Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This Blog is on Vacation


I'm sailing off into the sunset for a few days--time for family and friends. But I'll be back to regular blogging on July 1.

More on Meaningful Work

I spent the past few days alternately reading Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft and quilting to apocalyptic movies. I thoroughly enjoyed the Crawford book, although I did contemplate the gender issues that Crawford doesn't address. I doubt that even if I had the repair skills, I could make a motorcycle repair shop successful. Despite several decades of feminist successes, most men still wouldn't trust a woman to repair their bikes.

My fingers throb from quilting, but I suffer no illusions that I could translate that interest into a small business. Nor would I want to. I can't imagine quilting for 8-15 hours a day. And very few people would pay the amount of money I would have to charge per quilt to make a small quilting business profitable.

The New Yorker recently ran an article about several books on work (including Crawford's), the idea of craft, and the slow food movement. The author, Kelefa Sanneh, rightly notes some misogynistic strains in some of the books just emerging, and makes some interesting observations about our current work lives, and how we may later mourn their loss: "This nostalgic tribute is, of course, proof positive that hard jobs get much easier to love as soon as they start to disappear. If Crawford is correct about the decline of America’s information economy, we should brace ourselves for a series of mournful, indignant books that eulogize the modern office—a highly networked, quasi-social, semi-autonomous refuge, where turn-of-the-century workers spent their pleasant days solving problems, exploring the limits of coƶperation, and wasting valuable company time on the Internet."

Over at The Valve, there's a discussion of the recent spate of motorcycle books, which focuses on Matthew Biberman's Big Sid's Vincati. The author of the post, Amardeep Singh, points out that many academics have work outside of academia that they find more satisfying than their primary work. What relief! You mean this condition is normal? Hurrah!

Perhaps it's not just limited to academia. It makes sense to me that many people, particularly those of us close to the midpoint of our working lives, would find passions outside work. That assumes, of course, that we have the luxury of working only one job that allows us personal time. I continue to be alarmed at how work insinuates itself into our time that's supposed to be off the clock.

But for now, I'm on vacation from work--using up the last of my leave days before the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Inspirations for Summer

While I understand that some of you in the upper 48 (as I like to call the rest of the U.S., excluding Hawaii) are experiencing cold and rain, and it doesn't sound like summer at all, we down here in South Florida are experiencing an odd period of dry heat. It's like a milder version of Arizona: we awake to temps in the 80's, but no humidity (odd, odd, odd--it's usually very moist this time of year) and the temps soar into the 90's during the day. Our record breaking temps are usually in the neighborhood of 96 degrees--we're really summer heat amateurs. It's so different from most places I've ever lived where summer is swampy, muggy, and usually comes with at least one stretch of several weeks where the temp soars into the 100's (that's the actual temp, not the heat index). Down here, we usually have a sea breeze, so even our heat, while intense, is bearable. I do miss having nights that cool off. For the next several months, our temp will not dip below 80. Sigh.

This heat can make me feel lethargic. I just want to sit on the sofa and watch movies. I spent much of the week-end watching the 1994 miniseries The Stand. Then I watched it again with the commentary track on.

I did a lot of quilting so that I wouldn't feel like a complete slug. Still, my Inner Critic berates me for not working on poetry. My Inner Critic says, "Oh, honestly, Kristin, you could have assembled a book manuscript in the amount of time you spent quilting."

I like Rebecca Loudon's approach to poetry. In her June 19th entry on her blog, she says, "I’ve been having an interview with Tom Beckett which I don’t like to think of as an interview because that makes me choke up, and so it has become a conversation with Tom Beckett, with me doing most of the writing most of which I delete as soon as I write it, just as I do here. One of the things that I wrote in our conversation was that as a writer who aspires to be a poet you eventually get to a place where poetry is happening all the time whether you’re physically engaged in the act of writing or not. You no longer have a choice. You have stepped into the river and you can’t get out. You can ignore it certainly or bend down and drink if you choose or pick out those flat rivery rocks and fling them at other poets, but you are, indeed, in the river."

I love this idea that poetry is happening all the time. I tell my Inner Critic something similar: "My subconscious is busy at work while my fingers are stitching."

I've been writing long enough to see that the work occurs in cycles. Some months I send out a lot of submissions; some months, I send out nothing. Some months I write a lot of new poems; sometimes, a month will go by with no new work (and yes, I still feel a bit panicky).

I try to do something every day that will move me towards the poetry life I want to have, towards the poet I want to be. Ideally, it would be an hour or two of that activity. Lately, I'm happy for crumbs.

But maybe you're having an energized summer, and you wish that more journals read in the summer. Diane Lockward has done us all a favor with her list of journals that read in the summer. Go here for part 1, here for part 2, and here for part 3.

Maybe you're wishing for a group that would encourage you to read one of the great books. Why not read Charlotte Bronte's Villette? Yes, I said this would be the year that I read Anna Karenina, but maybe I'll start with Villette. I'm inclined this way because there's a reading group over at The Valve. There's a reading schedule and promise of good conversation. By July 7, we're to have read the first 8 chapters, so there's not much time to get started. Go here for all the details.

Part of my dissertation discusses Jane Eyre--in fact, when I read that book again in grad school, I got the idea for my dissertation, as I noticed that victims and perpetrators of domestic violence act in just the way that we now know that they do--but Bronte wrote long before sociological studies of the problem existed. I was baffled by critics who talked about the book as fairy tale fantasy or Gothic or otherwise non-realistic. And voila: a dissertation topic was born! A study of domestic violence in the Gothic, with the thought of proving that the Gothic was actually dealing with some real life scary stuff (domestic violence)--it wasn't just a supernatural spookfest.

I feel guilty confessing that I've never read any other books by Charlotte Bronte. So, let me give Villette a try. I don't think of Villette (or any other 19th century novel) as typical summer reading, but I'm not doing much of that kind of reading either.

Maybe I'll migrate back to my high school self. I was terrified that I wasn't adequately prepared for college, what with my public school education, so I put myself on a reading regime. For every 2 fun books I read, I had to read a classic. Look back with me, to that girl lying by the pool, reading Dreiser and Dickens and Hemingway and Hawthorne, looking forward to a future that she knew would be challenging, but rewarding. Maybe I can find that girl again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fractal Geometry and Poetry

I'm close to deciding that I will never watch Nova again. Of course, I'm kidding. But I have noticed that those programs make me feel so inadequate when I consider my own creative life and work life.

The other night, I watched a show about Fractal Geometry. Fascinating stuff. And then, the next night, I was hearing and reading Barbra Nightingale's poems that utilized some of the same ideas. Intriguing how the world works that way.

Part of the Nova program focused on the mathematician Mandelbrot, who did some of the most important work on Fractal Geometry and in doing so, changed his whole profession. I thought about my own professions. However much I might like to completely reshape them, I have a hard time imagining that happening these days.

What would change the Poetry world in the same way that fractals changed the Geometry world? Some might argue that the changes in the publishing market are doing that, but I would argue that the basic form of the poem has stayed the same, even as the delivery mechanism is shifting.

What would change Academia the same way that fractals changed Geometry? Again, I see changes in the delivery system--the widening acceptance of online study--but the content seems to have been the same for almost 100 years. I'm thinking particularly of Composition. Perhaps, if I widen my thought, I could argue that the widening of the Canon has done to Literature what fractals did to Geometry.

Since I was little, growing up listening to stories of Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights workers who had an impact on society and changed it forever, I've longed for similar work. But it's good to remember how hard it is to be that kind of trailblazer. And it's important to remember that these changes require a sea of people to come after the trailblazer, to consider the possible changes, to help birth the new world that the changes will demand.

And with academic disciplines and creative pursuits, it's rare that we just toss out everything that came before. We still study Euclidean Geometry, after all. Even if my poems don't blaze down a different path, we still need poems written, even if those poems won't change the way that people will write poetry forever. Some of my favorite poems are centuries old, after all. My quilts are not trailblazing, but they still serve to give warmth and comfort. Most days, I'm not doing any interesting fusion cooking, but I can whip up yummy, nourishing food in the kitchen.

So today, as we celebrate Father's Day and the Summer Solstice and the end of the term (and whatever else we may all be celebrating), I think I'll write a poem. Or maybe I'll quilt. And as I stitch, I'll let my brain think about the ways I might want to be innovative that I haven't thought of.

Could I quilt my poems? Could I make some sort of creation that involves fabrics, beads, words, paint, and other mediums that interest me? A bookmaking kind of project, but with an outcome that remakes the book?

Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Barbra Nightingale's Poetry Reading at Books and Books

Last night, I went to Books and Books down in Coral Gables to hear Barbra Nightingale read. It shouldn't feel like such an undertaking: one of the reasons that my spouse and I chose to live where we live is that we thought it was close to equidistant between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Still, it's a much easier zip up to Ft. Lauderdale than Miami (and Coral Gables is south of Miami).

On the way, I passed not one, but two accidents. You know, I can't remember ever seeing a vehicle flipped upside down on the highway before we moved here in 1998, but down here, it's a fairly common occurrence. Even with the two accidents and lightning flashing in all directions ahead of me, I made good time.

I LOVE Books and Books. It's easily one of the best bookstores in the Southeast U.S.; only Malaprops Books in Asheville comes close. Every time I'm there, I think, why don't I come here more often?

I enjoyed seeing area poets and chatting before the reading. I'm always amazed at how many people I know, and from such a wide variety of experiences. I've taught with some of them, taken workshops with some of them, and attended events at the Florida Center for the Book with some of them. Before the recession squeezed us so severely, I could even hire some of them as adjuncts, if they were in the market for work.

I've liked Barbra Nightingale's poems since I first knew her back in 1998, when I taught at Broward Community College. She read from her just published book Geometry of Dreams. She made sure that the wine was open before the reading, so we sat and sipped our wine and savored her poems. It was such a perfect way to spend a Friday night.

I've noticed lately that after a poetry reading, I'm not in a mood to stand and make small talk. On some nights, I feel bad about this. I feel like I should be a better socializer. My inner critic sees all the opportunities for networking that I pass up by leaving early. But my poetry self wants to prolong the mental state that poetry provides. I want to continue to think about the images I've just heard and the connections that the poems have made. I want my mind to zing to all the inspirations for my own poems that a good poetry reading provokes. I want to curl up with the poetry book I've just bought.

So last night, I slipped away. I drove past the neon lit skyscrapers and the highway construction and devoured Barbra Nightingale's book in one fell swoop. I love that she references Math and Physics and Languages. I love her Miranda character, who shows up in this book. I love that her poems are both smart and accessible. I love coming home from a poetry reading, with the poet's voice still in my head, to read the work; I find the poems I've just heard, and appreciate them again, and then I move on to the unheard poems.

Here are some lines to whet your appetite. They're from the section of the book called "The Ex Files," which is from Geometry of Dreams (WordTech Editions 2009):

"but when a storm knocks out power, / can openers are for cans, not veins."

"I should have known, somehow, / that your fascination for dying stars / would lead to your death."

"Your mother plaits her bony fingers"

Friday, June 19, 2009

Great Graduation Speeches

My school operates on a quarter system, and we have a graduation ceremony at the end of every quarter. As a result, I have the opportunity to hear a lot of graduation speeches. And most of them are dreadful. I've spent the better part of the last decade thinking, what would I say, if I had a chance to speak to graduates.

During the hottest part of the recent economy, when that economy was expanding and the most ramshackle of our homes would fetch half a million dollars in the South Florida market, we heard a lot of speeches that told graduates that they could be whatever they wanted to be and the only thing that would hamper their ability to make gobs of money would be that inconvenient human need for sleep. There was no talk of giving anything back, no reminders of obligations to society. There was no mention that there might be more to life than money. Frankly, these speeches disgusted me. I know that I'm a liberal arts kind of girl, a poet steeped in Liberation Theology, so I know that I'm vastly different from many of my fellow citizens. But there are times when I get so depressed by being bombarded by evidence of my outsider freakishness.

Last night's speech was blessedly different. We had Steve Leifman, a judge from Miami-Dade, come up to be our speaker. He reminded the students that they had great talents and great opportunities. But he also reminded them of how much their communities need them. He reminded them of the great difficulties in our current climate, and he asked that they get down to the artistic mission of envisioning a different world. He's also Vice Chair of our Board of Trustees, and he talked about how much comfort he got from serving our school, after a hard day of watching (from the bench) all the people whose lives had blown apart in so many disheartening ways.

The speech reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver's speech at Duke in 2008, which you can read here. I liked that speech so much that I've been using it in my classes as a model of great persuasive writing. Plus, I use it to lead to a fun writing assignment. I think it's a wonderful writing exercise for students to write a graduation speech: what would you tell graduates and how would you effectively tell it? We've all sat through dreadful speeches. It's eye-opening to try to do it better.

It's interesting to read her speech, which was written before the various economic collapses in the Fall of 2008 (and I mean that word Fall in many senses). Here's the last part of her speech. Barbara Kingsolver has always been one of my very most favorite writers. I love the way that she uses language, especially here:

"You could walk out of here with an unconventionally communal sense of how your life may be. This could be your key to a new order: you don’t need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says 'Your money or your life,' you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours.

The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, 'We already did. We have made the world new.' The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it. The ship of your natural life and your children’s only shot. You have to love that so earnestly –- you, who were born into the Age of Irony. Imagine getting caught with your Optimism hanging out. It feels so risky. Like showing up at the bus stop as the village idiot. You may be asked to stand behind the barn. You may feel you’re not up to the task.

But think of this: what if someone had dared you, three years ago, to show up to some public event wearing a big, flappy dress with sleeves down to your knees. And on your head, oh, let’s say, a beanie with a square board on top. And a tassel! Look at you. You are beautiful. The magic is community. The time has come for the square beanie, and you are rocked in the bosom of the people who get what you’re going for. You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world. Look at you. That could be you."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

In Which I Desert Poetry for Quilting

The end of our fiscal year comes June 30, and this year is the first one where I've been an administrator--which means I've had more discretion about how to use my leave days. I'm not very good at this yet, so I've ended up with unused leave days at the end of the fiscal year; I didn't want to run out of leave time, so I took leave time sparingly, and so I have lots left at the end of this fiscal year. I'm diligently trying to use them up!

Yesterday, I took a day of leave and spent much of it quilting. Every so often, it seems that everyone is having a baby, and this year is one of those times. I like to make a baby quilt for friends and relatives who are expecting, and yet, it's a project that can't be put off for too long, regardless of the demands of work and regular life.

I like making a baby quilt. I do all my sewing and quilting by hand, so I appreciate a small project. Unlike the larger quilts I have that are only partly done, baby quilts are manageable with a 40+ hour a week administrative job. It's satisfying to make so much progress in just a few hours. I love the festive fabrics I choose for baby quilts. I love how soothing it can be to sit and stitch--I don't feel that way when I use a machine.

Since I was making so much progress, I decided to keep quilting at mid-afternoon. I thought I might switch to poetry, but I wanted to finish my project for a baby-shower-imposed deadline.

It was a satisfying day, and yet, I feel slightly guilty for not giving equal time to poetry. But I have many creative interests, and increasingly, I have less and less free time. Part of me wonders, would I have a book with a spine published by now, if I had devoted all my free time to poetry?

Of course, I think that all my creative interests feed each other. I've gotten some great poems that I wouldn't have gotten, if I hadn't been quilting or cooking or painting or playing with clay.

I used to hope that I would write myself out of my job. That was back in 1992, when I started my first full-time job at a community college. I wasn't exactly sure how I would do that. I had vague ideas about a best selling novel. I wrote several novels. I couldn't get them published, much less translate them into best sellers.

I like having creative interests that I don't need to turn into money generators. I certainly wouldn't mind if I published a book of poems that turned into a surprise best seller. Given the state of publishing right now, though, I still wouldn't quit my job. Even my job has given me some delightful poems. In fact, as I sift through them, I realize I might have enough for a chapbook of poems about life in the modern workplace.

I'll continue to think about that possibility as I sew. Like walking, sewing is a great activity to help my subconscious start working on solutions and start ups.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Transgressive Week

Last week, I had some transgressive experiences. I spent the week hurrying away from work—not to have some sordid affair, but to get to Vacation Bible School in time to help with Arts and Crafts.

For those of you outside academia, you might well just shrug, and say, “What’s the big deal?” For those of you inside academia, you might understand that I could undergo a sex change operation and face less scandalized faces than I would if I told some of my colleagues that I was participating in Vacation Bible School.

After all, I don’t have children. One of my friends is always pointing out that one reason not to have children is so that we don’t have to do these things. She said, “I guess you’re really interested in the spiritual formation of these children, right?”

Well, no, it’s not as lofty as that. I really like the woman who asked me to help her with Arts and Crafts, and I was so flattered to be asked that I said yes.

I even drafted my husband, who came on the last night with his African drums, shakers, and other instruments to give the children a rhythm lesson. He asked how I thought it went.

What I told him I wanted to know was how we compared with the music instruction and the arts classes that they might have experienced in school, and then we looked at each other. The sad truth is that children likely aren’t getting much artistic instruction in school. I hadn’t thought about the value of Vacation Bible School in terms of giving children a foundation in the arts; like most people, I think of Vacation Bible School in terms of giving children a religious foundation. But sadly, these days, not many of our institutions are giving children much of a foundation in the arts.

We see the outcome of this inattention in terms of dropping numbers of Americans that go to museums. In a recent Washington Post article, we learn that only 16 percent of 8th graders ever go to a museum or gallery with their classes. And the story is similar for music events, plays, every kind of cultural event. Sad, sad, sad.

So, maybe the most transgressive thing I did last week wasn’t Vacation Bible School after all. Maybe it was inspiring children to love the arts.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy Bloomsday!

I only care about Bloomsday as a sort of cosmic accident. When I got to grad school and pored over the list of classes I could take, I discovered that most of them were full. As a new grad student, I was last to register. And so I found myself in Tom Rice's class on James Joyce. What a life-changing experience that was.

I notice that several of the stories from Dubliners show up in anthologies, even first year literature anthologies. But would I have ever had the patience to wade through Ulysses all by myself? Absolutely not.

Bloomsday celebrates the day, June 16, on which all the action in Ulysses takes place. In some ways, that whole book is a tribute to the day on which James Joyce and Nora Barnacle (who would be his wife) had their first date. The book covers almost every kind of action that can take place in a human day: we see Leopold Bloom in the bathroom, we see Stephen Dedalus pick his nose, we see Leopold Bloom masturbate . . . and we finally get to the masterful final chapter, where Molly Bloom muses on the physicality of being a woman.

As with many books, whose scandalous reputations preceded them, I read and read and waited for the scandalous stuff. As a post-modern reader, I was most scandalized by how difficult it was. It's hard to imagine that such a book would be published today.

But what a glorious book it is. What fun Joyce has, as he writes in different styles and plays with words. What a treat for English majors like me, who delighted in chasing down all the allusions.

I went on to write my M.A. thesis on Joyce, trying to prove that he wasn't as anti-woman as his reputation painted him to be. Since then, other scholars have done a more thorough job than I did. But I'm still proud of that thesis. I learned a lot by writing it. At the time, it was the longest thing I had ever written--in the neighborhood of 50 pages. A few years later, I'd be writing 150 pages as I tackled my dissertation--on domestic violence in the Gothic. By the time I'd written my thesis, I had said all I had to say on Joyce.

So, happy Bloomsday. Perhaps I will celebrate by having something Irish. I have a great soda bread recipe. There's the wonderful chapter where Bloom has a cheese sandwich because he needs something easy on his stomach. Maybe I'll find a lovely Irish cheese to go with my bread. Maybe some Celtic music. Maybe a few Irish beers--no, my spouse can have those. Near the end of the book, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus stagger home, Leopold invites Stephen inside and plans to make hot chocolate. Yes, that's the perfect breakfast! In fairness, I should mention that the breakfast that Leopold eats is fried inner organs. Blhh. No, cocoa for me now, cheese and soda bread later.

And a toast, even if it's not with Irish beer, to Joyce, and his magnificent masterpiece!

Monday, June 15, 2009

More on Motorcycles--and What Would Be the Female Counterpart?

I'm intrigued by how often I am writing about some of the same topics that others write about in larger venues; I'd like to think it's completely accidental.

Stanley Fish has an article in The New York Times where he considers three books about motorcycles: the Pirsig book, the Crawford book, and one I hadn't heard of, Big Sid’s Vincati: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime, by Matthew Biberman.

All of these books make me wonder about the female counterpart. Are books on motherhood the arena in which daughters take up the work of the mother and wander off on philosophical musings? While I have enjoyed those books, even though I don't have children, somehow they seem different than the motorcycle books that Stanley Fish considers: in those books, there's fatherhood and there's work. In recent motherhood books, being a mother is the central work, even if the mothers are working outside the home too.

I'm sure that there are many female-authored books I'm not considering, books that wrestle with the best life's work as a separate issue from being the best parent one can be. But none are coming to my mind right now. I can think of many blogs that deal with this issue, particularly in academia, like Mama PhD over at Inside Higher Ed.

I've also been thinking about the issue of work, work that can be delivered over a wire, and thus is in danger of being outsourced, and work that needs to be done on site. Very few of females I know are interested in learning to be an electrician or a plumber or a motorcycle repair person. What is the female equivalent?

My mind immediately leapt to all the crafts my friends like to do and to sites like Etsy. Could we make a living that way?

Don't count on it. Before you quit your day job, you should read this post on Slate's Double X site. It's very disheartening, especially if you create big pieces that take lots of time or lots of money in terms of materials.

I don't have the answers, but I suspect I'm not the only one thinking about these topics. I'll keep my eyes open and report back.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Literature, Mental Illness, and the 1970's

This week, I finished rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of the books on my 2009 reading list. I first read it in 1981 or 1982, in high school. I might have read it again in college; I don't remember, but I know that my spouse, who was my boyfriend in college, read it, and we were the type of college people who, if one person in the group was reading something, we all talked about the ideas in the book. I looked forward to returning to the book. A motorcycle road trip and a tour through some of the great ideas of Philosophy--what could be better?

The philosophical ideas in the book have held up very well since 1974, when the book was first published. I still find the ramblings through the state of education and the student to be very relevant. Likewise, the musings on technology. We're still wrestling with the idea of Quality and what makes good work--I'd have liked more of that in the book.

What I found disturbing is the book's approach to mental illness. It's clear that the narrator has had a significant mental break, and that these philosophical ideas were the cause of the break. It's clear that the pre-teen son of the narrator also has mental problems. It's clear that the narrator is heading towards his next mental break, as he and his son careen through the American landscape on a motorcycle.

And then, we come to the end. The narrator is about to send his son away, and then, just like that, they decide that neither one of them is crazy. They hop back on the bike, and we're told that everything will be just fine. The narrator assures us: "We've won it. It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things."

How lovely for them. Just decide that the rest of the world is crazy. Just decide that you'll be fine. How very 1970's.

I think of so many of the books I read in my teen years and early 20's, how many of those books were written in the 70's, how many of them had this same approach to mental illness: it's not you that's crazy, it's this crazy society that labels the great artists and free thinkers as crazy that's the problem. Think of all those movies that came out of the late 60's and 70's with the same message.

It's important to stop and remind ourselves that some of the revolutionary medications that we use to treat mental illness hadn't been released for general use yet during that time. From what I've read about some of the prominent medications and treatments that were used to treat mental illness in the 60's and 70's, the cure could be as bad as the illness. Maybe worse.

Many people have pondered what Prozac will mean for artists. Do we need our mental instabilities to create good art? I suspect that most people who are treated for their illness will go on to be much more productive than those artists who aren't treated. It's important to remember how many of those artistic lives, pre-Prozac, ended in suicide.

I wonder if anyone has written about the landscape of literature, post-Prozac. As I reread Zen, I thought, if these characters can just hold on, in 15 more years they'll have some great medications that will help them cope. This kind of thinking used to drive some of my grad school professors nuts; they'd say, "Kristin, they're characters in a book; they're not really alive. They don't exist after the end of the book." I'll spare you the rest of those philosophical conversations. I'll just say, in my defense, that some of us get lost in our reading and some of us can't leave our analytical selves behind. If a book doesn't convince us that the characters are real, still alive in some alternate universe, has the author done a good job? I would say no. But I'm biased.

I don't think I'll be returning to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again. Life is short. I'll go back to some quintessential 1970's work again and again, like the work of Marge Piercy, written during that decade. I should reread Woman on the Edge of Time, Piercy's sci-fi novel of ideas that revolves around a character with mental illness to see if I have some of the same objections. Or maybe I'll just reread Vida, one of my favorite Marge Piercy novels of all time.

I've just ordered Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft. I think it will dovetail nicely with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with its questions of quality and work and what makes a good life. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dimes, a Decent Run, and the Joys of Just Showing Up

During this morning's run, I found two dimes. I often find a penny or two (although since the economic collapse, I'm finding fewer coins on the ground), which is a thrill, but I'm always happy out of proportion when I find nickels, dimes, and quarters. And to find not just one dime, but two!

I was already having a good run. For the first time in weeks, my legs felt like legs with powerful muscles, not stumps of wood with painful nerve endings. I went a mile more than I usually do. And then, just for good measure, the universe rewarded me with two dimes.

If I had decided to be lazy, I wouldn't have found those dimes. I wouldn't have discovered that I've moved through whatever muscle soreness I've been experiencing. I would have remained mired in a murky body loathing that's never far away from me.

I often think of my writing life similarly. I often feel like I'll come up with an interesting image again. I moan, "It's been weeks since I wrote a good poem!" Then my despair will spiral out of control and proportion. I'll say, "No, it's been months since I wrote a good poem. I will never write a good poem again." Mope, mope, moan, moan.

I don't enjoy being in that part of the cycle, but I've been there enough that at least I recognize the scenery now. I tell myself, "This, too, shall pass." I keep showing up to do the work, because I never know when my mood will break and I'll say, "Wow! I wrote a good poem today!"

Often when I go back to read those poems that I wrote, the ones that I declared to be horrible, often I'm amazed at how they're not really that bad. Even the ones that aren't salvageable often have some nugget. I throw nothing away. My inner critic is fierce, and if you give her one discarded poem, she'll demand ten.

As many a book on the writing craft (and other art forms) will tell us, often the most important thing we can do is to show up. We do the best we can with the day that we have been given, and we get up the next day, to begin the work again. In this way, we make progress. In this way, we wake up ten years later, amazed at the writing skills we have developed.

And of course, this metaphor holds true for many areas of our lives. I love the idea that each day brings me a new opportunity to try again to be my best self. I love the idea that if it doesn't work out so well, I have a different chance tomorrow, and the next day, and the next . . .

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Writing Workshops in a Book

When I was a younger writer, I devoured all sorts of "how to" books. As I've said before, I love interviews with writers. I still find those interesting, but it's rare these days to find a book on craft useful enough at this stage in my writing life to justify the purchase of the whole book. Most craft books are telling me what I already know. There's some value to repetition, but I'd prefer to spend my hard-earned money on a book with new information or inspiration.

I decided to take a risk with a recent edition from Tin House Books. I loved an earlier book of theirs, The World Within, a book of interviews, writers interviewing other writers. The latest book from Tin House is The Writer's Notebook, and I devoured it in one week-end.

Most of the essays are most useful for those of us who write fiction, or for those of us who are interested in how the fiction that we love comes to be written. I've often found these kind of essays useful not only as I write fiction (a rare event these days), but also as I teach fiction, the analyzing of it, not the writing of it. There are plenty of essays that would be useful for people who teach Literature, not just those lucky ones who get to teach Creative Writing classes (although these essays would be useful for those people too).

My two favorite essays are "Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale" by Kate Bernheimer and "Shakespeare for Writers: Sixteen Lessons" by Margot Livesey. I love essays by writers who consider older works, and these are much older works. If I judge solely by the writers referenced in most craft essays, most of us are reading only people who have written in the past twenty years.

Don't get me wrong. I was an English major back in the olden days when my Norton anthology included precisely 4 women writers and a few token blacks (before we used the term African American). I spent many years working to open up the canon. But I never suspected we throw out the good along with the boring. Judging by the notes I made in my complete Shakespeare, at one point as an undergraduate, I read all the plays. Now you can get a degree in English and never read Shakespeare at all.

But I digress. Here are some more nuggets from the book to whet your appetite:

"The story, I like to say and remember, is always smarter than you--there will be patterns of theme, image, and idea that are much savvier and more complex than you could have come up with on your own." in "Material" by Lucy Corin.

"Of the plays [Shakespeare's], perhaps half are performed and read frequently. Looking at several of those that aren't is instructive. . . . It is reassuring to know that he could be less than great and that it sometimes took him several attempts to find the right form for the material." in "Shakespeare for Writers" by Margot Livesey.

"Novels tend toward the restored and ordered world; they tend toward happiness, hard-earned and bittersweet as it may be, while short stories tend otherwise. They are less conclusive, less closed, less ordered and unchaotic." in "Lost in the Woods" by Antonya Nelson.

"As I've gone through life, I've found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years old." in "Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact" by Jim Shepard.

Those of us who once had travel budgets and professional development money as part of our jobs are likely to find them cut, and many of us never had them. Books like this one can give us the best of a writing workshop without ever leaving the house. And this book costs so much less than even the cheapest retreat. Plus, it comes with a CD that has two discussions: "Using Real Life in Fiction and Vice Versa" and "Crafting Character." I haven't had a chance to listen to those yet, but I look forward to it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Reading Plays

Today's New York Times has an article that talks about reading plays; the bulk of the article focuses on the author's efforts to read all of the plays nominated for a Tony award tonight.

When I was young, before I wanted to be a poet, I wanted to be an actress. Oddly, I had no interest in movies or television. No, I wanted to act on stage. When we went to New York City, in 1978, I took a picture of a street sign, "Broadway" and some cross street. The city hadn't been cleaned up then. I remember 1978 New York as being scary and gritty. When I went back in 2003, I wouldn't have recognized it--it was Disneyfied.

Despite the grittyness, I had plans of coming back and conquering the city as the greatest actress to ever enchant Broadway. I was in 7th grade, in the throes of drama club. I read plays for fun. I went to the library and checked out volumes of plays. I read them to myself. I read them out loud, reading all the different parts in different voices. By high school, I had read all the great classics of world theatre. I watched the Tony awards. Luckily for me, they were always aired in the summer, so I could stay up late. I didn't care about the red carpet or what the stars wore. I made lists of what plays I needed to read. And then I read them. I was a Drama Geek of the worst sort.

I took dance classes thinking that I would enhance my marketability. I was awful at dance, but I hoped I would get better. I would have taken voice classes, if the thought of singing in front of people didn't terrify me. In retrospect, it's clear that I was not headed to showcasing a musical, even if I had memorized all of the music from the great American musicals (I sang alone, in my room, practicing, as I listened to the original cast recordings, over and over again).

I don't regret that passion. It's served me well. During my graduate studies, I didn't have as much catching up to do in the drama genre as my peers. And my tendency towards theatrical flamboyance has kept me interesting as a teacher. Students don't sleep in my classes unless they're REALLY exhausted--there's simply too much energy in the room.

But I haven't kept up with the theatre world the way I once did. My friend's daughter is into drama, and so she keeps me informed to the best of her ability. But as I read the New York Times article this morning, I thought, I could do this. Four plays should be manageable.

Of course, I wish that I would force myself to go out and see more live theatre. When we first moved to South Florida, I had colleague friends who routinely flew to New York for culture week-ends. I had dreams of doing that. I still do.

But, in the meantime, I can rekindle my early adolescent love. I can read more plays. It's less of a time commitment than reading novels, a goal which I'm only having middling success this year. They're portable (and weigh less than a novel). And a play that's been nominated for a Tony award is less likely to disappoint than novels that have been nominated for awards--some of those novels are just downright incomprehensible. And I wrote my M.A. thesis on James Joyce, so I'm used to dealing with difficult literature.

Drama is an overlooked genre that provides so many delights. I look forward to returning to it.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Leave, Parental and Otherwise

Today I'm taking a personal day. I don't have anything pressing to do. But at the end of June, I lose my vacation, sick, and personal days. If I haven't used them, they disappear. My leave does not roll over. So, I'm using up the last of it this month.

I have more leave than I expected. I've spent the last year afraid that I would run out of leave days, so I haven't taken as much throughout the year. Now I have almost more than I can use. I wish my leave rolled over.

Of course, I realize that I'm lucky that I get paid leave at all. Many workers in America don't. One of the benefits of being classified as Administration instead of Faculty is that I have more flexibility about when I can take my leave. As Faculty, I was expected to take my vacations when the students took theirs (always during the expensive travel times of the year, June and Christmas), and I got 6 sick days a year.

I have this topic on the brain not only because of my own situation with leave, but because I was listening to an NPR story on a possible new parental leave policy for federal employees (go here to listen later this morning when the audio is posted). I also listened to this segment of the Diane Rehm show about a new book, Womenomics, which talks about the ways women are trying to change the work force. I've been thinking about work that can be done over a wire and how to keep that work, work like my job, from being offshored. I've been thinking about work-life balance: the strides we seemed to be making before the economy crashed, and the ways our attitudes may be changing now.

But for today, let me turn back to work that matters to me. Let me return to some poetry projects: manuscripts into the mail, updating my records, plotting a submissions strategy for the summer, and some reading of the poetry books that are stacking up on my unread books shelf. For today, there is rich coffee and a comfortable chair and a crisis-free morning. Today, I resolve not to think about the schedule of upcoming classes at my college, and since I'm not thinking about it, I won't fret about whether or not we're making our numbers, and will have to cancel classes. For today, there is poetry and a day of paid leave to turn my attention to one of my first loves. I'm a lucky, lucky woman.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why I Am Not Running This Morning

I started doing step aerobics again this week. So, before yesterday, I was already feeling muscles I hadn't felt in awhile.

Yesterday, I got to work and started my day's tasks, revising some forms. A voice came over the P.A. system asking us to evacuate the building. My first thought: I thought the fire drill was supposed to happen on Monday. Even during drills, I behave like I'm supposed to: I leave the building. As I was making my way to the stairs, several more messages came over the P.A. system, and each message sounded a bit more panicked. We were told to cross the street and wait in the parking lot of a restaurant.

Now, we don't have a lovely, residential campus. We're an urban campus. Crossing the street means crossing 6 lanes of very busy traffic. Students streamed across the street with no notice of traffic laws. Luckily, the traffic was able to come to a halt.

I spent over an hour standing in the heat before a group of us decided it was time for cooler air and a beverage. We headed to one of the restaurants that ring the parking lot and had a civilized afternoon, talking about the dissertation topic possibilities of one of our group, the poetry projects of several of us, the fate of the planet, that kind of thing. We shared a pizza; it was just lovely. Not what we're paid to do, but we were kept out of the buildings for several hours because of a bomb threat.

So, my muscles are feeling weird, but I'd have probably gone out anyway. However, on the news last night, I heard about a rapist who forced a woman into his car--this happened just 6 blocks from my own running route. It happened yesterday 2 hours after I was out for my morning run. The victim, too, was out for her morning walk. The man has not been caught.

Part of me feels silly for skipping my run. Before he attacked the woman in my neighborhood, he was 4 miles away, trying to abduct a high school girl who was walking to school. For all we know, he's miles away this morning. I went out yesterday, when there was danger about, and had no problems.

My husband says I should carry a gun. I'm not so sure about that, but I should probably carry a cell phone. I may not ever have to summon help for myself, but it wouldn't be uncommon to need to summon help for others. The high school girl got away because another woman yelled at the attacker. I assume that afterwards they called the police. It would be handy to have a phone in a situation like that.

How would I protect my cell phone from my sweat? That's the logistical part that has flummoxed me before. I suppose I could carry it in a sandwich bag. It's probably more impervious to sweat than I think.

I know some women who dial 9-1-1 before they go out for their morning jog, but they don't hit the button that tells the phone to make the call. It's like a panic button, I guess.

So, today I'll take it easy--give my sore muscles a chance to rest. By tomorrow, the news reports won't be so fresh in my head, and I'll hit the pavement again. Probably.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Could Education Ever be Outsourced and Offshored?

Yesterday, I listened to Matthew Crawford on the Diane Rehm show (go here to listen--you'll need to scroll down). I've written about him before (go here to read my post and here to read Crawford's article in The New York Times). I plan to buy the book, although in the past, I've read the books of authors making the NPR tours, and I often feel as though I've already read the book: the authors tend to cover the most interesting and salient points of their books as they're interviewed.

On the Diane Rehm show, Crawford made several references to college, and the way that we approach college these days. He said that we've turned college into a form of consumption, not an investment. He talked (so briefly and so tantalizingly) about our creation of an academic arms race and credential inflation. Jobs that used to require a high school diploma now require a B.A., and jobs that once required a B.A. now require graduate work.

I keep wondering at what point people will start doing the math and decide that college doesn't make financial sense, even if we approach it as the ultimate consumer experience and not as an investment. The conventional wisdom tells us that a college graduate will make $300,000 more over the course of a lifetime than a non-college grad. If the college grad has spent $100,000 on that college education, a sum which is entirely probable (and perhaps too low) if that grad went to a private college, the profit drops to $200,000. If that college education was financed by loans, loans which need to be paid back and which charge 6%-10%--well, now the math just makes my head hurt.

The other thing that Crawford discussed sent a chill through me. He referenced Princeton economist, Alan Blinder, when he said, “The emerging distinction in the labor market is not between those who have more education and those who have less, it’s between those who do/have some service that has to be done on site versus those that can be delivered over a wire.” So, if you're a surgeon, your job is likely to be secure. If you're the person who interprets the x-rays, well, that work can be done from anywhere--and likely will be done more cheaply in other countries.

I used to think that education needed to be done on site. With the recent explosion of distance learning, I'm no longer sure. I worry that in 20 years, people will view education the same way we're viewing the automobile industry. I find myself thinking, well, what did those factory workers expect? I wonder about my own blind spots about my own industry, education. I'm midway through my career, so perhaps these changes won't be as devastating for me. Yet those of us in the teaching fields should probably be making some alternate plans, just in case.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Surviving your Teaching Load and Having Time for Your Own Writing

I know that many of us are just relaxing into summer, where we have time off. I went into teaching thinking that I would have summers off, but so far, I've only managed to have a reduced teaching load (and only once, in 1998, did I manage to do that).

I also imagine that many of us are looking back over the past year and thinking about all the things we meant to do and wondering how the school year got away from us.

A few days ago, Dr. Crazy posted an excellent entry on surviving a teaching job with a 4-4 load. It's full of excellent advice, even if you're teaching under different circumstances. I haven't spent much of my work life outside of academia, but I imagine it's full of excellent advice for those of us toiling in different fields. You might think you're not a researcher, and so she's not talking to you. But trade out research for creative writing (or whatever your passion may be), and voila--excellent advice. You might think that you're teaching at a community college and what she has to say doesn't apply to you. But I'd be surprised.

When I first came to my current job (before my move into administration), it was a 5-5-5-5 load. Yes, that's right. We have 11 week quarters, and we're expected to teach 4 quarters a year. I often had 4 preps, which I preferred, so that I didn't get bored.

People asked me how I stood it, and I replied that if I had had this job early in my teaching career, it would have killed me. Fifteen years in, and I had developed a bag of tricks.

For those of you who haven't developed your own bag of tricks, Dr. Crazy's post will help you out.

Of course, maybe you're tired of your load of endless Composition classes. Go here for a great Washington Post article about the Blue Sky Puppet Theatre. It will make you miss the '70's, even if you weren't old enough (or born yet) to appreciate them. Ah, the counterculture! When you could decide you were just going to start a puppet theatre, and you did it. When there was a fair amount of support for such a happy scheme. No one said, "But what will you do about health insurance?" No one said, "Will you still be happy doing that 10 years from now?" No one said, "You didn't really go to school just to start a puppet theatre, did you?" Well, probably some people did say that. Still, I found the article inspiring. I have loved puppets since childhood, and I love the "Let's put on a show--you write the music, I'll make the puppets, and it will all work out" ethos of the troop. What a treat.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A quote from Kathleen Norris for your Monday

My closing comment yesterday made me think of one of my favorite Kathleen Norris quotes. If you need something to make you feel inspired on this Monday, maybe this quote from page 145 of The Cloister Walk will do the trick:

"Poets and monks do have a communal role in American culture, which alternately ignores, romanticizes, and despises them. In our relentlessly utilitarian society, structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer, yet that is what writers and monks do. Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems. This is what others want and expect of us, because if we do our job right, we will express things that others may feel or know, but can't or won't say."