Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day Gratitudes

I feel the same way about leap day as I feel about the extra hour we get in the Fall if we live in places where we change the clocks.  I feel a mix of optimism and guilt.

Here's a whole extra day, not just an extra hour!  And I shall likely do what I do on any other day:  spend most of it at work.

But even with work to do, there will be spots of time that are more free than others.  I need to look at my submission notebook and get back on track there.  I can do that in the office.

I have some writing projects that pay actual money that are due soon.  I can start thinking about those today.

I want to write a poem tomorrow.  I'll start thinking about what I plan to write--that way, I'll have a better chance at actually writing tomorrow.

I tend not to write poetry or fiction in the office.  I tend to write only e-mails, reports, those kinds of things.  I used to gnash my teeth at the ways that my writing talents were wasted when I wrote e-mails and reports, but now I try to see those writing tasks as opportunities too.  Writing lyrical assessment reports--yes, that's me!

I don't have any special leap day traditions, no special foods, no music that I only listen to every 4 years, no traditions.  But continuing to make oases in my day where writing can sprout--that's a good way to celebrate not just leap day but every day.

As I write this post, I'm listening to Monday's episode of the Diane Rehm Show, an interview with Timothy Snyder.  He helped the historian and scholar Tony Judt write his last book Thinking the Twentieth Century.  Judt recently died of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.  When the disease took away Judt's ability to write, Timothy offered a remarkable gift:  he would help Judt write a book.  They had a series of conversations and arguments, and then Snyder wrote.  He says it's a book in an Eastern Europe intellectual tradition, a culture which values rhetoric more than we do, and he cites some authors who have co-written books in just this way.

It's an interesting interview on all sorts of levels.  The writing process fascinates me in so many ways.  My brain thinks differently when I'm talking than when I'm writing--or does it?  The idea of fleshing out ideas verbally before writing is one that intrigues me.  The revision process also intrigues me:  the editing by e-mail, the reading of the chapters out loud.

I'm also fascinated by the friendship between the two men.  What an amazing gift, to do this writing for a friend who couldn't write anymore.

And the interview makes me feel gratitude on all sorts of levels.  I'm grateful that people are still doing this kind of intellectual work and that it's still being published.  I'm grateful that there are radio interviews that let me know about this work, so that even if I can't find time to tackle the work soon, my intellect feels alive in ways that it wouldn't if I didn't have these kind of interviews.

And I'm grateful for my own good health.  I may have many obstacles, but thankfully, none as serious as a disease like ALS.  And it's a cautionary tale, too.  We don't know how long we have.  Writers are luckier than some artists, like ballerinas, in that we're likely to be able to practice our art for many decades.  But eventually, our bodies will give out. 

So, yes, on this gift of an extra day, I'll think about my own writing, about what I hope that people will value when I'm gone.  I'll think about the work I would lose if I could no longer write.  I'll make some space to do the work.  I'll try to keep this infusion of gratitude glowing in me throughout the day.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday Tips and Other Thoughts on Travel

--Lots of you are headed for the AWP convention in Chicago today; unlike yesterday, you're likely to have better travelling weather.  Here are some things I noted at the end of the convention last year, some tips for your travel and planning:
     --Bring energy bars or nuts, snacks with fiber that will kill your hunger and fill you up; look for the  kinds with high fiber and high protein.  Buy these before you leave and pack them in your luggage.
     --You'll likely be around a lot of sources of free water:  water pitchers in the back of meeting rooms, coolers, water fountains.  You may need an empty bottle or cup, so  you might want to pack one.
     --Caucuses are a great way to make connections.
     --You'll need cash or check at the book fair; many tables won't take cash.  In the last hours of the book fair, you'll get many a deal.  Of course, if you have to ship the books or pay extra because of airline regulations and the weight of your suitcase, the great deals may be not so great.
     --Bring business cards or something of similar weight and shape that has your contact information on it.

As I look at that list, I'm struck by how it's good information all the way around.  Always have a snack, always have a water bottle, always look for ways to make connections, and you can't always count on being allowed to use a credit card.

I will not be going to the AWP convention.  I waited too long and the convention hotel filled up.  And there's the matter of money.  And my fear of Chicago winters and Chicago airports.  But I do plan to go to Boston next year.  I haven't been to Boston, and so I'd love a tax-deductible way to go.  Here's hoping that it all works out.

I do have a fairly full travel schedule for spring, even without AWP.  In fact, we made a quick trip to the North Carolina mountains just this past week-end.  The daffodils and cherry trees are in full bloom months before schedule because it's been such a warm winter.  Very strange.

Yes, I am aware that the mountains are 12 driving hours away, and not exactly the right distance for a week-end trip.  I like to think it keeps us young, like our gang of friends in college who would show up at Saturday breakfast or Friday dinner and say, "Hey, it's only 14 hours to Cincinatti, and we've never been.  Let's go on a quest for chili!"  And off they'd go, in a car you wouldn't trust to get you to the county line.

I didn't go.  I was a sensible girl, with papers to write and her eye on grad school.

One of our spring trips will take us close to Andersonville, and we will stop.  What does it say about me that I feel this pressing need to visit the site of one of the worst POW camps of the Civil War?  The National Historic Site now also has a museum about all POWs in U.S. history. 

I spent part of the 1970's with a POW bracelet on my wrist.  What was a POW bracelet?  It was a silver metal cuff with information about a single POW engraved on it.  The idea was that we'd wear them until our prisoners were released.  Did lots of people have this experience or was it just because of being part of a military community?

So, I come by my obsession with POWs honestly, perhaps.

If you're off to the AWP Convention, I hope you'll take good notes for the rest of us.  I'm looking through the notes I took last year, and once again, I'm amazed at the quantity of great information at this conference.  I'm particularly interested in whether or not the fear of the impending student loan crisis/bubble pop is worrying anyone else as much as it worries me.  I've said it before but it bears repeating:  in terms of my career, I feel like I'm a Detroit autoworker and it's 1978--or that I'm a journalist for a mid-size newspaper, and it's 2001.  In other words, I can feel my industry shifting right out from under me.  I suspect I'm not alone.  People used to accuse me of paranoia or apocalyptic fantasies, and now they ask me how much longer I think our jobs in higher ed will last.

My advice?  Don't take on new debt if you can avoid it.  That's hardly a back-up plan, I know.  I'm still working on that.

Safe travels, if you're travelling this week.  I wish for solid creation time and rest for those of us who are staying put!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Still Haunted by Tom Joad

Today is the birthday of John Steinbeck, whose critical reputation has had its ups and downs.  When I was in high school in the early 80's, he seemed an accepted great American writer.  In grad school, people were eager to shoot holes in his accomplishments.  I'm not sure where his reputation is today, but his work still reads well almost 100 years after he wrote it, and that's no small feat.

I loved Steinbeck's work as a teenager, despite having to read The Grapes of Wrath in one single school night. It was my fault, really. We had had plenty of time to complete the assignment.  In the eleventh grade, we were supposed to have the first several chapters of the book read, and my teacher figured out that none of us had read it. She said, "Well, you're having a quiz tomorrow. On the whole book. We'll spend the rest of the period reading. Go ahead. Take out your books. Get started."
Luckily, the plot perked right along, and I'm a fast reader, so it wasn't too bad.

And then, last year, I read the book again.  An old college friend of mine is trying to make himself read more classics, and sometimes, I read with him.  Sometimes I get to suggest works.  He recently loved Jane Eyre.  I felt inordinately proud of the fact that he loved it, even though I didn't write it--but I did suggest it.

And so, a year ago, we decided to read The Grapes of Wrath at about the same time.  I even read it on a plane, not the place where I like to revisit classic literature.

I had forgotten how beautiful the prose can be. I think of Steinbeck as a master of creating great characters, and he is. But alternating with each chapter that tells the story of the Joads comes an alternating chapter that tells about the historical situation with great lyrical intensity. The prose breaks my heart with joy for the fact that it lies there, nestled in between the narrative chapters. The history behind it breaks my heart.
I think back to my own farming people, not that many generations ago. How did they hang on to their land? My relatives of my grandparents' generation remember the Depression, and they remember that they wore holes in their shoes and patched their clothes again and again, but they were always well-fed, with enough to share, because they lived on the farm. They lived on Southern farms--maybe that was the trick. If they had lived on Kansas farms, my family's trajectory would have been very different.

Reading the book also breaks my heart because it still seems so relevant. All those people, losing their livelihoods and their possessions and their very lives, because of corporate policies--true for the Joads and true for us. I expected the book to seem like a historical artifact, but it vibrates with pertinence.

Part of me wants to revisit more Steinbeck.  Part of me wants to leave well enough alone.  Part of me wants to create a fictional family that will come to symbolize a whole generation.  But I would worry that as with Steinbeck, people might assume that my work was more artifact than living literature.

I think it's interesting how Tom Joad and his family continue to haunt our national consciousness and find their way into all sorts of pop culture. One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs is "The Ghost of Tom Joad."  I also love the cover version done by Rage Against the Machine on their Renegades album. Long ago, I was a member of a Rage Against the Machine group, and I got intriguing things in the mail. Long ago, I got a vinyl 45 of the song, long before it appeared on any album. Later, I was so happy to see the song on a CD that I could buy, back in the days when I assumed that CDs would be the way we'd experience music forever.

Go here to take a look at Springsteen singing "The Ghost of Tom Joad" with Tom Morello.  Then ponder how all the other ways that Tom Joad could function as a metaphor for our own time.  Sports stadiums, anyone?  The medical-industrial complex?  Students being preyed upon by schools that will let them accrue monstrous debt?

Who will be the great artists of this current depression? I'd probably look at people who have been writing about the dispossessed even when our national leaders denied their existence. I'd nominate Bruce Springsteen, whose song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" moves me to tears each time I hear it.   I want to write like that.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Preparing to Resist the Communists

I've been listening to this Fresh Air interview with Nathan Englander; so far, I've listened to it 3 times, that's how much it fascinates me.  Even though he was raised in Jewish communities, I've been seeing some interesting connections to my life.

He was raised in a community that truly expected the Holocaust to happen again at any moment, and he describes The Righteous Gentile Game, a game (except they were deadly serious about it) that his family played: "Anyway, we really were raised with this idea of a looming second Holocaust and we would play this game. You know, that threat is always in the air. You know what I'm saying? People were comfortable in Berlin. It could happen at any time. And we would play this game, you know, wondering who would hide us. And this is - this story I've been carrying in my head from 20 years ago. It must have been 20 years ago, but I remember what my sister said about a couple we knew. She said, he would hide us and she would turn us in."

Last week, I was talking to some friends about this nugget, and I said, "In my family, it was Communists we were afraid of."
My friends looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. I reminded them that it was the 1970's and 80's, and my dad was in the Air Force so my family had a different perspective to begin with. But I think many of us have quickly forgotten about life during the Cold War, when many people did expect a looming conflict with the Communists.

One of my friends said, "What did they think would happen?"

Good question.  My parents weren't particularly afraid of nuclear war; that would be my apocalypse scenario.  My parents didn't anticipate Sandinistas invading Texas--that would be a discussion for later years, when I was in college.

To hear my parents talk, you’d have thought that at any moment, we might all be taken away and not allowed access to our Bibles or our churches. To hear them, you’d think that they survived some horrible event involving camps, like the Holocaust or Stalin’s Russia. But they were American citizens, born just before World War II. Still, as a child, any time I protested any aspect of my religious upbringing, their response was always, “Some day, you might not have access to your Bible or the church, and then you’ll appreciate this.”
I have a memory of dinner conversation which revolved around what we would say if we were asked to deny our faith.  I remember saying, "Couldn't I just lie and say I wasn't a believer, but stay a believer to stay alive?"  Interesting conversation ensued.

I'm sure my parents would say, "We only talked about that once or twice, and you make it sound like we drilled you every night."  That is most probably true.

Still, I often sat in church services and amused myself with apocalyptic visions during boring sermons. What would I say if asked to deny my faith? What would I choose if forced to make the choice between my life and Jesus? Which would I renounce? My parents made it sound like this could happen at any moment.

Of course, anyone who paid attention to world events of the twentieth century couldn’t be unaware of the possibility of cataclysm. My father, with his Air Force and CIA background was haunted by the threat of Communism. In later years, my teenage rebellion was to read, and to read publicly, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. While my peers partook of ill-advised drugs and sex, my father and I butted heads over Central American policy.

I'm looking forward to reading Englander's recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank.  And my book club will be reading it and discussing it next--it seemed like the perfect thing to read after slogging through Michener's The Source.  I imagine we'll discover a very different approach to Judaism.  I'm guessing it won't be so dissimilar from my own experiences, even though I'm a Southern, Lutheran girl, whose relatives have been in this country for so many generations that I've lost count.

Go here to read the review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank in The New York Times.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Houses that We Create for Animals and Others

Yesterday's post turned out to be so beguiling to me that I decided to create a photo essay of buildings built for others:  animals, mail, the pleasure of creating a small structure.

I love this mailbox in the shape of a cottage, complete with barrel tile roof:

I seem to have more photos of birdhouses than doghouses or mailboxes or other small structures.

I wonder what a bird would think of such a place.  "Gee, this is gaudy."  "Wow, up in New England you wouldn't have these tropical colors."  "I wish we could have afforded an extra bedroom."  "Who knew that being a snowbird would be so much fun."

Below, church as birdhouse:

Birdhouse mosaic!

Sometimes the sea gives you what you need to embellish a castle made of sand:

And sometimes, you must resort to Legos:

Gingerbread makes a very good building material, no matter what season it is:

And of course, there are the final houses that we build for our dead:

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Permanence of Buildings, the Permanence of Pictures: Inspirations

I've noticed that I take a lot of pictures of buildings.  I often think that those pictures, those buildings will inspire some later writing.  Do they inspire you?

Like many people, I love old barns and outbuildings, the things parked in front of them and inside them, the foliage growing through them.

But maybe you prefer urban buildings.  Below, I love the mix of old and new in the same Miami horizon:

I love an old Southern downtown (below, McCormick, South Carolina):

Or maybe you prefer something more tropical:

Or maybe a different kind of waterfront:

Do you like chapels and churches?

I have lots of pictures of chapels (above at Mepkin Abbey, below at Lutheridge, a mountain church camp).  When I was in Europe, I didn't have a digital camera, so I don't have pictures of the great cathedrals.  Does it matter?

Maybe you would prefer a mountain cottage:

Or maybe a lighthouse speaks to you:

Above, a more traditional lighthouse by South Florida's Biscayne Bay.  Below, a less traditional building that I think also functions as a lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay.

I wish I had pictures of old Southern homes, with those broad, beautiful porches.  I wish I had pictures of all the DC townhouses that I studied during morning commutes when I was a college student home for summer.  I wish I had more pictures of suburbia, to see if its reputation for blandness is merited.

I used to see buildings as fairly permanent, but now that I've owned a few, I know that the ravages of nature can be relentless, even against materials I would have thought of as impervious.  Wood rots, concrete cracks, plastic melts.

Only pictures remain.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sleep

Yesterday, I lied on a health intake form.  No, it wasn't about my weight or cholesterol or blood pressure.  I lied about how much sleep I get.

I said I get 7-9 hours a night.  I suspect that most nights, it's more like 5-7 hours a night.  I wonder how many writers and other artists might report similar habits.

One of my colleagues with an extensive background in Psychology talked about his clients and how he tries to help them deal with their stress so that they can sleep.  His techniques wouldn't work with me.  I'm often waking up because I'm excited to get to my writing desk.  Plus, writing early is the only way I can be sure that I'll get it done.  And then I can go about my day with a lighter heart.

You might ask, how early is early?  It is not uncommon for me to be awake by 3 or 4 a.m.  Of course, most nights I'm asleep by 8:30 or 9:00.  Some nights that's not possible.  But often, I still get up early.

In her latest book The Prosperous Heart:  Creating a Life of "Enough," Julia Cameron talks about the writer Tim Farrington, author of The Monk Downstairs amongst other books.  She mentions that he's routinely gotten up 4 hours before everyone else in his house to get his writing done.  But now his children have grown into teenagers, so he's up even earlier.  He tells Cameron that he got up at 1:30 on the day they talked:  "'But I have to do it,' Tim says, as simply as one might state that they need to drink water or breath fresh air to stay alive.  I know exactly what he means" (138).  So do I.

I don't feel as sleep deprived when I'm getting up for something that I love as I might if I was getting up to feed the dogs and get the kids to school and work on reports before going to work.  I have noticed through the years that many people, especially women, talk longingly about the sleep that they wish they had.

I've noticed that many women talk about good sleep the way they once might have talked about good sex.  There's a longing, a yearning, a wistfulness, a fear that they might never experience it again.  I've noticed that many women talk about yearning for sleep the way they talk about yearning for weight loss, as a process that they understand why it's important, but can't commit to what it would take to bring about the change.

Then there are people like me, people who feel a strange shame about how little sleep we get.  Our culture prizes the people who sleep effortlessly through 8 or 9 hours.  The people who willingly get up while the rest of the world sleeps are seen as weird freaks.  So people like me don't always tell the truth about our sleep patterns.

Today I'm feeling my lack of sleep.  Last night was a late night because of Ash Wednesday service that wasn't over until almost 9:15, and then my spouse and I stayed to count money--and I hadn't gotten much more than 4 hours of sleep the night before.  But most days, I awake feeling refreshed and bright and ready for the day, even though I'm often awake several hours before sunrise.

I have friends who tell me that I can expect to sleep even less as I age.  That might be because they don't realize how little I'm sleeping now.  Or maybe I'll go from needing 5-7 hours to only needing 3-5.  Imagine how much creative work I'll get done then!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fissile Material and Other Ash Wednesday Symbols

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. Those of us who go to Ash Wednesday services will have a cross smudged on our foreheads, a cross of ash ideally made from burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. We hear some variation of these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.

As a child, I hated this holy day, with its dreary reminders of death and other kinds of impending doom.  But the message sunk into my bones, as did the symbolism.  The older I get, the more compelling the message becomes.

I've been writing a series of Ash Wednesday poems over the years, and I've decided to post two of them here.

Here, for your Ash Wednesday reading pleasure, is "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site," which was originally published in The Ledge:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

I didn’t develop a taste for locusts until later.
Instead I craved libraries, those crusted containers of all knowledge,
honey to fill the combs of my brain.

I didn’t see this university as a desert.
How could it be, with its cornucopia of classes,
colleagues who never tired of spirited conversations,
no point too arcane for hours of dissection.
I never foresaw that I might consume too many ideas,
that they might stick in the craw.

I never dreamed a day would come when I preferred
true deserts, far away from intellectual centers.
No young minds to be midwifed,
no hungry mouths draining my most vital juices,
no books with their reproachful, sad sighs, sitting
in the library, that daycare center of the intellect.

The desert doesn’t drown the voice
the way a city does. No drone
of machinery, no cacophony of crowing
scholars to consume my own creativity.
In the desert, the demand is to be still, to conserve
our strength for the trials that are to come.

Here, the earth, scorched by the fissile
testing of the greatest intellects of the last century, reminds
us of the ultimate futility of attempting to understand.
The desert dares us to drop our defenses.
In this place, scoured of all temptations, all distractions,
the sand demands we face our destiny.

And for something less apocalyptic (or is it?), is "Ash Wednesday on I95 South," which was originally published in Hobble Creek Review:

Ash Wednesday on I95 South

Of flowers, I sense a dearth.
It’s night, but I should smell them now.
Someone has been turning earth,
but with a bulldozer, not a plow.

Trees smolder in piles.
New housing developments will sprout
in their place. But there will be no smiles.
Concrete covers us all, there is no doubt.

Ash smudges our foreheads.
Ash frosts the windshield.
Ash across the country spreads.
The earthly process will not yield.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
All you love will turn to rust.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Celebrate Mardi Gras with an Easy Yeasted Bread

Many of us think that the only way to celebrate Mardi Gras is by getting sloshified drunk.  That might work when you're a college kid, but a lot of us have to get up and go to work tomorrow or take care of kids tonight, tomorrow, and into the foreseeable future.  How should we celebrate?

In the churches of my youth, there would have been a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper to attend.  I'm guessing that many churches will be dark tonight.  After all, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and we really can't expect, in this day and time, for people to go to church on more than one weeknight.  Most church folks I know will barely make it to Ash Wednesday service.  For those of you wanting a primer on how we came to have Mardi Gras, Carnival, and/or Shrove Tuesday, go to this post on my theology blog.

So, here's an idea:  a simple, yeasted bread that requires no kneading and is relatively healthy, but also sweet.  I'll walk you through it.

Epiphany/Mardi Gras Bread

2 pkg (5 ½ tsp.) active dry yeast
¼ c. warm water
2/3 c. milk
½ c. sugar
1 ½ tsp. salt
½ c. butter
3 large eggs
4 c. flour (can be part or all whole wheat)
2 c. candied fruit, and/or raisins, and/or nuts

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water with a tsp. of sugar and the salt.  Give it a few minutes to foam, and then mix in the eggs. In a small heavy saucepan, bring the milk, butter, salt, and sugar to a boil. Once it’s cooled a bit, add the milk mixture to the yeast mixture, along with the flour, and blend.

Add the 2 cups of candied fruit, nuts, and/or raisins—or leave them out. I’ve used candied ginger with great success, and I really like dried cranberries and pecans. You can use more gourmet items, like citron. Or use the candied fruits that make an appearance during the holiday baking season.

The dough will be very sticky; fortunately, you don’t knead it.

Simply let it rise. Grease 2 tube pans or bundt pans.

When the dough has doubled in size, spoon it into the pans. Let it rise again.

If you want to put prizes in the bread, you can do so before you put the bread in the oven. The traditional prize for Mardi Gras is a baby Jesus (if using plastic, stick him into the bread after baking). For Epiphany/Three Kings Bread, some bread bakers include a coin (wrapped in foil) that indicates good luck for the person who finds it. Some put a china baby into the bread. Other customs include a bean, a clove, a twig, a piece of rag. Some traditions have the person who finds the embedded item doing the clean up, some have the person hosting the next party in February at Candlemas or the next year's Mardi Gras party.

Bake at 375 for 25-35 minutes. The dough should be golden, and a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.

The bread is delicious plain:

but it’s also good with powdered sugar frosting or glaze.

For Mardi Gras, traditionally you’d sprinkle the icing or glaze with sugar colored purple, green, and/or yellow. 

You can make colored sugar easily at home by stirring food coloring into white granulated (table) sugar:

Based on a recipe found in Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Holiday Baking Book

And keep this bread in mind as Christmas rolls around; it's easy for gifts and a reason to celebrate Epiphany on January 6.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ponderings on President's Day

--If we were going to elect you President of the U.S., what would you do?

I think I would focus on very early education, which I know is strange, because I've spent my whole life in the field of college education.  But I've become convinced that having a very good pre-K, Kindergarten, and 1st grade education for every student is so VERY important.  Money spent there is money we won't later be spending on prisons and drug rehab and other places.  If money is tight, let's spend it there and let the high school kids and the college kids fend for themselves with the money that's left.  We'll have built a base eventually, and the older kids will be able to deal with the lack of fabulous high schools and with the high cost of college. 

And yet, why do we have to choose?  Why can't we have a solid pre-K through elementary program with fabulous high schools and great colleges that are affordable?

One of many reasons I'm not running for office.

--But if you need a great writing prompt for your students, try this:

I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were jailed with them.

Then I give them a copy of an interview (in the fabulous book We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews) with Jello Biafra which has this challenge: "It's time to start thinking, 'What do I do if I suddenly find myself in charge?'" (page 46 of the first edition). Many of my students find this idea to be a wonderful writing prompt, even as they're doubtful that they would ever be allowed to be in charge of a national government.

--Of course, maybe you're one of many people who have today off.  Maybe you're thinking you want to serve something presidential that doesn't involve cherries.  Something with peanuts, in honor of Carter, who was a peanut farmer (wasn't he?) before he was a governor or a president.  Jelly beans were associated with Reagan, moon pies with Clinton--neither my favorite sweet.  Maybe you could make molasses cookies since Lincoln was said to be very fond of molasses.

Maybe you could create a menu that brings in dishes from all regions of the country.  A dessert buffet . . .

--In these days of increasingly ugly presidential campaigns, I must confess to wanting NOT to think about the Presidency.  Maybe it's time for a poem, a poem rooted in the Civil War, a poem that shows the capacity for reconciliation.  It first appeared in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and it's also part of my second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents.

Hiking Harper’s Ferry

The family finally splits asunder
at Harper’s Ferry. Brother pitted against brother,
and the mother finally secedes from this union,
at least for the afternoon. The father watches
her hike away, shakes his head
over his boys slugging each other on this slope.
He, too, turns his back. Maybe no one will realize
he brought these murderous children into the world.

The father ducks into the John Brown museum.
None of his family members will think to seek
him here. He sits in the dim light watching
the films loop again and again. He wonders
how it would be to have that wild-eyed
conviction in a cause. He sits in the mock
courtroom wondering when it will be safe to come out.

The mother stands at the crossroads of the Appalachian
Trail. She thinks of her younger self who backpacked
up and down the spines of continents
and wonders why she never tackled this one.
She thinks of doing it now, turns north,
then south. To hike to Georgia or Maine?
She ponders her young girl self, so different
from the woman she has become.
Paralyzed by her past, she can do nothing.
She sits on a rock and stares at the junction
of three rivers, this spot that Thomas Jefferson
declared the most beautiful in the New World.

The parents return to a field of calm.
Their boys have recruited other disaffected
children. They’ve created a game with inscrutable
rules. The parents discover that the boys have devoured
the best parts of the picnic. As the sun skips
west, they munch carrot sticks and apples as they watch
the children play, making up rules as they go along.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Happiness of the Unexpected: Sunday Thoughts on Taxes, Employment, and Art

--When the scale goes up a few pounds from one morning to the next, I reassure myself that there's no way I've really gained x amount of weight in 24 hours.  When the scale goes down, I assume I've lost those pounds.

--Does that mindset about weight, its ups and downs, replicate itself in other areas of my life?

--I did my taxes yesterday.  Thank goodness for my spouse, who had sent the IRS more money this past summer than we remembered.

--In addition to my regular job, we are both self-employed.  My spouse has to pay all sorts of tax.  He ends up paying roughly one third of what he makes to the federal government, not just in income tax, but also because there's no employer paying his share of Social Security tax and Medicare tax.

--When we wonder why small businesses aren't creating jobs, my spouse's experience gives a window into why they don't.  Employees are more expensive than we might think, even if you don't give them health insurance.

--My employer has managed to keep my health care premiums the same cost to me across several years.  I'm in awe.

--There are so many ways my working life could be worse.  I'm incredibly lucky.

--One way my working life could be worse:  I could be the tuba player in a band:

--I had forgotten how big the tuba is.  Of course, if my tuba music led people to dance, maybe the pay off would be worth the huge instrument:

--She's wearing a Fair Isle sweater!  When I was in high school, I got the most beautiful Fair Isle sweater for Christmas; it made me incredibly happy.

--I'm happy that my side business as a writer gives me a bit of money and a reason to hold on to receipts.  If we go to lunch, and I talk about writing, lunch has suddenly become tax deductible!

--How I love to go to lunch and talk about writing--or any creative pursuit.

--I'm also happy that my art form doesn't involve scary, Industrial Revolution era tools:

--Of course, I don't get to blow molten material into a glass shape:

--I don't shape/bend glass to my will:

--My hope is that my words make people as happy as this window of glass shapes made me last night at the Hollywood ArtsPark:

--I got this shot with the flash on, but there wasn't that glare that often happens when shooting with the flash.  I love the speckling effect, which I certainly didn't anticipate when I took the picture.

--That's the joy of exploring a new art form, the extra joy, the extra happiness of the unexpected.  I've been writing enough years that I don't experience that same joy in writing as often.  It's a different joy with writing, the joy of years of practice leading to my feelings of competence, with flashes of "Oh, I didn't expect this at all."  With photography, there's no feeling of competence yet.  There's the taking of the pictures, which makes me look at the world differently, followed by the anticipation of what will emerge, as I plug the camera into the computer.

--And then there's the joy of using the pictures later, working them into a blog post for example.  It's a different kind of collaging, isn't it?  Last night when I took the pictures, I didn't know I'd use them in this way.

--May this Sunday bring us all happiness, both the expected and the unexpected.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fiction Friday

Yesterday, I met with one of my writer friends for a short story brunch.  It was going to be a short story lunch on Thursday, but I had on Tuesday, I found out that I had to go to a meeting that was only being scheduled then.

I'm so fortunate that I have a brain that can make alternate plans.  I know many a person who would say, "Ah, well, guess I can't have a short story lunch.  I have to go to a meeting."

My brain says, "Well, maybe my friend will meet me on Friday.  But maybe she won't want to drive back in on a day that she doesn't have to be on campus.  Well, then, I'll meet her on her side of town.  Or maybe we could try this plan."  On and on my brain will go. 

Happily, I have friends who also can be flexible.  Imagine if my friends said, "Well, if you can't follow through with the original plan, I don't want to have anything to do with you"--I'd have no social life at all.  But my friend agreed to move our short story lunch to a short story brunch, and we had a great time.

Once upon a time, I wrote a lot of fiction; I had a vision of writing my way out of my teaching job.  I wanted to write a best seller that would be turned into a movie, and I'd be set for life--you probably recognize this fantasy.

One time, I had a friend (the one who still meets me at Mepkin Abbey), and for a time of several years, we met once a week and read each other's short stories.  It was an amazing time.  I churned out story after story.  During the summer, we met at each other's houses and cooked and talked and read our stories.  During the non-summer, we'd often go out for dinner.  It was great.  Then I moved, and she took a different job.  Other people might have been able to keep going by sending stories across the distance.  We could not.

Yesterday was the first day in about 14 years that I sat with a friend to read each other's short stories.  It was great.  More than feedback, I need to know that we have a date, and I'd better appear with a short story in my hand.

I had some trouble understanding my friend's first paragraph of her story and how it had anything to do with the rest of the story.  We talked about the cultural stuff that she was trying to incorporate; I  learned a lot about Indian culture, and we talked about how I didn't see it in the story.

We went our separate ways; when she returned for book club, she had completely rewritten the beginning, and it was so much stronger.  Hurrah!

Our book club had a great discussion of James Michener's The Source.  We came from such a variety of backgrounds: 

Religion:  2 Jews (one several decades older than the other), 1 atheist, 1 Lutheran (me), 1 Catholic, 1 Hindu, 1 indeterminate

History of immigration:  German immigrant, Indian immigrant (with a German grandmother who fled Germany to India), 1 with a mother who fled from Cuba and grandparents on the father's side who experienced the Holocaust, 1 of Chinese-Jamaican descent, Brazilian immigrant with family ties to Mexico, 1 whose family several generations ago fled eastern Europe, and me, a more traditional U.S. citizen whose ancestors have been in this country for over a century.

Wow.  I didn't realize how varied we are until I wrote it out.  Of course, in some ways, we're not varied.  We're all females who work at the same place.

We don't do this for every book club, but we brought food that fit with the theme of the book.  What a treat it was to talk about a good book and history and our personal stories over a great meal.

And then, my friend and I went to pick up our spouses at a dog track.  Our school had done some design work, but we got there too late to hear/see the presentation.  We watched a few races and took in the strange world that is the dog track attached to a casino and a restaurant.  It's totally outside my frame of reference.  It's also strange to me that I've lived down here since 1998, but haven't been to a dog or horse track.  I haven't been to a casino either, for that matter.

I expected to feel weirder about the greyhound racing than I did.  The world of gambling was far more disconcerting to me, and I'm not sure why.  Maybe because there was table after table, slot machine after slot machine, all those people, sure to lose their money.

When we sat at the restaurant, a person in a dog suit walked by and posed for pictures, and later, at the race track, the person in the dog suit walked as part of the greyhound procession.  It took me back to a job I had in high school, where a department store wanted a few drama students to come to dress in international costumes and to spend 8 hours walking around the store, delighting children and handing out fliers.

I record this here, because I'm in the process of writing a cycle of linked short stories about teenagers who are punk rockers and drama geeks in the 1980's, who go to college and grow up to face new challenges.  I'm likely to need a few more short stories than I have (or than I have ideas for).  I think there's a kernel of a story in the idea of costumes and drama students working in fields that are only tangential to what they'd had in mind.

In fact, I'd go further and use that idea as a defining metaphor for many of us at middle age who wake up in jobs that are far from our dream jobs--but they're good enough, and they come with their own unanticipated joys.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Future of the Really, Really Long Novel

Today my book club will discuss James Michener's The Source

You might ask, "How did you come to choose a book that's over 1000 pages?"

Well, about 6 months ago, we were reminiscing about books that had influenced us, and we talked about reading The Source--at least two of us read it long ago, and we talked about learning about the Middle East by reading Michener. I innocently said, "I wonder if we'd still see it as so revelatory now."

And thus, a plan was born. We decided to read it months later so we'd have time. We've spent the last several months reading our way through human history.

I remember reading it during the summer after I finished high school.  It likely only took me a week.  I was a fast reader, and I didn't have a lot else to do.  I remember finishing it and feeling like I now understood the problems of the Middle East.

Ah, the hubris of the young!  If world history teaches us nothing, it's that we are condemned to repeat the past, but in new and interesting ways.  And the book shows that too.

When I was young and didn't know very much, I loved all the history that Michener includes.  Now as I read, I got frustrated.  I wanted to say, "Yes, James, I understand that you did a lot of research, or that you paid your researchers to bring you lots of material.  But does it really all need to be here?"

It's been a long time since I read such a long novel.  It will probaby be a long time before I attempt it again.

We face choices, whether we realize it or not, in terms of how we spend our time.  If I spend Thursday night watching television, that's several hours that I'm not reading or quilting or writing or collaging or learning something new.

Likewise, when I read a book that's over 1000 pages, on some level those pages represent from me all the other books I'm not going to read.

There are so many books I'm never going to read.  I can live with knowing about all the people I'll never get to know intimately.  I am making my peace with all the careers I'm not going to have in the time I have left.  But my heart breaks a bit at the great books I'm not going to read, even as I understand how impossible the task would be, even if we stopped all publishing right now.
I'm glad I'm not the kind of writer who yearns to write sprawling, Micheneresque novels.  For one thing, I can't imagine they'd ever be published, no matter how masterfully I wrote them.  The modern reader just does not have time to read 1000 + pages.

I've spent the last week writing a short story, which has been a joy.  As a writer, I much prefer the short nugget to the vast canvas.  Maybe I should clarify:  as a writer living my current life, I need to write short stories.

I used to write novels.  I used to read much bigger novels.  Some day I'll have that kind of time again.  Right now, I'm finding time where I can get it and seeing how much I can do with small canvases and short swatches of time.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fun and Frustration with Photoshop

Inspired by my post yesterday, which was inspired by Diane Lockward's post, I did a little research on Photoshop and how to create a collage.  I was also inspired by this post by Kelli Russell Agodon; in fact, I wrote to her and asked how she created the Pablo Neruda collage.  When she mentioned Photoshop, I thought, well, let me try a little something myself.  The websites I went to made it look so easy.

I don't have Photoshop on my work computer, so it had to wait until this morning.  Off and on through the night, I dreamed about creating layers, which I would then layer into a fabulous new image. 

I woke up this morning eager to get started.  I tried creating layers.  I couldn't figure out how to fuse them together--I remember having this problem in the past.  I figured out how to lasso an image, but not how to scale it down to a size I could use. 

In the end, I couldn't create what my brain dreamed about all night.  First, the original image:

For those of you who are curious, it's a photo of my husband's forehead after last year's Ash Wednesday service (if you want to know more about Ash Wednesday, see this post on my theology blog).

I tried adding a layer of a different cross made of ashes image, but I can't really see it in the images below--is that because I fiddled with the image, or because the layer is no longer there?  I don't know.

I figured out how to insert text--hurrah!  Here's the first version with text:

Then I tried to see if I could change the way the text looks.  I went with what you see below:

I tried to figure out how to do more special effects with the text, but I couldn't.  And I'd already been working for an hour, and I wasn't coming up with anything that took my breath away.

Here's my problem with Photoshop:  I know that it can do so much as a computer program, but I can't figure out how to command it to do so.  I know that if I used it a lot, it might become intuitive, but right now, the program doesn't behave the way I think it should behave.

So, I could teach myself; there are lots of books and online tutorials after all.  I've checked out a book before, but lost motivation along the way.  Maybe I'll try again.

And here's the really sad thing:  my school offers classes in Photoshop, and I could probably sit in unofficially, even if I didn't want to buckle down and actually take the class, which I could also do, if seats were available once the term started.

Well, I know more about Photoshop than I did in February of 2011.  My goal for the coming year:  to learn more, to learn how to combine images into an interesting collage.

Update (2 hours later):  I went back to play some more, and I came up with the following.  They're still not what I envisioned; in fact, I went a completely different way, a collage route instead of a layering and fading route.

And yet one more variation (1 hour later), with photo rotated and bottom cropped:

Well, time to quit Photoshopping and to turn my attention to other things:  creativity retreat planning and then administrator work.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fusing New Art Forms

Today is Art Spiegelman's birthday, the man who made me think about what a comic book could be, what a novel could be.  This was back in 1986, back when we didn't call them graphic novels yet, when Spiegelman published Maus and changed the world.  I've written in more detail about Spiegelman and his approach and its implications for modern narrative here.

Today I'm thinking about poems and new ways we could marry poems to images to make something new and fascinating.  Many thanks to Diane Lockward, who in this post introduces us to Nance Van Winckel and her work in fusing poetry and photography.  Van Winckel talks about taking pictures of walls and being drawn to walls that had graffiti on them:  "Over the past seven years, I've been experimenting with digitally adding my own little textual responses to the walls I liked. A wall speaks to me."

Her work with the photos has led her to compress her poems:  "For instance, does someone viewing a certain piece in a gallery really want to stand in front of it and read a 100-word poem within it? A question I often pose to students: what does the text you're putting on that shoe (as an example) have to do with its shoe-ness? (I put a link to a video of some of my students' work on my website too.)."

She still works in traditional poetry, by which I mean words on the page.  When I look at her work which she labels pho-toems, I think of Blake, and other poets who have also been graphic designers.  I think of Blake and his work where it's almost impossible to separate the poem from the visual design that surrounds it and weaves through it (I'm particularly thinking of Songs of Innocence and of Experience).

I've experimented with video poems (here and here), but I quickly realized that a video poem should have images that move.  I've continued to experiment with Microsoft MovieMaker, but I can't figure out how to get sound out of the video part so that I can have the sound of someone reading the poem.

Van Winckel makes me think in new ways.  Could I write such compressed poems?  Could I use the photographs that I take?  Could I learn to collage in Photoshop?

I've been having such fun with photography that I want to do more with it.  You may have been noticing more photos in my blogging.  Maybe I'll start using more photography in my poems.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Wishes and a Poem

May you have love that brightens your day like a bouquet of fresh flowers:

May you have love that sweetens your daily life:

May love be like a watering can that helps all sorts of healthy seeds to sprout in you:

May you be surrounded by things that you love, whether that be antiques:

or the joys of a romantic sideboard:

May you always remember:

And may you always have poems that celebrate love and literature!

Beds of Crimson Joy

She slips from her bed of crimson joy
early in the morning, creeping back to campus.
She leaves her lover sleeping in a downy nest
to keep this date with a different ecstasy.

Cracked open by cosmic mysteries,
she, too, sees creatures in the rosebuds,
faces of angels pressed against her window.
Is it divine revelation or simple fatigue?

Tempted by two mistresses, love and literature,
teased and tormented by both,
her sore lips sound out Shakespearean syllables;
her fingers tap out iambic pentameter.

She writes tortured poems, reads restlessly,
and waits for night’s return. Her tongue tingles,
her jaw aches, the sweetness of these days
must surely rot her teeth.

She finds the surest path to transcendence: a healthy dose
of Blake and the succor of skin,
great gulps of Whitman and whiffs of gasping grasps,
Christina Rossetti and the many types of fruited joy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Smash": An Amusing Scarf of Stitched Cliches

On Saturday on my way to spin class, I listened to the soundtrack of A Chorus Line.  Later on Saturday, we watched Smash via Netflix.  It usually airs on network television on Monday night.  If I can avoid watching shows on regular broadcast, I do.  I just can't stand the commercials.  But I digress.  Back to the show.

I was underwhelmed.  I wanted to like it.  I'm a theatre geek from way back.  I was one of those weird kids who would watch the Tony awards.  I memorized theatre stats the way that some teens memorized baseball stats.  I wonder if kids memorize baseball stats these days.  Or any sports stats . . . but I digress.

As a way to pass the time, this show isn't bad.  I've watched worse T.V. shows and movies to be sure.  It just didn't break boundaries, the way I hoped.  It was, it must be said, a collection of cliches.  I must agree with one of the commenters on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast who said that he saw every cliche coming, that the show did not surprise at all. 

I almost lost patience completely when the young actress (the brunette, the young inexperienced one from the midwest, who has a dream, and her parents, visiting the big city, just don't understand her dream) went to the apartment of the director who's casting a show and she's shocked--SHOCKED--when he's got something else in mind instead of talking about her acting.

Oh, puh-leaze!!!!  Even I, as a young, inexperienced 18 year old, would not have gone to a man's apartment at 10:00 at night and been surprised when he wanted sex.  Is anyone really this naive?

I love watching New York City on T.V.  It's so clean and traffic-free.  Everyone is polite, as they pass each other on the sidewalks.  The kitchens are HUGE and all recently remodeled--at least on T.V.  And it goes without saying, that in television New York City--unless it's a cop show--no one is murdered or raped.

One other thing I noticed is that every female on the show wore scarves, every day with every kind of outfit.  We saw filmy scarves and scarves with interesting textures and fibers and scarves that looked like fishing nets.

In terms of the plot of the show, that aspect may be the one that makes me tune back in.  I found it fascinating to watch a Broadway show being put together from the "wouldn't it be interesting if we did a musical based on ___________" stage.  I'm almost always fascinated by the creative process.

I wish I liked the singing more.  It was a little too American Idol for me.  At one point I said, "A real test would be to see if any of these people could hold a note for more than 10 seconds."  Everyone does that trilling, scatting singing that can sound more like warbling than belting out a showstopper.

But I'll probably watch it again.  After all, even with its faults, it's still more well-constructed than many a show.  And the faults are amusing too.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gift Economies vs. Treasure Economies

I have several friends who have already done their taxes.  I planned to do that this week-end; I fully intended to enter the labyrinth and come out in a single afternoon.

But it took me more time than I anticipated just to organize all my receipts.  Presenting my writing business to the IRS is much more complicated this year than any other year.  I'm grateful for that, in a way.  It's amusing to me, that when I dreamed of having more writing income to be offset by writing expenses, I didn't also anticipate the additional paperwork.  Just adding up expenses made me need a cup of tea.

I've also been writing a short story this week-end.  My friend and I took a pledge that we'd have a new story finished by this Thursday.  I haven't written a short story since the summer of 2010, when I fell in love with Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I saw a way to revise some short stories that I'd written into a linked cycle.  But I needed more.  So, back then, I wrote one, but then my enthusiasm fizzled when my computer crashed.  I still had notes for the story that I meant to write then--it was a story I'd been thinking about since the fall of 2001.  Back then, I didn't write it back in 2001 because I was adjuncting and spending all my time driving.

So, I've been writing and been happy about how easy it is to fall back into a different kind of writing.

As I write, I like to catch up on NPR shows that I haven't had a chance to hear during the week.   I listened to Meryl Streep on this Fresh Air episode, and I was happy to hear how much Barbra Streisand had inspired her, and later, she had a chance to tell Streisand and Streep says, "We can't know what we mean to each other as artists." 

I started thinking of all the artists who have been important to me, and how they have no idea.  And I like to think that some day, there will be a person out there who finds my work important, that my work might open a door to a new world.

Of course, there's danger in that.  My short story that I'm writing revolves around a grad student who discovers that her favorite feminist writer isn't as ideal as she had believed.

I'm reminded of this Andy Warhol quote that Leslie Pietrzyk gives us in a recent post on her blog:  "Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art."

I was also struck by this quote in Nadia Bolz-Weber's blog post:  "That’s the thing with the kingdom of God, there is no personal treasure to be had…there are only gifts to be shared."

If you change the religious language to writing language, you'd end up with this:  "That’s the thing with the Poetry World, there is no personal treasure to be had…there are only gifts to be shared."

Or:  "That’s the thing with the Creative Life, there is no personal treasure to be had…there are only gifts to be shared."

How would our creative lives change if we really believed that?  For one thing, we'd write/create what interests us, not what the market demanded.  We wouldn't care about building a platform, beyond what would make it possible for seekers of our gifts to connect with us.  Could we throw away our worry stones if we believed that the gift economy trumps the treasure economy?