Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Memories

I never got Memorial Day off as an adult, until we moved down here. In South Carolina, Memorial Day was often not celebrated because it started out life as a holiday to honor the Union dead.

I realize that some of you will be saying, "Union dead? The Civil War? That war that happened over 100 years ago?"

Oh, yes. For some folks, that war isn't really over. They celebrate Confederate Memorial Day.

And in terms of state and federal holidays, my community college employers were a bit stingy. We didn't get Presidents' Day off either.

So, it was a joy to move down here and to have the day off. But soon, enough, it felt a bit empty.

I've spent all of my life before moving down here living in places that had a military base in the community--sometimes two or three. Memorial Day has a different flavor in places with a military presence.

And part of me will always be a D.C. area girl. It's hard to move around that area without being aware of the sacrifice that past citizens have given so that I can enjoy my good and happy life. Most people are familiar with the Vietnam Memorial or Arlington National Cemetery, but there are so many other places: memorial sites, statues, plaques.

Now I live in a place that feels more like a future U.S., where English isn't the dominant language, where there are more recent arrivals than people with ancestors buried in the soil. Most days, I'm cool with this, and invigorated by it.

Today, I'd like to be at a national monument, listening to one of the service bands perform. Or maybe I'd rather be in a contemplative spot, saying a thank you.

I'll make my Memorial Day observance by reading poetry. Here's a link to one of my favorites, "Facing It," by Yusef Komunyakaa.

I began my day by reading about this modern day quest, a Vietnam vet who's trying to travel to memorial sites in all 50 states. He blogs about it here.

Reading is such a solitary way to celebrate. But I'm not sure I'm up for a parade, with our sudden shift into summer heat and sun intensity. Later, we'll grill out, and I'll focus on how blessed I am to live in a place where I don't have to fear our military, where I'm free to read what I like and cook what I want and say what I want. I'll try not to think about the oil in the Gulf; I'll try not to think about the start of hurricane season tomorrow. I'll try not to think about the implications of a more active than usual hurricane season colliding with a gushing, uncontained oil well in the deep water of the Gulf. I'll try not to think about me, me, me, and instead focus on gratitude for the service and sacrifice of others.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Word Drenched Saturday

I tend to collect books that end up on the remaindered tables. I buy them not knowing exactly when I'll read them, but having heard about them and unable to pass up a book for a couple of bucks. Sure, I could get them from the library, but some part of me thinks about the time the library won't be available, and so I hoard a bit.

Yesterday, I thought I would kick off this holiday week-end by going to the library, but I discovered that our county library system is completely shut down for almost a week so that they can install a new computer system. When I buy books from the remainder table, I must admit that I'm thinking of a storm or some other natural disaster that might make me glad to have an old-fashioned book, printed on paper. But a library closure qualifies too.

I spent yesterday absorbed by Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World, which I bought in hardback for just a few dollars, but which I've hesitated to take with me when I travel because it is so heavy. It's a fascinating piece of storytelling, with two narratives unspooling in alternating chapters. I'm only halfway through the book, but I suspect that the ending will show that either choice that the protagonist made will land her in the same ending place. I'm enjoying the ride (and I also won't be surprised if I'm in for a shock). I love seeing how an element in one narrative, like an argument over who should have packed what, or a trip out of town, is repeated in the other narrative, but with changes.

It's a fascinating exploration of relationships and how our romantic/marriage relationships relate to our work. It's an interesting depiction of class structures too. And it's set in London, so my Brit Lit English major self loves it. The protagonist is an illustrator so there's a bit of discussion about art and creativity: what feeds us and what destroys us. I imagine Virginia Woolf reading this book and saying, "You see, that's exactly what I was trying to say. A room of one's own! An independent income!"

Yesterday was one of those soul restoring days: a good book, doing some writing of my own, making a few submissions, taking a break or two to shop for wine, a perfect nap. Sure, the house still needs vacuuming. But the house will always need vacuuming. Some days, I just need to lose myself in words, so that I don't forget who I really am. I am not a woman who wastes her talents creating meaningless reports that very few people will read and even fewer people will care about. I am not a woman who is paid very good money to do lots and lots of photocopying to create documentation for said reports. Well, I am that woman, in part, in my day job, the work that I do to bring in the money that pays for the rooms that are my own. But I'm also a different woman, a woman with a rich, inner life, a woman who glimpses magnificent metaphors and takes time to capture them in poems.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Of Missals and Missives and E-mail

Last week I got an e-mail which promised that the e-mail would be "the last missal" on the subject. Obviously (to me at least), the writer meant "missive." A missal is a prayer book, and so far, I've seen very few e-mails that utilize the language of prayer. They may inspire prayer (usually of the "help me, deliver me from this" variety), but I wouldn't use them as a prayer book.

I've spent some time thinking about e-mails and missals and missives and missiles. I've had poems swirling around, but have only been partially successful in capturing them. One of them wanted to be a pantoum, and I thought about how the pantoum form, with it's swirling, looped repetitiveness, might be the logical form to describe what happens in meetings in my institution.

Yesterday, during a particularly long meeting which seemed largely to consist of people talking about subjects they'd already covered in e-mails, I tried to write a pantoum. I found it impossible.

When I was in high school, creative writing was my solace activity. I could write in any setting, and I didn't care who was sitting beside me, and I wasn't distracted by whichever boring person was droning on and on. Yesterday, I just couldn't concentrate on the pantoum I was trying to write.

I'm paid good money to sit in meetings, so I probably shouldn't complain. I'm younger than the folks in charge, so I have different ideas about how to run things. Some day, I might be in charge, and a younger generation might shake their heads at the activities I think are important, but they see as inefficient.

I shall try to adopt a spirit of gratitude for all the poems that wouldn't have come to me, had I not experienced this life of an administrator.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Curiousity of Children--and Grown-Ups?

This morning, as I hauled the trash around to the curb, I noticed a boy walking down the street. He had a backpack on his back, so I assume that he was on his way to school. But he was in no hurry. He stopped to pick up something; I assumed it was money or some other kind of treasure.

It was a stick. He trotted up to the flower boxes that are near my neighbor's porch (he's not their kid, mind you). He peered in. He walked over to the side yard, which has a shrine like area, with a small wall, and a statue of the Virgin Mary with outstretched hands, and a flower box. He stared at the statue. He looked at the wall. He looked behind the wall.

I wanted to stay to watch him exploring the world, but I also didn't want to intrude. I didn't want him to feel like I was accusing him of anything. He was approximately eight years old, and if his intent was vandalism, he was not going about it very efficiently. I did worry about a small kid getting into trouble with antsy property owners, but most of my neighbors have already gone to work, and I thought he'd be O.K.

I felt a sense of wistfulness and longing for my own long-ago childhood, where we'd explore drainage ditches and vacant fields and construction sites. In my grown-up life, I don't spend much time exploring the natural world, or any world, truth be told. I think that may be one reason why I feel this urge to move. Moving to a new place triggers my explorer's nature: what's that tree, what's the history of this place, where are the museums?

When we moved to the South Florida area, we had a summer where we didn't have to work very much. We went everywhere. We felt some trepidation about going into Miami, because it wasn't very far away from its criminal high point (now most of those high crime areas have been transformed into high end strip malls; they don't feel threatening at all, well not in the criminal sense). At one intersection, a car pulled up, and the windows rolled down. I felt a bit of tension. Were we about to be shot?

A young woman stuck her head out of the window and said, "Welcome to Miami, sir!" Imagine that said with a heavy accent, Cuban or Central American. We smiled and waved as the car pulled away.

I don't have those kind of magical encounters as much these days. I'm in an office 40 hours a week, which cuts down on my exploring time. Still, I try to remember to pay attention. Yesterday, as I exited a stairwell, I looked up into the deepest blue sky, a sky intercut by the view of the top of the glass building and palm fronds. I felt my rib cage open up, and I stood there for a few minutes, watching some fluffy clouds float by.

My friend in England has been embarked on an experiment. Every day, she goes to the same spot to observe it. I think it's in a nearby park, but she has a park-like yard, so she wouldn't have to go far to have a similar experience. Each day, she spends at least 5 minutes watching this spot. I think she also records what she finds.

I think of the teen-age daughter of a friend. This daughter plans to be a naturalist of some kind when she grows up. Their house backs up to a small lake, and one summer, she went out every day with her notebook to make notes on the ducks and the plants she found. Again, I felt that sense of envy as I watched her paddle the kayak out on her daily round.

Today is Rachel Carson's birthday, and I give her much credit for preserving our natural world through her writing and her warnings of what our chemical consumption is doing to our world and ourselves. Today, even as oil continues to wash ashore and we wait anxiously to see if BP can do anything to stop it, today, in honor of Rachel Carson, we should observe our little postage stamp of earth and appreciate it anew.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Boxcar Dreams of Riding the Rails

Last night we watched a bit of Riding the Rails, a PBS show, part of the American Experience series (learn more here). In the 1930's, more than 250,000 children and teens were living on the road in America, many of them hopping on trains and riding across the country. I remember learning about this aspect of the Great Depression somewhere along the way, but I tended to see it as a grand adventure. Last night's show reminded us of the dangers and the lack of comfort.

And the hunger. I forget how many people were so very, very hungry in the 1930's. I remember reading a fact about World War II that talked about how many recruits had to wait to be shipped off to war so that they could be nourished and so that their diseases of malnutrition could be treated.

I share a birthday with Woody Guthrie, so I've always been fascinated with his life, the way we all know some of his songs (sing along: "This Land is Your Land"; you know the words, even if you don't know all the verses). Woody Guthrie rode the rails as a very young man, and it was a habit he returned to throughout his life.

When I read that biographical nugget, I didn't realize he had so much company, both in terms of young people (more than 250,000; what did that landscape look like?) and the older people who were on the move, looking for work. I also didn't realize how many of those children had been turned out of their houses, their parents pushing them out to fend for themselves in hopes that the younger children could be saved. How would that feel?

From a very young age, I felt the pull of the open road. I used to tell my parents that I wanted to be a trucker when I grew up (yes, I was a child of varied interests; I was going to be a Broadway star, a trucker, an Indian brave, a writer, a settler--my imagination was not constrained by gender or time period or wage requirements).

I still feel that pull occasionally. One summer, I went to a marvelous exhibit on Woody Guthrie at the National Museum of American History, one of the wonderful Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. I got to see original manuscripts and pictures. It took my breath away, moved me to tears (yes, I'm emotional that way), and influenced my poetry for years to come.

Here's a poem that comes from that period. It remains unpublished, and I've largely stopped sending it out. I still like it, but I've written other poems that I like better. It still speaks to me on some level, that familial responsibility, that longing for freedom. When I wrote it, my mother-in-law had a lot of needs (and I added some fictional children for good measure). If I rewrote it today, I'd probably come at it from a different angle, something job related. Perhaps I'll play with this poem today. You play too. We could all write railroad poems and see what we came up with.

Boxcar Dreams

How did Woody Guthrie decide to leave
his children and women? What mad hope
made him leave?
Did guilt keep him awake at night?
Did he cry himself to sleep as he longed
for his left-behind loved ones?

I don’t dream of boxcars, but I price RVs
in my spare time. When family members call
with black holes of needs that suck
away time and space, I dream
of prairies and wide vistas,
western light and trees that touch the sky.

I buy maps but keep this evidence of my infidelity hidden.
As I drive the children to cheerleading practice, Cub
Scouts, soccer, violin lessons, I chart possible escape
routes. When my mother-in-law fills
the air with her inescapable chatter, I make mental
lists of all the supplies I’d need to stock in my camper.
I fall asleep, wondering how many miles
would erase their grasp.

Would great art come out of my mash dash
for freedom? Would I write songs that schoolchildren
will still sing a hundred years later?
Would I even make it to the state line
before the leash of responsibility pulled me home?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost and Found

I'm a bit bleary-eyed this morning because I stayed up late to watch the very last episode of Lost in real time. Yes, I could have watched it on Hulu, the way I've been doing all season. But some part of me wanted to see it last night, as the rest of the most of the world watched it.

Part of my motivation came from my suspicion that there will never again be a TV show like this one, and therefore, this might be the last time I would ever care enough about a TV show to stay up late, knowing I'd feel bleary-eyed the next day.

Part of my motivation is my fondness for final shows. I remember watching the very last episode of Mash and weeping, the same way I wept last night. So often, television shows limp away and die out of sight. It's a comfort to have a last show.

Strange to think how the world has changed since I wept over Mash. If I wanted to see that show, I was at the mercy of the networks. Now, for most shows, I can watch them online from a variety of outlets, or I can wait for the DVD collection.

But the change that I notice most is the absolute dearth of television shows that are worth the effort to watch anymore. I'm still a die-hard Simpsons fan. Occasionally I still watch House, but I don't like it as much as I once did. I was a Drama Club geek, so I love Glee, although I still can't tell if it's a giant spoof or if I'm supposed to take it seriously (a bit of both, I suspect). I like The Office and 30 Rock.

So, I watched Lost and wept. Last night's story lines had the kind of story lines that appealed to me: long lost lovers brought back together after long, faithful waits; the triumph of community; sacrifice for the greater good, which brings redemption. But as I write I'm wondering if I'm interpreting any of it correctly.

That's what I've loved about the show. It gives me a lot to think about, and you can't say that about much television. I don't often wake up in the morning puzzling over the plot developments of 30 Rock or The Office. I'll follow those writers wherever they want to go, but I don't feel very invested in one outcome or another.

I'm amazed to think about the changes in my life that occurred as I watched the show. The episode where Boone dies was one that I caught at the end after I came home from the hospital room where my mother-in-law was very close to dying (which she did, shortly after that episode). I think of the horrible hurricane season of 2005, with no hot water for showers, week after week, those survivors on the island, as I waited for power to be restored. I think of the various depictions of leadership, so interesting to me, as I've watched various power plays at work.

These days, I sit down to watch television and promptly fall asleep; most shows just aren't compelling enough to stay awake for. I can't imagine another show like Lost, so well written, so beautiful to watch, so intricate and intelligent, any time soon.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Two Days with Sandra Beasley

It's been a wonderful two days. On Thursday, a friend and I headed to the Rubell Family Collection to hear Shannon O'Neill and Sandra Beasley speak. Then, on Friday, it was back to Miami to Books and Books with some friends. Sandra Beasley gave a great poetry reading. I look forward to diving more deeply into her latest book; the poems she's read from them over the last two days have whetted my appetite.

On Thursday night, Sandra Beasley gave a more extemporaneous speech, full of nuggets and tips and inspiration. I didn't ask some of the questions I really wanted to ask, because they were about money, and I was raised that you don't ask people about their funding (I agree with feminist theory that explores the danger of never comparing paychecks, but that early, familial training dies hard). She said she's affording health insurance via COBRA--well that will only last so long.

Of course, I remember being young and fairly careless about being uninsured, so the idea of walking out on a job with benefits when one is in one's late 20's isn't as interesting to me as the tales of people at mid-life who do the same. I don't so much need health insurance now, thank goodness. But I know that something dreadful becomes more likely to happen as I age. And my spouse is not exactly into preventative life style choices.

But I digress. I also wanted to ask her about the details of her advance for her memoir and how it compared to her salary as a magazine editor. I assume that it wasn't too much of a difference, since I tend to think that magazine editors are underpaid. I wanted her to go into the details, because the crowd on Thursday night skewed young and naive (at least, from their questions), and I think it would have been useful for them to know that most writers don't get Steven King level advances.

However, Beasley did have plenty of good advice. She talked about diversifying and told us that in our first genre, we often find our topics. For example, she did a poetic sequence in her first book of poems about her life-threatening allergies; now she's writing a memoir that mines the same territory. She gave an example of a fiction writer who uses the setting for the novel (say a small town in Maine) as the focus of a travel article.

I immediately started thinking of some of my themes and how I might rework them. Nuclear imagery--hmmm. Life at the end of the Cold War--hmmm. Weird theology--hmm. Of course, I've been writing poetry because I don't have the time and undivided attention to write longer pieces. My poems and my short stories used to inform each other. The smart thing would be to rewrite things into articles, which I also tried to do sporadically.

Sandra Beasley also offered comfort for those of us who find ourselves spending too much time on our e-mail composition. She says that she found a lot of source material in her e-mails, and that she has often been referring to e-mails as she's written the new memoir.

She also offered us tales that remind us that no one is leading a charmed life. She talked about her publisher's delay, which meant she didn't have books for her New York reading for her first book. She talked about how she didn't even earn enough money to pay her tolls as she drove back down to D.C. She reminded us that for every great leap forward, there will be setbacks. And even in the setbacks, there might be hope. Even as she was driving that night, a publisher was sending word of an acceptance of her manuscript.

Similarly, on the day that she got to work to find that the ceiling above her desk had literally fallen on top of her workspace, she got news that her memoir had been accepted. She looked at all of her months of magazine work reduced to an irredeemably soggy mess, and she gave her notice. She took the job because she could be around books, but she never had time to write them. She said that unread books are unkept promises.

She's had many months of talking to people about the risks that she took in giving up her job. She said, "There's no such thing as a wise risk. There's only the chances that you take on yourself."

Throughout the two days I've heard her speak, she's always come back to the rejections that she's had along with the success. That comforted me. I tend to think that everyone is leading an easy life of immediate acceptance, and it's only me who sends out manuscript after manuscript. But that's really all of us, a lesson that I don't think most of the audience on Thursday night really understands. But they will. The trick, which I hope they also learn early, is to not give up, to keep your envelopes stamped, your manuscripts ready.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Poet Sandra Beasley Reads Tonight at Books and Books, Miami

The poet Sandra Beasley will read tonight at Books and Books in Miami. Her reading starts at 8. I saw her in a different venue last night, and those of us who make it to the reading tonight are in for a treat.

Last night she was part of a LegalArts presentation at the Rubell Family Collection. The evening began with a presentation by a real, live literary agent. She encouraged people to stop her if they had questions, and boy, did they have questions. They seemed like very basic questions to me, but I remind myself that I'm the type of person who researches everything thoroughly, and not everyone is like that.

I was intrigued by how many of the young people in the room seemed convinced that they were going to be the next big thing. Ah, youth. I don't remember ever having that kind of self confidence, but then again, working on a Ph.D. isn't a confidence building endeavor, at least not until you're finished.

Of course, if these people haven't done the basic research about what an agent can do for you, they probably don't realize how many people are out there who also think they've got the next novel that will take the world by storm. They probably don't understand the world of troubles affecting the publishing world. They probably don't understand how hard it is to do all the work a publisher does (marketing, promoting, filling orders) if one chooses to self-publish.

One very young woman in the audience was thrilled to know that she might be able to finagle a book contract, even if she hasn't written the book. I leaned over to my friend and whispered, "But once you've got a contract, you've still got to write the book." And you've got to do the hard work of revision to make the book match what the contract says you'll deliver.

Finally, the poet Sandra Beasley took the stage. She had a marvelous presentation about her decision to devote herself to writing as a career, and she had great tips about how to become more diversified as a writer. Those tips will have to wait for tomorrow's post, since I left my notebook out in my car, and soon I must head to spin class and then work.

Her talk last night would have convinced me to make the trek back down to Miami, if I hadn't already been committed to going. She read one poem, "Vocation," and she did it remarkably. I'm not always impressed with the performance skills of poets, but Sandra Beasley is one of the best of all the poets I've seen so far.

What a treat to look forward to! I'm headed to Books and Books early with my friends. We'll eat dinner in the beautiful courtyard, even though it's a bit more hot and humid than I'd like. I plan to buy some books, including Sandra Beasley's new book. And then, a wonderful poetry reading. When I was stuck in the hinterlands, I dreamed of evenings like the one I plan to have tonight! Good friends, good food, satisfying art--it doesn't get much better than that for me.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dismantling my Chapbook (and Reassembling)

The other day, as I looked at chapbook manuscripts, I planned just to look at the Table of Contents to see if any of the poems had been published (or accepted for publication) since the last time I looked at the manuscript. I thought I was just going to do a quick update of the Acknowledgements section. Instead, I did a revision of one of the manuscripts (Dismantling the Fallout Shelter), the one which has gotten the most positive feedback, but no offers of publication.

For years, I've resisted the temptation to look at the manuscript too closely. I assumed that since it garnered praise even as it was being rejected, that it was close to perfect. But I've continued to explore the themes of that chapbook, and I have some poems that I think are stronger than the ones that found their way into the chapbook manuscript.

Plus, that chapbook was fairly short in its original form, only 22 poems. I was looking at several contests which requested 27-30 pages of poetry. At first, I was just going to add some poems. But I decided to take out some of the weaker ones.

In the end, I removed 5 poems, and added 9 poems. From here on, this will be the manuscript that I submit.

So, should I send it to contests/publishers who have looked at it before? If the old manuscript was a finalist in a competition, should I try again? I don't want to waste my money, but what if I came close, and some tinkering/revising would make a difference? It's just so hard to know.

I know that I'm not the only one who continues to explore themes long after the collection has been put together. How do we decide whether or not to do substantial revisions to existing collection or just to make new collections out of the more recent poems?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When Your Mountain Top Explodes

I have Mount Saint Helens on the brain--yesterday was the 30th anniversary of that eruption. Those of us who live far away from volcanoes forget about how destructive they can be. The Mount Saint Helens eruption was a doozy.

I've been thinking about the geologist David Johnston who was on duty in a watchtower during the explosion. He died. There were photographers who died. I think of people who decided to go camping that week-end who happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. As I understand the history, the mountain exploded sideways, which no one expected, and so some people were in places that weren't expected to be affected by the volcano.

More people could have died, thousands more, if the authorities had ignored the scientists and had bowed to pressure to reopen the areas they closed during the months when they knew the volcano was about to erupt.

Ten years ago, I listened to a variety of retrospectives on NPR. I remembered the explosion, but I was in high school and involved in dramas of my own. I didn't realize how bad it was until hearing the twenty year retrospective.

Yesterday, the day of the 30th anniversary of the Mount Saint Helens eruption, was much quieter. We've got another disaster on the brain, after all, as we here on the nation's southernmost coastlines keep an anxious watch out for the oil that has started to wash up on our beaches, oil from another example of the power of geological forces.

I took great hope from the descriptions of the moonscape-like atmospheres that were left after the explosion and the growth that occurred in the following years. Maybe our oceans will be similarly renewed.

As always, ten years ago, I was inspired by the metaphorical possibilities, and I wrote this poem, which appeared in A Summer's Reading:

Thirteen Miles

My declining health, your job loss—our comfortable
life explodes. That clean mountainside crumbles.
Stress builds, and the volcano explodes.
We can see the coming cataclysm,
the moment for which we have prepared,
the disaster we thought we could avoid.
We saved money and thought we were safe,
like those folks who lived thirteen
miles away from Mount Saint Helen’s
but the mountain swallowed them whole.

The day after the volcanic explosion,
we emerge into sunshine, amazed
that the sun rose as if it was any normal
morning. The world, covered in ash, loses
its color. Tragedy paints
our world black and white. We can’t imagine
how life can continue.

And yet, life struggles on, swims towards continuity.
We have ecosystems protected deep inside ourselves,
whole worlds that we didn’t even know existed. We discover
them now that our misfortunes have blasted
away the undergrowth that took eons to grow.
In twenty years, we won’t recognize
our various, volcanic landscapes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Our Grown-Up Brains

I've been reading Barbara Strauch's The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind. This book makes me feel much better about my brain.

Sure, I sometimes wander around the house, going to a room, wondering why I came, going back to the other room, remembering why I was headed to that room, going back, forgetting. Like many a middle-aged person, once I remember, I repeat a trigger phrase as I head back to the other room: "Credit card. Credit card. Credit card." Sometimes, even after doing that, I can still forget if my attention is distracted for 20 seconds.

Good news: That's normal behavior and doesn't mean I'm doomed to Alzheimer's disease. In fact, even as we lose some of our short term memory, our brains are processing the larger pictures better, so we process information faster and come up with solutions that are more elegant. We manage our emotions better.

I've spent years expecting a mid-life crisis of some sort, and this book shows that we aren't even likely to have that experience. In fact, the studies that proposed that humans go through a mid-life crisis were done with very small sample groups--in one case study, only 40 men, some of them selected by the author of the study.

Even if we're not as doomed as we think we are, there are some things we can do to improve brain health. Before you rush right out and buy that crossword puzzle book or the latest nutritional supplement, consider that the evidence is most clear about the benefits of exercise (less clear about crossword puzzles--you probably need something a bit more challenging, like learning a new language--or nutrition). What's good for your heart is good for your brain. So, while stretching, flexibility, and strength training might be beneficial in other ways, if you really want to protect your brain, you need to get your heart pumping.

Here's a quote for those of you who despair as you think of all the ways you've already let your brain down: "The brain is an organ. It is tissue that is changing all the time, and it is regulated by our environment. Our brains are affected by what we do" (quote from researcher Fred Gage on page 134).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Culture Soaking

On Friday, I got to see the new exhibit of Latin American artists at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art. It was amazing--and I was amazed to realize how much I already knew about these artists, these art movements, this art. It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't moved here.

When we moved here in 1998, we really wanted a change in culture--and boy, did we get it. South Carolina is a bit more cosmopolitan now, but when I lived in the Charleston area in the 90's, it really was like we had fallen through a hole in time. I used to mutter, "It's 1962 here." Students had a 2-5 year wait to get into the nursing program at the community college, but when I suggested they go to a state university and head straight for med school, they looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. One student actually said to me, "I want to marry a doctor, not be a doctor." And how do you marry a doctor? You become a nurse. I'm not making this up.

When we got to the South Florida area, we drank in the culture. I remember being captivated by the Cuban-American art at the Miami Art Museum. I'd only been vaguely aware of Cuban history, and usually only as it intersected with U.S. history. I have since learned more about that country than I ever would if I had lived elsewhere. For some children and grandchildren of Cuban exiles, it's like it's 1961 here. I remember in a Composition class giving a writing assignment about heroes, not usually a controversial topic. One student from Massachusetts wrote about John Kennedy, and the descendants of Cuban exiles exploded and demanded to know how the Bay of Pigs fit into this view of Kennedy as a hero. I was impressed that they knew the history, and shocked at how viscerally they still felt that betrayal.

As I looked at the art on Friday afternoon and reflected on all that I know about these different cultures, things I know that I likely wouldn't have known if I hadn't ever moved here. I thought about all the poems I never would have written if I hadn't moved here, hadn't had those new images to filter through my head, hadn't met poets and other artists who were doing such different, interesting things in their work. Of course, those thoughts led me to wonder what I'm missing out on by not living other places. Intellectually, I know that it's madness to move in the hopes that one learns more and creates art that pulses with a vitality it wouldn't have had in the old place. Emotionally, I suppose I shall always wrestle with wondering what life would be like somewhere else.

I spent my childhood and adolescence moving. Before moving here, I hadn't lived any place longer than 6 years, and most places we lived in 2-3 years. I longed to stay put, but at the same time, I loved the opportunity to start over.

If my husband was writing this post, he'd throw in a quote from Lonesome Dove. Lori, the young, beautiful prostitute wants to move to San Francisco, where she's convinced that she can recreate herself. Gus reminds her that she'd still have all the stuff to deal with, no matter where she is. "Lori, life is just life, no matter where you are." Like Lori, I tend to romanticize all the places I don't live.

Heck, occasionally I find myself homesick for places that I didn't like when I lived there.

I know that I could get some parts of other local cultures, even if I don't live in a place. I know that I could visit. But I miss that opportunity to soak in the culture.

Truth be told, I don't soak as much anymore. It was easier to soak in the culture before I was fully employed. When we first moved down here, we had saved enough money so that we didn't have to leap immediately into full-time work. We rented a place, so we didn't have all the homeowner jobs to do. We didn't know other people, so we took a variety of trips and excursions.

I feel like I should come up with some pithy way to close this post, a way to resolve these various longings and sadnesses. Maybe a resolution to take vacations to far away places where I could soak in the culture. Maybe a resolution to keep blooming where I'm planted. But in truth, even if I wrote those things, I think the problem is deeper and more unresolvable. It goes back to this essential question: how do we hold down full-time jobs and nourish our artist selves? That is the real question. And I can't pretend to have an answer. For me, the answer is to get as much nourishment as I can (hence, the trip to the museum) and to live with the knowledge that I'd always like a bit more nourishement than I have time to search out.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Wild Patience Continues to Take Me Far

Today is the birthday of Adrienne Rich. While I have always loved her poetry, her prose has often meant more to me.

In looking at her books of prose, I'm struck by the fact that I did more underlining in earlier books than later books. More underlining, more stars in the margin, more notes. In general, I've become a reader who underlines less. Is it because there's not as much that's new to me as I read books now? I remember underlining in a frenzy of breathlessness, because one cannot always go running down the hallway of one's dorm, banging on doors and saying, "You have GOT to read this." Underlining was a more sane way to interact with text.

Now, as I read, it's much more rare that I experience that head-splitting, wow-somebody-gets-this, kind of moment. Am I only reading books I already agree with? Am I reading less deeply than I once did? Do I need to move on to different subject matter? Often when I read books that have scientific subjects, I do the same kind of underlining that I did as an undergraduate.

I seem to have always stumbled across Rich's prose at the precise moment I needed it. I read On Lies, Secrets, and Silence in the waning days of my undergraduate years, and her thoughts on feminism and education sustained me throughout graduate school. Rereading the bits that I underlined long ago, this morning I found myself still inspired and comforted by her ideas: "I know that the rest of my life will be spent working for transformations I shall not live to see realized. I feel daily, hourly impatience and am pledged to the active and tenacious patience that a lifetime commitment requires: the can be no resignation in the face of backlash, setback, or temporary defeat; there can be no limits on what we allow ourselves to imagine" (page 270).

Her essays are infused with this demand that we use our precious imaginations to envision a life that can be better for all of us: a better worklife, a better motherhood, a better educational setting, a better artistic environment.

I bought What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics at the fabulous (and sadly no longer existent) Bluestocking Books in Columbia, South Carolina. I was enswamped in my first fulltime teaching job at a community college, which involved countless papers written by graduates of some of the worst secondary schools in the country. I tried to do my own writing in the little scraps of time that I wrestled away from other duties, and I spent a lot of time fighting off despair.

This book is full of inspiration and the reminder that creating art is important: "You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it. That is not generally taught in school. At most, as if your livelihood depended on it: the next step, the next job, grant, scholarship, professional advancement, fame; no questions asked as to further meanings. And let's face it, the lesson of the schools for a vast number of children--hence of readers--is This is not for you (page 32, emphasis Rich's).

There, embodied in that fierce quote was inspiration for my writing and reassurance that my teaching was important, even if it didn't feel that way. It makes sense that she could pull this off, since she spent some time working with disadvantaged students in New York's City College. In her writings, I see her creating feminist scholarship (her essay about Jane Eyre is still solid), feminist pedagogy, and feminist calls to artistic arms.

This quote, sadly, still applies to us today: "All art is political in terms of who was allowed to make it, what brought it into being, why and how it entered the canon, and why we are still discussing it" (page 95, Blood, Bread, and Poetry, emphasis Rich's).

I wish I could say that society has advanced enough that her fierce feminist stance is no longer warranted. I cannot say that. I'm happy to have her voice beside me as we continue the struggle for a more inclusive world.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

More Thoughts on Food Choices and Environmental Impact

Yesterday was a day of many frustrations, capped off by a lovely outing to the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art (more on that tomorrow) and an early evening on Las Olas Boulevard, a trendy part of Fort Lauderdale. We ate tapas with our happy hour drinks at one restaurant, and then we moved to a French restaurant for champagne and French appetizers (Coquille St. Jacques, mopped up with crusty bread, washed down with champagne, with a pianist playing jazz standards in the background--heaven!--what I thought being a grown up would be!).

I was supposed to have a meeting at 10, but got bumped to 2:30. I wish I was the kind of person who just easily switched gears, but it takes me a bit of time. In my adjusting time, I picked up Mark Bittman's Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. The ideas weren't exactly new to me. He talks about the environmental impact of our individual food choices. He's not just talking about the amount of fossil fuels it takes to ship our food to us. He goes back further and examines how much corn it takes to feed a cow, how much petroleum it takes to raise that corn, how much deforestation happens because we need feed crops.

He concludes a chapter thusly: "Livestock produce more greenhouse gas than the emissions caused by transportation or anything else except energy production. Add to this the humane and human health issues and one could easily and sensibly argue that it makes more sense to cut down on eating meat than it does to cut down on driving" (page 29).

He's not suggesting that we all become vegans. He's suggesting that we cut meat out of one or two meals a week.

For the most part, he is a strict vegan until 6 p.m., and then he gives himself permission to eat and drink whatever he wants. Often, he continues being a vegan, but he might have a thick steak and 3 glasses of wine. He might have chicken or fish. He might eat his fill of sushi. He says that he has noticed that he tends to frontload his dinners with lots of veggies, even if he's eating meat.

I like the idea of being a part-time vegan, even though I hear my 19 year old self howling about hypocrisy. I've been thinking about the idea of being a vegan after 6 p.m. I've been coming home from work and eating a lot of cheese to go with the red wine I've been drinking. I eat cheese thinking that it will take the place of dinner--but then I often have something more, often something with cheese, like the pizza we ordered the other day.

I'm eating more cheese than chocolate or other sweets; how did this happen? I don't have time to bake like I once did--that's how this happened.

I'd like to start making healthier choices, and for those of you who want a sensible guide to improving your nutritional intake, without too much sacrifice, this book is a great guide.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poetry Chauffeur and Other Facets of the Modern Work Life

I got my contributor copy of Poetry East yesterday. I will always have a soft spot for this journal. I met the editor (and poet) Richard Jones almost a decade ago when he came to do several events with the Florida Center for the Book.

My friend, Nancy Berg, worked there, and she didn't have a car. She made me an irresistible deal: I could come to all the events for free if I'd drive her and Richard Jones to all the events.

At the time, I was a mostly-broke adjunct. How could I refuse?

It was great to attend all the events, to see Richard Jones in a variety of settings: giving a reading to an audience of mostly poets, attending a Creative Writing class at several different community colleges, leading a writing workshop at the public library.

And in between, we all had fabulous conversations in the car, my brand new Toyota Echo. Richard Jones was very gracious about being chauffeured in a subcompact, economy car.

Poet chauffeur: now that's an interesting job!

My poem that was just published in Poetry East is about the modern work life in an office, a kind of drudgery that is similar, yet different, to that experienced by housewives of several generations ago. The title is a deliberate nod to Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing."

I Stand Here Shredding Documents

I stand here shredding documents.
I think of my mother and her basket
of ironing, the baskets of clothes,
both clean and dirty, the constants
of laundry and housekeeping.

I yearned for a different set of baskets,
an inbox and an outbox,
clothes that need professional attention
from dry cleaners and a house
so uninhabited
that it didn't get dirty.

Now I have become my father,
a woman of file cabinets
and endless meetings of infinite boredom.
I stand at the shredder,
my daily friend, and think of work
that is never finished.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mix Tapes, Shuffling iPods, and Poetry Manuscripts

We have a new instructor one day a week at spin class, a young woman who doesn't seem to be used to working with middle-aged folks. She brings in these long, techno-dance songs, and we cycle away to a computerized drum beat that never changes. I've been pleading for more variety, for more rock music. I said, "You had a Def Leppard song playing when we came in, so I know that you know how to find different music."

So, yesterday, near the end of our class, she switched off the techno-dance and played 2 Def Leppard songs, just plopped in at the end. What I really wanted was more integration. I thought, don't these young folks know how to make a mix tape?

Of course they don't. They have iPods that shuffle their music for them.

I spent the day thinking about the lazy days of my youth, when I'd sort through my record albums, choosing songs that went together, making a tape. Usually, my tapes had a theme: music for a beloved, music for a party, music for driving, music for weeping.

When I first thought about assembling collections of poems, I went back to my mix tape roots. Which poems should be beside each other? Which poems make good book-ends, either for a section or for the whole book? What themes run through a particular collection?

In the lazy days of my youth, I'd spend my babysitting money on a few record albums, agonizingly chosen out of all the ones I wished I could have. I'd spend hours listening and analyzing. I'd read the liner notes and listen to the lyrics. I'd try to figure out why these songs deserved their vinyl home.

We need to do the same thing as we assemble manuscripts. We should ask the question, why do these poems deserve to be together in a book? I'm not good enough at yanking poems who don't deserve to be there, at least not right away. Gradually, as I revise manuscripts through the years, the weaker ones come out to be replaced by stronger ones. I wish I was better at spotting the weaker poems earlier.

Of course, I'm not always sure I'm the best judge of my work. I've had poems that I thought were much more masterful than the poems that have gotten published, but those poems remain unpublished.

Does that mean that the University of South Carolina should take back my Ph.D.? Maybe I don't know as much about literature as I think I do.

Of course I don't think that. If a Ph.D. reminds me of any one fact, it's that literary tastes change. You can be the John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins of your generation and be completely overlooked, only to join the literary canon later. Many aspects that have nothing to do with one's writing, like one's gender, sexual orientation, economic standing, or good/bad luck, have more impact on one's acceptance than the quality of one's work.

So, we trod along, making art that our souls need to make, and being happy if a poem here and there makes a connection. We keep our eyes on the larger goal (for me, a book with a spine!), while focusing on smaller goals (publication of individual poems, readings, writing new poems) that might lead to larger goals. As with many a musical group that bursts on the scene, the years of hard work are often overlooked, as breathless journalists rave about the newest overnight sensation. Well, here my analogy falls apart; there aren't that many rock star poets anymore, not that many overnight sensations.

The important thing is the showing up, the creative acts that we engage in regularly. Right now, I have a pot of root vegetables boiling in water as they transform themselves into soup. I'm about to write a poem about Laura Ingalls Wilder and modern technology. Later I'll go back to my administrative life of e-mails and photocopying and monitoring registration numbers. But for this morning, there are poems and soup pots to be tended.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Many Trees Must Die

I've spent more hours than I care to think about at the copy machine. Happily, the copy machine kept working. Well, actually, it needed more toner, but happily, our local tech crew could do that. When I saw the blinking message yesterday, my heart sank, as I thought we might have to wait on someone from Xerox to fix the machine. And I have a Friday deadline.

We're working on faculty professional development files. I have to make copies of various forms spanning several years and as much documentation as I have in my files. We're humanities people, so we have lots of documentation. We have to make copies to send away to accrediting agencies, copies for various departments on campus, and along the way, since I had everything compiled, I decided to make a copy for my office.

I tried not to think about my graduate school education going to waste as I spent over 40 hours photocopying and filing in the past weeks. I tried to remember poems as I watched the copy machine do its thing. "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers": oh Wordsworth!

I'm sure it will come as no shock to you to hear that paperwork gets lost on campus (it's a small campus--where does it go???), and I'm often asked to reproduce what I've already done, often after I refiled everything. So, now, I just make an extra copy for my files, even though it duplicates what was already in the files, only filed differently.

I remember as computers in every office became a more common feature in the 90's, there was talk that we might actually move to a paperless office.

Based on my experience this week, we are reams and reams of paper away from being a paperless office.

My city government is having a tree sale this week-end. In flush times, they gave trees away, but now they're selling them for $10 a tree. It's a good price, and the city gets healthy trees. I should buy a truckload and surreptitiously plant them around town, since my own small yard already has more trees than it can support, should they all make it to adulthood.

I have a vision of being a guerrilla tree planter. Like Johnny Appleseed, only with native trees. Kristin Mangoseed, that's me!

I must atone for my sins. At least paper is a renewable resource.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What Would Laura Ingalls Wilder Do?

I've been listening to Marty Stuart's Badlands: Ballads of the Lakotas, a powerful CD which tells stories of Native Americans and the leaders/governments that have mistreated them. The songs make me think of my own Western romanticisms.

I was one of those girls who read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. Every one, again and again. I read all of them at least three times, and the ones that I liked best, I read several times a year. Ah, childhood, full of long stretches of time to read and a mom who took me to the library and let me check out books on her card. Let me have a moment of gratitude for parents who bought me books and who only made me put them down to come to dinner and do some household chores. Let me breathe a prayer of thanks for teachers who allowed me to read once I raced through the stupid worksheets that the other students labored over for the whole class period.

I have those pioneer families on the brain as I think about how many things in my house just mystify me. I think of Pa, who seemed to build a cabin big enough for his family in one week-end. I think about how they provided their own food. I think about how they amused themselves, how it would seem grim to modern families, but has a strange appeal to me. I am the woman, after all, whose idea of a great Saturday night is to sit around singing.

A few years ago, my spouse and I were consumed by the PBS series Frontier House. What fun to see these modern people try to live as frontier folks did.

What I found most sobering was the end episode, where we find out whether or not any of the families had prepared enough to survive the winter. They probably wouldn't have. Most of them hadn't stored enough firewood or food. The only couple that might have survived was the newlywed couple, and that was because their house was so small (thus needing less firewood) and they had chosen smaller animals (goats instead of cows) that would have needed less of the precious family food.

We also found out that of all the people who headed west, only 30% of them survived. The rest headed back east--or died. Very sobering, and not at all my vision of the homesteading time period.

The Marty Stuart CD reminds me that Laura Ingalls Wilder's homestead was somebody else's homeland. My husband has remained madly in love with the work of Larry McMurtry, and every so often, we watch Lonesome Dove, one of the best Westerns ever. McMurtry writes extensively about the cowboy west, part of which was also Laura Ingalls Wilder's west, and he reminds us of what a quickly changing landscape it was: "There were so many buffalo--fifty million, by some estimates--that no one could really envision their disappearance, yet it took barely twenty years to eliminate them. Similarly, the cowboys who went north up the plains to the Yellowstone couldn't quite at first imagine that the unfenced purity of the Great Plains would be fenced and cut into ranches in less than half their lifetime" (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, page 188).

We think we're the only generation dealing with blinding change taking place at a breathtaking pace, but it's been going on a long time. I think of Laura Ingalls Wilder as I stare at my recalcitrant printer: how would Pa fix this? As my ceiling crumbles because of a roof leak (now fixed, but the ceiling crumbles as it dries) or my brand new air conditioner takes 8 hours to cool the house two degrees (also fixed), I think of those pioneer families, so desperate for a chance to own their own land that they braved an incredibly hostile landscape. I also think of all the people out there who, like those homesteading pioneers, are clinging to their house fantasies with fingers that are slipping. I know I'm lucky to have a home that brings woes with it. I remind myself of that fact when I open the letter from my insurance agent, the letter that informs me that yet another insurer has declared bankruptcy and insolvency, and my policy will be rewritten yet again.

Old technology (housing), new technology (the SmartBoard): I understand the impulses that drove those pioneers to put all their belongings in a covered wagon and head west. Of course I won't, because I know the ending of the story. Now, if I could put stuff in a covered wagon, leave my house woes behind along with all my bad habits/choices/personality traits, that would be tempting. But I'd get out west, build my sod house, and realize that I still hadn't evolved to be the person I wanted to be. And my inner 19 year old would worry about all the Native Americans I'd dispossessed with my ill-considered move.

Is this metaphor too time-worn, too threadbare? Hmm. I see several poem possibilities in this post. Let me go play.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Musical Birthdays

On Saturday, we had an old-fashioned kind of night, with our college-era friend who was visiting. She played one of our lonely guitars, I played dulcimer, and my spouse played violin. Occasionally, we gave up on instruments and just sang.

What did we sing? All sorts of things: old-timey mountain music, country songs, Gospel songs, camp songs, hymns, music from our earnest youth group past. It was great. It's so rare to be with someone who actually knows all the same music that we do. Our local folk music group tends towards 60's and early 70's music, not strictly folk: John Denver, Neil Young, a stray Bob Dylan song that has lyrics that are singable. Most of the group are Jewish or Agnostic, so Gospel music isn't part of their knowledge base. I understand that my vast compendium of Lutheran hymnody isn't common knowledge, but I thought that most people had some knowledge of Gospel music, which has made its way into a surprising variety of Hollywood movies lately.

I have lately come to realize what a wide variety of music I know. I got musical knowledge through the church, and from my parents: my mom, a classically trained musician, who married my dad because he was the first male she ever met who could discuss Handel's Water Music. I had a vast collection of rock and roll, and when I got to college, I met lots of people who schooled me in music that I knew nothing about, like country music.

I thought of this as I reflected on people celebrating birthdays today. Bono, of U2, turns 50 (gulp!) today. It's also the birthday of Mother Maybelle Carter. Without her, we might not have the same knowledge of country and mountain music.

I've always been interested in the origins and intersections of music, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that I would write this poem, years ago, when we all fell back in love with old time music, thanks to the surprise hit of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack :

New Roots Music

“You don’t have to wear a Stetson hat to play the blues.”
Chris Thomas King

I want to blend my original passions, punk
and folk, into a new kind of roots
music, mandolins attacked with the ferocity
of a generation with no economic future
and no better way to spend time than assaulting
stringed instruments and hacking their hair.

Carl will play that violin he’s carried across the continent.
It’s endured indignities greater than our mandolin
punk band, poor long-suffering violin, having to hear
itself played torturously by a boy who wanted to fiddle
like a Carter family member, but had to learn Classical techniques.

Russ can play the drums, Westernized, sanitized
versions of their wilder African cousins
with their skins stretched tight across gourds.

Shannon will play the banjo,
that instrument first brought over on slave ships.
Shannon will save it from its Deliverance debacle.

We will play the mandolins bought to honor a wedding
anniversary, back when we could still dream
of time and tireless energy required
to master a new set of strings.

Perhaps seventy years from now, our biographer
will speak of us with the breathless reverence reserved
for the great innovators. We could be the Carter
family of this new music, the Coltrane
of mandolin punk. We can save
our classics from countless car commercials,
remind everyone of the glory days, back when music consoled
and would collapse before it bowed to Capitalism.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day, Mothers' Day, Happy Birthday Birth Control Pill

So, you'd probably have to be living under a rock not to know that today is Mother's Day, and today is also the 40th anniversary of the Pill.

One of my more successful writing prompts in Composition classes is to have students consider all the inventions of the past 50 years and to write about which one has had the most impact on society.

Yes, I, too, could make a case for the personal computer, a strong case, but birth control put squarely in the hands of females? That one might win for me.

Of course, you still have to see a doctor to get the prescription, so the birth control isn't solely in the hands of the sexually active female.

Still, the right and the ability to control one's fertility has radically changed the course of women's lives. At least, for women in the industrialized nations.

Over at The New York Times, the always wonderful Nicholas Kristof writes a piece where he declares that we should make this a day that celebrates all mothers (moving the apostrophe over a space, from Mother's Day to Mothers' Day). We could do this by donating a portion of what we would have spent on our moms to social justice networks that make the world safer for women, especially women in developing nations:

"Happy Mother’s Day! And let me be clear: I’m in favor of flowers, lavish brunches, and every other token of gratitude for mothers and other goddesses.

Let me also add that your mom — yes, I’m speaking to you — is particularly deserving. (As is mine, as is my wife. And my mother-in-law!)

And because so many people feel that way, some $14 billion will be spent in the United States for Mother’s Day this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes $2.9 billion in meals, $2.5 billion in jewelry and $1.9 billion in flowers.

To put that sum in context, it’s enough to pay for a primary school education for all 60 million girls around the world who aren’t attending school. That would pretty much end female illiteracy."

He goes on to talk about what we could do with the money left: we could improve women's health care and reduce maternal mortality. It's startling how many women in poor countries still die in childbirth. Heck, it's startling how many women in our country still die, or come uncomfortably close to dying, because of health complications brought on by pregnancy.

I'm lucky. My mom doesn't need much material stuff, and she's not the type who demands presents to prove that she's loved. We've all moved from giving each other presents in my family to making donations to worthy causes. Nicholas Kristof is a champion of those causes.

Your dollars do more to create social change when they go to the third world--so little money can create such good. Today is a good day to donate: in honor of your mother, in honor of past mothers, in honor of women everywhere.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Riding the Greyhound Bus Across America

One of the great things about being with very old friends (meaning you've known them for a long time, not that they're 102 years old) is that they remember things, which often makes me say, "Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten about that."

My journaling, which has now migrated primarily to blogging, has always tried to capture all the details which I won't remember later, as well as to record ways of life that are passing or have passed. Some day, there won't be many people around who will remember the joys of a record store or a book store. Will they read my writing and remember? I don't care. I read my writing and remember, and that gives me a joy that is more sweet than bitter.

My old college friend who is visiting this week has several times talked about her Greyhound bus trips across America. I never took one, but I remember the deal. You paid a chunk of money (I want to say it was $99) and you had a certain amount of time to travel anywhere that Greyhound went. Like a Eurorail pass, but over vaster swaths of countryside.

You might say, yes, like a Eurorail pass, but with less glamour. We've always in this country thought that trains had more class than buses. But frankly, I remember riding the Greyhound from Washington D.C. to Charlottesville, and it was much more comfortable and less shabby than the Amtrak which travelled the same direction.

I remember when I was preparing to finish grad school in 1991, and the MLA convention was in San Francisco that year; I was in Columbia, South Carolina. I knew that if I got an interview, I'd have to figure out a way to get out there. I was a desperately poor (but debt free!) grad student, and decided that maybe I'd get one of those see America passes, if I got an interview.

Of course, 1991-92 was, until the events of the past two years, the worst job market ever. So I had no interviews, and didn't need to spend money I didn't have to get to San Francisco. I got a full-time job at a community college later in the year and felt lucky.

I still feel lucky, even though my career hasn't worked out quite like I envisioned. Like the rest of grad school America, I dreamed of getting a job in a small, liberal arts school. Now I'm the Chair of a smallish, liberal arts department. It's not a total disconnect. And I still feel lucky.

A good writer would bring this essay full circle back to the Greyhound bus. Greyhound bus as metaphor for . . . hmmm. There are the obvious ones, the paths that life takes, the things we see from the Greyhound bus that we wouldn't have seen otherwise. Feeling lucky because one can scrounge up the money to travel by bus, even if one can't go the glamorous route of train or plane? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Archiving Tweets and Assembling Manuscripts and Other Thoughts about Media

In this story in The Washington Post, we learn about the plans of the Library of Congress to archive Twitter tweets. My first response was, "That's ridiculous." But the article makes compelling points:

"The purview of historians has always been the tangible: letters, journals, official documents.

The purview of Twitter, on the other hand, is the ephemeral: random spewings that some argue represent the degeneration of society. Would a Founding Father ever have tweeted his crush on Evangeline Lilly?

But on the other hand, says Michael Beschloss, historian and author of Presidential Courage,
'What historian today wouldn't give his right arm to have the adult Madison's contemporaneous Twitters about the secret debates inside the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia?'"

The article goes on to talk about how rare it has been for ordinary people to write about their ordinary lives, and how much historians learn from the rare people who do (think Samuel Pepys' diaries). And of course, we don't know right now what will be historically important, as we save all those tweets: "But the more interesting possibility is that there are tweets whose value we do not yet see. "'Somewhere in [the digital world], we don't know where,' Cohen says, 'there is a kindergarten photograph or a link to a personal blog of a future president.' Somewhere, there are tweets that foreshadow enormous moments in history. We just haven't learned what they are yet."

I still have no plans to join Twitter. I don't do a good job of writing updates on Facebook, and I'm not sure that Twitter tweets would be high on my to-do list. I don't need one more thing to feel guilty for neglecting.

No, I want book length publication. Terry Lucas posted two great reports on an AWP presentation here and here. Still no answer to my pressing question: at what point does one abandon the manuscript or revise it so substantially that it's no longer the same manuscript?

Actually, I've answered that question for myself. I've made a list of all the places I haven't sent the manuscript yet, and if by November, I still have no publisher, I'll take it with me on my writer's retreat at Mepkin Abbey, and rethink the manuscript.

I did the last major revision somewhere around 2005 or 2006, and since then, I've continued to write poems that fit the theme of the manuscript. I suspect that some of those newer poems are significantly better than the ones in the manuscript, but I haven't spent time with all the poems to give the matter serious consideration.

If I revise the manuscript so substantially that it's a different manuscript, can I keep the same title? I love my title: Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site. Do various publishers remember the titles of all the manuscripts they receive? I can't imagine it. But just to be safe, I suppose I could mention something about substantial revision in a cover letter.

Of course, to listen to some commentators, print as we know it will be gone in 10 years (listen to this Marketplace story, where the commentator can't imagine that we'll even have airport newsstands in 10 years; everything we want, we'll purchase on our Kindle-like devices). In some ways that makes me feel panicky. In other ways, I know that my poems have been making their way in the world, in all sorts of vehicles (paper, electronic journals, websites, animation of sorts). Ten years ago, I couldn't have imagined how beautiful electronic journals could be. Now, I wonder what we'll create in the next 10 years.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Beard on Bread and Everything Else

I learned about hospitality from watching my mother. She invited everyone to share meals with us, from her musician friends, to students who couldn't make it home for the holidays, to various church members--and of course, the friends of her children. Sometimes she would make an elaborate, multi-course, French meals. Other times, we'd simply share whatever we were going to have anyway: lasagne, chili, or my sister's favorite, tacos.

One summer day, when my sister and I whined about how bored we were, my mom said, "Let's make bread."

It was the summer of 1978 or so. Through various college students and interns who served our church, we'd been introduced to vegetarian dishes and whole foods ways of eating. Mom had a copy of Ellen Buchman Ewald's Recipes for a Small Planet, and we made Milk and Honey Whole Wheat Bread. I still have that cookbook, although I don't use it anymore; the recipes are a bit too earnest and 1970's for me (very chewy, very beany, with very little in the way of seasonings that I like). But that bread recipe holds up. In fact, the cookbook's spine has split, and the book splits into two at that recipe, which tells you how often I've made it.

I fell in love with bread baking that day. I loved the way that the yeast transformed the flour. I loved the slow process, the way I really couldn't go wrong. I loved the feel of the dough in my hands. I loved the final product. I loved that the seminarians coming to dinner raved over the bread we made, and we ate every crumb of every loaf.

From that early experiment, I continued to experiment with bread baking, and it rarely let me down. I checked baking books out of the library, and received them for presents. I remember the day in Knoxville, Tennessee when I bought Beard on Bread. The clerk said, "Oh, you're going to have fun with this book."

He was right. Decades later, after a kitchen remodel that left me a little afraid to use my brand new kitchen, I returned to that book to make a few loaves of cinnamon bread. Some people smudge their houses with sage, but I baptize mine with bread dough!

Today is James Beard's birthday, and those of us who love good food owe him an enormous debt. We could argue about which chef most changed the course of cooking in the twentieth century, and I could argue that James Beard would win that title (I could also make a strong case for Julia Child). James Beard incorporated a variety of cooking techniques and ingredients from around the world, and he showed us the way. He didn't insist on recipes that forced us to spend hours in the kitchen, although if we wanted to, he'd give us those recipes too. He taught us to use local ingredients, and to cook on open fires, and about the joys of hors d'oeuvres and every other type of food.

I don't bake bread as often as I once did. It's interesting to reflect on how the bread landscape of our nation has changed since I first started baking bread. Once upon a time, you couldn't get sourdough bread outside of big cities. Now, most cities and towns have a supermarket that carries it, at least most cities east of the Mississippi (I confess to not having travelled enough through the western states recently enough to be sure). Now, I have two French bakeries within walking distance of my office. If I don't have time enough at home to bake, there's no shortage of bread to buy.

Perhaps today, I will return to my bread baking roots. Perhaps today, I will take that battered copy of Beard on Bread off the shelf and make cinnamon bread. Maybe I'll dig even deeper and make Milk and Honey Whole Wheat Bread.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Oil Spill and Local Eating

This week, an old college friend and her friend are here to visit. We've had long, fascinating conversations. She's living the kind of life that I assumed I, too, would live when I graduated from college and could live however I chose. She raises chickens (she has a permit!), which give her a few eggs each morning. She does intensive gardening. She bought an eighth of a cow from a local farmer. She just started her latest adventures with bee raising. Any day, I expect to hear that she's bought a goat.

In short, she's living the kind of life that Barbara Kingsolver describes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. That book made me want to sell everything I own and move to a farm. But the housing market was crashing all around me, so I stayed put.

It's probably wise. I like the idea of raising my own food, but I don't know that I'm really suited to it. I love planning and planting the garden, but I don't like keeping up with the weeding (similar to quilting: I like planning and buying the cloth, but the long slog of work in between the planning and the finished quilt often feels unmanageable to me). I've had successful, weedy gardens, but I don't know that I'd want to count on my efforts for all my food. I've seen what one violent thunderstorm or an early frost can do to a garden.

And while I could probably raise chickens, I don't know that I could slaughter them. It's one thing to collect eggs, but it's another to kill animals. And even if I decided not to slaughter them, they still require daily care. I wouldn't keep chickens for the same reason I don't have pets: I travel a lot, and who would take care of the animals?

The oil slick spreading in the Gulf also led us to talk about the true cost of our food. My friend does a good job of eating locally. Of course, in the Carolinas, it's easy to eat locally. Plenty of people are still practicing the kind of farming on a small scale that my relatives on my mom's side used to do (and one or two still do). There are plenty of roadside stands and local markets, and plenty of farmers who will sell you part of their own butchering.

Down here, it's much harder to eat locally. When I first read the Kingsolver book, I thought, that's it, I'm only going to eat food from 50 miles away. That doesn't leave me very much. Even most of our citrus trees have been cut down in the futile attempt to contain the citrus canker disease. Even if I widened my circumference to 100 miles, there's not much farming left down here. Everything has been paved over for housing developments.

And if I have to drive 50-100 miles to get my locally grown food, am I really lessening my carbon footprint? No. If I have to truck in lots of soil to grow a garden, am I lessening my carbon footprint? Certainly not at first. But as I nourish that soil, through composting, eventually it's cheaper from a carbon standpoint to grow my own food.

I stopped gardening years ago, when I calculated the true cost of my home-grown vegetables and decided it was cheaper to go to a farmer's market. Of course, that was years ago, when I lived in a state that had farmer's markets. Down here, we have green markets, which are more like craft fairs than farmer's markets.

Ah, living an authentic life. When I was in college, I wouldn't have imagined it would be this complicated.

Monday, May 3, 2010

On to Happier News: Results of the Poetry Give-Away

Many of you were kind enough to enter my drawing to win free books. Thanks to Kelli Russell Agodon, the poet and blogger who put the whole initiative together. I'm happy to announce the following winners:

The winner of a copy of my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard: Carl Palmer.

The winner of The Moon is Always Female, by Marge Piercy: Diane Lockward.

Thank you all for playing. While I don't have enough chapbooks to give away, I'm always happy to consider making a trade or giving you a blog-reader special. Just contact me via e-mail to talk about the possibilities.

It's hard for me to believe it's May already. I'm ready for the pace of this year to slow down a bit.

In Which the Apocalypse Girl Discovers She's Married to Apocalypse Husband

I got home yesterday, and the first thing my spouse said was, "The reefs are gone."

I said, "Already?"

I turned the car off on Friday, as oil was expected to wash ashore, and I hadn't heard a news update since. I knew that the coastline of Louisiana and points east and west were doomed, but I hadn't really thought about our own coastline.

Of course, the Gulf of Mexico is a big bowl; oil will wash out of it. And there are currents that could take the oil all the way up to the Chesapeake Bay. And now that they're talking about not being able to cap the rig for 90 days, I wonder if it might go further north.

The reefs haven't been in good shape for a very long time. The last time I went diving, in August 2009, it was the day of the hottest ocean temperature ever recorded at Molasses Reef: 91 degrees. The reefs have been under attack because of the heat and the acidification of the oceans, not to mention all of us divers who love to go down and see them--we unintentionally cause distress just by our presence. It's hard not to brush against the coral.

I've known that we didn't have much time to dive; it's one of the reasons I got certified. But I hoped we had a few decades. I'm optimistic, for an Apocalypse Girl. I hoped that we would find a way to save the reefs.

Now, I fear my spouse is right. I'm usually the one who leaps to apocalyptic predictions. It terrifies me that he's the one predicting doom.