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion.
39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.
40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else's, we'd grab ours back.

41. Don't audit life. Show up and make the most of it now. 42. Get rid of anything that isn't useful, beautiful or joyful.
43. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.
44. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.
45. The best is yet to come.

46. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.
47. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.
48. If you don't ask, you don't get.
49. Yield.
50. Life isn't tied with a bow, but it's still a gift.

If I were writing this list, I agree with all of the above, plus:
Happiness is an inside job (a variation of hers, I suppose)
There are no answers to the "why" questions.

What would you add?

June 9, 2009

Packing up a Carnival--A Recap

(click to head to a lovely site with lots of lovely photographs)

Can I just say that May's been a little busy? Can I add that June isn't letting up much either?

After finishing the semester, grading for a day, a night and a day, posting the grades, dealing with the (cranky as well as heartwarming) student email, we packed up the car and went to Zion National Park. That's ZION, not Zion's, like I always say. I'm working on that.

Then a day home, then the counter boys came to rip up our kitchen counters and put in new ones. Before and after photos coming soon. I packed and drove to Orange County to board a plane for Utah, to see my parents. As I'm walking down the jetway to the plane, my phone rings and it's Dave: "Interesting news. The sink's defective."

Saturday night I return, and between then and Monday morning, we took down all the drapery, blinds and miscellaneous window coverings WITHOUT A POWER DRILL, because it had been so long since we used it, the batteries were dead and weren't charging up. Something had gone wrong somewhere in Rechargeble Battery Land.

Monday morning, the window boys arrive to pull out all our windows and put new ones in. I also had my husband Dave cart down my desktop and I sanded, primed and re-painted that, for it was worn and splintery. Too much grading in one spot, I'd say. Back to the window: the proof was in the pudding, meaning, it was all worth it when Dave, looking around our house said, "It looks like a new house." (I would have said "It looks like a new house!" but Dave doesn't typically speak in exclamation points. That day/afternoon/night I also did four loads of laundry, vacuumed the downstairs, mopped the floor, put furniture back in the living room, family room, dining room, made dinner.)

The counter boys had sent an emissary that morning to pull the defective sink and put the new one in, and after a slow dance with counter boy headquarters--who were slow dancing with their plumbing supplier--they said they'd pay for the plumber this time so to call one. The only time we could be worked in was. . .

Tuesday morning at 5:50 AM! So there I was rubbing sleep out of my eyes, while talking with an obscenely energetic plumber guy while he re-installs my sink and faucets. (Note to Aunt Christine: No Laughing.) Then it's shower, pick up the bill from the plumber guy's wife at their very nicely appointed estate up in the green belt of our town (I guess plumbing is a lucrative work) and head down to Lake Elsinore (a thirty-minute drive) to pay via charge card so we can get airline points, our window bill. A quick stop at the Pottery Barn Outlet (across the street, how convenient) and home again to hair appointment, stepping around and through the mess that is our house.

Since I now had a sink (cue Hallelujah Chorus) I could cook up my pasta-dish-to-feed-ten for our church's evening gathering for the Ladies. Corkscrew pasta, blanched and chilled cut asparagus, peas, mint, cilantro, lemon vinaigrette with a slug of Dijon mustard and real Herbes de Provence--hand carried home from Lyon France, minced red bell pepper, a shake or two of cayenne and it lost out in the Best Tasting Category to AppleBee's Orange Chicken Salad and a heavily oiled caprese salad. Oh well. I liked it--all fresh and springy.

Wednesday we were able to squeeze in a walk before the rains and thunderstorms and the drywall guy arrived. The typical installation for the new slider was to trim it out with molding, but we have crisply defined window wells on that particular wall and wanted the slider to keep with that. One can have too much molding, I believe. While he worked, I made two batches of raspberry jam, in order to keep up with the my daughter, then two batches of strawberry jam. I also located the floor of my study again, trying to pitch extraneous detritus while finding new places for things: an ongoing task that will end when I head to the Old Folks Home. Dinner, dishes, wandering around banging my head into walls.

So last night I dreamed another in a series of dreams this week about physical labor. I had to pack up a carnival. I spent all night long, dissembling the Ferris wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirls, the roller coaster, the Tunnel of Love, opening large wooden crates, packing in the pieces, heading for the Dime Toss booth, gathering up scads of over-sized stuffed animals, sweeping down the site, nailing the crates shut, over and over and over. And like all the other mornings this week, I woke up more tired than when I went to bed. So when I saw the photo above, it spoke to me of what I had imagined my summer to be: long walks in a ferny forest, picking bluebells and reading Victorian Lit. A girl can dream a little, can't she?

Today I hope to pack up this carnival a little, with the help of Dave's upcoming Father's Day Present:


Obviously, I'm still dreaming.

June 5, 2009

The Impossible

A good writer always works at the impossible.
--John Steinbeck

I don't have any salient thoughts, any giddy-up-and-go ideas. I was cleaning out and found this old scribbled note. Along with the above quote, several scribbled out phrases are one on side of this paper, as well as a phone number that I don't recognize, and a crossed out phrase,"You write by sitting" with no end punctuation.

And on the backside of the page, this, with no attribution:
"When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without" and again, no end punctuation. New York, of course, being a reference to the publishing world, to fame, fortune and riches.

These small missives from my past thinking are always a mystery. What was I thinking? What was I working on? What was hard then?

*************************************
Postscript: The quote is from John Updike.
"...By contrasting so sharply with his creator, Henry Bech also defined Mr. Updike more distinctly, particularly his determination to stick to the essentials of his craft. As he told The Paris Review about his decision to shun the New York spotlight: “Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”

May 29, 2009

Two Roads Diverged into a Green Wood

Two roads diverged in a green wood, on a trail above my parents house. Why? Because they are installing a water main and have ripped up the main trail, so the new one is marked with construction orange pieces of plastic to guide the walker.

I followed this trail, all apologies to Robert Frost, to where it disappeared into the undergrowth, then looped down onto the gold course cart path for a few paces, and made it the landmark all of us children walk to when we visit Mom and Dad: the stream. The spring run-off has amplified this creek into a noisy, babbling stream which I could have heard from some distance away except that Sheryl Crow was singing All I Want to Do Is Have Some Fun in my earbuds.

My parents are on a different schedule than I: up whenever, nice breakfast, my mother will make/answer phone calls (yesterday there were many since it was her birthday) while my Dad goes down to his art studio to paint, then a walk mid-morning along the Ogden River. Big, late lunch, then working on various tasks, reading--perhaps a nap--until evening, when the blinds are raised because the sun has gone down and we have a snack. I think when I'm not here, they watch a movie, then maybe the news, then bed. Pretty dang active folks for 81 and 83.

But my rhythm is off, as rhythms always are when visiting or being visited. People, relatives, friends interrupt our optimum routine and while there are times we can reclaim it for a while (like this morning's walk) basically it's time to let others disrupt, interrupt and intrude our boring, static schedules.

Mom always said a change is as good as a rest, and maybe she was on to something. After the visit/visiting, there's a deliciousness in reclaiming the routine, a safety and sameness that click-clocks along our day. We know what to do, what time to do it, and the structure strengthens our doing, helps us cross of our To Do List tasks.

Thank heavens for disruptions, or we'd miss a singing stream high up on Ogden's mountain, a forested way marked with fluttering pieces of plastic, Sheryl reminding me that all I want to do is not have just fun until the sun goes down, but instead, work with my father on his memoir, celebrate a Happy Eighty-first, see my mother's blue eyes, jump in line with my father's energy, see the newest painting, laugh over lunch with some aunties, in other words to matter to someone, to connect, to love.

May 27, 2009

Crisis du Jour

I spackled, my husband sanded, I primed, I painted and that was last night. This morning, before heading out to a neighboring state to see my parents, I spackled again, and painted again, all trying to remove the hard edge where the old tile was as the new tile would be about a half-inch lower. I was ready for this day's project to be done: tile, sink installation, clean-up.

While the tile guy's working on the tile, the plumber arrived to make us $300 poorer, no wait--that wasn't it. He arrived to put in our new sink and faucet. (And make us poorer.)


Testing one-two-three in Plumber Land means fill the sink with water. As I'm walking down the jetway to board the plane, my phone rings with the news from my husband that the sink leaks.

Leaks? It's brand new--out of the box brand new.

Yep. When the plumber was testing the sink, it started leaking. There's a crack on the underside and several stress cracks in the enamel. But on balance, all the faucet and sprayer look nice and they made it all fit. So Call A to Call B to Call C and he calls me back later that afternoon with the news that the new sink will be here tomorrow and can they put it in Monday?

Oh, sure. We're doing the windows that day too--the more the merrier. I was happy about that news actually because the guy in the airplane seat near me told me about his cousin's woes of redoing their floors and it took nearly a year with this crisis and that crisis. I had visions of washing the dishes in the bathroom for months while they hassled and figured out my sink issues. But Monday? Monday's fine.

May 26, 2009

Vision vs. Reality

I have an older house--not the kind that people drool over when they drive down the street--but the ubiquitous California ranch house, one of many in this 33-year old neighborhood. It's update time, and we finally saved enough to redo the countertops and the windows. Yes, one week apart, but all in one swoop--chaos.

The vision: a smooth sweep of countertop, dying into the window, just like it was before: all one level everywhere.

But after tear-out, they discovered that the Ceasarstone would not be as thick and therefore I could not have one-level countertop. The guy (who speaks pretty good English) and his helper (who speaks only Spanish) say "You gotta problem." I say, "No. You have the problem." They call for back-ups and reinforcements.

I would call the Mr. but he's teaching a class. But he has about as much experience as I do, as we've never done this and have lived in this house nearly twenty years. So I call the Girlfriend, who is an expert on this. "I don't think it would be a problem to have a little ledge, she says. "Really?" I ask. "It will be fine," she says. Okay.

While I was on the phone with Girlfriend she tells me about the latest (weird) wedding invitation she'd received in the mail. (We vie with each other to see who gets the weirder invitations.) It was housed a slender box which opened to reveal a scroll, with a sort of Princess and Prince Charming theme complete with castle. I said, "You've got to feel sorry for the guy, right off." She agreed.

So I'm amiable when Kurt, the co-owner of the company came over, as well as the Tile Guy. (I'm doing a subway tile backsplash for those of you who know what that means. I didn't, before I started all of this.) He explains it to me, and we talk heights and window ledges and touch-up painting. It's then that we discover that Tile Guy thought the tile was going only behind the stove, when I thought it was going all along that wall. Okey, dokey. We try to solve this one out, and Kurt raises his hand and says calmly (I was calm too. I promise.) "We'll work it out."

I remember once a long time ago in another marriage when I was working with the architect on designing a dream house. She told me, as we worked out a precise little plan for the sewing room, laundry chute, cupboards, etc., that "It would never be built like it is on paper. There's always a difference between Vision and Reality." I was experiencing this today.

Okay, so Visions have to modified to work in Reality: I'll have a teensy ledge, instead of smooth sweep into the window. But that groom will be stuck with his Precious Princess forever. I'll take the windowsill dilemma.

May 21, 2009

Three Days in Peru


I've spent the last three days in Peru. Not literally, but the Peru of my youth, when my father took a leap of faith and a deanship position for a business school in Lima. And the Peru I just spent time in was filtered through his eyes, his journals and his concerns and successes.

I went through the 100-plus page section twice in a row, first straightening out the cupboards, then restocking them with previously cut sections to add back more of the flavor. This experience of editing his memoir has been a real gift to me from my father, as I am beginning to understand--in a sliver of a way--some of what he went through (and helps me understand why the children and family aren't at the center of the writing--that will be in Mother's journals and letters. Heads Up, Mom. You're next.).

The family is there, but at the core. The great peripheral is ESAN, the business school run by Stanford University, swirling in a great stew of faculty and staff issues, the constant conundrum of financial support, the incredible trips, the conferences and meeting of a wide range of all different types of people from government, missionary, academia, and local. What a leap it was for our family--for all seven of us--to follow our parents into a different land and culture for two years.

We are richer for it.

May 19, 2009

Tested Test Questions

In an article that made me crazy, published a couple of days ago in the New York Times, it talks about online websites that allow students to find copies of class notes, keys to textbook questions and answers to test questions for popular classes. This tidbit really tweaked me:
But defenders of the Web sites — including some professors — say that teachers should not be recycling exams and that students who simply copy homework solutions hurt themselves at exam time.
Okay, yeah, we know about the "hurt themselves at exam time" stuff. But the first--that teachers shouldn't be recycling exams?

I haven't given the same test yet in any of my classes. Sometimes I emphasize one aspect of writing, or move on to something else. But many of the best questions for tests only come about because they themselves have been "tested." That is, they have proven to elicit from the student the information you want them to link to the question, the question isn't vague or ambiguous.

When I took the GRE, way back in caveman time when we used pencil, paper and test booklets, we were told that one section of the test was a "test" portion, to see if the questions were viable and reliable predictors of knowledge and thinking. (And they wouldn't tell us which one it was.) I'm sure that's why I think I failed the GRE when I came out of there. I did okay on the first test section, but the second! I couldn't make heads or tails out of some of the questions, the answers were elusive and nightmarishly difficult. I had to keep going and take the other sections, but I've often wondered about Section II.

My friend Bryan had spent years perfecting his test questions for his Business Management classes, carefully numbered and coding the tests (he used the A, B, C method of three different tests to prevent cheating). One semester, his last before he died of a heart attack, two students distracted him while their buddy made off with a test. It haunted him, frustrated him that he had to redo an entire class final because of someone's dishonesty. I still remember him telling me the story. I get it now.

So I do what Bryan, my husband (also a prof) do: I never give back the finals. Those questions are golden.

May 15, 2009

Hanging Out in 1984, Bored Stiff

For the final in English 101, I included a portion of an article printed in the New York Times contrasting reading in a book and reading on the web. The article didn't discuss blogs, but instead the distractions posed by web reading, and the non-linear way it pulls a reader through material. Since I'm a teacher, I ended where it champions book reading.

The students had to first annotate the excerpt for the argument, then in a written answer discuss the argument and support.

The answers were all over the map, as about half of them couldn't discern the argument in this short (1 page) piece. {Note to self: lead with annotation in the next term, and with a discussion of argument.}

I was intrigued with one young man's rationale for why his age group (discussed in the article) doesn't read, as opposed to the older, wrinkled, and nearly dead folks who do (that would be people like me, you see):
"In this article they state that a fifth of 17-year-olds said they read for fun and in 1984 more 17-year-olds read for fun. Most people in 1984 really didn't have much to do back then, so of course more people are going to read for fun. Now that we have better technology people read on-line. Time has changed and more and more people rely on technology more then books. Although books could help on certain subjects."
There you have it, misspellings, errors and all. Take it from the authority: if you were hanging around in 1984, you weren't having much fun.

May 13, 2009

Aging is Not for the Faint of Heart

I have been quite jealous of all my fellow slicers, writing away--committed and fluent, while I felt like I should be committed to the Loony Bin.

I know it all started with the glasses. I got my first pair somewhere around 35 or 36--just reading glasses, optional really. Then I had to have them to read, and then to work on the computer, and although I should probably be wearing them round the waking clock, I don't, keeping a pair everywhere I really need to see (kitchen, laundry room, bedroom, computer, and in the purse).

I discovered that glasses aren't like eyes that can see. There's a thing called focal depth or length or something and the machines that grind the glass in some factory over in China or maybe downtown LA, predetermine what I'll see and how magnified it is. I kept taking in my hand stitchery to my eye doctor, showing him that I couldn't see to thread the needle. But if I make it for that, he said, you won't be able to read. I persisted on this, bringing in rulers to show him reading depth vs. sewing depth. I think I gave up and now do the Old Lady thing of moving the hands in and out, finding bright lights to sit under while I sew, and tilting my head back to get the more powerful lower half of the bifocals engaged.

So when another body system seemingly went out of whack this spring, they prescribed statins and assured me that most people tolerate them very well. I won't catalogue the ways I didn't tolerate them very well, but that crushing fatigue I felt? How I fell asleep at lunch more than I cared to do? How I was in bed, exhausted but not sleepy at 8:30 p.m.? How I started throwing things out of my life to be able to continue teaching? One side effect of many.

So I went dark. One side effect leads to another, and when another vital body system went haywire, I called a halt to the statins. Within days, I didn't have to nap every day. I'm still dealing with a few lingering side effects, but they've dwindled.

I've realized that every year from now until the end of my life, Mother Nature will throw another thing at me. "Oh," she'll say, "looks like you got your balance on that one. Good. Sending another one right over," and I'll wobble around, making adjustments, figuring out how to function well while hobbled by this or that. And then when I finally get my balance, another will come.

Getting old isn't for sissies, I've seen on bumper stickers. My mother says it more gracefully: Aging is not for the faint of heart." Yeah, sure. I just never thought it would apply to me.

May 2, 2009

Going Dark for a Bit

I'll be away from a computer, visiting a grandchild.
But until I return. . . click here for
ways to break out of a creative rut.

May 1, 2009

Granite vs. Quartz

I can tell when it's the end of the term, because my brain is fuzzy--like picking up your great-grandmother's coke-bottle glasses and trying to see through them. I'm tired. The students are tired. We sick and tired of each other, although there's no hard feelings.

So, like an idiot, I moved right along to a project that requires full brain facility: choosing new kitchen counters. I guess it was driven by the fact that we are getting new windows and they are "retrofit" which means they go in over the existing aluminum frames (which are in pitiful condition) and right over the edge of the windowsill. In the kitchen, this means they'll be stitting on my countertop.

As far as home renovation goes, the kitchen counters were actually up on the list first, but when the neighbor got his windows done, and it was a great deal for great windows and there's a tax rebate and a manufacturer's discount--well--I paid the deposit on Wednesday. But, they agreed, if you were going to do the counter, it would be better to do that first.

I read a lot this morning and decided the debate between granite and quartz countertops is like the debate of Mac vs. PC. The granite people have nothing good to say about quartz ("there's no movement in the pattern") and visa versa ("upkeep is more than I want and it stains"). Of course, like the computer debate, no one is really debating apples to apples, making it all the more challenging.

All I know is that no one is really talking prices. Is it like that old saying, that if you have to ask how much it is you can't really afford it? I did check my bank account balance before picking up some samples this morning, knowing that once I took them home and saw them as compared to my 30 year old tile counters, there was no going back.

Maybe it would be better for my bank account if I just kept my nose to the grindstone, kept my brain in Fuzz Mode and kept grading those end-of term essays.

April 30, 2009

Book of Memory

In this world, there is no memory.

The dream is 20 May 1905, and Lightman (Einstein) imagines a world where people carry around address books to remember where they live, notebooks to remember people and places. When arriving home at night, "each man finds a woman and children waiting at the door, introduces himself," while "each woman returning home from her job meets a husband, children, sofas, lamps, wallpaper, china patterns."

Each kiss is the first kiss.

"A world without memory is a world of the present." These people carry around their history, contained in their own Book of Life. They have to reread the pages daily to discover anything about their families, history, whether they did poorly in school or whether they have accomplished anything in life.

Some days feel like that to me, but to my young students, this condition happens when their grandmother calls them the dog's name or they look at their grandfather, who is certifiably daft. They tell stories of the elderly and exchange knowing looks, confirming that this is some disease in the future. But I have plenty of emails in my box saying "Oh No! I forgot!" to believe them totally. For those without memory, the present is all there is.

Each time I see my grandchildren, perhaps I add a page to their Book of Life. I play and read with them for at their age, with their short memories, this is all I have--the present.

April 29, 2009

Three Dimensions of Choices

In class we've been studying Einstein's Dreams, a novel by Alan Lightman. This chronicles Einstein's "Miracle Year," the time he worked in Berne in the Patent Office, and thought up many of his reknowned theories. Each chapter is dream about different ways that time functions and/or the different effects of time in a series of worlds.

For some class exercises, I made digital representations of what the chapter was about. This one is 19 April 1905. "In this world, time has three dimensions, like space." The people in this world "participate in three perpendicular futures." Each decision carries three different outcomes which are real. A man on a balcony looks down and sees a red hat in the snow. He thinks about a woman in Fribourg. Should he go see her? He considers three outcomes: he decides not to see her and goes on to find someone else to love, he goes to see her and they end up as embattled lovers ("He lives for her, and he is happy with his anguish."), and thirdly, he sees her again but only as a casual acquaintance, and returns home to study again the red hat in the snow.

After they figure out what the visual representation is, we talk about how it correlates to our world. We talked about how we each make decisions. Do we impulsively leap into one "dimension" without bothering to consider the other two? Or do we agonize over decisions, seeing the varied outcomes, knowing they could all be good in their own way, then finally choose? And do we forever look back at the choices we've made, not quite able to let it go--still reliving that moment of decision, still studying the red hat in the snow?

April 28, 2009

Writing Out of Ourselves

In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about—these become our characters and go to make our plots. Characters in fiction are conceived from within, and they have, accordingly, their own interior life; they are individuals every time.
--Eudora Welty, On Writing

It's late, and I just finished watching Miss Marple solve another crime in another little English village. I was about to climb into bed, and remembered: I hadn't "sliced."

I've wanted to not write several times on this blog, thinking, oh who reads this--or--if they do read this, don't they want a day off--or--I have nothing to say. Or lately, it's because I've been trapped in a grading galaxy, and when I pause I flick into my Google Reader and see all my fellow slicers writing such interesting things and sometimes I feel I am most mundane.

But rather than think about my audience, I must admit I want to write so regularly that if I don't write, something's missing in my day. I want the feeling of something not being quite right.

So, nothing really to say today, other than, I'm writing. And somedays that's enough.

April 27, 2009

Repeated Sentences

I've been reading repeated sentences all day.

It's had the effect of making me crazy and cranky, not a pleasant situation where I'm supposed to be judging 20% of a student's grade (their research papers). This is the Big Kahuna of their grade and we spend approximately six weeks of class time dedicating ourselves to the pursuit of truth, justice, MLA, reputable sources, Works Cited pages, and maybe some happiness along the way.

After reading today's batch, I've decided they spent about six hours of their time pursuing their truth, sources and the American Way. And that's a generous estimation for some papers.

When a student has gone through two library orientations (mine and the librarian's), a section on what constitutes a reputable, scholarly source, and then you have to define for them what "reputable" and "scholarly" means, you know you're in trouble. When you've told them to attach the final paper to an email and send it in, but only if it's a .doc or .docx or .rtf and you draw pictures and the international "not" symbol (red circle with a line through it) and you even put the admonition to song, after which Boyd in the front row joked and said "Don't quit your day job," and then he sent in .wps format so I had to mark him down 10 points on his Mechanics grade, do you think I felt bad about lowering his grade? (The correct answer is "no.")

I have students who get through 3 of the 4 Research Paper assignments and then drop the class, because we are a poor college district and we have the drop date 15 weeks into the semester (where Big U, with lots of money has theirs 5 weeks into their 10-week quarter). In fact, they've been dropping like flies around our college, and while you're glad they gave it their all, you think about how many papers you graded and conferences you held and questions you answered and wished that some of those who are a Few Tacos Short of a Combination Plate would have dropped the second week instead of the 14th.

My husband (also a professor, but over at Big U) and I know to grade the papers all in a batch because of what we call "grade creep." It's when you tend to score the first few students harshly, but then lighten up as you go. Then you norm them all, making sure you were playing fair-n-square with all of them. But today, I've had grade deflation. I've become more and more fed up with their redundant (and yes, I have to define that for some) and repetitive and inane and frankly dumb blathering in between their quoted sources. And then there's others who rarely bother with the blathering but just throw in 12 (TWELVE!) lengthy block quotes in a 7-page paper, with no introductory comments. Just the author's name, their publication, a verb and a colon and the block quote, and I'm supposed to figure it out, make the connections, do the work that the student didn't.

Okay, step away from the keyboard now, lady, and finish up the two last papers. You've saved the best two students for last, and hopefully you'll be rewarded with succinct writing, well-supported statements, and no repeated sentences repeated sentences repeated sentences.

April 26, 2009

PushMe PullYou

The young grandsons were here last night, and it was like living a young woman's life, with children pushing me one direction and pulling me another, all while trying to get the laundry done. I gave up on grading. And warning: this is a gooey Grandma post.

My husband and I have communicated in bytes of sound this weekend, shorthand for the lengthier phrases we'd usually use. Our floor is strewn with our children's toys: Nerfuls, Little People (the good, old ones, now only available on eBay or at garage sales), a box of Matchbox cars. I found a toy truck in the bed this morning when I made it.

But Alex agreed to be my Kiss-A-Roo this morning. And Andrew, teeny-tiny Andrew, gives me big smiles when I say hi as he runs around the kitchen-hallway-living room-dining room circuit.

When they leave, I can grade again, speak in whole sentences again, but I can't get sticky hugs and kisses, a request like this one: "Let's have a little chat, Grandma," or Andrew's elation at climbing backwards UP the slide. The little boys remind me that little things matter.

April 25, 2009

Familiar/Surprising

Since I've had my two young grandsons here today, I've been thinking about the interview with Eric Carle, of the Very Hungry Caterpillar fame, published yesterday in the Los Angeles Times. It was the last quote he said that's been ricocheting around in my head.

"I often say," Carle adds, "that my books are made for two days in a child's life: the last day at home and the first day of school. Home is touching, and warmth, and the familiar, and school is something surprising, something new."

As a someone who has great connections to family as well as school, I found it intriguing that Carle could zero in on the bridge between the two. It's not just for kindergarten, I think. Do we ever forget that day we left home for the last time, whether it was a new job, new marriage, new school, new venture, and what a relief it was to be past that first day in a new job, new marriage, new school or venture?

I remember coming home after my honeymoon to my (now) parents' home. Even though I had lived away from home for school, this low-slung frame house had been mine just two weeks previously. Yet there I was pulling up in my new husband's sports car, feeling all uncomfortable not only from the honeymooning business and interpersonal adjustments, but also because this house, this place where I could sling my books on my bed and rummage in the refrigerator, was not my house anymore. I was now a visitor, even though I still had the key on my keyring. My mother made me feel welcome, but I think I could have used an adult version of one of Carle's books.

There's been many times I have wished for such a book, many junctures that required more of me than I was, or thought I was. Bringing home my third child--a daughter--to that now-empty marriage. Leaving the attorney's office after signing divorce papers. Moving to Southern California with a new marriage, new everything. Walking into grad school, pretending (hoping?) that I could write. That 101 classroom the first summer I taught college. Assigning my first failing grade. Sending a daughter off into her own marriage.

I think of my friend today at the funeral service for her daughter. I remember my own sister's walk out of the church after her husband's funeral. Head erect, staring straight ahead into the dark evening sky, she followed the casket out to the hearse and after they left, got into her car and drove home, her grief tangible. Her adult children greeted the mourners. Everyone's list is long, and particular to them.

But Carle's words, that of leaving "the familiar" and heading to something "surprising. . . [and] new," typify these experiences well.

April 24, 2009

Four Star Hotel

I've just spent all evening looking up hotels on the web, instead of writing pithy, illuminating prose. Please forgive. But just so I can keep up my linked chain of blog posting days, I offer a great evaluation of hotel by a traveler:

"Four star hotel, however 2 stars are currently not working very well."

April 23, 2009

Mr. Snowhite


Mr. Snowhite hired me.

The chronology goes like this:
Born.
School.
Married.
Kid-move-school-kid-move-school-kid-move-school-kid-move-divorce.
School.
Marry.
School.
School.
Grad school.
Sabbatical with husband in Washington DC.
Start new job.
Fired after one week after they determined that a Creative Writing Graduate really can't/shouldn't teach writing/English.
Redo floors in the house.
Look around for a real position.
None.
No money.
No one's hiring.
I want an office, a job, a place where I can hang my posters, greet students, do the Great Work of a woman who finally, after all these years and sacrifices and missteps can Contribute.
Go see Mr. Snowhite.
He hires me as an adjunct and gives me two classes, and more importantly, gives me the Magic Document that says even though I probably hung out in trees with all my Creative Writing Friends and smoked bongs, and sat cross-eyed on cushions thoughout my entire college career, the English dept. will take a chance on me. Maybe, just maybe a Creative Writer can teach writing.
The classes don't fill.
Start re-doing the bedroom.
Substitute in for a college teacher who went AWOL first week, teaching grammar and paragraphs at neighboring campus.
Mr. Snowhite gives me a summer English 101 class, and thereafter, two solid classes every semester that have filled.

While somedays I whine too much about the homework load, I am more than happy to have some gainful means of bringing in some money, occupying my time, and letting me contribute.

Bless you, Mr. Snowhite. Have a nice retirement--you've earned it!

April 22, 2009

Taste

If I were to tell you about my day, in tastes, it would be:
crunchy sweet homemade granola
banana ripened just slightly past perfection
freshly-squeezed orange juice
cough drop
a Bento Box: edamame, pickled yellow thing and pickled red thing, miso soup with fresh tofu (actually quite good), gyoza with a spicy dipping sauce, sushi pizza (ick), tempura-style chicken (all of this while I took my son out for his birthday)
fresh strawberries from a roadside stand
cough drop
piece of Dove chocolate, dark
okay, another piece of Dove chocolate, dark
grilled chicken
artichokes from the farmer's roadside stand
multi-grain mix from Trader Joe's
small, crunchy heirloom tomatoes
strawberries, fresh and sweet
and. . . cough drop.

April 21, 2009

Intersection


Two quotes to get us started today. One is from Science magazine, when talking about the difference between the limestone core of Queen Nefertiti's famous 3300-year-old bust and the outer stucco skin. "Nefertiti's bust. . . is an intersection between realism and stylization," said the lead author.

And then this in my email box when I arrived home from school:

"Honestly it was not my intent to not citie my sources I did not look over my essay good enough.I will stay in the class ,and if there is anything I could do to pick up my grade please let me know.All I need is a 70 to get my degree this semster.If it dose not look like its going to happen I could use some help taking it in the summer.So if you know of a good professor let me.Thanks again for your help.It just got to me a little being so close to reaching a goal then slipping when almost there."

This is an email note from one of three students who failed their research essay because of plagiarism. The student's plagiarism was especially egregious because nearly the entire conclusion was lifted from the source, without any attempt at attribution whatsoever. This student, who is a custodian at a local high school, is a nice man with great intentions. However I'd have to say his evaluation of how he is doing in the class is certainly an "intersection between realism and stylization."

I was dreading this event today--not only telling him, but also the other two students who also failed their paper. One young woman said she didn't put quotes in because her classmate (who is well-meaning) told her that if she didn't directly quote the source, in other words, didn't use quote marks, then it wouldn't be plagiarism. Um. Wrong.

The last of the three was just sloppy, tired, sick of it all, and she knew it and I knew it. But the first student, the one who wrote me the email told me this was his 4th try through this Less-Than-101. I was reminded of that essay in Atlantic Monthly titled "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" (illustration above is from that article--if you haven't read it yet, you must) about the myth we impose on people that everyone should go to college, get a degree, get ahead. From the essay, by a Professor X:
"Beneath the surface of this serene and scholarly mise-en-scène roil waters of frustration and bad feeling, for these colleges teem with students who are in over their heads. . . . Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile."

I read and re-read this essay a lot. I have it saved on my hard drive. It butts up against our little community college's efforts at cheerfully urging us proffies to Retain More Of Our Students. The only way to do that, is to allow writing, like that in the above email, to be the norm. Texting as text. Sloppy scholarship as the only scholarship.

My father, who was a professor at Harvard, repeats often the line "The university is bigger than any one student." In my tiny corner of my tiny college in the tiny community where I teach, this line is my lifeline. It's the only way I can sit across the desk from an anxious student who resides in the back row of the classroom, smiling and nodding like he does get it, only he doesn't, and tell him that he has a 60% in the class, and no, that is not passing, and no, I don't give extra credit work, and yes, it's very likely he'll get a D, which is neither passing, nor failing.

My classroom is that intersection between the stylization--the college brochure pictures of smiling grads surrounded by their friends--obscuring the realism of the classroom, where MLA rules, grammar conventions and research papers take their toll.

Some days the drive home is a sad one indeed.

April 20, 2009

Sumer Is Icumen In

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Or, as Wikipedia translates it:
Summer is a-coming in, Loudly sing, Cuckoo! The seed grows and the meadow blooms And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo.



Summer is not just a-coming in, but has camped out on our doorstep today, all 101 degrees of it. I sweltered in my study upstairs, not wanting to turn on the A/C this early in the year, and after all, it was a balmy 75 downstairs. I was also sweltering because I so want this year to be over and done with, over and gone, so I wrote out all my lesson plans until the end, finished writing one final, gazed over the other (next week, after I finish the grading for the 101 research papers).

I also reviewed one more time the final tallies for the Less-Than-101 research papers; I ended up having three plagiarizers in the bunch. I hate it. I bring out that stack of papers to grade and I'm like everyone's best cheerleader for an A until they do the teacher-student-equivalent of pouring soda on my head, or spilling popcorn all over me, or stepping on my toes with hobnail boots. Then I'm not rooting for them so much.

In fact, I tend to pump my fist and holler "Nailed 'em!" when I find their source document on Google. They think I won't find it. They think I'm dumb. Downright Cuccu.

Tomorrow I get to tell three students they failed the assignment. It's a delicate situation while they wait outside for their turn, sweltering not only in the heat, but also in their own guilt. I'm sure they're thinking what I'm thinking: It's a lovely time of year.

Lhude sing cuccu!

April 19, 2009

Life's Pretty Fragile

As mentioned before, my husband and I took a year's sabbatical to live in Alexandria, Virginia, while he worked at the Dept. of State. While he worked, I tried to revise my grad school novel (pitiful thing), visited museums, walked all the sights that D.C. has to offer, gazed at the monuments and joined a quilt group.

Mount Vernon Quilters became the place for me every Tuesday afternoon. The Bees, where we'd meet and just quilt--always hand piecing or applique--were alternated with our Business Meetings. We were one of eleven chapters of a much larger guild, Quilters Unlimited of Virginia, a group totaling around one thousand members.

However, our chapter was small, and I'd say the average age was retirement, with a few young quilters around the edges. I grew to love them and their interesting meeting snacks and amazingly, they took me in and loved me too. It was very hard to leave that little nest. So, in a way, I didn't. I agreed to serve as Newsletter Editor--but from California--land of the fruits and nuts and machine piecers. Blogs were just starting to come on line at that time, and I set one up for the ladies of Mt. Vernon. It was completely radical--something they really liked--and we became known for our "with-it-ness" all around our greater Virginia Quilters Unlimited Guild.

After two years, Beverly took over. I'd never met her--she joined after I had gone--but I taught everything I knew about blogging. She caught on quickly, asking her son for help when she couldn't figure out long-distance what the heck I meant about copy-paste, or control-C-control-V. She made it her own. When I went back for a visit last year, I met her and her disabled daughter Catherine. Beverly was as sweet in person as she was on the phone.

Catherine died last week, in her sleep.

Her mother had tucked her in under a flannel chenille quilt made by one of the Mt. Vernon quilters, a slight breeze coming in from the window--and turned out the light. But in the morning, Catherine was gone. I wrote to Beverly to express my condolences and she wrote back:

It was so unexpected. Catherine seemed to be thriving--I really thought she'd outlive me. She was a happy young lady that made me smile everyday and never disappointed me. She was totally innocent--I called her the "barometer of good." It will be so difficult as I have wrapped my life around her... it's going to be quite an adjustment. Cath asked for nothing but love, and she got plenty.

So, to help Beverly out, I've picked up the blog for a while, trying to fill her shoes, and probably making a mess while I do it.

Life is pretty fragile. Perhaps we all need a quilt somewhere.

April 18, 2009

A Seesaw Balance

All my paintings come down to a simple issue--in this case a seesaw balance between one thing and another. And as far as I'm concerned, the simpler the issue, the better. When a work become too descriptive, too much involved with what's actually out there, then there's nothing else going on in the painting and it dies on you.
Wolf Kahn

I took care of a young woman about 15 months ago--but maybe that's too literal. A young woman, age 34, worked with me in my church responsibility and was a great help. I felt bound to pull her in to the task I was working on, some invisible something-or-other tied us together.

Then the balance started to shift, the seesaw tilting slowly and imperceptibly away from the centering of our relationship. A former basketball player, she played hard and long and learned to play past the pains and aches of her two knee surgeries on one knee and a knee surgery on the other knee and two shoulder surgeries on one side, and two shoulder surgeries on the other, but perhaps playing past those pains wasn't really in her best interest. For now, at 34, she had lost use of one arm due to the constant and excruciating pain.

This is where the issue gets complicated, and before I knew it she was on morphine clock round and living in my guest bedroom and I was taking her to all her multiple doctor appointments, even if they were an hour away, and to her job as a high school teacher. I had lost my life. It had died on me for I was too involved with her life and her needs and being a charter member of the I Can Fix It-Big Heart Club; I was sucked in.

I had to see my doctor for a check-up and she asked me how I was and I burst into tears. Just like that:
How are you?
Wah.
Sitting there in my little tissue drape, knees crossed to keep the thing from sliding and tears were streaming down my face uncontrollably.

The (hard) advice came to get myself out of this situation. Today. Fast. I had developed my own set of stress-related health problems. The issue had become too complicated. You are defenseless in the wake of drug abusers.

Drug abusers?

People with chronic pain often develop high tolerance for the pain meds available to them. This young woman had confessed to me earlier that she had abused them, gobbling them down in any order to stop her shoulder pain from her last surgery. And now her tolerance had built up, so nothing much worked.

I went home, still crying, packed her things, drove them over to her apartment and set them on her dining room table (of course, she had given me a key). She was being picked up by someone else and was going to work at home before coming over later to my house to sleep--she had been staying in our home because the drugs gave her nightmares and she was too frightened to stay alone. But she would have to.

I cried off and on for the next week. The guilt was enormous; I was abandoning her and I knew it but there was nothing else I could do. It was all so reminiscent of another time in my life when I had declared to my now ex-husband My Love Can Save Us, but it couldn't, and I was left to pick up the pieces of that parting. I saw, in my listless moments, the parallels. I saw the differences. But the end result was me sitting in the dark, crying over all that I could not change. Or fix.

I did see her through her surgery that fall, driving an hour each way to sit by her bed, bring her things, take her home and get her settled. Her mother came. She went away for Christmas. I signed up for Caller ID.

She knows not to drop in on my front porch. She knows I prefer email, rather than a phone call. After nearly a year-and-half of being pain-free, the pain has started up again. She has progressed to morphine again. I stay clear, but am friendly to her at church and in our email correspondence: my one daily answer to her three daily emails. I still carry some health problems from that tangled, wrenching time. She says I've helped her by getting her into counseling, but she's stronger now and doesn't need it. She says I've helped rebuild the relationship between her and her mother and family. She's developed a closer relationship to her Maker. She says I really help her in all ways. She says I'm just too good to be true.

The phone rang last night while we were eating dinner. We listened for the message, but only dead air, then a dead line. We wondered.

A mutual friend called two hours later, saying this young woman had called them, crying and in pain and could someone bring her food, could someone help her, could someone, could someone?

I harden my heart another notch, and turn away.