July 31, 2009


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
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.