Monday, December 21, 2009

being mean; or, sorry kid, the cat stays here

Last spring my best kitty friend Mazzy died. I had had her for 12 years and having her put down was a very difficult decision, but she had diabetes and she was in kidney failure, so I do know it was the right thing to do. At the time, I didn't want to get another cat. My current life is very unsettled. I am not in my own place and I don't know where I am going to be living from one year to the next, so I thought it would be best to go sans cats for now. Well, life has its own ideas and now eight months later I have two cats.


I inherited these cats, a male Siamese and a female calico from my brother and his family. Last summer my sister-in-law joined the Army and after basic training she was stationed in Fort Bliss TX, so they packed all their stuff and drove to Texas. They had four cats, four dogs, and two kids, so to help them out her mother took two dogs, and we took two of their cats.  It was not my idea. It was my mom's. The plan was that we would take the cats and then as soon as they were in Texas we would give the cats to my sister. It is a long story, but my sister-in-law didn't want my sister to have them. Because we have also have two dogs (one of whom HATES cats) the cats had to stay in my room. Within 48 hours it was very clear that these cats were not going  to my sisters.Or anywhere. Ever.

The Siamese, who was named George, is my favorite. For the first two days he hid under my bed. The calico, Lola, was a lap cat from the beginning and cuddled all the time. I hated the name George and I wanted to change it. We brainstormed for a while, and at first we thought of cute names like Mocha and Smores because of his color, but within a week it became clear that he needed a name with attitude as he is quite a personality.  After spending a morning chasing him around the neighborhood at 6am only to have him sneak in an open door and hide under the bed while I was still trespassing in my neighbor's backyard trying to "rescue" him. I decided on "Maui." Maui is the name of the Polynesian trickster god. Oh, and my Maui is quite the little trickster.


It turns out that the move to Texas and the enlistment in the Army were not permanent for my brother and his family. They moved back here in September. My sister-in-law did not want to be in the Army, and now she isn't. And that is all I am going to say about that. Anyway, when I heard that they were coming back I couldn't help but panic a little. I thought they would ask for their cats back. I made it pretty clear to my brother that I didn't want to give them back. They were in pretty bad shape when I got them (they were outside cats and had fleas, worms, ear mites, and they were malnourished), and it cost be several hundred dollars to get them healthy. Not to mention that now we have bonded. They both sleep with me at night, and that I am a little bit nuts about taking care that they are in at night, well fed, healthy, loved, and well, quite frankly a little spoiled. 

Today, my seven year old niece looked at me straight in my face and asked for her cat back.

Dramatic Pause.

I felt bad as I said, "I'm sorry honey, but he lives here now."

Right now, as I sit in my green chair typing I can see both cats. Lola is in her bed on top of the dresser and Maui is laying on his back in the middle of my bed. They are both sound asleep. And even though it was hard to say no to a seven year old, I know I did the right thing.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What to do when an old friend disappoints you; or, Sense and Sensibility part II

I am having a really difficult time finishing Sense and Sensibility. Yes, I am busy. Yes, it is difficult to find a quiet spot in this current life. Yes, it is easier to watch TV; and on and on. But, I think the real reason that I am struggling to finish is that I don't like it that much. Gasp. What? I know, I know, I am supposed to like Jane Austen. I am supposed to love Sense and Elinor and the romance and all that. But, I don't.  I don't like how passiveness and suppression is rewarded, while honesty and emotion are punished. But, most of all, I don't like Edward or Colonel Brandon. Sigh.

I know that the girls end up with these two men. And I know that Austen wants us to approve of the matches. But, Edward is so bland. I hate that he picks fights with Marianne over her immature and overly romantic sensibilities. I understand that is done to highlight her flaws, but it makes him appear argumentative and peevish; traits that I am sure that I don't approve of. I am thinking of thes scene when Edward visits the Dashwoods in Devonshire and he and Marianne talk about the countryside.  He tells her how to use language to appreciate the countryside. My book was kind enough to have a note explaining that the actual target of his satire is a book by William Gilpin called On Picturesque Beauty in which the book explained how to use the language of the sublime to describe landscapes. This book was so popular that it created cliches like "rugged hills" and "twisted trees" and so on. Austen is using this moment to zing those who have fallen into this linguistic trap. But, the argument is so annoying. I would become overtired of anyone who took the time to tell me how wrong I was all the time. And yes, before you say it, it is in reaction to the fact that Marianne does this to people all the time. She points out their lack of romantic sesibilities as well. But for some reason, her passion seems to make it slightly more bearable.

The other target of Austen ridicule in this text is Mrs. Jennings. I am a little bit sensitive to this one, because, well,  I feel a kinship with her. I am fat and jolly, I like to tease, and have been known to play the matchmaker.  I don't know when to shutup. I will kick a dead joke long after I should. But, while the Dashwood girls, who let's face it, are kind of boring, cannot stand Mrs. Jenning, I like her. She is kind and merry. She is right about how people feel and forces them to acknowledge their attractions. If we all lived like Elinor we would sit silently and wait and hope that someone would notice us. Which brings me to my main gripe. The value of silence.

If you want to be a good person then talk of nothing but the roads and weather. Don't enjoy your children too much (Mrs. Middleton), or hunting (Mr. Middleton). Don't have a sense of humor (Mrs. Jennings). Don't be passionate about art, music, or love (Marianne). Don't love anything too deeply. Don't feel. And if you do feel anything for goodness sake if you do feel anything don't talk about it!

I think I am just a little frustrated right now. I know how this all ends, and I don't want it to go that way. Marianne is broken by love and only when she is beaten down into a spiritless lump does she get to marry another character who was beaten down by love and is now a spiritless lump. It reminds me of what I hate about Jane Eyre. Jane only gets her man after he has been broken. She can't have him whole and vital. And yes, I am sure there is a point here. I used to believe that Austen was critiquing this world that silenced women, but after taking a Satire class a few semesters ago, now I am not too sure. I am not convinced that this is a critique... I want to be sure that there is a lesson for me here,so that I can go somewhere beyond my frustrated and angry Jane-Austen-seems-to-be-anti-passion-rant (especially because I know this topic comes again in later books, and is treated much more favorably)... but for now. I am having touble getting through to the end. Ah well, and in the words of Nemo's friend Dorrie "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

insomnia; or, a dickensian visit of a ghost from my past

Tis the season for Charles Dickens' immortal classic A Christmas Carol; a story I never did like very much. As I see ads for this version and that version of this tale I can't help but think that what makes this story so universal--not to mention so malleable-- is that we all have ghosts. I have mine. And at times, like now, I am visited by my ghost. Yes, there is just the one for me, but it is not any less terrifying in its singularity. Even without Scrooges' power of three, it still has the power to haunt, to disrupt, to warn, and to terrify. Recently, my ghost has been visiting. Well, 'tis the season after all, so I should not be surprised really. But, no matter if expected or not, I am still overly dismayed and find myself unable to sleep afterward.

At three am when I awake from a colorless forgettable dream--or worse, a recurring one about a water tower, and raised voices, and goodbyes--and I am pulled into a cyclone of worry, I try to tell myself that this all of my own devising. The danger is not real. I tell myself to stop thinking and go to sleep. I tell myself that the perils that I imagine are all a part of a mild anxiety disorder heightened by a recent run of bad dealings that have battered my self esteem and my abilities to believe in hope and love. But still, I lie awake night after night, because those are just words. And I am not often fooled by words.

I traffic in words. I use words everday to shape meanings. I find ways to tell my students that their writing is kind of terrible using a vocabulary of hope on a daily basis. I offer status reports to friends and family that mask personal trouble almost daily.  I smile and tell stories cloaked in laughter about wounds that have found their mark. I feel like Mercutio spinning wild yarns about Queen Mab while the lifeblood is seeping out onto the concrete below me as I mutter about flesh wounds. I know about the many guises of words; I know better than to put my faith in them.

When I was 9 years old I won a short story contest. I wrote about a little girl who frightened herself because she mistook everyday objects for darker more nefarious matter. A tree branch became a hand, an owl a ghostly voice, the night a terror. Even then, I think, I knew that I was a worrier. I know that in my mind, I make normal situations into something scary. But, on the other hand, sometimes a tree branch is a hand. The night is a terror. Am I worried or am I prescient?

The ending of the most important relationship of my life still shadows me. It has been nearly four years now. Friends and family are weary of these shadows and their burdens, and understandably they don't want to hear about them any more. In some ways they are right. If I can stop the story from being told, then I could forget, but whether I talk about it or not, I can't get it out of my head. Memories swirl around me like constant flashbacks. I replay conversations and then re-write them with better endings. I make plans for revenge: some benign, some too scary to share. I compose letters and emails. I imagine standoffs and confrontation. Reunions and  reconciliations. A roomate of mine, who knew both of us, he and I, once asked me if I thought that this was a case of past life reincarnations. She said she had rarely felt such an intense connection between two people and more than once had dreamed that he and I were ageless companions. I laughed at the time. Because what else can you do?

The last time we saw one another I willed him to me. I was in an airport and I felt him there, I had no knowledge of his travel plans, nor he of mine. But I knew. For about an hour, I searched for him among the airport terminals and resaurants. And then I walked back to my seat and waited. He walked past within ten minutes. Even while we were talking, wasting the day with minutia and trivialities because I was so shaken by his presence that I could not say the things that I knew needed to be said. Deep down, I knew that was the last time. I was almost convinced that my plane was going to go down and that I had been given a precious last gift. I remember feeling genuine surprise when I landed safely on the other side. That was the last time. I don't know what he thinks of that last encounter. I am sure it was strange. I am sure his story of what happened is different than mine. But, he won't let me ask, so I don't know. Still, that is the most spiritual memory of my life and the one moment that makes me believe that there might be a god.

Somehow, I feel like if I could just silence these shadows the worrying would go away and peace would come. That somehow this ghost of a relationship past is stirring a soup of anxiety and self doubt, and that if vanquished my mind would still, sleep would come, and life would calm. I feel like this is a weight on my shoulders that gets heavier with time as I take others' words and paint them with his voice. I want to remember. I need to forget. I need a banishing charm. A spotless mind. A forgetful heart. I feel like something needs to be done. Closure. Understanding. Forgiveness. Or a rage. Something to take the words out of my head and heart and leave me in peace. But sincerely, I don't know what. How do you say goodbye to the ghosts of your past? Or do you? Or can you? I don't know, but I do know that it has been many miles through this snowy woods and I would like to sleep. I would like to sleep.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

overeverything; or, the side effects of reading Jane Austen (both dangerous and otherwise)

Now that I am fully engaged in re-reading Jane Austen, I am finding myself altered. The way that I speak, the way I see the world, the tenor of my cravings and desires: all are changed.

My sentences--spoken and written--are elongated and extended, they are longer and lusher; my words are enveloped in a slow languishing diction that rolls off my toungue like honey or molasses rather than my usual deluge pantingly spat out as quickly as linguistically possible. I choose words that are longer and more full: approbation, midsummer, unconcern, supplication. And, of course, everything is overthis-or-overthat. No, I do not mean that I am suffering from an onset of ennui or apathy. I am not as kids say "over it"  in the sense that I am over everything in that I no longer care; no, instead, I am overtired, overhungry, overexcited...overeverything. The five mile drive from my home to the college is no longer "too far," it is, "overfar."  The muffins I baked this morning are not "too moist," they are, "overmoist."  I cannot point to exact Austen phrases that encourages this linguistic shift, but, I do know that is an occaision which always coincides with reading of Austen. And really, while I do not mind this alteration in vocabulary, it must be noted that my students are not overjoyed.

Another, side effect is that I also find myself craving tea and scones; well, technically speaking I crave any and all hot drinks and baked goods really. As a woman who is constantly trying to eat healthier, the plus side to these particular Austenesque cravings is that I want to dress up in long white muslin empire waisted gowns and walk 2 miles to my neighbor's house to imbibe said tea and scones. The downside is that often these indulgences come sans said lush 2 mile walk and thus result in only a plus backside. I do have a walking trail near my house, but there is something delicious about the idea of the lush, green, grassy knolls in Austen books and films that I can't find anywhere near me. American gardens and lawns are considered to be impeccable only when trimmed neatly down to their nubs. Many more English gardens, especially those in the country, tend to be wilder, verdant, with grass grown long enough beneath your feet that it seems to undulate with your movements. Ah, the differences between what we want and what we settle for, now, that is something Austen knows very well.

But for me, there is a danger that goes beyond words and walks. While, the formality of Austen makes her seem quite safe, for a single woman in want of a life she can disrupt even the most steadfast. Her books are rife with calling cards, social visits, matchmaking, promises, and romance; even in the most satisfied of hearts this much society and romantic intrigue can stir longing for a passionate, if very polite, intrigue. Oh, damn you Jane Austen for making me crave the dangers of love again, after working so hard on recovering from my last  foray...Hmm, maybe I'll just settle for a very long walk and some very hot tea.

I am only on Sense and Sensibilty and there are many more Austen novels to go, so I'll read. I'll say my silly Austen words. I'll drink coffee and eat a muffin. I'll walk on the paved river trail next to a carefully manicured lawn while trying to think of ways to use approbation and disapprobation in a sentence. And, for now, that will have to be enough. For now.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

promises promises promises; or, Sense and Sensibility part 1

There is a line from the film Vanilla Sky that I quote quite often. Cameron Diaz says to Tom Cruise (yes, I know their characters have names, but really, does anyone ever really think Tom Cruise ever plays anyone but himself?) She says,"Don't you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not." (Then she crashes the car off a bridge, but that should be enough to get you to watch the movie.)  I love that line "your body makes a promise, whether you do or not." It captures in one line something of the finer question that I think Jane Austen is asking in Sense and Sensibility (aha cue segue) in 5-4-3 2- and... now.

How do we make promises? And once made do we have to keep them? No matter what?  Sense and Sensibility opens with the promise--a deathbed promise no less--by John Dashwood to his father that he will provide for his stepmother and stepsisters after the father dies. John promises to "do everything within his power to make them comfortable." With the words of this promise in his ears, his father dies, surely believing that the Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marriane, and Margaret will stay at Norland, have enough of an inheritence to be cared for, and hopefully enough to attract a husband. What really happens is, well, he gives them nothing. Readers will no doubt believe that he has broken his promise to the Dashwood girls, but to him, he is just whittling his words down to the size of his wife's heart (nonexistant).  The process of shaving this promise to its barest form--from a decent allowance, to a small allowance, to helping them move, to checking in on them now and again, to what really becomes absolutely nothing at all--make up the first pages of the book. A promise of ambiguous words "make them comfortable" that is carried out with zero action. This is our first words vs. action scenario.

In Sense and Sensibility (and no, I am not done reading either) everyone is making promises. Some by word, others by deed. Like life there are two kinds of promises the stated and the implied. The types of promises are mostly the usual kinds: romantic promises of marriage, love and fidelity. There are promises of silence. Promises of friendships, visits, inheritence, care, and so on. The conflict, for Austen, seems to be about how we make promises, and how to keep them once made. I am not done re-reading, so more on this later, but I am interested in the idea that our bodies (our actions, body language, interactions) can make implied promises. (Edward Farrars and John Willoughby anyone?). In Austen, it seems that the spoken promises--no matter how bad the actual thing promised--takes precedence over the implied promises of the body. If you promise to marry Lucy Steele, well, then you should marry Lucy Steele. Even if your eyes, heart, and body made other kinds of promises to Elinor's eyes, heart, and body a hundred times. But, if your body (Willoughby) promises her body (Marianne) you'd better be damn sure you keep that promise too.

Damn she's good.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jane Austen Book Club; or, a total Jane Austen nerd fest in which I invite you to read with me


I saw the movie The Jane Austen Book Club a year, or so, ago. Of course, I liked it. I didn't love it, but it was a good movie, I would watch it again and that says something. One of my students wants to read Persuasion after seeing JABC.  I didn't discourage her, but I did warn her that it was a little different from the normal chick lit novels that I have seen her pull out of her bag on breaks from class. Persuasion was the first Austen novel that I read; long ago in one of my favorite undergraduate english classes. We read it alongside a gore fest of icredibly male books and plays: Titus Andronicus, The Crying of Lot 49, FencesBuried Child, and the Bacchae were all companion texts. The sort of hidden theme was family dysfunction. Persuasion was not my favorite after than class, instead I became obsessed with Crying of Lot 49, reading it close to 80 times in the next couple of years.  But, now, Persuasion is by far my favorite from that class.

 After talking to my student and promising to loan her a copy of Persuasion, I looked through my books and sadly, I only have Sense and Sensibility and Emma. I don't know what happened to the others. Suddenly, I realized that I hadn't read Austen for a long time. When I lived in London in 2002--or was it '03 hmmm, how quickly things are forgotten-- I bought a complete works and I read them in Hyde Park on weekends. There was something so lovely about reading Austen in London, although I have been told since then that it prolly should have been in Bath.  I left my book in London because I did not have room in my suitcase for such a large book.  I regret it now. Well, not as much as I regret leaving my favorite blue raincoat. But it is close.

The last time I read Austen was in a somewhat infamous UNR seminar on Satire in 2007. We read Emma and that experience resulted in a spirited discussion between myself and the professor in which he asked me to stay after class to talk to him. He told me that "that is how I hope seminar discussions will always go, well done." Which was flattering, but odd, considering that everyone else in the class thought I was being reprimanded. Praise in public. Chastise in private. Or not. I wrote a paper on Emma in that class in which I compared the social risks in Emma to the political risks in Gulliver's Travels. It was an okay paper. I wrote a similar paper several years ago compaing Emma to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I guess I like the idea of emphasizing the very real social peril that Austen puts her characters in. Something that many filmakers (Gwyneth Paltrow I am looking at you) forget or miss.

I am very interested in the Austen films. I try to watch as many different film versions of the books that I can. I watch the films whenever they are on Masterpiece Classic, although the latest ones were a little wonky. I love watching film makers try to add more and more romance with each ensuing version.  The Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice had more kissing than all the Austen books combined. One of my favorite Jane Austen movie references is when Liz Lemon on 30 Rock says she got rid of all her Colin Firth movies just in case the woman who is doing her adoption interview "thinks they are erotica." That P&P was far more smoldering with far fewer changes to the text. But really, it might be best if film makers understood that Austen isn't supposed to smolder... no, she really is more about longing and propriety.  But that is okay. I have to confess that I did love Becoming Jane. But, then maybe I just love James McAvoy, even if he could totally fit into my pocket. Now that film smoldered.

So, anyway, all this to say: I am going to nerd out on Jane Austen for the next couple of months. If anyone is interested in joining me, it would be really great to have someone to chat to. I am starting with Sense and Sensibility (because that is the book I have, and I will need to go find  (buy) the others).  Every Sunday, I will post a Jane Austen Post. Feel free to join me for Jane Austen comments, or if you have a blog post something too.  I am by no means a book snob, so comments and insights based on books, films and quasi-Austen films including Bridget Jones, You've Got Mail, the wonderful Bollywood Bride and Prejudice, and yes, even  Jane Austen Book Club are welcome.

Bonus points to anyone who begins using Approbation in everyday sentences.**

Oh...and one more McAvoy. Just for fun.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

words words words; or, the healing

Yesterday, I read Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. I started at six am and finished at midnight.  I didn't read all day, I also made apple butter, ginger muffins, cooked three meals, walked several miles, and cleaned the bathroom. But, in between things, in the hours of darkness that begin and end the day, I read. It was a good book, not great, but good. But for me, it was amazing, because I have stopped reading. This is a shock considering that I am ingrained in the culture of words. I am an english teacher, a writer, and a scholar. But, for years I have not read. A book here and there begun, but cast aside or read painfully slowly, yes; but for the most part, nothing. Recently, this has changed. Last weekend, I read Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, a book given to me for my brithday two years ago, but until recently had lain unopened. Today, I have begun Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

Growing up, I read all the time. I always had a book in my hand.  I did not watch tv. I played outside. I rode my horse: and I read. As a child I was obsessed with reading whole series' of books. I read the entire Wizard of Oz, Bambi, and Narnia series (twice) by the time I was 8 years old. In high school I was obsessed with high lit, Harlequin romances and Louis Lamour. I read War and Peace in a weekend on a dare. I read the entire Louis Lamour collection in a summer. I read a book a day, at least. I would stay up late into the night huddled under the covers with a flashlilght reading. Books were my food and joy--I would eat books consuming them as fast as I could and then suck their marrow. I would ingest them. Swallow them in whole bites. Once I picked one up I read until I was done. I had no need for bookmarks.

In the past 20 years, as I finished two degrees in English, and embarked on a third, the University was killing my appetite for reading. As I became essentially a professional reader, I lost my desires for them. My early habits had taught me the discipline that I needed to get all my reading done quickly, and for that I will always be thankful, but the joy was gone. Turned off by encounters with bad books, the pressures of seeing the books in a predetermined light, by reading them through academic eyes, and by the knowledge that I would be expected to write about them my passion was still present, but definitely cooled. The death blow came with a mentoring relationship that killed my joy for books, and nearly destroyed me. In the last years of grad school I read nothing that was not assigned, (and sometimes not even books that were). I lived in a book culture, but I was not interested anymore. I read less and less. Books disappeared from my life. I boxed them up. I gave them away. I smiled at friends as I slid great and wonderful books from birthday and christmas wrappings knowing that they would go unread.

Eventually, it all became too much. I left grad school physically and emotionally sick and tired. Too exhausted to think, read, or write. Televsion became my solace. I didn't have to think. I didn't have to explain what it meant. I could just sit and let these stories roll over me with no expectations or accountability.  I associated books with a litany of professional and personal failures. Books were accomplices with personal disasters that were so painful that even the slightest allusion was a virtual dismantling. Moby Dick, Country of the Pointed Firs, anything about the sea, anything from the 19th century, anything with words, flayed me like lashes. Opening certain novels tore into unhealed wounds, and I was tired of nursing all those sores. It was easier not to. I turned my back on words.

In retrospect, I am grateful to those hours of television. The numbing healing power of TV's nothingness kept me from picking at those sores and allowed me to erase myself for a time. But now, I am ready to return to books. I have unpacked my boxes. When my nephew picked up my copy of Moby Dick and looked excitedly at the pictures of whales, ships, and ambergris I was able to tell him a story about each picture without much more than a twinge. I know now that I am ready to return to grad school. It will not be easy, this I know. I will always have the scars. But, with time, and with a returning to the innocence of words I am healing. I have not read The Country of the Pointed Firs or anything associated with my dissertation yet. For now, I am reading the fun stuff. Chick lit, decadent novels, pulp, I am eyeing that giant stack of Louis Lamour in my garage. The important thing is that I am back. I am reading.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

old;or, the death knell of my cultural literacy (1972-2009)


Yesterday, in a one-on-one conference, I told a student that her essay was like an ABC After School Special. She stared at me blankly. I said, "You don't know what that is, do you?" She said, "Nope."  I just laughed. And then I explained, even taking the time to retell the plot of one of my favorite ones..."And then the kid from The Wonder Years throws Candace Cameron from Full House--who is also Kirk Cameron's little sister--in the bottom of a lake, and the lesson was to tell someone if you are being abused." She said, without any hint of irony, "And you watched these after school?" I returned to talking about her essay, just a little bit sadder than I was a moment before.


In a separate, and much more serious conversation, I asked a student to "Help ME, Help YOU!" and without a flicker of recognition he said, "Just do your thing, and I'll do mine." After I pointed out that "his thing" was resulting in a D, I couldn't help it, even in one of the most difficult conversations with a student of my entire career, I had to say, "Jerry Maguire? You haven't seen Jerry Maguire? Tom Cruise yelling at a naked Cuba Gooding Jr in the shower? Really? He won an Oscar..." I think I was more taken aback by the fact that he didn't know what I was talking about than the fact that this student was refusing my help. Much later in this conversation, even as he walked out on me--also a first for me--as I offered a weak and tired, "Just remember you are the one who is walking out." I was still thinking, really? Not even Jerry Maguire? Huh.

Now, it would take a pretty good bit of manuevering to classify Gulliver's Travels as pop culture, but still, my students have NO idea. At all. I said something about Yahoos, I may or may not have called my class this, I neither confirm nor deny this. Anyway, in explaining what the term meant, I asked about Gulliver's Travels. One girl had seen a film in her high school english class and described it as "This freaked out movie where all these weird and terrible things happen." I stopped her mid-sentence, with a perhaps overly harsh, okay, thank you Megan.  After I explained about Hounyhnhms and Yahoos and Jonathan Swift and Gulliver and Satire they nodded and a few of them said,"That sounds like a cool story." And I just said, "Yeah, it is."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

a success story; or, what happens when you believe in dreams (even the silly ones)

I have changed a student's life. I know, that sounds grandiose and perhaps a little exaggerated, but really, this time it is true.  As a teacher, I get my share of students who don't want to be there. They may not want to be in college, in english class, in MY english class, or just there, but whatever the geography of their disenchantment, they make it clear through a thousand signs that they do not want to be there.

Jose* was one of those. He sat in the back of the room, against the wall, as far away from me as he possibly could. He stared at the floor, out the window, at his books; he looked anywhere but at me. In the very brief moments that I could force his attention, I liked him. He seemed smart and funny, but totally disengaged, even a little bit afraid of me. He turned in little or no work and when he did turn in something it was late and wrong. Finally, after several weeks of trying to engage him, I scheduled a mandatory appointment.

He looked panicked when I told him I wanted to meet with him. He tried to get out of it and promised he would work harder and made all the promises and excuses that students make when they want to get out of something. I remained firm. Sometimes, they just don't show up and then you have to keep badgering them, thankfully, Jose did show up.

I was prepared to ask him the questions that I always ask students. How are you? How are you doing in your other classes? What is your major your career? Why are you in school? Where do you want to transfer?... etc etc.  But, he didn't let me get that far. He said "Can I tell you something?" I assured him he could, and then he said the thing that I think all students feel in this situation, but that so few of them say. He said "I'm really scared right now."  And just like that we began to talk. He didn't want to go to college, he wanted to move to Hollywood and work in the entertainment industry. He had secretly applied for jobs at TMZ and Entertainment Weekly. His family and friends made fun of his desire to be in show business and told him to forget about it and that he had to go to school. Yes, when he said he wanted to be the "next Ryan Seacrest" it was very tempting to laugh, and I am sure that he has been laughed at before, and often, for his dreams.

But I didn't laugh. Instead I talked to him about how to use school to get to Hollywood. I talked about needing to write well, and having the credentials to put on his application, I encouraged him to take drama classes, write for the school paper, and to apply for internships in local media.

Right then, in a matter of minutes, I watched him transform. From scared and unsure to boisterous and excited.  Now, he is a top student in my class. He has begun talking to local radio stations about summer internships, he has started his own entertainment blog. He turns in work early and asks for feedback, and quite frankly, I can't get him to shut up in class. It is amazing. Will he be the next Ryan Seacrest? Who knows. But, I am pretty sure that he will transfer to a four year school, and that he will get a degree that prepares him to work in the entertainment industry at some level. And that is a long long way from the kid who was secretly trying to move to LA and who wouldn't look me in the eye.

*name changed for privacy

Sunday, November 1, 2009

st. theresa; or, let nothing upset me

I have been hanging by a thread these days; and that thread is my last nerve. I am out of patience. Everything annoys me. The dogs annoy me. My family annoys me. My students annoy me... My computer's latest habit of loading at a snail's pace and then randomly crashing makes me scream and pull my hair...Fox baseball announcers drive me to drink.  I actually dropped the f-bomb in class last week because I called one of three identical blonde girls by the wrong name. Again. 

I am not a good person right now.  For the first time in my life I understand people who hit their loved ones. There are times when I have to restrain myself from smacking our overly exuberant slightly insane australian shepherd.  Just for the hell of it. I snap at people for the smallest of offenses. I have road rage. I hate people for minor trangressions. I have yelled at my mother. I am just angry. All the time.

So it should come as no suprise that I got sick; and last week when I went to the doctor for Strep Throat my blood pressure was 40 points higher than usual.  My doctor gave me a round of antibiotics and after our regular appointment I was standing in the hallway talking to the recpetionist and he turned to me and said "Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, your blood pressure was a little high. What are you going to do about that?" I said that I was working on recovering from grad school, which almost killed me. I was about to get to the whole "I teach adjunct for about 10 cents an hour" when he must have heard the warble in my voice, because he took me by the arm and walked me back into the examining room.

He told me all the things about stress that I already know. It isn't the events themselves that cause stress, it is how we handle them. I am the only one who can control how upset I get no matter the circumstances. And I nodded along with him, because this was not news to me. Even though I knew everything that he was saying. And that I had, in fact, heard it all before. I was moved. This doctor, with a very busy general practice, in the middle of flu season was spending 20 minutes, or so with me talking about meditation.  I do not have health insurance, he knows this, he was only going to get the sixty dollars cash for the visit, no matter how long he spent with me. But, he really cared about me. He spoke gently and kindly about taking care of myself. He told me that I needed to build a life I was proud of. He was careful not to offend. This is a very conservative area of Northen California and he knew that he was taking a risk talking about meditation and he was careful to explain meditation in really neutral terms. He talked about native americans, and catholic nuns, the buddha, and christian philosphers who all meditated. He wrote out a prayer by St Theresa and had me recite the first two lines with him right there in his office,

                                       Let nothing upset you.
                                       Let nothing frighten you.

He recommended (prescribed) a book called God Makes the Rivers to Flow by Elanath Easwaran. Later I joked that this is what he tells all his patients without health insurance to do. But, in reality I think that 20 minutes may have saved my life. It is St Theresa's words that I use to calm me when I find myself getting upset. But it is the fact that for 20 minutes the busiest and most important man in the room sat down with me and reminded me that I am smart. I am special. I am worth something.

Since then, I find myself repeating those two lines whenever I start to get upset. It isn't a perfect system. I am still dealing with anger and impatience, but, I at least feel like I have a tool to help me out.  I know too, that I was so touched by that doctor's kindness that it made my hyper aware of how little kindness and gentleness I get these days.  It is as if being ministered to was so rare to me that when it came it was like a salve on my wounded heart. I am making changes in my life. I am walking and eating healthy again. I am standing up for myself at work. And there are other big changes in the works that I can't share here just yet. But, change is a comin'.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

the secret keeper; or, my lips are sealed

I have been avoiding this blog. It is not, as might seem the most obvious reason, because I have had nothing to say; instead, it is because I have had too much to say. I was afraid that the burden of other's secrets might be too much for me and I might give something away, but, now, after much soul searching I don't fear that anymore. so here I am, writing again.

In recent months, I have become a secret keeper. Friends and family have been confiding in me. This, in itself, is nothing new. I am a compassionate friend and a good listener; and frankly, I have been blessed with the gift of insight, so I am a natural sounding board. The problem is that with the blessings of positive attributes the balance of fate and nature demand that there will be negative ones as well. Thus: I am a talker. I process thoughts and feelings by talking or writing about them. If it happens in my head, it usually emerges from my mouth or pen into words, print or voice, but always a story. In my life, things are not real until they are a story. In the past, I have gotten myself in trouble for sharing secrets. Mostly, because I was young and trusted my chosen confidant to do what I could not: to keep my second hand confidences.

I justified this to myself, and to others if need be, by telling myself that I was the kind of person who just couldn't keep quiet. Now, I know, that more often than not, people will talk. Everyone has their own reasons for spilling, each thinks themselves justified in the telling. Some, like me, have a prediliction for storytelling, or tell secrets because they want to help, and yes, there are those who like the power of having secret--and perhaps dangerous--information to barter. I do not know all the reasons for blabbing, but I do know, that if you truly want something to be secret, you have to keep your own mouth shut.  I have learned--mostly because of a couple of incredibly difficult experiences--that no justification is ever good enough. There is power in telling, this is true, but there is also power in silence. The real power though is in the choice. The power to do one or other. So, now, despite my seemingly natural instincts to share every thought and emotion that flickers across my personal horizon, I take responsibility for the decision to tell, or not to tell.

I have been saying that the act of silence is not natural to me, and for years I believed a story about myself as incapable of discretion that is not true. It began when I was about seven years old, maybe even a little younger, my father bought my mother a new living room set for her birthday. My mother, who is quite good at manipulating people, used my inability to keep a secret to her advantage and pressed me until I revealed too much.  She kept asking me, until with the ignorance of a child, but the earnestness of someone who wanted to be trusted, I gave her a "hint."  I said, "I can't tell you what it is, but you can sit on it."  Well, that doesn't really leave too much to the imagination, but I was a child, so to me, it seemed enigmatic enough.

To this day, my family repeats that story alongside claims that I cannot be trusted. They cite the thirty year old story of my blabbing about that birthday gift as proof of who I am. For years, I too invested in that myth that I was not to be trusted. I thought it was funny to say that I had a big mouth and I still catch myself making jokes about my supposed lack of discretion. But, the truth is that I am a font of untold secrets. My own and others. The identity as a blabber mouth who cannot keep secrets is both unfair and untrue. Children do not often understand the importance of secrets, and now, I know, I am not a child, and definitely not that child anymore. I refuse to believe or comply with that story about me any longer. I refuse to reify a version of me based on a faulty premise.

So, here I am, brimming with secrets. My own, and others'.  It is my choice what I will tell you, whether you are somone who knows me only through this blog, or you are a lifelong friend, a new acquaintance, whatever we may be to one another, know this: these secrets are my own, and like everyone I have the right to disperse them as I may. But, more likely, I will keep the lid on tight and let nothing slip through. The real power is not in the secrets, the real power is in the understanding that I an in control of my words, the words are not in control of me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

the importance of horizons; or, a poem by my best good friend Erik

Three Early Letters to Edward Kennedy

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By Erik Armstrong


I.
Today, sir, the harbor mourns
the loss of its longest sailor,
each sail drawn closed
tightly against night's slow wail
into dawn. Morning revealed
to us an entire ocean
shivering with the ripples
of some great stone dropped
from such a height
as to shake us all
gathered here on the shore, afraid
the water too rough to sail,
the mouth too far to reach,
the horizon now closed.

II.
So many have left us,
haven't they? Brothers
we have dearly loved
taken from us without understanding
and order we mortals require
to believe
it was all worth it.

III.

Is it enough
to be good
and decent?
To right wrongs,
to heal suffering,
to stop war?
Yes, you have said,
it is enough
in this long world
to devote yourself
to simple actions,
and in death you will not
stand larger
than you were
in life. You were large enough
without embellishment,
your booming voice
calling across the valley,
your shadow stretching long
across this great plain
teaching us
how to cry
against the night,
how to stand up
day after day
in this bright, warm,
and ever failing light.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
My friend Erik wrote this the morning that Ted Kennedy died.  I was not as stirred by Kennedy's death as it seemed that those around me were; but I was stirred by this poem.  Especially the first stanza. The imagery of the closed horizon is haunting. 

To me, the sea represents open spaces. Freedom. Escape. All things that I find pretty important. I love Melville's Moby Dick; or the White Whale (yes, that is where the "Or" in my blog comes from). And, I think one of the reasons I do, yes there are many reasons, but this is one, is because I know that I would run away to sea. Even knowing what lies before him,  I am envious of Ishmael. 

Saturday, September 12, 2009

my coat of arms; or, pieces of me

My friend V  wrote a post the other day about what would appear on her coat of arms, should she ever have a coat of arms. It was inspired by a site called One Minute Writer. I am going to steal the concept. Sort of. I like the idea of quick writes, I make my students do them all the time; but, alas, I am not quick. So, here is my version of the Coat-of-Arms-One-Minute-Write the long version.

The Cat:

I feel an affinity with cats. I am sure that I was one in a past life--and prolly will be one again. I have always lived with at least one. We are alike. We share a desire to sleep in the sunny spots, we are unable to make decisions ( do I want in? or out?), and we struggle to balance our need to appear independent with an equal desire make sure we get our ears scratched.

 To wit: Kat is Cat.

I was eight years old when I rescued my first cat. He was a little gray fluffy thing with white stockinged feet and no tail.  My family and I were having lunch at the parsonage after church one Sunday afternoon when I walked in on the pastor's four-year-old son using the cat as a basketball. He was tossing the cat repeatedly through a four foot high plastic kid's basketball hoop. By the time I got there the kitten was dazed and bleeding from the nose and one ear. I said nothing, and in a silent fury, I scooped up the kitten and ran out to our car, locked all the doors, and refused to surrender the kitten. Finally, it was agreed that "Smokey" would live at our house.  This was the first of many such acts.

The Apron:

I love the kitchen. I never feel quite as comfortable anywhere else as I do in the kitchen. I consider myself an amateur foodie, I love cooking, and I have the extra pounds to prove it. When I am stressed out, I head to the kitchen to chop, boil, and knead my cares away. My natural role is that of hostess and if I am going to have a party it will include a home cooked meal. If I love you it means I will ask you over to my house and serve you something yummy.

I was seven years old the first time I baked something on my own. It was a cake from scratch (an item I still haven't mastered) and I used salt instead of sugar. Oops. My parents were afraid I would be discouraged, so they did not criticize me (probably the only time in my life they have been supportive). Instead they covered the cake in gobs of supersweet icing and invited the neighbors over for dessert. Everyone was careful to eat their whole slice and to say things like "actually, it is kind of good. I like the whole salty sweet combination."

The Baseball:

I love everything about baseball. The grass. The pace. The symmetry. The sounds.The pants. Everything. When I am angry or upset you can find me at the batting cages bashing the heck out of as many baseballs that I can get my bat on. During baseball season there is almost always a game on at my house. If I had the time and the money I could live in the centerfield bleachers.

When I was 17, I went to my first MLB game. It was the Oakland A's and the Kansas City Royals. I grew up watching the Royals and idolizing their stellar Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett. My family still teases me because when I saw the outfield grass for the first time I started cry. My dad asked me what was wrong. I waved my hand towards the field and said, "It's just so beautiful."

The Sea:
I am obsessed with water. I didn't learn to swim until I was almost 9. But once I did it was impossible to get me out of the water. About five years ago, I learned to sail.  It is a passion that I cannot forget.  In recent years I have been land bound.  It is a goal to change that.

When I was applying to PhD programs I visited New England to school shop. I had just discovered sailing and I was taking every chance I could to sail. I was sailing on a tourist boat in Salem Harbor when I met a couple from the area. We talked about nearby schools and she told me she hoped that I would get into the one that I want, because I seemed like a nice woman and that people should get what they want. She said that they were avid sailors and encouraged my burgeoning passion. She said that she and her husband used to sail all the time, but that her husband's Alzheimers was so bad now that they couldn't go out on their own any more. She started to cry a little as her husband, formerly the captain of his own yacht, asked the captain on a cheap tourist boat a question about casting off, an action he used to perform without thought. She said that he couldn't remember much anymore, but that she had promised to continue to take him sailing for as long as she could. As we disembarked she hugged me and slipped some money into my hand--I thought is was five dollars, but later I realized it was a 50--and told me to use it well.

The Pen:
I am a writer. It is a part of who I am. If I don't write about something it isn't real. I tell stories. It is who I am.

When I was in the fourth grade, I won a creative writing contest. I wrote a story about a girl who gets lost in the woods and imagines that everything she sees is something terrible: a tree branch is a hand, an owl is a bogey man, a cat a mountain lion, and so on.  In the end, she goes home and her mother tells her that she needs to get her imagination under control, and the girl, who actually enjoyed being scared, just smiles as she imagines that her mother's shadow is really a ghost.



Laughter:
I am funny. It is a gift. All around me is laughter. I know that I am funny and I enjoy making people laugh. The funny (ha ha) thing is that I don't even control it any more: mostly it is unintentional. I don't really tell jokes per se, usually, it is just the way I see things. Sometimes it is my tone, a gesture, or the way I have put my words together. I am often startled by large outbursts of giggles all around me. I do love the sounds of laughter. It forces people outside of themselves. It gives me a view of their secret self, the one that is a little bit out of their control.

My last year in Reno, while at a BBQ at a friend's house, I was excited to meet the girl that one of my best friends was crushing on. I was talking to her and all around me people were laughing. I was telling her stories about my friend, and trying to make him look good. I could feel that we were not connecting.  I finally understood why, when after one particularly raucous moment she looked at me strangely and said, "Oh, you are one of those people who has to be funny." I instantly hated her.

Friday, September 11, 2009

patriot day; or, how do we remember the people w/o making things political?

When I think about 9/11, I remember the flyers posted by family and friends on New York's walls and telephone poles looking for the lost. Picture after picture. Flyers that in my world until then, I had only seen used for lost pets, now used to find family and friends.There is one image I don't think I will ever forget. It was the image of a young boy in jeans and a t-shirt putting up a flyer of his dad. The picture was taken at the man's birthday party. He is smiling as a large flaming birthday cake was set before him. In the picture is a middle aged man in a shirt and tie. He was portly, with white hair, and his face is a little rosy from celebrating. Underneath the photo in shaky letters was the man's name and a description of what he was wearing that day. It said "Dad, if you see this, call  us. We love you." I don't know what happened to that family. The odds are in his favor 15,000 people got out of the towers that day: but 2,800 didn't.

9/11 has been politicized. Two controversial wars are being fought in the name of justice (or vengeance). The design of the ground zero memorial has become a platform for New York politicians to gain votes. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani used our memory of his strong leadeship in a time of distress as political capital. The naming of the honorary day itself "patriot day" is distasetful to Americans who associate it with the Bush Adminstration and the Patriot Act.

I must admit that I write today with full knowledge that by writing about the politics of 9/11 I am just as guilty as those I am criticizing. So be it. But, I have to start there because the real stories of 9/11: the victims; those in the air and on the ground, in uniform and plain clothes, at ground zero and 3000 miles away have often been lost behind these discussions. I hate the term patriot day (and yes, I am refusing to capitalize it). I think the term is loaded and distasteful. It has been dragged through the muck and the mud and come out on the other side forever tainted.

Truth. On that day eight years ago people died. A lot of people. People from all over the world. Most of the 2800 victims were Americans, but some were not. There were victims from 8 nations in the final death toll. While the attack was in New York, the towers belonged to the world. On that day, many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons died. Our assurance in our collective safety died. Our trust in our infallibility died.

But, it wasn't these deaths that made us into patriots. The first flags were about something different than the patriotism that was spawned after that day. The rhetoric of war and the language of "you either support our agenda of vengeance or you do not love america" was born. The word patriot was changed. The flag waving began to mean something else entirely. After 9/11 there were rules about how you can love your nation. If you were anti-violence--for any reason--you were unpatriotic. If you saw deaths of any kind as a tragedy that should be avoided you were on the wrong side. Critical discourse: not patriotic. Protest and dissent: not patriotic. Questions and doubt: not patriotic. (unless we are talking about healthcare reform, but that is for another day).

In talking about 9/11 we have conceptualized and nominalized our individual experiences until they fit into the collective story. The offical story, the capital "H" History is not about the people. It isn't really even about America. It is about changing the words to fit into the story you want to tell. It should be about how a group of people attacked another group of people. It should be about how we will always miss them. How we will always remember them. Instead it is about terrorists, patriots, heroes, enemy combatents, us, them. When we use these terms then people, like the man in the 9/11 flyer, become concepts. We have a lot less compassion for concepts.

I remember 9/11. I remember the people. I mourn the loss of my neighbors and friends. Not the loss of patriots.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

the bridge; or, learning to hang in there

I believe that I have found my calling, I am a Community College instructor; currently adjunct, but, with ambitions of a full time position.  I think that I have come to terms with idea that this is my career. I can stop searching. I am not going back to my PhD in American Literature at UNR. I am not going to teach English in Thailand. I am not going to get a job in marketing somewhere. I am not going to get a high school teaching credential. And I am certainly not going to raise alpacas in my backyard. I am going to teach English, most likely first-year writing, in a Community College. Now, that being said, what I really want to talk about is Puente.

Puente is the program I am working in now; a program that is aimed at helping under-represented students tranfer to four-year colleges and universities. It is a UC program, so of course, they would prefer that my students transfer to UC's but we will all be plenty happy when they graduate with BA degrees from most anywhere. Most of my students are Mexican-American. A few are first generation immigrants, mostly second, and a smattering of third generation immigrants. Some are here legally, some are not; but all of them are struggling with such difficult circumstances. Reading levels are very low, writing even lower. Their personal lives are amazingly difficult. I listen to story after story about painful childhoods, abusive family members, citizenship difficulties, poverty, violence, and drugs. Daily. Many of them missed out on the educational foundations they need to do well in college. And now, they want to do well, but it is hard.

Puente means "bridge" in Spanish. Right now. I am the bridge; I am their bridge to the academic world. I am the one that is standing with one foot on their side of the gulf, and one foot on the universities' side; and I am trying to help them cross over. It has only been one month into the first semester and already I am tired. In the past two days I have I talked to five students in my office hours. Already there have been tears. Theirs and mine. Theirs were tears of frustration as they talked about struggling with words: reading them and writing them. Mine because their badly composed stories about drive-by shootings, abuse and abandonment were told so matter of factly. I tried to keep my tears to myself. I don't want to make these students feel any shame about their history, but as I talked about snapshot sentences, how to use imagery, and adding clarifying details in their writing, I could feel the weight of their lives growing heavier and heavier on my back. I want all my students to tap into the power of writing, but especially the Puentistas.

Today I am tired. But,this is my calling. Tomorrow is another class and another chance to move them farther away from one edge and closer to another. I am the bridge, and I just have to hang in there.

Monday, September 7, 2009

regrets; or, after all this time

I still wish that things had turned out differently. And, now, even though I know that nothing can be done. I still dream about reconciliations. In my dreams (literally) I have long conversations where I get to explain myself. And he (the HE) nods as I talk, and says nothing. I know that his silence is because even in my subconscious I know that he isn't likely to play along. I mean, after all, he never did before.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

so much for everyday; or, so,about this commitment thing

Yesterday, I watched a show on Lifetime (yes, it's for women and I love it), about a beautiful, blonde, model who dies and is returned to earth in a smart, fat, woman's body. It is calle Drop Dead Diva and, well, for various reasons, I like it. The episode last night was partially about a woman who was suing her maid of honor for banging her fiance right before the wedding. And yes, I do mean right before, as in while wearing her bridesmaid dress. Anyway, the gist  of the show, and this post, is about commitment, and I guess, forgiveness. In the end, the bride drops the lawsuit and forgives her strayed groom and welcomes him back. she forgives him because she loves him, and because he tells her that he knows it was a mistake, but that he will try harder. Of course, there was more to it than that, but I am not going to retell the entire plot points of the show here (check it out if you have room on your DVR for a funny procedural law show about identity).

What I really want to say, is that, committment is hard for me. I tend to be ruled by how I feel. If I feel sad, or sick, or off in any way, I will use it as a reason to not do something that I know I need to do (work, exercise, pay bills, eat right, floss, etc). I commited to this blog just to practice my discipline. And well, I missed yesterday. In the scheme of things, this is not a big deal; but, then again, maybe it is. I tend to demand perfection from myself, and when I don't get it, I will give up. I normally would say, "Well, so much for September, I guess I'll try again next month." I seldom forgive myself. Or even worse, I use the small failures as an excuse to give up altogether. But this time I am taking my cue from Drop Dead Diva ( hey you gotta get your life lessons where you can, right?) and I am going to forgive myself and just go on.

So, here's to writing everyday, as best as I can.

Friday, September 4, 2009

beautiful: a list; or,hey, it's Friday

The view of the Sacramento River from the Deistlehorst bridge at dusk. particulary if you walked the 5.7 miles to get there.

The bottom of a cat's foot (they claim that black pads indicate that your cat is descended from the egyptian cats that were once worshipped as gods).

Derek Jeter making his patented "jump throw" to first base.

Chico in spring (especally looking out the front window of the Naked Lounge).

That first post coital breath after really good sex.

The way you can tell that Autumn is nearing just by listening to the wind.

Scotland's forty shades of green.

The sound of someone's true laugh (the embarrassing one, the one with the snort, and tears, the one that surprises even you).

Me, on a good day.

Authentic questions.

Discussions w/o agenda or malice.

The joy on a student's face when they finally get it.

Homemade pizza fresh from the oven.

The view from London's Waterloo Bridge at night.

You being here. Right now.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

beautiful; or, let's start with the intellectual and work from there

The "theme" this month for NaBloPoMo is beautiful; and yes the word theme is in quotes because I don't get it. Beautiful is an adjective. It is a description. Beautiful is temporal. What is she? She is a woman.What kind of woman? She is a beautiful woman. She will always be a woman, whether or not she remains beautiful is unkown. I do, after all, make my meager living as a writing insructor, so I am more than aware that as an  adjective Beautiful is limited by time. Nouns are permanent. What is she? She is a Beauty

Perhaps, I am struggling with this concept because I am in a career that is obsessed with Beauty.Yes, I do mean Capital B Beauty. And, no, not in the way you might think. As a student--and now an instructor--in the humanities Beauty has always been a much discussed topic. Writers, Poets, and Artists have been trying to represent Beauty since the beginning of  of said writing, poetry, and art. In my own world in the field of English, there is a whole field of literary study called Aesthetics which is basically dedicated to the study of Beauty. So, I come to this word with a bit of history about the difference between Beauty and beauty.

I am not complaining, so much as I am going to take this month to explore this idea of the word beautiful. Today, I start with definition and contextualization. The word is an adjective meaning something that is pleasing to the senses, very good or enjoyable. Hmm. Such a light definition for a topic we spend so much time and energy worrying about. I understand the power behind this term and I do plan on getting to that later in the month.But for now, just think about how you use the term. To what do you apply the label of beautiful? What is beautiful to you?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The other One Art blog;or,it isn't cheating if you repost something w/a new introduction

Orignally posted on 14 Jan 08
Orignal title: a poem I have been thinking about for a while now; or, the trip to bountiful

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster

He was so upset when they used the poem "One Art"  in the film In Her Shoes. As we walked out of the  theatre he just kept swearing. I laughed a little to myself because I know that he loved the idea of being a rebel, a romantic hero who doesn't live by any one's rules. To him, Bishop's poetry would always belong on a New Hampshire dock and the deck of other people's boats he had managed to talk his way onto for free sail. In his mind, teenage girls were rushing en masse to Barnes and Noble to get their copy of The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop. I giggled a little as his rendition of imagined (but likely) future classroom conversations with those girls as they begin their analysis of this poem with "Well, when Cameron Diaz reads this aloud..."

As he continued to complain I watched him run a hand through his shaggy hair and put on his aviator glasses, and I was returned to a video store 15 years before. It was before we had hurt each other so badly, before he married someone else, before I had moved away. I had only known him a few weeks and we were picking a movie for a group movie night. He wanted to get the 1985 oscar winning "The Trip to Bountiful." I wanted to get Cameron Crowe's "Singles." We were talking about which one to get when he turned and looked at me. He watched me as I told him that it has Eddie Vedder, and it is really good, and I know a lot of our friends have been wanting to see it for a while, how I wasn't sure that everyone would like the one he picked, and so on.

He didn't address anything I had said. Instead in a quiet voice he said 'You are so aware of what other people think about you. You are afraid your friends will think you're not cool, you are probably even afraid of what the clerk thinks of your movie choices." He grabbed the videos out of my hands and put them both down and walked over to the New Releases and picked up the hottest new release, I think it was Prelude to a Kiss, but I can't be sure now, and without another word to me, he walked up to the counter and rented it. I just stood there and watched him walk to the car.

Write it!; or, just get something down

For a woman who does not really consider herself to be a big fan of poetry, I certainly find myself influenced by the poems that I have had relationships with. Don't get me wrong, I like poetry; some of  my best friends are poets. But, I am a prose gal. I studied the novel in grad school, and I teach the essay, but it is poems that follow me around.

One poem that takes walks with me and tugs at my sleeve trying to get my attention quite regularly is "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop. I only know two poems by Bishop "One Art" (reprinted below) and "At the Fishhouses." But both of them haunt me regularly. I have written about "One Art" before. I am including that blog here, as well. In the past, this poem appealed to me as a way of processing loss, but today, as I continue to struggle with writer's block (yes that is going to be a recurring theme here for a while), the parenthetical exclamation to just (Write it!) from "One Art" pops into my head.

Just write it. It is I am sure the probable motto if Nike were to make pens instead of shoes. It is also what I tell my students when they struggle with their writing. Right now, I hear my voice saying things like "it doesn't have to be good" or "it is easier to edit, than to produce, so just write something" and I hate myself a little.It is so easy to tell someone else to reach into their vault of words and to assemble them onto a page, but so difficult to do it myself. What is it about writing that seems so hard? What is it about words that seems treacherous at times?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

NaBloPoMo; or, learning to commit

Here it is. The first of my committed blogs to NaBloPoMo. NaBloPoMo is National Blog Posting Month. Thanks to my friend Vickie for talking about them in her blog. The theme this month is Beautiful. I am not completely sure how that constitutes a theme, but hey, I am the new guy, so what do I know? I do know that I have not been writing. Not at all. No emails. No letters. Papers. Blogs. Nothing. I can't really put my finger on why I haven't.  It could because the -m- on my laptop is broken and has to be pressed with special care. Or, because I got two new cats and they are drawn to my laptop (and my lap) like moths to flame. Or, it could be because I don't know who I am writing to anymore. I used to have an audience. I knew who I was writing to/for. Not anymore. The ways and means to the loss of said audience is a story for another day. Today this is just about my announcement that I will post everyday in September. So, new audience, whoever you are (or may someday be), Hi. And I' ll see you tomorrow.

Friday, August 28, 2009

motivated reasoning; or believing what you want

I just read a Newsweek article on a phenomenon called "motivated reasoning." The article was attempting to explain how people can continue to believe things even after they have been proven untrue. The original story was about people who believe the 9/11-Saddam Hussein link (which of course there is not one, was not one, will never be one, period). The article claims that people no longer seek information in order to learn or to engage in critical thinking, but that instead, they seek information to validate what they already believe.

My first response was "duh." I have been teaching college students for almost 10 years now. This is how my students think. It is the way many of them are being taught to write. They are taught to make a claim and then conduct research until they find someone (anyone) who will provide a quote or soundbite that backs up their claim. For the past five years I have abandoned the traditional make-a-claim paper and instead opted for an assignment in which they ask a question and then seek answers and then use their understanding of rhetorical situation to try to explain why people believe in, and write about, those answers.  This assignment frustrates students. They hate it. In fact, I have three or four every semester who can not do it, and I am forced to change the assignment a little in order to make sure that they can pass the research portion of the course.  I do so because I recognize that the format of my essay assignment is actually ideology. That seeking out others views is a progressive act. Supporting your own beliefs is a conservative one. Doing both is my goal.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Exta Change; or, what to do when itunes recommends Debbie Gibson

18 Jan 09 Sunday

Today while charging my ipod, I was feeling tired of my music and wanted to look for something new; so, I browsed through the itunes recommendations. I feel a bit like I am in a rut, and thought a new song or album might be just the thing to reenergize me. Much to my chagrin, Apple recommended Debbie Gibson's Electric Youth. an album I abhorred when I was one of the youth she was talking to. I laughed at the idea of buying that album for the first time 20 years later. I didn't even recognize any of the songs.

Suddenly, I remembered a conversation I had with a group of my friends in high school when I was 15. We were talking about how sad it was when old people lose their cool (of course by "old" I prolly meant 25). I promised myself I would never be the kind of person who watched VH1. In it's early stages, VH1 was the "old people" channel, maybe it still is. I am not too sure what it is now, a dating service for washed up rock stars? Anyway, I remember promising myself that I would never let myself become too busy, too old, too whatever, to keep track of what was "cool." Of course at 15 I didn't realize that cool ages too. That what is cool for a 15 year-old isn't cool for a 36 year-old (thank god). I didn't know then that my definition of cool would grow up too.

Now, looking back, I don't think that promise was about always being cool. I think is was about being stuck in ruts. I think I was afraid of becoming one of the broken record people. You know who I mean: the ones who get stuck in time and can't seem to escape. I think I was less concerned with staying 15 forever and more worried about becoming a walking talking time capsule of my youth. I didn't want to become stuck. We have all seen those people. The ones that got stuck in an era. Usually 30-something women who look a lot like a much older twin sister to the girl they were in their senior portrait. Curled bangs. Acid washed jeans. Blue eyeshadow worn just so: 1992 personified. I have always been fascinated by these folks. I think it is because their looks often take a lot of effort. I am always pained by fashion victims. But, the ones I hurt for the most are those who have clearly put in a lot of effort. I am not talking about the people who have given up. The ones who slipped into sweats, tennis shoes, and scrunchies. You know the ones I mean.

I find my questions about this phenomenon have not lessened, but they have changed. I used to wonder where they got the clothes. Where do you buy acid washed jeans? Once, I asked my hair stylist what she does when people ask for time stamped hair styles. She said she used to try to suggest more comtemporary styles to her clients, but now she just does it. You want a red poodle perm with mullet bangs? Okay. But really, she said she doesn't have to deal with it all that often because usually those clients have a hair stylist that they have been going to for years.

Now, I wonder less about how they freeze time, and wonder more about why. What is it that makes someone hold on to a time so tightly. What happened to them that they hold onto that version of themselves? What, or who, are they holding onto? It can't be ignorance. It isn't difficult to look around and notice that no one else has mullet bangs anymore. One curl under. One curl up. Spray. Not a look you see all around you. Is it simply that they felt beautiful, confident, sure of who they were and so they just stayed there? Could it be that they stay where they are because they were/are happy?

I am a person who is terrified of ruts. So much so, that sometimes I mistake stability for a rut and have jumped off perfectly sound ships. My biggest fear is stagnation. But, today, as I thought about how there are those who still like Debbie Gibson, even as she keeps insisting that it is "Deborah" now, I wonder if perhaps I am the one who is wrong. Just as my 15 year-old self looked at VH1 people and said "god they just don't get it," maybe those that are "stuck" are holding on to something I haven't found yet: a best version of themselves