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.

April 17, 2009

Big People

My brain cells are scattering, just like a ripe dandelion's seeds float away in a breeze. I chalk it all up to the Research Essays from my Less-Than-101 class.

I keep reminding myself of two things, as I grade these little gems of construction, disaster and pillaging: 1) they are in college, and 2) this is Less-Than-101 so don't expect too much.

I look out at my classroom and see Big People bodies, Big People heads, Big People with Big People car payments, Big People schedules, Big People responsibilities. I'm just not seeing Big People essays, and I'm only on the third one.

It could be my own fault, as I drew from the top of the stack--yes, those are the students who who came in and sat down, saw the announcement on the board that final essays were Due Today, blanched white, gathered up their things and went upstairs to the library to do six weeks of work in 90 minutes.

I don't know how I'm going to get through this weekend of grading.

Too bad I've already eaten up the chocolate Easter bunny.



P.S. Just caught my first plagiarist. They take more time than three essays.

P.P.S. I may have to go and buy more chocolate.

April 16, 2009

Inspiration

I always like reading about how other writers and creators gather their inspiration. Here's an excerpt from Mimi Kirchner, on how she restarts her creative juices:

Years ago I took my son to a talk given by writer Philip Pullman. He was absolutely brilliant. One of the things he talked about was that people often ask where he gets his ideas. He said something along the line of--the ideas come to my desk and if I’m there, I get them. If I’m not, I don’t. So much of the art is just being at your desk and working.

I am inspired by materials (these days beautiful fabrics), things that I touch (robots with the sewing notions for details), the seasons, the little stuff going on in my life everyday, some odd thing that I’ve read about (example- fat fairies), the photos of what everyone else is doing all over the craft blogging world and Flickr, a new technique that I’ve learned, my family, color. And if I am working on something, and if it doesn’t have a face, I probably won’t stay interested for too long! If I hit a dead end, I have two ways of recharging that usually work. I go back to my older work, look through it and try to come up with a new approach or simply do another one. I have found lots of inspiration for the postcards by going through old photos of my pottery. The other technique is to go through all my materials. That way I get two things accomplished- clear out some stuff and almost always find something that sparks an idea.

What was interesting to me was she echoed some things that Pullman said. He mentioned that not every story has to be finished. Sometimes it just needs time, and you'll go back later to pick it up and help it find its way to the end. (I'm paraphrasing.)

I've been thinking a lot about a story I did while in grad school. I think I know how to fix it now, and wonder if this is the way to get back into fiction. After spending so much time in non-fiction (blogging), I sometimes wonder if I'll ever be able to return to that other world. Of course, with fiction, you have to be tough-skinned enough to submit. I find that as I age, I'm becoming more tender-hearted (grandchildren completely rework your insides!) and wonder if I am steady enough, courageous enough to go forward.

However, I realize that I'm jumping ahead here. First, get inspired, then see what happens.


April 15, 2009

Communication, Real-time

I gave a test yesterday on MLA format for my Less-Than-101 students, a level below Freshman Comp. On this test was an excerpt from a Washington Post news article. The student had to quote something from the article in MLA format, as well as summarize the short piece.

The article was about the falling debris from a piece of space junk--the second stage booster rocket from a Russian Soyuz rocket. The article's opening line: "The 'great ball of fire" that lighted up the Sunday night sky--and then lighted up police switchboards across several mid-Atlantic state--almost certainly was a big chuck of space junk falling from orbit."

Joaquin (not his real name) is a bright student, who obviously began speaking Spanish before he learned English, and although he's fairly fluent now, there are some interesting corners to clean out. One is the spelling of his appellation Junior. He's written all variations of it--most notably J.R.--and I told him I'd consider my job a success if he could spell it properly (Jr.) at the end of our time together.

On his test in summarizing the article, he wrote: ". . . the author explains how police lights popped up as witnesses of a fireball from space was coming decided to call 911."

The idiom, of switchboards lighting up, missed its mark, but how many of my students even know what a switchboard is? Are switchboards still in use?

And now an update on Boyd.
At our research paper rough draft conference yesterday (his draft was marginal, even at my most generous) I decided not to tell him all the problems, knowing he couldn't solve them anyway. It wasn't a decision I made randomly, but only after long experience of working with him as this is the second class I've had with him--the first was the Less-Than-101, which he passed, barely. Instead, I decided to tackle structure, a common problem at this level.

We worked through my graphic of an essay--what I call my essay map. Drawn in landscape mode, it has one big box on the left, where the main thrust of the argument is written. Traveling to the right, in the middle of the page, are three more boxes, where the main points of the thesis belong. Couple these things together and a student can easily write a thesis, in theory. We worked on that for probably 15 minutes. (Each conference is only 15 minutes--the next two students didn't show so we had the time.) The next step is filling out the nine boxes to the right of the middle three. These are the "details" or the topic sentences, breaking the main points into discussable, arguable points, for which a student is to gather research for support. [Email me and I'll send you my essay map: e(dot)eastmond(at)gmail(dot)com.]

We were working on why community colleges need money, and he was still working at the parking lot level. Finally I asked him to describe for me a basketball team. I wrote TEAM on the top of a piece of paper. "Break it down for me, Boyd." He reeled off the names of the different members of a team. As he wrote, I drew a diagram.

"Boyd, when we're talking about community colleges and what we need, it's like we're talking about a team. But when you say things like classrooms are too small and we need more parking lots, it's like discussing a power forward, instead of talking about a team. And when you mention we need more snack machines, it's like you're talking about what sneakers the basketball players are wearing."

I paused, giving him time to process. A minute or two went by, as he looked at the paper, looked at me, then back to the paper. Then he started to smile and nod his head. "I get it. I totally get it," he said. His face lit up like a police switchboard as if a fireball had dropped into sight. "You mean," he said, pointing to the essay map we'd just filled out, "that if I organize all my papers this way--that this is the thesis, and these are the paragraphs? And this," he pointed again,"is where my research and sources go?"

He sat back in his chair and nodded. "I totally get it." He smiled broadly, a sincere grin I hadn't seen since he'd started English 101 with me in January. I wondered where he'd been these last 12 weeks, sitting not an arm's length from me the entire semester. I wondered about me, as a teacher, and how this college classroom setting was painfully wrong for a student who hadn't a good grounding in the basics of putting together an essay, or figuring out how to absorb the prodigious amount of information flying in his night sky, a sky I now know, was perpetually dark.

He left, very happy with himself. Will he pass this course? I don't know. I do know he passed his conference today with flying colors.

April 14, 2009

Went Down

I, like many others, have been watching Little Dorrit on PBS, a series that originally aired in England last fall. I first saw Little Dorrit, a tale written by Charles Dickens, when I was dating my husband, some twenty years ago. The movie, in black and white (I think), was in two parts and we went to the Berkeley theater for two successive Saturdays to catch the whole thing.

Like any Dickens tale, character is king. And multiple characters, for Dickens, are needed to populate his fictional kingdoms. I was very interested in Little Dorrit for her quiet ways, a life I felt like I lived as wife, mother and silent partner. And now, ready to marry again for a second time, I was putting away any visions of earthly fame and grandeur (really quite unrealistic, truthfully, given my four children) and again took on another man's name.

What struck me about the movie, other than it's sheer length, were the final narrated comments, seemingly so parallel to the life I was choosing:
"Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone. They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun's bright rays, and then went down.
Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. Went down to give a mother's care. . . Went down to [be] a tender nurse and friend. . . . They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and in shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant, and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar."

I was reminded of this from another post on Junkfood Science (another fav) about a woman named Susan Boyles from Britain. In her interview, she says she lives with her parents, never been kissed, and you can tell she has had a life much like Little Dorrit's in many ways--living quietly. If you haven't caught the video of her yet, you must, but first--read what was said about her in The Herald:
"Susan is a reminder that it's time we all looked a little deeper. She has lived an obscure but important life. She has been a companionable and caring daughter. It's people like her who are the unseen glue in society; the ones who day in and day out put themselves last. They make this country civilised and they deserve acknowledgement and respect. Susan has been forgiven her looks and been given respect because of her talent. She should always have received it because of the calibre of her character."-- The Herald, April 14, 2009.

April 13, 2009

Lunch with Miss K.

Graduation was a heady time, and the five of us that were the original cohort of our grad program gathered together on the lawn of our campus to shoot photos a few days before The Big Day when we'd all get our MFAs.

Miss K's husband did the honors, snapping away as we were giddy with excitement: our writing projects had been filed with the grad division, we'd completed classes, and all that was left were a few teensy hurdles, easily jumped over (we we did).

Today Miss K and I had lunch. She asked me how I was and I ran through an abbreviated version of what's on this blog. Then we traded places and I heard about all the challenges and twists and turns on her road. The meal was delicious, easy-paced and the server didn't interrupt us once, and generally didn't bug us (Aside: when did it become okay for the wait staff to interrupt a perfectly fine conversation to ask if we liked our food or other mundane questions?).

I called our little group "the original cohort" up above. That's what we're known as because this was the first year of the MFA, and we were the experimental children of this programk. We all talk now of where the pitfalls were, where we have holes in our education, weak spots. But at the same time the faculty were figuring it out, we were being knit together.

And the writing? The reason why we all slogged through two years? We all obsess, dream about, wonder about the writing. But really, none of us are. Was it the program, given it was just getting going? I remember more than once coming home to my husband, saying, what's the form for X like in your department? I need one and I guess I'll just have to write it myself. Then I would (they're still using some of my creations). Were we all just trying to figure it all out?

Or was it us? They grabbed a mix of students, most of us unpublished, except for local and small-fry publications. Miss K. (not her name, but an affectionate nick-name I gave her) was an exception to that, and of all of us now, she's writing the most. We talk about Writing as it if were a tall, modern building with no elevators, no front doors. How to enter? How to ascend?

April 12, 2009

Finding that Whatever

Since I prepared my Sunday School lesson on Saturday, for a change, I had some extra Google Reader time this morning. My sister showed me how you can zip through lots of blogs, quickly, yet still reading them all, as the time you save is in the click-clicking. Fine by me.

Mimi Kirchner, whose blog is called Doll, was a potter in a full-fledged studio when it all burned down. As she says on her blog:

Ten years ago today, the studio building where I had worked for 11 1/2 years- the Kendall Center for the Arts, burned down. The fire has been one of those markers in my life- before the fire when I did pottery, and after the fire. Right after the fire was a very difficult time for me- no surprise. It happened right in the midst of my art midlife crisis. Losing my studio and community, my sketchbooks, photos and notebooks, changed where I even considered going next. I have thought a lot about how the loss propelled me into new directions in a way that might have never happened otherwise. You know- all those phoenix rising analogies. It was after the fire that I got onto the internet. That’s right- before mid-1999, I was a computer illiterate. And why did I get onto the internet? I wanted to replace the books I’d lost. And I found Ebay- which turned out to be the gateway drug to the wide world of the internet for me! Wow- and did that ever start me off on an interesting path.

So, this is one of those tales- bad things happen and you never know where you’ll be 10 years later. I know I have been lucky.

So, I strolled through her blog, finding the Tiny World creations (photo at top, click on that to go to the blog entry I found).

In between the church hymns and church and Sunday School and candy and time with family, I thought about this off and on all day. What would I do, if the passion I was following, suddenly and horrifically disappeared. (Not that I haven't thought about that--I could become blind, or unable to hear, and how would I read or write?) But to have it gone--poof!

She has found a new bliss, a enchanting bliss that has introduced her and her dolls to one of the most widely read blogs in the craft world: PurlBee, an offshoot of the New York shop PurlSoho. From a fire, a lot of hard work, a creative vision, a willingness to put herself out there (can creativity really ever be held back?), more hard work, participating in the community she's a part of, and poof! an overnight (ha!) success.

One thing I learned quite profoundly when I was participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge was how much I missed being part of a community. I hadn't done much writing since graduating and being dumped as a new teacher in a subject with which I wasn't familiar. Every day was plan lessons, make up material, figure out the book, teach, grade and then that year I did summer school as well. (Rinse and repeat.) I was also involved in my church in a huge service responsibility, which I did willingly and learned and grew, but was growing away from where I was, or thought I should be. Mostly I ended up exhausted.

I feel lately like I'm standing in front of a burned out building, watching the fire crew hose down my dreams, melting my ambitions, washing away Whatever It Was I Thought I Had.

I write here every day. It's my challenge. And it's my teensiest of threads that I hope will bind me to my eventual Whatever. . . as soon as I find it.

April 11, 2009

Amplifier Tubes

My father used to have this large stereo amplifier when we were growing up and if we wanted to listen to our record player, we also had to switch on the amplifier. We'd watch the tubes until they started to glow, then we knew it was ready. Sometimes it seemed forever until they warmed up; we were anxious to listen to the Beatles, or something equally ancient.


My morning walks are parallel to this concept. I drag myself out the door (I'm not a natural born exerciser) and it isn't until I turn the corner at Tom and Dee's house that I think I won't go back and crawl under the covers. By the time I get to the house with the barking dog and really good smelling ornamental onion plants, I'm in the groove and striding along.

April 10, 2009

Storytelling on TED

Today I was searching the TED.com website for three videos to show my 015 students. We'll watch the clip together, then work on creating one-page "precis" or abstracts or summaries of these talks--a valuable skill for them to have, I believe. We'll see--it's my first time trying this.

I'm bringing TED into the classroom not only as a way to get them to think beyond themselves, and then to have to condense it down, but also because too much of what's on the web is just pulsing images and lights and sounds directed at the viewer, with nothing to really take away. While these video clips may be some of that, to me, it's my chance to pull up a ringside seat and hear some of the great and inventive and thoughtful minds around.

Although it's organized by themes, you can also search by topic or by speaker. I have some favorites (Jill Bolte Taylor's talk is one we're doing as a class and I also like Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Gilbert--the happiness guy), but am always willing to listen to some new speakers.

TED originally began as a conference for Technology, Entertainment and Design, but I'd say it's gone far past that. As I mentioned I always show Ms. Taylor's talk, a fascinating look at a stroke from the inside--she's a brain researcher-- and Malcolm Gladwell always has something interesting to say, but I wanted one more TED talk to show.

I've been thinking about story tellers, how to tell a story, if I even have it in me to ever craft or tell a story, so I enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin's talk about Abraham Lincoln and LBJ. I hope you do too.


April 9, 2009

Aerial Lake by Night

Worried about my ultrasound appointment (a re-exam, triggered by my mammogram), I went on the web to look things over and look things up. Apparently there's only two categories: good and bad. The bad category, from what I could tell from the photos, looks kind of like flying over a night terrain, all the little cities and streets and streetlights a meshy web, with a meshy blob in the middle.

The good category, is the same night terrain, but with the looks of a lake in the middle of that city.

It's unnerving, really to be put in a place where no information is given to help the patient process, digest, figure out, think about, mull over the situation. As teachers, we are used to being the Momma bird for our baby birds, gathering the information and making it palatable and digestible for the ones we are trying to teach (even though sometimes we feel like flying off and leaving the nest for good). We are used to teaching, imparting information, making ourselves clear, with a healthy dose of Are There Any Questions?

Any questions I asked last week resulted in the technician pointing to a well-worn piece of paper tacked to a cabinet that stated: "We are technicians only. We are not allowed to discuss patient results." Yeah, okay. Since they won't answer questions, and the paper clearly said that they hadn't sent the films up yet as it was a Radiology issue, my doctor wasn't an option. Where else could I turn?

So, properly internetted up, I went to the appointment.

I asked the tech if she could explain the process. Her hand was midway to pointing at the sign, when I said I knew she couldn't discuss the results, but some information would be helpful. I acknowledged that she wasn't in the business of diagnosis, but really, didn't we both know that patients do better when they have enough and the right kind of information? It had been a long week, I told her (trying to keep the tremor out of my voice), and somewhat stressful.

Yes, she said. Most of my mammo retakes are pretty stressed out when they get here.

Given the terse language in the recheck letter I received, it's no wonder.

During the exam, I asked her what she was seeing, craning my neck to see if I had a landscape of streets, or if there was a dark lake.
I'm not allowed to. . .
Yes, I know, I interjected. I just wondered if you could describe what you see.
I'm not allowed. . . she began again.
I know, I said.

She kept dragging the ultrasound wand, clicking on her keyboard in the dim room, making little notations on the screen.

I know if I fall apart, I said, it's better to be in the doctor's office, but I just wondered. . .

She paused, zeroing in on something. Oh, that probably won't happen, she said, then fell silent.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a lovely lake in the mesh of streets and highways. I didn't ask any more questions.

I drove home, rounding the corner to see my neighbors Tom and Dee out looking at their sprinklers. After some conversation (they're both really busy and we only catch up every once in a while), she allowed that she'd had a lumpectomy last week, and was still a little sore. She was upbeat and was soon starting chemo. We talked shop--er, breasts--and then we both moved on. Them, to their yellow spots in their lawn, and me, home to bake chocolate chip cookies.

April 8, 2009

Sinfonietta

One of my secret little pleasures is a trip to the iTunes store.

I don't always purchase something from their site. Usually a visit there is prompted by hearing some tune that catches me in some way. Today's acquisition is Leo Janacek's Sinfonietta. If I could link you to the fabulous opening brass sequences, I would.

It makes me want to dance--always a good thing. It's a little hard to do while I'm grading, but hey--I'm trying.

April 7, 2009

Blue Monkey

Robert Frost said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

Last Friday I pulled into an aging mall to see what bargains the local department store had, now that it had declared itself to be going out of business, our community's contribution to the financial crisis. This other store, a neighboring anchor, had closed sometime before. I'm sure it's not earthquake, or fire or whatever code, but the textured bricks in bands with that fabulous grillwork really caught my eye.

When I turned around to leave, this blue monkey was across the irrigation canal, waving from atop Shoe Town. Surprise.

I was in a different area, having come from seeing a friend's short film at the local film festival in a small mountain town. Going up that mountain had been no small degree of terror, for the fog was so thick the only thing that kept me from going off the edge of the cliff, or into the guardrails, or into another car was the steady bright yellow double-painted lines on the gray pavement. I'd never driven in fog so thick. The chance to see what my friend had wrought pulled me up the mountain when I wanted to turn back. (She won a silver for her film.) Afterward the fog had cleared enough so that instead of terror, it was merely romantic and "fog-shrouded," or whatever the cliche is.

Sometimes the writing is just like that. We seem to scribble without a clear vision, hoping the piece will arrive. Sometimes I hit it. Too many times I miss.

Eudora Welty:
No two stories ever go the same way, although in different hands one story might possibly go any one of a thousand ways; and though the words may look the same from outside, it is a new and different labyrinth every time. What tells the author his way? Nothing at all but what he knows inside himself; the same thing that hints to him afterward how far he has missed it, how near he may have come to the heart of it.

Re-reading these quotes reminds me of how I miss the writing, and hope that if I'm fog-shrouded or distracted, somehow I'll find my way clear.

April 6, 2009

Feeling Mortal

I read a post on a young friend's blog the other day about finding her first gray hair. My hairdresser found mine and with a tug, yanked it out of my head. I asked her not to do that again, and have tried to live, somewhat gracefully, with aging.

Until today's double whammy.

First was the mammogram people, calling me back to schedule another appointment, not only with them, but also with the radiology/ultrasound people. This was a sobering moment, but to combat it with perfect denial, I repeated to myself the phrase, kind of like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, chanting while she clicked her ruby-red heels together: "I'm not in a high risk group, I'm not in a risk group." I breastfed my children, no close relative has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I had children before age 30. Doesn't that entitle me to a little denial?

Then my doctor's office called and yes, they want to put me on statin drugs. This one's harder to work around, as it's all invisible little something or others that are not cooperating with my desire to have perfect health until I suddenly fall over at around, say, at age 92 or something. (Although I reserve the chance to revise that upwards if I hit 90.)

However all this interferes with the idea that I've cultivated for a while: There's Always More Time. This is my trap, my snare, that hole that swallows me up. I have lots of time so I can do that later. I began saying this when I had three teenagers. It was like a soothing utterance as I shelved one fondly held desire after another. I can do it when they're all raised. I'll have Time. Lots of it. It's how I kept my sanity.

But the reality is that there's never any more time. I just think there is. For the Big Joke was when I finally got rid of all those pesky mouthy and crazy and wonderful teens and did have more time, I went to Grad School. I repeated the mantra, with an added clause: There's Always More Time, as soon as I finish grad school. Yes, yes. And then there was trying to find a job, which I got, which really gives me NO TIME whatsoever for lounging around and doing whatever it was I put off until later.

And the Really Big Joke comes when you finally do get time and get past all that, and you find, to your great surprise, that all those things you thought you'd do, um, you don't really want to do now. According to Oprah, it's a part of menopause. According to Erickson's Stages of Psychosocial Development, it's a natural part of the aging process--you have a different set of tasks that you take on as you age, and you leave the younger tasks behind. According to me, it's all a Big Joke. A bait and switch in the shopping aisle of life. And those trite phrases work well when it's not you trying to Seize the Day or something, and soon you'll design that great quilt, or write the All-American Novel, or photograph the one scene that the Getty really wants, only they haven't discovered you yet. You can't really blame them though, as you haven't discovered yourself yet. It's on my To Do list and I'll get to it as soon as I'm through grading these essays, and figure out what we're having for dinner, and finish up the laundry. You know. . . when I have a little more time.

So, I'm feeling mortal today, complete with the distraction, the heavy sighs, the craving for chocolate.

And the tears.

April 5, 2009

Album Quilt

Toni and I lived on the same cul-de-sac in Arlington, Texas and our children--of similar ages--traipsed back and forth between our two houses, as did we. While we only lived near each other for about six months, we corresponded after I moved on to California. That much-used word for exchanging letters is an interesting one, for she was one of those friends to whom much of my life corresponded in terms of depth of understanding, trials and joys.

As young mothers we always seemed to be looking for that place where we felt peace, a place where we felt like ourselves, like the women we were on the inside while grappling with large changes, children, husbands, challenges on the outside. It was continually elusive, this seeking happiness business, but she sent me a lovely letter one day, saying she'd finally found it. She felt at peace with her life, her place in it and her contributions.

About two weeks later, I received a letter in her husband's handwriting. He detailed her accident: a driver swerving across a lane on a curve. Toni and her mother were immediately killed. Her death hit me hard--a cliche if there ever was one--but its spareness is descriptive. Toni was the first friend I had ever lost to death and although my grandmothers had passed away, I chalked that up to old age--years away from where I was at the time. I determined then to somehow "capture" my other friends--people that had meant a lot to me, who had impacted my life. I decided to do an old fashioned album quilt.

I sent out close to 45 letters, in each a small paper-backed piece of fabric and a short letter explaining what I was doing. I also enclosed an envelope. My friends signed their names in pencil, and when the square returned to me I went over that signature in an indelible ink pen. (I wasn't going to embroider them all.) I began work on this quilt shortly after my second marriage and took my bag of squares to family reunions both on his side and mine to gather more signatures. I finished sewing up these squares on Friday, pressed and trimmed them on Saturday.

On the left is my daughter's adolescent scrawl. She's married now, with three children. On the lower right is my Aunt Jean's signature. She passed away last month after a nine-year affliction of Alzheimer's Disease. On the upper right is my mother-in-law's name in neat and even cursive, written before the Parkinson's Disease shrunk that writing, and then her in turn. She's been gone several years now, leaving us in May--the month of flowers and late springtime.

These blocks are a snapshot in time. Some are friends: women I worked with in church jobs, women from the quilt group, a therapist, a friend who had been recently widowed and in whose classroom I found myself most afternoons, helping her put together her centers, building her visual aids for her bulletin boards. I have my relatives: my sisters and sisters-in-law, mother, aunts, and a mother-in-law. A teacher who encouraged me my first year back to school is there, as is the only male signature: a friend who repaired everything that broke and challenged me intellectually and took my boys camping when their absentee father would not. I have added a few since then: daughters-in-law, a favorite professor from the end of my undergrad education.

But generally it will remain with these names, with a few notable exceptions: space for a future daughter-in-law. And the signatures of my granddaughters--just as soon as they're ready to write.

April 4, 2009

Get to Work

Last night's gathering of quilters has been a regular feature of my life for the past nine or ten years. The group varies: last night we were fairly lean in numbers with only three of us gathered around the table. In February, twelve came, but it was a block exchange and the quilters wanted to get their blocks. That was the same night I'd just received my daughter's diagnosis (PPCM--a form of heart disease) and I felt like I was among sympathetic friends, buoying me up. We had a chocolate fountain, snacks, pink soda (which I spilled all over the counter--I wasn't too stable that night), two ironing boards, two cutting stations and a room full of whirring sewing machines.

Is the creative process something that can be done in a group? Even though I value this monthly get-together (I don't make it every time, and and obviously many others are flexible in their attendance as well), it's more of a time to Show and Tell, catch up on the our children, work situations, schooling, exchange recipes, and socialize. It's kind of a writers group for quilters. If you try to be too creative, there are pieces sewn on backwards, missing strips of fabric, skewed block layouts. The distractions are too many, but certainly pleasant.

As in most creative ventures, the artist/writer/poet/quilter needs time alone. Too many irons in the fire puts out the fire, was a phrase I used to chant, reminding myself to leave some space. Another aphorism that I toted around was from Thoreau: I like a wide margin to my life.

However, I find I tend to thrust in one more iron (oh sure, my mouth says) and scribble in my margins too many times. I fill my life to the edges, and crowd out the spaces needed to maintain creativity. This post is beginning to sound like a Natalie Goldberg sort of wah-wah, and although her writings can be helpful, truthfully it all comes down to work. So I'll close with this from Annie Dillard:

Every morning you climb several flights or stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in the winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maple's crown, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. You work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.

April 3, 2009

Film Festival

A friend from high school has a film entered in this film festival, and since it's not too far from my home, I'm heading up there today to view her film "Worth."

This is the second film she's produced, directed, acted in and written the script for, and I admire her for all her work and determination. She's been able to keep at her dream for many years in Hollywood, sometimes working the margins, but always working in some aspect of the filmmaking industry. It's been interesting to watch. I'm really proud of her.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I seem to mired in grading, lesson plans and working with students. And blogging.

I wrote two days ago about blog writing being the hydrant in the front yard. A new blogger I correspond with agrees and has gone dark on her blog for a while to shift to writing on the page. With real ink. With a real computer. Imagine.

April 2, 2009

Parking Lots

Boyd* sat across the table from me, having come to my office hours, held on the second floor of the library. It was his first visit, and I knew why he was there. His score on the second research paper assignment was a 9 out of 30, abysmal.

Tired of student topics like abortion, video games as a positive benefit, legalization of marijuana and way way too many papers on global warming, I changed up the schema for this class, tying into current events. "If you could have a portion of that stimulus money to engineer/fix/build/change something, what would you go after? It has to be domestic, as no American taxpayer wants their money to head overseas."

Boyd wanted to "end pollution." How? By tackling littering, global warming, car emissions, and recycling. Hmmm. Could I say this seemed to lack focus? Can I just say this is representative of his performance in this freshman comp class? Can I just he's a really sweet guy, and is WAY over his head? I relayed to him, as he sat there across the table from me, that his thesis seemed to lack focus.

"Then I'll just talk about just global warming."
"It has to be a domestic issue," I reminded him.
"Really?" He looked puzzled, really sincerely puzzled. "I didn't know that."

I did not reach across the table and strangle him. I did not even stand up with a regal flourish and order him to the elevators, down to the parking lot, into his car and to never come back to my class. I didn't even roll my eyes, which took considerable discipline.

However, I did crumble inside a little, as I've been flapping my jaws about this research paper for six weeks. I sent him downstairs to the computers, to look up on our class blog a list of subjects that he could choose from. "Think big, Boyd. Remember how much money they have in Washington to throw around."

I helped another student while he was gone, there in my luxurious "adjunct faculty office." But the chairs are nice and since it's the floor of the library where all the books are kept, hardly anyone is around to bug us.

Boyd came back up a few minutes later, a huge grin on his face. "I've got it, Professor. I know what I want to write about."
"Great! What did you choose?" I was praying for something clean and neat, as the 8 page rough draft with five sources is due in one week.
"Community Colleges. I want to write about community colleges."
"Terrific! How can all that stimulus money benefit community colleges?"

Quickly in my mind I reviewed some options that came to my mind: give me a real table that doesn't have the metal apron hanging off on one end. Buy a TV remote to go with all the TVs in our rooms. Better yet, let's have some real audio/visual/digital equipment, thinking of all my Slicers with their delicious technology set-up. Hurry up with the new library. Give us an adjunct office that's private. Hey, give us adjuncts a raise, since our faculty make two and half times what we do per teaching hour. I stopped myself there, for Boyd was about to tell me his ideas.

He leaned in. "Parking lots," he confided. "We need better parking lots."


*********************************
(*Boyd is not his real name. I changed it to protect the clueless.)

April 1, 2009

Flung Free

I was thinking about this first day away from the challenge of writing a slice a day. As I lay in bed, waiting for the sun to wake up (and fully awaken me!) I could only think about being placed in a slingshot and with a long, strong pull-back--like in the cartoon shows--this character was launched. But unlike those deftly drawn figures, I don't see the return on my horizon. The Slice of Life Story Challenge ran for the month of March, and there's not another month of writing until next year, or so I've read. So la-de-da, free of it all--the pressure to write when there's nothing there, the call to write when I should be cleaning or folding the laundry, the desire to write when something tugs at the heart.

But am I ever free of the writing? TC Boyle writes about it being a monkey on the back, a burden that can never been shaken off.

In some of the final comments, my new writing/reading friends alluded to wanting to see what I'd write once I wasn't confined to Slicing (our name for our daily sallies into writing about our life). I guess we all wonder that about each other--as in what do you REALLY think, we ask our husbands or friends as we pose, twisting and turning in the dressing room mirror at the department store. A smart responder has learned the fine art of not responding directly if the opinion is not flattering. He or she may be thinking, "You look like the side of a barn," but has learned to say, "I think the pink dress suits you more than this white one." So, have we pulled punches this past month? Perhaps, in a kind of necessary dressing room deception.

I read my distant relative's blog. She's a young mother of three children, and was recently diagnosed with cancer. Her blog, written from the gut (she's a great writer) is vivid, raw, right at that knife edge of realization, denial, and anticipation. One scene she described was when she was in the shower, letting the water fall over her, over her hair soon to be lost to chemotherapy, not having the energy to get out, get dressed, be the Mom, find the hair bows, fix the dinner. Not finding the energy to do more than stay in that shower.

We all have our shower moments, unable or unwilling to write about foibles and crises that are too fresh, too close to the surface. Not many are like this young woman, able to convey with grace and precision the rawness of the moment. When I read my early journals, from when I was her age, I am amazed at what I threw down on that page during the complete upending of my life during an unwanted divorce. You could grate cheese on those words, as they were as harsh and abrasive as were the emotions. Now, some twenty years later, I find that I'd rather let things stew, ruminating them around while I'm trying to figure out how to access them. Do I sit on my material too long, letting it escape?

The other danger to a wanna-be print writer is best expressed, with a twist, by Robert Frost's sage observation: "Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes the pressure off the second."

A blog can sometimes be a hydrant.

But it can also be a conduit, a way to connect and reach out and find good writing in many corners of the web. We'll see what happens.

Stay Tuned.