Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Inspired by the MacArthur Grants Awards

Alison Bechdel has won one of the 2014 MacArthur grants!  I have long thought of her as a genius, but how wonderful that she has been recognized this way.

I remember reading her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For back when you could only find the strips in underground newspapers--the kinds of newspapers that you had to go to Atlanta or D.C. to find.

Can that really be true?  Or am I just trying to sound edgier and cooler than I really was back in the 80's?

I am sure that I read the strips before I read the books.  And I did feel hip and cool for reading them, even if those characters seemed to be living an edgier life than I was living.

Ah, the 80's, when lesbians trying to live a regular life like the rest of the nation was seen as edgy and hip!  Or maybe that says more about the smaller cities in the southern U.S. where I lived and visited in the 1980's than it does about larger history. 

In any case, I am so thrilled for this public recognition of Bechdel's talent!  I have been a fan for many decades, and while she's gotten much more acclaim lately, this award is huge.

There are some poets on the list, which I found here.  Terrance Hayes is a winner, as is Khaled Mattawa.  I have read Hayes, but never heard of Mattawa.

Frankly, the whole list is inspiring--it's amazing to consider all the ways that the human brain works to create something new.

Of all the awards announced throughout the year, the MacArthur Fellowships are the ones that cheer me the most, the one I would most love to win.

Well, that's not true.  I'd most love to win the Nobel, either for peace or for literature.  But to win a MacArthur grant would be a dream come true, and it's one of those grants that seems more likely to be awarded around midlife, unlike the Nobel.

It's good to be inspired this way.  It's time for me to return to my writing.  I've spent too much time immersed in other kinds of writing, e-mails and reports and endless forms.  I'm ready for a poem!

An update:  moments after I wrote this post and moved on to other projects, NPR's Morning Edition ran this story about Amy Clampitt, who "didn't publish her first volume of poetry until she was 63."  I love stories of writers who hit their first achievement when they're older than I am.  I needed this reminder that it's not too late!

And the story itself is wonderful.  Clampitt won a MacArthur Fellowship and bought a house in Lennox, Massachusetts with the money.  And what's become of that house?  The story explains:  "Since 2003, the house Clampitt bought with her MacArthur money has been used to help rising poets by offering six- to 12-month tuition-free residencies."

Yes, the story inspires on all sorts of levels!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Staving Off a Mushy Brain

Much as I have enjoyed the Ken Burns' documentary on the Roosevelts, the first hour that I could stay awake for each of the past 2 nights, I do not anticipate having time to watch the whole thing.  Happily, this morning, I discovered a different option.

As I graded student rough drafts, I listened to an interview with Ken Burns on the Diane Rehm show, an NPR program.  I found the subject matter interesting, but at times, Burns talks about the process of creating the documentary--who should do which voice, which pictures should be used--which fascinated me too.

Burns says that no other U.S. family has so impacted the course of history.  He makes a strong case. 

While you're at the website for the Diane Rehm show, you could also check out this interview with poet and essayist Diane Ackerman.  She's so optimistic about the future of the planet--it's a wonderful counterpoint to the gloomy news that fills every airwave.

My English major heart was also made glad by this interview on Fresh Air:  Maureen Corrigan talks about her book that's about The Great Gatsby.  I haven't read that book in decades, but the interview was still wonderful--and a great reminder about why that novel is so important.

There are days when I feel sad about how much I am not reading these days.  But in so many ways, these types of NPR shows have taken the place of some of the reading that I used to do.  It's not as good as diving into the subject deeply with a book.  But it's better than a lot of the magazine reading that I used to do--these kinds of interviews are much more in-depth treatment of whatever subject is at hand.

Of course, I have to wonder if I really get all the salient points if I'm listening while doing other things.  I guess it matters what the other things are.  But happily, if I feel I've missed too much, I can go back and listen again.

The larger issue:  is my brain turning to mush?  The one detail from this morning's interview with Ken Burns that stays with me:  Teddy Roosevelt read one book a day, unless he was on vacation, when he read several books on any given day.

I used to read a similar amount, back in my pre-administrator days.  Those were also the days of slower Internet connections, which meant that I had fewer online distractions.  Hmmm.

But I am grateful for the Internet, even with it's potential distractions.  I'm grateful for intellectual stimulation, especially when I don't have reading time.  I think the Internet is doing more to keep my brain from mushifying than causing my brain's decline.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A More Modern Journal of the Plague Year

Yesterday, after a lovely brunch at Bahama Breeze, my dad wanted to read by the pool.  He'd been trying to check out an eBook from his home library, with no luck. 

So we went to our old-fashioned bookshelves, with books made out of paper.  He settled down to read Octavia Butler's Wild Seed.  He's become interested in all sorts of aspects of U.S. Colonial life since moving to Williamsburg, so I thought this book would provide an interesting twist.  I may read it again when he's done.  

I, too, wanted to read by the pool, so I looked at my shelves.  What to read, what to read?  I thought I was in the mood for a good apocalypse, and at first, I gravitated to Margaret Atwood.  But then my eye drifted to Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders:  A Novel of the Plague.

I read it when it first came out, back in 2001, a library copy.  I liked it so much that I bought it when I found it remaindered.  But I've never gone back to read it again.

I haven't finished it yet, but I'm here to report that it's every bit as wonderful as I remembered.  It's the kind of book that makes me feel like it's useless for me to try to write, since I will never be as talented as Geraldine Brooks.  But I try to ignore those feelings and appreciate the simple marvels of the book itself.

I love that Brooks makes the book feel both completely historically accurate and yet wonderfully modern too.  I love the main character, the first person, female narrator.  I love the apocalyptic topic, and the fact that it's set in the past, not some distant future--much to learn.

I've been spending time thinking about Ebola and all the possible outcomes, and my mind has come back often to various bubonic plague outbreaks in Europe, the time in disease history that seems most analogous to our own.  As I read this book, my theories seem more and more validated.

I finished the day by watching the new Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts--fascinating!  And there, too, there are interesting parallels to modern life--do-nothing legislatures, the frustrations of people who want to see the world evolve into something better.

We may have a repeat of yesterday today:  Mom reading her Kindle, me reading Year of Wonders, Dad reading Wild Seed.  Or will we go to a movie?  Or something I can't even anticipate yet?

It's their last full day here; I'm sure we will have fun.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Visit to Vizcaya: The Photo Essay

On Friday, we went to Vizcaya, even though the weather looked threatening:

The View of Biscayne Bay, from the back of Vizcaya

We walked through part of the house; you won't see pictures of the inside of the house, because photography of any sort is not allowed inside the house.  As we watched the clouds build, we decided to go to the gardens.

A woman in a beautiful dress was traipsing from place to place; she was trailed by photographers.  I loved the boat shoes that she wore underneath the dress.

I loved the heels left in a corner of the garden.

But more than that, I loved all the different aspects of the garden, from the neoclassical design to the decaying labyrinth to the statuary.  Actually, I love the statues on the sunken barge the best:

A close-up of the first picture

Below:  what to do with your old shells:  glue them to the ceiling of a grotto!

The house itself, the inside, didn't appeal.  It seemed dark and gloomy:  these antiques do not make me wish they could be mine.  The rococo style of the walls and ceilings just felt oppressive.  I was happy to walk outside.  I did love this terrace; it's the only part of the house that made me say, "I wish I could live here.  I want to have a party here where guests would arrive by boat."

I got great shots of the weather vanes.  How I love the weather vanes of the world.

I don't need a weather vane to know which way the wind blows; down here, I can just orient myself to the ocean and turn my face to the wind.

So, was it worth the $18 admission? 

Let me note that I was the only one who paid full price.  My spouse has a student ID, and my parents got senior admission.  So, yes, for one day, it was worth it.  Would I go back?  Only if it was a week day (no crowds!) with weather perfect for rambling through the gardens--in short, a day much like the one we had on Friday.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Visit to Vizcaya

My parents are in town for a long week-end.  What a treat!  I feel fortunate in that they are fairly easy company to host.  We like similar activities, and our food preferences are similar.  When parents are coming--anyone's parents--I do tend to clean more vigorously in advance, but it's good to tend to those tasks.

I've said it before:  one reason I like having out of town guests is that we tend to get out of the house and explore our surroundings.  Ever since we moved down here in 1998, I've had the historic mansion Vizcaya on my list of places to get to, but we haven't yet.

My mom saw it listed in a book of 1000 places to visit before you die, so we decided to go yesterday, on their first full day of the visit.  There's too much that might disrupt the plan if we wait until Monday.  And since we have a week day free, we wanted to avoid the week-end.

Early in the morning, I thought we might need to change plans.  It was raining, and the forecast called for more rain.  But by the time we walked to the beach for breakfast, the sun was shining.  There were still angry clouds in some directions, but we decided to take a chance.

The traffic in Miami is never easy--we had not one but two places on I 95 where lanes were blocked.  I began to worry that we wouldn't have enough time.

But we did have enough time.  And the rain held off so that we could explore the gardens--and since the sky was full of clouds, it wasn't too beastly hot to explore the gardens.

I liked the gardens better than the house.  The house was dimly lit, to protect all the historic elements.  The house has lots of painted surfaces and wallpapers--it felt overwhelming and ominous.

The gardens, on the other hand, were glorious.  There were gardens of many types:  classical designs, a labyrinth of sorts, an orchidarium, statues here and there, all sorts of fountains.  There was a woman in an amazing bridal gown who travelled around the gardens being trailed by photographers.  We assumed that she's part of some magazine spread, not a bride having her formal pictures made.  But who knows?  It's the kind of place where I got the idea that one might stumble across any sort of not everyday activity.

And I also loved the huge terraces that overlooked Biscayne Bay.  About 12 feet out from the steps that go down to the water, there's an amazing statue of a partially sunken barge with mermaids frolicking on it. 

I told my spouse that when I'm a little old lady who is losing my memory, I'll believe that I've been to Venice, but it will have been this house.

In the afternoon, we went to the gift shop--it's the kind of gift shop with scarves that cost $90.  But the cafĂ© wasn't too badly priced.  I had Italian gelato--two scoops, two different flavors, but I couldn't tell much difference between them--they both tasted like sweetened cream.  And I didn't mind at all.

We were so lucky in so many ways:  the rain held off, the crowds stayed away, we didn't slip and fall on any of the uneven surfaces.  And we zipped right back home--no early rush hour disasters, hurrah!

Tomorrow, I'll post some pictures from the trip.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Clean Syllabi and Rainbow Signs

After a string of tiring days at work, I finally got some good news.  A colleague has been tasked with distributing comments from the team that's double-checking our syallabi in advance of our upcoming accreditation visit.  He stopped by my office and said, "Your syllabi are pretty clean."

I've spent the summer submitting documents of all sorts.  I've thought they were clean, only to find typos.  I've thought they were clean, only to find that we needed more complete information.  I've done multiple forms in multiple ways.

As of this morning, I'm done with all the accreditation tasks except for hole punching some documents and putting them into binders.  I could show up to work to find out that I need to redo everything yet again, but in this moment, I shall assume that everything is in order.

Last night I stopped at the grocery store on my way home from work.  I took carrots to school for lunch yesterday--that's how bare our fridge had become.  Luckily, a colleague invited me to join her in eating the extras from a lunch meeting that she had.

In the grocery store, I felt that sense of peace that can come from restocking the larder.  And on my way home, I saw a beautiful rainbow:

I thought we might get some much-needed rain--look at the clouds at the bottom of the picture.  They looked so threatening.

I thought of all the stories of rainbows from my childhood churches.  We were taught that the rainbow should remind us that we will be safe from destruction.

Now of course, I am older, and much as I want to believe we are safe, I know of the damage that can be done with a hijacked plane, a tiny virus, a cell's mutation, a rise in temperature of just a degree or two. 

But still, every time I see a rainbow, I take it as a sign of hope.  So, it was great to drive home last night to see such a huge rainbow, stretched across a red and lavender sky.

And on this day of grim anniversaries, it's good to remember the central message from the church of my childhood and from many other faiths:   death does not have the final word.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Poetry Wednesday: All of Our Cells

Monday at work, I was talking to a colleague who is enduring treatment for cancer, on top of everything else we're doing at work.  He explained that a PET scan involves injecting the body with radioactive sugar, which finds the cancer.  On the scan, the cancer glows.  It was good to talk to him, in the early morning before the office suite got noisy.  It's scary to think of how many people I know who have cancer.

And then, more colleagues arrived and students--the phones began to ring, the phones on our desks, the phones in our pockets.  We went back to the cells which are our offices.

My life at work is so often noisy, and it makes me yearn for a vow of silence for us all--or some phone-free zones.  It also reminds me of a poem I wrote, "Lectio."  It first appeared in The Innisfree Poetry Journal, an online journal. 

I got the idea for this poem when I was at Mepkin Abbey. I read a brochure that asked us to consider turning our cell phones off--not just to vibrate, but completely off. The word cell leapt off the page, and I immediately thought of the biological definition. Since I was at an abbey, I also thought of the definition associated with monasteries and abbeys. This poem was one of those that came easily to me. Enjoy!

Some monk once said that we should return
to our cells, that our cells
would teach us everything we need to know. 
She thinks of that monk
every time a cell phone interrupts
her class, that jarring, reproduction
of a ring tone, the student's rush
to return to the hall to take a call,
leaving the class behind to try to gather
the fragments of their scattered attention
to return to the task at hand. 
She thinks of that monk
as she tries to declutter.
She chooses a different closet
each month.  She tries to be ruthless
as she sorts, but she lapses
into sentimentality and maudlin tears.  
She thinks of that monk
each month as she returns
to the doctor to do battle
against her own traitorous cells.
The doctor shows her scans of her invisible
insides.  She sees the clumps that will kill
her.  She thinks of terrorists plotting
their dark revenge, of a coven practicing
dark arts, of all the ways a cell
can go bad and destroy all it touches.  
She returns to the church lit by candles.
The smell of wax and chant
of Psalms sends her back to childhood,
that original cell, still so much to learn.